18. Heraklion - Rethymnon (travelling inland
) (see Map1
Start in the same way as Route 18.1, but about 4 km after the
New National Road bridge turn left following the signs toward
Tilissos and Anogia. After a trip through a fertile valley planted
with vineyards and olive trees, you’ll enter Tilissos,
a village with a name that goes back 3500 years. To visit the
ancient settlement that once stood here, follow the Gr/E signs
that you’ll see at the entrance of the village.
As you continue your trip to the west and leave Tilissos behind,
you’ll find yourself on a winding road that climbs the
north side of Mt. Psiloritis.
After going through the picturesque Gonies,
a hamlet with a beautiful old neighbourhood, you will arrive
at Anogia, a large, humming mountain village
between two hills. Most visitors pass through this place on
their way to Rethimno (Rethymnon) and Ideon Andron, and they
see nothing more in it than a village with rather ugly houses
and a lot of tourist shops. But Anogia is a place with history
and character, with warm people and an excellent cuisine. It
is indeed worth it to spend a night here, so you can have a
chance to enjoy all this.
But it is also worth it to spend a night at the Nida
plateau, 1400 metres above sea level, at the heart
of Psiloritis. It is one of the largest and most secluded plateaus
on the island and certainly the most beautiful. If you come
around the beginning of spring you’ll see it in all its
glory, covered with wild flowers in full bloom! You
can set up your tent anywhere you like and spend a truly magical
evening under the light of the Galaxies that seems to caress
the snow-capped mountain peaks. To get here, drive to the east
entrance of Anogia and turn on the road (A3) that goes south
and climbs the mountain. (There is a Gr/E sign at the intersection
that says “Ideon Andron 21”). The route
itself offers a wonderful opportunity to travel on the mountains,
and though it has many sharp turns the asphalt is quite good.
The next morning you can get up and visit the Ideon
Andron, the cave where Zeus grew up according to mythology,
or, even better, try to get to the Holy Cross on the top of
Psiloritis. (This is at a height of 2456 metres, and you should
count on eight hours to get there and walk back). Several dirtroads
start from the plateau. One of them (D3) goes south, climbing
down the mountain, but stops suddenly - and probably with no
prospect to continue - just 1 km away from the road that starts
from Vorizia, a village at the foot of Psiloritis’ southern
side. A second dirtroad (D3) goes northwest, leading to a ski
resort, and at some point splits in two.
A branch of it (D4) goes north, taking you through wooded mountain
slopes and pasturelands, and meets the asphalt road a few kilometres
east of Zoniana. However, it is not certain that you will find
it in good condition, because it is used very little (having
practically become a sheep path!), it is rarely repaired, and
it can easily become impassable if there is a heavy downpour.
It might be best, then, to return to Anogia the same way you
On your way back, you will see a dirtroad (D3) on your right-hand
side, which starts about 1 km after the plateau and climbs Mt.
Schinakas (1750 metres). A second road branches off to the right
and takes you through the wonderful Rouva forest with its big
holm-oaks, which seem to have been a permanent feature of the
landscape since the ancient times. Unfortunately, the road stops
here; had it continued for another two kilometres it would have
met the road that starts from Gergeri and climbs to the south
side of the forest. In general, you should know that there is
no road starting from the plateau that can take you to the villages
at the foot of the south side of the mountain.
If you spent the night in your tent and the next day you climbed
to the top of Psiloritis, you should treat yourself to a well
deserved rest. In Anogia you will find many Rooms to Let, which,
though far from being luxurious, will give you that “homey”
feeling for a very low price. (This is especially true of the
rooms in the lower neighbourhoods with the narrow alleys).
The village is about 700 metres below the Nida
plateau, but keep in mind that the nights are just as cool and
you will need a blanket even in the heart of summer. If you’ve
spent several days at the beach and have had enough of the heat,
you may wish to stay here for a few more nights and enjoy the
What you’re certain to enjoy more, though, is the villagers
themselves. The Anogians form a closed mountain community with
a traditional economy based on stockbreeding. Social structures
have remained the same as in the past, and the people have their
own distinct dialect and culture. They speak in their own curious
way, with l’s sounding more liker’s, they use plenty
of ancient Greek words, and they even swear in the name of Zeus!
They receive their visitors with the same hospitality that
Homer describes in his epics, they sing and dance and play music,
and they have big parties that create a feeling of elation,
second only to the celebrations of their ancient forefathers.
The greatest Cretan singer, perhaps the greatest Greek singer,
Nikos Xylouris, was born in this village. As
for the local cuisine, it will offer you a unique glimpse of
a world of Primeval Delight.
To get a good taste of it, go to the tavern of Manolis Pasparakis
on the main road. It is called "The Eagle", and it
is the first tavern you will see on your left-hand side as you
enter the village from the east. The small wooden sign of the
tavern is not so easy to spot, but the Greek “barbecue”
out on the pavement will tell you that you’re at the right
place. The way Manolis cooks the meat must not be very different
from the way it was prepared by the cave dwellers of the past.
He cuts (or tears!) the meat in large chunks, spits it, secures
the spits around the three sides of the barbecue, and allows
it to cook slowly over the fire that he lights in the centre
with dry holly wood. (Incidentally, the meat is of his own production).
Even the poor chicken taste like wild pheasants, while the steaks
are a true delight and the lamb chops will be a memorable experience.
As for the sausages (also of Manolis’s own production),
you will need many glasses of strong red wine to recover from
their “explosive” taste and aroma. Along with the
meat, you will be served crunchy French fries, cucumber-and-olive
salad with aromatic olive oil, and apaki, smoked ham kept in
brine and vinegar and served slightly fried. Admittedly, during
the high season a big part of the magic is lost, because Manolis
has to cope with too many hungry tourists demanding service
at the same time. But if you happen to come off-season you will
have an experience to remember all your life.
If you are interested in caves, Psiloritis is a true paradise.
Besides the well known tourist sights - Ideon Andron and the
Kamares cave there are hundreds of other small or large caves
and chasms on the limestone body of Psiloritis. For detailed
speleological info, look up Lykourgos Vrentzos in Anogia. The
son of a shepherd and a member of the Speleological Society
of Iraklio, Lykourgos knows the caves in the area like the back
of his hand.
The road (A3) after Anogia goes down the bare mountainside.
As you continue your trip and head west, you will find a second
road to your right after a few kilometres, which leads to the
village of Axos. (There is a Gr/E sign at the intersection directing
you there). Axos is visited by all tourist groups that come
here in buses or rented jeeps, so you can expect a good many
restaurants and tourist shops with “folk art” that
spoil the picture. If, however, you happen to come in the off-season,
you will get to enjoy a picturesque hamlet with many Byzantine
churches that go back to the 13th or 14th century. At the south
entrance of the village, right behind the Byzantine church of
Aghia Irini, you will see a footpath. If you follow it for 400
metres or so (5 - 6 minutes of walking), it will take you to
the scarce ruins of the ancient town of Axos.
Axos was founded by the native Cretans, the Eteocretans,
who fled to the mountains under the pressure of the Dorian invasion
that took place around 1100 BC. The Italian archaeologists who
excavated the area in 1899 found a wonderful bronze helmet (now
at the Archaeological Museum of Iraklio) and the foundations
of an archaic temple that was probably dedicated to Athena,
the war goddess with the helmet. With such relentless pressure
they had to face, the poor Eteocretans may have even slept with
their helmets on!
If you took the road to Axos, get back on the main road and
continue west (toward Zoniana). A little before
the entrance of the village you’ll see a Gr/E sign to
your right, which sends you to “Cave Sendoni Zoniana.”
Some local authority thought of doing something to increase
the tourist flow to this truly impressive cave, but something
went wrong. Though there was a lot (an awful lot...) of money
spent to smarten up the area outside the cave and build a nice
kiosk, everything has been left to its fate and is now falling
apart. What’s worse, this is not due to any understandable
reasons but to red tape and miscommunication. Apparently, the
community felt that it had to get a certain price from whoever
rented and operated the new facilities, but no one offered to
pay such a price. As a result, the community decided to close
them down and let them fall apart, thus making it evident for
one more time that the Greek Authorities are totally incapable
of managing effectively the country’s “capital”
(be it its natural beauty, or the archaeological treasures that
have come to light, or any other asset).
The Sendoni Cave served as a hide-out for the Greek fighters
during the years of the Turkish rule, but luckily only the entrance
area was used. In the largest part of the cave the stalactites
have survived intact, offering a truly wondrous spectacle. The
cave is one of the most beautiful on the island (at least among
those that have been explored), but if you want to see it you
must be very careful because it has several galleries and many
After Zoniana the road (A3) passes through some fifteen villages
(practically one every one thousand metres). Some are large
and ugly (like Livadia), some are large but attractive (like
Kalivos and Aghios Ioannis), some are small and picturesque
(like Kalamos and Passalites), and some are almost abandoned
(like Kalandare). If you drive slow and make a few short stops
on the way to visit some old churches and pottery workshops,
you will see everything there is to see in the area.
The next long stop is at the village of Ancient Eleftherna,
where you can see the ruins of the ancient town after which
the village was named. As you enter it you’ll see a small
square with a fountain and a road that starts there and goes
to the right. (There is a Gr/E sign at the intersection that
says “Antiquities”). After 200 metres or so the
road stops before a tavern. On the right side of the tavern
there is a footpath with a rusty old sign directing you to “Ancient
Eleftherna.” Take it and in three or four minutes you’ll
be walking among the ruins of the ancient town.
As you continue west of Ancient Eleftherna, you pass the ugly
modern village and then turn left at the intersection with the
signs directing you to the
Arkadi Monastery. After the monastery you’ll
see a road (A3) on your right-hand side, which goes north, passes
through some small villages - Amnatos, Kirianna, Loutra, Adele
- and takes you to Rethimno, which you enter from the east.
If you’d rather not follow this course, there is an alternative
route to Rethimno that goes over the mountain, but this is part
of route 18.3.
of the information on this page : “Unexplored
Crete”, Road Editions. For more
guidebooks and maps of Greece, click here.