Finding the Lost Minoan Palace of Galatas

The ancient palace was hidden for centuries
April 9, 2019 Updated: April 9, 2019

GALATAS, Greece—I glanced sideways at Markos, watching the golden glow of the flames reflected in the shimmering of his teary eyes. As we both sat staring blankly into the stone hearth of his taverna, for all I knew he might have been daydreaming about a past life, or reshaping a childhood memory. My mind was wandering as well, back to the dawn of human history and the ancient Minoan festival of Amaja, once celebrated in these hills.

Here on Crete, daily life is a kind of ethereal journey through time. Chance meetings often reveal human beings that seem too perfect for this world.  

“There is a kind of flame in Crete—let us call it ‘soul’—something more powerful than either life or death,” wrote the Cretan author Nikos Kazantzakis. “There is pride, obstinacy, valor, and together with these something else inexpressible and imponderable, something which makes you rejoice that you are a human being, and at the same time tremble.”

I had lost myself somewhere beyond the olive tree wood burning in that fireplace when the sound of my new friend Markos Ladomenos turning a log snapped me back to the present. Sitting in a ladder back chair in the small dining room of the Ladomenos family taverna, warming myself from the late winter chill, I reflected.

I thought to myself of the transformative power of burning embers in a hearth. Transfixed, I pondered how mesmerizing the power of the flames can be. And in Crete, I imagined how this power is amplified by the endless procession of ancient tradition—feast upon feast, and celebration to celebration over countless centuries. All this came rushing in, as the culture and something inextricably eternal spoke to me from the flames. That feeling prompted this story of the land of the ancient Minoans.

What I will reveal for you is not just about “place,” or destination. The story you are reading is a reflection on the Cretans themselves, the emissaries of their unbelievably rich heritage. On the island, which the ancient Egyptians called Keftiu, colorful shadows of that brilliant Bronze Age still exist. Legend and reality live together here, in the real people Markos Ladomenos and his family typify.

A Wild Goose Chase

Markos is the owner of a small taverna called  Το μουρέλο του Λαδωμένου, which in the Cretan dialectic means “The Little Olive Tree of Ladomenos.” It was at this quaint little eatery that my wife Mihaela (aka Mig, like the Russian jet), our little 10-year-old boy Paul, and I met Markos’s family, and shared another memorable Crete adventure. As so often happens here, fate worked her unseen hands to maneuver us to the bright treasures of this island.

Markos grew up in Galatas, the nearly deserted village outside of Crete’s capital of Heraklion. The hamlet sits on an amazing hilltop overlooking one of the most beautiful valleys anywhere. This area, once the heartland of the Minoan civilization, was also the site of a Minoan palace and settlement, lost until only as recently as the mid-1990s, when the famous archaeologist Dr. Giorgos Rethemiotaki began excavations.

Markos Ladomenos shares his childhood memories of this ancient place. (Phil Butler)

Ancient Galatas was the destination my family and I went searching for back in February. A couple of failed attempts had taken us on a kind of “Minoan mysteries” wild goose chase into the Cretan countryside south of Heraklion. But exploration of this island is never a waste of time. So, we accepted our fate and logged another half a dozen majestic landmarks while driving around clueless of where we were.

Down to famous Peza, off the main highway and down the old road in the valley beneath Galatiani Kefala, we scoured the pristine countryside for two days before wising up and consulting our smartphone navigator. We explored the hillsides above tiny Choumeria, where we made friends with a small herd of sheep and a wonderful local farmer capturing water from a spring spewing forth from the rocky hillside. The three of us even made it up as far as Arkalochori, the town where archeologists found the famous Arkalochori Axe, a second millennium BC Minoan bronze votive double axe, among hundreds of offerings to a long forgotten warrior goddess.

Not having found our lost Minoan city, and feeling thwarted at every turn, we slinked back to Heraklion twice. But as we passed through Choumeria on our second trip back to the capital, a “sign” pointed the way.

“There, on the mountain, Dad, God is showing us the way,” our little boy said, gesturing out his window. Sure enough, there was the brightest sunbeam I’ve ever seen; it painted the butte overhead like a verse from a holy book.

Armed with new bearings from the heavens—and from Google Earth—our little expedition continued the following week. Only this time, fate would play out a little differently, with divine guidance playing the biggest role.

As If Planned

Driving the correct way for once, I soon pulled off the ridge road in between Arkalochori and Galatas Paul that we had seen illuminated on our previous trip. Up ahead, just a single kilometer up an escarpment, lay the lost palace of Galatas, hidden for centuries. The strategic overlook is one of those deceiving places. From below, one cannot imagine the incomparable view from where the palace once stood.

Our son Paul Jules sits on the edge of the ruins. (Phil Butler)

Though we were eager to proceed, hunger and weariness from the cold now gripped us. So, unaware the cosmos was still moving us forward, we returned to the road and headed into the village.

Our fervent prayers for finding any open taverna were quickly answered. Up ahead, a little shingle hanging out over the narrow village street read, in Greek, Το μουρέλο του Λαδωμένου. “The Little Olive Tree of Ladomenos.”

We dismounted the Ford Ka. Stumbling in from the damp, grapevine-shielded patio, the three of us stationed ourselves in front of the corner fireplace. Two tables of locals looked on with inquisitive eyes, as a man who was clearly a farmer gestured at me with a full glass of the spirit raki, or tsikoudia, as it is known on Crete.

“Yammas,” the farmer toasted me, across the small dining room. Then, as if on cue, Popi Ladomenos, Markos’s daughter, walked in and brightened the room with the kind of smile only Cretans possess. The chemistry professor-slash-taverna manager handed us our menus and offered us wine.

As the saying goes, one thing led to another, and Cretan hospitality shone brightly, as it always seems to do all over this island. The taste of those dishes, prepared by Popi’s talented husband Grigoris, and Markos’s homemade wines that we later took home still linger as I write this.

Grigoris’s authentic Cretan fare was a welcome discovery, but the story only begins and ends with gastronomic highlights. What inspires the Cretans to create such culinary masterpieces is the island’s tradition and heritage, its soul, which is what every visitor to Crete should endeavor to seek out. You’ll understand in a moment, I hope.

“Phil, my father says he’ll drive you up to the ruins in his four-wheel drive, if you want,” Popi said as she leaned over the group. The three of must have looked funny sitting there with our mouths open. Popi went on to tell us of her father’s special knowledge of the region, and how he’d grown up in the mountain village. Markos’s little hamlet is one of those places where tradition is carried forth slowly and gently, just like the amazing pork dish the taverna is famous for. How could we refuse such kindness? Fate had stepped in once more.

We agreed to come back the following Wednesday, when Grigoris had the day off, in order to explore with him and Markos. This made me reflect on something my closest Cretan brother, Minas Liapakis, once said to me: “You are Cretan, Phil. You love our island as we do.”

Is This Eden?

The view from the ancient palace toward Lassithi Plateau in the east of Crete. (Phil Butler)

We arrived in Galatas at about 10 a.m., to find Grigoris and Markos standing by the village elder’s late-model Toyota 4×4. The five of us wedged ourselves in for the ride up the mountain, buzzing with a collective sense of anticipation.

Then, before I knew it, there it was: The lost palace of Galatas, the archeological site so few have seen in modern times. We hurriedly filed out of the pickup to explore, and even Markos seemed excited to be up there once more. He took on his role as tour guide with characteristic Cretan exuberance, as did Grigoris, who acted as our translator for the whole day. The site was surrounded by a rusty chain-link fence, which prevented us from walking the stones of the grand courtyard, so we walked the perimeter slowly, snapping photographs and discussing each facet of the magnificent palace.

The details of this experience are deep and lengthy for me, too meaningful personally, and best left as a footnote here. I will tell you that Markos shared with me a treasure you cannot even imagine. And that my little boy’s sense of magnetism and of some eternal presence throughout the hills, mountains, and seaside of this place was strong. The view is something easier to share in pictures, and the solitude of that lone wild pear tree in the center of the foundations of the ruins, I hope it transports you.

An hour or two looking out over central Crete from this Minoan enclave left all five of us in a kind of glow. We drove back toward Galatas Village, stopping at Agios Ioannis Church on its outskirts, so that Markos could tell us about the monks who once lived there, and about him watering animals at the sacred springs as a child. Venturing onward, we went to explore the old part of the village, where Markos had grown up. Fabulous Venetian and Ottoman architecture, described from intricate memories by our guide, now lay in almost complete ruin, overlooking a place some might justifiably call Eden.

Another hour of this life spent, we climbed back aboard the truck and headed down the mountain. When Markos stopped at a goat path, which appeared to hang perilously over our Cretan valley paradise, we all sat wondering what natural treasure he would show us. Then, fossils from an ancient sea, uncovered by eons of winter rains, were revealed in the cliffside.

“Get out, Phil, Markos says to take one as a memento,” Grigoris translated. Who even talks about Crete in the early Pleistocene era? Geologists? Paleontologists? Or are Cretan mechanical engineers turned tavern owners the only ones knowledgeable in this field of science? Thinking on the enormity of it all as I write this, I wonder if Crete was the Garden of Eden of the Bible?

For our final stop, we visited one of Crete’s most famous monasteries. Just up the road from a farmer’s goat path, the monastery of Agia Marina welcomes more than 100,000 pilgrims who travel to the sacred site from all over the world for the feast-day of Saint Marina, on July 17. After a short communion with Sister Marina, the lonely nun who is now the sole caretaker, we ascended the cliffs headed back to The Little Olive Tree of Ladomenos.

The Mirage of Time

Markos’s wife Giota was waiting for us with a fire in the hearth, and raki sat on the table to help warm us. Grigoris beckoned us to join him in the tavern’s kitchen. What can I prepare for you?” the gifted young chef asked.

Chef Grigoris Koudounas prepares the coals to cook an amazing feast. (Phil Butler)
The Little Olive Tree of Ladomenos is known for its succulent, wood-fired traditional oven pork dish. (Mihaela Lica Butler)

About halfway through several courses of Cretan cheeses, and smoked and grilled meats accompanied by hand-chosen wild greens, or horta, from the fields of Crete, I looked across at the fire casting shadow and light on the face of Markos. The kaleidoscope effect illuminated the aura of my comrade of waning years.

Staring at Markos poised before the fire, I could see the glow of his shining youth. I could see a young boy tending sheep beneath the shimmering alabaster of limestone palace walls, a reincarnated Markos observing the glistening and epic Minoan society that once thrived here. That fragment of time, filled with all the warmth that perfect food, fun, adventure, and friendship entails, is an instant I shall always remember.

My fire vision was clear. Was it real? All I can tell you is we spent the rest of the evening talking (or not) about treasure hunters and ancient signal fires, and sharing our dreams for the future of Crete.

That day at forgotten Galatas, revolutions were hatched and family traditions upheld. We rehashed the ancient tales of King Minos, of mighty Zeus’s birth high up at Lassithi, of Odysseus being marooned here, and of my little boy learning to be a chef, helping Grigoris in the kitchen. At the end of the day, this was the only payment he would accept, for another perfect day on the island the ancient Egyptians called Keftiu.

Phil Butler is a publisher, editor, author, and analyst who is a widely cited expert on subjects from digital and social media to travel technology. He’s covered the spectrum of writing assignments for The Epoch Times, The Huffington Post, Travel Daily News, HospitalityNet, and many others worldwide.