Heraklion (Iraklion) Crete
Heraklion prefecture, is named after the island's capital city Heraklion, and is visited by more tourists than the other three provinces of Crete put together. Heraklion is Crete's biggest prefecture and the southernmost land mass in Greece and consequently has the longest growing and tourism season in Europe.
Besides having the biggest seaport on the island, Heraklion also boasts Crete's only international airport, Heraklion International, which is conveniently located just out side of town. The other airport is in Chania and is smaller.
Heraklion prefecture also has a high concentration of major and minor Minoan sites, including Knossos, Phaestos, Archanes, Phourni, Malia, Tyllissos, Ayia Triada and Gortys. Plus the Heraklion Archaeological Museum the second most important museum in Greece.
There are also many seaside resorts on its north and south coasts. Over developed in the north and less so in the south.
Just as they must have antiquity its not uncommon for a Notia wind from the Sahara to blow over the prefecture covering cars and streets with a light coating of red dust. Sometimes vestiges of this dust even reach as far north as Athens.
Of the beaches on the north coast, those to the east of Heraklion are heavily built up for package tourism and in July and August are rather crowded for a good 50 km or until past Hersonissos (Chersonissos) and Malia. However, the north coast beach of Malia is worth noting because it can be combined with a visit to the nearby Archeological site of the same name. As you can see in the picture left Malia beach gets rather crowded in August.
Beaches on the south coast of Heraklion prefecture are far less less developed and a totally different world as you'll see below.
To the west of Heraklion along the coast, are high cliffs fronting the sea almost continually to Rethymno, with only two beach resorts, Ayia Pelayia and Bali.
With Knossos, Malia, and Phaestos all easily accessible from anywhere in the province, in summer, the Minoan sites of Heraklion Prefecture are inundated with millions of tourists. These sites had importance in antiquity and were situated where they were for a variety of reasons. Accessibility was important in ancient times and its important now. Knossos is a snap to reach from Heraklion town, you can take the bus, its only 5 km or go for it and rent a car.
In connection with these sites, millions visit the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, just north of Platia Elevtherias which houses most of the important finds including the reconstructed frescoes.
Some of the best agricultural land in Crete is south of Heraklion, with good vineyards, especially around Archanes, at the foot of Mt. Yiouhtas, which is visible from the sea as one approaches the harbor of Herakleion.To the west is Mt. Psiloritis/Idha, the highest peak in Crete. The south coast is rather undeveloped and has few roads, though Ayia Galini has become a resort as well as Matala. The archaeological sites of Phaestos, Ayia Triadha and Gortys, all in the south of the province, account for the large number of tourists that visit the area.
Heraklion Capital of Crete
Founded by the Arabs in 824 AD the city of Heraklion is the fourth largest in Greece (pop 160,000) and is a modern day concrete jungle, without even the small compensations of Athens such as the beauty of and character of Plaka, Monastiraki and Thiseio districts, or the large greenbelts such as Filopappou or Zappeio.
Nor does Heraklion have the character of Hania or Rethymno (the other two cities of any size in Crete), though there have been recent efforts to beautify it by restoring some of the older parts and some areas in the center, especially Platia Eleftherias, which has been landscaped with palms and eucalyptuses. Its shops, cafes and restaurants however are on the pricey side.
Heraklion is a wealthy city (with the highest per capital average income in Greece) due both to its role as trading capital of Crete, and to tourism (centering especially around visitors to Knossos only 5 km. distant).
The old city walls and Venetian fort are what one first sees on approaching from the sea. These are the fortifications that held off the Ottoman Turks during the 21 year siege that ended in 1669 with surrender. In places the walls, designed by Michele Sammicheli, the great military architect of his century, and built by the Venetians between 1462 and 1562, are up to fifteen meters (45 feet) thick.
There are four gates and seven bastions (projecting parts in shape of pentagons with bases in line with the main works). They can be walked along (though very difficult to get on top of from St. Andrew's bastion as far as the Marinengo Bastion, where the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis lies. The port fortifications (above) are more accessible, however, and one can visit the 16th century Rocca al Mare castle (Tues-Sat 8:30 am-3 pm; Sun. 10 am-3 pm; admission 1.50 euros; students .60).
The Venetians ruled Crete for more than 400 years, preceded by Byzantines who in turn conquered the preceding Arabs, who had ruled from 824 to 961 A.D. The Arabs named the city El Kandak, which became the capital of slave-trade in the eastern Mediterranean. (Venetian Lion of St. Mark above)
The walled city is in the northeast corner, with its main artery-25 Avgoustou-- joining harbor and city center and boasting some of the city's older buildings. Travel agencies and car rentals can be found here. Platia Venizelou/Fountain Square (for the Morosini Fountain (left) also known as the Lion Fountain in it) has cafes and restaurants and behind it is El Greco Park (not so large) with bars. The city market at Odhos 1866 is one of the more enjoyable places to visit in this city. The main square is Platia Elevtherias and is linked with the other square by the pedestrian walk, Dedhalou. To get to the center from the port, you can go up the steps of the alleys which lead to Platia Elevtherias or you can go west along the coast road, pass the arsenali (whose arches stand out from the modern construction all around), and then turn up 25 Avgoustou, which will land you in Platia Venizelou.
Getting Around & Banking in Heraklion
There are three intercity bus stations. To go east to Malia, Aghios Nikolaos, Ierapetra, Sitia, etc. go to Station A on the waterfront between 25 Avgoustou and the harbor. Opposite this station is the one for Rethymno and Hania to the west. Station B, just past the Hania Gate, services Phaestos, Ayia Galini and Matala.
The national Greek tourist office (EOT) is at Xanthoudidou 1, just north of Platia Eleftherias. Maps and ferry/bus schedules are available there. 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and weekends as well during high season. Banks are on 25 Avgoustou (most of them) and the National Bank of Greece has a round-the-clock cash machine as does Alpha Bank.
The Heraklion Archeological Museum
The Heraklion Museum is the second most important museum in Greece (after Athens) and receives its own section please click the link above or use the main horizontal menu from any Harry's Greece Travel Guide page.
Just back from the waterfront opposite the Xenia Hotel is the Historical Museum of Crete in which can be seen the reconstructed library/study of Nikos Kazantzakis, as well as that of the former Greek prime minister and statesman Emanel Tsouderos. Left, they called these Cycladic figures because they were also found on Milos, Santorini and on other Cyclades islands but apparently they originated here in Crete!
In a room by itself is the sole painting painting on the island of Crete of Domenikos Theotokopoulos A.K.A. El Greco (photo right bust of), - Imaginary View of Mount Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine (c.1576). It is also one of his few landscapes (as such were not terribly marketable in the Spain and Italy of that time where he lived and worked). (Platia Kornarou's Bembo drinking fountain above right)
In the historical museum there are folk costumes, photographs, charts, ceramics, coins, jewelry, fragments from frescoes of the 13th and 14th centuries . There are also artifacts from early Christian times, as well as eighteenth century Turkish frescoes of fantasy towns; a Venetian wall fountain made up of tiny ships' prows; finds from Venetian churches; portraits of Cretan revolutionaries; wonderful red weaving's and embroideries that exemplify the artistry of Cretans during Ottoman times. (admission 3 euros; 9am-5pm Mon-Fri; 9am-2pm Sat. summer; 9am-3pm Mon-Sat winter).
Near a small plat ia near Plat ia Venezuela, is the Byzantine church (left) of Aghios Titos, adapted by the Turks as a mosque but re consecrated as a church in 1925. Near the same platia are also found the Venetian loggia (where male aristocrats gathered), and the church of San Marco both of which often house exhibitions or crafts shows. One can view a collection of icons in the church of Agia Ekaterina (Mon-Fri. 9:30 am-02:30 pm ; 1.50 euro), including those of a near-contemporary and mentor of El Greco, Mihail Damaskinos.
Natural History Museum (June-Sept. daily 9am-7pm; 1.50). The geological evolution of the island is shown in some of its exhibits, with the arrivals of humans and a depiction of the environment during Minoan times. This museum is on the road to Knossos . Bus #2 from Platia Elevtherias (get out at the Pagritio School stop).
Battle of Crete Museum Corner of Doukos Beaufort and Hatzidaki; free, 9am-1pm daily. Historic battle is chronicled with letters, photos, weapons, uniforms.
Sites near Heraklion
The beach choices close to the city aren't the nicest. Just west of the city (Bus 6 from Hotel Astoria in Plateia Eleftherias goes to the western beaches, and from the stop opposite Bus 7). Ammoudari (also called Almyros) is to the west, but the surroundings include cement and power plants and big hotels.
To the east of the city 7 km is Krateros (Bus 1, also from the Hotel Astoria), and--an improvement compared with the others is Amnisos, which is the first of the string of resorts to the east of Heraklion. But the latter two are close to the airport, so no quiet idyll is possible if you don't travel farther east. Amnisos has several tavernas, and sits up over an islet (Dia-for Dias, or Zeus) which is a sanctuary for the kri-kri, an endangered ibex indigenous to Crete. It was a port of Knossos, and from here ships sailed to Troy, and Odysseus' ship was stranded by the north wind. The rightly famous Fresco of the Lilies found in the Heraklion archaeological museum, was found in the 1600 BC villa on a hill above the beach. There were two harbors here, and while excavating the Minoan Harbor-master's office during the 1930s, Spyridon Marinatos found the layer of pumice that gave support to his theory that Minoan civilization had been destroyed by the ash-fall from the explosion of the Santorini volcano.
Knossos and Phaistos along with the Heraklion Archeology Museum are the three must see major Archeological sites of Crete. Phaistos you'll read about below but Knossos and the Heraklion Archeology Museum each receive its own treatment.
South of Knossos:
Mt. Yiouhtas 811 meters. Rises amid rolling agricultural country and can be seen from the sea when approaching Heraklion. It's profile as seen from the north is said to resemble that of Zeus in the post-Minoan period. Vineyards and farms dominate the landscape. Just 2 km south of Knossos is a beautiful and impressive aqueduct right by the road, which appears medieval but was in fact built during a brief period of Egyptian rule (1832-40) as a water source for the city of Heraklion. The area around it is very lush and green, with thick vegetation.
Myrtia/ Kazantzakis Museum (Open March-Oct daily 9am-7pm; closed Sun; Nov-Feb Sun only 10am-3pm;3 euros). On central platia in an old bourgeois mansion where Kazantzakis parents once lived. Crete's most famous writer lived from 1883-1957.Though his life-time output was prolific and varied, his best-known book is 'The Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas' (1946) (titled 'Zorba the Greek' in English), and inspired by a Macedonian miner whom Kazantzakis hired to work a lignite mine with him (not in Kazantzakis' native island of Crete, where the book is set, but in the Mani, in the Peloponnese).
Kazantzakis was nominated several times for the Nobel Prize, with the Orthodox church fighting him because of his heterodox ideas and scathing descriptions of Orthodox Papa-des (fathers). The tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis pictured left is entirely devoid of G.O. symbolism except for a stark cross.
Enjoyable museum collection and lovely drive. Collection includes diaries, photos, translations, costumes, first editions, manuscripts. Video documentary in Greek.
Archanes/ Phourni and Anemospilia
Archanes is a large agricultural town (right), noted for its traditional architecture and its wine ('Arhanes' and 'Armanti' by name) as well as table grapes called 'rosaki'. A major wine-producing area in Crete, the vineyards here are the oldest ongoing vineyards in Europe, and possibly in the entire world. The Minoan aqueduct to Knossos began here, and later the Venetian as well, terminating in the Morosini fountain in Heraklion. In the town center, the Panayia church has a fine collection of icons, and there are frescoes in the church of the Asomatos.
Archanes is located just a few km south of Knossos, at the foot of Mt. Iouktas. If coming from Iraklio, take the right fork instead of the one that goes to Myrtia. From Knossos, back-track to that fork and turn left. The road will pass through Patsidhes and Kato Archanes to the main part of Archanes, reachable also by hourly buses from Iraklio. None of the three sites here are open to the public, though the Palace (within the town) can be looked at only through a chain-link fence.
Archanes was a significant and densely populated center of Minoan civilization. Sir Arthur Evans (who excavated and reconstructed Knossos), was the first to explore Archanes, and after him Spyridon Marinatos (excavator of Akrotiri in Santorini) excavated the villa at Vathypetro (see below), but a full excavation of the site didn't occur until 1966, by Yannis and Effie Sakellarakis.
The sites near it have only been excavated during the past three and a half decades and contained some important finds. The Palace is found in the town itself, not far from the main road, and resembles a large villa. There is an archaeological museum close to the main square (8:30-3 p.m except Tues.; free). The supposed dagger used for the supposed human sacrifice at Anemospilia (see below) is on display here along with finds from excavation in the Archanes area. There are remains of a Minoan peak sanctuary on the summit of Mt. Iouktas (Psili Korfi) which can be driven to from a road just before Vathypetro, or walked to in about two hours, and from which there are panoramic views. A Christian church has been built on top of the remains of the old Minoan sanctuary. Finds from the latter include votive gifts and bronze double axes. Poseidon was among the gods worshipped here.
Vathypetro (which means 'deep rock') is 2km south of Archanes; south of Mt. Yiouhtas. Minoan villa and vineyard (Mon-Sat 8:30 a.m.-2 pm; free), once in control of farmland south of Archanes. Farming implements and wine press exhibited-the oldest in Greece (3500years). On 6 August every year the first grapes are offered to the deity on Mt. Yiouhtas, as in ancient times. Beautiful setting facing the mountain. Like a miniature Knossos in layout. Built 1580 BC, destroyed thirty years later by an earthquake, seemingly rebuilt as a center for crafts. Potters' wheels; loom weights.
Phourni is to the right as you enter the town and just before the school. To reach it requires a walk (10-15 minutes) up a steep trail. A burial ground was found here with tombs dating from 2500 B.C. (before the main palaces were built). The cemetery was in use from 2500-1250 BC and is the most extensive Minoan cemetery that has been found. There are tholos tombs (beehive-live round structures) which involved multiple burials in large clay jars (pithoi) and in sarcophagi (stone coffins, usually with inscriptions). Tholos A was used as hiding places during the second World War. The floor was covered with debris, and below it, in a side chamber behind a fake wall, was found a royal lady or priestess from the fourteenth century BC. She was dressed in a garment trimmed with gold and around her were offerings of jewelry and the ritual a bull and horse which had been sacrificed. In Tholos C were found marble Cycladic figurines and jewelry in the style of items found at Troy by Schliemann, and which were dated to 2500 BC.
Shaft graves constructed in Mycenaean style were also found here-- seven of them in a circle. The pit, or 'vothros' where sacrifices were made to the dead, still reeked after more than three thousand years from the accumulated stench of the offerings that had been made there.
There are also simpler graves as well in this cemetery. (8:30am-3pm daily
Anemospilia, 2 km northwest of Archanes can be visited. Excavations were carried out there in the 1980s and evidence of what appeared to have been a human sacrifice aroused much controversy, as it contradicted the conventional view of Minoan civilization as humane and peaceful. It is one of three sites that have provided such evidence: along with Fournou Korifi in southern Crete (a peak sanctuary complex), and Knossos (in a building known as the "North House"). At Anemospilia (right) were found ruins of a supposed temple destroyed by earthquake during the Middle Minoan Period. The skeleton of a man was found on a raised platform and in a position that led some to believe that he had been tied up for sacrifice, and that the platform was a sacrificial altar.
What appeared to them to be a bronze dagger found among his bones and discolored bones on one side of his body reinforced this argument for them. Three other skeletons were found nearby, some with broken bones, appeared to have been killed in a sudden earthquake. Others (including Nanno Marinatos) disagreed with this version and maintained that all died in an earthquake; that the building was not a temple, and that the knife was really a spearhead and could have fallen from elsewhere during the earthquake. These arguments are more convincing than those advanced against the human sacrifice theory in regard to the skeletons of children that appeared to have been butchered that were found at Knossos during the Late Minoan period.
On the road south from Vathypetro are the church of Aghios Vasilios amid the convent Moni Spiliotissa (monastery of the cave) , the latter built into a cave hidden by plane trees. There is a spring in the cave which the Ottomans piped to Heraklion, and which was said to have therapeutic properties. The church has thirteenth century BC frescoes.
Southwest from the capital
On the road heading southwest from Iraklio towards Gortyn and Phaestos is Ayii Dheka (Ten Saints) named for Christian martyrs under the Romans. Byzantine church with stone block where martyrs said to have been decapitated; their tombs in crypt below church. Appealing village. Venerato is close-by, on a side road, where you will find the convent of Paliani with its thirteenth century frescoes and a huge myrtle tree considered holy and said to contain an icon of the virgin in the center. Aghios Varvara a little to the south, is a chapel for Prophet Elijah, and the rock it sits on is considered to be the 'omphalos' or navel of Crete (as it is dead center of this huge island). A cherry orchard surrounds it.
A most enjoyable road to the west takes you to Zaros, a very pretty village with springs, whose bottled mineral waters are sold all over the island. An aqueduct from here to Gortyna was built by the Romans because they liked the water so much. A walk starting out at Aghios Nikolaos will take you to the Zaros gorge. The dirt road goes off to the right just west of the village, and is sign-posted for the church (which also has frescoes), and after the road ends you can continue to climb about 2 km (1 /14 miles) to the gorge entrance. There is a path along the 3km (less than two mile) gorge, with steps and bridges here and there. A very beautiful spot, with great views of the mountains.
At the church of Moni Vrondisi monastery, you can see fourteenth-century frescoes, though the best of them were evacuated before the church was looted and burned by the Turks in 1821, at the beginning of the Greek war for independence. These are housed in Heraklion in the church of Ayia Katerini. There is a fifteenth-century Venetian fountain here and a giant plane tree which was struck by lightning. The resulting hollow is now the kitchen of the monastery café, There are views of the Gulf of Messara and Phaestos from here.
Another ancient church near here is reached from the village of Voriza, at Moni Valsamonero, of which all that remains is the church of Aghios Fanourios. Some of the finest frescoes in Crete are here, by Konstantinos Rikos (fifteenth-century), and depict events from the life of the 'Panayia' (Virgin Mary. This word, which you will see on churches and hear often in Greece, means something like 'the saint of all'). There are also images of other saints.
Messara Plain Crete's largest and most fertile plain. 32km/20miles by 5km/3miles. Runs east from the Gulf of Messara, bounded in south by the Kofinas hills, in the east by the Dhiktean mountains, and in the north by the Psiloritis range and other hills. The Yeropotamos (or 'old river') runs through it. Fruit, vegetables, and olives are among the crops grown there.
Gortys/Gortynia(open daily 8:30am-7pm; 4euros) is 46 km (28 ˝ miles) southwest of Heraklion and 15 km from Phaestos, on the plain of Messara below Mt. Idha/Psiloritis, near the village of Ayii Dheka. It is crossed by the river Lithaios, which runs southward and joins the Yeropotamos River which dominates the Messara valley. Easy to walk to either along road or through fields. (Site open daily 8 am-6pm; 2.40 euros). . During the historic and prehistoric periods it was one of the strongest cities in Crete, with a population of 300,000. During the third century B.C. the Gortynians occupied Phaestos, and later Gortys supplanted Phaestos (and later Knossos as well) as the most powerful Cretan city.
It was capital of the Roman province called Cyrenaica that included all of Crete as well as much of North Africa and reached it's peak in the third century A.D. Ruins include temples, theatre, Roman pillars, statues, the odeon which housed the famous Law Code which is the largest Greek inscription ever found dated to the end of the 6th Century B.C. The Gortys Law was inscribed on stones of which four series have been preserved. A Dorian dialect is used. First Cretan city to accept Christianity. Occupied and destroyed by Saracens in 828 A.D. and never inhabited again.
Phaistos (Open daily 8am-6pm; 3.55 euros) is located 62 km south of Heraklion in the Messara valley in the municipality of Kamilari. Thrilling views of the Messara plain and Mt. Idha/Psiloritis from the hill on which it was built. Phaestos was the second biggest palace city of Minoan Crete, and after Knossos, the second most important Minoan palace city. It was a fief of King Minos' brother Rhadamanthys, and birthplace of the sage Epimenides. Excavated by the Italian Federico Halbherr (involved also in early work at Gortys) early 1900s (when Evans was excavating Knossos). Almost no reconstruction was done here, in sharp contrast to Knossos.
Many elements in common with Knossos: huge clay pots for storage of oil, large courtyard with huge stairway ascending from it, theatral area, but at Phaestos, one finds also the remains of a furnace used for metalworking. Potters and carpenters seemed to have used the same area of the palace as well. Same layout as at Knossos, with a central court with wings around it. Unlike Knossos, few frescoes found here though the walls were covered instead with white gypsum. Marble and alabaster are present as well. A large dining hall overlooked the court. Parts of older palace( which was destroyed at end of Middle Minoan period) have been successfully excavated. Most likely there are missing buildings in the palace complex as evidenced by a collapsed section of the central court. A Tourist Pavilion , below ground level, leads into the palace from the northwest corner. From there one enters the West Court and Theatral Area. The former may have been part of the older palace, along with a low wall in front of the Grand Stairway, which may have been the old palace facade. The Grand Stairway consists of twelve stone steps, some of which are carved from the hill itself and are higher in the middle than on the ends, an innovation used 1200 years later in the Parthenon (Athens Acropolis). Small rooms lead into larger rooms and out onto descending stairs to the Central Court. Down below are storerooms with the usual clay pit hoi (huge pots). The floor slopes downward towards a drainage hole.
The Central Court is certainly the most interesting sight in the palace with its view of the Psiloritis mountains. These views were, however, most likely blocked during Minoan times by second stories on either side which are no longer standing. Still the court is appealing, with its great doorway on the north end with its half-columns, niches, and painted plaster. A covered portico runs along the longer sides of the courtyard. On the edge of the site are the ruins of a classical Greek temple. One cannot see much of the Royal Apartments (reached through the north door) which have been closed off for their own protection. The Peristyle Hall, a colonnaded courtyard open in the middle, was open on one side to a view of Psiloritis. Other buildings include the Archive where the Phaestos Disc was found (see Heraklion Archaeological Museum) and the Peristyle House , likely a private home.
Aghia Triadha (8:30 am-3pm daily; 1.45 euros. A short drive (3km) or 45-minute walk from Phaestos which is to the east. Less tourists than at the latter, and smaller as well, but in a lovely spot on a hillside overlooking the Gulf of Messara (as well as view of the coastal plain with the Timbaki airstrip built by the Germans during WWII, but now used for car racing).
During Minoan times the sea would have come to the base of the hill. It is perhaps even more sumptuously decorated than the other palace. It is believed to have been a summer villa or retreat of the ruling class of Phaestos, though no one is sure.
Excavated by the Italians during same period as excavations of Knossos and Phaestos. An anomaly among such excavations, as its contents don't resemble those of the other sites, and is not found in local records. It contains however, beautiful Minoan artworks, including carved black steatite vases: the Harvest Vase, Boxer Vase, and the Chieftain Cup, and fine frescoes as well (a unique painted sarcophagus), exhibited in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. There are little corridors and stairways in this 'villa', which, along with its settled and lack of crowds, give it much atmosphere. Though the 'villa' was roughly contemporary with the Phaestos palace, there are very skeletal ruins of a Minoan house and a shrine with a frescoed floor and walls (exhibited in the Heraklion museum) older than most of the other remains at Aghia Triadha.
The main villa is L-shaped, and enclosed the courtyard on two sides only (unlike the other palaces), and on the north side is what appears to have been a Mycenaean megaron built over it.
Aghios Yioryios is a 14th century chapel to the south of the courtyard, with fragments of frescoes. The natural slope hill was used to make a split-level construction for the villa, entrances from the court leading directly into upper levels. On the corner overlooking the sea were fine frescoes, one of them the stalking cat (Heraklion museum). The alabaster-lined walls and gypsum floors and benches were done with great craft. The storerooms with their pithoi represent a another common element with the contents of other sites. The Rampa del Mare is a ramp named by the Italians excavators that runs beneath the north side of the villa and at one time is claimed to have run all the way down to the sea.
A small town north of the supposed villa on the lower part of the site includes remains of a stoa (long colonnaded building), consisting of separate 'stores', identical in size and which run downhill; probably a marketplace. Dates from end of last Minoan period and is not contemporary with the residence. These stores are unique in Minoan architecture. The Cemetery lies beyond the stoa and outside of the site fence and include tholos tombs. It is from here that the Aghia Triadha sarcophagus was taken.
Timbaki to the west of Phaestos, is a drab town, in the midst of the ugliest part of Crete. This part of the Messara plain is covered with plastic greenhouses and concrete sprawl. Something a little better could be said of Vori, a little to the north, which is a village visited by few tourists, and mostly for the Museum of Cretan Ethnology, with items that illustrate traditional rural life in Crete. Shown are agricultural and building implements, furniture, domestic items, baskets, pottery, musical instruments, embroidery and weaving. 25 different kinds of baskets are exhibited, their designs related to their uses as snail traps, muzzles for animals, cheese-strainers, eel-traps, beehives.
Once the port of Gortys, Matala, (population 300) and 11 km to the southwest of Phaestos, is the best known beach-town in the south of this province. A touristy and expensive place. Its best point is its beach, which curves past cliffs with caves in them which may have been Roman or early Christian tombs, c. 1st century AD. The cliffs being of carvable compacted sand made it possible for windows and doorways to be formed, and beds or seats formed inside. Though inhabited for centuries, these caves achieved much notoriety during the sixties, with a large international community coming and going to camp in them, but that is a thing of the past now with police patrolling them at night to keep folks out. The beach, though nice for swimming, and with underwater remains of a Roman port around the rocks on either side, it is not a place for solitude. The rather hard-to-reach Red Beach behind the town is better, with reddish-brown sand and very clear water. There are some less obvious cave dwellings here too, some of them occupied in summer. Matala has a couple of campsites and some good room options. A good base for exploring the sites. There are buses every two hours between here and Heraklion, nine daily, cost 5 euros.
Also close to the sites, and quieter, are Pitsidhia about 5 km inland, and Kalamaki (left), on the beach to the north of Matala. In between is Kommos (Kommos beach right), at the southern end of the beach that begins in Kalmaki.
Kommos was a Minoan harbor town, and there is an archaeological site her which can be reached from Pitsidhia. Follow signs for 'Camping Kommos' to the right, 1 km west of the village. Excavation was begun only two decades ago by Joseph Shaw, funded by the American School of Classical Studies.
The three excavation areas are close to the beach. The one to the north has houses, including one with a limestone winepress. In the central one there are houses from the New Palace period, but the most important is the southernmost one with part of a limestone road three meters wide and more than sixty meters long with ruts from ox-drawn carts. There is a long stretch of Minoan dressed stone wall-the longest found in Crete-more than fifty meters. The wall was part of a huge building whose purpose is not known, though it could have been a port warehouse. The Minoan remains were overlaid by a Classical Greek sanctuary.
To the west, near the sea is an early 10th century BC Dorian temple, among the earliest in all of Greece. It was later replaced by one that may have been built by Phoenicians with a trading empire based in Lebanon. Later, during the Hellenistic period, this site became a sanctuary.
Kali Limenes, just east of the south westernmost tip of the Heraklion province is one of two and is one of the least visited of beach resorts, due to its rather rough roads and also to the fact that it is now a port for oil tankers. This was the chief harbor for Gortys at the time that Matala was a significant Roman port. It is located on the other side of Cape Lithinon from Matala.
Lentas a little to the east, is reachable by bus from Heraklion, and is a peaceful place with a sizeable sandy beach 2 km from the rather tacky down on the other side of the headland. It is reached by a rough track, but one can also walk to it across the headland. There are some tavernas along the beach, which is frequented by nudists. Camping on the beach is an option. Rooms can fill up, though with luck one might find one at a beach taverna. The town has most of the facilities sought by tourists, including many places to eat and internet cafes, etc. (Peak sanctuary / watchtower right)
To the east are some lesser, though less peopled, beaches. There was an Asclepian temple (Asclepius was the god of healing) with not much in the way of remains on the hill above these beaches at ancient Lebena. The temple was built near some hot-springs (now diverted).
A paved road which took many years to build, crosses the Messara plain going east from Ayii Dheka to Ano Viannos, flanked by the Dhiktean mountains all the way along. This is a route not taken by bus, though a pleasant drive through nice farming country. A monastic community (Moni Koudouma) is one of the few 'sights', on the coast to the south of Pirgos. One can walk the 20km down from Pirgos (along the Prinias road which goes through the hamlet of Tris Ekklissies and then turns into dirt road). By car, the severe switchbacks that lead down are to be driven with extreme caution. The monastery sits in a pine forest in a cove, surrounded by pine trees. The remaining monks there might offer a mattress for the night, for which a donation to the monastery (rather than payment, which will be refused) is appropriate. It is a magic kind of place by the sea. Those who feel drawn to such places and think they might want to spend more than one night are encouraged to bring their own supplies.
Along the coast are Keratokambos and Arvi, but Ano Viannos (left), is larger and has some nice churches with some 14th century frescoes. They are Aghia Pelayia and Aghios Yiorgos and are up a narrow street with steps near the big plane tree on the east of the village. The place is on the cliffs of the Dhikti mountains, with cool mountain air even in the heat of summer and was a center for this part of the province until the resorts edged it aside.
From here one can go east to Ierapetra or continue on through Amiras. From there you can turn off to Arvi by a huge WW II memorial for Cretans who lost their lives in that war. The road is paved and comes out on the coast by a stream gorge. This is a town built on the site of the ancient Roman Arvis. There is little tourism here, both because of the heat ( as the place is hemmed in by cliffs which trap it) and because of the local wealth from fruit growing: pineapples, oranges, bananas. The beach is long but of the pebble variety. A monastery sits up above the village, populated by only a few monks. There are deserted beaches and tiny villages along the coast to the east with many opportunities for camping and walking.
Keratokambos is a small place by the sea with some rooms rented out by the tavernas, but they are of the most basic to be found. Kastri Keratokambos has better facilities. Camping along empty beaches along the coast in either direction is possible.
Northeast of Heraklion on coast
Package resorts dominate the coast to the east of Heraklion, though it thins out farther along past Malia. Gournes has a big visitor complex and a giant sea aquarium.
The nearby village of Gouves is pleasant and there is the wonderful Skotino cave (meaning 'dark cave'), which can be walked to from the coast in an hour. Open continually; free.
Hersonissos (left) is a big package tourist resort. It was an ancient Roman town, evidenced by the fountain with fragmented mosaics and old Roman harbor remains. Stalidha (right) is also a beach resort, though a bit more relaxed than either Hersonissos or Malia to either side of it. Its beach is also better.
Malia built on a large bay has become very touristic, with bars lining the beach, the old town inland and a Minoan site to the east (3km/1.86 miles) make it worth a visit.
Malia was the fief of King Minos' brother Sarpedon, with the good agricultural plain below the mountains of Lassithi. The Palace of Malia (Tues-Sun 8:30am --3 pm;2/40 euros) is 2 km east of the town and lies on the agricultural plain between the sea and the Lasithi mountains. It is less crowded and easier to understand than either Phaestos or Knossos. After it was destroyed for the second time in the 15th century BC, it was not reoccupied and has stayed more intact than the others. A large town surrounded the palace and can be observed from an overhead ramp. This palace was rather more prosaic than the more famous ones, built of stone rather than marble, alabaster and gypsum and without frescoes. But it has grain storage structures with beehive domes and a raised Loggia , which may have been used for religious ceremonies; a large Pillar Hall; a room which may have been used as an astronomical observatory, known as the oblique room. There were also Royal Apartments. Luxurious Villas lie beyond the Palace, in contrast to the plainness of the Palace itself.
The famous twin bee pendant was found in the 'gold pit' in the Chrysolakis tomb in the cemetery near the sea, a pit which was looted over the centuries. If you turn right after leaving the site, a road runs down to a pleasant beach with fields behind it and a taverna. You can walk to Malia along the shore if you want.
Inland from the east coast
The Pediadha, as this region is known, is hilly farm country with the occasional village-away from the tourist hordes on the coast. Having your own car helps to see this area as public transport is limited.
Kastelli , to the south of Old Hersonissos (on main road just west of Hersonissos), is the main town in this region. Not an exciting place, the countryside around it is what draws one there with its narrow roads and their old oak and plane trees. There are smaller villages too, with frescoed medieval churches.
Some of these are Aghios Pandheleimon, near Piyi on a dirt road to the north of Kastelli. Ancient oak trees shade the church and there is a spring. A small taverna where locals hang out completes the pleasure of a side trip here. You may or may not find someone with a key, but if you do, you'll find this 13th century church interesting structurally. There is an aqueduct nearby that brought water to the ancient city. The 15th century church Isodhia Theokton has Byzantine frescoes, and is near the village of Sklaverohori to the west of Kastelli. Again to the west, on a side road past Apostoli is the Moni Angarathou, a monastery church with surrounding buildings from the 16th century, though the church itself was built during the 19th century. There is a courtyard with cypresses, palms and orange trees. Other churches in the area include Aghios Yioryios at Ksidhas (also known as Lyttos), 3 km/1.86 miles east of Kastelli. Lyttos was an important city in Classical times, was destroyed by Knossos, its rival, in 220 BC., but came to life again with the Romans and survived up to Byzantine times. The largest Roman theatre on the island of Crete may have been here.
The inland route towards Lasithi (the plateau in the easternmost Cretan province of that name) passes through lovely, increasingly mountainous scenery as one approaches the plateau. Large-canopied trees and old churches abound. Following the coast road east from Iraklio, you can turn inland toward Kastelli and then go east towards Potamies and Gonies through the Aposelemis valley. Near Potamies is the Byzantine chapel of Sotiros Christos (locked, unfortunately), and after this on a side road the 10th century monastery of Panayia Gouverniotissa (Assumption of the Virgin). There are huge ovens here where bread was baked for the monastery; a chapel and garden. Inside are 14th century frescoes. More frescoes are found in three churches farther on, in Avdhou.
Another approach to Lassithi is inland from Stalidha on the road to Mohos (reached alternatively either from Malia or from the east, from Aghios Nikolaos or from Neapoli). There is a big festival in Mohos on 15 August every year (dhekapendavgousto-one of the most important religious Greek holy-days). There is a nice leafy square in this town with cafes and tavernas, and a shrine to the Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, murdered in Stockholm in 1986. It was his summer vacation house that was made into a shrine for him.
The village of Krasi (which means 'wine') is famous more for its spring water, said to have healing powers (especially for stomach problems). This village is 3km from the fork of the Hersonissos and Stalidha roads. The spring is under stone arcades under a huge plane tree. Like the ancient plane tree on the island of Kos in the Dodecanese islands (said to be the oldest in Europe) this tree has been said to be the largest (as well as being two thousand years old).
Farther on, before the village of Keras is the convent of Panayia Kardhiotissa (Our Lady of the Heart), which has an annual celebration on 8 September every year. There are wonderful frescoes inside which have been restored, and the buildings date from the 12th century. The frescoes had been painted over and were only discovered during the '60s. There is the copy of a 12th century icon, with legends surrounding it.
Beyond the village of Keras the views in the Dhiktean mountains become progressively more stunning, with the 1100 meter Mt. Karfi casting a dark spell. Its name means 'nail' and describes its sharp peak. After the 12th century BC, the last of the Minoans fled to refuges including this one, where they tried to keep alive their culture in the face of Dorian incursions and for this reason this peak is considered a Minoan sanctuary. The road continues climbing till, at Seli Ambelou one reaches a pass with stone windmills on the high ridges above and soon the Lasithi Plateau is revealed before you as well as the highest peaks of the Dhikti range, Mt. Dhikti itself at 2148 meters. One can sit down at a taverna here, eat grilled lamb, and enjoy the mountain views as well as those towards the sea.
West of Heraklion on the Coast
The coast road, E75, follows the sea and takes you straight to Rethymno, Hania and Kissamos/Kastelli. It is a fast two-lane road, with no passing lanes, and cars are continually passing the slower ones that are hugging the right side. A rather scary road in summer, though one can always take the bus, which goes frequently.
The scenery is steep cliffs and rocky seacoast, but there are a couple of resorts: Aghia Pelayia and Fodhele are the first ones you come to, the latter supposedly El Greco's birthplace. Fodhele is about 3km from the highway and a couple of buses from Iraklio go here a day, and if you walk up to the highway, the buses will stop for you as well. There is a river estuary here with some tavernas along it and an actual village, just inland from the sea. The 14th century church of the Panayia, which has some frescoes, is worth visiting (Mon-Fri, 9:30am-5pm; free). Bali is about halfway to Rethymno from Iraklio, and about 2km from the highway, consists of a village around three small coves. It has, unfortunately, become a package resort, and its beaches isn't so great, though the one called Paradise is the best (though very crowded in high season). Panormos , an appealing village, is the last coastal stop before Rethymno. It is quieter and less touristic than the others with some good tavernas and rooms.
West and south from Heraklion
Most recommended is the road that goes to Tylissos and from there on to Anoyia, which traverses the district known as the Malevisi, famous since Venetian times for its Malmsey wine, which is sweet and strong. One passes through valleys of olive orchards and vineyards on this route.
Tylissos minor Minoan Site
There is an archaeological site at Tylissos (right) (open daily 8:30am-3pm;1.20 euros). Not much remains of the three excavated Minoan villas, the most interesting items having been taken to the museum in Heraklion, but Tylissos was among the first Minoan sites to be excavated. Hatzidakis, a local archaeologist found evidence of occupation from c.2000 BC (known as the Pre-Palace period) but the three houses, which may have been within a community (rather than spread out, as 'country houses' are understood in the modern sense) were from the New Palace period (as were Knossos and Phaestos). New buildings were constructed after the destruction of 1450 BC, and Tylissos developed into a Greek city during the Classical period. Its rural setting make it a pleasant site to visit, though not terribly easy to comprehend. Features of the houses include many common to other Minoan sites: storerooms with their pithoi (huge clay storage pots), light wells, lustral basins. Linear A tablets were found in one of them.
Anoyia is an attractive town on the east side of the Psiloritis mountain range. Though technically in Rethymno province, it is just over the line and a nice excursion from Heraklion. The village was destroyed by the Germans in WWII and local men rounded up and shot, in reprisal for the kidnapping of the German General Kreipe by the Cretan Resistance. Despite the fact that the village had to be rebuilt after the war, it has the appearance of a traditional village from a certain distance. It is noted for its handicrafts, especially woven and woolen goods.
Roughly to the south of Aghia Pelayia on the coast are the villages of Rodhia, Arolithos and Marathos, all of them on the slower mountain roads that preceded the newer coastal road. Under the raised highway you begin to climb and may turn right for Rodhia, a good-sized village which looks down on the city. Aghia Pelayia and Fodhele are reachable from here via this road, but the going is torturous due to the truly horrible road. A detour will take you 5km up (to the northwest) to the convent of Savathiana, which is set into the rock cliff with tall cypresses around it. Founded in Venetian times, it is a lovely place to visit, full of flowers and fruit trees, and the nuns sell homemade jams. Arolithos is a tourist development which has attempted (rather successfully) to create a traditional village environment, with craftspeople selling their products. There is a restaurant with wood-fired ovens, and sometimes evenings with Greek dancing. Beyond Arolithos the road divides and in 9km you come to Marathos, an enjoyable village known for its honey.