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Crete's Crate of Surprises

June 9, 2011 By:
Andrew Marcione, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Crete's Venetian harbor

Steeped in history and enveloped in mythology, the rough and rugged island of Crete is a Mediterranean marvel.

Whether it is trekking through the panoramic wonder of the Samaria Gorge or dining under the stars at Hania's Venetian harbor, visitors exploring western Crete will create a memorable experience for themselves while on this beautiful and diverse Greek island.

As one stands at the threshold of the National Park of Samaria at 4,101 feet, the play of morning light and shadow casts a smokey blue tinge on the distant faces of the White Mountains. A vista of soaring peaks and a vastness of greenery beckons nature lovers to explore this embodiment of flawless creation.

Over the course of millennia, the river, which flows through the park, has sculpted this ecological pocket of Crete into Greece's celebrated Samaria Gorge.

The journey begins by descending the 500 steps of the winding trail known as the Xyloskalo, or "wooden staircase," which segues into the very depths of the gorge.

While traversing this breathtaking terrain amid towering pine trees, jagged cliffs and imposing mountains, hikers will find themselves in awe among these exemplary whims of Mother Nature.

In 1962, the Greek government established the National Park of Samaria in order to save the local wild goat, the kri-kri, from extinction. Yet, it is the small church of Saint Maria of Egypt, located in the formerly inhabited village of Samaria, from which the park received its name.

One of most pronounced features of sheer grandeur to admire are Samaria's Iron Gates; for this is the gorge's narrowest point. Once you pass through this striking portal of its vertical stone walls, which are 11.5 feet apart, the landscape opens up once more until the finale of this amazing illustration of natural beauty meets the sea.

It is here, at the rendezvous point in the costal village of Agia Roumeli, where hikers have a chance to have a proper meal at a restaurant, or head directly to the black sand beach and plunge into the inviting, warm waters of the Libyan Sea.

To embark on this impressive expedition, nature enthusiasts can organize transportation arrangements while staying in the delightful port city of Hania.

Antiques Roadshow

Located on Crete's northwestern coast, the seafaring city of Hania boasts a who's-who in ancient rulers, which extend as far back as the Minoan era. While exploring Hania's nooks and crannies, visitors will revel in the architectural and cultural imprints from centuries past.

The reflection of 400 years of Venetian influence is prominent throughout the old city. The Siavo Bastion, Firkas Fortress and the western fortification wall are reminders of the Venetian's defensive efforts against outlaws of the high seas and would-be invaders; however, these stockades were no match for the Ottomans, who took over the island in the mid-17th century.

The 16th century lighthouse is the beacon at the entrance to the bustling Venetian harbor, which hosts a string of soft-hued buildings that support restaurants, bars and small hotels.

Catch the complimentary ferry from Katehaki Square to the outer sea wall, where a romantic view of the waterfront at sunset is on the menu at Fortezza restaurant.

Meander through the streets of the Turkish Quarter, known as the Splantzia, and discover traditional Greek tavernas that serve up tasty Cretan cuisine. Along with the excavation site of the Minoan settlement of Kydonia, whose many unearthed treasures are on display in the city's Archaeological Museum, another notable landmark is the Mosque of Kioutsouk Hasan, which stands on the eastern side of the harbor and houses various exhibitions today.

Though Crete's current Jewish community is extremely small, the island's Jewry dates back to the Roman era.

That Jewish history is not without its bizarre chapters. It was reported that in 430 C.E., a so-called Jewish messiah going by the name of Moses -- and claiming to actually be the same one of Exodus fame -- exhorted Crete's Jews to abandon their worldly ways and follow him into eternal salvation.

Unfortunately that path led to a cliff and this Crete version of Moses convinced his followers to dive off the cliff into the sea below, with many drowning in the process.

Details of this "Moses" have been lost to history since the tragedy.

Stroll down the small street of Parodos Kondylaki in Hania's former Jewish Quarter to visit a memory of the city's Jewish history.

The bombing of Beth Shalom in 1941 during World War II left Etz Hayyim as Hania's sole remaining synagogue, which has existed in its current structure since Ottoman times.

Neglected and in utter disrepair for over 50 years after World War II, the synagogue was listed by the World Monuments Fund as one of the top 100 endangered Jewish monuments.

Thanks to the fundraising efforts of Nicholas Stavroulakis and his financial assistance to fulfill the synagogue's renovations, Etz Hayyim opened as a Romaniote temple of prayer once more in 1999.

Since then, Etz Hayyim has not only made a name for itself as a center of Jewish-Cretan genealogy, but its extensive library has also become Crete's primary facility for research on the world's three main religions.

Although two arson attempts damaged the library in 2010, an overwhelming support of donations from around the world has helped to replenish the volumes of books lost in the fires.

To learn more about Etz Hayyim and Crete's Jewish history, visit the synagogue's website at: www.etz-hayyim-hania.org. For additional information on Crete, go to: www.visitgreece.gr

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