In the morning we were ready to meet George when he arrived at the appointed time of 8:30. We were starting early (for us) because we had to cover some ground to get to the sites on our itinerary. Even in October, it was advisable to beat as many tour buses as we could. But first we needed to get some cash. Since the previous day was Sunday, I hadn’t been able to find a bank that was open, and I was still leery of dealing with an ATM.

I walked with George down the few blocks to 25 Avgoústo street, where we went into the first open bank we came to, and George translated my sad tale to explain to the manager why I wanted to deal with him directly, instead of the mechanical teller outside the door. The manager offered to accompany us outside, where I could try my bank card, and assured me (by way of George) that if the ATM swallowed the card it could be retrieved immediately.

So we did that, and of course the card worked perfectly; I acquired €500 as easily as I could have done on Sunday from any of the many cash machines on that busy street. As we walked back, George assured me that I could use my card without fear if I always went to an ATM at a bank that was open for business. This reduced my anxiety a good deal, and for the rest of the trip I made withdrawals at ATMs—always at banks that were open—and never ran into another problem.

We walked back to the hotel to meet Dorothea, and all three of us got into George’s car. He drove out of the city, on a straight road south-southwest across the island. It passed through some fairly high country, the eastern end of the Psilorítis massif, but the high peaks were well to the west. In a little less than an hour, we were approaching the Messará Plain near the south coast. Crete’s largest and most fertile agricultural area, it's a long, narrow triangular strip that runs east and west, with the broad end at the west. The plain is sheltered by Psilorítis and lesser mountains to the north and some low costal hills to the south. Instead of going down to the plain, we turned west on a road that ran parallel to it on higher ground, and soon reached the site of ancient Gortýs.
Map: Iráklio-Górtys-Phaistós-Agía Triáda
When we were planning the trip, we’d asked George to take us (after Knossós) to two Minoan sites, Phaistós and Ágia Triáda, and he suggested that we add nearby Górtys, though it has no Minoan ruins, to the excursion. Some Minoan artifacts have been found there, but no remains of major construction. However, Górtys (also called Górtyn) was a thriving city during the Greek and later the Roman periods (the Romans called it Gortina), and both incarnations have left interesting traces. Byzantine Górtys was completely destroyed, in the 9th century CE, by the Andalusian Arabs who conquered Crete at that time. They made Iráklio (or al-Khandak as they called it) the island's capital, an arrangement that has never been revised. Górtys has been little more than a rural crossroads since that time. The map shows where we went (and returned by the same route).

Although a Minoan past hasn’t been clearly established, Górtys was, by the time of the Roman conquest (completed in 67 BCE), among the most powerful of Crete’s many Greek city-states. Fortunately for the city, it had chosen to join the Romans rather than resist them, and when the fighting was over, the conquerors made it their administrative center. Later, when Augustus Caesar organized the empire, he combined Crete and Cyrenaica (which is now Libya, more or less) into a single province, and made Gortina the capital of it.
Ruined cathedral at Górtys
So, when Christianity came to Crete, Górtys is where the first bishop, St. Titus, established his headquarters. According to St. Paul’s Epistle to Titus in the New Testament, Paul brought him to the island and left him in charge of the church there. Titus’ name, which the Greek-speaking Cretans Hellenized to Títos, suggests that his ethnicity may have been Roman. He had been a busy assistant to Paul, running various administrative errands, and tradition says that it was Paul who anointed him as the first bishop of Crete. He is said to have died at Górtys in 107 CE, at the age of 95.

By the time the Arabs devastated the city in the late 820s, the Christian cathedral, dedicated to St. Títos, had been replaced more than once. The last one was built in the 5th century, and part of it still stands. Church authorities have put a modern icon of saints Paul (Pávlos) and Títos inside. The ruins aren’t extensive enough to serve as a church now, but I suppose it’s possible that the liturgy may be celebrated there on such special occasions as the patron saint’s feast day.
Remains of the Roman odeon
The remains of the Roman town also include an odeon—a small theater for musical performances, poetry readings, and suchlike. According to scholarly tradition, odea (odeon means ‘singing place’) were like ancient Greek theaters except that they were one fourth the size, and were roofed for better acoustics. The roof of Gortina’s odeon hasn’t survived, but the semicircular benches where the audience sat are still there.

Behind the benches, a modern brick structure protects a relic of the Greek past: a series of stone tablets on which the city’s laws were inscribed so that citizens could read them. They were carved around 450–500 BCE in what the Rough Guide describes as “a very rough Doric Cretan dialect.” The stonecarvers followed a very old Greek practice in carving lines that read in alternate directions. Here's an example in English. Can you read it all the way through?
Legal inscription
As the sample “inscription” says, the Greeks called this style boustrophedón, a combination of the words for ‘ox’ and ‘turning.’ (If you want to dazzle your friends with this exotic vocabulary item, Wikipedia advises English speakers, at least, to stress the penultimate syllable: “boostra-feed-un.”)

Here's a picture that shows some of the carving on the wall at Górtys. Even if you aren't fluent in Archaic Greek—I'm certainly not—you can confirm the direction of the lines by looking for asymmetric letters like C, E, F, K, N and S. (This is an archaic form of the Greek alphabet that contains some letters or letter forms that later disappeared in Greece, but made it into the alphabet that the Romans copied from the Etruscans—who had copied theirs from an old Greek alphabet somewhat like this one.)

Other examples of boustrophedon inscriptions can be found in the Greek world, but this one is unique for the extent of its legal contents; nothing else of that kind exists from what historians call the Archaic Period of Greek history. The tablets had apparently been reused in a later Greek building and then incorporated into the structure of the Roman odeon, although apparently in a way that paid some respect to their inscribed contents. Not all the tablets are still on the site—at least one has found its way into the Louvre—but most of them are sheltered now in a modern brick structure, and scholars have managed to reconstruct a good deal of the text. To go to a page with information about the laws they deciphered, click the button below.
Ancient olive trees
Another attractive feature of the Górtys site is the number of obviously ancient olive trees. The Rough Guide, in fact, says there's one claimed to be 1800 years old. We didn't visit that one, but many of the trees we passed looked as if they couldn't be much younger.

We had found the site nearly empty of tourists when we arrived. A few were beginning to come in by the time we were leaving; one was a French group led by a woman whom George greeted as a colleague, and they exchanged a few words of shop talk while her tourists were looking around the cathedral.
Messará plain and Psilorítis from Phaistós
It was still pretty early when we left for Phaistós, our next stop. The road took us west, down into the Messará plain. In a little while, we turned left into a smaller road that climbed to the palace site, on the shoulder of a hill overlooking the plain to the north and east. This view is the most spectacular aspect of the site. Italian archaeologists had dug there early in the 20th century and later extended those excavations in the 1950s. Their methods, compared to Sir Arthur Evans', were more scrupulously conservative, so there are no reconstructed and repainted rooms to dazzle, and perhaps mislead, the visitor's eye. Still, on a clear, sunny (but not too hot) day like this one, the site is impressive even to non-archaeologists like us. It's likely that whatever potentate occupied the palace was pleased to look down on Crete's finest farmland, knowing that a good deal of its produce would in due course fill the píthoi in his many storerooms. We were pleased to look down on it also, although we harbored no plans for massive consumption. The peaks of Psilorítis, 25 miles to the north, were clearly visible, and between the dry, rocky land off toward the mountains, and the dry, rocky hillside we stood on, the green fertility of the plain was outstandingly obvious, and very easy to appreciate. The Messará plain is still worked industriously, as it has been since Minoan times. Olives, fruit, and vegetables grown there feed all of Crete, and some are exported to mainland Greece.
Phaistós palace site
This picture from Wikipedia provides a more inclusive view of the whole site than any of ours do. Like the palaces at Knossós and Mália, Phaistós was destroyed by an earthquake in about 1700 BCE and rebuilt more splendidly afterwards. Also like all the other palaces, it was finally destroyed around 1450 BCE by an earthquake, and burned at the same time. (Knossós, which must have been mostly in ruins, was occupied for another 125 years, until 1325, but all the others were abandoned.)

The builders of the second palace used the ruined first palace as a foundation, and in some places where the two didn't quite overlap the excavators uncovered the older palace's remains. This can, as the Rough Guide remarks, make the runs “confusing for casual visitors to interpret.” George’s guidance was a great help, and it was also good to have seen Knossós first, because Evans’s reconstructions, even though they may incorporate errors of interpretation, helped us to imagine how the palace might have looked when it was occupied.
The Grand Staircase
We saw a few more fellow tourists than at Górtys, but not many more. This was probably because it was now October rather than because our virtuous earliness. The most impressive single feature I remember was the Grand Staircase leading down from a large paved courtyard into a lower area where ceremonial performances probably took place. (That area is overlooked by wide stairlike “bleacher seats” against the far wall.) Some of the stairs are carved from the rock of the hillside.
Fragile flooring
The room in this picture shows evidence of the archaeologists' care to avoid reconstruction that would make further digging underneath it impossible (like Evans’ concrete at Knossós). The clay paving blocks they used for the floor have broken in some cases and warped in others. This is unfortunate, but a worthwhile price to pay for enabling future exploration of the site. If the scholars’ main purpose was to excite and entertain us “casual visitors,” they might as well have turned the project over to Euro-Disney.
The guide and the guided
As George showed us around, we talked about the final destruction of Phaistós and the other palaces. Historians had believed for a long time that the volcanic eruption that destroyed most of the island of Thera (Santorini today) had also destroyed the Minoan palaces, and ultimately their civilization. But some time ago it was determined that that disastrous event had occurred 150 years before the palaces went down. Alternative theories held that the earthquake coincided with either a social revolution and uprising against the rulers, or an invasion by the warlike and increasingly powerful Mycenaeans (the first Greek-speakers to dominate Crete). In favor of the first of these theories, no evidence of a massive invasion from overseas has been found. In favor of the second, during the century and a quarter after the disaster that Knossós continued to be occupied, all the records kept there were in the Linear B script, which means they were written in Mycenaean Greek, not the native Minoan tongue believed to be preserved in Linear A. There is evidence for a gradually growing Mycenaean presence in Crete up to that time, but not a military conquest.
Minoan oil lamp
George told us about another theory that doesn't require torch-waving revolutionaries or invaders to explain the way the palaces were destroyed. He pointed out the narrow storerooms where the terra cotta píthoi filled with grain and olive oil were kept. The storerooms, with roofs but no windows, were close, dark places. Light was provided by simple olive-oil lamps. (This one, in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is made of soapstone and would have a lighted wick resting in one or both of the cuts in the rim. It was found in Crete and dates from the last period of the Minoan palaces.) An earthquake would have smashed a great many píthoi, ensuring that the floors of the storerooms were awash in oil, or a slurry of oil and grain. And it would also have knocked some of those lighted oil lamps off their shelves. Every palace had a lot of these storerooms. So it isn't hard to see how fires might have been started in all the palaces without any armed conflict.

Before leaving Phaistós, we sat down in the visitor center’s café for coffee (George) and cold drinks (us)—then we set off for our third destination of the day: Agía Triáda.

‘Holy Trinity’ is of course not an ancient Greek name, let alone a Minoan one, but the site is supposed to have been named for a nearby chapel (apparently gone now, because I couldn't find it on any map). The site is only four kilometers from Phaistós, but is much less visited—mainly, George told us, because the road there is too narrow and winding for tourist buses, but also because it’s on a steep hillside that can be hard to get around, and perhaps because for many visitors, it’s just “more of the same.” In his years of guiding, we were only the second set of visitors who asked to be taken there. We saw no more than three or four other people at the site, and by the time we were ready to leave, we were the only ones.
Agía Triáda site
The complex of buildings at Agía Triáda isn’t thought to have been a palace—it’s quite a bit smaller than Knossós, Phaistós, Mália and Káto Zákros, the palaces that have been excavated. But some beautiful artwork was found there, including vessels, murals, and a painted sarcophagus, all of which are now in the Archaeological Museum in Iráklio. (This contrasts with Phaistós, which was found in a comparatively unadorned state, though it may not have been that way originally.)
Drain channels
Pointing out that “Nothing exists to compare [Agía Triáda] with, in what is known of Minoan Crete, nor does it appear in any records; even the name has had to be borrowed…”, the Rough Guide goes on, "…The most commonly accepted explanation is that it was some kind of royal villa, but it may equally have been the home of an important prince or a wealthy ship-owning merchant, a building of special ceremonial significance, or even (as more recent theories have it, based on the quantity of records and storage found here) simply an administrative centre." Small as it is in comparison with the palaces, however, Ayía Triáda was important enough to be built with the usual drain system for piping rainwater into cisterns.
St. George's chapel, 14th c.
To quote the Guide again, “the remains, in which buildings of several eras are jumbled, are confused and confusing.” George’s help was once again invaluable in showing us what was what. One of the sights had nothing to do with Minoan times: a little Byzantine chapel from the 14th century, “quiet, well-proportioned, and beautiful,” as Dorothea recorded. It’s not the chapel the site was named for, being dedicated to St. George. Inside are the remnants of some original frescos, as well as a modern icon of the patron saint. It made me think of some tiny churches we had seen in Ireland, built a few centuries earlier than this one.
Going up
From the top of the hill, we could see the Mediterranean off to the south, but the shoreline has changed, and it's thought that the sea once lapped the foot of the hill right below us. Rather than strain our brains to figure out what everything here looked like in prehistoric times, we concentrated on enjoying the peace and beauty of the place, much as we had done at Phaistós. We were sometimes challenged by the steep steps and rough pathways, but fortunately avoided mishap.

On the drive back to Iráklio, George and I talked about the Indo-European languages. Although his university degree is in physics, language study is a hobby for him (and a hobby-horse for me—it’s much easier to start me talking on the subject than it is to stop me). George also told us about his family’s several acres of olive trees, in the fertile country outside Iráklio. Every year they engage an olive processor to harvest and press the olives and return the oil to the family, keeping a portion for himself—the way millers (of grain, apples, and other things as well as olives)—have traditionally earned their living. The family’s three or four households have enough oil to last them until the next year’s harvest.

We were back at our hotel by 3:00 or 3:30, where we said goodbye to George and went up to spend the next few hours in our room, during which Dorothea ate some bread and cheese she’d saved from the breakfast room, we shared three tiny díples and some water, counted our money, checked bus schedules for Sitía, and rested.

At 7:45 we ventured out in search of dinner. We had three restaurants in mind, all of them in the same small area beyond the pedestrian street, 25th Avgoustou. The streets over there were narrow and open to automobile traffic. Sidewalk space was limited, and we had to squeeze past parked and sometimes moving cars as we followed our map. We located all three restaurants, and chose one named I Avlí tou Defkalíona—‘The Courtyard of Deucalion.’ The restaurant’s eponym, Deucalion, was a mythological character, a kind of Greek Noah.
Diners in the Courtyard of Deucalion
Most of the restaurant’s tables were outdoors. A local footpath, leading into an alley, separated the row of tables we sat in from the rest, and once or twice a resident on the way home with a bag of groceries came past. But this thoroughfare was only a few feet wide, and didn’t by any means make us feel isolated, as Dorothea's picture, taken from our table, shows.

The waitresses were friendly and the food delicious. We made a meal of mezedákia: soutzoukákia (Smyrna-style meatballs like those Dorothea had had in Réthymno), dákos, chórta pies, graviéra, saganáki, and grilled mushrooms—and, of course, a half-liter of house white wine. The restaurant filled up as we ate, nearly all the diners Greek. I assume that we were offered the usual sweets and rakí to conclude the meal. Dorothea’s notes don’t mention that, but (except in Réthymno) not getting it would have been unusual, and thus more likely to be chronicled.