Travelling: sights and sites

Visiting Crete in October, just as the tourist season is coming to a close, has many advantages. There are fewer tourists, the weather is still excellent, and the places you want to see – in my case, archaeological sites – have not yet closed for the winter months. However, this post is not specifically about the archaeology, fascinating though that is, instead it is a whistle stop tour of what’s Crete has to offer in October. We started off in beautiful Chania.

Chania: looking towards the Venetian lighthouse across the harbour

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The ancient history of Crete has been shaped by forces outside its control. A tsunami resulting from the volcanic eruption on Santorini (ancient Thera) in 1500 B.C. destroyed the Minoan palace of Knossos, and there have been other geological disasters. A massive earthquake in the 9th century A.D. was caused by the collision of two tectonic plates beneath the Aegean Sea, and the resulting tidal wave, suddenly raised the sea level of the ancient port of Lissos on Crete’s south-west coast by ten metres. The city never recovered.

Ancient olive tree amid the ruins of Lissos

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A.D. 71, and Marcus Didius Falco, Lindsey Davis’s intrepid sleuth in The Iron Hand of Mars, is in Germania Inferior on a mission from the Emperor Vespasian. Reluctantly, he goes to Vetera, once a huge double fort on the River Rhine, now bearing all the hallmarks of a savage attack, with broken siege engines, toppled platforms and clear evidence of destruction by fireA few years before, it had been almost totally destroyed by the Batavian uprising, headed by rebel chief, Civilis, once Rome’s ally. It is only just recovering.

The impressive Gate House certainly makes a statement

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‘Ightham Mote, wrote Nigel Nicolson (son of Vita Sackville West), is one of the oldest and loveliest medieval manor houses to survive in England. It has stood here for over 650 years, immune to fire, tempest, war and riot.’ And he’s right. It nestles in the Kentish Weald almost as if it’s grown organically. Even today, it’s not easy to find. Legend has it that, during the Civil War, Cromwellian soldiers arrived in the area intent on looting it, but got lost in the twisty country lanes, gave up, and ransacked somewhere else instead.

 Ightham Mote: the east side

The photo above shows Ightham Mote (pronounced Item Moat) as the visitor coming down a steep wooded hill first sees it.

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Boppard is an attractive German town on the Rhine with an interesting Roman history. In the 1st – 3rd centuries A.D., it was a small riverine trading settlement called Bodobrica. These were settled times, and the Roman Germania Superior frontier, the limes, fortified by stone watchtowers and a wall of sharpened oak stakes, was a long way to the east.

A stretch of wall with one of the semi-circular towers

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Tuscany, Italy, last year. The first thing our guide to the Etruscans said was, ‘Everyone calls the Etruscans “mysterious” and it’s simply not true.’ By the end of the week, I thought: You’re wrong. Yes, thanks to archaeology, we can see inside their tombs; admire their grave goods, the amazing terracotta sculptures, and their famous black bucchero ware; and we know what the Romans thought of them. But, for me, the Etruscans themselves still remain fascinatingly elusive. This is why.

 Apollo, from the temple at Veii

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Ever since Roman times, the rich and powerful have built villas in the hills surrounding Rome to escape the summer’s heat. Some, like Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, still survive. Others, like Castel Gandolfo, built in the 17th century for Pope Urban VIII as a summer palace, were built on top of Roman villa sites. And why not? The land was already levelled and useful top quality building material was there for the taking.

Castel Gondolfo Pope's palace

Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer palace

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