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Heraklion - Agios Nikolaos

 

20. Heraklion - Agios Nikolaos (travelling inland) (see Map1 - Map2)

20.1 The Palace of Knossos 20.2 Archanes - Fourni - Juhtas 20.3 Towards the Lasithi plateau
20.4 The Lasithi plateau    

TOWARDS THE LASITHI PLATEAU

South of the archaeological site of Vathypetro, you continue along a dirt road (D1) which divides into two after a while. Whichever leg you choose, you will come out at the village of Choudetsi, where you take the main road (A3) which comes from Iraklio. From here on, you have to cross on indifferent farming landscape until you arrive at the plateau of Lasithi. The quickest way of covering this distance is to turn north of Choudetsi towards the village of Kalloni, immediately after which you turn right (east) towards the village Agies Paraskies.

Map, Heraklion to Agios Nikolaos

From Agies Paraskies you can already see in the distance the impressive western slopes of Dikti, behind which is the plateau of Lasithi, but don’t get carried away with riding fast, because the road is slippery asphalt and is full of dangerous bends.

When you arrive at the entrance to the village of Kasteli, you have two choices. If you want to ride only on asphalt, turn left (to the north), following the Greek/English signs which say “Chersonisos” and “Iraklio”, and after 9 kilometres turn right onto the main road (A3) which crosses the lush valley of the River Aposelemis. Having passed through the picturesque villages of Potamies and Avdou, you climb the main road towards the Plateau of Lasithi with dozens of tourist coaches and rented jeeps for company. If, however, you don’t mind riding over dirt roads for a while, you have a much better choice; turn north out of the village of Kasteli, following the Greek/English signs reading “Chersonisos” and “Iraklio” and another 400 metres along, turn right at the junction where you will see a Greek/English sign saying “Xydias” and “Mathia”. You will soon enter the large, picturesque village of Lyttos. About 400 metres after the village sign, you will see a small rusty sign in English which says “Aski”, “Avdou”, “Tzermiado”. Turn left here onto the road (A3) that climbs with very enjoyable horseshoe bends on the vine-planted hillsides.

Just before you arrive at the highest point of the route, you will notice to your right on top of a hill some ruined windmills and two old country churches. On top of this hill, one of the most powerful Doric cities in Crete, Lyttos (or Lyktos) was built. To arrive at the top of the hill, turn right (south) onto the dirt road you will see hiding among the vineyards just 100 metres before the highest point of the main route from where you have the first view down into the valley of the River Aposelemi and the village of Avdou. This dirt road stops at a small opening between the two churches, which are almost completely built of ancient materials. At exactly the opening where you have parked your motorcycle, and as far as the northern church (of the Holy Cross), was the Agora (market), the heart of the ancient city. Its ruins were found buried just a few metres beneath the soil, waiting patiently for the archaeologist’s pick-axe, which has made only a few investigatory cuts in this most important city.

At the summit of the hill to the south, where the church of St. George stands, is the council chamber of the city. The city itself was built like an amphitheatre on the hillside, and occupied a very large area. Its theatre was the biggest in Crete. It could still be seen in 1583, when the Venetian archaeophile, Onorio Belli (the personal doctor to the Venetian Duke of Crete) saw it and marked it with remarkable accuracy, but in the course of time it has been filled with earth and covered up and its exact position is unknown today.

The village of Aski

The Venetian doctor sent the statues and other sculptures which he found here to his master and since then, of course, their fate has been unknown. The only visible traces of the city are the ruins of a habitation of the Hellenistic Period, and parts of the wall of the Byzantine Period, and you can see these on the hillside due west of the church of the Holy Cross. But if you walk among the vineyards and the wild grass, you will see many pieces of marble and, of course, many fragments of pots from ancient Lyttos.

When exactly the first settlement was built up here is unknown, as no archaeological research has yet taken place. The historian Polyvios, however, mentions (IV, 53-5) that Lyttos is the most ancient city in Crete . Homer in the Iliad (p 605-616) tells us of the self-sacrifice of the brave soldier Koiranos, from the well-built Lyttos, who sacrificed himself in order to save the King of the Cretans, Idomeneas, from Hector’s spear. It is certain that, from the time when the Dorians settled here, around 1000 BC, Lyttos knew a long period of prosperity which lasted until the Roman era. Its military power was greater than that of Knossos and its rule spread over the greater part of eastern Crete. Lyttos was one of the few Cretan cities which did not have walls, because it considered its worthy army and its fortified position a powerful shield. For many centuries it was a thorn in the side of the Knossians, who had allied even with their enemies, the Gortynians, to subdue it but every time they were defeated. In 220 BC, however, the Lyttians made their big mistake. They attacked Ierapytna with their whole army, leaving behind a small guard, but they had some difficulty in the battle with the Ierapytnians and were late in returning. The Knossians found the opportunity they had been waiting for centuries, and with the help of the Gortynians, they dominated the undefended Lyttos without difficulty. Without delay they plundered it, pulled it down to the ground and burned it. When the Lyttians returned home and saw their destroyed city, they fell into deep melancholy. They dragged themselves in despair to the hospitable Làppa, where they settled temporarily. Many years later, when they had got over it a bit, they returned to their devastated city and rebuilt it with the help of the Spartans. They had, however, lost their old power for ever and chiefly their self-confidence, and so they allied themselves with neighbouring cities which had once been under their rule, in order to survive. They resisted the Romans in 68 BC, but to no avail. However, under Roman domination, Lyttos went through a new period of prosperity. When the life of the city was finally snuffed out and from what cause, what were the daily occupations of its inhabitants, what their houses and their public buildings were like - Lyttos has kept all these and many other secrets to itself up to this day, buried a few metres below the earth.

After the village of Aski, the dirt road (D1) continues through the olive groves which cover the valley of the River Aposelemi. What makes this route so very enjoyable is the fact that at every junction there are clearly marked brand-new English signs which guide you in all directions.

Avdou

Following steadily the signs towards Avdou, you can ride without stopping, and indeed at a spanking pace if you want, as the road is perfect. The route from Aski to Avdou is an example of how enjoyable and relaxing a tour through Greece would be if all the local authorities had the elementary sense to place road signs at junctions.

The village of Avdou and the next village, Gonies, are big villages which owe their vitality to the fact that they are built on one of the biggest tourist routes in Crete - the Iraklio-Lasithi Plateau route. Here, of course, you will find many restaurants and rooms to let on the main road, but the genuine character of a Cretan village is maintained in the neighbourhoods behind the road: children running on the pavements, the fat grocer carrying sacks into his warehouse, the old men sunning themselves in the small yard of the coffee-house; and if you can find a free table and if the coffee-house owner likes you, he might make you a plate of mouth-watering fried potatoes!

After the village of Gonia, the road (A3) climbs steadily up the western slopes of Mount Dikti, which are covered with low vegetation (bushes and wild flowers) and with sparse trees. Just before the village of Kera, you will see on your right, next to the road, the Monastery of the Virgin Mary of Kera (closed between 1.00-3.30 p.m.).

The Monastery of Kera

This is a very old monastery, also known as the Moni Kardiotissa, probably built at the beginning of the 14th century. Its chapel is fully embellished with exceptional frescoes of that period and its architecture is strange - the result of its various renovations. The unfortunate thing is that it is situated next to the main road, and it is included in the sights visited by the endless batches of tourist coaches going towards the Plateau of Lasithi. You will be very lucky if you manage to go when there are only a few visitors.

A few metres before (north of) the monastery you will see a cement road that descends into the ravine and after a while ends at the old village of Kera, built at the edge of a ravine and literally smothered in greenery.

The Monastery of Kera

Not only do tourists not visit it, but even its inhabitants have also abandoned it; they have all moved together to Epano Kera, next to the main road, in search of a better income in the small shops which serve the passing tourists. In the old Kera, you will see that time has stopped at the end of the last century and there will be two or three almost indestructible old men sunning themselves in the grassy yards or slowly dragging themselves along the pavements. This place is an abandoned paradise, with water running everywhere, an amazing view to the Valley of Aposelemi and a ravine full of birds whose song is heady.

A few metres before you enter old Kera, you will spot on your right a dirt road (D3) descending the northern slope of the ravine through the wood. This dirt road ends at the country church of Zoodohos Pigi built in an amazing landscape. The absolute silence, the absolute isolation and a well with drinking water make this an ideal spot for a free overnight stay.

After the Monastery Kera, the narrow road (A3) ascends the steep mountainside, offering a lovely view of the plain to the west, but you’d better just look straight ahead because this road has the worst c.p.h. rate (coaches per hour)! In August, especially, the average is 75 c.p.h., and this is exceptionally dangerous because of the narrowness of the road: on sudden and blind hairpin curves, the coaches take up all the road in order to turn. When you see a big parking area with dozens of coaches and hundreds of camera-toting tourists standing even in the middle of the road, then you’ve arrived at the highest point of the route (900 m) and at the entrance to the plateau. Park your motor bike next to the cafeteria and climb a few metres up the northern slope to the place where you will see some old ruined windmills, so as to avoid the scrum. Even better, climb to the summit at Papoura (1,025 m high) some 100 m higher than the windmills, from where you will enjoy a superb view of the plateau.


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

In the small but organized city museum you will see findings from excavations in ancient Kissamos and its surrounding areas. The museum’s collection includes floor mosaics of 2nd and 3rd century houses found in Kissamos city, as well as findings from the archeological sites of Polirrinia and Falasarna (mainly statues, reliefs and ceramics dating back to the Hellenistic and Roman times).
The present town is famous for its amazing wine which is produced here and is celebrated with “the Feast of Wine" at the beginning of August. During the feast local wine is offered in great quantities under the sound of lyre and lute and in a very enthusiastic atmosphere.
The beaches surrounding Kastelli that you can visit for swimming in the homonym gulf are Molos beach covered by thick pebbles, Ghipedo beach surrounded by trees and Telonio beach with view of the Venetian walls. It is better though to take the road to the famous Gramvousa peninsula.

 

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