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The idyllic scenery of Crete’s Northeast coast

Driving along the North East coast through the gorge of St George we reach the picturesque town of Agios Nikolaos. Here we board a boat and Spinalonga Cruise starts. A Cruise along the Mirabelo gulf. Passing the Kri-Kri Island, the Cave of the pirate Barbarossa and the bird island, we reach the small sandy bay of Kolokitha, where the boat will be anchored. Here you have plenty of time for swimming at the crystal clear water, and a BBQ (optional) will be served on board. We then proceed to the small island of Spinalonga.

Spinalonga the island of Lepra

Island of Spinalonga

Spinalonga has had a very chequered history and today, although uninhabited, still echoes with ghostly reminders of the past. The Venetians constructed a very impressive fortress with 40 cannons which has been guarding the bay since the 15th century. At the beginning of 19th century human pain and sorrow was scattered around this islet. It became a leper colony, the last active leper colony in Europe, and it remained so until 1957, when it was cleared by the Health Authorities, leaving the place uninhabited.

Spinalonga island

Spinalonga

Inside the Island of Spinalonga

Panoramic view from Spinalonga

The route along the northern coast of the island takes us to the small fishing village of Elounda, known to the older of us from the popular 1970s BBC television series “Who pays the ferryman”. The village became also well-known through Belinda Jones’ novel “Out of the Blue” and lately, through Victoria Hislop’s world best-seller “The Island”. Today Elounda is a popular holiday resort, often visited by VIPs for the luxurious beach resorts that are situated in the area.

From there, we take the boat that gets us to the small and sorely tried island of Spinalonga. The history and the culture of the island of Spinalonga became one with human tragedy in the course of time. This small isle carries within the history of Ancient Greece as it served as a natural guard for the ancient city of Olous; the history of the Saracens as a hide-out for their pirates; the history of Venetians as their fortress; the history of Turks as their settlement; and the history of contemporary Greeks as their dwelling, or better, as the place where their leper would be sent into exile until 1957.

We stroll through the village roads, listening –along with our guide’s narration- to the cries and sighs of the diseased exiles, which seem like having been curved on the rocks and the walls of the houses and admiring the exquisite beauty of the area. Finishing our touring on this much afflicted place, we head for the small bay of Kolokitha, one of the most beautiful beaches on Crete. It is a remote beach with white sand and deep blue serene water, side by side with old olive groves, where we can swim and taste the delicious BBQ served on the boat.

After our short respite, we go back to Elounda, and then we move to the picturesque town of Agios Nikolaos, where we have our last stop. Here we have the chance to enjoy our coffee getting a perfect view of the magnificent lake, do our shopping in the traditional local shops and relax for a while before we hit the road for our going back.

We then go to Agios Nikolaos where you have time to look at the shop windows and visit the bottomless lake, where the “Lotus Eaters” the well-known film was shot.

Ag. Nicolaos

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Location

Mallia: Magazine (North west area)
Magazine (North west area)

The Palace of Malia is situated on the North coast of Crete, East of Heraklion. To the south lie the Lasithi mountains. At 7,500 square metres, it is the third largest of the Minoan palaces. The Minoan name for the Palace is not known and it takes its name from a local town.

It is now thought that the first monumental architecture to be erected on the Malia site dates back to EM IIB. An EM IIB building, or possibly a group of buildings, built around a large open space has been discovered below the present Palace, and aligned in the same way. Below this EM IIB building are the remains of EM IIA architecture built in a more simple style and based on a different orientation.

In the view of Jan Driessen, the EM II building or buildings would not have been a Palace like the ones that emerged later but would have been more like a monumentalised court, the beginning of a process of bringing ritual in from the natural environment to a closed, artificially constructed environment.

Already in the pre-palatial period the town had grown to occupy an area of 2.58 hectares, with remains of the town found beneath the Palace and to the north west. Some of the walls in the West magazines of the Palace had been constructed in EM II and incorporated into the new structures when the first palace was built, where they remained standing until the final destruction of the Palace. When these walls were first excavated, Vasiliki ware pottery (from EM II) was found in a foundation deposit.

The old palace — when was it built?

Mallia: View to the south-west from the top<br> of the Grand Staircase
View to the south-west from the top
of the “Grand Staircase”

The traditional view has always been that the first palaces were constructed in MM IB (around 1900 BCE) at a time when a powerful elite of some sort was emerging on the island. Other indicators of the emergence of this elite were thought to be the growing widespread use of the fast turning potter’s wheel, the emergence of local writing scripts and administration, specialised craft production, urbanisation and long-distance trade, especially in metal. However, it is now thought by some archaeologists that the palaces were in fact begun at different times and there was no sudden shift from a simple pre-palatial era to a suddenly more complex proto-palatial Crete as had first been thought.

At Malia, remains of EM III-MM IA buildings appear to represent a town or small city considerably larger than anything that existed before. The population at Malia must have been counted in the thousands. Excavators have uncovered EMIII-MMIA remains throughout the area but the neopalatial palace may have covered up most of the remains on the site of the palace itself. Some archaeologists now claim that the first palace was begun in EM III-MM IA but the excavators of the site disagree strongly about the issue. Van Effenderre has denied that there was a palace at Malia at this early date, while O. Pelon claims to have found not only traces of an EMIII-MMIA palace but evidence for an ever earlier EM II predecessor. Jean-Claude Poursat, who excavated Quartier Mu, says there isn’t enough evidence to be sure either way.

The evidence for an early date is very limited. Pelon bases his view on two discoveries. Firstly a “teapot” of Patrikies type was found inside a stone enclosure at the base of a palatial wall. Secondly in the northwest quarter of the palace he found some EM III-MM IA sherds along with the MM II floor deposit. While it seemed logical to date the destruction to MM II Pelon assumed that the earlier material meant the first palace had been constructed over the course of MM IA. This would make it possibly the first palace to be built on Crete, although it has been argued that similar EM II monumental architecture also existed at Knossos, which may affect the dating of the first palace there.

Malia: The Central Court
The Central Court

However, Jean-Claude Poursat argues that the high point of the early development at Malia was EM IIB and that during EM III there was so little activity that it was almost as if the site had been abandoned. In the town only a single deposit has been dated to EM III, and while reoccupation is clearly underway in MM IA, it is not clear how extensive this activity was. A group of buildings called maisons sud, part of which are to be found underneath the palace, seem to date from MM IA. Given that the palace was built over part of these houses, Poursat argues that the palace cannot have been constructed before the very end of MM IA at the very earliest and possibly in MM IB. Indeed, Poursat believes that there is so little evidence of activity at Malia in EM III/MM IA when compared with Knossos and Phaistos, where construction works were undertaken throughout this period, that it is surprising that Malia was able to build a palace at all at the same time as Knossos and Phaistos.

Indeed, Poursat goes even further. He argues that between 2300 and 1900 (EM III/MM IA), Malia was no more developed than other sites like Gournia, Vasiliki and Petras at that time and he asks how it was possible for Malia to achieve the same level of construction as Phaistos and Knossos so quickly. Moreover, suddenly the whole area is inhabited. A period of massive construction work produces new areas of Malia town, with large buildings seemingly independent of the palace and with their own style of architecture. He suggests the answer for the rapid rise of a local elite may lie in the two main activities carried out in Quartier Mu, one of the more impressive areas of the Middle Minoan town: bronze working and textile production.

Malia: the altar
Altar in the middle of the Central Court

There does not seem to be much room for agreement between those who argue for an early date for the construction of the first palace and those who believe that it dates from the same period as the other two palaces built at Knossos and Phaistos. The dispute is only likely to be resolved if further evidence can be found to support one or other of the two positions.

Little is known of the Old Palace though some finds from the Old Palace period attest to the wealth of the Old Palace at Malia. This palace was later destroyed, along with the surrounding town, at the end of MM IIB, probably by an earthquake.

The new palace

The second palace, the ruins of which we see today, was built about 1650 BCE and is similar in many respects to the old one. The second palace was destroyed around 1450 BCE, along with the other Minoan sites in Crete. The various functions of a palace — religious, political, economic — are all in evidence here.

Malia: one of the East Storage Magazines
One of the East Magazines

For over 60 years, excavators at Malia have concluded that Malia palace was a vassal of Knossos. The power of Knossos grows during EM III and it extends the territory under its control. It dominates international trade.

During MM III there is little rebuilding work done at Malia although the palace continued to function. There is evidence of craft activity, trade and administration being carried out in the palace. It is as if operations formerly carried out in the town in areas like Quartier Mu, which was never rebuilt, have been brought into the Palace itself. Some archaeologists believe that Malia may have maintained its independence up until 1600 BCE.

The new palace is essentially constructed in LM IA in the Knossian style and this suggests that Malia may now have passed into the control of the elite at Knossos. Much that would be expected is missing in LM IA Malia. Status objects are few, there are no administrative documents either in the palace or the town, pottery styles are influenced by Knossos and frescoes seem to be almost non-existent. Poursat wonders if the rebuilding of Malia was a plan by Knossos to ensure access to the east end of the island. The palace declined in LM IB when it was finally destroyed along with most other Minoan centres on Crete.

A tour of the Palace

The first attempt to excavate the site was made in 1915 by Joseph Hadzidakis but the full excavation of the Palace and much of the surrounding town was conducted by the French Archaeological School under F. Chapouthier and is still continuing today. Like the other palaces Malia has a west court. The west wing of the Palace, which probably had two storeys, contained magazines, cult rooms and official apartments.

Malia: The Loggia
The “Loggia”

To the east is the Central Court, which existed at the time of the Old Palace. This central court is oriented north-south and the main entrance to the court would have been from the north. The central court measures 48 metres by 23 metres. The north and west sides of the Central Court were lined by porticoes, a common feature in Minoan Palace architecture. Often the pillars would be alternately wood and stone, a feature also to be seen at the Knossos palace.

In the middle of the central court there is an unusual altar which was built in the New Palace period. Inside the sunken area are four supports. Although altars are common enough features of the Palaces and even of palace-like buildings such as the country house at Makriyialos on the south coast, this particular feature is unique to the Malia palace.

To the east of the Central Court are the East Magazines, well-preserved and now covered for protection. The six magazines each consist of a raised area where the pithoi would have been placed, and in the middle of each magazine there is a channel which ends with a hole in the ground. It has been argued that these channels and holes were for collecting any liquids — wine, olive oil or whatever — that got spilled.

Malia: The Grand Staircase
The “Grand Staircase”

Opposite the magazines on the north side of the west wing was a large building, in the middle of which was the “Loggia”. This building was entered from the Central Court up four steps. It is assumed that religious rites took place here which would have been visible from the central court. Behind the Loggia, and linked to it by a stairway, was the Treasure Room. Other rooms in this part of the Palace included a lustral basin and an assembly room.

To the south of the Loggia is the grand staircase. which originally led to a first floor room. To the left of the grand staircase, steps led south into the corridor which led to the Main Hall, an area used for religious purposes, which stood exactly opposite the Central Court altar. Again the Malia palace follows the traditional design of the palaces, since at Knossos the west side of the central court contained buildings with a religious function, including a tripartite shrine.

Malia: The pillar crypt
Pillar crypt from SE corner

The pillar crypt is entered from the Main Hall, and two large pillars can still be seen in the room, one of which has the engraving of a double axe on it. Pillar crypts exist in other palaces and in other buildings as well and their use is assumed to be religious. This view has been challenged but in many of the pillar crypts the room is far too small to need a central pillar to support the roof. An alternative explanation therefore has to be sought for the existence of these pillars in so many Minoan buildings. To the west of this area ran a long corridor, onto which opened a large number of magazines or storerooms. Once again the traditional design of the Minoan Palace is maintained.


If you drive from Agios Nikolaos in the direction of Heraklion on the new national road, you will see the pointer Amazonas Park.

It is a small zoo located on the side of the road in the mountains. You should visit it, inspite the fact that the road to it is difficult – very steep serpentine. The price for the ticket is 10 EUR per person, but it worth it. Before the entrance to the park there is free parking. By the way, there were not many visitors.

Here you can see a large number of birds, mostly parrots and monkeys, goats and donkeys.

Parrots are very different, perhaps fifteen species, maybe more. Not all parrots want to be photographed, some of them when you approach them fly away into the far corner of the cage, and you have to stand still, wait until accustomed.

There were also a clutch of turtles. There are very small, may be fit in your hand, they are only two months.

 

 

By the way, the recommendation is not to relax and to hold fast in the hands of personal belongings is not an empty phrase: one of the visitors to experiment simply pushed aside at arm’s length packet with a delicacy in the distance jumping monkey. She reacted instantly :).

 

Here’s a zoo. I recommend everyone to visit it.


Arvi is a relatively unknown and quiet beach which is situated in the south of Crete.

The distance to Heraklion is about 80 kilometers. The beach is accessible via the route Heraklion – Knossos – Spilia – Peza – Arkalohori – Anno Viannos – Amiras – Arvi. Also from the side of Keratokampos beach you drive to Arvi beach. The large beach of Arvi is just outside the village Arvi (in the village itself is a smaller village beach where in high season also parasols and sun bed can be hired). Here you will find amenities such as mini-markets, tavernas and accommodations. There is also a small fishing port in the village.
The village lies in a valley that is surrounded by mountains. On the route when you to go here you’ll pass a lot of ugly plastic greenhouses where bananas are grown. The beach itself is a nice sandy beach with coarse sand and a few pebbles, and you can quite easily get into the sea. We went into the water here without our bathing textiles. It is not a beach with a “wow factor” because it is so beautiful to see. A 5-minute walk from this beach brings you to another beach where it almost always is quiet. It’s called Vahoudianos Xerokambos beach or Meakis beach and it is a sandy beach located in a protected bay.

 


The women who constitute the Women’s Cultural Association of Spili, wishing to reinforce the cultural life and the folk tradition of their town, worked passionately and established the Folklife Museum of Spili, which has been housed in a two-story traditional house since 2011.

Folklife Museum of Spili

These women have collected objects which had been almost extinct from the village, maintained them and positioned them in the rooms of the ground-floor with the aid of Vorrin Museum Manager Mr. Vilianos, offering visitors a glimpse to traditional Cretan homes, while there is also an event room on the first floor. The exhibition includes farming tools, cobbler tools, a loom, traditional utensils etc. and the women have never ceased collecting objects with which many people – mostly the youth – are unfamiliar, to enrich the collection.


From Rodopos there is a path leading to the extreme north where you can see the Diktynna Sanctuary.

On the way you will pass the Ellinospilos cave which was already inhabited in prehistoric times. The sanctuary in the north of the Rodopos peninsula was dedicated to the daughter of Zeus. The myth tells that she had to escape from King Minos and jumped into the sea at this spot. Fishermen supposedly picked her up in their nets and brought her to the island Aegina, where she was honoured as a goddess. The people of Crete called her Diktynna (which means “net”).
The first sanctuary dates from 700 BC and as good as nothing is left of it. Two centuries later the sanctuary was rebuilt. During the Roman period emperor Hadrianus had it enlarged. During the later centuries a lot of the buildings disappeared, mostly by people that wanted the stones to build their own houses. The Roman temple was surrounded by columns. Places where water was saved have also been found. Statues of the Roman emperor and of the goddess that have been found here can be seen in the Museum of Chania. The walk to the sanctuary over the coastal road is long and tiring and is better not made when it is too hot. The option is to go to the Diktynna sanctuary by boat from the nearby village of Kolimbari. As I understand it there are also boat trips from Platanias (and maybe from Chania?).
Diktynna was a Minoan mountain goddess who loved hunting and nature. According to the myth she was a beautiful woman that was born in western Crete, at the Samaria Gorge and the White Mountains, and she remained a virgin by choice. King Minos fell in love with her and pursued her for nine months all over the island until Diktynna jumped off the cliff where the sanctuary now stands. The fisherman who saved Diktynna and brought her to Aegina fell in love with her as well. Diktynna didn’t answer his advances and fled to the sanctuary of Artemis. The goddess Artemis rewarded Diktynna for keeping her virginity and made her immortal.
The goddess Diktynna was worshipped throughout the island of Crete, but mainly in the west, where most temples were built in her honour. The sanctuary of Diktynna was the largest and richest. People walked barefoot to the sanctuary with their offerings. Thus they were more in contact with the nature that Diktynna loved so much.
At the end of the peninsula above a bay with a beautiful beach are on a rocky plateau the remains of a temple and an altar that were built in 123 AD during the reign of Hadrian. There are also remains of an aqueduct and other buildings. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the temple was looted and abandoned. The area at Diktynna was never really well explored or excavated by archaeologists so there could be even more under the ground.

If you want you can also drive to Diktynna. A good four-wheel drive is recommended, but it is also possibly with a normal car if you drive a little careful. You have to go to the village of Rodopos. You come riding into Rodopos from the south and go out again on the north side of the village following the asphalt road (it’s really only one road, just continue straight ahead). Keep following the road. In the beginning it is a good asphalt road. You’ll pass a small church on the right hand side and a little later the asphalt road turns into an unpaved road. In the beginning (and over the greater part) this is still a relatively wide and easy road. You keep driving straight ahead. At some point you get a split in the road. There are rusted signs with names on them (2014). The exit on your left goes to a church and so you should ignore this exit. On one of signs it says “Menies” (but hard to read). So you keep right here.
Actually it’s a matter of constantly driving straight ahead and ignore the smaller paths you occasionally encounter. You always chose the widest and therefore the most logical route. At the end the road narrows, and because sometimes you do not always know what is around the corner, it might feel a little uncomfortable for some people, but the road remains good. Depending on your speed (20 to 30 kilometers per hour), the trip takes about an hour to an hour and a half. The last piece to the beach is quite steep, but also doable. You end up at the excavation, where there is a parking space.
Here below on either side of the parking lot are the remains ancient Diktynna, including on the left the remains of a half oval building (the only complete oval building of antiquity can be found in Hamezi in Crete). If you walk towards the beach, you see on the right a path that climbs up the mountain where the remains of the temple is that is dedicated to Diana (the goddess of the hunt). You can see the remains of the pillars and there are pieces of marble. The view of the beach of Menies is magnificent. You will also find an ancient staircase that leads to a large building consisting of three rooms that are stuck together.

Source: Fred van Doorn

 


Chrysi is one of the 81th uninhabited islands of Crete, approximately 8 miles south of Ierapetra. It is 5 km in length and 1 km in width.

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The highest point of the island named Kefala, it is 31 m of the ground. It’s a real paradise on earth with beaches of golden and white sand, which are changing to rose in many points thanks to shell fragments and to crystal clear waters. At Chrysi there is an enough big forest of cedar, an area of 350 acres, full of big, impressive, perennial cedars and 49 species of fossils had been found on the volcanic rock of the island. At the north beaches, namely Mpelegrina, Chatzivolaka and Kataprosopo beaches, there is a large number of small shells and those beaches are a little organized with sun beds and sun umbrellas. On the southeast side of the island, Vougiou Mati position, there is the cove for the little boats which transfer the visitors, a traditional restaurant and a very beautiful beach. The daily access at the island is guaranteed thanks to the small ship from Ierapetra and the trip lasts less than an hour. It’s good for the visitor to know that at the Gaidouronisi camp, changing the trail marking, the seashell and sand collection as well are –typically – forbidden. The place is suitable for relaxing and calm and gives the impression to visitor that he is in an exotic island.

On the western and eastern parts of the island, some activity from the Minoan era is visible. On the northwestern side there is a little church dedicated to St Nicholas, which was probably built in the 13th century. To the northeast of the church is an old saltern and the only house on the island, which is built over ancient ruins. To the northern and northwestern side of St Nicholas, there are wells and curved tombs. The largest one is from the Roman period. The prevailing plants are cedar, juniper, mastic tree, either in the form of shrubs or a trees, as well as anemophilous vegetation. The roots of the cedar are at least double in size of their hight. Apart from the long roots, they also have a lot of very thin ones which form a dense net holding the sand. Chrysi has a fantastic cedar forest which is unique in Europe. It is 350 hectares in size and has approximately 14 trees per hectare. The average age of the trees is 200-300 years and the forest covers about a quarter of the island. These trees are a rare variety of Lebanese cedar. They grow up to 10 metres high and the diameter of their trunk is up to 1 metre. Compared to its size, Chrysi has a very large number of plant species which correspond to one twentieth of the Cretan flora. There are more than 100 recorded species. 13 are endemic to Greece, five of them are endemic to Crete and one is endemic to Chrysi, which means that it cannot be found anywhere else in the world. It is a type of colchicum called Colchicum Costurieri.

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