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Heraklion - Agios Nikolaos

 

19. Heraklion - Agios Nikolaos (coastal road) (see Map1 - Map2)

The coastal national road from Iraklio to Agios Nikolaos is wide, well-designed and ideal for fast riding. As far as Malia, it follows the coast closely and serves the island’s biggest tourist area - this means that there is a lot of traffic and you shouldn’t go too fast on this section of the road. It would also be better to avoid riding on this road at night, because it is full of Irakliot and foreign drivers going to Chersonisos (or Hersonissos) for a night out or coming home from there, usually rather ‘merry’, if not inebriated, after a few drinks.

Map, Heraklion to Rethymnon

From Malia to Agios Nikolaos, there is much less traffic on the road so you can accelerate with no trouble. Just after Malia, the road leaves the coast, going in a south-easterly direction, and runs along with the old Iraklio-Agios Nikolaos road in the verdant Selinari ravine where you will enjoy a very spectacular route. At some point, you will see in front of you a huge wall of rock blocking the ravine on its south side. The old road climbs over the top, while the new one goes through the rock via a tunnel. As soon as you come out of the tunnel, you face the cultivated valley of Neopolis through which the road winds like a stream as it descents towards Agios Nikolaos, crossing the old road over bridges and then running directly alongside it. Five or six kilometres before Agios Nikolaos, you will see two European style petrol stations, the best in Crete, where it is worth making a stop for supplies and a bike check before entering the town.
If you don’t want to ride all the distance in one go, there are many places along this route, worth at least a short visit, and some very interesting diversions.

First of all, there is Amnisos, one of the two harbours of Minoan Knossos, built on the coast at the foot of Mesovouni Hill, approximately 8 km east of Iraklio (there are Greek/English signs on both the old road and the new motorway that will lead you to the archaeological site). On the eastern slope of the hill, archaeologist Spyros Marinatos discovered in 1932 a luxurious Minoan villa dating back to 1600 BC, which was called the Villa of Krinon after the well-known fresco that was found here and is on exhibition today at the Iraklio museum. At the foot of the hill on the north side, he found a smaller building which he called the Port Authority, and a little further to the west, an open-air temple with a large round altar, dedicated to Zeus. Due west of the altar are the remains of the jetty of the Minoan harbour, and today, these are sunken beneath the surface of the sea. King Idomeneas set off from here with his ships for the Trojan War, and Odysseus stopped here during his adventurous journey on his way back from Troy (Homer’s Odyssey, T.188-89).

After 26 km is Chersonisos (or Hersonissos), the biggest and most organised summer resort in Crete. If you haven’t been to Chersonisos, you don’t know what chaos is. Mykonos is a girls’ school, Rhodes a hermitage and Corfu a cemetery, by comparison! Just to list the bars and hotels in Chersonisos would take ten pages.

Hersonissos or Chersonissos

But you don’t need a guide or suggestions to find your way around in Chersonisos - all the buildings here are either bars, discotheques, hotels, restaurants or tourists shops. The choice is endless! There is also a wide, sandy beach at Chersonisos, but most of the people lying on the sand are not sunbathing but have simply fallen there flat out at dawn after the evening’s revelries. All this is of course only in July and August, well, maybe up to the middle of September. After this, Chersonisos is like a deserted town.

It is rather improbable that you should want to visit Chersonisos for its history, but if you are interested in such things, you can see on the east side of the harbour right in front of the seaside bars, the remains of the jetty of Greco-Roman Chersonisos, then called Cherronisos. Only a few coins and scattered foundations of houses have been saved from the even older town (Cherronisos started off as the port of Lyttos). At the end of the small peninsula (chersonisos) (from which the town took its name) you can also see the foundations and the mosaic floor of a large basilica of the 5th century, and also the marble Christian Altar which was the lid of a Roman sarcophagus before it was recycled!

From an archaeological point of view, there are much more interesting things for you to see a few kilometres along the road at Malia. A huge tourist resort the same size as (and perhaps a little bigger than) Chersonisos has developed around the big sandy beach at Malia and is an open shrine to the goddess Enjoyment, with orgies of feasting and ecstatic dancing until morning! On its east side, however, far away from the noise and the crowds, are the ruins of an important Minoan palace whose name is not known and so it is called by convention “The Palace of Malia”.

THE PALACE OF MALIA
(Guarded archaeological site, open from 8.30 a.m. - 3.30 p.m. Closed on Mondays.)

One day around 1850, a villager from Vrahasi ploughing his field here, in the narrow fertile plain stretching between the sea and the mountain peak of Selena, saw something glittering in the freshly-turned earth. He picked it up and looked at it carefully. He may not have understood that it was a piece of Minoan jewellery, but he realised immediately that it was gold and therefore valuable. So he took it to the town and sold it to a goldsmith, who melted it down to make his own jewellery with the gold...
The villager became rich overnight, but the secret got out just as quickly. The place, which was named Hrisolakkos (golden hole) after the treasures it was hiding, filled up with illegal excavators.

The bees of Malia

The gold objects they found had a value for them that was totally financial and not at all archaeological. So most of them ended up in the goldsmiths’ furnaces as a raw material, although a few were sold to foreign antiquities smugglers who, in this particular case, must be considered as benefactors as they saved unique treasures from certain destruction. It is considered probable that the “Treasure of Aegina”, today to be found in the British Museum, originated from here.
Sixty-five years later, when not even a stone was left in its place at Hrisolakkos, the Archaeological Service learned the news. It purchased the violated land in 1915 and immediately began excavations under the leadership of the archaeologist I. Hatzidakis. After seven years of systematic work, a wonderful Minoan Palace came to light, totally plundered but in good condition.
The Palace of Malia (whose ancient name remains unknown) has absolutely the same proportions as the palaces of Knossos and Phaestos. It was built in around 1900 BC, suffered great damage in the earthquake of 1700 BC but was rebuilt more splendidly than before, and was completely destroyed in around 1450 BC. It developed around a large, paved Central Courtyard (1) with an orientation from north-east to southwest.

The Palace of Malia

The main entrance to the palace was to the south (2) and you too will go in this way, but there were also entrances to the east (3), north (4) and west (5). Of course it had large storehouses (6) where wine and oil were stored in enormous jars, whereas grains and other cereals were probably kept in eight circular storehouses at the south-west corner of the palace (7). The dining-room must have been on the upper floor, on the northern side of the Central Courtyard, above the area with the six big bases of the columns (8). A narrow passage led to the northern courtyard (9), from where another passage ended up at the Royal Apartments Complex (10). A spacious room on the west side of the Central Courtyard (11) must have been the feasting area while directly behind this was the Temple of the Palace (12), and further back still was probably one of the kitchens (13). Directly north of these rooms was the magnificent staircase (14) which ascended to the apartments on the upper floor. In the south-west corner of the Central Courtyard, you will see the first four steps of an even wider staircase (15) that probably served in sacred ceremonies because next to it was found a kernos, i.e. a round, wide stone with 34 sculptured cavities of various diameters where they probably placed (as an offering to the deity?) the first fruits of the harvest.
A large and seemingly rich city grew up around the palace, with many craftsmen, merchants, seamen and artists. Some of its neighbourhoods have been excavated and you can visit, following the paths marked on the plan. Directly north of the palace are the city’s marketplace (Agora) and an underground building of unknown use which was named the Hypostyle Crypt, and was possibly a place for secret meetings. At the north-east edge of the archaeological site, isolated from the city’s neighbourhoods, is the graveyard, the famous Hrisolakkos of the antiquities smugglers. A piece of jewellery that escaped them (the juxtaposed bees, see page 51) and was found by the French archaeologists who have been digging here from 1922 onwards, is enough to show the marvellous skill and aesthetics of the Minoan goldsmiths. You can admire them at the Iraklio Museum but you will also feel sad if you think how many other similar masterpieces were melted down in the furnaces of the antiquities smugglers...

West of Malia as far as the cape of Agios Antonios and from there to Agios Nikolaos, the coast is rocky and often precipitous and the hinterland behind is one of the few ‘islets’ where the real character of the Cretan soil survives. Just like the Vamos peninsula in the prefecture of Hania, this big triangular piece of land north of the road from Malia to Agios Nikolaos has avoided tourist development because it is lucky enough not to have beaches and archaeological sites and to be situated in a corner outside the tourist routes. There is of course the jet set resort of Elounda on the east coast, but this is an isolated complex that does not affect the rest of the region.

Xera Xyla Monastery

There are also the ruins of an important Minoan city, Driros, but this is near to Neopolis and most visitors don’t go any further inland. Whichever road you take, you will go through picturesque villages, most of which are unfortunately semi-abandoned, and see impressive monasteries like the restored Moni Aretiou north of the village of Karidi, the ruined Moni Xera Xyla, whose cells have been taken over by a shepherd to use as a sheepfold (!), and the Monastery of Agios Antonios on the Cape of Drepani. You will find few rooms to let in the poor villages, but you can stay at the village coffee-house for a coffee or a very tasty plate of fried potatoes, and it is very likely that the taverna owner will find a room to put you up in for one night.

Elounda is the most ‘jet set’ holiday centre in Crete but without there being any special reason for this. The place is very dry, the coast is rocky, there is no airport or port nearby, neither is there any traditional or historic village that would act as a magnet. Just a few poor villagers lived here and struggled all year round with their olive trees, and they supplemented their income by extracting from the neighbouring hill a type of fine-grained emery, the so-called whetstone from which they made knife sharpeners.

Elounda

These poor people saw their barren fields acquire enormous value from the one day to the next when the first big hotel complexes started to be built. Today, some ten luxury and ‘A’ category hotels are gathered here, where the cheapest double room costs €300 a night, and to stay in the most expensive, you will have to sell your motorcycle in order to walk over the threshold! It is completely improbable that you will want to stay here, but in the rare event you are on honeymoon or you’ve just won the lottery, we will mention some of them. Astir Palace Elounda, Elounda Mare, Elounda Ilion, Elounda Beach, Elounda Village, Elounda Marmin. Elounda may not have even ten metres of beach worth speaking of, but it does have dozens of swimming pools, tennis courts and golf courses where you may meet select members of the financial and political aristocracy or even the Prime Minister in person! If you are an ordinary mortal, there are also some cheap rooms in Elounda, but it is not necessary to tell you how marginalised you will feel staying in these!

Directly opposite Elounda is the deserted island of Spinaloga, which many years ago was not an island but a peninsula that was joined by a narrow sandy isthmus to the opposite shore. The Greco-Roman city of Olous was built on this isthmus, but land subsidence sent it beneath the sea. Archaeological excavations have never taken place here and the only things you can see from ancient Olous (on a day when there are no waves) are some foundations of houses in the shallow water.

Spinalonga

The harbour at Spinaloga was the safest harbour in Crete not only because it was not hit by bad weather, but also because its only (at that time) northern entrance was protected by an impregnable fortress built by the Venetians in 1570. But at the beginning of this century, French seamen dug the canal which you can see today, separating Spinaloga from the mainland without there being any important reason for so doing, except perhaps their vanity in creating an island! Today there is a small bridge joining Elounda to Spinaloga. The only road on the island is a rough dirt road (D4) which goes through the bushes and ends up at a small pebbled beach on the east side, a rather inconvenient but quiet spot for rough camping. In order to see the fortress of Spinaloga (which is not actually on Spinaloga but on the small rocky islet of Kalydona, north of Spinaloga) you have to take a boat from Elounda or Agios Nikolaos.


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

Numerous thematic museums show Crete’s glorious past and modern cultural life:
• Heráklion Archaeological Museum exhibits significant findings of the Minoan Civilisation and is considered to be one of the most important museums of its kind in the world. Thousands excavation finds, from the Disc of Phaestos to the gold pendant of Mália and the clay dancers from Kamilári reveal an ancient-old illustrious past.
• Heráklion Historical Museum presents the evolution of the city during the centuries; among the exhibits stand out three paintings by El Greco and manuscripts of the famous author Nikos Kazantzakis.
• Cretan Ethnology Museum at Vóri reveals the island’s folk life.
• Natural History Museum at Dermatás Bay promotes the unique habitats in Crete and the Mediterranean.
Traditional settlements and historic villages built on mountain slopes and valleys are often surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. Discover the local architecture and spirit of Crete at Arhánes, where neoclassic nobility coexists with rural simplicity, or visit Episkopí with its Byzantine churches. Áno Hersónissos is a picturesque hamlet with Byzantine churches, old wells and stone ovens.

 

 

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