In Heraklion, Crete: A new hotel sets a high standard for service and belt-busting breakfasts

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A bust of native son Nikos Kazantzakis, a Nobel Prize-nominated writer, stands near the entrance to the pink-facaded Legacy Gastro Suites in Heraklion, Crete.

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and photos. All rights reserved.

This is the sixth in a series about my October 2018 trip to Athens, Greece; and Crete. See my October 21 post about a fast-paced Greek cooking class in Athens; October 30 about the destruction of the Jewish community on Crete during World War II; February 7, 2019, about the Minoans’ Palace of Knossos on Crete; February 19, about a thick soup and appetizer called fava puree; and February 28, about the Minoan treasures, and more, at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.

When you make a reservation at a newly opened or about-to-debut hotel, you take a risk that staff, service and culinary glitches might not yet be ironed out.

The trade-off is usually an introductory special on the cost of staying at the property — often a big discount off what will be the standard fees — enticing would-be guests to take a chance.

Such was the case when I booked online, months in advance of my four-night stay, at the Legacy Gastro Suites in Heraklion on the island of Crete. After studying the website of the company’s existing locations and reading words of praise, I decided that trying this newbie was worth whatever unpredictability might lie ahead. 

I was not disappointed. With comfy accommodations, overly generous breakfasts (included in the tariff) and attentive, detail-oriented staff, Legacy seemed to have hit the ground running. 

Situated immediately to the south of Eleftherias (Liberty) Square, it’s an easy walk to all the main tourist attractions, be it the museums, churches, shopping streets, restaurants or harbor. 

Some of the more-distant sights, such as the sturdy Venetian walls and seven bastions (13th to 17th century) that enclose central Heraklion — especially if you follow the roughly star-shaped perimeter from its west point to its east — can take hours. But the weather was close to perfect, when I visited in October, so even this lengthy walk was enjoyable. 

The No. 1 priority for my stay in Heraklion was to spend a good part of a day at Knossos, partially restored site of an ancient Minoan civilization, and at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, where many of the artifacts are on display (see headnote for date of those blog posts). 

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This was the view from the balcony of my room, looking across Eleftherias (Liberty) Square. In the distance is the Mediterranean, with massive ferries in port (a Minoan Lines ship is at right). On the far side of the trees is the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The stop to catch the bus for the ruins at Knossos is by the blue-and-white crosswalk.

The No. 2 bus that makes the trip to Knossos about every 15 minutes stopped near the hotel, and the ticket kiosk was diagonally across the square. And just across the street from the kiosk was the archaeological museum. 

The 12-suite boutique hotel had been open about a month when I arrived. The building, the exterior of which is a subtle pink, was formerly the offices of Olympic Air, Greece’s national carrier.

I stayed in Room 203, one of four EL Suites Sea View, named after Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as the artist El Greco. He was born in Heraklion on October 1, 1541 and died on April 7, 1614 in Toledo, Spain. 

(Other suites are named for Nobel Prize-nominated writer Nikos Kazantzakis, born in Heraklion in 1883, and Cretan poet Vincenzo Kornaros, who died in Heraklion in 1613. A bust of the former is just outside the hotel.)

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Just to the left of the multi-colored vertical screen is the walk-in shower. The screen helps to conceal a white porcelain sink, towel rack, a large mirror and bath amenities.

Outside the sliding glass doors was a compact balcony, with a table and two chairs, overlooking the square. In the distance, I could see the blue Mediterranean and the massive ferries in port.

I thought traffic and crowd noise during nightly gatherings in the bustling square might be an issue, but people seemed to disperse before midnight and the din lessened.

The entrance hallway was flanked on the right by an open space to store luggage and to hang clothing, across from the separate enclosed toilet, and tiled, walk-in rainfall shower with a glass door. On solid hooks inside were two heavy white terrycloth robes and equally substantial fluffy white towels.

A king-size bed dominated the main space, beside which was a white porcelain sink, towel rack, wooden shelving with extra towels, bath amenities, large mirror and round extendable magnifying mirror. 

The rest of the hardwood-floored room was occupied by a round table set for two, adorned with a vase of flowers; a desk and chair against the wall below the flat-screen TV; a light green plush sofa long enough to lie down on, over which hung a copy of an El Greco painting; and a well-stocked credenza, with tea- and coffee-making supplies, a mini-refrigerator, and an ample sampling of local food and beverages (wine and spirits) meant to be consumed in your room (at extra cost) or purchased as souvenirs.

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A wide variety of local delicacies are stocked in the shelves in the credenza. A mini-refrigerator, with further options, is hidden by the bottom right cabinet. Beyond the sliding-glass doors is a compact balcony with table and chairs.

The “food station” choices ranged from a jar of smoked portobello mushrooms in Greek olive oil (14 euros) to white truffle butter (26 euros) to filet of escargot in extra-virgin olive oil with vinegar, rosemary and sultanas (9.50 euros) to air-dried salami (6.50 euros) to Kavourmas beef (7.50 euros) to nuts, raisins and four types of cheese and more.

Breakfast was served at a time of my choosing every morning in my room. Faced with so many choices, I consulted with desk staff about portion size and specialties while filling out the card for my order. My goal was to vary my options daily.

One morning I had “kagianas,” a flat, plate-size omelet with tomato, flecks of green onions and creamy feta cheese. Accompaniments were a basket of bread, a grilled rectangle of somewhat chewy cheese and “double-sweet” Greek coffee (I was advised not to drink to the bottom of the cup because of the grounds) and four petite, round orange cookies. 

After this super-filling meal, I headed to the bus for Knossos, and I didn’t even think about food until almost dinnertime.

Another morning I had “peinirli,” a boat-shaped bread sort of like pizza, filled with dried beef and melted cheese. (This was similar to pizza I ordered in Turkey.) I also had two small “lalagites” (pancakes) with honey and cinnamon, “freddo” coffee (iced, where the layers of milk and coffee are obvious), juice and four chewy-on-the-inside “loukoumades” (Greek doughnuts). No need for lunch after this feast either.

My C Gastro Bar, the hotel’s dining area, also features locally sourced ingredients and authentic Greek and Cretan dishes. I didn’t eat there because there were so many tempting restaurants and bakeries near the hotel. 

A bakery just around the corner became a daily stop. Every type of glistening, honey-soaked Greek pastry you’ve ever heard of was here, plus freshly baked loaves of bread, ready-made sandwiches, elaborate cakes and pies, and a whole section of just ice cream. I had to put the brakes on, limiting myself to just three diminutive portions of patisserie yumminess a day.

About those glitches: The air-conditioning in my room was wonky. Upon arrival, it worked fine. But the thermostat turned itself off every day of my stay except one, at different times of the day. Repeated calls to the desk staff were answered promptly, and it seemed a computer at check-in could be used to reset the AC. In the overall scheme of things, not a big deal, though whatever the issue was should have been taken care of after the first day, and if not then, certainly after the second. 

The representation of my room on the website also looked more luxurious and colorful than it was. Perhaps that photo was of one of the other El Greco suites. 

A check of the website indicates some introductory prices may still be available.  

Quick reference: Legacy Gastro Suites, 43 Eleftherias Square, Heraklion, Crete. http://www.legacygastrosuites.com

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The many twists and turns of one family’s unflagging efforts to regain a priceless art collection looted by the Third Reich in World War II

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After a nearly three-year legal fight and personal negotiations, a settlement was reached as to the rights to “Paysage” (circa 1890) by French Impressionist Edgar Degas. The pastel over monotype is sometimes known as “Landscape with Smokestacks.” It was one of the pieces of art looted by the Nazis from the Gutmann family during World War II. Art Institute of Chicago Art; Purchased from the collection of Friedrich and Louise Gutmann, and gift of Daniel C. Searle

By Betty Gordon 

© 2019 text and one photo. All rights reserved.

“The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis” by Simon Goodman (Scribner, 2015, $28)

On the “60 Minutes” broadcast on January 19, 1997, in a segment titled “The Search,” correspondent Morley Safer introduced America to Simon and Nick Goodman, British-born brothers who for years had been trying to recover their family’s legacy, stolen in the years leading up to and during World War II: priceless artwork ranging from Chinese vases and Meissen porcelain to Impressionist paintings by Degas and Renoir to furniture to a collection of 200 pieces of silver. 

It was a task they inherited from their father, Bernard Goodman, who after the war had visited European countries repeatedly — stamps totally filling his passport’s pages in a single year, year after year — in a quest that they didn’t fully grasp at the time.

After Bernard’s death by drowning at age 80 in 1994, a multitude of boxes showed up at Nick’s house in Los Angeles that same year. They were crammed full of government documents and letters, receipts and bills of sale — in Dutch, German, English, Italian, French and Czech — a meticulous 50-year record of Bernard’s attempts to prove to various authorities that his once-fabulously wealthy German-born father and mother, Friedrich and Louise Gutmann, had been the owners of these exceptional possessions, nearly all of them looted by the Nazis. 

(Bernard, British-born in 1914, Anglicized his name to Goodman before World War II.)

the-orpheus-clock-9781451697643_hrThe task Bernard set for himself nearly broke him. As Simon writes in the often heart-wrenching “The Orpheus Clock,” Bernard, especially as he grew older, was an enigma to his sons. But as the Goodmans organized and began to study the documents, they were rewarded with an unexpected dividend: a better understanding of the obsession that had driven their father. 

Complemented by their own research, the paperwork revealed a clearer picture of Bernard’s youthful days in Holland and England, as well as a greater appreciation for the extensive roots of their multinational family tree. 

The wide-reaching publicity surrounding the Goodmans’ efforts to reclaim family-owned art and/or gain restitution, was among the first of its kind. In addition to the “60 Minutes” segment, their story was told in “Making a Killing,” a 1998 British-produced 52-minute documentary from director Anne Webber, chairwoman of the European Commission on Looted Art. 

Prominently covered in the film is the French Impressionist Edgar Degas’ painting “Paysage,” later known as “Landscape with Smokestacks,” that Friedrich Gutmann had purchased in 1931. (Part of the problem with recovering artwork is that the names may have been changed, sometimes to deliberately hide their provenance.)

The Gutmanns’ collection was hardly the only one stolen by the Nazis, and as other families were to find, persuading governments, art museums and private individuals that they were the rightful owners of particular works of art generally proved to be a difficult, time-consuming, expensive and often frustrating endeavor.

Sometimes the cases ended up in court, such as the claim by Maria Altmann, an elderly refugee from Vienna, whose efforts to regain Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer was portrayed in the 2015 film “Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren as Altmann.

Altmann ultimately prevailed, and the painting, originally called “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” was relinquished (with four others) by the Austrians and delivered to her in Los Angeles in 2006. It was later sold to New York-based businessman Ronald Lauder for $135 million. (This story was also told in the 2007 British documentary “Stealing Klimt” directed by Jane Chablani.)

In “Foundation,” the first section of “The Orpheus Clock,” Goodman introduces the parts of his family that founded and nurtured private banks, one of which was to become — through a series of mergers and acquisitions — the Dresdner Bank, the second-largest in Germany, with international branches and financial backing for well-known German companies such as Bayer (chemicals and pharmaceuticals), Krupp (armaments), Thyssen (steel and iron) and Siemens (electric).

Eugen Gutmann, born in Dresden in 1840 and a descendant of a long line of rabbis and religious leaders, helped to put together the original conglomerate for the Dresdner, where he was director for 50 years. He was Goodman’s great-grandfather, and also began the family’s art collection. 

Friedrich, known to friends as Fritz, was the youngest son and last of Eugen’s children with wife Sophie. The Gutmanns were highly assimilated, nonpracticing Jews, who lived the kind of socially connected and luxurious lifestyle that dazzling wealth can bring. 

In 1898, they converted to Lutheranism, apparently, Goodman writes, only in theory; they never attended church or observed any other religious conventions. 

Fritz went into the family business, working at branches in Paris, then London. In the upheaval of World War I, Fritz — as a German citizen — was interred on the Isle of Man for four years. The post-war chaos in Germany, and perhaps an inkling of dark days to come, led him to settle in the Netherlands, where he founded, with German-born stockbroker Ernst Proehl, a banking concern. 

The business thrived, enabling Fritz, Louise, Bernard and Lili (born in Holland in 1919) to emulate the opulent existence Fritz had known as a child. Like his father, he too had a keen interest in collecting art, and the means with which to indulge it.

Eventually he would amass hundreds of paintings that would, unfortunately, attract the rapacious attention of the highest-ranking Nazis. Hitler planned to stock a yet-to-be-built museum in his hometown of Linz, Austria, with the spoils of Jewish collections.

With an eye on the rising storm in Germany, Fritz, Louise and Bernard became Dutch citizens in 1924. (Lili already was one by virtue of her birth in Amsterdam.) 

In the end, nothing — not astonishing wealth, Christianity or frantic outreach through diplomatic channels and far-flung relatives — could save Fritz and Louise after the Nazi invasion rolled into Holland in May 1940. 

In “Devastation,” the second section of the book, Goodman details how Fritz was forced to “sell” his collection in several lots, each time at vastly below market value. He actually had no choice; the Nazis would have confiscated the artwork anyway, with or without Fritz’s signature. As a further insult, the money from the sales was put into bank accounts controlled by a Nazi-appointed trustee. Goodman writes that Fritz could access almost none of the proceeds.

Living in greatly reduced circumstances, Fritz and Louise were rounded up by the SS in May 1943, still not understanding what lay ahead. They were allowed to take ample provision- and clothing-stuffed luggage, expecting to make their way by train via Berlin, Dresden, Prague and Vienna to Italy. It was all a ruse.

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Part of the vast cemetery at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, near Prague in the Czech Republic. Fritz and Louise Gutmann were deported to the camp, though when they left their home in Holland under SS guard, they didn’t know this would be their destination. The arch in the rear of the photo is the entrance to the Little Fortress, the most heinous part of the complex. Fritz Gutmann was beaten to death there in 1944. I took this photo when I visited in 2008.

Instead they ended up in Theresienstadt, a “model” concentration camp not far from Prague. Prisoners who survived the war remembered Louise arriving in a full-length black mink coat and Fritz in a three-piece suit. 

Theresienstadt wasn’t an extermination camp, but conditions nonetheless were shocking to the highly cultured Gutmanns. In 1944, a Red Cross delegation visited, seeing only what the Nazis dictated: Children who were in relatively good health and spirits. What they didn’t know was that 7,500 elderly, sickly and orphaned souls had been deported to Auschwitz in the days preceding the delegation’s arrival.  

Fritz was beaten to death there in April 1944; three months later Louise was on a cattle car to Auschwitz, where she died, also in 1944.

In “Restoration,” the third and last section of the book, Goodman describes his father’s unflagging efforts to track down the family’s art. Bernard’s claims were often met with skepticism, and dismissed or ignored by antagonistic “officials” as he wrote letter after letter after letter filled with lists and proof as to the ownership of the Gutmann collection. As Goodman was to find, unscrupulous and deceptive members of the “art world” were frequently as imperiously unhelpful as any government agent.

Invaluable assistance, however, was rendered by Frenchwoman Rose Valland, who, during the war, was an official at the Jeu de Paume Museum in Paris, and a member of the Resistance. Part of her job was to catalog the looted artwork before it was sent into storage. 

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Much of the looted art from across Europe ended up in storage in the mines of Germany and Austria. Part of the Gutmann collection was located in Altaussee in Austria. The conditions there would have been similar to what Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower (right) found with General Omar Bradley (left) and Lieutenant General George Patton Jr. (behind Eisenhower) at a mine in Germany. National Archives and Records Administration

Thanks to her, the whereabouts of some of the Gutmann collection had been recorded. Their destination: The salt mine at Altaussee, near Styria, Austria, where more than 6,500 paintings, books, statues, furniture and jewels from European museums and private collections littered the web of underground tunnels.  

The Altaussee evidence produced another flurry of paperwork from Bernard.  With the assistance of his sister, Lili, living in Italy, the recovery mission chugged on. Once the Goodmans took over the treasure hunt, Lili’s status as a crucial resource was proved time and again.

The Orpheus Clock of the title, an unparalleled 16th-century mechanical marvel of gold, bronze and iron crafted by German goldsmith Wenzel Jamnitzer and sons, was recovered by Simon in 2011. Eugen Gutmann purchased it in 1893; it was stolen by the Nazis from Fritz’s house in Holland. Goodman tracked it down at the Landesmuseum Württemberg in Stuttgart, Germany. Able to prove its provenance, Goodman gained financial restitution from the museum, and left the spectacular clock in its care.

The Goodmans’ long and winding hunt continues. Though they have kept some of the artwork for their homes, recovered pieces have been sold to cover legal fees, compensate other family heirs and pay expenses incurred in the protracted effort to untangle the voluminous mysteries of the Gutmann collection.

Should you have a spare $866,500 or more, you might contact Christie’s, current caretaker of “Le Poirier” (The Pear Tree) by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). The oil painting, circa 1870, was acquired for $310,554 by the auction house from rival Sotheby’s in 2005 “following a settlement agreement with the heirs of Friedrich Gutmann.”