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Agios Nikolaos - Zakros

 

21. Agios Nikolaos - Zakros (see Map)

21.1 Agios Nikolaos - Sitia 21.2 Sitia 21.3 Sitia - Zakros

Agios Nikolaos - Sitia

Now that tourist development has covered all the areas north of Agios Nikolaos as far as Elounda, it is starting to spread towards the south. The first 5 km as far as the village of Ammoudara are full of holiday homes and all kinds of tourist business gathered around the small sandy beaches. After Ammoudara until Pahia Ammos (an ugly village built behind an ugly beach), there are many inlets in the coast with sandy creeks, where many hotels, both large and small, and a camping site have sprung up, but the noise from the main road that goes right by them is a disadvantage.

Map,  Agios Nikolaos to Zakros

You can of course stop just for a swim, ignoring the illegal fences put up by many of these businesses. Remember that in Greece, all beaches are public and private property stops where the sand begins. The owners of land next to beaches are obliged to provide access paths to them, and if they don’t do this, you can open their garden gate, cross their land and threaten to call the police if anyone dares to stop you.

The coastal route to the village of Kavousi is not particularly interesting. But the mountainous landscape to the south of this road hides some noteworthy places. The first is the Minoan settlement at Vrokastro, on a hill 1,500 metres south of the village of Istro. It was here that the American archaeologist Edith Hall excavated in 1910-12 the ruins of a late-Minoan period settlement which seems to have been inhabited until the Geometric Period (11th-8th centuries BC).

Istron

There is no road leading to the archaeological site, so if you want to climb up here (300 m high), you will have to leave your motorcycle and take the path that begins just before the small sign marked ‘’13 km’’ along the road from Agios Nikolaos to Sitia. The climb is not as tiring as you might think, and you will certainly enjoy a beautiful view from up here, and a solitary tour of the (rather poor) ruins of the ancient city.

Almost 17 km along the road from Agios Nikolaos to Sitia, you will see a dirt road (D3) going off to your right (there is a Greek/English sign at the junction marked “Faneromeni Monastery”). Even if you are not especially interested in monasteries, it is worth making this small diversion to enjoy the breathtaking view from the monastery down to the Bay of Mirambelo. This monastery was built in the middle of the 15th century and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, whose icon manifested itself (thus the name of Virgin Mary Faneromeni, or Manifest) in a small cave on this spot.
Approximately one and a half kilometres east of the junction to the Faneromeni Monastery, you will see a road (there is a Greek/English sign at the junction that says “Gournia Archaeological Site”) which branches off to the south and goes to the archaeological site of Gournia.

THE MINOAN SETTLEMENT AT GOURNIA
They say that it was a small engraved stone found by a villager on this low hill on the east side of the Bay of Mirambelo that led a young and insignificant (at that time...) American archaeologist, Harriet Boyd Hawkes, to dig here in 1901. During the next four years, a fantastic Minoan city of the Neopalatial Period (1700-1450 BC) came to light; its street plan was wonderfully preserved. Its streets were rather narrow (1.5-2 metres wide) but well-built and cobbled with wide pebbles from the sea. The houses had only one entrance which gave onto the road; many of them had two floors, with stone walls on the ground floor and brick ones on the upper floor and a flat roof that was supported by wooden columns. It seems that the city prospered and occupied itself with peaceful pursuits (it did not even have walls) until it was destroyed by fire in around 1450 BC, the same period that the other Minoan centres on the island were destroyed. The inhabitants then abandoned it in a hurry, leaving behind their possessions, many of which were found intact in their place. The workshop of a metal-worker (1), a potter (2) and a carpenter (3), with many of the trade tools and work materials in their place, exactly as the Minoan craftsmen had left them, have given us important information about everyday life in Minoan Crete. Among them lived the lord of the settlement, who had his luxurious house on the top of the hill (4), a miniature of the Minoan palaces of the period. As with so many other Minoan settlements, this one too keeps its ancient name secret...

After Pahia Ammos, the road begins to climb steadily to the northern slopes of Mount Ornos, and the route starts to get interesting. As soon as you arrive at the village of Kavoussi, you have two choices, both wonderful!
Choice Number 1: take the south road, i.e. turn south at the village of Kavousi immediately after the last (furthest east) house in the village on the passable dirt road (D3) to Bembonas and Chrisopigi, and after Chrisopigi, follow the asphalt road (A3) that goes north-east and ends in the village of Piskokefalo, just south of Sitia. This southern road crosses a landscape of wild beauty, covered in low bushes, mint, thyme, dittany, oregano and sage that fills the air with perfume. A few poor mountain villages are hidden on these slopes, on the smooth highlands formed between Mounts Orno and Thrypti, and these are inhabited only during the summer months, as isolation and the heavy winters are intolerable even for the hardened locals.
Choice Number 2: continue on the north road (the main road from Agios Nikolaos to Sitia), which crosses the infertile and precipitous northern mountainsides of Mount Orno with many bends but with a good road surface that allows you to ride at a fair pace. The road goes through or next to the most beautiful villages in Crete, like Lastros, Sfaka, Mirsini, Exo Mouliana, Mesa Mouliana and Tourloti. In Tourloti, the biggest village in the area, there are two traditional coffee-houses. In one of these, the coffee-house of Michali Papadaki, you can eat local specialities like khohlious (snails) and lahanopitia (little pies made of wild greens).

THE PARIS OF CRETE
“Whoever has a beautiful daughter
Should marry her off in Lastros
Where it gets dark early And gets light late!”

Built on the edge of a ravine between two high mountain peaks rising to a height of 1000 metres, Lastros spends most of its daylight hours in the cool shadow of the mountains. So the Lastrians leave late for their fields and gather early in their homes, enjoying the delights of family life. They sit for hours around the lighted fire where they roast chestnuts or corn-on-the-cob, they enjoy a late meal around a laden table and of course they spend many hours in bed. Perhaps this “luxurious” life of the poor Lastrians is the reason why the neighbouring villages have given Lastros the nickname of “the Paris of Crete”!

The village of Lastros

One of these “Cretan-Parisians” was Nikos Hatzidakis, who was born in the spring of 1914, just six months after the Union of Crete with Greece. Poor and fatherless from a very early age, he walked through life with quiet and humble steps, with his pockets empty but with his stomach always full of the well-cooked food which his wife, Krystallia, made for him. He was neither handsome, nor tall or well-educated. But the sun shone out of his heart and this showed in his warm eyes and in his smile. He knew very well that warmth is an internal matter, just like the lighted fire in his home in his shadowy village. He could see God’s work in the most improbable small objects, which he kept and took pleasure in, as if they were valuable treasures. When he was sad, he cried like a small child, and when he was happy he laughed from the bottom of his heart.

Nikos Hatzidakis

He was one of those rare people who enjoyed Paradise on earth. He tasted it in every mouthful of fresh bread, he smelled it in the oregano and thyme that he rubbed between his fingers, he heard it in the voice of his only daughter, Venetsiana.

When he died in the summer of 1993, they found in his jacket pocket a small piece of paper on which he had written in his calligraphic handwriting:
Whatever kindness passes through my hands, let me do it now. I mustn’t put it off until tomorrow, nor must i neglect it. Because i shall never pass this way again..."

At many points on the road, you will see diversions leading to fantastic landscapes and archaeological sites on the north coast. From Kavousi itself, there is a road (D3) that goes north towards the sandy beach at Tholo, where you will find a taverna and a few rooms to rent, although you can easily camp rough. A little way down the main road you will meet the junction (A3) that goes to Mochlos, the seaside village where the mountain villagers in the area come down to spend their summer holidays. For visitors, there are two hotels and many rented rooms in Mochlo, which are usually full of the archaeological teams who dig here every summer, and of the people who are gradually discovering this beautiful place.

Mochlos

If, however, you cannot find a room to stay in, there are many quiet corners where you can pitch your tent. As for food, you have many good things to choose from. In the taverna “Ta Kochylia”, owned by Michalis Frangiadakis, you can eat dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), fantastic athoulenious (courgette flowers stuffed with rice), stuffed vegetables, moussaka, and really fresh fish (if it’s available, try grilled skaro with tomato sauce). In the taverna Mochlos, owned by Yiannis and Elli Zervakis, underneath the hotel of the same name, you can eat extremely tasty rabbit. You can have the best bouillabaisse and also fresh fish cooked on charcoal at the “Ta Kavouria” taverna, owned by Spyros and Maria Galanakis. If you are lucky and they have made fasoulopatates (an oily dish with potatoes and fresh beans) that day, you’ll lick your fingers as well. Just down the road is the “Sophia” taverna, owned by Yiannis and Giorgos Petrakis. Mrs. Marika, their mother, who works in the kitchen, makes a wonderful sea-urchin salad, grilled baby octopus, and all the fish is cooked on charcoal. Five hundred metres to the west, outside Mochlos, the Limenaria restaurant has very good fish.

On the small island of Agios Nikolaos, just 150 metres opposite the coast of Mochlos, and on the island of Pseira three miles to the west, a Greek-American team headed by archaeologists Konstantinos Davaras and J. Soles have, from 1988 to the present time, been excavating the ruins of a Minoan city and of its graveyard, continuing the excavation that was begun in 1908 by the American Richard Seager. You can admire finds from this Minoan city (whose ancient name is also unknown) at the museums of Sitia and of Agios Nikolaos.

Continuing east on the main road, 3.8 km after the eastern sign of the village Exo Mouliana, you will see a big new sign that says “Chamezi Middle Minoan House” and it tells you to turn right. “Fine!” you think, “here is the local authority urging me on and helping me visit this unique Minoan monument.” Fifty metres further on, however, there is a junction, but this time without any sign to tell you where to go! If you feel like it, play the game that the local authorities make all visitors play, the one called “Orienteering in the olive-grove labyrinth”!

The Minoan villa at Chamezi

Try to find the Minoan settlement without instructions. If you manage it, congratulations - you don’t need this or any other Guide, as you are a born tracker! If you get lost, see below how to find the road. On your way, however, stop off at the village of Chamezi and deliver a letter of protest to the Chairman of the village, in the name of the thousands of travellers who have gone through the ordeal caused by the indifference on the part of the authorities in placing three silly signs at as many critical junctions, which shows their complete contempt towards visitors.

So, at the first junction, if you chose the wider road on the right, you’re lost! Forty metres on, you will see a narrow road going off to the right. The most reasonable thing would be to continue straight on the wide road, right? Wrong, you’re lost again! You should have turned right here. Six hundred metres on, there is a third junction. Without doubt, you choose the road on the right which climbs the hill, as you know that the Minoan habitation is built on the top of a hill. And you’re lost for the third time! Because you should have turned left at the road going downhill, then right at the next fork and left at the one following and - phew! - you’re there.

On top of the hill the locals call Souvloto Mouri, archaeologist Stephanos Xanthoudidis discovered in 1903 the only circular Minoan house that has been found up to the present time. At first, archaeologists assumed it was a peak sanctuary due to its strange architecture and because of four earthenware idols for worship found here, along with a well in the centre of the structure that resembled a circular depository. They later assumed it was a fortress because traces of stairs were found, which means that the building had a second floor.

But in 1971, archaeologist Konstantinos Davaras made supplementary excavations here and found a second entrance to the building, thus excluding the possibility of its being a fortress. He also found a waste water duct at the bottom of the well, which means that it was a tank for collecting and disposing of rainwater, and not a reservoir. As for the idols for worship, they must have belonged to a private temple that was housed in one of the rooms of this house. Its owner must have been some local landowner who oversaw his fields from here. Now that he’s away and he’s left his house unlocked, you might feel the desire to sleep in his bedroom. Although sleeping in a genuine Minoan house must be an exciting experience, it’s better not to try it as there are poisonous and sleepless guards. Not, of course, the local police (who probably don’t even know the place exists) but the many snakes making their nests in the cracks of the walls.

Well, back on the main road and fifty metres along (to the east) from the sign showing the Minoan house at Chamezi, you will see a narrow cement paved (at first) road going off to the left, i.e. to the north (there is a small sign in Greek at the junction reading: “A/T OTE”). Turn here and set your trip odometer (kilometre counter) back to zero so you can follow Road Book 12 and go to Liopetra, perhaps the best freelance camping site in Crete. Liopetra is a high hill (430 m) near to the coast. Its eastern slope is quite smooth and the (D3) road climbs here up to the summit, where there is the well-kept country church of the Prophet Elias and the impressive ruins of the Venetian settlement built by the hunted inhabitants of Sitia just before the Turks captured their city in 1651. Most of the houses still have their walls and their vaulted roofs and you can easily sleep in whichever one you like! But it’s better to pitch your tent on the flat balcony formed by the rock on the west side of the hill, with a sheer cliff 400 metres below it, and with an amazing view of the sea to the north and as far as Agios Nikolaos to the west!

If you want to do everything, it is a good idea to go towards Sitia by the north road and to return from Sitia by the south road. If you prefer to do a combination, take the south road as far as the village of Paraspori (approximately 8 km before Piskokefalo), turn north onto the dirt road that begins in this village and come out again onto the main road from Agios Nikolaos to Sitia at the village of Skopi. From Skopi, ride a few km westward to visit the Minoan house at Chamezi and to take the northern diversion towards Liopetra (see above).


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

Syros. This is the island where Greek tradition and western influence come to a harmonious marriage. Ermoúpoli(meaning “the city of Hermes”) is the island’s capital town and has been the first important trade and industrial centre of the country in the 19th century. Evidence of this glorious past can be seen on public buildings (the City Hall, the Customs Office, “Apollo” theatre), on the neoclassical houses and at the beautiful squares. Due to its economic activity, Ermoúpoli has been called “Manchester of Greece” and the history of its years of blossom is exhibited in the Industrial Museum.
The Orthodox community has contributed some outstanding religious monuments to the architecture of Ermoúpoli such as the churches of Metamórphossi tou Sotíros (Transfiguration of Jesus Christ), St Nicolas the Rich (Áyios Nikólaos Ploússios), Dormition of the Mother of God (Koímissis tis Theotókou).

 

 

 

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