The last leg of a long Sojourn: Heraklion, Crete

Crete is an island steeped in ancient history, lore and legend. It is the seat of the oldest civilisation in Europe. For centuries it has been attacked by many including the Romans, the Iberian Muslims, the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Ottomans. The locals met each of these aggressors with courageous and stiff resistance.  The architectural and cultural fusion of the various attackers and the locals could be seen everywhere by the discerning eye.

Crete tickled my military mind. Two facets from military history. One, the Siege of Candia (modern Heraklion). The venetian ruled city was besieged by the Ottomans for 21 long years from 1648 to 1669. The second longest siege in military history. Despite stiff resistance the Ottoman forces were eventually victorious. And then more recently the Battle of Crete. On 20 May 1941, the Germans launched Operation Mercury, the first ever Airborne invasion in military history. The Allies and Greek forces simply capitulated in 48 hours and the island of Crete fell into German hands.

After alighting from the bus, we walked a kilometer to the Minoan Knossos Palace, a city steeped in antiquity, which was inhabited continuously from the Neolithic period until the Fifth Century AD.  The palace was built on the Kephala hill and had easy access to the sea and the rest of the island.   According to tradition, it was the seat of King Minos.  The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization on the island of Crete and neighbouring islands which flourished from about 2600 to 1600 BC.

The first excavation of the site was conducted in 1878 and was followed by the long-term excavations (1900 to 1930) by Sir Arthur Evans, a British archeologist, who uncovered virtually the entire palace.  The palace was a multi-storey building with painted plaster, marble revetment and wall-paintings adorning the rooms and passages.  The palace also had a complex drainage and water-supply systems.


As we walked into the palace compound, we were welcomed by a dancing peacock.  The dance was obviously not to impress us, but the peahens in the vicinity.


Let me venture into a pictorial account. This is where the ‘West Porch’ of the palace stood, a roofed area opening onto the central court, supported by a column of which part of the gypsum base remains.


Here is a restored version of ‘South Propylaeum’ by Evans who put up a copy of the ‘Cup-Bearer’ fresco on the wall, depicting a man holding a libation vase.


The ‘Pitho’i (large storage jars) on the East side of the Propylaeum indicate that this area was used for storage.


The ‘Throne Room’ as per Evans is the room used for ceremonies with the king in his religious capacity. However, Evans believed that it was unlikely to have been a ‘Throne Room’ in the modern sense of the word.


The “Queen’s Megaron” at the South-Eastern part of the Palace is believed to be the apartment of a queen. The suite includes a toilet, bathroom, and store room, as well as a light well to provide the apartment with light during the day. This is famous for the Dolphin  Fresco,  reconstructed from fragments as a wall fresco by Evans.


The ‘East Wing Staircase’, was built into the side of the hill on top of which lies the rest of the Palace, with two storeys below the level of the Central Court. Today, a large part of it has been reconstructed in concrete.  Evans believed it to be the residential quarters of the Royal family.


The ‘Magazine’ to the north of the East wing staircase took its name from the pithoi that were found here. The jars have relief disk and rope decoration.


An open air paved narrow passage linked the Central Court with the North Entrance. On the right and left were two raised colonnades known as ‘Bastions’.  Evans reconstructed the Bastion on the West side with a copy of a restored relief fresco of a bull. The wall painting may have formed part of hunting scene.


We hopped on to the next bus at the Palace of Knossos and hopped off at Eleftherias Square to commence our walking exploration of the city centre.  In the Venetian period, Eleftherias Square was used as a training ground for the Venetian mercenary army, and was called Campo Marzio or Piazza d’Armi.   When the St George Gate was built in the 16th century, the square was renamed St George Square.   Eleftherias Square also housed circular underground granaries, in which the Venetians stored grain for emergencies such as sieges and houses a large water cistern.  During the Turkish period, Eleftherias Square was an open space.   Prior to World War II, British troops camped on the walls and trained in the square, as the Venetians had done centuries earlier. Any connections with ‘Game of Thrones?’

At the turn of the 20th century, the square was the inhabitants’ main recreation area.  The most recent restructuring was intended to give it a modern look and the air of a major European city.  The square, retaining some of its eucalyptus trees, was paved with marble and was decorated with metal pylons symbolising ships’ masts, reminiscent of the city’s maritime history. The people of Heraklion have never been happy with this new square and there are ongoing discussions about changing it and we all generally tended to agree with the locals.


In the centre of Eleftherias Square stands the statue of the Unknown Soldier, a 20th century creation.  On national days and on the anniversary of the Battle of Crete, the Heraklion authorities lay wreaths here in honour of those who sacrificed their lives for their motherland.


We then walked to Kornarou Square, named after the great Cretan poet Vincenzos Kornaros (1552-1613), who grew up in Heraklion and wrote ‘Erotokritos’. This is a romantic epic poem written in the Cretan language about the love of Erotokritos and Aretousa, often compared to ‘Romeo and Juliet’.  Kornarou Square is adorned with a fountain and a statue of Erotokritos on horseback, bidding farewell to his beloved Aretousa.  The statue was a bit confusing to us as we initially perceived it as a multi-headed and multi-legged horse with two horsemen.  On reading the information tablet we realised that it was the artist’s multidimensional depiction of the hero and his horse showcasing movement and drama of the scene.


We then moved to the Agios Minas Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Crete of the Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to Saint Minas, who was declared the patron saint of Heraklion during the Turkish period.  It was built over the time period of 1862 to 1895. The construction was interrupted during the Cretan Revolution of 1866 to 1869. The church has a cruciform architecture with a central dome.

The name Minas is rare in Heraklion, which sounds strange for a city whose patron saint he is. The reason for this is given in an old story.  During the Turkish rule, illegitimate children were often left on the steps of the church of Saint Minas. The church took care of the children and named the boys Minas.  Thus the Cretans preferred to avoid the name.


To the Left of the St Minas Cathedral stands the original little church of Saint Minas built in 1735.  It housed the Greek Orthodox Church’s Metropolitan of Crete for the first time after the Turkish occupation.

From the cathedral, we returned to our hotel for a wash, change and rest.

 

Lunar Landscape of Nea Kameni to Heraklion


Our boat anchored at the wooden pier of Erinia cove of Nea Kameni island.  We disembarked from the boat and entered the Nea Kameni National Geological Park.  There is a two Euro entry fee and the proceeds go to support monitoring of the volcano.


Vegetation is sparse with the volcanic rocks covered by red grassy bushes and yellow sulfur deposits.  The 30-minute hike up over this volcanic mountain is moderately challenging but worth the effort for the breathtaking view that it offers.  Hikers need to keep to the track full of stones and gravel formed due to cooling lava.  Hence, proper walking shoes are a must.


As we stepped into the Geological Park, the terrain was akin to that of a lunar-landscape.  As we climbed up the hill, on the sides were solidified lava ejected by the volcano called volcanic bombs.  These are the oldest volcanic bombs on the island and were the result of volcanic eruptions of 1573.


Further walking up, we reached slopes of the dome of Mikri Kameni, the oldest lava on the island. The path that led us to the top of this dome, to the crater of 1570 eruption.


Our next halt was at the Dafne crater caused due to volcanic activity of 1925-1926.


We then came to the twin craters formed as a result of 1940 volcanic eruption.


Climbing further up, we came to Georgios dome peak.  The crater here was created in August 1940 by two large volcanic eruptions atop of the dome of George, which was created in 1866.


On top of the hill at about 127 meter we saw deposits of solidified Lava.  These rocks were formed due to cooling and solidifying of molten lava which erupted in 1950.


On the top we could see that many sensors were deployed. The seismic sensors monitor tectonic activity that may precede a volcanic eruption.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are also monitored.  With modern technology and monitoring, it is believed that scientists are in a position to forecast the volcano’s next eruption, at least a few months to a year in advance.


After spending about 90 minutes at Nea Kameni, our boat headed back to the Fira port.  As we stepped out of the boat, we could hear the cacophony of donkey drivers hailing for passengers.  The donkey is Santorini’s logo, its trademark mascot. During a Greek wedding, the bride rides a donkey to the church and back to her home.  We all decided to take the donkey ride up the 588 steps of Karavolades stairs.


These donkeys are well trained and the rider is required to sit firmly on the saddle.  There are no reigns and so the rider has little or no control over the animal’s movements.  As we sat on the donkey, they set off on the way up.  There were many pedestrians walking up and down, so also other donkeys coming down the stairs.  These donkeys steered their way through this ‘crowd’, as if they exactly knew what to do.   For the donkeys it appeared that their only aim was to reach the top as quickly as possible. The level of training was quite akin to that of the famed ‘Mule Artillery’ of the Indian Army.


On reaching the top, the donkeys stood at the donkey-taxi stand.  The drivers helped everyone to dismount.  We then had dinner at the Fira and returned to our hotel.

On June 15, after breakfast we checked out of our hotel.  Our ferry to Crete island was scheduled for 4 PM.  We then set out to explore the area around our hotel.


Economy of Santorini, like all other Greek islands, is supported by tourism.   Santorini grows a special variety of small cherry tomatoes, fava beans, yellow peas, cucumbers and white eggplants.   There are lots of wild fig trees growing all over the island.


Unlike the mainland of Greece, Santorini does not grow olive trees due to the strong winds and the lack of water.  Instead they grow a lot of pistachio trees.  The olive tree above grows between the buildings at the hotel.


From the Hotel, we walked down to Kamari beach resort.  On the Southern end towers the enormous rock of Mesa Vouno with the archaeological site of Ancient Thira on its top, 400 meters above the sea. The beach offers a wide range of facilities like sun-beds, umbrellas and various water sports.


The water is deep and blue, the sand is black.  The beach is filled with black sand and pebbles as a result of extensive volcanic activity over centuries.


We boarded the high-speed ferry operated by Minoan Lines to Heraklion, Crete.  The cruise was very comfortable and smooth.


We reached Heraklion port by 5:30 PM.  We drove to our hotel by taxi and checked in.  As the night fell, we walked to explore the city.


We walked to the largest cistern to provide drinking water to the Heraklion port. The cistern consists of two oblong vaulted chambers linked by arched openings. Light and air enter the cisterns through large light shafts on the top of the vaults.  Today, all the daily garden watering needs of Heraklion Port Authority (about 7000 litre of water) is provided from an underground cistern, built by the Venetians (People from Venice), hundreds of years ago.


Venetians also built a series of shipyards (known as Arsenali) at the southern and the eastern area of the port, in order to house and protect the activities of the building and repairing of ships.  These large, barrel-vaulted buildings were shipyards built by the Venetians and were capable of housing ships in need of protection or repair and for the construction of new vessels.


Night life in Heraklion is very hectic with shops, restaurants, taverns, discos, clubs, etc, all open till 3 o’clock in the morning.


Summer in Crete and in Greece means ‘tables outside’: The guests meet the local people and everyone joins the party.  We had Cretan cuisine for dinner and retired to our hotel.

Volcanoes of Santorini


On June 16, after breakfast we set out to visit the volcanic islands of Nea Kameni, meaning ‘new burnt’ and Palea Kameni meaning ‘old burnt’.


During the Bronze Age, Santorini was called Strongyli, meaning ‘rounded.’  Devastating volcanic eruption of 1650 BC resulted in decimation of Strongyli, creating the crescent shaped Santorini and several surrounding islands.

The island of Hiera was formed due to volcanic eruption which started around 197 BC.  In 47 AD the volcano reawakened spewing huge quantities of magma forming a new island which merged with Hiera to form Palia Kameni.  Breakup of Palia Kameni occurred between 1457 and 1458, as per Roman historian Aurelius Victor’s ‘Historia Romana’. At that time the island had a perimeter of 5,550 meters.  It gradually acquired its present shape through fragmentation by great cracks and collapse of its shoreline, with the current perimeter of only about 4000 meters. Like a slumbering demon, the volcano remained dormant for the next seven centuries. It became active again, very violently in 726 AD.

Nea Kameni is Eastern Mediterranean’s youngest volcanic landform.  It is a protected natural monument and national geological park.  In 1573 AD, about 65 years after Palea Kameni reached its present form, volcanic activity broke out resulting in the formation of a small island called Mikra Kameni meaning ‘small burnt’.  Formation of Nea Kameni commenced with the volcanic eruptions from 1701 to 1711.  Volcanic eruptions of 1866 to 1870 caused the smaller island of Mikra Kameni, to be joined with the larger Nea Kameni.  During the period 1939-1941, many eruptions occurred in Nea Kameni which changed the topography of the island.  The volcanic activity ended in July 1941.  Today, magma exists at depths of a few kilometers, giving Nea Kameni its trademark sulfur odour.


From our hotel we rode a local bus to Fira, the capital of Santorini on the West coast of the main island.  Fira is a ‘whitewashed’ town of cafes, bars, restaurants and shops, all filled with tourists.  We had to now go to Gialos, the old port of Fira to sail to the volcanic islands.   Till a few decades ago, Gialos was the main commercial port of the island.  The port now is active mostly in summer and serves only the cruise ships, the excursion boats to the volcano, and a few fishing boats.   The port is located about 275 meters below the cliff.

Alighting from the bus, we walked to the cable-car terminal to purchase tickets for the ride to the port.  The queue was pretty long and we got our tickets after about 30 minutes.  The ladies made use of this time to buy trinkets and memorabilia from the shops around, while the men stood in the queue.


There is a zigzag track of 588 steps called Karavolades stairs from the Fira to the Old Port.  There were many tourists walking up and down these steps.  There are mule-taxis, that operate on the same track, taking tourists up and down.   The Karavolades stairs have several large bends which offer magnificent view of the volcanic islands.


The fastest option to reach the old port is surely by the cable car system, commissioned in 1982.  The project was funded by Loula & Evangelos Nomikos Foundation created by the wealthy Santorini ship owner Evangelos Nomikos.   He mediated with the traditional mule drivers who were operating here and ensured that a part of the income went to the mule drivers and the rest to the city. The cable car runs every 20 minutes and a single ride takes 3 minutes. The cable car ride to the old port gave us a stunning view of the volcanic islands, bizarre cliff sides and still blue waters.


On all sides of the old port were restaurants, taverns and small shops, mostly catering to cruise ship tourists who come ashore by chartered boats as the huge cruise ships cannot berth at the harbour.  At one end of the port is the caved houses that appear stuck on to the rock and rock caves that have been created by erosion.  We booked our tickets for the boat journey to the volcanic islands and had lunch at a restaurant at the pier.


We set sail on a boat from the port at around 2 PM to the island of Palea Kameni.  After about 20 minutes, the boat anchored at the cove of Agios Nikolaos.


As we came closer to Palea Kameni island, we were greeted by steep cliffs formed by solidified lava.


The cove is formed between small cliffs filled with solidified lava rocks.  The island is uninhabited, but we saw goats grazing, presumably wild, miraculously perched on the ledges on the cliff, chewing away on the almost non-existent shrubbery.


The boat anchored about 75 meter away from the hot springs.  We had to jump seven meters from the boat deck, plunging into deep cold sea water which is greenish yellow and then swim for about five minutes towards the orange coloured hot springs.  (Attempt this only if you are a good swimmer.)  At the mouth of the hot springs stands a little Greek Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Nikolaos, the patron saint of sailors in Greece.


Due to volcanic activity in the cove area, the water is warm and rich in sulphur, iron and manganese.   This gives the water an orange colour and is believed to have therapeutic benefits.  As one swims closer to the cliff where the water is orange, one can feel the increasing water temperature.  It is slightly warm and there is no fear of getting burned.  The seafloor around the hot springs is muddy, rocky and slippery, making it difficult to walk on.

After about half hour stay at the cove, a swim in the warm waters, a view of how the earth would have evolved, the boat steamed off to Nea Kameni, the younger sister island of Palea Kameni.

Wine & Sunset at Santorini


While at Megalochori, we visited Katsoyannopoulos Vineyard for wine tasting.  The vineyards of Santorini date back almost 5000 years and are believed to be the oldest in Europe.  Volcanic eruptions left behind a mixture of volcanic ash, pumice stone and pieces of solidified lava and sand, which together make up the soil of Santorini.   This soil, rich in essential minerals, result in wines with low pH level or high acidity.


About 1400 hectares is under vineyard cultivation in Santorini.


Lack of rain coupled with constantly blowing sea-winds has resulted in vines being grown in the “koulara” method, that is, they are woven into continuous circles to form a basket.  This protects the vines ion from the strong winds and the harsh summer sun.


After viewing the vines, we visited the Wine Museum showcasing history of wine and the life of vine-growers in Santorini from 1660 to 1970.  It was followed by wine tasting where we tasted four vines – two red and two white.  The white wines from Santorini are bone-dry with a distinct aroma of citrus combined with hints of smoke and minerals from the volcanic soil.   The dessert wines are sweet with aromas of crème, chocolate and dried apricots.


From Megalochori, we drove to the northern tip of Santorini and reached the village of Oia (pronounced ia).  It is considered to be the best sunset viewing location on the entire island. Oia is one of the most beautiful and picturesque villages of Santorini, situated atop an impressive cliff.  It offers a spectacular view over the volcanoes of Palia and Nea Kameni and the island of Thirassia.


Like the other Greek villages and cities, cobblestone paved lanes led us through the village to its Western end.  Both sides of the lanes are lined with shops selling jewellery, paintings, gifts, etc.  There are many taverns, cafes, and restaurants too.

We visited the Church of Our Panagia Platsanis located in the village centre.  It was originally constructed inside the walls of the Castle of Oia. The church was rebuilt in the village center, on higher and more stable ground following the earthquake of 1956.


As the sun was setting, the area was getting crowded.  Every parking space was occupied and also all the seats in the cafes and restaurants were taken by tourists – all awaiting the sunset.


We too took up a vantage position at a cafe to enjoy every single moment of that spectacular natural phenomenon.


As minutes clicked past, the sky appeared to have been painted with various colors like yellow and orange in striking contrast to the blue dome of the church.


The sun then turned to myriad shades of pink and purple as it went down into the Aegean Sea. Sunset over water is often both spectacular and sublime. It’s just that we often wait until we reach Greece or some such similar destination to realize how incredibly beautiful it is. After watching the sunset and dinner, we retired to our beds after a tiring day of walking in the hot sun.

Santorini -An Island on a Volcano


On June 13, after breakfast, we sailed from Mykonos to Santorini Island in a high-speed ferry.  The voyage lasted over two hours.  The ferry offered comfortable seating and a few restaurants, but the menu was expensive as seen in all ferries in Greece.


Crescent-shaped Santorini or Thíra in the Aegean Sea, is a group of islands consisting of Santorni, Therasia, Aspronísi, Palea and Nea Kaméni.  Santorini, the youngest volcanic land in the Eastern Mediterranean, is still an active volcano and probably the only volcano in the world whose crater is in the sea.  The islands that form Santorini came into existence as a result of intensive volcanic activity.  12 huge eruptions occurred, one every 20,000 years approximately, and each violent eruption caused the collapse of the volcano’s central part creating a large crater (Caldera). The volcano, however, managed to recreate itself over and over again.

The last big eruption occurred 3,600 years ago during the Minoan Age, when ash, pumice and lava stones covered the islands.  The eruption destroyed the thriving local prehistoric civilization, evidence of which was found during the excavations. The solid material and gases emerging from the volcano’s interior created a huge vacuum underneath, causing the collapse of the central part and the creation of today’s Caldera– with a size of 8×4 km and a depth of up to 400m below sea level.


Eruption of the submarine volcano Kolúmbo, located 6.5 km North-East of Santorini, on 27 September 1650, was actually the largest recorded volcanic eruption in Eastern Mediterranean during the past millennium.   The most recent volcanic activity on the island occurred in 1950.  The whole island is actually a huge natural geological/volcanological museum where you can observe a wide range of geological structures and forms.

Caldera is a lagoon of sea water surrounded on three sides by the steep cliffs of Santorini and on the fourth side by the island of Thirassia, which was part of Santorini before the eruption. The currently active volcano on the island of Nea Kameni sits in the middle of the Caldera.  It is active but presently not at risk of erupting.


As our ferry pulled closer to Santorini Island, we could see the steep escarpment of Santorini Island formed due to volcanic activity.


The colours of different layers of rocks up the escarpment is due to lava deposited during various volcanic eruptions.  The upper crust is mostly pumice and below it is red and black granite.


We  checked into our hotel and post lunch set out to explore Santorini.  Our first halt was Pyrgos, a medieval settlement that is nestled at the highest spot of the island. We drove up to the entrance of the settlement by taxi.  As the village lanes are narrow and cobblestoned, we had to walk up to the castle and churches atop the hill.  On to the left of the image above is the castle, which is well-preserved despite the serious damage caused by the earthquake of 1956.  It was built to protect the people from marauding pirates.


Pyrgos is said to be the first capital of Santorini, before the onset of the 19th century. It is built on top of a hill overlooking the Aegean Sea, which makes it an exceptional observatory.


As we walked up the track, close to its entrance to the castle lies the church of Agia (Saint ) Theodosia.  This church was built in 1639 and renovated in 1857, but it collapsed in the earthquake of 1956. In its place, the present church was built in 1965.


Further uphill we walked and came to  the church of Christos.  The bell tower of the church is visible from a distance. This is the only church on the island with an octagonal cupola while the rest have a round cupola on top.  The bell tower and the yellow flag of Greek Orthodox Church resembles that of old Syrian Orthodox churches of Kerala.


We walked downhill and drove to the village of Megalochori.  Here we all for the first time saw a Pistachio tree with fruit.  The debate that erupted amongst us was as to whether Pistachio is a nut or not.  Pistachio, though known as a nut, the fruit of the Pistachio is botanically a drupe, a type of fleshy fruit (like a coconut), the edible portion of which is the seed.


Megalochori  offers a nice mix of white Cycladic (Cyclades –a civilisation that existed in the Bronze Age)  houses, several churches and narrow alleys.  A prominent feature of the historical homes and mansions are the high walls, inner courtyards and solid wooden door entrances, built for privacy and for safety against pirates.


In the center of the village, stood a wonderful traditional square with taverns, restaurants with bougainvillea-covered patios and trees providing shade for a quick cup of coffee. The square is the heart and soul of Megalochori, a gathering place for the locals to play a game of cards


Megalochori has two well-known bell towers spanning the street. This one is part of the Panagia church and is characterised by the clock on top.

Megalochori is famous for its winery and wines and we went ahead to visit a winery, covered in the next part.

 

Exploring Mykonos Island


June 12, Tuesday, was spent exploring Mykonos Island.  After breakfast, we boarded a bus from Chora to Paradise Beach, a 10 km trip. We walked about a kilometer to reach Paradise Beach.  Here we rented a canopy with sun-beds.  We enjoyed a swim in the cool, crystal-clear, blue green coastal waters. The setting simply forces you to adopt a laid back attitude and let the rhythm slow down under the warm and bright sunlight. A local Greek cocktail played its part too.


The famous Paradise beach is a nice, flat, white-sandy beach of impeccable beauty, dotted with a number of popular bars.  It is a getaway, mainly for the young and also for the not so young.  It is now Greece’s number one open-air seaside clubbing venue.  There is live music playing from all the restaurants.  Sun-beds with grass canopy are available on rent. It has to be seen to believe.  The place comes alive mainly with the hep crowd, young, wild and rich. Glamorous parties and endless entertainment in the infinite sunshine with a picturesque landscape as a backdrop.


After lunch, we returned to Chora.

Located on the island’s Western harbour is Chora.  It is a very beautiful old town, which in the past was visited by merchant fleets from all over. Today it has become a popular tourist destination.  There are whitewashed houses, windmills, a multitude of chapels, busy back streets with balconies full of flowers and multi-coloured fishing boats in the port.  It becomes very crowded after sunset as tourists throng this luxurious marketplace, restaurants, bars and discos.


We got off from the bus and headed towards the windmills on foot.  From as early as the 16th century these windmills have been the classic landmarks of Mykonos. Due to its geographic location, Mykonos being situated on major sea trade-route, traded in grains. The need to grind grain flour and then ship it out to distant lands, must have made Mykonians to set up windmills, as there was plenty of regular wind all the year round.  To facilitate easy access to the harbour, these windmills were positioned in or around the main port.

The windmills of Mykonos must have contributed to the economic prosperity of the island in those days.  In 1700 AD, about 11 windmills were in operation around the port.  With the advent of modern technology, especially after World War I, these windmills ceased their operations as more efficient flour mills were commissioned. Today these well preserved windmills stand as iconic landmarks of a medieval period, sentinels of simplicity to balance the surfeit of all round glamour!

Though the Greek islands have been blessed with strong dry winds that blow from the Aegean Sea all through the year, we did not come across any wind turbines in any of the islands we visited.  There were no solar panels either to be seen.  May be the Greeks did not want to displease Anemoi – the Geek God of wind – and Helios – their Sun God.


From the area of the windmills, narrow and endless cobblestone paved alleys lead us to Little Venice.  It is a charming little area looking into the sea.  Buildings with balconies that overhang the water and the windmills in the background make this area the subject of many paintings and is a photographers dream.


Little Venice is an area that lines the waterfront with rows of Eighteenth century fishing houses with balconies that jut into the sea. These houses originally belonged to shipping merchants which gave them direct access to the sea. Being built right on the water, it resembles Venice of Italy, hence the name ‘Little Venice’.


The old fishing houses have been converted to house cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. Taking advantage of the beautiful view both by day and especially at sunset, restaurants have been set up all along the sea front, to give diners a unique experience.  It is quite peaceful during the morning but afternoon onward, you will be jostling for a seat. This area becomes a beehive of activity at sunset as thousands of people throng here to watch the enchanting sunset

Most of the cafes will start putting out reserved signs on the tables that are right on the edge of the sea as these are the prime tables. You may not find fine dining here but it is all about the experience of sitting beside the seawaters for a special dinner, a once in a life time experience.


Like in Venice, the balconies of houses here are interconnected over the lanes at many places.  It is to facilitate the residents to move around in rains without getting their feet and shoes wet and muddy.


Surrounded by the boutiques and bars in Little Venice stands the flower-bedecked Church of Panagia Paraportiani (Our Lady of the Postern Gate). This church is a cluster of four whitewashed chapels, topped by a further bright white chapel on the upper storey, reached by an external staircase. Built between the Fourteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, the church once guarded the entrance to the town’s castle, long since destroyed.


The multi-layered nature of the church gives it a unique shape, rising from the squared-off white chapels on the ground level to the domed church of the Virgin Mary on the top.  The church has no windows or doors as seen from the sea.  Rather from the seaside, it does not resemble a church.  It was constructed this way not to attract attention of attacking pirates.


From Chora, we took a bus ride of 10 kilometres to Elia Beach.  Elia is the longest sandy beach of Mykonos, offering a wide choice of taverns and bars as well as water sports facilities such as water-skiing, parasailing and windsurfing.   There are comfortable lounge beds and umbrellas lined along the sand.  We enjoyed the views of the Aegean Sea and the nearby island of Naxos on the horizon, obviously with a cocktail in hand.  Elia is one of the most popular nudist and gay beaches in Mykonos.


We returned to Little Venice in the evening, well before sunset to take up our reserved seats at the restaurant at the brim of the sea.  The area was thronging with tourists as everyone comes here in the evening, to watch the magnificent sunset.  As the sun goes down, the sky shows off some brilliant colours of red, orange and pink.  The reflection on the water is awesome. The expression “picture perfect postcard” some how seemed be so very apt. At sunset, we watched a profusion of colours ever so slowly leak out of the Aegean sky, enjoyed a sumptuous Mediterranean dinner, mainly of seafood and Greek salad and then returned to our hotel, quite exhausted and a lot more contended.

 

Mykonos Island- A romantic Getaway


Early morning on June 11, we checked out of the hotel and drove to Piraeus Ferry Port and boarded the high-speed ferry operated by Hellenic Seaways.  The journey of about three hours was very comfortable, more so because it was a large ferry and hence more stable.  Food in the restaurants onboard was pretty expensive. Luckily our hotel had provided us with packed breakfast.  I would recommend travellers to read a book or watch a downloaded movie during this journey.


After three hours of sailing on the Aegean Sea, Mykonos Island with its prominent whitewashed buildings with blue windows and doors came into our view.    As per Greek mythology, Mykonos was formed from the petrified bodies of giants killed by Hercules. The island took its name from the grandson of Apollo, ‘Mykonos’. Some how, all these Greek deities still seem to be hanging in the air.


It is mandatory in Greece for the houses to be whitewashed with blue painted windows and doors – the colour of the Greek flag.  In 1974, the then military government made it a law that all houses must be painted in the beautiful Greek colors of white and blue as a patriotic gesture to represent the colours of the Greek flag.  The law remains in place although some island authorities have begun to permit other pastel colours.


Mykonos is one of the islands of the Cyclades and is one of the most beautiful sites, very popular with tourists traveling to Greece. It is a relatively small island, measuring 85.5 km2; inhabited by about ten thousand people.  Tourism is their mainstay and they receive visitors from all over the world with open arms.  Mykonos has a rich night life with many restaurants and cafes which attract famous performers and the not so famous ordinary people and lots of young couple in love. Add white sandy beaches, crystal clear, blue green sea and breathtaking cliff-side views, make it a romantic paradise.


Myknonian landscape is dotted with many churches and many more little chapels.   It appeared that every household or family had a small chapel attached to their homes.  Roof of these small chapels were painted blue, red or white, depending on the family occupation.  Red indicated that the chapel belonged to a farmer family, blue meant the owning family are seafarers, sailors or fisher-folk, and white indicated that the family were migrants.  .


As per Mykonian customs, the bones of a person buried in the church is excavated by the priest after six years and is handed over to the family.  The family then place the bones in their family chapel.


98% of Greek population is Greek Orthodox Christians and the rest two percent is Muslims, Catholic and Jewish. Greece and Russia are the only countries to have such a great proportion of Orthodox Christians. Even though Catholics  and Orthodox  believe in the same God, they differ in that for Catholics deem the Pope as infallible while Orthodox believers don’t.   Catholic priests cannot marry, while Orthodox priests can marry before being ordained as a priest.  Latin is the main language used during Roman Catholic services, while Orthodox churches use native languages.  Catholics venerate statues as much as  Orthodox believers venerate icons.

Our family belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church of Kerala, India.  It is believed that Saint Thomas, disciple of Jesus, spread Christianity in Kerala in the First Century.  These Christians received episcopal support from Persian bishops, who traveled to Kerala in merchant ships through the spice route. Hence they are called Syrian Orthodox Christians and use Syriac and Malayalam – language of Kerala – in their services.

After checking into our hotel, we travelled to Ano Mera, a village about seven kilometers away to visit the 18th Century Monastery of Panagia Tourliani.


The church looked almost similar to many of our Syrian Orthodox churches in Kerala.  A marble bell tower with intricate folk carvings was a standout point of the church building.


The altar screen, like those seen in our Orthodox Churches, has small icons carefully placed amid the wooden structure’s painted green, red, and gold-leaf flowers.  At the top are carved figures of the apostles and large icons depicting the New Testament scenes.


Most liturgical instruments used during prayers looked similar to those in our Orthodox churches.


After lunch, we walked to the jetty at Mykonos Port to board a boat to the island of Delos.  According to Greek mythology, Delos is the birthplace of Apollo, God of music, and his Moon-Goddess twin sister Artemis, Goddess of hunting.  In 1100 BC, Delos was inhabited by the Ionians who worshiped God Apollo. (The Ionians were one of the four major tribes that the Greeks considered themselves to be divided into during the ancient period; the other three being the Dorians, Aeolians, and Achaeans.)  The Ionians also managed to develop the island into a powerful commercial and spiritual centre (7th century BC).  Thereafter, the Roman period was the most prosperous and wealthy period for Delos which turned the island into an important port.  In 88 BC, the King of Pontos who was against the Romans completely destroyed Delos and Mykonos.


History of Delos remains completely unknown after this period as there are no historical records. The excavations that brought to light rich archaeological finds in Delos started in 1873 and continue to be carried out by the French School of Archaeology.


The island boasted of many temples, market places, living quarters, theatres, gymnasium, etc, all to cater for traders, sailors and locals.


As trade prospered, rich merchants, bankers, and ship-owners from all over the world settled in Delos.  They attracted many builders, artists and craftsmen to build luxurious houses, richly decorated with statues, frescoes and mosaic floors. This well preserved house has an atrium with a mosaic floor which portrays Dionysus seated on a leopard.


The houses in Delos varied in size, layout and construction based on the requirement and wealth of the owner.  Most houses looked inwards and the rooms were built around an open square to allow air-circulation and to receive light.  Ground floor rooms did not have windows making the houses cooler, safer and quieter.  These houses had separate kitchen and latrines and drainage system.


This is a theatre in ruins.


Rainwater was collected in drains connected to a large reservoir.

In the evening, we returned to Mykonos island, after spending over three hours at Delos.