“Exploring Crete” is Peter Sommer Travels’ first scheduled tour in 2017. This year, to give an impression of the experience, we are providing a diary of sorts on our blog. Rather than describing every day in detail (you can check our itineraries on www.petersommer.com for that), every day we will pick one image we took that day, accompanied by some explanations and thoughts.
This was a day of transition. Having left behind the Asterousia Mountains, and having enjoyed a near-aerial view of the Mesara Plain with its millions of olive trees on the descent one last time, we visited our final site in Central Crete: ancient Gortyna (or Gortyn).
Later, we pushed on into West Crete, a distinctively different region, where we visited an ancient cemetery and had a long and leisurely wine-tasting lunch in a small village. Now, we are at our residence for the next three nights, a fascinating period hotel overlooking the sea just outside the centre of Chania, one of West Crete's two beautiful Venetian port towns. We had dinner in an Venetian/Ottoman-era lane next to Chania's unforgettable harbour-front.
Gortyn is an exceptional place in many regards. In Greek mythology, it is the place where Zeus, having seduced or abducted the Phoenician princess Europa in the disguise of a bull, brings her to consummate their affair. In history, it is one of the most powerful among Crete's many city states, long-time rival to Knossos and the eventual Roman capital of the island, as well as the first foothold of Christianity on Crete. In archaeology, it is a key site, with settlement in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, with grand remains of early temples on its hilltop acropolis, throwing light on the early development of the Cretan city states, and with the very extensive remains of the Roman city.
Much of Gortyn still lies unexcavated, making the site one of the most atmospheric in Greece: the excavated areas are scattered amongst large and old olive groves. In between them, the remains of large buildings stick out of the soil here and there, while the ground is covered in vast quantities of broken pottery from vessels and roof-tiles.
Venerable olive trees abound here, some of them hundreds of years old and still bearing fruit. The trees themselves are a potent symbol is Crete's agricultural wealth and autonomy, having been a mainstay of its economy and an important Cretan export for many millennia. Their stubborn longevity is near-miraculous: there are living trees known to be over 3,000 years old in this island. The olive trees' gnarly trunks and the silvery sheen of their leaves are one of the most distinctive aspects of Crete, an olive grove stroked by a breeze is a kaleidoscope of light and shade, of green, grey and silver.
Tomorrow is a free day for us and our guests, a chance to catch our breath and relax before setting out on more adventures. No doubt, I will find something to report.