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Greece (Crete) Uncategorized

Phaistos, Crete: The most famous Greek ruins you’ve probably never heard of

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A peek into the past in the hills of southern Crete

Phaistos. Phaestos. Festos. Faistos. And then in Greek, it’s spelled Φαιστός.  No matter how you spell it, each name refers to Phaistos Minoan Palace, the second most important site (after Knossos Palace in Heraklion) of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete.

We visited Phaistos last summer in late June. After touring the archaeological sites at Athens, Mycenae, Delphi, Olympia, and Knossos, we made a final stop at Phaistos. After a confusing morning journey by public bus from Heraklion, we made it to Phaistos in plenty of time to take a leisurely self-guided tour, eat a small lunch beneath a pine tree, and have a cold drink and ice cream in the small, on-site gift shop before hopping on a bus back to Heraklion. Here’s my post about how to get from Heraklion to Phaistos, click here.

If Minoans are new to you, here are a few facts about the culture from my husband:

  • The Minoans, named for their ruler, the mythical King Minos, are known for their advanced civilization that settled the island of Crete and other surrounding islands.
  • The Minoans were great sea travelers.
  • They built enormously sophisticated palaces for their royalty. The palaces were very “high tech” for the time period and exhibited a distinctive and advanced architectural style.
  • Phaistos was the region that produced Kamares ware, a pottery style dating from the 1800-1700 BC. Kamares ware, named for the nearby cave where it was found, is known for its dark background and white brushwork. Kamares wares were considered luxurious to own and were exported throughout the Mediterranean to Cyprus, Egypt and Palestine.
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Kamares ware, including these vessels, were found at the Minoan palaces at Knossos and Phaistos. | Photo: M. Yung

A self-guided tour of Phaistos is relaxing and quiet. Unlike Knossos, there are no guides-for-hire who approach you as you enter offering to walk you through the site for a fee.

While these guides are likely very helpful for many tourists, we doubted that they were truly needed, considering the large number of detailed placards placed throughout the site. Granted, that assumes one doesn’t mind reading.

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This photo is taken from the opposite side of the palace grounds.   Jerzy Strzelecki [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D
When you do stop to read the signs, you can learn a lot. Here are some basic facts taken from a placard found at the entry to the main site:

  • The hill of Phaistos was inhabited as early as 4500-3200 BC in the Final Neolithic Age.
  • The first palace of Phaistos was active from 1900-1700 BC. The palace controlled the plains and valleys found below the palace hilltop.
  • The city of Phaistos — and Minoan culture in general — flourished until  323-367 BC.
  • The Phaistos Palace grounds included a central court, surrounding wings, multi-story buildings (similar to Knossos), gateways and open balconies.
  • More facts follow the next few photos.
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Phaistos is found on a hilltop in southern Crete. The valleys on all sides of the hilltop are blanketed with olive trees, grape vineyards, cypress trees, and farms. There are several caves in the surrounding hills also. Many items, including pottery, have been found in these caves. | Photo: M. Yung
  • The first Phaistos Palace was built around 1900 BC.
  • It covered 8,000 square kilometers over three terraces.
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Tickets to the Phaistos site are 8€ each. Getting there is inexpensive, too, via public bus.
  • The original palace was inhabited for 250 years and destroyed and rebuilt three times.
  • It was destroyed the last time by an earthquake around 1700 BC.

It’s amazing that visitors are allowed to walk on stones laid nearly 3,700 years ago!

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Little at Phaistos seems to have changed since the 1919 photo above. It’s still isolated, quiet, and remote. | Photo: M. Yung
  • After the earthquake, the ruins were covered and a new palace was constructed on that.
  • This last palatial site was smaller, but according to the placard, “more monumental.”
  • This last Phaistos Palace was destroyed in 1450 BC, but not rebuilt.
  • Two more facts follow below.
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It’s amazing how little has changed over the years. This photo from 1919 shows the steps leading to the West Court. The theatral area and diagonal wall appear in the lower half of the picture. | Frederic Boissonnas [Public domain]
  • The city of Phaistos continued to be inhabited and thrived in Hellenistic times from 323-367 BC.
  • In 150 BC, Phaistos was finally destroyed by Gortys. When Rome conquered Crete in 67 BC, Gortys became the capital, replacing Knossos.

But back to our tour…

The main reason we wanted to visit Phaistos: the pithoi.

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Two pithoi appear below a reconstructed walkway. | Photo: M. Yung

These pithoi (the singular word is pithois) are well-known in art history circles and Phaistos is considered the premier site for this particular kind of storage vessel. In fact, my husband hoped the site would have more available to see, as he had seen photos of many more pithoi on display here.

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A room with storage jars known as pithoi. | Photo: M. Yung

Still, it was fun to wander the grounds and find a pithois tucked away here and there. There were more to see in an area of the grounds covered with metal shelters; however, these shelters were in large areas closed off to visitors.

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Mitch walked as far as he could into the Magazine of the Giant Pithoi, a room that contained  several large pithoi jars. | Photo: M. Yung

In fact, this was our main disappointment with Phaistos:

a good portion of the site was closed.

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The shrines of the West Wing were predominantly small rectangular rooms that contained benches. According to the placard, inside these rooms excavators found ritual vessels, figurines of deities and other cult objects. | Photo: M. Yung

There was definitely a feeling that Phaistos is overlooked and forgotten.

  • a few signs were missing
  • some barriers were broken
  • a wooden observation deck had missing boards

Generally, Phaistos seemed neglected. And this isn’t really surprising, considering Greece’s other economic priorities.

True, due to its location, Phaistos sees fewer visitors than other more popular Greek archaeological sites. In fact, Phaistos doesn’t even make this Top 20 list of Greek ruins.

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Photo: M. Yung

Still, Phaistos is a valuable peek into the past, and among art historians, it’s well-known and revered.

The Phaistos Minoan Palace reminds us that we shouldn’t underestimate the abilities and ingenuity of ancient cultures. For example, precisely placed stairs and drainage pipes made of solid stone show us the resourcefulness of the Minoans.

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Drainage pipes were used at Phaistos. | M. Yung

 

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This is the Queen’s Megaron (throne room) found at Phaistos. It is covered by a metal shelter on this side…
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…and this side, too. | Photo: M. Yung
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The Phaistos Disk is on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The disk represents one of the greatest mysteries of archaeology. No one knows the meaning of the symbols incised into the clay. It was made between 2000-1000 BC. It measures about six inches in diameter. | Photo: M. Yung
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Photo: M. Yung

It was a beautiful sunny day when we visited Phaistos. In fact, by early afternoon, we were ready to hop on an air-conditioned bus and make the trip back to Heraklion.

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This photo shows the theatral area on the left and stairway to the West Court on the right. | Photo: M. Yung
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Here I am walking near the theatral area in the West Court. The wall to my left can be seen on the left side of the preceding photo.
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Kouloures, large stone-built structures, show time-consuming craftsmanship. | Photo: M. Yung
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Relics from the past are scattered across the grounds. | Photo: M. Yung
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This photos shows the surrounding hillsides. I’ve circled in red additional outlying structures that were subordinate to the palatial hilltop above.  We ate our lunch (that we had packed and brought with us) on benches beneath a pine tree right above this scene. | Photo: M. Yung

Mysteriously, no one knows for sure the reasons for the collapse of Minoan culture, including the civilization at Phaistos.

Perhaps that’s a fitting conclusion for this archaeological site that today is still out-of-the-way, obscure, and famous.


Thanks for reading! This post is another installment from our cross-country Greek odyssey last summer. It’s amazing how many more sights I have yet to write about. Follow my blog for more travel posts, including this one from our final day in Greece when we visited the site of Paul’s To an Unknown God sermon.

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Greece (Crete)

I say Heraklion, you say Iraklio

At first, Crete’s largest city threw us for a loop

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Central Heraklion from the top of the Venetian fortress in the harbor.

The arrivals terminals at Crete’s airport may disappoint you.

First, it’s curiously dim. I remember telling my husband it felt like a Walmart store. Its cold LED lighting cast a cool glow on the blue and gray interior.

Second, the ladies bathroom was a mess. Forget toilet seats. Apparently, they were deemed unnecessary. And the hand dryers seemed pointless also. That’s because they blew a softer gale than the one outside. Shaking the excess water from my hands, I left the bathroom and joined my husband to explore our ground transportation options.

As we walked, I asked myself, This is Heraklion? My preconceived ideas of a sunny, bright and sparkling Crete had quickly evaporated and we weren’t even outside yet.

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We flew to Crete on Volotea Airlines, a regional carrier based in Madrid.

But that would change soon enough. After fielding a taxi to our AirBnb, checking in with our host, picking up some groceries at the small corner market, things improved.

Yes, Heraklion, the largest city on Crete with a population of 174,000 and Greece’s fourth largest city threw us for a loop at first. However, it took just overnight for us to become more accustomed to our corner of Greek life in Heraklion’s Fortetsa neighborhood.

Over the next five days, we explored much of Heraklion’s major attractions, navigated its bus lines, and took a daytrip into the countryside south of Heraklion to the Phaistos archaeological site.

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We sat down and surveyed the ground transportation options before deciding to take a taxi to the Fortetsa neighborhood. Our driver had a difficult time finding it. Apparently, the neighborhood is not a regular stop for tourists.
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At the top of Crete’s historical attractions is the Knossos Palace, the center of Minoan culture; read my post for more information. This is the oldest city in Europe and dates from 1380-1100 BC.
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This strolling Greek band was loud and persuasive. The man on the left approached out table and held out his tambourine for a 2 Euro donation.
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If you look deep into this photo, you can see several tavernas and restaurants ready to snag tourists with cappuccinos and gyros.
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This is part of the Venetian shipyards, erected during the Venetian occupation of the port and the island in general, which in those days was known as Candia.
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This sign will fill you in on basic Heraklion history, including a history of Crete in general.
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This portion of the Venetian wall extends into Heraklion.
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This fountain is another relic of the Venetian period.
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Pedestrians pass under and through the Venetian wall on foot or in vehicles. They can walk up the stairs beyond the tree on the right-hand side of the photo and walk on top of the wall.
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This portion of the Venetian fortress extends into the harbor. It protected the city from invaders. Notice the symbol of Venice, the lion, in the relief sculpture at left. For scale, also notice people between the crenellations along the top of the wall.
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I just couldn’t get over the blue-green waters of the Sea of Crete north of Heraklion.
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We walked inside the Venetian Fortress Museum. It was well worth the 2 Euro ticket price to learn a little history along the way.
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This is Morosini Fountain in city center Heraklion. It’s a remnant of the city’s glory days under Venetian influence and rule.

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This is the sunny plaza at noontime just outside the Church of San Minas.
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This statue of Eleftherios Venizelos stands near a downtown plaza. Venizelos is “Considered by most as the greatest Greek of modern times, he is the man whose name you’ll encounter almost everywhere: from the Athens International Airport to hundreds of streets all over the country. Born in Ottoman occupied Crete, he studied law in Athens, took part in several revolutions and fought for the independence and union of Crete with Greece (1913).
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The front entrance to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in the center of the city.
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Cathedral of Saint Minas
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The interior of the Church of Saint Minas
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Adjacent to the Church of Saint Minas is the Church of Saint Katherine Museum of Christian Art. It showcases a collection of Greek Orthodox artwork, including murals, tapestries, metallurgy, and, of course, incredible icons.
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A detail from a painting inside the Museum of Christian Art. This painting is called
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We rested inside this shady park situated next to a portion of the Venetian wall.
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This outdoor mural in inspired by the “Ladies in Blue,” a fresco originally found at Knossos. The original fragments are displayed inside the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
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Scooters everywhere!
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Snack kiosks such as this one are ubiquitous in Heraklion. Some of these also sell city bus tickets.
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This is a popular retail district in Heraklion. Notice the brilliant blue of the ocean in the distance.

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The harbor at Heraklion with the Venetian fortress on the left.
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Pottery found at Phaistos, which we visited one day when we took a daytrip south. A post on this daytrip is forthcoming. Stay tuned! Check out this post for how to get to Phaistos by bus.
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The front door of our AirBnb in the Fortetsa neighborhood of Heraklion.
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The street outside our AirBnb. Our taxi driver seemed a little surprised that we were staying here. I guess it’s not the expected tourist neighborhood; however, it was safe and quiet. We felt like we were getting to see the real Heraklion that many tourists may not be privy to.
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We stayed in Fortetsa. Notice the Greek spelling above the Roman or Latin letters.
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Greece held elections on July 7. All 300 seats in the Hellenic Parliament were in play, including president. Posters were plastered in bus stops and in other public areas throughout the city.
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I took this photo while sitting in the bus stop looking up into our Fortetsa neighborhood. We were getting ready to board a bus downtown.
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We stopped in at this market a few times during our stay in Heraklion. The melons were perfectly sweet.
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The living room of our AirBnb in Heraklion.
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Another photo of our AirBnB.
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The ceiling in the departures terminal of the Heraklion airport (above) is quite a dramatic difference from the arrivals terminal. The arrivals area was stark and uninviting  in comparison.

Thanks for reading! My husband and I are in the process of moving out of the house we’ve lived in for 25 years. It’s been a job accomplishing the move and writing more about our trip this summer to Greece. I plan to add several more posts over the end of summer and fall. That’s my plan; however, with a new teaching job starting in a little over a week, it will be a challenge. 

 

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Greece (Crete)

Travel on Crete: How to get from Heraklion to Phaistos by bus

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It’s not easy, but it is possible to take the bus from Heraklion to Phaistos

Today, my husband and I visited Phaistos Minoan Palace, arguably the second most important Minoan archaeological site on the island of Crete in Greece. Phaistos has been on our bucket list for our journey through Greece, and because we’ve relied on bus travel for much of our trip, we’ve learned that things can go wrong.

For example, your driver may miss a stop, turn around, and go back. Your driver may make a package delivery you weren’t expecting, adding minutes to your ride and causing you to miss a connection if you have one.

That’s why yesterday we figured out EXACTLY how we would make the trip today. We bought our tickets a day early for not only Phaistos, but also for the bus station from where we would depart. In the end, we had a successful trip, but it wasn’t without a good dose of head scratching, miscommunication, wrong turns, and a frantic last-minute ticket purchase.

Part of our confusion was due to the scarcity of up-to-date timetables and not knowing the location of Heraklion’s KTEL Central Bus Station (the main bus terminal in Heraklion). The rest of the confusion was due to a general lack of detailed, timely information on how to get to Phaistos in the first place. It’s not listed as a destination on the pull-down destination menu on their website; however, the printed timetable does list Phaistos as a destination. Go figure.

In addition, there simply isn’t much info on websites such as TripAdvisor and Rome2Rio. Instead, what you will mainly find are other people on TripAdvisor looking for the way there, too.

Here’s how to get from Heraklion to Phaistos:

  1. Get a KTEL bus timetable brochure from any KTEL ticket kiosk or at the KTEL Central Bus Station. You will need this timetable to figure out when the buses leave and return from Heraklion and Phaistos.  Read on for how to find KTEL Central Bus Station.
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    I’ve circled the part of the KTEL timetable brochure that shows the Heraklion to Phaistos and the Phaiston to Heraklion schedules. Side note: There are multiple ways to spell Heraklion and Phaistos. Heraklion is also spelled Iraklio. Phaistos can be spelled Faistos and Festos. Moires is also spelled Mires. Take a look at the Greek spellings, too, so you can recognize them if needed.

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    Here is the June 2019 KTEL timetable brochure. We used it July 6 and the times were still the same.
  2. Go to KTEL Central Bus Station (the main terminal) and get there well ahead of your bus’ departure time. Get there early (thirty minutes or more) on the day you plan to travel or buy them the day before like we did. Do this in case any unforeseen complications arise and cause you to arrive late and  miss your bus because you didn’t have your tickets purchased.
  3. To find the KTEL Central Bus Station, we asked a ticket seller in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. (We didn’t see any informational signs to direct travelers to the station from the popular museum where both city buses and KTEL buses drop off and pick up.) The ticket seller told us to walk behind the ticket kiosk on the circle next to the museum, and then take the stairs down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, turn left and follow the street until you come to a large dark gray bank (Pancretan Cooperative Bank) on your left. It has a modern look, with lots of large mirrored windows. When you get to the bank, you will see the KTEL Central Bus Station in front of you at the corner of Efessou and Leof. Ikarou.IMG_1072
  4. Walk down the stairs behind the bus station, go through the waiting area that looks like a large outdoor cafe, and go inside.
  5. Get in line at one of the six ticket windows and tell the clerk when you want to go to Phaistos based on the times available per the timetable brochure. We purchased only our tickets (7.10€ each) to Phaistos ahead of time. Because we didn’t know how long it would take to see the site, we didn’t know what time to schedule a return bus. IMG_1074
  6. You will take an approximately one-hour bus ride from KTEL Central Bus Station in Heraklion to Moires, where you will change to another bus bound for Matala. Phaistos is on the way to Matala.
  7. When you get to Moires, get off the bus so you can hop onto another bus headed for Matala. To do that, go inside the KTEL ticket office (there’s not a station–just a bus stop and a ticket office with a bunch of boxes scattered on the floor). The ticket office has a small KTEL sign on it and is about one hundred feet from the bus stop. Ask the ticket clerk how long it will be before the Matala bus arrives. In our case, it was about ten minutes away.
  8. Watch for the Matala bus. You will not need another ticket to get on the Matala bus.
  9. The bus ride to Phaistos from Moires on the Matala bus takes about fifteen minutes. The driver should stop at Phaistos, but he might not if you don’t tell him you need to stop there. Do that when you board or during the ride. Don’t assume other riders are going to Phaistos. (If they’re tourists, they’re probably going to the beach in Matala.) We were the only two people on our bus today headed for Phaistos. Here’s the sign for Phaistos Minoan Palace. Get off here.

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    Here’s the sign for the archaeological site. Note the spelling variation.

9. Tour Phaistos Minoan Palace. It might be a good idea to buy a guide book and thumb through it before entering the site so you can understand better what you’re seeing. Phaistos doesn’t appear to have the marketing support that other sites such as Knossos does. By the way, tickets to the archaeological site cost 8€ each. It took us about 1-1/2 hours to see the site. It would have taken longer, but some of it was closed for maintenance.

10. Leave Phaistos.  There were bus schedules taped to the windows at the archaeological site ticket booth and inside the bus stop out near where we disembarked. These should coincide with the KTEL timetable brochure. But to double-check, use the chart (see photo below), and find the bus that departs from Matala and arrives in Heraklion. In the photo below, I’ve circled the part of the schedule that contains the route that begins in Matala, stops at Phaistos, and makes the connection in Moires again onto a bus that returns to Heraklion’s KTEL Central Bus Station where you started.

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11. When your bus arrives from Matala to pick you up at Phaistos, board it and buy your tickets from the driver. Our tickets were 1.80€ each. This paid our way back to Moires.

12. At Moires, you will need to disembark, (just like you did earlier), go inside the KTEL ticket office, and buy tickets to take you from Moires back to Heraklion’s KTEL Central Bus Station where you started. For us, these tickets cost 6€ each. We nearly missed our Heraklion-bound bus in Moore’s because it was fifteen minutes late arriving in Phaistos. As a result, we arrived at Moires at 1:55 for a 2 p.m. ride. If there’s any question that you might not have your tickets before the bus leaves, go ahead and board the bus, and as you board, tell the driver you will be buying tickets directly from him. We saw many riders on both KTEL and city buses buy their tickets directly from bus drivers.

13. Once you’re seated on the bus in Moires, enjoy the approximately one-hour drive back to KTEL Central Bus Station. Our return ride took a different route from what we took in the morning and it followed a windy, mountainous road with vast, breath-taking views of olive groves and vineyards punctuated with oleander and cypress trees.


Thanks for reading! Greece can be tricky to navigate, especially with changing bus schedules, language barriers, and stations that close or change locations. We needed a blog post about this very topic a couple of days ago. We searched quite a bit to find the way to Phaistos. I hope this helps some readers find their way there. By the way, I plan to write a post about our visit to Phaistos in the next few days. 

Click like, leave a comment and follow my blog for my daily travel posts from Greece and Italy, including our AirBnb stays and also to catch that Phaistos post.