AGIOS NIKOLAOS (Map
A kilometre to the north of the present town, at the spot where
the luxury hotel, the Minos Palace, now stands, a small, protected
harbour is formed which was used by experienced seamen to tie
up their ships as far back as Minoan times. When the Byzantines
threw the Arabs out of Crete and the second Byzantine Period
(961-1204) began, this small harbour became the centre for commercial
traffic in east Crete.
In today’s world of laws and statutes and means of protecting
citizens’ lives and property, it is difficult for us
to realise the anxiety and insecurity that tormented the people
in that not so remote period. Constantinople was a two month
journey away, and the Byzantine fleet travelled at a snail-like
pace. Who would protect their lives and their property if pirates
suddenly appeared at that small isolated harbour? Their only
comfort and hope was God and his saints, and especially St.
Nicholas, the patron saint of seamen. So the pious Cretans built
a humble church at the entrance to their harbour which was dedicated
to St. Nicholas and which they decorated as well as their limited
finances would allow.
Unfortunately, when you are attacked by enraged pirates, your
faith operates more as a comfort after the destruction than
as a protection against it. The Venetians, who knew this very
well, preferred to strengthen their defences with castles rather
than with churches when they conquered Crete. In order to protect
the Porto di San Nicolo, as they called this small harbour,
after the church which stood at its entrance, they reinforced
the castle that the Genoan pirate Enrico Pescatore had had time
to build (but not to enjoy for very long) in 1204 on the hill
between the lake of Agios Nikolaos and today’s marina.
The small, insignificant Doric town of Lato Pros Kamara was
built on the same spot, of which very few traces are left.
The castle of Mirabello, as they called it after the wonderful
view it had over the whole bay, was not so strong after all
and so Turkish pirates captured it in 1537 and plundered it.
A century later, in 1645, when the Turks mounted a campaign
with their whole army against Crete,
the Venetian governor, thinking logically, abandoned it without
a fight and took refuge in the much stronger fortress of Spinalonga,
on the island of the same name a few miles to the north. It
seems that all its inhabitants abandoned it, as no source since
then has referred to Agios Nikolaos at all.
Only at the beginning of the 19th century did some villagers
from Kritsa come and build their huts here, using stones from
the completely destroyed fortress. Their small settlement, Mandraki,
grew gradually by serving trade and sea transport in east Crete,
and by the end of the 19th century it was already a big town
spreading around the Voulismeni Limni, a lake whose waters are
so deep that popular imagination believed it to be bottomless!
This myth was dispersed by the English admiral, Spratt, in 1853
when he sounded it and found its bottom at an impressive depth
of 64 metres. It ceased to be a lake in 1870, when the small
canal was dug which to this day joins it to the sea and which
turned it into a sheltered harbour for fishing boats in the
heart of the town. This lake, the creation of nature from the
epoch of great geological wonders (the Miocene, 25 million years
ago), was the exotic factor that started to attract tourists
in the beginning of the 1960s.
today is a big town of 8,000 inhabitants, the capital of Lasithi
prefecture, with a lot of tourist traffic during the summer
months. It has no airport, but it is connected by a regular
ferry service to Pireas, on board the wonderful vessel, “Vincentzos
Kornaros”, the best ship plying the Aegean today. Unfortunately,
the disorganised and sudden expansion of Agios Nikolaos destroyed
to a large extent the traditional character the town had maintained
until the 1960s. The picturesque fishing village is now full
of inelegant blocks of flats encircling the
Voulismeni Lake and covering all the surrounding hills. Scattered
through the town, in the shadow of the blocks of flats, some
traditional mansions still exist, having by some miracle escaped
demolition, and they are today preserved buildings which usually
house restaurants or luxury guest houses. Most of these are
situated on the hill south of Voulismeni Lake, where the Venetian
fortress, Mirabello, once used to be.
Nothing remains of the Venetian monuments of Agios Nikolaos.
Not even the fortress Mirabello exists any more, and only its
name survives in the name of Mirabello Bay. As for the small
Byzantine church of St. Nicholas which gave its name to the
town, this at least has managed to stay
upright and indeed it has preserved its frescoes. Now that
the restoration and maintenance work has been completed, you
can visit this small chapel (ask for the key at the reception
desk of the Minos Palace Hotel) and admire the 14th century
frescoes, underneath which much older decorative plant and geometric
motifs of the 8th-9th centuries have been found. Another very
interesting Byzantine church, the church of the Virgin Mary
is preserved in excellent condition two blocks behind the Cathedral
of the Holy Trinity, but it is permanently locked and it is
difficult to find anyone to open it for you (ask at the cathedral).
A real adornment of Agios Nikolaos is the Archaeological Museum,
at 68 Palaiologou Street, near the Voulismeni Lake (open from
8.30 a.m. - 3 p.m. every day except Monday). It may not be very
big, but it has exceptionally interesting exhibits and it is
worth going early in the morning so you have plenty of time
before you. In its seven well cared-for rooms, you will see
important treasures from the Neolithic Age up to the Roman Period
which have been found in east Crete. In Room 1 you will see
burial gifts from Neolithic graves (3000 - 2300 BC) found in
Aghia Fotia, near to Sitia, and many pots, among which one
Early Minoan pot stands out - it has many triangular holes
and is probably a brazier or a censer. In Room 2, the outstanding
exhibit is the anthropomorphic libational pot, the so-called
“Goddess of Myrtos”, which was found in the Minoan
settlement of the same name; it is a masterpiece of the Early
Minoan Period. Room 3 is full of finds from peak sanctuaries,
burial grounds and cities of the post-Minoan Period. In Room
4 you will see funeral gifts from various burial grounds of
the post-Minoan Period, but the outstanding exhibit is a child
buried in an earthenware pot from Krya, outside Sitia, which
was brought to the museum and exhibited exactly as it was found.
In Room 5, many idols of the Geometric and Archaic Periods are
exhibited, while in Room 6, large busts of women predominate,
which were found in Greco-Roman Olous (the place where present-day
Elounda is situated). In Room 7, you will see burial gifts found
in graves of the Roman Period. The most impressive is a skull
adorned with a gold wreath and with a silver coin between its
teeth, the fare which the dead had to pay to Charon to ferry
them in his boat to the Underworld.
Agios Nikolaos does not have any notable
beaches, neither does the Mirabello Bay generally.
If you don’t want to be crowded on the public beach
of Kitroplateia or of Almyro,
the best and nearest answer is the fairly large sandy beach
approximately one kilometre outside Agios Nikolaos on the road
Elounda. All these beaches are naturally full of umbrellas and
sun-beds, and it is unlikely that you will find a free piece
of sand to spread your towel out on.
of the information on this page : “Unexplored
Crete”, Road Editions. For more
guidebooks and maps of Greece, click here.