A Pedacito Of Matala, Crete
Updated: Jun 19
The beach of Matala in Crete ( on Crete?) is the only beach I've yet been to that hits my history bug as much as my amazing beach bug at the same time. I used to stay home from school sometimes to play an Indiana Jones video game that took place on Crete, and the history and archaeology of this place do not disappoint. I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about Indiana Jones just a little bit.
I had already zeroed in on this destination before we even arrived, so it was on the books for our third day. It was a 25-minute drive or so from our villa in Agia Gallini. We arrived at a pretty large parking lot, but the beach wasn't too crowded, but it definitely wasn't empty either.
Looking in one direction, you could see a little village that was clearly centered around catering to tourists. Some cafes and shops, etc. In the other direction was a very steep cliff-side and embankment leading up to a vast array of caves.
This was all behind a little guard gate advertising entry at 5 euros. I already knew the significance of these caves, but for the sake of drama, I'll get to that later.
As soon as we arrived and purchased a few necessary beach items, paid our 15 or 20 euros for beach chairs, we laid out to catch a few rays. Being the Pisces that I am, though, I couldn't stay out of the water long. I grabbed my newly purchased goggles and jumped in.
The water was simply unbelievable, perfectly warm, perfectly blue, and almost perfectly clear. I took a few laps of the bay, and while looking down at one point, I noticed what looked like an old pottery shard stuck in a rock.
I dove down to take a look and discovered what looked to me like an actually archaeologically significant piece and gasped. It was properly lodged, and no amount of pulling could get it. I flew up for air and just as quickly dove in again and started a search.
I saw another pottery shard and another and another even more complete, until I finally found the piece de resistance...right there under my own hands was what clearly looked to be an ancient ship anchor. I traced the outline of it with my hands and still couldn't this was real.
I popped my head above the water and looked around. All these people were just living their lives enjoying the beach, completely unaware that this historical marvel was right here under the water. I was careful to take my bearings so I could find this treasure again. I reckoned it was straight out from the lifeguard's tower. I could come back and claim my treasure.
I swam back ashore and told my girlfriend all about it. She seemed a lot less impressed than I had expected. It didn't matter, though. I looked around, wondering whom I could tell or how to solidify my discovery. Surely I would be a national hero. I rationalized I could always do some more research and come back.
I plotted as I took in some more sun. After a while, we decided to take a break from the sun and take a tour of the caves.
So the story goes...Sometime in the '60s, counterculture types started living inside these caves. It seems like a pretty good existence, living on this gorgeous beach, with a view from your own cave.
Some even have beds already carved out. It is rumored that a few famous musicians even stayed here for a while: Bob Dylan, Jonie Mitchell, and Cat Stevens among them. There's even a line in the Joni Mitchell song "Carey" about the "Matala moon."
In any case, At some point, somebody discovered some bones in a cave. It turns out these bones were old, really old, about 2000 years old, to be precise. It turns out these man-made caves were once tombs for the Romans who inhabited the area around 2000 years ago.
The Romans called the town Metellum, which was the port town for the larger settlement of Gortys (whose ruins can be visited). At some point, the government stepped in, and the hippies were kicked out.
As we walked towards the guard gate, I began to realize that ancient artifacts were in abundance everywhere here. Even before we entered the protected area, Just a casual Roman column was just sitting in the sand.
Bits of ancient tablets right there bouncing around in soft sand. It turns out Roman stuff here is small potatoes. Being the main site of Europe's first advanced society, around the time of the ancient Egyptians, they just have too many artifacts to keep track of. My anchor was definitely a fool's errand.
Once we paid our fees and walked in, there were no guides, no guards, just a rock face worth of caves to explore. One has to imagine that those grave robbers had millennia of field days in here, there's almost nothing that would indicate what these well carved out caves were here for, but nonetheless, they do feel a bit eerie.
They range all across the board in size, some clearly for small children, all the way up to entire families. There are 62 caves and five levels, the 5th being un-excavated and inaccessible. There are also a few caves now underwater, thanks to earthquakes and rising water levels.
We explored for a while, which takes increasingly more climbing abilities if you want to see the upper caves. It is a bit of a shame there isn't more information because cave after cave begins to get a bit monotonous. I have always been obsessed with the Romans, though, so I was continuously fascinated.
After climbing down and back to our chairs, we tried to get a little more beach time in, but it was getting late, and after exploring ancient tombs, it just didn't feel right. I have found after seeing something of immense historical or spiritual significance, the weight of it doesn't hit me until later, and this was certainly true here.
I kept a small piece of a tablet I found on the beach, and every so often, I run my fingers over and try to think of the history that smooth piece of stone has seen.
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