Chania: a new year’s day hike

Ancient Lissos almost certainly has Minoan origins. Its heyday was in the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods, when it prospered as an unfortified healing centre.

No matter how many years I have spent in the Mediterranean in wintertime, I cannot get it into my head that it rains a lot. This New Year in western Crete the rain was biblical save for one magical sunlit day. Chania, in western Crete, seemed to be the vengeful target of black brooding skies and an apocalyptic gale, whipping the sea into drilled lines of foaming waves. Think of Odysseus in his worst nightmare – ‘Zeus sent…screaming winds and giant waves’ – combined with a wine-dark Hokusai painting. The elemental onslaught was evidently not exceptional. The cafes and shops ringing the Venetian harbour were proficiently boarded up as heaving, tormented waters slithered insidiously across the quayside. This explains why New Year is low season here. The erstwhile capital of Crete is empty save for a few brave tourists and military personnel from the Souda Bay base. Protection from the wind tunnels lies behind the monumental defences, in the tight maze-streets lined by tall Venetian and Ottoman houses.

Chania in the winter, as a baleful sea swells within the Venetian harbour. Archaeology indicates that there has been a settlement at Chania since at least the Neolithic period.

The ferocity puzzled me. Why put a major port here, instead of the relatively sheltered west coast (ancient Falasarna, for instance)? Proximity to mainland Greece is surely a factor, as countless archaeological excavations have tended to show. Ancient Kydonia, as Chania was known to Homer, owes its origins – like Knossos – to Neolithic times. Legend has it that it was founded by King Kydon, a son of either Apollo or Hermes and King Minos’s daughter, Akakallis. Kydonia was identified as Chania in Victorian times by the English economist/lawyer Robert Pashley (1805-1859). The settlement crowned a raised hillock known as Kastelli, immediately east of the Venetian harbour. Kydonia probably occupied more ground than its later Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine iterations, which are marked by well-preserved fortifications.

Nearly a kilometre of these early defences stand proud, having withstood Venetian engineers, Ottoman pashas, and bombing by Stukas in May 1941. These walls are as unexpected as they are fascinating, and they invite careful reading. The bottom courses are fine ashlar blocks, almost certainly Hellenistic in date. Above are inimitable 7th-century defences, the work of magpie builders who teasingly arranged courses that included column bases and spolia scavenged from abandoned town-houses and public buildings. This horseshoe circuit, with its simple squared towers, once extended around 2km. It served Justinian’s troops, Arabic invaders, and Byzantine militia until Frankish times.

Peeling back the millennia

Tracts of Minoan Kydonia are best seen just behind the central gate into the early walls. Look into Kastelli’s vacant house plots and, like magic, remains of Bronze Age dwellings are to be seen, part-covered with vegetation. The excavations belong to a long collaboration between Greek and Scandinavian archaeologists. But the most important remains are beneath a cover protecting a trench measuring 5,000m². On display are remains from the later Neolithic until Late Minoan I. A conflagration apparently ended living here in 1450 BC, only for some town-houses to be resettled and maintained into the early 1st millennium. Was this resettlement due to local resilience or the arrival of parvenu Mycenean colonists? The ebb and flow of Kydonia in the later Bronze Age is patently apparent, whereas it appears to be obfuscated at its peer site of Knossos.

The walls of Kastelli at Chania seem to be Hellenistic in origin, but the handiwork of later Roman and Byzantine builders can still be made out in the upper courses of the rampart and its projecting towers.

Truth be told, there is none of the invented grandiosity of Knossos. Well-made information panels explain the complex palimpsest forensically disentangled by the excavators. Beneath the formidable canopy is a lattice of simple streets passing through a dense and regularly revitalised residential area. There a naughty thought struck me. The absence of a palace and any evidence of cult worship makes this look very Scandinavian, as opposed to the imperial vision and art deco reconstructions invented for Knossos by its discoverer, Sir Arthur Evans. Yet Kydonia, judging by the finds, was affluent. Not only that: like Knossos, it boasted Mycenean Linear B tablets as well as linear A examples. There are even stirrup jars, locally made and coded with Linear B script.

Today, parts of Neolithic and Minoan Kydonia are nestled beneath a cover building. These are the streets and houses of a frequently revitalised residential quarter within the settlement.

What is on display here is a Minoan port district, which had commercial reach to the Peloponnese. It was every bit as much a place to reckon with as its later fortified iterations. The subsequent Hellenistic and Roman cities, notwithstanding the fortifications, were hardly as formidable. Kydonia was in the Hellenistic Oreioi League, but seems to have been episodically embattled in conflict with neighbours. After falling to the Romans, it supported Octavian rather than Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium, and as a result its citizens gained the court-poet Virgil’s stamp of approval. Kydonians are mentioned in Book 12 of the Aeneid. Their archery skills are used as a simile describing the Fury’s descent to Juturna, the goddess of springs, fountains, and wells. Other than the lowest courses of its defences, nothing of this Minoan-Mycenean epilogue can be seen on the ground.

To escape the furies – howling wind and horizontal, spitting rain – I sought sanctuary in the Venetian warehouse that serves as Chania’s archaeology museum. Here, the finds from the Graeco-Scandinavian excavations are well displayed: Linear A and Linear B tablets, stirrup jars, innumerable variants of Minoan-period manufactured wares, as well as bewitching jewellery – countless cases of rich finds that are little short of dazzling.

My eye, though, was drawn to an Asclepius and, opposite it, an Aphrodite, which together with an array of loose-limbed Parian marble figures were found at a healing temple at Lissos. This encounter, by one means and another, led me – once the gale had ended – to Sougia on Crete’s southern Selino coast, and a New Year’s Day hike to the very sanctuary where these statues were found.

Chania Museum. Here visitors can enjoy not only the prehistoric finds from excavations that peeled back the layers of Kydonia, but also fine Classical sculpture found in a healing sanctuary at Lissos.

The hike

New Year’s Day – and miraculously the sky was washed clean by the recent gale. The road from Chania to Sougia winds its way through arcadian country towards the White Mountains. Orange orchards in the shadow of snow-capped sierras line the route pretty much as far as the Mediterranean under a big sky stretching towards Cyrenaica. The mountains are almost golden in the sharp sunlight, inviting as great ranges tend to be.

Twisting and turning past Rodovani and signs to the ancient city of Elyrus – inevitably again identified by that Victorian polymath Pashley – the route passes through steep terraced olive groves beneath which are acres of red netting to catch the ripe fruit. With the Ayia Irene gorge to the left, and the mountains heading to dark cliffs looming over the sea, the road emerges at a long curving shingle beach fronted by a few empty tavernas and a couple of dogs. This was once the Roman port of Syia, but little remains to be seen today. Nothing is open, but the signs for taxis show Sougia’s summer trade to be principally transporting hikers to and from the great Samaria Gorge, nearby.

My hike is more modest in ambition. Ancient Lissos and its healing sanctuary lies less than 90 minutes away. An unexpected gorge and steeple-high cliffs intervene. The well-trodden path (European path E4) is diligently marked. First, walk west along the beachfront to the harbour, occupied by half-a-dozen fishing caiques. Then into a goat pen, scattering the creatures and setting up a raucous cacophony of bells. The cavernous reddish walls of the Lissos gorge come into view and beckon. It is a great crack in the rock, worn into a passageway’s width, and from time to time at the service of a flash stream. Sougia and the sea are soon forsaken for a closed world.

Approaching ancient Lissos by land, via this narrow gorge of the same name.

Inside, following the dried-up bed of boulders beneath a canopy of trees, the path gently weaves its way for 30 minutes. Then a well-trodden climb leads, zigzagging, up the west wall of the gorge beneath bent pines, emerging on to a windswept plateau. On the path goes, across treeless ground, for 15 minutes before reaching an unexpected edge. Here, far below, illuminated by the lambent January light lies ancient Lissos in its own near-perfect bowl. The ancient city is wondrously concealed with an annular-shaped cove and shingle beach. Behind it are the dark roofless shells of the abandoned modern village, with a terraced valley fanning upwards into the far hills. Pink anemones sprinkle this west-facing edge, but the spirit of this place is filled with goat bells. A hundred or more creatures with skittish lambs own this oasis.

The often-vertical descent is easier than it appears. It takes 15 minutes, as the echoing sound of bells accompanies one downwards, pastoral music to the attentive business of placing each foot cautiously on each rock. The air is filled with the perfume of sea-washed thyme. A familiar friend emerges in the path. Between the boulders as the incline eases, the reddish ground is coloured with goat droppings, and Hellenistic and Roman potsherds appear. I could be anywhere in the Aegean at this moment, but my mind races back to my student digging days at Knidos.

Springs and solitude

Ancient Lissos almost certainly has Minoan origins. Its heyday was in the late Hellenistic and early Roman periods, when it prospered as an unfortified healing centre. Like Kydonia, it belonged to the Oreioi federation and even issued its own gold coinage. An inscription found in the fabric of the later church, Ayios Kyrikos, some years ago reveals that the ancient town signed a treaty with the 3rd-century BC Cyrenaican king Magas. The presence at Lissos of drachmae minted at Cyrene has led some to believe that this port despatched troops to fight in wars in North Africa.

As a place, it was known for its healing waters, giving rise to the temple dedicated to Asclepius in Hellenistic times that was excavated between 1957 and 1960 by the celebrated Cretan archaeologist Nikolaos Platon (1909-1992). Platon is best known for his reinterpretation of the periodisation of Minoan palaces. What made him branch out beyond the Bronze Age? I can only guess that his mid-life excursus from Chania (where he was in charge of Cretan antiquities) to this isolated spot came about because someone brought the Lissos sculptures (now in the museum) to his attention. Let’s face it: four seasons spent in this idyll were hardly a chore.

The idyllic site of ancient Lissos. It is set beside a shingle beach in a natural cove, near springs once revered for their healing properties.

The Asclepian temple itself lies at the very foot of the climb, partly shrouded in a bower of umbrella-like carobs. The excavation site is fenced and my heart sank. All this way to see it, and it was off limits? I was contemplating vaulting the wire, when I looked at the catch on the gate. Unlike just about every archaeological site in Greece, it had no padlock. Visitors are politely requested merely to keep it shut. Goats rather than vandals are perceived to be the threat to the fine late Hellenistic mosaic pavement before the altar. Its tesserae are small, the craftsmanship of a master-mosaicist. Elegantly made from exquisitely cut ashlar, the temple would hardly be described as grandiose, even if it still boasted its forest of spectral statues.

From the temple, scattering jittery goats, the path leads to a gushing spring and picnic benches in an oasis of tall trees. This is the water that once brought pilgrims here. A little above, on a prominent terrace, is the chapel of Ayios Kyrikos, dedicated to the patron saint of Lissos. It is a simple, well-restored little church. Metaphorically speaking, this sanctuary succeeded the Asclepion and, like it, lies almost as far from the seashore as was possible. Inside, rather than statues, it boasts fine late Byzantine frescoes, smoke-smudged yet vivid in the shafts of light streaming through the clerestory windows. The 14th-century Cretan rendering of St George killing a dragon is especially vivid. Close by are the half-buried remains of a small Odeon. Beyond lie the scattered remains of a necropolis, wall fragments standing in the ilex bushes, waiting to be fully exposed.

The remnants of a fine late Hellenistic mosaic within the Asclepian temple.

The cove lies half a kilometre away and is reached today by a track lined with unexcavated ruins. On a terrace overlooking the sea stands the 14th-century church of the Ayia Panagia (Virgin Mary). It appears diminutive, even a cuckoo, occupying a small footprint within a larger Late Antique basilica. Like Ayios Kyrikos, it still serves a congregation, who presumably arrive here by boat. A new bell to hasten those to prayer is pinioned in a simple frame some way away. Close up, the dinky basilica is a historical joy. Irregular fragments of ancient sculpture, building blocks, and smashed fragments of Late Antique transennae have all been cannibalised for its construction. My eyes, though, were drawn to a group of bacini – deep, late Byzantine bowls – that date from the age of the building and lend its façade the dignity of metropolitan churches. Some bacini have been taken, leaving empty holes; some are miraculously still in place. Inside, fresh candles stood to one side of the unexpectedly prepossessing iconostasis; the bare walls, no doubt, once had frescoes like its near-neighbour, Ayios Kyrikos.

Byzantine frescoes can be found inside the chapel of Ayios Kyrikos, including this 14th-century take on St George and the dragon.

To return is to have to leave an arcadian experience. How unbelievably lucky Platon was, I cannot help musing. The thought is distracting on the long climb up out of the bowl. After all, Platon found a treasure-house of fine votive statues. More to the point, he had the fortune to explore this celestial place. I wonder, too, as I stumble down the Lissos gorge and emerge out onto the shingle beach at Sougia, if he took a boat from here to his excavations. That way, he not only avoided the walk, but also its aftermath, as noted by that lover of Crete’s White Mountains, Xan Fielding. Fielding commented on the gait of a friend, a shepherd from the sierras: ‘Years of walking along uneven paths and over rough country where no paths exist had developed in him the necessary balance for bounding from stone to stone, which gave him a curiously stealthy gait on the flat.’

The chapel of Ayia Panagia, standing within the ruins of a Late Antique basilica. Fragments of fine architecture and statues were used to build the chapel, which still serves a congregation. A bell hanging nearby hastens them to prayer.

Back in Chania, the satanic furies had returned to torment the Kydonians. I sought solace in Tamam, a thoughtfully restored 18th-century Ottoman hammam deep in the maze of back streets. This restaurant celebrates fine Cretan dishes and wines, and the fare caps my day. In the windowless warmth, despite the bone-aching weariness borne from bounding stone to stone, I feel elated to have begun this year with the walk to Lissos, its sanctuaries, and its precious isolation.

Further reading
Xan Fielding (1953) The Stronghold: four seasons in the White Mountains of Crete; repr. Philadelphia, 2013, p.13.