Toplou Monastery

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I’ve ventured to the northeast tip of Crete to visit Moni Toplou, also known as the Monastery of Panagia Akrotiriani, or simply ‘the Great Monastery’. This is one of the most important monasteries in Crete because of its history and the vast estate it sits on.

Its current name, ‘Toplou’, refers to a Turkish word, ‘Top’, which means ‘cannonball’. This was, in effect, a fortress-monastery, where throughout history monks repeatedly had to defend themselves and the monastery from the attacks of pirates and invaders. For this reason, it has 10m high walls surrounding it.

The monastery was built in the 15th century, possibly upon a pre-existing monastery. It is located at the base of Cape Sidero, in an arid and very windy terrain. Despite these facts, the area was a prized possession, and so the monastery suffered constant attacks. In 1530, the Knights of Malta plundered it with little mercy; years later, an earthquake left it in ruins. The Venetians, who then owned Crete, decided to invest in rebuilding it due to its strategic geographical position. In 1646, after unsuccessful efforts to defend it, the monks had to abandon the monastery when eastern Crete surrendered to the Turks. Nevertheless, the monastery continued to be regarded as a strategically important place, and was granted a special permission to operate under the jurisdiction of the higher religious authority, the patriarch rather than local bishop, and was re-inhabited. Again, its valiant monks were tested during the Greek Revolution of 1821 and the Cretan revolt against the Turks in 1866. The monks’ resistance was not only military, but also intellectual, as they housed a school for the local community within the premises of the monastery. During the independence revolts, monks were tortured and many paid with their lives.

In the 1940’s, again the monks played a role in history when they sheltered resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation, and operated wireless radio transmitters for the allies from the monastery. When the Nazis discovered this, their revenge was vicious: they tortured and murdered the abbot and two of the monks. A museum is run by the monks to commemorate the role of this monastery in the history of Crete. The building itself is worth a visit. Even though austere in decor, it is a massive construction with 800m2 in three floors, and a bell tower that survived all the tests and trials since its construction in 1558. There is also the main church (a two-nave basilica).

Despite the plundering, the monastery still houses a remarkable artistic treasure. There are exhibitions of Byzantine icons, engravings, and also brilliant frescoes, like the one that graces the walls of the monks’ dining hall. Some of the Byzantine icons have their own stories to tell, such as one miraculously found by a healing water spring, which is a depiction of Agia Anastasia and the Virgin Mary.

Amongst its treasures, the monastery also counts a document dating to 132BC, which details the settlement of a dispute between nearby Itanos and Ierapetra over the rights to visit a temple to goddess Athena and control of an island where coveted purple dyes were produced.

In their vast estate, the monks cultivate vineyards and olive trees, and produce olive oil, organic wine, and fabulous raki. You can buy their products in the monastery.

If you want to visit Toplou, contact Karma Travel to organise your transfers, accommodation, and a guided tour to make the most of your visit. Don’t miss the opportunity to make history come alive with a knowledgeable and friendly local! Karma Travel’s experts can help you sort out all your travel needs.

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Lefka Ori

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I’ve spent quite a while wandering about, around, and between these mountains, so I thought they deserved a post of their own.  The beloved mountain range that sits majestically in western Crete, the Lefka Ori (white mountains), is also known as Madares (bald mountains).  The ‘bald’ side refers to a high desert —unique in the northern hemisphere— which lies at an altitude of 1,800 m.  It is located in the central and southern side of these mountains and can be entered via Anopolis.

The Lefka Ori are made of limestone.  This is why from a distance they look white or blueish -or pink if the sun hits them at a certain angle and you are quick with the camera!  More than this, the ‘white’ probably refers to what the locals think of as wintry white, perennial snow caps, which disappear in late spring.  

The highest peak is Pachnes (Cretan for ‘fog’), which is close to 2,500m above sea level.  There are also Mount Ida and Psiloritis, which I mentioned in previous blog posts.    There are also about 50 gorges cutting across the mountains.  The most famous is the Samaria Gorge.  There are also the Imbros and Agia Irini Gorges (mentioned before).

The gorges, the mountains themselves, and the plateaus between them are fabulous for hiking. In fact, the European E4 path crisscrosses these mountains. During spring and summer, there is stunning vegetation to be seen, not least a few species of flowers unique to this region.  In wintertime, though, it is advised that only experienced hikers and mountain climbers attempt to come here, as it can be dangerous.

Plan your springtime or summertime hikes and contact Karma Travel for advice regarding walking tours where you can take in the beauty of Lefka Ori and also learn about the flora and fauna of the region.  You will not be disappointed!

Milia and a Chestnut Festival

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I thought that perhaps a new experience was in order. Somewhere without TV’s and gloomy news that make me conscious of living in ‘interesting times’. I thought a few days perhaps even without Internet access could do me good.  Mind you, giving up my Internet connection seems like being deprived of human contact, almost like becoming a modern-day anchorite.

So what is really essential for living?  What or how much can you give up?  I thought for these considerations alone, it was worth going to Milia.

Milia is a 17th century mountain settlement nestled in the Lefka Ori (white mountains) which has been transformed to accommodate tourists -mostly hikers- in its stone houses.  These have been restored to provide simple and basic yet very hospitable accommodation.  There are wood burning stoves for heating, and the furniture in the bedrooms is rustic. Solar panels generate enough electricity to meet the very basic needs, but there is no access to media or the Internet.  The houses have simple bedrooms, bathroom and a dining room.  Stream water is piped into the houses.  The experience is not about locking yourself up in one of the houses, though -there is a spacious communal dining room, where you can enjoy home-grown organic food lovingly prepared by Giorgos and Tassos.  Their delightful stifado with chestnuts, baby onions and potatoes in red wine sauce will stay in my memory.  I really enjoyed my stay and did not want to leave!  Indeed, it is possible to give up technology and embrace a simpler life without so much as a hiccup.

Then again, here I am, back in ‘civilisation’ and blogging.

From Milia, you can rent a bike or hike to visit the surrounding little towns, called the Innaxorion (‘nine villages’) dispersed in this mountain area, where time seems to be elastic and go slowly.  I found a few gems, such as a 15th century basilica dedicated to Agia Varvara (near Latsiana) and a church dedicated to Agios Nikolaos (near Mouri) which contains beautiful frescoes.  There is also the Topolia Gorge nearby, which makes for a most enjoyable hike.

Elos is the largest of the Innaxorion.  It is a pretty village surrounded by a chestnut forest and several natural springs,  and boasting  a few well-preserved Venetian buildings, such as a governor’s house and a fortress.  There are also fragments of Roman mosaics to admire.

The speciality of Elos are chestnuts.  I arrived in time for the annual Chestnut Festival, which this year was held on Sunday 4 November.   The festival sees everyone in the village get involved.  There was food, wine, music and dancing. A particular form of raki typical of this region was on offer (‘koumaroraki’). Small children had prepared ‘mantinades’ (poems) about chestnuts. Or at least this is what I was reliably informed that they were reciting!   Huge, sweet and juicy chestnuts were on offer, and you could also try them in a variety of dishes, sweet and savoury.  Then, in the climax of the event, the chestnuts are roasted.  What a pleasure!

If you would like more information about Milia or want expert advise to include local festivities in your travel plans, which will make for an unforgettable stay in Crete, contact Karma Travel!  Their expert advisors will help with accommodation, transportation and offer knowledgeable tips to make your travel a true delight.

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