Visiting Matala was among the most spectacular trips we made during our vacation on the island of Crete. But before getting to this small and yet spectacular resort, famous for its strangely shaped caves, we made a few stops on the way. It was easy to find cheap tickets to Heraklion and we knew we mustn’t sidestep Phaistos, which is only 60 km southwest of the ancient capital of Crete. Phaistos is the second most important archeological site after Knossos and was discovered by Sir Arthur Evans, who found traces of human settlements dating from 3,000 BC. The citadel was destroyed by the 1,700 BC cataclysm. It was later rebuilt and wrecked again by the eruption of Thera volcano. However, the royal chambers of the Minoan Palace, the workshops, shrine, water tanks and the famous Phaistos Disc managed to escape the disasters. The Phaistos Disc, currently displayed at the Heraklion Archeological Museum, is the size of a plate, dates back from sometime between the 14th and 12th centuries BC and is the oldest written document ever found. Its 240 symbols arranged in a spiral on both sides, a unique hieroglyphic script, were stamped in soft clay. Nobody was able to decipher its meanings yet. Some say that it could contain valuable data about the distant past of mankind.
Our next stop after Phaistos was Matala, a small, modern resort opening up to the Libyan Sea, located in the southwest of the island, about 75 km away from Heraklion, filled with elegant hotels, campsites, restaurants and shops. When we reached the large sandy beach, situated in a small gulf, we were greeted by a rather strange landscape. The limestone cliffs which fall directly into the sea are dotted with funny-looking caves, most of them resembling birds nests. These are man-made, or artificial caves. According to some opinions, the caves at Matala were dug during the Neolithic. During the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, they were used as tombs by the Romans. Some have doors, windows and even beds carved into stone, proving they served various purposes. Historians believe that they were mainly used as homes thousands of years ago, as well as more recently.
The beach at Matala was discovered in the 1960s when hippies found shelter inside these caves for a while until they were driven away, thus drawing attention toward the area and certain aspects that were not of interest to tourists before. Among the “residents” of these caves, famous celebrities like Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens, John Lennon and Joni Mitchell all shared the same rocky bed. In the 80′, the government decided to protect these fragile ecosystems and declared them protected areas. Nowadays, the caves at Matala are protected by archeological services and living or spending the night inside them is forbidden.
For us nature lovers it was a real pleasure to climb up the strange rock formations. Even though I was wearing my city sandals, we ascended these pretty steep and high cliffs, reaching numerous terraces resembling mountain paths that allowed access to the caves. We walked all the way to the far end above the sea from were we gazed at the turbulent and foamy waves as they splashed loudly and furiously against the sea wall. It was a trip to remember.
Upon returning from our short, adventurous climb, we stepped inside one of the small restaurants on the right side of the gulf. One more time, we were surprised to indulge into a Greek specialty which exceeded all expectations, though we are not exactly gourmands or even familiar with culinary art. After this delicious experience, I carefully checked the menu and prepared many of these savory Mediterranean dishes in our own kitchen. We never thought we’d be able to finish the huge plates filled with many specialties, mostly vegetables, out of which the tasty dolmades accompanied by a fine Cretan wine made the perfect ending of a perfect day.