Gortyn – A Long Story

An anecdote from a Cretan vacation.

By our guest author T. C. Esseaux (aka Prof Dr Dieter Otten)

“Today, the Messara plain of Crete is only a little developed mostly agricultural area. Poor and a bit down. Not exactly what tourists would be looking for. But that was not always the case.

Once the city of Gortyn, a famous Hellenistic city republic, was here – for centuries during the times of the Roman Empire, even the most visited capital of Crete and the Roman province of Cyrenaica (in North Africa). Hannibal successfully sought protection from the Romans here, Paul founded one of the oldest Christian communities in Europe here in the year 69 AC. Arab pirates destroyed it in 865 AC and time simply forgot the city until nothing was left of it. It was not until 1884 that Federico Halbherr rediscovered it and its most famous relics, the large law boards on which the city’s code was written. Publicly exhibited in the Odeion theater, it is an amazing testimony to liberal ancient legislation and rightfully world-famous.

Gortyn in southern Crete

The excavation site is on the country road to Ierapetra, not far from the town of Mires. A badly secured ruin field, a parking lot in front of it and a ticket counter, postcards and always the same antique literature.  During the summer there are usually a few large tourist buses bringing visitors from the north of the island, where the new metropolises and tourist centers of Crete are located. Occasionally there are also rental cars from those individual travelers who, on all sunny days, roam the island on their own.

It was one of these summer days when we drove from Plakias to the Messara Plain. We, that was the children and us parents who had come to Crete for the first time a few years ago with Willys Travel Service, a small backpacker agency busy in the Berlin alternative scene. As so many of the first time visitors they kept retourning to the island. Tourists to Crete, as recently determined, are 80% repeat offenders because the island is really beautiful, its fragility is very casual and because it is still comparatively cheap.

Back then we often thought that for 14 days elsewhere, we can spend 4 weeks vacation with children in Crete. The children were two little boys, Tim, eight years old, and his brother Cai, just three years old. We also had Tina with us, a friend of the family, law student from Berlin, who was in her exams and wanted to enjoy a little vacation before the final round. Referring to the many advantages of the island, we had agitated for Crete and then taken her under our wings.

Our trip was initially going to a place called Timbaki, because we had fun visiting places that had something to do with “Tim”. Tim – like our eldest son – and then some addition, a kind of surname, like Tim-Baki or Tim-Buktu. And we haven’t called Tim by his name for a long time, but always gave him new nicknames like Buktu or Baki – depending on the „Tim“ cities that we liked. But that was not our only motive for visiting this place.

That day I also wanted to see the legendary Gortyn, which had really sparked my imagination. Imagine this: a famous Hellenistic city republic and Roman provincial capital, comparable perhaps to Milan or Cologne, might have been even more important and famous in its time which had simply disappeared like Atlantis and remained missing for 1,000 years, before it finally was discovered about 100 years ago by a Tyrolean archaeologist.


We preferred to rent a small Twingo car in Crete; with that practical round-eyed Renault with a retractable roof we could travel so wonderfully ventilated in the heat of the south even without air condition. We only had to drive a bit slower.

A private micro-car rental company, a really nice Cretan bitch named George, offered such cars as used cared and made his money by recycling rental cars from large providers. It costed 18 Deutsche Mark per day which made it achievable throughout our vacation.  We always kept a  „buggy“ in the Twingo, this special type of carriage for slightly larger children who can walk but are still driven so that they don’t get tired and wriggle around. With all this equipment we drove to Timbaki early in the morning on this Cretan summer day, took pictures of Tim in front of the town sign, drank lemonade in a French supermarket, found that there was nothing else to report about Timbaki, and then headed slowly towards Gortyn.

Tim and Cai had a lot of fun singing a song called „Hü Twingo Hü-a-Hü, Hü Twingo Hü“; a modern version of the old traditional German song of a fully loaded car. We adults sang along enthusiastically.

Archaeological sites on Crete always have a strange, mystical charisma. They have something sublime, touching and yet they are so simple and quiet, very different from other Greek or Roman sites. Perhaps it is because of their archaic character, perhaps because of their literal meaning – Gortyn is also mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. Perhaps it is also due to the climate, the earth’s radiation on the Cretan island, of which many are convinced, or the leafhopper which apparently appears to be particularly active at archaeological sites and their chirping which unexpectedly and for unknown reasons suddenly swells into veritable cicada storm roar, so loud that you fall startledly silent.

The excavation site itself was extremely poor. The fantastic witnesses of the past, some of exceptional quality, rest silently and calmly on the paths. Nothing was explained. Probably nobody had looked after the history of the city of Gortyn and its cultural heritage since Halbherr had discovered it.

After all, we were in Crete, where little attention is paid to the history of the island, not even to make money from it. Perhaps it was precisely this nasty neglection which contributes to the attraction of Cretan excavations sites …

However, the paths in the excavation area were in good condition. Perhaps too good, as it should turn out immediately. Deeply impressed by the exposed ruins we hiked with Cai in the inevitable buggy – after all, the child should not prove to be a disruptive factor. Cai was sitting in the buggy while the rest of us, almost forgetting about him, let our eyes wander through the ruins indulging in a somewhat lengthy lecture of the Gortyn tablets.

The site seemed to have impressed Cai. Apparently out of boredom, he suddenly left the buggy and started walking straight down the path. A few steps further he stumbled and fell with his face onto the sharp pointed gravel stones with which the paths in the excavation site had been freshly covered.

One of these stones hit Cai’s head and gave him a deep cut directly over the eyebrow – about two centimeters long. He cried out but stayed there. Everyone instinctively turned to him, but at first sight did not recognize his injury. With three steps I was with him when I saw the heavily bleeding wound and the seriousness of it.

No doubt. He needed to be treated as soon as possible. I took him in my arms and hurried out of the excavation field, through the entrance, where Greek women working there immediately cried out and lamented. I ran directly to the next Mercedes tourist bus and asked the bus driver to give me his first aid-kit, but he denied having one. I told him impatiently that there was a first-aid kit under his driver’s seat, which he again denied. Only when I indicated that I would have a look myself he took the effort of finding a first-aid kit  – to his own amazement.

We took a couple of compresses out of the box and I cared for Cai’s wound – some first aid I had learned during my community service as a paramedic. The Greek women lamented in a semicircle around us, but the lamentation stopped as soon as the wound was covered.

Carrying Cai, who was completely calm, even a little lethargic after the first outcry when having fallen  down, I asked in the semicircle for the next medical care facilities. After some discussion I found out that there was an outpatient polyclinic in Mires a few kilometers away from the excavation site. We have rarely had the Twingo drive any faster before with Tim sitting next to me and the two women with the slightly sleepy but not whining Cai on their lap on the back seats. Within a few minutes we reached Mires. The polyclinic was actually right at the entrance to the village.

The four of us stormed into the building and found several doctors ready to help. They treated the wound, disinfected it and covered it with a new compress, but did nothing else. Cai stayed calm. Did not moan or scream. They could not help me, I was told. We should take the boy to the university hospital in Heraklion. They were concerned about Cai’s apathetic behavior. He had to be X-rayed. Maybe a concussion. We were shaken because we felt uncomfortable that the wound had not been stitched, but we complied with the doctor’s instructions. Heraklion is about 70 km from Mires. Even with the best road conditions, it was an hour’s drive. And the streets in Crete were not in the best condition. Two hours would be more realistic, the doctors told us.  They were not concerned about the road, everything would be fine there, they said. But we did not really believe them.

It was surely one of the most hectic car trips I ever did. We refueled in Mires, supplied ourselves with water and provisions for Tim. Then I chased the little Twingo at high speed over the mountain curves to Heraklion. Again and again villages with a speed limit of 30 km/h, then after about 40 km with clearly too high speed a sharp braking maneuver: a medium-sized flock of sheep in the middle of the road, slowly trudging ahead. You need nerves if you want to get through in a situation like this, when the animals are taking their time.

A Cretan specialty, as I found out later.

I was already drenched in sweat after a short time. So were the others. The day of the excursion had meanwhile surprised us with a heat wave of over 35 ° Celsius. Our hearts felt rather cold, torn between worry about Cai and getting ahead with the journey. Cai slept most all of the time. Or was he already fainting? The concerns grew.

My wife tried to speak to him constantly, he also reacted, but very lethargically. Finally, we reached the clinic of the newly founded university. At that time Cai was only lethargic.


And now the second act of this absurd theater began. With our little Cai in our arms we fought our way through the admission procedure. My wife filled out the forms and I was allowed to go to the treatment room with him to an English speaking nurse. The doctor, barely around 30, spoke no English, turned his back on me and only talked to me via the nurse. Cai had his head X-rayed, and I had to go with him to keep him calm, even though he was still quite lethargic. So I stood next to him waiting until four pictures were done – without lead apron or any other protection from the radiation. There were no aprons. Thereafter we waited an hour in the hallway. Nothing was done with Cai’s wound, only the compress was changed. Finally, the nurse appeared like an oracle, reporting that there could still be no treatment done. The boy first had to go to the neurosurgical clinic. When I asked where it was, she said the neurosurgery was about half an hour away on the other side of town.

In the meantime, my anger had increased enormously and I had to hold on to myself in order not to completely freak out and attack the staff. Instead, I loudly asked for immediate wound treatment, but to no avail. Finally, I took the untreated child again and went out angrily. The others had already left the clinic and my wife tried in vain to point out in the parking lot that there was no use in shouting around, they would not understand us anyway. I had actually shouted in German.

Back in the car, we decided that it couldn’t go on like this. I would now do the operation myself, right on the beach or in a parking lot. Of course, I could do it myself, because as a paramedic I had often sewn wounds in the open fields. So I headed to the nearest pharmacy in Heraklion to buy sterile compresses, disinfectants, needles and threads for wound surgery. The pharmacist asked me in amazement what I needed these utensils for and I explained the whole story to him, mentioning the entire odyssey we had already experienced. She nodded understandingly, made a derogatory remark about the public health system, and carefully asked me if I could pay a doctor if necessary. A paid doctor, as she put it in English.


I would pay anything, I replied, if there was only one doctor who would help. She picked up the phone, said a few words in Greek, and handed me the phone with an encouraging smile. At the other end a warm baritone spoke in correct German with a Greek accent, asked what had happened and described the way to his offices. He told me to hurry up because the wound had to be treated as soon as possible if it was not too late already. I mentioned Cai’s lethargy and the baritone reassured me that it was the normal response of children to stress.

We raced through the streets of Heraklion and found the address of the „paid doctor“. How we did it  I cannot recall, also not how long it took. But we got there.  We stormed out of the Twingo, hurried up a little staircase and entered the door already open for us. It looked like a typical German practitioner’s office and soft Bach music bubbled through the rooms. The thought that Bach calms and promotes healing, clinically proven, flicked through my brains.

The „paid doctor“ turned out to be what he called a „medical doctor from Berlin,“ who had worked for a long time as an assistant doctor at the Charité. He immediately reached out for Cai, put him on the operating table and asked me to assist. Minutes later he had the surgical needle in the tweezers and tried to start the first stitch with a trembling hand. I was about to suggest doing the seam myself when he put the first stitch. He trembled again through the second stab; then eased up placing the third. He looked understandingly in my suspicious eyes and said: Surgeons disease! He took care of the wound and gave Cai a tetanus shot. Finished.

Relieved and tired, the little one sank to Mum’s chest and fell asleep. And we drank a Cretan mountain tea together with the doctor, paid 50 Deutsche Mark for the treatment and go a receipt. As if this all was embarrassing to the doctor, he examined Tim additionally free of charge, declared him  healthy, but discovered that Tina, our companion, was suffering a delayed otitis media.

In the evening, we finally drove 120 kms back to our vacation home, to Plakias. That evening it really felt like we were returning home. And so we drove with the Twingo roof open, at night and with moonlight through the opera-like impressive, bizarre, romantic and wild Kourtoliaki Gorge.

That was a whole day from morning to evening. Cai walked around with an impressive wound plaster during the following days and I remembered that I had a similar accident at the same age. When I was four, I fell from the kitchen chair onto the key of a kitchen cabinet door. At that time, kitchen cupboards had doors with small, sharp keys.

The wound was two centimeters long and in the middle of the eyebrow. The same place, the same age, the same wound and the same guardian angel that had saved the eye. What a duplicity of events. I do not interpret this fact, I only mention it because it was coming to my mind on that occasion. It is astonishing how often and thoroughly similarities of fates are overlooked and only remembered under unusual circumstances. It needed the wound from Cai to get it back into memory.

Suddenly similarities occured: we met a young German mother with a freshly wounded child a few days later. We quickly got into talking about the fates of the children and found out that they lived on Crete because she, working as an IG Metall official in Stuttgart, got to know a Cretan metal worker, fell in love, got children and went to Crete with her husband, where she now ran his parents‘ taverna and boarding house at Frangokastello, the famous crusader Fortress on the Cretan south coast.

Oh, how she could add further aspects to our anecdote! She would board the plane to Stuttgart in case of the slightest illness of her child. It was by no means hysterical, she assured us telling that only a few years ago the Pappas instead of the doctor was called when tourists in the Samaria Gorge had been seriously injured. Because of the last oiling, of course.

There is no doctor around anyway. Not even today. By the way: In the hectic pace of the accident, we forgot about Cai’s buggy at the excavation site! And if the Cretans haven’t cleared it away, it still stands there.“

Thank you, Dieter, for this nice contribution.