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Agios Nikolaos

 

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

Agios Nikolaos

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,

Agios Nikolaos

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.

Agios Nikolaos 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

Agios Nikolaos

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

Agios Nikolaos

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.

Elounda

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 to 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.


THE ROUTES THE ROUTES

Routes starting from Hania

Hania
1. Hania - Akrotiri
2. Hania - Paleochora
3. Hania - Sameria
4. Hania - Hora Sfakion (Sfakia)
5. Hania - Kissamos (Kasteli)

Routes starting from Kissamos
Kissamos (Kasteli)
6. Kissamos - Gramvoussa
7. Kissamos - Elafonissos
8. Kissamos - Paleochora (through the Topolian Gorge)
9. Kissamos - Paleochora (through Episkopi)
10. Kissamos - Sirikari

Routes starting from Hora Sfakion (Sfakia)
11. Hora Sfakion - Rethimno (Rethymnon) (travelling inland)
12. Hora Sfakion - Rethimno (Rethymnon) (following the coast)

Routes starting from Rethimno (Rethymnon)
Rethimno (Rethymnon)
13. Rethimno - Ierapetra (following the south coast)
14. Rethimno - Ierapetra (travelling inland)

Routes starting from Ierapetra
Ierapetra
15. Ierapetra - Zakros (coastal road)
16. Ierapetra - Zakros (inland route)

Routes starting from Iraklio (Heraklion)
Iraklio (Heraklion)
17. Heraklion - Rethymnon (coastal road)
18. Heraklion - Rethymnon (travelling inland)
19.Heraklioon - Agios Nikolaos (coastal road)
20. Heraklioon - Agios Nikolaos (travelling inland)

Routes starting from Agios Nikolaos
Agios Nikolaos
21. Agios Nikolaos - Zakros


Source of the information on this page : “Unexplored Crete”, Road Editions. For more guidebooks and maps of Greece, click here.

 

 

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