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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.