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Heraklion - Rethymnon

 

17. Heraklion - Rethymnon (coastal route) (see Map )

From Heraklion to Rethymnon

You will enjoy a very scenic ride between rows of oleanders with charming pink or white flowers. But though you drive very close to the coast, you will not find a single beach that’s great for swimming. Nor will you see any remarkable sights, except perhaps for two or three places worth a stop, so you can turn up the gas and enjoy the feeling.

Map, Heraklion to Rethymnon

Leave Heraklion (or Iraklio) from the Hania gate and follow the Gr/E signs directing you to Hania and Rethimno (or Rethymnon) - or leave from the gate of Knossos, follow the Knossos signs, and when you find the New National Road turn right and head for Rethimno.

As soon as you pass Cape Panagia, you will encounter the first of three roads branching off the main road and leading to the beaches of Agia Pelagia and Ligaria. Ignore them and keep straight. Agia Pelagia has lost its natural beauty, as year by year it was filled with hotels and restaurants crowded behind a narrow stretch of sand. As for Ligaria, the once peaceful beach that was the Iraklians’ last hope for a nice swim, it is smaller than the Agia Pelagia beach, and already it has been taken over by a large company that has dug up the hill behind it and is putting up a luxurious building complex with a 1200 room capacity...

The next intersection you will encounter has a Gr/E sign directing you to Fodele (“Fodele 3, Achlada 7”). The road goes through some orange groves and ends at the small village square which is usually full of buses and rented cars. Fodele is visited by large crowds of tourists, because it is said to be the birthplace of the painter Dominicos Theotokopoulos, the famous El Greco. With so many visitors, the villagers should normally be rich. Wouldn’t you be tempted by an old time coffee shop with a yard full of trees and orange juice squeezed out of fresh village oranges?

El Greco. Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple. c.1570. Oil on panel. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA

Wouldn’t you like to sit at a small restaurant with small hand-painted signs, chairs of straw and wooden tables covered with a simple check tablecloth? Wouldn’t the idea of a well cooked mousaka or a refreshing peasant salad with fresh tomatoes appeal to you? And wouldn’t you visit a small museum at the home where the famous El Greco was born? (Imagine an interesting collection of the painter’s personal items, or at least an exhibition of typical everyday objects of his time). Well, instead of all this, here is what you are going to see: restaurants with plastic chairs and plastic signs; cafeterias full of idle old and young men sipping cafè frappè, practically the only thing served; and dozens of balconies with rows of cheap T-shirts with stupid slogans reaching almost down to the street, or with a “parade” of carpets with pink dolphins and other similar folk art items made in Hong Kong.

Apostles Peter and Paul by El Greco

The house where the painter is supposed to have been born is permanently locked, and the El Greco Museum that travel guides advertise is nothing but a room in the community office, also locked, containing a hastily put together collection of cheap, low-quality copies of El Greco’s works together with some miserable-looking books spread out on a table. (If you wish to see it you must first pay a visit to Kirà Marìa, the lady who holds the key; her shop is about 100 metres away). Even the sign directing you to El Greco’s home is rusty, and his name has been written with a spray! Just think: these people are supposed to live in a village honoured by a world-renowned painter of the 16th century, and they didn’t bother to put a tasteful, painted sign outside his home. This fact alone is sufficient proof that El Greco was not born here.

Why come to Fodele then? For the wonderful Byzantine church of the Holy Mary. It dates from the 14th century, and it is built on the foundations of an earlier Christian church of the 8th century, which has also provided some of the building materials that went into the later church. You will see it on your right-hand side as you enter the village, situated next to the El Greco house and framed by orange trees. Unfortunately, this church is also permanently locked. However, you can see its excellent wall paintings from the window of the sanctuary, a window that belongs to the 8th century church and has two marble arches.

After the visit take the same way back and continue west on the National Road. At the next intersection that you’ll see there is a road leading to Sisses, but the village is not worth visiting and neither is the beach at the end of the dirtroad (D3) that goes north of Sisses. Continue then to the west and treat yourself to a wonderful view of the north side of Mt. Koukoulonas and the rocky shore. The next intersection is to your right and if you turn you’ll reach a seaside settlement named Bali. Bali in Turkish means honey, and the name reminds of old times when the area was known for its wonderful honey.

Fodele, Byzantine church of the Holy Mary

Contrary to the sweet associations it brings to mind, the village has no exotic beaches or magic beauty; it is, in fact, a mish mash of hotels and restaurants lining a rather ugly beach. In classical antiquity this was the site of Atali, the seaport of Axos, a town of which nothing has survived.
A few hundred metres after the Bali intersection you’ll see a road branching off to the left and a sign directing you to the “Holy Monastery Atalis Bali”. The monastery is dedicated to John the Baptist and it is the first sight on our route that is worth visiting.

Once back on the National Road, continue straight for 1.5 km and turn left on the dirtroad that you’ll see after you get out of a mountain pass and have a sudden open view to the west. There is no sign at the intersection to direct you, but the road leads to Exandis, the village you’ll see to your left. At the heart of the village, opposite to the kafenìo (where they serve fresh orange juice), turn left again on the road (A3) that leads to Melidoni. When you get there you’ll see a sign directing you to the historical “Melidoni Cave”; turn right and follow the narrow cement path all the way to its entrance. The local guy that will try to sell you flashlights and a personal tour is not worth the money he is asking, so refuse politely and proceed on your own. (You might want to give him two or three hundred drachmas, though, to keep an eye on your motorcycle). Do not get disappointed by the first one hundred metres and the rotting electricity wires that the Melidoni Community decided to hang inside the cave; a little further it gets really wonderful. The first hall you will find has a monument erected in honour of the 350 men, women and children who died in the cave in 1822, after the Turks discovered their hide-out and lit a fire to make them suffocate. From here you can continue either to the right (you’ll reach the end of the east chamber that has a length of 35 metres) or to the left (until the end of the 30-metre chamber to the north).

Between Melidoni and Rethimno there is nothing special to see. After your visit to the cave you can simply continue southward, reach Perama, and turn right (west) on the Old National Road connecting Iraklio and Rethimno. This will take you to the coastal road, near the village of Stavromenos, from where you can continue straight to the town. Your best option, though, is to go back to Exandis, make a stop for another one of those great cheap orange juices, and get back on the coastal road at the same point you left it. From here to Rethimno, it is one fast, enjoyable ride without stops or detours.

Holy Monastery Atalis Bali
(closed between 12:00 and 4:00 p.m. and all day Friday).

Holy monastery Atalis Bali


We do not know exactly when the monastery was built. We do know that the first reported renovation was in 1635, when the Venetian rule of the island was almost at its end. Being in the middle of nowhere, the monastery served as an excellent refuge for rebels and outlaws all during the Venetian and Turkish rule. After the failure of the 1866 revolution, however, the Turks caught on, and they launched a fierce attack against all monasteries in the region.

The historical Arkadi monastery went up in flames, and the Turks destroyed the monastery of John the Baptist and killed the monks. Half-ruined and forgotten, the monastery went on “living” until 1941, when the last of its monks died. In the forty years that followed, it was looted by men and ruined by the forces of Nature, so that it was no longer recognisable.

Holy monastery Atalis Bali

In 1983, though, Father Anthimos came to live here, and aided by the Department of Byzantine Antiquities, the EOT and the faithful who never gave it up, he restored the monastery. Twelve years later, the outcome is incredible. Not only is it impossible to tell what condition the place was in, but the visit will charm you, especially if you treat yourself to a nice picnic in the shaded yard behind the church.

Bring a snack, sit at the wooden table, and let your eyes wander over the sea. Father Anthimos will offer you cool water and refreching apricots right fromthe tree.


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.

 

 

Tip of the day

Ios means “flower”. Did you know that?
Íos or Niós, as the locals call it, is one of the most beautiful islands of the Cyclades, like a flower, as its name “Ion” denotes. According to the ancient tradition, Íos was the homeland of Homer’s mother and the final resting place of the great epic poet. Upon reaching the island, the view before you is enchanting: as pretty as a picture, Hóra lies very close to the harbour in Ormos and greets the travellers, built in an amphitheatre-like manner on the slope of a hill, on the top of which there are ruins of a mediaeval castle. This is a listed traditional village, one of the finest examples of Cycladic architecture. Snow-white little houses, picturesque arcade-covered alleys (“stiyádia”), the twelve windmills, churches with arched belfries and light blue domes create a unique residential area. Hóra’s sheltered alleys is the “stage” where Koúnia, an ancient local custom is performed every May, as follows: young men make swings for young ladies who rock themselves while listening to traditional love songs being sung to them in the form of a dialogue.

 

 

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