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Heraklion (Iraklio)


Heraklion (Map of Heraklion-Crete )

Eleftheriou Venizelou Square, which the locals call Liondaria (Lions), is the best point to begin your tour of the city. In the centre of this small triangular square, the Morosini Fountain has been preserved in its original position - this is the famous

Heraklion, Crete. Morosini Fountain

Heraklion, Crete. Morosini Fountain

fountain which was built in 1628 by the Venetian Governor of the city, Francisco Morozini (a different person from the man who defended the city against the Turkish siege).

This is the heart of the city, a meeting-place and the centre of traffic 24 hours a day. Most of the shops around the square are patisseries and cafeterias that are always full. Here you will find the celebrated bougatsa (a sweet pie) shop “Kir-Kor” which, truly, makes excellent bougatsa but serves tiny portions and charges a lot for. In the far part of the square are the little bars frequented by young people.

Directly opposite the Liondaria is the Loggia, the Society of Venetian nobles which today has been restored and houses the Town Hall's Council Chamber. The Town Hall itself is housed in the restored building of the Venetian Barracks, next door to the Loggia..

Heraklion or Iraklio harbour

Heraklion or Iraklio harbour

Enclosed within the northern wall of the Town Hall is a sculpture which in the old days adorned another of the Venetians' fountains, the Sangrento Fountain that was situated at the north-west corner of the Loggia. Many years ago, opposite the Loggia and facing the Morozini fountain was the Palazzo Ducale (Ducal Palace), the seat of the Venetian Duke and his Council, a most elegant building of which nothing remains. The third building that completed the nucleus of Venetian Cadia was the church of St. Mark built in 1239, i.e. in the very early years of Venetian rule. The Patron Saint of the Venetians had a very elegant church here in Candia, adorned with remarkable frescoes which of course the Turks destroyed while converting the building into a mosque. But, in 1915, Mohammed was evicted and the new owner (the Borough of Iraklio) restored it to its original form. Today it is used as a hall for exhibitions and functions.

Behind the Town Hall lies a lovely paved square, in the centre of which is the church of St. Titus. St Titus was a disciple of St. Paul, the first Bishop of Crete and patron saint of the island (but not a very effective one,judging by the sufferings the Cretans endured during the last fifteen centuries!.) The first church to be dedicated to him was in Gortyna, but the Arabs destroyed it in 824. When the Venetians threw out the Arabs and Chandaka was reborn, a magnificent church to St. Titus was built here at the end of the 10th century, as a replacement for the church that had been destroyed at Gortyna, where the seat of the Diocese of Crete and the relics of the Saint were transferred. When the Venetians came, they gave the Saint equal honours with their own official patron saint, St. Mark, in accordance with the proverb "don't put all your eggs in one basket!" Indeed, in 1363, they dared to give him fist place of honour - they lowered the flag of the Republic of St. Mark and raised onthe bell tower of the church the flag of the Republic of St. Titus. St. Mark and his faithful representative on earth (Venice) did not stand for this and they crushed such rebellion with terrible bloodshed. From that time on, St Titus moved into second place until 1670, when Turks dealt with him and made him unrecognisable. He kept his new name and role (Vizir Mosque) until 1923, when he passed again into Greek hands and all the Moslem alterations were removed. In 1966, after being given 300 years of hospitality in Christian Venice, the head of St. Titus returned to the church (and is exhibited today at a popular shrine.)

Opposite the Liontaria is the pedestrian Daedalus Street which has the best clothes shops in the city. This pedestrian road ends in Plateia Eleftherias (Freedom Square) where the Archaeological Museum of Iraklio is situated. This museum was built between 1937-1940 on exactly the spot where the Catholic church of St. Francis used to be. This church was the jewel of Iraklio, the most magnificent ecclesiastical

Minoan Bull. Archaeological  Museum of Iraklio

Minoan Bull. Archaeological Museum of Iraklio

edifice built by the Venetians during all the years of their presence in Crete. It sustained great damage in the earthquake of 1508, but the Venetians restored it immediately. But when the Turks came, they allowed the church to fall into ruins and later took its stones to rebuild the Vizir Mosque (today's St. Titus). One part of the Church building remained standing, however, which was thoughtlessly demolished by the Greeks so that they could build the new museum. At the time it was built, the arhaeological museum of Iraklio was a building of high specifications. Today, it is a heavy, dark and graceless building, a real grave for the treasures it houses. Meagre lighting from neon lamps on the ceiling, antiquated show-cases with dusty exhibits, only a few inadequate explanatory plaques, no photographs, no repreductions and no drawings. The only answer is to knock it down and build another in its place, one worthy of housing the treasures of the Minoan civilization. If you come here in July or August, the thing that will tire you most are the crowds, every day and hour that the museum is open (Tuesday - Sunday 8am - 7pm; closed on Mondays). Even if you come here in a quieter month, you will need at least three visits and very good preparation to be able to see these treasures in the way you should. A good guide book is also absolutely essential (you wil find many in the museum shop), otherwise you will feel lost.

Directly opposite the museum is the EOT (Greek Tourist Organisation) Information Office. From the Archaeological Museum, Beaufort Street takes you to the jetty where the coastal steamers dock and the coast road, while Democratia Street comes out east of the walls and is the main road to

Minotaur and Pasiphae

Knossos. In the opposite direction from Democratia Street lies Dikaiosyni Street where the tourist police and the police station are situated. Behind the police station, on Zographou Street, is the Central Post Office of Iraklio. . 25th August Street goes past the front of the Liondaria; this street was so named in memory of the hundreds of Irakliots massacred by the Turks on 25th August 1898. If you follow this road, you come out on the Square of 18 Englishmen (also victims of the Turks that sad August) and now you are in the Venetian Harbour. The Venetian fortress Rocca al Mare stands proudly at the northern edge of the harbour. It was first built in the middle of the 13th century, but was destroyed in the earthquake of 1303. The building you see today was constructed in 1523, as the inscription over its entrance bears witness.

North of the Liontaria, diectly behind the shops on the square, is Theotokopoulos (El Greco) Park, one of the few green corners inside the walls of Iraklio. The central offices of the OTE (Greek Telecommunications Organisation) are here, and these are now used only

by the locals to pay their telephone bills as, to make telephone calls (even

El Greco. Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple

El Greco. Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple

long-distance) there are dozens of card phones in every corner of the city. Minotavrou Street begins here which, after a circuitous route, brings you to the History and Folklore Museum of Crete.

The History museum is housed in a wonderful neoclassical house donated for this purpose in 1952 by Andreas Kalokerinos, a rich, distinguished Irakliot. This exceptional museum is a treasury of extremely precious historic objets d'art, which are exhibited in beautiful showcases with correct lighting and many explanatory plaques in both Greek and English. In direct contrast to the suffocating wretchedness of the Archaeological Museum, here you can take an exciting journey through history, from the first Byzantine years in Crete (330 AD) to the Second World War. You do not need a guide for this Museum. Just come as early in the morning as you can (it is open Monday - Friday from 9am to 5pm and Saturday, from 9 am to 2pm) to enjoy at your leisure this journey through history.

If you are interested in iconography, apart from the wonderful portable icons and the frescoes (removed from the walls) that you can see at the History Museum, it is worth seeing the icon collection of the Cretan School at the Church of St. Catherine, which contains six works by the most famous iconographer of the 16th century, Michael Damaskinos. The church was built in the 15th century and it belonged to the Sinai monastery.

Erotokritos by Vitzentzos Kornaros

Erotokritos by Vitzentzos Kornaros

It has great estates, thanks to which it was able to maintain a very active shool of Higher Education right throughout Venetian rule, And this turned out important theologians, philosophers, writers and painters. Vitzentzos Kornaros (the author of Erotokritos), Michael Damaskinos and Dominicos Theotokopoulos (El Greco) studied here.

In the same square you can see the bulky and rather graceless church of St. Minas, which is the seat of the Diocese of Crete. It was built at the end of the last century and it is said to hold 8,000 people. A rather nice little 17th Century church, also dedicated to St. Minas, continues to live in its heavy shadow, but unfortunately this is locked most of the time.

South of the Liontaria, 25th August Street ends after a few metres in Nikiforou Foka Square (it is not exactly a suare, but a traffic hub). From here you can walk to the pedestrian shopping street, 1866 Street, to buy fresh fruit and Cretan products from the popular greengrocers and grocers, while on the neighbouring precincts (on the Grousouzadika as the loals call them) you can find many popular tavernas open from morning until late at night and serving charcoal-cooked meat and dishes stewed in flat pans. On the southern edge of 1866 street is Vitzentzou Kornarou Square. You can drink water here from the oldest fountain in Iraklio, the famoun Bembo Fountain (18), the work of the Venetian architect Zuanne Bembo in 1588, in which is embedded a headless statue of the Roman Period from lerapetra. If you prefer a coffee or a soft drink, there is a monumental Turkish fountain next door that has been converted into a refreshment bar!

The most impressive monument in Iraklio, however, is its Venetian Walls. You can make your first visit on your motorcycle, by riding around the internal ring road which is made up of Beaufort, Pediados, Plastira and Makariou Streets. But it is better to leave your motorcycle and walk around or on top of the walls, to be able to see at close hand this gigantic work which has been preserved in excellent condition despite the savage waves of attaks it received for centuries. Stand for a little while on its south-west rampart , the Martinego rampart, as the Venetians called it, in front of the grave where Nikos Kazantzakis is buried (one of the top Greek writers, known throughout the world mainly for his novel “The Life and Times of Alexis Zorbas”). The following words are engraved on his plain gravestone column: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free”

The offices of A.M.S. Iraklio (the Iraklio Association of Mountaineers and Skiers are at the third floor of 53 Dikaiosynis Street. Before you attempt an ascent to the summit of Psiloritis, it is better to ask for information and maps from the experienced Iraklio Mountaineers, who gather at their Association meeting-room daily between 8:30 - 10:30 pm except for Saturdays and Sundays. If you are lucky and happen to choose the days of one of their organised excursions, you will have the chance to use their new Refuge, “Prinos”, on the eastern slopes of Psiloritis at a height of 1,100 m (the path starts at the village of Ano Asites). If you are a big hiking group, get in touch with them ten days in advance, so they can give you keys to the refuge and relevant instructions.


It is said that the fate of a city is determined by its geographical position. Fertile land, a protected natural harbour, a strategically important location are all factors that favour the establishment and development of a city. In the case of Iraklio, none of these factors apply, not even the basic ones like a water source or a fortified position.

It was, however, the nearest point on the coast to Minoan Knossos, and this is why the Knossians founded a seaside settlement and a small harbour here, which they called Iraklio, obviously because there was a Temple of Heracles here. The wealth and merchandise which were loaded and unloaded here were simply passing trade, to and from Knossos. The unfortunate Iraklio remained throughout ancient times a poor, insignificant settlement which concerned nobody; no historian wrote about it, no important event happened here, and it was always in the heavy shadow of Knossos and of its other harbour, Amnisos.
After the destruction of Knossos, Iraklio continued to be inhabited but it never exceeded the size of a poor settlement. Perhaps this was the reason why it seems not to have been in the sights of the very many pirates who existed all those ancient centuries until the end of the First Byzantine Period (824 AD). Even its ancient name was forgotten and in some unknown period, probably at the beginning of the first Byzantine period, the name Kastro predominated.
All this applies up to 824 AD. Because in that year, the Saracen Arabs, having conquered the whole of Crete, chose Kastro as their capital and base for their attacks, for what reason it is not known. They built a strong wall around the city and dug a deep trench on the outside. Their capital was named Rabdh el Khandak after this trench, as the words mean in Arabic 'The Castle with the Trench'. And so, totally unexpectedly, this tiny village which not even its neighbours knew became the most renowned centre of piracy in the whole Mediterranean. Tens of thousands of seamen and islanders who had been taken prisoners by the Saracens were sold into slavery in its slave market. Untold wealth accumulated in its treasuries and storehouses, the spoils of the greed of the bloodthirsty Saracens, who continued their robbing activities for 137 whole years!
In 961, after various unsuccessful attempts, the Byzantines, under their distinguished general Nikiforos Fokas, finally managed to free Crete from the Arabs and to corner them at the fortified Chandakas (as Rabdh el Khandak was called in the local language). The siege lasted for almost a year and ended in the triumphant entry of the besiegers, general slaughter of the besieged and total levelling of the city.
After his victory, Nikiforos Fokas decided arbitrarily to move the capital of now Byzantine Crete several kilometres to the south, to the safety of the hinterland. But the Cretans did not like the hill he chose and had started to build the new city on. As soon as Fokas returned to Constantinople, they returned to Chandaka, rebuilt it, repaired its walls and harbour ad persuaded the Byzantine colonists and the Administration to settle there themselves.
During the Second Byzantine Period (961-1204), Crete was a Thema (Byzantine province) and its governor had the title of Duke. The Byzantines made great attempts and actually managed to heal the wounds of the Arab conquest. Many Byzantine nobles came to settle in Chandaka (and throughout Crete); they made close ties with their new country and became the heads of the local Cretan aristocracy, acquiring enormous economic and political power as the years passed.
When the Crusaders overthrew the Byzantine Empire and divided up its lands (in 1204), Crete passed into the hands of the Venetians who appreciated the strategic position of Chandaka and there established the capital of the Kingdom of Crete, as they named their new province. Giacomo Tiepolo was appointed as the first Duke of Crete and his first job was to repair the Byzantine walls of Candaka, which was now called Candia, a name that soon prevailed throughout Crete. The biggest threat to the new rulers was the old Cretan aristocracy, which was not prepared to give up its privileges. When the Venetians pushed things very hard, the aristocracy stirred up the people to rebellion which was almost always successful. The Venetians then barricaded themselves inside Candia, negotiated peace terms (mainly the granting of privileges to the aristocrats) and life then continued normally.
Two hundred and fifty years passed in this way, during the course of which Candia became a big European city with splendid public buildings. The Palazzo Ducale was built at this time (the government house where the Duke and his Councillors were installed, based on the Venetian model) as were the Church of St Mark, and Loggia (the centre for the social events of the Venetian aristocracy), paved squares, fountains and much besides. Candia was called the Venice of the East and became the centre of the political, economic and artistic life of the Island. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Academy of Stravaganti was founded at Candia; this was a society of writers headed by Andreas Kornaros, who was possibly a relation of Vincenzo Kornaro who wrote the Erotokritos. Top artistic personalities of Candia were the painter Michael Damaskinos (the top representative of the Cretan school in iconography) and Dominicos Theotokopoulos, or El Greco, who was already a famous painter when he left his birthplace to work in Europe.
When the Turks appeared on the scene, however, and especially when they captured Constantinople, the Venetians realised that the threat was very serious and that the Turks would not be long in attacking Crete. Candia had already expanded a long way outside the Byzantine walls, which in any case were not capable of withstanding a serious siege. So they sent their best engineer, Michele Sanmicheli, who designed the most imposing and fortified walls ever built in any European city up to that date. Building of these walls began in 1402 and lasted for more than 100 years! To make possible the building of this gigantic wall, which was 3 kilometres long and had seven ramparts and four gates, all Cretans between 14 and 60 years of age who lived in the greater area of central Crete, worked like slaves for one week a year each, carrying stones from the quarry of Katsomba and also from the ruins of Knossos.
In 1645, the Turkish army landed in Crete (in the Chania area) and gradually captured the whole island except for the Capital. When they arrived in front of the mighty city walls, in May 1648, the Turks realised that it would not be an easy job to capture it, but they could never have imagined that they would have to struggle quite so hard; the siege lasted for 21 years without a break.
On the one side, i.e. on the castle battlements, were lined up the Venetians, the Cretans and every so often various European armies and individual volunteers who were driven by religious zeal to join the fight against Islam. Around the walls was lined up the large mass of the Turkish army which threw itself into a merciless war to bring glory to the name of Mohammed by conquering and violently converting to Islam as many people as possible. From the early years of the siege, the Turks built an outside wall around the wall of Candia. Protected behind this fortification, they bombarded the city and undertook frenzied attacks on the walls. The walls were of course very strong, but their defenders were few and without many supplies. Their calls for help took a long time to be heard, as the Venetian motherland was also exhausted and had very little margin.
In 1660, i.e. in the twelfth year of the siege, the King of France, Louis XIV sent an expeditionary force of 4,000 men, but this was diverted to Naxos and Paros where it busied itself with terrible plunder! When it at last arrived in Crete, it avoided clashing with the powerful Turkish army outside the besieged capital. It shot a few cannons near the castle of Chania just to look good and departed for France loaded with spoils from the plundered islands.
In the following year, 1661, the Venetians sent reinforcements of 3,000 men and a lot of supplies of armaments and food, and this raised the morale of the besieged people. In 1666, the Sultan furiously recalled the commanding general of besieging Forces, Hussein Pasha, and beheaded him for being responsible for the disgrace of the Turks in not being able to take the city all these years. In his place, he appointed his best general, Ahmed Kioprouli Pasha, but the Venetians also charged the defence to their best general, Francesco Morozini.
Kioprouli realised that he would never take the castle with his cannons alone, and that if he did not get results quickly, his head would also finish up on a stake because of the Sultan's anger. So he used the most effective weapon to have been invented until today - gold. "Since I cannot beat them with my cannons" thought the cunning Turk. "I shall buy their desertion and betrayal." Indeed, the wretched besieged people, who had on top of everything remained helpless, jumped from the walls one after the other, formed a queue outside Kioprouli's counting-house, took their reward and went their way! Some of them were seduced by the fat rewards which were offered for the giving of information (common betrayal) and revealed to the Turks where the weak spots in the wall were, where exactly to direct their cannons, etc. One of these, Andreas Barotsis, a colonel in the Engineers, became a permanent employee of the Turks and he was chiefly responsible for the final fall of the castle. Kioprouli spent money like water (around 700,000 gold coins!), but on 28 September 1669, he entered Candia in triumph. In a rare moment of magnanimity, he allowed the final remaining defenders to pack their bags and embark on the Venetian ships which had come to fetch them. The final blow, however, which did not come from the Turks was dealt by merciless Nature - a terrible storm sank most of the refugee ships with all hands, in the narrow strait between Crete and Kythira...
The Turks took possession of a ruined city without a living soul. Despite this, they decided to establish the capital of their new province there for the safety (tried and tested!) which the city's Venetian Walls would afford them. So their first job was to repair the damage to the wall; this work was done by - who else? - the wretched Cretans from the countryside. They later rebuilt the city based on the eastern concept of city planning, i.e. without any planning! The city, which was now called Megalo Kastro (Big Castle), was full of narrow alleyways and small houses clustered together and built in the way that suited each Turkish householder. Those churches which remained standing were converted straight away into mosques; anything Greek or Christian was frenziedly persecuted; anyone who persisted in resisting conversion to Islam ended up bound hand and foot in the squares where the executioners despatched them with various tormenting and degrading methods (they usually skinned them alive); and generally a thick darkness of misery covered the city where once arts and sciences had flowered. The first census taken by the Turks showed that only 800 Greeks lived in Megalo Castro.
When the 1821 Revolution broke out, the Turks replied with the mass slaughter of Christians, without discrimination as to age or sex, throughout Crete and of course in Megalo Kastro. The Great Slaughter however took place on 25 August 1898, i.e. in the last year of the Turkish occupation of Crete. On that fatal day, the Turks pulled out their yataghans (sabres), they spilled out into the streets of Megalo Kastro and indiscriminately killed all the Christians they could find. In their rush however they made the Big Mistake - they also killed 17 British soldiers and the British Consul on the island. Only then were the Christian British moved (up to that point and right throughout Turkish Rule in Crete they had followed with indifference the slaughters of the Christian Greeks) and at last turned their guns on the Turks, putting an end to the dark period of Turkish Rule in Crete. Right from the early years of the period of the Autonomous Cretan State, the remaining inhabitants made serious attempts to restore the life of the city to normal. For a start, they restored its ancient name. Iraklio, although it was no longer the capital, was the centre of the biggest trading activity and of the most important intellectual and artistic life on the island. The energetic 'Educational Society of Iraklio' started off the first archaeological researches in the Knossos area, tried to preserve as many treasures as it could and laid the foundation for the establishment of the Archaeological Museum. A prosperous urban class gradually developed in Iraklio, many jobs were created (mainly in factories) which attracted people from the poor countryside. The city became full of people and a serious housing problem was created which was dealt with by arbitrarily building on every square centimetre of available land within the walls. Neighbourhoods rapidly expanded over a large area, outside the walls as well, and already by 1940, Iraklio had a population of 40,000.
It was then that the last invaders appeared from the skies, the crack German parachutists of the 7th Division who took only a few hours to capture Iraklio, which had previously been mercilessly bombed by the Stukas. When they left after four years (which is nothing compared with 460 yeas of occupation by the Venetians and 230 years under the Turks), they left behind them many dead Cretans and great destruction. Fortunately however, they cut down the chaff with the wheat as the German bombs destroyed the arbitrary housing that had been strangling the city, creating many open spaces which today have become roads and squares
The city was rebuilt more carefully this time, but again it was impossible to avoid the ugliness of the big city - dense housing, few parks, even fewer parking areas, noise and crowds. Despite all this, Iraklio is a neat, clean city with quite a lot of pedestrian streets and many signs in both Greek and English, which is a great help to visitors. The street signs even have an explanatory legend beneath the names! Iraklio today is the fifth biggest city in Greece (with a population of 120,000) and since 1971, it has been again the capital of Crete.



Routes starting from Hania

1. Hania - Akrotiri
2. Hania - Paleochora
3. Hania - Samaria
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
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

Rethymnon (2). • Argyroúpoli: 27km far from Réthymno you will find Argyroúpoli, a village built on the remnants of the ancient city of Láppas. Numerous springs, the cave and the chapel bearing the same name are all well worth a visit.
 Gorges of extraordinary beauty traverse the mountains of the region: the ravine of Kourtaliótis, 3km long, ends at the famous Lagoon of Préveli; the ravine of Kotsifoú starts from the village of Kánevos and ends near the village of Sellía; the gorge of Patsós, in the Amári district; the gorge of Prassés, which ends at the village of Plataniás at the north coast east of the town of Réthymno; finally, the gorge of Arkádi and a number of smaller ones.
 The mountains of the region are exceptionally rich in caves. The most famous caves are those of Geráni, Simonélli west of the town of Réthymno, Áyios Antónios in the district of Amári, Melidóni, Moúgri Sissón and Sfendóni near the village of Zonianá.




Tel/fax: +33 (0)4 93 37 81 63 --- Mobile: +33 (0)6 08 37 02 49
Address in France: 20, Boulevard Joseph Garnier F-06000 Nice
Address in Greece: Astrikas - Chania - Crete, 73006 Greece