As the weather warms up spring flowers start appearing higher up in the hills. One of the most impressive displays (if you can catch it at just the right time) is the flowering of Tulipa saxatilis (also known as Tulipa bakeri) on the plateau of Omalos.
Tulipa saxatilis on the plateau of Omalos
In a good year these showy flowers can spread across entire fields.
Tulipa saxatilis growing together with Anemone coronaria
The best time to see them will generally be around the middle of April but it will vary from year to year and you might have to go to Omalos several times to catch them at their very best.
The huge flowers of the Giant fennel or Ferula communis are starting to show up along the roadsides, on low cliffs and in fields.
Ferula communis – Giant fennel
The plant is up to 3m tall so it is impossible to miss.
Ferula communis – Giant fennel
Anthemis chia, the most common Greek chamomile, is found in olive groves, road sides and fields.
Anthemis chia – Chamomile
Anthemis chia starts flowering in February and can form large, soft carpets of flowers like in the picture below.
A field of chamomile in an olive grove
The Heraklion Archaeological Museum is one of the most important museums in Greece and contains the most notable and complete collection of artifacts of the Minoan civilization in the world.
The museum closed in November 2006 for a much needed renovation. Unfortunately the work suffered many delays but finally the museum is due to be fully re-opened by April, or May at the latest.
In fact the museum is already open and functioning normally but the Minoan collection (which will cover the entire ground floor) is not ready for display yet. The staff were not able to give us a specific date but they were quite certain that it would be ready and open to the public “some time in April”.
A short visit through the other rooms (which cover around 1600 years of Cretan history from Post-Palatial through to Roman periods) left me really impressed with the clear modern display, clear labelling and explanations as well as good lighting, It seems that the number of objects on display has been greatly reduced but the result is to increase the clarity and the impact of what you can see.
Archaic Period room
And if you can’t wait until the museum opens its Minoan collection you can still admire Minoan art contained in some of the private collections on display.
Display of Minoan jewellery
And finally, the Minoan frescoes have their own gallery and it is open.
The museum is open daily in winter from 9.00 to 15.00 except on Monday where it opens from 11.00 until 17.00 and the entrance costs 4 Euro.
The beauty of visiting now is of course that there are no crowds. In fact, we saw no one else during our visit (except for a good number of wardens fighting boredom).
If you walk along countryside tracks or through barren fields at this time of the year you will probably notice the large flowers of Mandragora officinarum or Mandrake. The flowers are mainly purple to violet but can also be found in white. The plant can grow to huge dimensions.
A mandrake flower
A huge plant (80cm in diameter) near Agia Triada, Akrotiri
The poisonous (and strongly hallucinogenic) plant has always been associated with a variety of superstitious beliefs and practices.
It’s time for a quick round up of the some news of 2013 in Crete and Greece.
The main item making the rounds at the moment is the large increase in the number of tourists (and receipts from tourism) that Greece saw in 2013. These went up by 15% compared to 2012. It’s always nice to hear good news and a little bit of optimism is really welcome in a country battered by 6 years of recession but you still have to qualify these figures: the large increase is in comparison to a year that saw a big decrease (mostly due to the troubles in Athens and the negative protrayal of Greece in the foreign press). Additionally the troubles in Egypt and to a lesser extent Turkey and Tunisia most probably made a lot of people decide to skip these countries in favour of Greece (and Spain too, that country had an excellent 2013 tourist season) so Greece is benefiting from the problems of others.
But 2013 is still a year that might (just) beat the 2008 record season so there is plenty of cause for celebration and hope.
On a less positive note all-inclusive packages are showing big increases so you can safely say that part of the good looking numbers above are made up with tourists who come to Greece/Crete only to stay in their tourist ghettos, leaving very few benefits to the local economy. That’s not a good trend but unfortunately it looks unlikely to stop in the near future.
Still to do with tourism: it looks like the Cavo Sidero project has been revived because of a new law which aims at diminishing bureaucracy and proceed to implementation phase through a flexible and quicker process.
To me it also looks like the Fast Track Mechanism is used to allow a massive (2000 rooms, 18 holes golf course) tourist project to get built on a Natura 2000 protected area despite a Greek Supreme Court rulings that the project should not go ahead. Not good at all. Sure it might create jobs but at what long term cost?
Another ongoing theme of 2013 is the rise in extreme poverty. A study conducted by Athens University of Economics and Business along with the Associate Professor of the University, Manos Matsaganis, showed that the percentage of Greeks that live in poverty has increased significantly. Some 14 percent of the Greek population lives in poverty for the year 2013, whereas in 2009 the percentage of those who lived in poverty was 2 percent of the country’s population.
On the whole Crete is much better off than the Greek average because it has a good amount of tourism as well as a strong agricultural sector but many people are having a hard time surviving the recession.
One piece of really good news is that the current right wing government of Samaras finally ended its flirtation with the neo-nazi Golden Dawn and cracked down hard on its leaders, several of whom are currently in jail awaiting trial for a number of offences. It took the murder of a Greek for the government to finally act.
I was very surprised by the speed and the breadth of the crackdown. It makes me think that preparations had already been made prior to the murder of Pavlos Fyssas, most probably because other European states had quietly been pushing for some action against a party that would have long been declared illegal in most other European states. With the Greek presidency of the EU fast approaching I guess that the government had to get rid of them.
Seeing some of these thugs dragged to jail (as well as a number of top policemen sacked for being part of that network) was like a fresh breath of air sweeping through Greece but let us not forget that although the support for the party dropped after the crackdown it is still around 8% and that’s scary.
And finally, the biggest news might be that Greece is still in the Euro! A little over a year ago many (most?) thought that Greece would be out of it and back to the Drachma by 2014.
The spectacular Crocus cartwrightianus is the wild ancestor of the saffron crocus and flowers in November and December. So far it has only been found to grow on the peninsulas of Akrotiri and Gramvousa and at Falasarna.
It is said to grow near sea level but I recently found quite a few of them on Gramvousa growing at up to 560m (the flower in the photo above was taken at an altitude of 500m) so there is still plenty of scope for discovering new habitats for this beautiful flower.
The first snow of the winter has finally fallen. There were huge local variations. For example the South of Crete got very little rain (and very little snow higher up). The mountains around Apokorona (Spathi, Grias Soros, Agio Pnevma, Mavri) seem to have a good quantity. It’s hard to judge without going there but I’d say close to one meter. The mountains further to the West (Kallergi, Volakies, Gingolos, Psilafi) are showing a lot less snow.
The summits of Mavri and Malotira seen from the North coast (with a telephoto lens)
Today the weather is sunny but very cold weather with heavy rains is predicted for next week so we might get “proper snow” all over the mountains soon.
Colchicum macrophyllum is one of the few autumn flowers of Crete and can be found in the eastern Aegean.
Colchicum macrophyllum in the shade of an olive grove