21. Agios Nikolaos - Zakros (see Map Crete Agios Nikolaos)
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 of Crete. From Sitia 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
Crete, Vai beach
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.
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.
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, Crete
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 ….
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
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.
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).
of the information on this page : “Unexplored
Crete”, Road Editions. For more
guidebooks and maps of Greece, click here.