ANY journey from Canea has a charming commencement. The wide level plain, almost entirely covered with the rich green olive-trees, the roads, lined with aloe-hedges ; glimpses here and there of gardens over whose high walls cluster the tops of orange and pomegranate, huge mulberries, and here and there a towering stone-pine, — convey an impression of exuberant fertility I have never received from any other plain country. Then, breaking precipitately down into it, the bold, bare, ravine-cloven Malaxa hills add a contrast of the most artistic character. I have spent many days among those groves, following on donkey-back lanes and by paths amid blackberry hedges, and in the shade of olive-trees which must have seen the Roman Empire, and still are vigorous and profitable to their owners and the Sublime Porte.
But, speaking of roads, I must not be considered as indicating what would be called such in any other part of the world. There exists but one in Crete, — the high road built by the Venetians (or perhaps only restored by them after the Romans), which ran, and still limps, from Canea to Candia, passing by Retimo en route. But as there are no repairs in Turkey, and a paved road three hundred years old without them must be a dilapidated affair, so the Cretans, as a general thing, know the Candia road only to keep off it. When the late Abdul Medjid came to see Crete, three miles and a half English were put into repair, that a carriage might serve his Majesty to visit Canea in, he having debarked at Simla. Since that day there are three miles and a half of road that a carriage may roll and a horse gallop over. The Sultan’s road leads only to the head of Suda Bay, whence, skirting the shore of that magnificent haven for whose possession Crete has been cursed so many years, we rise by a mule-path which extorts from the traveller unexperienced in Cretan wayfaring a crescendo of epithets, varying according to his horsemanship and habits of less or greater profanity, until he comes to a bit of road which nervous men and bad riders prefer to take afoot. But, the summit reached, we are in the mythologic land, — in one of the homes of the antiquest myth. West of us rise the heights of Mt. Berecyntius, the highest point of the Malaxa range, where the Idæan Dactyls worked the first iron mines known to semiauthentic history. These mythical beings, long reverenced in Crete as divinities of a mysterious and exalted divine power, are supposed, by those of the modern historical authors who have studied most carefully the traces of history found in the myths, to have been a Phrygian colony, which brought arts and mysteries unknown to the aborigines. Diodorus Siculus declares them to have been the primitive inhabitants, but the fact that they were made demi-gods of indicates another and inferior race, over which the new-comers gained permanent influence, and government perhaps. The geology of Berecyntius indicates ferriferous formations, though, in the very incomplete examination of the country which has been made, it is not surprising that no indication of ancient mines has been discovered.
East of us, on a bold, isolated hill, overlooking the sea, and between it and the road, is the site of the ancient Aptera, fabled to have been so called from the result of the singing contest between the Sirens and Muses ; the former of whom, defeated, lost their wings, and fell into the sea, when they were transformed into three islands, which demonstrate the existence of the mythists, if not of the Sirens, and were known to the ancients as the Leucæ Islands. One, on which stands the Venetian town of Suda, is situated like the island in the narrows of New York Harbor, and, properly fortified, would defend the bay against any fleet; but now it only holds a tumble-down town, and a saluting battery ot field-pieces, with a small population of fishermen and soldiers. The opposite point of the narrows is the Akroteri, and on a hillock back of the perpendicular cliffs, where you may still see the batteries built by the Turks to reduce Suda, stood the ancient city of Nimoa, supposed to have been founded by Nimos, but of which the oldest story we possess is one of ruins. Spratt has placed it, in his chart and book, on the shore of Suda Bay and near a small volcanic basin, which he supposed served as port to it; but a careful examination of the whole ground assures me that the slight remains supposed by him to indicate the site of the town are of some comparatively recent work. But, rounding the point of the Akroteri eastward, we enter into a perfect and land-locked harbor, with smooth sand-beach, much more favorable for the uses of ancient mariners than the confined basin with abrupt shores which Spratt supposes the harbor of Nimoa. In commencing my search for the remains of this town, I asked a peasant if there was any ancient city in that vicinity. He replied that there were some remains of a very ancient city in a locality he pointed out, but level with the ground. Misled by Spratt, who placed Nimoa a mile and a half away from this locality, I neglected at the time to search where the Cretan indicated ; but, dissatisfied with the remains which Spratt points out, I commenced a systematic survey of the whole promontory, and found on the hill the peasant had shown me, not only traces of walls, but tombs and quarries of a very ancient date. As in many other places, the Venetians had found cut stone lying above ground cheaper than quarries ; and so nothing remains but traces of walls, and the foundations of a few houses, which seem by their dimensions and plan to have been of the heroic age. But nothing in the remains, — not even the rare beauty of the location, sheltered from all winds but the east, with its outlook on Aptera, the white mountains (now Sphakian), and a fertile plain half round it,— had more weight with me than the evidence of the Cretan who pointed out the site as that of the ancient city. The tenacity of the ancient traditions and memories in the minds of this people is one of the most remarkable psychological phenomena I have ever observed, and their attachment to the traces of what they call the “Hellenic” period is exceedingly interesting. In fact, they can have changed little except names. The uneducated preserve the identical superstitions the ancient authors record, as my guide showed me on passing Aptera, where we will pick up the broken thread of the journey.
Near the city are some grottos, where, said my guide, a shepherd was amusing himself by playing on his violin, when from the sea came a company of nereids, who demanded his services while they danced. In a mortal fear of his supernatural visitors, he complied, and gradually his fear not only wore off, but he began to entertain a passion for one of the nymphs, which brought him habitually to the enchanted grot. He looked and played, but spoke not of his love, yet, after pining awhile, sought the advice of a wise old woman, who told him that the only way to secure his mistress was to catch her as she passed him in the circle of dancers, and hold her by force, come what might. She would change her form to many others, but nothing must induce him to let her go ; and, when he had satisfied her that his determination was invincible, she would cease her efforts to escape him, and resign herself to Hymen.
He lost no time in following directions, and, after a frightful struggle, in which his beloved was beastly and fishy and reptilian in all grades of development, she fulfilled the old woman’s prediction. They were married (whether by the priest, informant did n’t know), and though madame never made any attempt to escape bonds, she seemed always sad, and never spoke to her husband under any provocation. This was too much of a good thing, and he had recourse to the wise woman for a recipe to make his wife talk. They had an infant, and the father was to take this infant and pretend to lay it on the fire, when the mother would probably speak ; if not, he was to put it on the fire an instant, when she would certainly find voice and rescue the child.
The menace did not succeed; but when the unhappy father actually put the child on the embers, the mother, shrieking, fled to the sea, and never was heard of again.
Of Aptera there remains a beautiful specimen of Cyclopean wall preserving nearly the whole circuit; and several cisterns are still in a state to hold water. Fragments of marble appear here and there, and Pashley and Spratt have recorded a most interesting inscription, containing a decree of the Demos, built into the foundations of the convent which gives shelter to wayfarers for the night. We would not tarry, but followed our winding road down into the plains of the Apokorona. The view before us, as we descended into the lower lands (for, though I have used the term " plains of the Apokorona,” I must qualify it as entirely a comparative use of the word), was like an Alpine landscape reproduced on a scale of about one half. The bare, angular, seemingly crystalline, peaks of the white mountains rose against the sky, overlooking the Apokorona, where villages of white masonry glimmered through groves of olive that appeared to overspread the whole district. The road plunged down into a quiet valley, where wound, zigzag and impetuous, a clear streamlet, in which I peered and poked instinctively for some signs of trout. Who ever heard, in any part of the world, except in Crete, of a clear, cold stream, full in August and September, which had not trout in it? As we came down into the little level or bottom which enclosed the streamlet, we saw how broken and really hilly the Apokorona is. On the hillside opposite us was Stylos, since noteworthy as the scene of the first repulse of Mustapha Pacha on his Sphakian campaign, — an affair which delayed operations two weeks, and cost the Egyptians a pacha amongst their losses. The rich bottomland nourishes noble olives, and, with its level lines and beautiful tree-groups, forms one of the most picturesque scenes I saw in Crete. We passed a group of villagers, tending their sheep among the olive-trees, piping and pastoral, and no begging !
We halted at Armeni to lunch. A cold fowl and boiled eggs of Cydonian production, with some coarse bread and harsh Apokorona wine, made the repast, and one of the roughest rides I had ever taken supplied the sauce,—one I can confidently recommend to all who do not know what jolting in a mule’s saddle will do in the way of exciting an appetite.
The valley of the stream which we crossed many times hereabouts, and which empties into the sea at Kalyves (site of Kisamon, ancient port of Aptera, not to be confounded with another Kisamon, now Kisamo-Castelli, and of which I have spoken earlier), is one of those best adapted for high cultivation and semi-tropical gardening which the Mediterranean basin can show. Abundantly supplied with perennial springs, securing easy irrigation, the soil alluvial along the stream, and calcareous on the ridges, it needs but application and a little capital to be made a paradise for an agricultural community. But what can be done in a country where every advance in production is met by a counter move of the tax-gatherer, and where, except by robbery, or farming of the tithes, no one can grow rich, — where capital is worth twenty per cent per annum, and would be worth more if there were any considerable demand, and where the Christian, who is the only industrious citizen, can always be robbed of his accumulations, and in many cases of his capital, by an avaricious Mussulman ? I have spoken before of the general poverty of Cretan houses, and might add expletives and intensify diminutives in speaking of the dwellers in the Apokorona. It contains many villages, mainly of Christians, the Mussulmans being scattered individuals, and produces much oil, and might produce cereals and vegetables at discretion : but for what end ? No road exists which would permit a profitable transport to the towns ; cheese and oil only, of its productions, pay freight to Canea ; and, beside these two articles, there is, therefore, no inducement to produce more than the peasants use themselves. It is almost useless to ask at one of these villages for a dinner, unless you can dine upon black bread and olives, with boiled herbs in the spring and autumn. A fowl fat enough to eat to advantage I never saw,—eggs seem to be all that can be expected from fowls. The houses of the villages in the plains about the cities are luxurious compared with these;— a single room divided in two for man and beast; a mat of rushes to sleep on, which the Cretan spares you willingly, to sleep on the floor of earth himself; fleas innumerable and filth immeasurable in the four walls, —are what you must expect to find. But with it all there is a something in the Cretan peasantry which commands respect ; and in the Apokorona they are a hardy and independent breed, warlike to a degree. As their country is the gate to Sphakia, which has always been the abode of the bitterest resistance to local tyranny, they suffer the inroads of all the most formidable Turkish expeditions.
It is only thirty miles to Retimo from Canea, yet in ten hours’ journey we were scarcely half-way. As night drew near we pushed ahead, hoping to find quarters and something to eat at a convent near or at Karidi ; and as the Pacha had insisted on my accepting a guard of two mounted zapties, we made the only use of them which the journey offered, and sent them ahead to prepare our quarters, while we followed at a safer pace.
As it grew twilight, and we tired and hungry, with a mile yet to the convent, our zapties came clattering over the wretched path to say that the priests had all gone to their farm work at a distant metochi (farm establishment), that the convent was locked, and they could not get in. Too late to get to the next village beyond we had only to retrace our steps in the dark to Vamos, the village last past, where, after much running to and fro of the zapties, and a local official whose status I did not comprehend, we found an empty loft of a house, boasting two stories, which we had to ourselves, and where we spread the blankets which by day made our saddles endurable,—I, only, as the high dignitary of the occasion, having a spare mattress. While we looked after the beds, the friendly villagers brought eggs, which frying in oil below, sent up to us savory summons to come down and eat; and presently, having disposed of our eggs, olives, and bread, washed down by strong wine, with a relish worthy of a better meal, we adjourned to the village café, and took a cup of coffee, and a nargile offered with eager haste by a Sphakiote captain, who happened to be there on business ; and while the curious townsmen came and looked, we hubble - bubbled in the open air, the capacity of the café extending only to the fabrication and storing of its commodities. The Sphakiote asked many questions, and answered a few,— all I asked. He had come down to buy sheep or sell them, I forget which, and was evidently a man of much consequence, having travelled, — having even been as far as Naples. I suspect he had been a pirate in his earlier years, like most of his clansmen, and so had grown richer than his neighbors. I have passed a great many more comfortable nights than that, and, as soon as the day dawned, we were in the saddle again.
The path (it seems absurd to talk of roads) led down into the pass of Armyro, the eastern gate of the Apokorona. The river-bed was wild and picturesque, though rarely showing signs of water ; the hills narrowed in their approaches ; and we descended into a gorge, through which, coming from the south, on our right hand, swept a bubbling, dancing stream of clear, beautiful water. But it bubbled out of some saline depths, and would have put the last touch to the woe of Tantalus. It is both medicinal and unpalatable ; but its borders are lined with green and luxuriant plants and fringed with flowering oleanders. An old Venetian castle, its battlements crumbling away and its walls festooned with ivy, rising from the little Intervale at the bottom, commanded the gorge until the beginning of the Revolution of 1821 -30 ; but the Christians then took it by storm, and dismantled it, since when it has been a ruin, of no great dignity, and not probably destined to boast to many generations.
Nothing in the deepest wilderness of the New World could be more solitary than this gorge. No sign of habitation existed ; beyond us was a bleak moor, occupying a space perhaps a mile wide between the hills and the sea, and des-olate as the desert. It is a broad stripe of sea-drift, scarcely as uneven as the sea itself; and at its farther side the bare, strongly marked rock ridges plunged down almost vertically to meet its level. The plain was purple with heather, and here and there springs gushed out from the boggy soil and ran to the sea ; green willows, mingling with oleanders and shrubs whose names I knew not, marked their courses, and relieved the flatness of the land a little.
Armyro is, by the guess of Pashley, the site of Amphimallion, but no trace of any ancient city can be discovered; it is, like most of the hundred cities, a name and nothing more, one of the traditional witnesses of the turbulent and checkered character of the history of Crete, — each city besieging, razing its neighbor, and being razed in turn. Almost the only ruins which we find are Pelasgic, and are those which no hate could lend force to destroy, — even late Roman ruins have melted away in the fierce struggles between Christian and Saracen since the eighth century ; the castle-builders and the temple-haters have left nothing that could be moved. At our left, on the sea-shore, where the river of Armyro (a name which signifies salt-spring, being the Cretan for Almyro) empties, was Amphimalla, — a maritime town having a port protected by an island, which still offers shelter for a few small craft from northerly gales; at the right, at the foot of the picturesque hills, is the lake of Kuma, now only noted for its habit of overrunning with the melting of the snows in spring, and flooding the plain around with eels, which the peasants bring to Canea for sale. It was anciently the site of a temple of Athena, and a city called Corium. No trace of ruins on either of these places exists, and so we contented ourselves with looking at them from afar, and followed the meandering path down to the sea. We passed on the way a small clearing planted with melons, which grow of excellent quality in the warm sandy soil, where running streams render irrigation easy. A Cretan, with dog and gun, inhabited a little house made of reeds, in the midst of the field, and guarded its product from passersby ; of him we purchased a supply for a few paras (a para is a hypothetical coin little more than our mill in value). Thence we had about ten miles of smooth sand-beach, at the end of which another river cuts its passage to the sea, and affords us a bit of ruin in a fine, high, single-arch Venetian bridge, which formerly led the road part way up the steep ridge forming the eastern side of the gorge. I could only think what must have been the violence of the torrent which had cut such a chasm for itself through the eternal rock, and turn a resolute shoulder to the temptations of picturesque bits which its zigzag cliffs presented. The place is called Petres Kamara, or arched stones; and the bridge, from which doubtless it derived its name, has been only fragments for many years. Under the Turks, nothing but decay obtains.
We had passed, before reaching this point, the village of Dramia (ancient Hydramon), whence a road branches off southward to Argyropolis and Kallikrati, which we shall take on a future occasion (following the campaign of Omer Pacha against Sphakia), and now only note, that, though on the inner side of the plain, it was anciently a seaport, and attached to the important city of Eleutherna, the ruins of which are to the southeast of Retimo, at least twenty miles away. This was a curious characteristic of the early Cretan towns, most of which are built on commanding positions and far from their seaports. Thus we saw that Polyrrhenia was three hours from its port Phalasarna ; Aptera, an hour or more from Kisamon ; and elsewhere we shall find Cnossus, Gortyn, Lyttus, and other noted cities, placed at considerable distances from their seaports.
From Petres Kamara our ride was a rough one, and we found little beside the picturesque beauty of the scenery to interest us. The path wound over rugged ridges and along by the sea, in places at dizzy proximity to the wild precipices against which the winter storms of the Ægean beat, wearing, cutting into caves, and undermining, the massive rock. Only in one place did we halt, at Hagios Nikolas, — a little chapel built near a delicious spring, which gushes out at the bottom of a ravine, where it opens on a white, sandy beach. No Cretan will pass a favorite spring without stopping to drink, even if he is not thirsty. That a good spring is to be passed even justifies a détour; and as we were tired and thirsty, we ate our bread and caviare—all we had — with additional zest borrowed from the fountain of St. Nicholas, which deserves its repute.
The road ascending from this ravine was so bad that I dared not stay on my mule, and most of my retinue had dismounted before me. The old Venetian pavement, which could not be entirely avoided, was worse than the natural rock, but occupied the ledge so fully that we must hobble over its cobble-stones as best we could. And with such ups and downs we drew near to Retimo, whose castle and minarets we saw at length gleaming far off in the noonday sun, — for we had occupied twenty hours of travel in making our journey of thirty miles.
It was a bleak, rugged range of rocks from which we saw the city ; but the road declined gently along the side and down near the sea. Above it other similar ridges jutted out one after the other, receding in the distance, where loomed up, sharp and flat, Mount Ida, the birthplace of mighty Jupiter. Beyond the city the sea-coast swept away in successive capes and bays, and the olive-clad and fertile slopes of Mylopotamo rose from the white-footed cliffs to the gray and glistening peaks which culminated in Ida.
It was Friday, and, noon coming before we could reach the city gates, we halted at a spring over which some charitable or spring-loving Mussulman, had built a domed khan, where wayfarers might rest and cool themselves before indulging in the almost icy water. We must wait here until the noonday prayer was over, as the Mussulmans, oppressed by a prophecy which they have recorded, that their cities will be taken on Friday, their Sabbath, shut their gates while they are at the mosque. It was a hot day, but the sea-breeze had been blowing an hour or more, and we threw our saddle-blankets on the stone seats, and lay down to rest, until passers-by from the city notified us that the gates were open.
Near the city we passed several little cave-chapels and hermitages, which, dug in the soft sandstone, —a rock resembling the Caen stone, — made dry and comfortable dwellings, as compared with those I saw at Katholico and other places. The frequency of these little monasteries, as the Cretans call them all, and of the little chapels which dot the island with their white ruins, attests, as well as history and prevalent customs, the intensely devotional tone of the Cretan character, now mostly shown in absurd superstitions, the growth of ignorance, but occasionally, in a martyr-like adherence to their faith through persecutions of which Retimo can tell many fearful stories, the Ottoman power here, remote from European influences, having had fuller swing in its dealing with the Christians. As we entered the city, my guide called my attention to the very extensive Turkish cemeteries outside the gates, saying that they were almost entirely the growth of “ the great revolution” ; and, as we entered the little outwork which once defended the approach to the principal city gate, he pointed to a solitary tree, “ the hangman’s tree,” and added that he had seen under that tree, during the insurrection, a pile of Christian heads as high as he could reach.
We rode through the gate, through a long, dark passage under the bastion which commanded it, and then through another inner gate, and came out into a little place where the full character of a Turkish town for the first time struck me, — cafés, lazy smokers, the overtopping minaret, and the grateful shade of a huge sycamore, with all the world wondering, rising, and staring, as “his Excellency” and suite brought civilization home to them,— to some for the first time.