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.

Roussospiti and Mt Vrissinas

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I have taken a day to wander just south of Rethymnon on a bike. In this area, there is a tiny pretty town, Roussospiti.  I was curious about the name of the town. I know ‘spiti’ means ‘house’, but I couldn’t understand what the name referred to.  My query at the taverna got a couple of locals quite animated. There are at least two competing stories: one is that the town was named after a red house, (in Italian, that’s ‘Rossa’), which was built by a Venetian merchant.  The other story says that the name of the town refers to a house built by a Russian woman (hence ‘Rousso’), who was very ill and came to Crete to recover from her ailments.  Apparently, her house still exists.

Beyond the lively taverna and the gossip, the reason for my wander to this part of Crete today is visiting a number of lovely  churches with Byzantine icons and frescoes I wanted to see, which are nearby, and going up Mt Vrissinas.  Wonderfully helpful staff at Karma Travel helpmed me find a place to rent a bike, and also advised on possible routes I could enjoy.  This proved to be a great tip.  Starting in Rethymnon and on the way to Roussospiti, I passed several lovely chapels worth stopping by to take a look at.  This route is best enjoyed on a bike, as the walk would’ve been too long, and going by car or public transport would have meant that I could not stop to see these lovely chapels on the way.

In Roussospiti, there is a 10th century church dedicated to the Mother of God, which hosts some ancient icons that are sadly not intact, as the eyes of saints depicted were scratched during the Turkish occupation.  Nearby, just by the entrance to a gorge, there is also a 14th century convent dedicated to Agia Eirini (Holy Peace).  The monastery is being reconstructed all thanks to the nuns’ keen efforts, with works ongoing since 1989.  The nuns sell beautiful home textiles (like tablecloths and tea towels) and hand-painted icons to sustain their titanic reconstruction work.   In the estate of their monastery, there is also a 15th century church dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, which is also looked after by these dedicated nuns.

At the top of Mt Vrissinas, there is a church dedicated to the Holy Ghost.  The view from up the mountain is amazing.  It took me some effort going up, even though it’s not particularly high. Anyhow, the bike stayed at the foot of the mountain, and I walked up.

I’m told that this was always considered a holy mountain. Before the existing chapel was built, there seems to have been a temple to goddess Artemis at the same site.  Even before this, excavations undertaken in the 1960s revealed a Minoan temple of significance.  The digs yielded hundreds of anthropomorphic and zoomorphic clay statuettes, as well as fragments of a stone vase with Linear A inscriptions, which can be seen in the Museum of Rethymnon.

If you would like to obtain advise to make the most of your time in Crete, contact Karma Travel! From accommodation and transfers to tips on enjoyable cycling routes, they are your reliable travel agent in Crete.

 

 

 

 

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