From The Daily Telegraph June 29 2011
Crete: Minoan treasures hit the bullseye
Juliet Rix tours the ancient sites of Crete in Greece and imagines the tales of gods and Minotaurs.
'In case you were thinking it’s a load of bull…” says one of our guides pointing up above the ruins of Minoan Knossos at a brightly painted bull fresco behind rich red and black columns, “…it is.”
The columns are of reinforced concrete, the peeling paint, 20th century. Close by, in the “processional corridor”, we stand before the iconic relief of the Knossos “Lily Prince”, a wasp-waisted young man, whose image graces many a tourist leaflet and souvenir-shop bag. Unfortunately, we are informed, the three small fragments of original 3,500-year-old Minoan art from which he was “recreated” actually came from three different pictures.
Expert guidance as to what is original, what is reconstructed, and what is simply imagined by the famous (or infamous) excavator of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans, is just one of the benefits of travelling with specialist archaeologists on Andante Travels’ new Crete tour: “Minoans, Greeks and Romans”. We are particularly spoilt on this trip. The 20 guests are accompanied by four staff — two archaeologists, a local guide, and a tour manager.
Evans fortunately limited his confusing (re)constructions to Knossos, now Crete’s number one tourist site, surrounded by souvenir shops and coaches disgorging endless streams of visitors.
The other large Minoan complexes (palaces in Evans-speak) including Malia and Phaistos, are relatively untouched and are much more of a pleasure to visit. Phaistos sits in a stunning location beneath Crete’s highest mountain, Mount Ida. Its twin peaks mimic the Minoans’ sacred symbol, the “horns of consecration” (or, according to some archaeologists, an abstract mountainous horizon) — which we are soon spotting all over buildings, clay coffins (larnakes) and painted pots.
Phaistos has all the typical features of a Minoan “palace”. Here we learn (or rather, I learn; many of my fellow guests are already much more expert) to identify pier-and-door systems for flexible open plan living; the paved West Court with its step-seats and raised pathways like ancient catwalks; light wells and the huge central court flanked by shrines and storerooms of vast pithoi like Ali Baba pots.
Bearing all this in mind, I begin to be able to “read” some aspects of other sites, and to enjoy identifying similarities and differences. We visit a wide range of places, from Minoan ruins on street corners in modern-day Chania to deserted ancient cities-turned-pastoral-paradises on the hilltops above the coast.
One such is Aptera in the Western mountains. Here, with panoramic views all around, our only company is a shepherd, crook in hand. His vast shaggy sheepdog (called “Little Baby” according to our Greek-speaking guide) sleeps among the bright spring flowers while his flock grazes by fallen Graeco-Roman columns. Sheep-bells tinkle as if Pan himself must appear at any moment — but the little temple nearby is thought to have been dedicated to Artemis and Apollo.
We are apparently some of the first tourists to get a proper look at this ancient town’s amphitheatre, newly excavated and remarkably well-preserved. Performance was as much a part of the Minoan, Greek and Roman ways of life as it is ours and at our next ancient theatre we get an impromptu performance that rolls all four time periods into one.
It happens at Gortyn, a Minoan town that became Rome’s Cretan capital, most famous for its 2,500-year-old law codes inscribed in Ancient Greek on stone tablets. (The Laws incidentally provide for rather better rights for women than were enjoyed by local women at the time the codes were uncovered in the mid-19th century).
We enter the Gortyn Odeion, once a Roman indoor theatre, and I am suddenly aware that one of our number is up on stage and singing about Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra to the tune of Oh Dear What Can the Matter Be: “For his wife and queen she has taken a lover boy, Lots of adultery while hubby’s away at Troy, And she don’t mean to give up on her Troy-boy Now Aggy’s come home from the war.”
In five minutes we get the whole of Oresteia-the-musical (with apologies to Aeschylus) and the cries of encore result in our very own one-man theatre company launching into an upmarket Carry On version of Theseus and the Minotaur.
Even its inappropriateness is appropriate. We are standing just yards from the plane tree under which the legendary King Minos (whom Evans was so sure lived at Knossos) is said to have been conceived by the kidnapped goddess Europa and her abductor Zeus in the form of a bull.
Our female guide goes a little red at the thought of such behaviour, but the guests are unfazed. This is fortunate since the story continues with more god-induced bull-fancying at Gortyn resulting in the King’s wife Pasiphae giving birth to the monstrous Minotaur.
Andante clientele are quite unflappable — except when faced with clambering over slippery rocks. This is no reflection on intrepidity, merely age, and if the bodies are no longer as agile as they once were, the same cannot be said of the minds.
Three quarters of this group have travelled with Andante before — several on six or more occasions. They exchange tales of Syria, Lebanon and South and Central America. Conversation over dinner — plentiful selections of delicious local specialities at tavernas recommended by our local guide – ranges across not only archaeology and history but evolutionary theory, art, music… and an evening spent with Fidel Castro.
By day though, it is back to the Minoans as we take a small boat to the delightful little island of Mochlos. Our guides show us around a smart three-storey terraced villa with gorgeous sea views (they lived pretty well these rich Minoans) then a couple of us – plus one guide – peel off for a bit of our own exploring.
We clamber up the narrow Minoan street stepping over fallen blocks of perfectly cut stone. I pick up a piece of pottery expecting it be dismissed but, “Yes,” says our guide, “that’s Minoan”. He holds up a smooth sausage-shaped stone: “And how do you like this ancient pestle?” (he isn’t joking).
We find some attractively painted pot fragments, a piece of stone vase (“that should be inventoried”) and a bit of an alabastron, a Minoan clay copy of an Egyptian alabaster pot. We are really enjoying our little bit of Minoan treasure hunting until the calls of the tour manager become too insistent and we have to depart. I hasten to say that we leave everything where we found it for the new season’s excavators due in a couple of weeks.
Archaeology isn’t always that easy, as we discover at the tiny Sitia museum into which we are driven by rare rain. The place doesn’t look like much and the labels are lousy, but we have insider information: one of our guides is responsible for the dig that produced many of the finds. We stand in front of the star exhibit, a statuette known as the “Palaikastro Kouros”, a lithe Minoan male (“dismissive colleagues say he’s a Ken doll”) with a figure not unlike Evans’s Lily Prince.
We have our attention drawn to the Egyptian influence in the pose, and the delicacy of the carving on the hands, feet and hair. And then our archaeologist says, “The legs were in 300 pieces. We sieved six tons of soil to find them and his eyes… It took the conservator three years to rebuild him.” Times have clearly changed in archaeological reconstruction — and that’s no bull either!