This is Crete’s Far East: a barren, rocky landscape, austere and appealing at the same time. The shimmering... deep blue water of the Aegean Sea reveals itself whenever you catch a glimpse of the coastal line. The monastery Moni Toplou, a palace, a beach full of palm trees. The solitude emanating from such sites makes the coast fully unique - nonetheless, this is only the case during off-season. In the months of July and August, for instance, the palm tree beach in Vai is traditionally overflowing with tourists.
Kato Zakros is also the site of the fourth Minoan palace (alongside Knossos, Phaistos and Malia). It was stumbled upon by a farmer while ploughing his land and has remained relatively intact. Another cherished destination is the bay with its many taverns along the beach. The numerous wells and fountains in the palace point to the abundance of water in the premises of the palace. With a spark of imagination, you might even get an idea of the way the different halls and courtyards of the palace were geographically configured. The aesthetic beauty of the palace is further underlined by a few cypresses. The silence and remoteness of the palace, however, disguises its significance beyond the immediate sphere of Kato Zakros; after all, its historical trajectory dates all the way back to trade links with Egypt 3,500 years ago.more
The largest palace and archaeological site on the island attracts floods of tourists on an annual basis.... The Englishman Arthur Evans created an imaginative, fascinating architectural ensemble comprising unfinished halls, courtyards and columns. On the terrain of Knossos, the Minoans began to build an awe-inspiring and imposing palace for their kings. Large building blocks were erected to create huge walls. Even today, scientists are unsure what exactly it was which led to the wall's destruction, although it is likely that it was connected to a massive earthquake. Today’s remnants originate from the site’s reconstruction at around 1700 BC. Visitors of the site traverse procession routes which were once used by people more than 4,000 years ago. Here, visitors will walk past the remains of a theater and examine pottery vessels previously used to store olive oil. Reconstructed multi-colored frescoes illuminate from half-finished walls: A young man jumps over a bull, and beautiful looking dolphins can be seen playing happily. An impressive chair is located in the throne hall, and a bathtub adorns the room of the queen. The Minoans certainly knew their fair share about luxury.more
The town is arguably among one of the island’s most popular attractions. Here, Turkish, Venetian and... Cretan culture all coalesce and form a unique mixture. The harbor marks the beginning of the old town district, in which Cretan students as well as tourists from all over the world create a lively atmosphere in the town’s narrow streets. The fortress (Fortezza) provides the best view for taking in this spectacle. The houses in the old part of town symbolize the multicultural make-up of the town, with Venetian stone houses and timber bays from the Ottoman Empire. Minarets tower above the alleys. At the Rymondi-fountain, techno music can be heard coming from the cafes, once in a while replaced by Cretan lyre music. In the evening, the Venetian harbor turns into the most romantic spot in town. The lights from the tavern are reflected in the water of the harbor, the tables are directly at the waterfront, while it is all too evident that time has taken its toll on the surrounding old houses. One of the island's largest sand beaches begins in Rethymnon. In such a lively and vibrant town, sunbathing, the hotel at the beach, strolling through town and experiencing nightlife all go together.more
The town west of Crete is a real highlight and appears more authentic than Rethimnon. By strolling through... the market hall, which is based on French architectural design, you can get a good sense of the unique Cretan temperament. Vocal exchanges between buyer and seller, bargaining and close examination of the items are all a commonplace feature here. Narrow streets lead all the way to the old town district, whose houses are characterized by a mixture of Venetian and oriental architecture. The atmosphere around the harbor is impressive. Although the facades of the half-round buildings are gradually losing their paint and fervor, it is all the livelier in the tavern and hotels occupying the buildings. A mosque is located close to the waterfront, under whose turret exhibitions regularly take place. Cretan artisans now work in the neighboring Venetian arsenals. Close to Chania you will find Souda Bay with its large ferry harbor and airport. To the west, a number of small little beaches await you which are simply perfect for a refreshing dip on a hot afternoon.more
As soon as sunset begins in Ágios Nikolaos, the time has come to stroll along the water front while... looking at the wide and its seemingly never-ending landscape of the sea. The cafes, located at the small Lake Voulismeni, are crowded with people. A small canal connects this sweet water lake with the harbor on the opposite side. Ágios Nikolaos is close to the mountain village of Kritsa, well-known for its white houses which seemingly stick to the white rocks. The idyllic area is not untouched, however; this is reflected in the several organized bus tours to Kritsa, which are on offer in virtually every village on the island, not the least because of the beautiful Byzantine church Panagia Kera and its equally impressive, multi-colored frescos. A trip to the Minoan palace of Malia provides informative insights into the island’s Minoan heyday.
The popular bathing resort Ágios Nikolaos can be found on a peninsula in the Gulf of Mirabello. The many and well-equipped beaches in the area are easily accessible. Further, Ágios Nikolaos is a perfect point of departure to explore mountain villages, Minoan palaces as well as the island of Spinaloga and its former leper colony.more
The name of this monastery represents the unrestrained quest for freedom found among Cretans and is the... symbol of the island’s history. Although tourists and locals visit the national shrine on the untouched plateau, it retains an atmosphere of timelessness.
In 1866, Cretans fought an independence war against the Turks. During the war, women, children and fighters all sought refuge within the confines of the monastery. Before the powerful enemy managed to take over the monastery, the Cretans used their gunpowder to blow up 1,000 people. The reigning mantra was ‘either free, or dead’. Those taking in the beauty of the renaissance and baroque style of the Arkadi façade are probably surprised to expect such a gory history - until entering the charnel house and seeing the proudly displayed skulls. The powder magazine responsible for this atrocity can also be seen here. However, the ceiling, blown away by the explosion, has been missing until today.more
At first sight, the most important city on the island appears rather ugly. However, once you approach... the chaotic mix of white and gray concrete buildings, you will inevitably stumble upon a few hidden gems. While Heraklion is certainly an impressive city and worthwhile visiting on a day-trip, it is not the ideal place to spend your entire vacation at. The Morosini-Fountain at the Platia Venizelou is reminiscent of the city’s Venetian age. In front of the busy cafes, tourists and locals alike impatiently wait in line to grab some available seats and tables. A few feet away in the vibrant alley Odós you will encounter merchants vocally trying to advertise and sell their produce, mainly tomatoes and fish. A contrast to the bustling atmosphere at the market is provided by a walk to the Venetian harbor and its castle or, alternatively, a visit to the archaeological museum. Among the most prestigious and world-famous objects in the museum are items of golden Minoan jewelery and artistically built vases, which are especially popular among tourists. The creativity of those Cretan artists who worked here centuries ago can be witnessed today via their lasting influence on contemporary designers.more
In the evening hours, the plaza in front of the Morosini fountain is full of flaneurs. This is where... many of Heraklion's inhabitants engage in their "volta", referring to the traditional evening walk around town, in order to see and be seen.more
It seems like a stage scenery and is one of the most beautiful ports of Greece. In addition, several... important sights of the city are located at the Venetian port of Chania. With its striking white dome, the Janissaries Mosque is one of Chania’s landmarks. In 1645 it was built in honor of the Janissaries, a Turkish elite unit. Originally, the mosque was equipped with a minaret, which was destroyed during the bombardments in the Second World War. Today the former house of prayer hosts temporary art exhibitions. If you continue towards the east, you see the arsenals, the 15th-century warehouses and the shipyards on your right. Stroll as far as the lighthouse at the end of the long pier. Opposite, at the western dock, there are two museums that are definitely worth a visit: the Maritime and the Byzantine Museum in the Topanas district.more
The plan of the Venetians failed! As they erected the massive fortification above the coast of a small... peninsula in the late 16th century, they surrounded the building with thick walls because they feared Turkish attacks. Nevertheless, 70 years later, the victorious Ottomans hoisted their flag on the Fortezza. In the following years the Turkish conquerors added not only several houses to the fortification but also a mosque. Unfortunately all this was destroyed in the Second World War as German pilots bombed the fortification. However, the huge facility still characterizes the cityscape of Rethymnon. A tour through the Fortezza is among the tourist highlights, especially as the view of the harbor, the city and the sea is so fantastic.more
About 25 mi (40 km) south of Heraklion, amid wide-spread olive groves in the Mesara Plain, lies the... impressive excavation site of Gortyn. In the antiquity, Gortyn was one of the most important cities of Crete. During excavations from 1884 on, archeologists exposed the remains of an acropolis, a theater and the ruins of a temple of Apollo. However, it was a law code dating back to the 5th century BC that made Gortyn so famous. The characters are carved in a stone tablet “the way an ox plows”: they are to be read from left to right at first, then, in the next line, from right to left. In the Roman era, Gortyn was the capital of the province of Crete; later, the city became the center of early Christianization, then a bishop’s seat. According to the lore, Paul the Apostle preached here in 59 AD.more
At the south coast of Crete, about 6 mi (10 km) east of Chora Sfakion, the Frangokastello rises right... at the seaside, visible from afar. Having seen the outside walls with the imposing battlements of the Venetian castle built in 1371, you might be disappointed when entering the castle. Inside, only some foundation walls remind of the fact that people really lived in the fort. The Venetian coat of arms with the lion reminds of the constructors from Venetia. Also the statue of the Hatzimichalis Dalianis is worth admiring. Right here, the freedom fighter paid the revolt with his life in 1828 as he bravely confronted the Turks who had a clear numerical advantage. Not far from the castle, a nice beach invites for a bath.more
The monastery located above the south coast east of Plakias is not only one of the most idyllic but also... one of most famous monasteries of Crete. It is still a symbol of Crete’s fight for freedom and independence. During the Turkish rule the freedom fighters in the surrounding mountains found shelter inside the monastery walls; Preveli became a significant center of resistance. As an act of revenge, the Turks lit the monastery several times and ravaged it heavily. During the Second World War, many people looked once more for shelter and refuge here, this time from the German troops. Boats took about 5,000 people from Prevli to a safe place. Today, two monks still live in the monastery, which is among the most-visited sights of Crete.more
Moni Toplou is one of Crete’s most impressive monasteries. Inhabited by a few monks, the well-fortified... building rises in the middle of a lonely landscape about 8 mi (12 km) east of Sitia. The name comes from the Turkish word “top” meaning “cannonball”, which indicates that the monks were prepared for attacks at all times. This is emphasized by embrasures, a machicolation and thick walls, which make the monastery almost look like a fortification. Besides the charming friary with its beautiful inner court, the monks’ cells and the church, the integrated small museum, which harbors valuable religious icons, is also worth a visit. The huge icon Megas ei Kyrie (“Great Art Thou, O Lord”) from 1770 is a very special eye-catcher. It is among the most significant sacred artworks of Greece.more
The excavation site of Gournia, 12 mi (20 km) southeast of Agios Nikolaos, is often described as “the... Pompeii of Crete” referring to the well-preserved remains archeologists have dug out of the dry soil here since the beginning of the 20th century. For the scientists, Gournia, which was destroyed like all the other Minoan buildings in 1450 BC, is a lucky strike. The finds suggest that the former port was an important craftsmen center at the same time. Tiny little houses, two stories high, line the streets. It seems reasonable to suppose that these once were homes with integrated workshops and storerooms on the ground floor. From the Agora, which can be reached via stairs, you have a great view over the site including the remains of a small palace.more
A river has created an approximately 11 mi (18 km) long gorge penetrating Crete’s White Mountains:... Samaria. The Cretan mountain goat Kri-kri resides in its branches, while plants found nowhere else grow out of the walls of the gorge. The gorge ends at the southern coast of Agía Roumeli. There is no road leading to this area, the only two possibilities of getting there are via ferry or on foot. In the main season, thousands of tourists walk along one of Europe’s narrowest gorges on a daily basis.
To traverse the gorge of Samaria poses a challenge, even for experienced tour guides in charge of tours. Buses generally leave their respective point of departure in the early morning hours and take the hikers to the Omalos plateau. After the hike, which lasts approximately 3 to 4 hours, the hikers leave Agía Roumeli via ferry to return to their buses. The descent into the gorge begins with a steep trail, surrounded by cypresses smelling of resin. At the bottom, pebbles and boulders make the walk through the riverbed difficult. However, the view on the vertical scarp slope is mesmerizing. On the narrowest spot, they come as close as 10 ft (3 m) to each other.more
The tiny island in the Gulf of Mirabello has an important history: Until the beginning of the 1960s,... the small rocky and waterless island, which is dominated by a 15th-century Venetian fortress, served as a leprosy colony. With an incredible violence, lepers from Crete and other parts of Greece were brought to the remote island in the early 20th century. Up to 1,000 lepers were “barracked” here at the same time. There was neither electricity nor water on Spinalonga for a long time. Today a national museum, visitors stop at the island on their day trips coming from Agios Nikolaos. On a tour you can recognize the ruins, in which people once lived, cisterns, washing places, the disinfection chamber and the cemetery where the dead were laid to rest.more
He was no doubt the most popular writer of Crete: Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957). His novel Alexis Sorbas... made him famous worldwide. In his father’s house in the small wine village Mirtia, 13 mi (21 km) southeast of Heraklion, a museum was created which reminds of the great Cretan poet on two stories. The dominating topics of his work were the church, which he dealt with critically all through his life, and the Turkish rule. In Heraklion, high above the city, Kazantzakis was laid to rest, after he had been denied a Christian burial. With 27,000 exhibits, among them manuscripts, photos, letters and drafts of stage settings, the museum reminds of Kazantzakis. In addition, an interesting video film informs about his life and work.more
In the far southwest of Crete, the bright white 19th-century monastery of Chrissoskalitissa rises on... top of a rock above the sea. According to a legend, one of the 99 steps that lead to the monastery consists of pure gold. But only he who is free from sin will recognize this very step. The monastery, which is still home to a monk, offers a fantastic panorama over the coast. August 15, Assumption of Mary, is the only day the Chrissoskalitissa, meaning vaguely “golden stairs”, is filled with life. During the Second World War, the facility served as a hiding place for the allied soldiers, who escaped from here to safe Egypt on sailing ships. Later, the Nazis temporary used the monastery 4 mi (6 km) north of the perfect Elafonissi beach as a prison.more
The huge Sfentoni Cave at the foothills of Mount Ida is known as one of the most beautiful stalactite... caverns of Crete. The name comes from a freedom fighter from the Sfakiá area, who once looked for shelter in the 3600 yd² (3000 m²) labyrinth of passages. As researchers found out with the help of findings, humans have dwelled here already in the Stone Age. The 885-ft (270 m) passage leads past 14 chambers with fantastic stalagmites and stalactites, which were created during millions of years and which are softly illuminated in various colors today. Some remind of church organs, others bare melodious names like “Parthenon” and look as if constructed by master architects. It is not allowed to touch the dripstones.more
Today it can hardly be imagined that goods on the way from the north coast to the remote village of Chora... Sfakion were transported through the narrow Imbros Gorge. Today it is a popular hiking route and a good alternative to the Samariá Gorge. The starting point is at the small Imbros hamlet north of Hóra Sfakíon. By now they charge an entry fee. The 4-mi (7 km) tour to Komitades - leading past sheer rock walls, up to 1,000 ft (300 m) high - takes about two or three hours. The rocks approach each other as close as 6.5 ft (2 m) at the narrowest section. During the Second World War numerous allied soldiers tried to escape through the gorge, but many of them were stopped and captured by the Nazis. The hike is by far not as strenuous and exhausting as the one leading through the Samariá Gorge and even suited for children. However, sturdy shoes are obligatory. Having arrived, cabs take you back to Imbros.more
Not far from Phaistos, archeologists have discovered the remains of the Minoan palace of Agia Triada.... Built around 1550 BC, it is younger than the ruins of Phaistos. The name of the excavation site comes from the Agia Triada (Holy Trinity) Church, which was built southwest of the former palace in the 14th century. Today, scientists assume that Agia Triada rather than Phaistos was the real center of administration. Many stores, apartments and magazines suggest that Agia Triada once was a lively “market village”, which had trade relations with Northern Africa. Located at the south coast, the Minoan harbor, Komos, was only 4 mi (6 km) away. On a tour you get a good impression of the former Agora and its numerous small stores. Among others, the Minoan water supply system as well as the tombs north of the city are well-preserved. Many finds are exhibited in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.more
Until the 1980s, the fertile plateau of the Dikti mountain range was a picturesque sight with about 10,000... sail-cloth windmills. With the help of the windmills, water was pumped to the plateau in order to cultivate the fields. Although most of the mills have been replaced by modern motor pumps long since, the almost circular plateau with its primitive villages 2,600 ft (800 m) above the sea and framed by rocky mountains is still worth the trip – especially because the plateau, which had been a retreat for Crete’s people rebelling against foreign occupying forces several times in the course of its history, harbors one of the most important sights of the region: the legendary Psychro Cave. According to the legend, the cave located above the village of Psychro is the birthplace of Zeus, Father of Gods and men. On foot or on back of a mule, you go up to the slippery grotto which is open for visits. From there a fantastic view of the plateau opens up.more
Priceless objects of art are exhibited here – arranged chronologically and presented in a wonderful... way. The Heraklion Archaeological Museum is not only the most important museum in Crete but also among the most spectacular ones in entire Greece. This is because impressive Minoan objects can be admired here in a rare and unusual unity. While many objects that were created during the cultural heyday of Greece have been taken out of the country and distributed among other museums long since, most of the Cretan finds remained on the island. And this is unique. Most of the exhibits that archeologists dug out of the dry soil are unique specimen as well. This is a superlative museum showing exhibits like the Bull-Leaping fresco from Knossos, the Bull's Head Rhyton and the Phaistos Disc. Allow some extra time!more
What a location! And what a view of Mount Ida! On an elevation of the Mesara Plain you can find the impressive... ruins of Phaistos. The Palace of Phaistos, the biggest Minoan palace in Crete after Knossos, once stood here on a truly exposed place. The palace was built around 1900 BC and destroyed in 1700 BC. The following building did not endure very long, either. Around 1450 BC, it was razed to the ground like all the other Minoan palaces on Crete. Scientists have not yet found the reason for this. Although it has by far not been restored as extensively as Knossos, visitors get a good impression of the magnitude and equipment of the former palace. Make sure to get hold of a map of the excavation site at the entrance.more