Heraklio - The Gateway of Crete

Heraklion is the largest city of Crete and the island’s capital. Its history properly begins in post-Minoan times. Today it is a modern, lively town and an important economic centre. It preserves traces of its long history, and the conquerors who passed through.



 This, the biggest city on Crete and its capital, has a history running back for thousands of years, and still retains the old (but post-Minoan) name of Heraklion – albeit with others for some long spells.



oday Heraklion is a large modern city, cosmopolitan and busy the year round; an important economic centre with a rich cultural life.As in any big city, and in addition to the museums, attractions and other tourist draws, it is worth your while  to enter into Heraklion’s rhythms of being: to saunter along the pedestrian streets of its historic centre, to lose yourself in the alleyways of the Old Town, to take your ease in the coffee bars and raki-joints that area part of Herakliot culture.




In recent years, many streets around the centre have become pedestrianized and so link the major monuments of the city. One can go about more readily, free from the rush of traffic. With the development of the modern beach front, Heraklion once again begins to turn its face to the sea.

  The coast road, running west from Nea Halicarnassus in the east, passes through the Venetian harbour on to the PanCretan stadium: it has some bicycle lanes, and also on it major monuments recently restored (such as the church of Peter and Paul). It thus offers many chances for a pleasant stroll on foot or a bike-ride.



Moreover, in the summer, it is worth attending the numerous cultural events held in the moat of the Venetian walls (the out-door theatres of Nikos Kazantzakis, and of Manolis Hatzidakis), or put on in the recently renovated gates and galleries of the fortification walls that have been converted into exhibition spaces.

A walk in the city of Heraklio

Natural disasters, the bombings of WW II, regrettable choices of the local authorities of the past (and not so distant past!), as well as the rapid development of the next decades – all have been responsible for the loss of many of the city’s monuments and to a great degree the fabric of the Old Town

  Yet, even so, the visitor will have much to see, especially in the historical centre. The old co-exists with the new: the basic structure of the historical heart has remained unchanged for centuries.



Making a start at the Lion Square, where the  Morosini Fountain  stands in splendour, the visitor may wander around what was the heart of the Venetian administrative area. A few yards off is the  Basilica of Aghios Marcos, dedicated to the patron saint of Venice. Next, on to the Loggia,one of the most splendid Venetian edifices on the island, where met the Club of the Venetian nobles; and then down the road  (25th August Street) with its imposing Neo-Classical buildings and the Square of  Aghios Titos with the church of the same name – an unusual ecclesiastical structure (Byzantine basilica, converted to Catholic church, and then mosque. Rebuilt as mosque, and now an Orthodox church again). At the bottom of the street we reach the Venetian harbour, over which the  Koule has stood watch down the centuries. Here too are located the shipsheds, the Venetian arsenals.



The splendours do not end there! The  Venetian walls the largest defensive works in the Eastern Mediterranean, cry out for exploration. Indeed several of the gates, galleries and ramparts receive visitors on a considerable scale and host cultural exhibitions, especially in the summer months.




  Naturally one must not miss out on the city’s museums, which are counted amongst the most worthwhile in the country. The  Archaeological Museum in Heraklion  (by Freedom Square) holds all the Minoan treasures from the Palaces and other revered Minoan sites that have been excavated. Amongst them, you will see the frescoes from the Palace of Knossos, the famous earring with the two bees on a comb or flower-head from Malia, the Festos Disc, the stone vase in the shape of a bull’s head and so on .. and on.

The Historical Museum  (down by and west of the Venetian harbour) houses objects that chronicle the age-long history of the island as well as the personal belongings of Nikos Kazantzakis and two famous paintings by El Greco.

Another important museum of the city is that of Natural History  (a little to the west of the Historical Museum): it is located in a historic industrial building on the seafront promenade. It covers the rich fauna and floral of Crete and of the Mediterranean generally: there are several interactive exhibits, a room in which to experience earthquakes, and a large and effective section for children.




A little outside the city are two other major attractions. The Palace of Knossos  is one of the most popular archaeological sites in Greece (after the Acropolis in Athens): it gives a unique chance to appreciate the Minoan way of life. Again, and further off to the east at Gouves, is to be found the Cretaquarium, where one can see close-up sea creatures and plants – including rare species, such as the loggerhead turtles (Karetta karetta).



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Chania - The Jewel of Crete

 Chania, or ‘Venice in the East’, is the second biggest city in Crete, built on the site of old Kydonia

The distinctive colour of the old town with all that it has inherited from earlier manifestations, the iconic Venetian harbour and the unique architecture have together established Chania as one of the most popular tourist destinations on the island.



Chania is built on the site of Kydonia, an ancient city that according to legend was founded in prehistoric times by Kydones, a son of Hermes or Apollo. Homer described the town as ‘important’ in Crete.




Chania has managed to keep its historic appearance and its authentic ‘colour’ in balance with the strong growth of the recent years. It is one of the most beautiful cities in Greece – rightly named ‘Venice in the East’, keeping alive the imprint of the various cultures that have passed through down the centuries.

In recent decades, Chania has emerged as one of the fastest growing tourist centres on Crete. Especially during the summer the Venetian harbour and the narrow lanes of the Old Town are swamped by visitors from all round the globe.


At the same time, cultural activities reach a peak with the hosting of sundry festivals and events in the renovated historical buildings, such as the impressive Moro shipyards.

But it remains a living city beyond the limits of the tourist season. The numerous student population and the active local groups continue the long intellectual and spiritual heritage of Chania to this very day.

A walk in the city of Chania

A walk here would certainly pass through the historical quarters of the Old Town, which are made up of individual residential areas, each with its own particular character and architecture.


On the way we will see details and structures representative of the Venetian, Ottoman and local building styles, Neo-Classical houses, churches, squares and so on.


  Starting at the west end of the Venetian harbour, we can admire the view from the  Firka fort, and then discover the stone-paved streets of the leading Christian families at Topana – with their unusual and multicultural forms. Next we pass through the lovely Jewish quarter and arrive at Venizelos Square – the meeting point of the Chaniots and with its historical resonance as it was here that Venizelos made his speeches.

We continue down Halidon Street –  past the  Archaeological Museum , and the church of Aghios Francesco, and stop to pay our respects at the  Panagia Trimartyri  –  the main church of Chania.
Now we turn east into Splantzia, a predominately Turkish neighbourhood, taking Srydlof Street behind the Trimartyri church, where are the famous Bootmakers shops




  Keeping on towards Splantzia, we pass behind the impressive cruciform structure of the Municipal Market, one of the busiest spots in the town with its colours and smells
Arriving at Splantzia, one can still see today the plane tree where Christians were hung by the Turks, and the Venetian church of Aghios Rocco. Then we proceed towards the sea, to visit the dockyards and Grand Arsenal

A little further on we will encounter one of the most iconic structures in Chania – the Giali Tzami – or mosque: the first to be built in Crete, its name means the Mosque on the Strand. Today it hosts various exhibitions.




Opposite us looms the lighthouse – the most photographed object in Chania, as we continue our stroll along the colourful  Venetian harbour always teeming with life. Once more we hit the paved lanes – in search of ‘new’ corners with their unusual mixes of architecture – a sure sign of the long history the city has seen.




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Rethymno - The Town of Learning

The third largest city on Crete, built on the site of the older Rithymna, it still retains today the character of its Renaissance appearance: it is a major attraction to visitors from all over the world.

The earliest evidence of habitation here comes from the late Minoan period (1550-1250 BC). It is much later on, though, that the city of Rithymna reaches its peak – namely in the 4th-3rd centuries BC. With the exception of the Roman period, the city thereafter is in decline, making no mark on history. For the time of the First Byzantine era and the Arab rule, historical information is scanty indeed.

  Rethymnon is, without exaggeration, one of the most attractive towns in Greece, with its particular ‘colour’, its wealth of history and architecture – preserving one of the best surviving Venetian cities.




In the Old Town Renaissance architectural elements of the Venetian era co-exist with Ottoman structures: the rich history of the city is in step with the development of modern tourism. In the summer, Rethymnon has visitors from all over the world, who base themselves here for the exploration of the Prefecture and indeed the whole island, whilst in the winter the students of the local University bring a buzz to the place.

Rethymnon maintains its long cultural tradition with events such as the Renaissance Festival that occurs every summer, bringing to life again that section of the city built then.


Further the Rethymnon Carnival, an institution now a century old, has witnessed a great development in recent years: it is famous throughout the country – and is a major draw to visitors every spring.

  A walk in the city of Rethymno

The main attractions of Rethymnon are concentrated in the Old Town, which is worth exploring without any preconceived route, but by just walking along the narrow alleys and so discovering picturesque spots, architectural treasures, old mansions and other signs of those conquerors who have passed through here.




  Setting out from the Megali Porta (Porta Guora),(the Main Gate or Porta Guora), one of the few remaining remnants of the city’s fortifications, our tour starts at  Aghios Frangiscos, the Neratze Mosque (Conservatory) and the Historical and Folklore Museum which are all to be found in the neighbourhood of the newly-created Asia Minor Square (Plateia Mikrasiaton). From this square we can see the  Turkish School with its distinctive architectural style. 

Next we pass the Venetian Rimondi Fountain (or the Taps, as the locals call it!), from where we can wander through the narrow lanes of the Old Town to discover the church  ‘Our lady of the Angels’ before going on to the Fortezza. From here we have the opportunity to look down upon the town and its beach front. 





Descending then to the Venetian harbour, we return to the shopping street (Arkadi) with its impressive  Loggia, and other restored structures of really exceptional beauty, such as the Kara Mousa Pasha Mosque.


The perfect conclusion to a walk in Rethymnon has to be nothing other than the sea-front promenade with its myriad cafes and bustling restaurants with a view of the sea and sandy shore.




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Sitia - The Gate of East Crete

Sitia is the best ‘ambassador’ for east Crete: genuine, unspoiled, friendly and picturesque. It is the home of ‘Erotokritos’ and the ideal base for the exploration of the easternmost parts of the island.


  


History of Sitia

Sitia got its name from the ancient city Iteia, Itida or Sitaia, which lay just east of the present town. Iteia was inhabited since the Bronze Age, and flourished during the 2nd century AD. It was also allegedly the home of Myson, one of the Seven Sages of antiquity. The city was inhabited by Eteocretans, i.e. the 'old' or ‘true’ Cretans, aka the Minoans, after the island's occupation by the Dorians




Sitia Today


  Leaving its troubled history behind, Sitia today is a picturesque enough seaside town with about 11,000 inhabitants, built like an amphitheatre on the hills around the lovely harbour.
The home of Vitsentzos Kornaros, who wrote the Cretan epic ‘Erotokritos’, it has retained its local colour and its leisurely pace of life. It offers a beautiful seaside promenade next to the multi-coloured boats and dinghies, but also a long sandy beach that gets flooded with locals and tourists.




The port and the seaside promenade every summer are full of life, as the area is filled with restaurants, taverns, cafes and, of course, the legendary taverns of the city that are very popular with the young.
It is worth visiting the fortress of Kazarma to partake of the view from up on high, or to attend an event at the ‘Kornareia’, the cultural festival of Sitia.

The city’s archaeological museum is a definite must, with exhibits covering a period of about 4000 years.










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Gortys - Phaestos Palace & Matala

About 40 minutes drive south of Heraklion, in the plain of Messara, at the side of the main road, we find the archaeological site of Gortys. Also known as Gortyn or Gortyna is one of the most important cities in Crete with an unbroken history of 6,000 years and one of the most extensive archaeological sites in Greece.

The site is the first human habitation of Crete at the end of the Neolithic period (5th millennium BC).

We will visit the church of St Titus, the Odeon, the room of the Law Code and of course the plane tree of Zeus and Europa. The Law Code of Gortys treats matters of civil law, with no clauses on criminal or commercial law. Laws for marriage, divorce, theft, property of slaves and their condition, inheritance, etc are treats in 630-640 lines of which 605 are preserved.

The laws are strikingly liberal and progressive. They are not simply the laws of a Cretan city-state; they form the oldest Greek law code and are therefore considered the greatest contribution of Classical Crete to world culture!


Some kilometers west of Gortys we find the hills where is situated Phaestos Palace (the second major Minoan Palace in Crete after Knossos). Phaestos was the centre of religious and economic activities and his importance lies not only in its size but also in the fact that we have there a clear stratigraphical sequence of two successive palaces.

A destructive earthquake around 1700 BC brought the old palace to an end. Rebuilt, Phaistos continued to flourish during Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic times. It was destroyed by the Gortynians during the 3rd century B.C.


In the afternoon, we continue for Matala, ancient port of Gortys and Phaestos at the Libyan Sea. The artificial caves, carved into the north face of the coast, have been probably used as prehistoric dwellings and places of worship, while during the 1st-2nd century were used as tombs.



Later, during the 60's the caves were hosting a hippie commune and today, they are protected by the Archaeological Service.

The magnificent inlet of Matala features one of the best beaches in Crete. The turquoise blue sea invites you to sink and the charming village with the picturesque local taverns is waiting you to taste the local dishes.



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Samaria Gorge

A unique and passionate adventure is waiting for you at the deepest and wildest gorge of Europe! The gorge starts at Xiloskalo (1277 m altitude).

First we take the stairways, after a footpath well marked and will cross the old ruined village of Samaria.





The fauna and flora are very rich and with a little chance, we can see the famous Kri-Kri (savage goat descending by Minoan goat).



We need about 6 hours to cross the gorge (18 km march) and the walk finishes in the small village of Agia Roumeli, on the Libyan See, where you can take a bath have lunch in the taverns.



Attention: Very firm tennis or hiking shoes needed and a very good physical form is necessary!

Don’t forget your sun cream, a hat and a bottle of water.









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Elounda & Spinaloga Tour

Elounda is located in east Crete, north of Agios Nikolaos and south of the seaside resort of Plaka.

Elounda was once a picturesque fishing village in the lovely Mirabello Bay. The inhabitants lived from farming, fishing, salt extraction from the Venetian saltpans, and emery mining.


In the hills around Elounda is found a mineral unique to Greece, “akonopetra” or whetstone, a type of fine emery used to make whetstones and emery paper to hone tools used in many different jobs.

The emery of Elounda had long been known in Europe by the name of “Turkey stones” or “Naxos stone”.

Spinaloga

Spinalonga is a small island near Elounda in East Crete. Spinalonga  is also known as the Leper Island, as that is where lepers from Crete and the rest of Greece were quarantined until 1957.

Today thousands of tourists visit Spinalonga each summer by boat from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda and Plaka, for a tour of its ruined buildings, which the Archaeological Service is laboriously trying to maintain.



According to the data for 2009, Spinalonga has 1200-1500 visitors daily during the summer months and is the most popular archaeological site in Crete after Knossos.

The strategic position of the rocky islet for the control and defence of Elounda harbour could not but mark Spinalonga with a turbulent history of fierce battles and much human suffering.





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Agios Nikolaos - The Picturesque Harbor

Aghios Nikolaos is one of the most picturesque towns in East Crete, and is the capital of the Lassithi Prefecture. It enjoys a strategic location on the Gulf of Mirabello: in the summer it turns itself into a cosmopolitan tourist resort.



The lovely serene little town of Agios Nikolaos is the cosmopolitan capital of the prefecture of Lasithi with 20000 permanent residents. The town is built on the site Mandraki, on the west side of the Gulf of Mirabello, but the current name comes from the Byzantine church of Saint Nikolaos located west of the city.



Trademark of St. Nicholas is the picturesque Lake Voulismeni, a small lagoon in the center of the town, used as a small harbor where fishing boats stop. Dozens of legends are associated with it, mainly because of its very deep waters (e.g. that it has no bottom). At the bottom of the lake the Germans disposed all their war material before leaving Crete in 1944. A walk around the lake is a very nice experience indeed.



East of the lake is another favoured spot in Aghios Nikolaos – the beach of Kitroplateia
for a quick ‘dip’ inside the city limits, alongside of which are a good many ouzeries and cafes, with a view of the sea.









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Keras Monastery & Diktaio Andron Tour

Greek Orthodox Keras Kardiotissas Monastery is located on the north slopes of Mt. Dikti 50 km east of Heraklion and dedicated to Virgin Mary. According to tradition, during the Ottoman occupation of Crete miraculous icon of Panagia Kardiotissa was stolen several times but always returned to the monastery. On the third time the Icon was chained to a marble column but it get back with it. That column is placed in the monastery courtyard now.
Its initial form was of the citadel type. The catholicon of the monastery was initially a single-space arch-covered church and was expanded with two narthexes and a smaller chapel. The murals date back to the 14th century, while the northern section of the church features 15th century murals with characteristics of the Macedonian school of hagiography.



Diktaio Andron

 The impressive cave of Zeus, the Diktaean Cave, is located just 10 minutes walking-distance from Psychro, in Lassithi Plateau, at an altitude of 1025m. In Psychro there is plenty of parking areas, with plenty of restaurants nearby. Two paths leading to the cave start from the parking area. The easiest path is the left one, because in the right path (the oldest) the stones are worn by thousands of tourists and are slippery. The route to the cave is magnificent as the view to the Lassithi Plateau is breathtaking. If you do not want to walk, there are donkeys to transfer visitors to the cave. Near the entrance of the cave there is a kiosk where you can buy tickets for a small price. The cave, which has an area of 2200 sq.m, is well lit and the paths in it come along a well-designed path of 250m length.
 According to legend, there was a prophecy saying that the king of the world, Cronus (Saturn), will be dethroned by his son. Thus Cronus devoured his children for his protection. His wife, Rhea gave birth to Zeus in the Diktaean cave and kept that place secret from Cronus. She tricked Cronus and, instead of the baby, she gave him to eat a rock wrapped in the swaddling clothes of the baby. Then she left Zeus in the cave, to be raised by the Diktaean Kouretes under the protection and nursing of the mythical goat Amalthea and the nymph Melissa. A secondary legendary tells that King Minos was born in the same cave with his father Zeus, i.e. in the Diktaean Cave.








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Palace of Knossos & Archaeological Museum Heraklion

Crete’s most famous historical attraction is the Palace of Knossos (k-nos-os), the grand capital of Minoan Crete, located 5km south of Iraklio. The setting is evocative and the ruins and re-creations impressive, incorporating an immense palace, courtyards, private apartments, baths, lively frescoes and more. Excavation of the site started in 1878 with Cretan archaeologist Minos Kalokerinos, and continued from 1900 to 1930 with British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who controversially restored parts of the site.
Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site in Crete and is considered Europe’s oldest city. Follow our guide through the Palace of Knossos and travel back in a time to when the Minoan Civilization ruled supreme throughout the Aegean. Legend has it that in a labyrinth on the grounds of Knossos Palace roamed a creature that was half bull and half man. As you explore the stone corridors, you will quickly understand why the ancient people believed that this was where the legendary Minotaur lived.




ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM HERAKLION

A visit to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum, where you will be able to learn about priceless artifacts and genuine masterpieces, will provide you with additional insight into the fascinating history of Crete which spans from the Neolithic period to Roman times.
Reopened in 2014 after a long renovation, the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion is Crete’s outstanding jewel.
The two floors of the restored 1930s Bauhaus building make a gleaming showcase for the exhibits that span 5500 years, from neolithic to Roman times, and an extensive Minoan collection. The rooms are colour coded and artefacts are displayed both chronologically and thematically and are beautifully presented with descriptions in English. A visit here enhances any understanding of Crete’s rich history.
The museum’s treasure trove includes pottery, jewellery, sarcophagi, plus famous frescoes from the sites of Knossos, Tylissos, Amnissos and Agia Triada. The pieces are grouped into comprehensive themes such as settlements, trade, death, religion and administration. Along with clear descriptions, these bring to life both the day-to-day functioning and long-term progression of societies.






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