The day we didn't let a cancelled tour stop us
There is a place for tours, given the right time and price. We decide to take a tour one Saturday and arrive early; no one else has shown up. Thus, we shall make our own tour.
A map reveals a somewhat local but scarce-visited archaeological site at the base of the White Mountains that just beckons to be explored. Off the beaten path and boasting no nearby beaches or expensive hotels, Aptera is not so frequently touristed as some of the other sites that lie closer to the lusher conveniences coveted by holiday-bound travelers.
A quick drive up the national highway yields to a winding road up the hillside into the quaint village of Megala Horafia, whose dusty roads are lined with quiet tavernas and cobbled mason-work houses that hint at a bygone time. Flowers of brilliant shades lend color to the dried shrubs that peek out of crevices of the earthy rock that litters the knoll. The road forks, and we take the left branch up the curvy road that leads into the low hill of Palaiokastro. White stucco houses and aged stone walls follow us higher into the hills.
Then suddenly the village gives way to a view of Souda Bay on the north and ancient ruins that rise into the hillside to the south. The village is gone suddenly as we step into ancient history. The first view from the road only hints at the Roman and Byzantine settlements that once existed here, tall walls of blocks that partition off what once was a grand tower where guards stood watch and carriages passed from the gently sloping road through the gate into the settlement, the grooves from their wheels still faintly visible on the ground below. At the base of this ancient road built in the 4th century A.D., well before the gate tower, an old cemetery illustrates the common practice of the wealthy to bury their dead in elaborate fashion at the entrance of a city with lavish grave steles. Near a shattered column surrounding a series of steps, a single stone heroon juts upward, still bearing an ancient inscription of praise to the hero whose bones once rested below.
Placing my feet on the very stones of the cobbled road that the ancient Romans built and walked before me, I begin my climb into the city. A trek up the incline of steps and down the road above the ruins lead to the remains of a peristyle house built sometime between the 1st century B.C. and the 4th century A.D. Nearby, the area is strewn with severed columns, the ground is fertile with native wildflowers, the weeds are taller than my own six foot frame, and shrubs bear thorns the length of my fingers. Columns still show the notches where dowels held together the cylindrical segments that once formed a grand walkway that enclosed a stylish atrium where perhaps a 1st century lady of genteel upbringing surely stopped to rest on a garden bench, sip a cool drink in the shade of the portico, and smell the sweet fragrance of native flowers during a moment of meditative reflection before paying homage to the shrine of the household god, Lares. Smaller rooms to the side of the peristyle reveal a rounded grinding mortar still containing a wheel that once milled flour, grains, and herbs to provide food and sustenance to those living there. In the fields beyond the house and grounds, a Byzantine temple of St. Christodoulos remains concealed by stones, sparse trees, and brush.
A walk up the ancient footpath to the crest of the ancient settlement ends in a view of the extremely well-preserved Byzantine Monastery of Agios Ioannis, or Saint John the Theologian, built in the early 12th century A.D. during the 2nd Byzantine rule. A small chapel lies just inside the northern entrance and possesses an atmosphere of reverence. Byzantine style religious icons and art denote the enclosure as a sacred place of worship for believers. Outside, a small garden of flowering shrubs and a single olive tree to the side of the path opens into a courtyard that shelters the smaller in-buildings that once housed monks and served as offices and specialized rooms for tool and trade. While the central fountain spurts no water, a small water spigot ad water basin to the side of the courtyard quenches the thirst of a pair of young kittens that seek a different kind of respite at an ancient place of worship known for its hospitality to all living creatures. At the western side of the courtyard is the larger portion of the monastery, the place which once provided a sanctuary for both solitary and group worship until the 1960’s. If only the ancient chants of the monks could be carried on the wind from the past into the arched doors and shuttered windows…
Surrounding the monastery are the ancient remains of the settlement that further suggests the strong Roman presence that dominated the isle of Crete from the 1st century B.C. to the 4th century A.D. Deep, vaulted cisterns indicate the sheer power of the people to store the water that provided nourishment so long ago. Nearby, the impressive arches and chambers of the three-parted cisterns that still stand with resolute solidarity give credence to the advancement of the empire that reigned supreme here. Echoes of the past can be heard throughout the triplicate chambers. Deeper into these remains, the once-lavish public baths tell tales of war and peace, politics and religion, love and hate. As the Roman baths were the ancient equivalent of a present-spa, many a Roman man saturated himself in the restoring waters of the hot, warm, or cold bath chambers, engrossed in conversations of great import with other men of esteem in his day. If by some miraculous chance they could talk, these walls could tell us stories of grand passions or notions of social ambition, plots of political conspiracies or legends of epic battles.
A Doric temple dedicated to Demeter and her daughter Persephone nearly escapes notice higher up on the crest of the mound, a sacred place where believers would worship their goddesses of fertility, spring, and harvest and seek favor in the afterlife from the wife of Hades. A smaller Doric temple hides in the field beyond the theater. Blocked off to the public for further excavation, the temples and the ancient theater tell me no secrets from the past. Inaccessible to visitors, they allure me all the more.
I crave the information from the signs that pinpoint key areas of interest throughout the site. The central chamber of the monastery reveals a wealth of information put together by the archaeologists, scientists, and researchers. Apparently, Aptera’s much earlier settlements from Minoan, Mycenaean, and Hellenistic times are no longer visible to any but the archaeologists who have uncovered the trace artifacts that remain. Many artifacts from the site, such as statues, figurines, coins, lamps, grave stele tablets, inscriptions, and pottery remnants, now reside in the Archaeological Museum of Chania, which I shall be visiting soon. My thirst for antiquity is quenched for now.
In sore need of water, we head back down into the small village beneath the remains and come back to the fork in the road, an inviting taverna right in its juncture. The Cretan Corner café welcomes us with the casual atmosphere and generous hospitality of the local people but with a grandiose view of the Lefka Ori, the White Mountains that flank the isle of Crete. Our palette is whetted with bread dipped in pure olive oil with vinegar and herbs followed by a Greek salad and savory entrees of meats and vegetables. Fresh watermelon and sweet ice cream top off our late luncheon as swallows entertain us with arcing semicircles around the café’s corner that overlooks the peaks of the White Mountains that rise into the sky above us and the pastures of sheep that graze peacefully in the valleys below.
Bellies full of delicious local Cretan fare, we head back to the hilltop to explore the last of the ruins. The only Ottoman structure at the site, the Aptera Castelli or fortress stands proudly at the north ridge of the hill in an imposing posture that once proclaimed strength and power in the days of old to approaching pirates or invaders who might dare an attack against the ruling Turks, who built it in 1866. Now secured for renovations and temporarily blocked off from the public until further notice, the fortress still rises high in a carriage of pride in the beauty it possesses: crenellations scaling the topmost edifice and towers jutting confidently into the sky. Wildflowers and shrubs encase the fortress that looks down with almost parental admiration over a turquoise bay with waters that glitter in the afternoon sun.
Having explored the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman ruins, we make our way down the hillside, our minds quiet with pondering reflection on our experiences of the day. Widows in mourning garb of black dresses and white aprons attend to their daily business and the occasional cat scurries along the roadside as we slowly pass through the village once again. We wind through the village and down the hillside, heading to the fortress-like structure we noticed as we scanned the bay from the Aptera Castelli above. Right off the coast of the bay lies Itzendin, the ancient Turkish fortress built in 1872 which was later used as a prison during Greece’s battle for independence from Turkey in the later 1800’s. When we arrive to the outlying village surrounding Itzendin, we make our way in a car that seems too large for the increasingly narrow roads. In a moment, the fortress is before us. After we park at the back entrance, we stroll leisurely up the gravel path to the front as a nearby rooster in an adjacent yard crows to announce to all the impending sunset. The air is rich with the sweetness of sun-ripened figs from native trees that line the drive and hang above the gravel in ripe invitation. A stray dog playfully bounds toward us, follows us as if to show us the way, and prances off heading into the heart of the village. But, alas, we have arrived too late, and the fortress is closed for the day, leaving us to wonder if we shall ever have chance to trod this road yet again.
We leave then, but we do not leave empty-handed.
Tours certainly have their place, but adventure is the owner of its soul.