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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

Sitia - Zakros

The coastal road (A3) that goes off east of Sitia is the only one in the area with traffic because it leads to the two popular sights in east Crete - the Toplou Monastery (Moni Toplou) and the palm tree forest at Vai. If you want to cut off from the main road a little, about two kilometres after Sitia you will see a road (A3) going off to your right (south) and climbing towards the plateau of Ziros (there is a Greek/English sign at the junction marked “Roussa Ekklisia”).

Map,  Agios Nikolaos to Zakros

At the centre of the picturesque village of Roussa Ekklisia there is an enormous plane tree next to which runs the cold water of a spring. An iced coffee made from the water of this spring and the deep shade of the plane tree give you the coolest stop you could make. Returning to our main route, continue east on the coast road where there is not much to see, until you arrive at the historic Toplou Monastery. You must take great care on the road from Sitia to Toplou Monastery as it is narrow with many badly-designed bends.

After the Toplou Monastery, the road (A3) continues through an isolated landscape and meets the main road from Palaikastro to Vai at right angles. Turn left here and right at the next junction, following the Greek/English signs for Vai, in order to see a landscape unique in the whole of Crete. Vai is a big sandy beach like so many others in Crete but with the special feature that behind it there is a thick palm tree forest (more than 5,000 trees, said to have sprung up from the stones of the dates spat out by the pirates who were hiding here!).

Vai

As you descend the road towards the beach, you have the impression that you are in an oasis in the African desert! As soon as you reach the beach, however, you will have difficulty in finding a parking place even for your motorcycle. There is an even greater jam on the beach, where the crowd is a fact of life from early in the morning, and it is the same thing in the taverna and the bar, where the prices are daylight robbery. Vai is a very beautiful place, but to enjoy it you have to come here after the end of September and before July. In the high season, it’s better to try and see if you can find more space on the beach directly south of Vai, ten minutes away on foot by the path that starts behind the taverna.

Vai may steal the show, but if crowds annoy you, there are other lovely beaches in the area with much less people. Take the road (A3) that goes north towards Cape Sideros and leads to the small village of Erimoupoli.

Vai

There are three wonderful beaches here next to each other. The best is the most southerly one, directly south of the ruins of the ancient city of Itanos.

An even quieter beach, ideal for rough camping, is Chochlakia beach, one kilometre northwest of Erimoupoli. The dirt road that continues east from Erimoupoli towards Cape Sideros is cut off a little further along by the gate of an army camp which unfortunately takes up all the beautiful area of the cape.

 

Toplou Monastery
Alone in the middle of nowhere and built at a time (around the middle of the 15th century) when pirates and bandits of all nationalities were ravaging Crete, the only way the Toplou Monastery could survive was to have strong fortifications. So the monks built a thick 10 metre high surrounding wall of stone, complete with small windows like arrow-holes, a heavy castle gate, murder holes for pouring out boiling oil onto the heads of attackers, and they placed a cannon on the rampart of the door! (It was after this that the Turks called the monastery Toplou - ‘Top’ in Turkish means cannon ball.) Despite its strong fortification, the monastery was captured and looted twice, first by the Knights of Malta in 1530 and later by the Turks in 1646. It kept its fortifications however, and right throughout Turkish rule it was a refuge for rebels, which was the reason for the many disasters it suffered. Even during the German occupation, the monastery took part in the resistance with a wireless set installed here.

Toplou Monastery


Unfortunately, most of the monastery’s heirlooms were destroyed by the Turks. In the centre of the surrounding wall is a small chapel dedicated to the Birth of the Virgin Mary; this is distinguished by a wonderful icon dating back to 1770, the work of the icon painter, Ioannis Kornaros. The most important heirloom of the monastery, however, is not ecclesiastical; it is an epigraph of the 2nd century BC, engraved on a stone plaque, which comes from ancient Itanos. It contains the first 80 lines of the Treaty of Magnisia, a treaty signed by the Cretan cities of Itanos and Ierapytna under the arbitration of the Asia Minor city of Magnisia. The English traveller, Robert Pashley, in 1834 found it functioning as the altar in the chapel of the monastery’s cemetery, and under his recommendation, the monks enshrined it in the external wall of the chapel where it is still to be found today. The Toplou Monastery today has only three monks, but it continues to own an enormous amount of land that earns a lot of profits for it, as you can see for yourself by the very luxurious work on ….

 

ANCIENT ITANOS
Once, when the inhabitants of ancient Thera (Santorini) became too many, they decided that half of them had to leave and go establish a colony. So they sent a delegation to the Oracle at Delphi to ask Pythia, the priestess, about the most suitable place to colonise. The mischievous Pythia replied: Libya! The poor Therans had never heard of Libya and thus they set out in search of someone who could show them the way. While searching, they eventually came to Itanos where they found, at last, someone who had been to Libya. Well, he hadn’t exactly navigated there but rather had been blown there by a storm at sea that lasted for days, and he had managed to return intact! He was Koryvios, a murex fisherman. The maze-like sketches he drew on the sand to help the Therans find their way were too complicated and so the latter convinced him to lead them to Libya, for a very handsome fee of course.

The story (preserved by Herodotus) provides a first valuable piece of information regarding the occupations of the residents of ancient Itanos. Much more evidence was unearthed by the French archaeologists who dug here in 1950, but have not yet published their findings officially! According to all indications, ancient Itanos was built (the exact time is anybody’s guess) by Phoenician merchants on the site of a pre-existing Minoan settlement. The Phoenicians brought products of their country, sold them in Crete, then bought Cretan products and shipped them back to their homeland. Later on, however, they developed a local cottage industry for the production of porphyropsin, a bright purple pigment extracted from the sea-shells harvested in Cretan waters. Besides the porphyropsin workshops, Itanos also claimed (in Roman times) many glass-making workshops.

The Itanians worshipped their own Phoenician gods, naturally, but their most palpable profits came from a Cretan god, Diktaios Zeus. The famed temple of Diktaios Zeus (east of present day Palekastro) was situated in the region occupied by the Itanians and, consequently, the generous offerings made by the faithful ended up directly into their treasury! Yet, two other cities in the area, the Eteocretan Praisos and the Doric Ierapytna had had an eye on the temple for quite some time, not for religious reasons of course. Sometime around 160 BC, the Praisians managed to occupy the temple, but the Itanians recaptured it with the assistance of King Ptolemy of Egypt. A few years later (in 155 BC) Praisos was razed to the ground following a decisive attack by the Ierapytnians, who then started pressing heavily on the Itanians. Finally, the Romans intervened and destroyed the quarrelsome Ierapytna. Itanos on the contrary sided with the Romans and flourished during the entire period of Roman rule, as well as during its successor, the first Byzantine period. Nevertheless, it suffered great destruction in the earthquake of 795, never to recover since. Whatever was left intact by the quake was levelled by the Arabs in 824. Today, you can see only scattered stones around the two hills where the city once stood. As a tribute to those clever “manufacturers” who embellished their era with their bright pigments, do wear something purple as you tread through the ruins of their city!

Continuing south from Vai you will cross a barren rocky landscape and roughly 6 kilometres later you will reach the fairly developed and attractive village of Palekastro, frequented by tourists precisely because it is very close to the famed Vai. Here you can find plenty of rooms to let, as well as 4-5 hotels, the outstanding one being the Marina Village Hotel (C class, quiet location, swimming pool, safe motorcycle parking; tel. 0846-61284). There are also a few good restaurants and tavernas, such as the Mythos that serves Cretan cuisine, Basiakos in the neighbouring village of Angathia, and three excellent fish taverns at Chiona, the beach of Palekastro.
The beach at Chiona is spacious, clean and sandy and attracts a good number of bathers. At its southern end, nevertheless, you will find many secluded sandy coves among the rocks, where you can even pitch a tent. Directly behind Chiona beach lies the archaeological site of Roussolakos.
The narrow prefecture road (A3) south of Palekastro traverses a landscape of weird brown cliffs blotched by low thorny bushes and wild flowers. The gentle eastern slopes of the Ziros Plateau are the nesting grounds for half a dozen hamlets whose very inhabitants cling to their traditions and busy themselves mainly with the cultivation of olives. Langada, Azokeramos, Chochlakies, Kelaria, Adravasti, Klisidi, make one wonder how they managed to survive after all the calamities that befell them. The worst one happened in June 1824 when the bloodthirsty janissary Housein Lagoudoglou rounded up all the Christian men of these villages in a storehouse in Chochlakies on the pretext of reading to them some sultanic firman, and then took them out one by one and had them slaughtered to the last...
Inside Chochlakies you will see an English/Greek sign urging you east toward the Chochlakies Gorge. The road (D3) continues for about 2 km through olive groves and then becomes a foot path all the way to the coast where lies the exquisite and serene sand of Karoumbes beach.


South of Chochlakies, at the northern end of Adravasti village you will come upon a dirt road (D3) that goes west and ascends towards the Ziros Plateau.This is a very good choice if you want to return to Sitia via a mountain road, passing through the highly picturesque villages of Karidi, Palio Mitato, Krioneri and Roussa Ekklisia.

Adravasti

The entire plateau is an ideal terrain for off-road riding and rough camping, full of dirt roads which form ring routes and pass through quaint villages or next to isolated farmhouses and country chapels. If you are up to it you can attempt a greater detour by turning south at Karidi toward Sitanos, in order to visit the medieval towers at Chandras and Etia and the ruins of ancient Praesos (see Route 16)
Carrying on south of Adravasti, the road (A3) goes through the large village of Ano Zakros and ends at the coast, where the Minoan palace of Kato Zakros is situated (see Route 15).

 


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

Naxos. “Big Sweet has this island, virtuous are the faces of people, piles are shaped by melons, peaches, figs and the sea is calm. I looked at the people - never this people have been frightened by earthquakes or by Turks, and their eyes did not burn out.
Here freedom had extinguished the need for freedom, and life spread out as happy sleeping water. And if sometimes was discomposed, never rose tempest. Safety was the first gift of island that I felt as walking around Nàxos." (N. Kazantzakis, "Report to El.Greko").
Náxos is the biggest and the greenest island in Cyclades with impressively high mountains, fertile valleys, lush green gorges, stunning seascapes and traditional villages perched high on mountain tops, where the inhabitants still wear their traditional dress and live off the fruits of the land! Náxos is also an island of beautifulold churches, monasteries and Venetian castles coexisting harmoniously with Cycladic cubic houses. Explore traditional villages spread around the island, with a particular, “magical” character: Apérathos is a colourful mountainous village boasting five museums, stone-built houses, beautiful squares and narrow alleys paved with marble, and Panayia Drosiani, a beautiful church of the Early Christian Period!

 

 

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