Cavo Sidero

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Cavo Sidero is the Northeastern tip of Crete.  The place is wild and beautiful.  The coast is lined by dramatic, rugged wind-swept cliffs with boisterous waves.  At the tip of the thin peninsula, there is a French-built lighthouse.  The area is also known as Agios Isidoros after the dedication of a church once built here by a monk who had battled the waves in a perilous journey.  The church was his gift of gratitude, having survived after being adrift for many days.

There are also the remains of an ancient temple to goddess Athena, which was destroyed by an ancient tsunami that followed a volcanic eruption in Santorini.  Testament to the trecherous sea on this side of Crete, there are the sunken remains of several shipwrecks, which can be seen from time to time and seem like beached whales.

On the hills and mountains, the land is rather barren mostly due to the winds. But precisely because of the harsh conditions, there are some wonderful rare plants.  The area is protected by the Natura 2000 programme.  Even if the land is arid, it is dotted with bushes of aromatic herbs like thyme, sage and marjoram.  There are also olive trees (now still full of darkening olives).    In this area, there are eagles, vultures and falcons to be seen if you are a keen and patient watcher.

In the east, there is a palm grove beach, Vai, which is very popular with tourists.  The palm trees in this area (Phoenix theophrastii) are native to Crete, and found mainly in Vai and Preveli (see The Palm Beach of Preveli, earlier in this blog).  Sadly, the palms in Vai are suffering from an invasion of red palm weevils, an insect plague which is munching them away.   Notwithstanding the plague, the beach at Vai is beautiful and at particular times of year, there are migratory birds to be seen here.  Even flamingoes, I’m told, but I’ve missed them this time…

The area is close to the airport in Sitia, and it is likely that it won’t remain virgin territory anymore.  A court has awarded a development company the right to build up the area.  There will be resorts and golf courses, and apparently a commitment to manage the area sustainably so as not to lose its biodiversity.

If you are keen on visiting this beautiful area and admiring its natural beauty, come quickly!  Contact Karma Travel to organise your trip.  They’ll sort out your transportation and tell you about the most beautiful spots for birdwatching. If you come in the spring, there will be wild and beautiful flowers to be seen.  A local guide will be most useful, and Karma Travel can find one for you.

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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.

Lake Kournas, Argyroupolis and Ancient Lappa

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With Lefka Ori (the white mountains) behind me, and surrounded by greenery, facing Lake Kournas, I’m spending an afternoon in an idyllic scenery.  This is Crete’s only natural freshwater lake, some 1.5 km wide and fed by underground springs.  Its crystal-clear waters change colour, I’m told, according to the season and time of day.  The lake is very much alive: turtles, crabs and fish can be watched from pedaloes or canoes, which one can leisurely paddle about the lake during the summer months.  Since I’ve missed that opportunity and we’re now in October, I’m quite content to spend my afternoon sitting on a lounger and soaking up the sun whilst reading a book.  There are tavernas around the lake, and so I can wander towards them to get myself a fresh portokalada (an orangeade) and sip it in pure bliss.  I’d been told to make sure I tried the myzithropitakia, cheese patties made with Cretan sour myzithra cheese, a staple of this region. So I obediently stopped by ‘Omorphi Limni’ (a taverna aptly named ‘Beautiful Lake’) and gave these heavenly treats a go.

I spent the morning visiting the pretty village of Argyroupolis, which was built upon a hill, and is built on several levels, with Kato (lower) and Pano (upper) sections.  With the advise of my trusted Karma Travel, I was able to hire a local guide to show me around, and knew to look for a particularly interesting herb shop in Argyroupolis, where I found a few cosmetic treasures.

This small town is steeped in history, which is evident from the rocks that make up its houses and public buildings.  As in other places, the building materials have been reused over time, and so these construction blocks were once part of Roman or Venetian structures.  The town’s current name dates back to the 19th century, when it was called Argyroupolis in reference to a silver mine in the neighbouring area.  However, settlements in this area are much, much older: this was once called Lappa, and there are references to its existence in Minoan times.  According to legend, the origin of Lappa can be traced to that era, when it is said to have been founded by Agamemnon, the hero of the Trojan War.

Lappa was a very important city whose territory extended from the north to the south coasts, and boasted two commercial harbours: present-day Dramia and Loutro.  The city was destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout its history. It enjoyed particular prosperity during Roman times (as evidenced by archaeological finds from the period), and also during the Byzantine period, when it was the Episcopal residence of Agios Titus, Crete’s first bishop and patron saint.  I particularly enjoyed a stroll around the Roman ruins of ancient Lappa, with its Necropolis, baths, and  aqueduct.

Down the hill, towards Asi Gonia, lies a particularly beautiful area with ten springs known as ‘The Holy Force’ (Agia Dynami).  Here, water gushes out of the mountains with such force that it was used to power water mills, which in the not too distant past dotted the area.  Nowadays, the mills are gone, but you can still sit to enjoy the view of the beautiful cascades from one of the many tavernas in this gorgeous setting.

If you would like to enjoy the peace and quiet of beautiful Lake Kournas, or are keen to visit the lovely Argyroupolis with its springs and ancient Roman ruins, contact Karma Travel.  They will be able to provide expert information and help you book all the services you need to make this a unique experience.

Dikteon Cave

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Can mere mortals debate the birthplace of a God?  Well, there is a debate about the birthplace of Zeus.  I have come to visit Dikteon Cave (otherwise known as Dictaean Cave) because other than the cave I visited in Psiloritis, this is said to be the ‘true’ birthplace of the God.  So I had to come and see what is so special about this, that makes it the most famous amongst the other 3,000 caves in Crete and 8,500 in Greece.

In ancient times, this was a place of worship and pilgrimage, as offerings found here attest.  Today, it’s still visited by travellers from all over the world, who, like me, are curious and awe-struck at the beauty of the cave.

The Dikteon Cave is  impressive,  rich in stalagmites and stalactites.  You walk down following a structure with protective railing, so the visit is hardly a spelunking adventure.  Nevertheless, the place is beautiful, and I must say that the lighting brings out the beauty of the rock formations even more.

At 1025m, the Dikteon Cave dominates the Lassithi Plateau and the whole of East Crete.  It is situated in the Dicte mountain range, and faces north.  The nearest village is Psychro, so proud locals also call it the Psychro Cave.  From this town, I have followed a paved path lined with oak trees. I was offered a donkey ride up to the cave, but declined.  At the end of the path, just before the cave entrance, I had to stop and catch my breath after a long uphill walk.  The panoramic view of the whole plateau was very worth a pause, and I suddenly realised how lucky I was to be standing on that spot and drawing in this blissfully refreshing mountain air, perfumed with thyme, sage and other aromatic herbs.

If a Goddess had to pick a fabulous secluded and secretive place to give birth to the one she knew would be the ‘Father of the Gods of Olympus’, this would be the place.  I’m sure this was no accidental choice!

The Dikteon Cave consists of five chambers large and small. The most impressive sight is the lake at the lowest point, surrounded by massive stalactites and stalagmites. At the lake, there is the ‘Mantle of Zeus’, a stalactite which hangs over the lake like a chandelier.  This shape, looked at with mythical imagination, resembles a cloak.  At the back of the lake, there’s a small chamber of the cave, in which it is said that the Father of the Gods was born.

If you would like to visit this ancient mythical place, please contact Karma Travel. They will be able to sort out all your travel needs, from transfers and accommodation to guided tours and advise on how to make the most of your time and experience authentic Crete at its best!

Yoga in Triopetra

Sunset in Triopetra, Crete, Greece creteisparadise.wordpress.com

How can you not be inspired to perform a series of sun salutations when you have a background like this?

I’ve come to Triopetra for a yoga retreat which I booked through Karma Travel.  A perfect way to truly ‘leave everything behind’ and find internal peace.  I know full well how ‘internal peace’ and ‘happiness  from within’ can seem elusive, especially when you are following a 24/7 routine and live an office life -even more so when the ‘rat race’ seems to be the only pursuit you’re leading.  I can’t complain about this being my case at the  moment, when I have a ‘mobile office’. Nonetheless, it’s always nice to make a pause and find time to have a meaningful encounter with yourself.   Fortunately, taking the time off for this yoga retreat has not hit my wallet as a major luxury, thanks to Karma Travel’s expertise and contacts.

The peacefulness of the amazing setting in Triopetra, the caring teacher who has challenged me and my fellow yoga practitioners to push ourselves both physically and mentally, and the amazing harmony they created amongst the group have made me love every second of the retreat.   Having practiced yoga for a few years under a number of teachers, I can say this has truly been a wonderful experience.  You need someone who can balance the mental, physical and spiritual challenges of yoga and push you that extra bit.  I feel thoroughly refreshed both inside and out.

The food offered throughout the week has been amazing, and I’ve also really enjoyed a variety of herbal teas (all collected from the fragrant Cretan mountains).  To enhance the feeling of being one with nature, we’ve been offered vegetarian or vegan food that is organic, grown locally, and prepared traditionally.   Flavourful, nutritious, yet detoxifying. What more can you ask for?

During ‘time off’, I’ve really enjoyed sitting on top of a rock to just watch an amazing sunset by the beach.  It’s incredible how such simple pleasures can really infuse you with such powerful inner strength and energy.

If you would like to come to Triopetra and experience this joy for yourself, get in touch with Karma Travel!

Elounda

Elounda, Crete, Greece, Karma Travel. creteisparadise.wordpress.com

Ierapetra

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I am visiting the ‘Nymph of the Libyan Sea’, as Ierapetra is called by the locals.

This city, I’m told, enjoys fabulous, mostly dry and warm weather all year long.  Certainly, the weather didn’t disappoint when I visited.

Ierapetra is an ancient city, and has existed at least since the Minoan period.  At that point, it competed with Phaistos in terms of its importance.  In the 3rd century BC, its inhabitants sided with King Philip v of Macedon and Spartan Pirates to overtake an alliance including Rhodes, Byzantium, Pergamum, Athens and Knossos in the Cretan War, which in the end was won by Rhodes and Knossos.   Nevertheless, Ierapetra remained an independent city, until it was conquered by the Romans in 67 BC.  Some Roman ruins still remain, mainly in the harbor.

In 824 AD, Ierapetra was invaded and viciously destroyed by the Arabs.  Between the 13th and 17th centuries, the Venetians made it a prosperous city once more.  A few of the Venetian palaces from this era still remain.  As the rest of Crete, Ierapetra was also conquered by the Ottomans. A mosque remains in the old town, ‘Kato Mera’, as testimony of this period of the city’s history.  I’ve spent a good portion of the afternoon wandering about this part of town, with medieval streets, with narrow alleyways and cul-de-sacs which make for postcard-perfect pictures.   I quite liked a church dedicated to St George (Agios Giorgos), with its wooden ‘blind domes’.

If you want to visit Ierapetra and find out more about its history and flavours -I’m told that the raki here is the best in Crete- ask the experts!  Contact Karma Travel and they will be able to sort out your travel needs, from transport, accommodation and guided tours to visits to local raki distilleries and olive groves.

 

 

Agios Nikolaos

Agios Nikolaos, Crete, Greece creteisparadise.wordpress.com

After the peace and quiet of Psiloritis, I thought I needed a spot of people-watching in a bustling, vibrant place, so I came to Agios Nikolaos.

This town has a ‘bottomless’ lake (Voulismeni), which connects with the sea via a narrow inlet.  The lake is  lined with cafés, pizzerias, and tavernas with parasols all along.  On a balmy night, this was quite the place to be!

This was one of the first places in Crete to see touristic development, and it remains very popular with locals and foreign tourists alike.  It still features a commercial harbour, which exists since the times when the Venetians ruled Crete.  This was a particularly good spot for a major harbour, because it is sheltered by two small islands (where fortresses were built to guard the port), and it’s also sheltered from the sometimes vicious northwesterly winds that sweep other parts of the island.  The two small islands facing Agios Nikolaos are also home to an endangered species of wild goats, called ‘agrimia’.

On a morning stroll along the marina, I could see some dazzling yachts docking here.  I must confess I was a bit curious as to who were the owners of such lavish floating palaces.  Unable to find out any gossip worth mentioning, I was rather happy to find a small café selling wonderful crepes just by the slipway and indulge in a nutella-filled pocket of yumminess!

To plan your trip to Agios Nikolaos and obtain all-important information on the wide variety of options of accommodation on offer here, as well as activities including diving, yachting, golf, and visits to nearby monasteries and archaeological sites, contact Karma Travel!  They will be able to offer reliable help and advise.

Holy Peace!

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After my recent visits to archaeological sites, I decided to go to a beach.  A touristy beach.  Anywhere else, ‘touristy’ might be synonymous with ‘tacky’ and can rarely be paired with ‘charming’, yet towns in Crete often manage to make this rarity happen, and this is one of those happy exceptions.

Agia Galini (‘Holy Peace’) is roughly opposite Matala in a small gulf in southern Crete.   It is a little village circling a harbour.  Although it bustles with activity, I didn’t see any cars, so there were children playing and wandering about. I really like the family-friendliness of small towns in Crete.

I sat in a taverna that attracted me with the promise of a ‘thieves’ oven’.  I had lamb cooked in this fashion.  It turns out that a ‘thieve’s oven’ is a clay pot buried in the ground.  The fire sits atop the clay pot and conceals the ‘stolen’ meat of a goat or lamb whilst it cooks without blatantly revealing the mischief through smell and smoke -like a spit roast would.  Well, my verdict is that stealing the lamb was probably worth it!  This was absolutely scrummy.

Wandering up the hill, I came across a mythical take-off platform: the rock where it is said that Daedalus and Icarus set flight.   The story says that Daedalus had come to Crete banished from Athens, where the great inventor had slain his nephew (his apprentice) for fear that he would surpass the master’s abilities.  So Daedalus landed in Crete, where he worked for King Minos.  The king had asked him to build a labyrinth to keep the mighty Minotaur inside.  Daedalus built a maze so complicated that it was impossible to escape from it.

This was the case until young and brave prince Theseus came to Crete and offered himself as willing bait to enter the Labyrinth.  He would attempt to slay the Minotaur.  What he wanted was to end a vengeful ritual whereby a number of youths from his land were presented to the Minotaur every seventh year to be killed by this savage beast.   Theseus was handsome and witty, and stole the heart of King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne.  Madly in love, the princess decided she would help save her prince and flee with him.  She gave him a spindle and instructed him to unravel the thread as he went into the Labyrinth so he could find the way out.  So Theseus slay the Minotaur and successfully fled the Labyrinth, taking Princess Ariadne with him.

King Minos was furious.  Filled with rage at the builder of the Labyrinth, he imprisoned Daedalus an his son, Icarus, in a tower.  There was no way out.

The inventor came up with a solution, though.  He built wings made of beeswax and feathers, and successfully managed to learn to fly.   Daedalus strapped on his wings, and instructed Icarus to do the same.  There was a caveat: they could not approach the sun, because the beeswax would melt, and they couldn’t brush the foam of the sea, because it would ruin the feathers.  Both of them flew high into the sky.  It was so exhilarating that Icarus forgot the warnings and got too close to the sun, whereby his wings melted and he inevitably fell into the sea and drowned.  The island nearest to where the boy drowned is called Icaria, in his honour.

If you want to visit the mythical Agia Galini, or would like to set off to the islands without risking the fate of Icarus, contact Karma Travel!  They will sort out your airplane tickets, transfers, accommodation, guided tours, and organise visits to vineyards, olive groves, raki distilleries, and show you Crete’s traditions.  Come and experience authentic Crete with a tour organised by Karma Travel!

Matala

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I’ve decided to stake out a base near Matala.

This area retains quite the hippie vibe from the 60’s, and I’m almost tempted to go find flowers to put on my hair.  The general vibe seems to be captured in a phrase painted on a wall ‘today is life, tomorrow never comes.’

What brought me here, though, is not an interest in visiting the old haunts of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens, as much as I like their music for a lazy Saturday morning.  What drew me to Matala is an interest in the caves that dot the cliffs.  You can walk around and explore, which really appealed to me.

I have mentioned cliffs pockmarked with caves in other blog posts. These cliffs are special because they seem to have attracted dwellers since times immemorial.  They appear to have been inhabited in the Neolithic.  Romans possibly used them for shelter (as suggested by carved beds, windows and porches);  early Christians used them as places of worship and also as tombs.  One of the caves, in fact, is called ‘Brutospeliana’.  It is said that Brutus, the Roman General, stayed there.

Nowadays, the Archaeological Service protects the caves, and they are fenced off at night.  Hippies in the 60’s came to live in them, and had to be evicted by both the Orthodox Church and the Police.  I wouldn’t have been tempted to stay overnight in the caves, but was quite glad to shelter myself from the heat during the visit.  Wandering about them was exciting, and the views (both of the caves and of the sea and the port) are stunning.   The carvings are quite interesting; some have carved niches which, when seen from a distance, resemble eyes.

If you are keen on rock climbing, the cliffs in the area are suitable for practicing the sport.  I did not go rock-climbing, but used the time to hike to nearby Red Beach, which was peaceful and beautiful.  There weren’t many people there, whilst Matala itself was quite busy.

The beauty of this area is the subject of a few stories.  An ancient myth says that Zeus fell in love with a beautiful Phoenician Princess, Europa.  He transformed himself into a white bull and mixed with the king’s herds.  The princess was somehow attracted to the bull, and rode it.  She suddenly found herself being carried by this celestial bull to Matala, where Zeus seduced her.  Europa then became the first queen of Crete.

In the next couple of days, I will have an archaeological feast: I’m visiting Roman Gortyna, the Minoan palaces of Phaestos, and Agia Triada.  I’m really looking forward to these visits!

To make the most of your time in Crete and avoid worrying about transport and accommodation, contact the experts at Karma Travel and let them take care of your reservations and make all arrangements for you.  They’re brilliant!

Frangokastello

Frangokastello, Crete, Greece

I made a day trip to Frangokastello, attracted by its legends and a sheltered sandy beach.

The fortress was built by the Venetians in 1204, soon after the Fourth Crusade had resulted in the division of territories formerly owned by the Byzantine Empire amongst the crusaders.  Crete had been given to Boniface de Montferrat, who sold it to the Venetians.  The new rulers were not popular and faced resistance from the Cretan population, and their maritime trading routes were always in danger of pirate attacks.  Hence why they needed to build so many fortresses.  This one in particular was meant to contain the attacks of fierce Sfakians and guard their ships from pirates.

The most important episodes in the history of this fortress happened more than 500 years later, though.  In 1770, a wealthy shipbuilder was betrayed here.  As a foreigner in Crete, you will quickly become acquainted with his name, as you’ll see it in streets, squares, schools and Chania airport. This local hero, known as ‘Daskalogiannis’ (Teacher Ioannis), was approached by emissaries of Queen Catherine the Great of Russia, who offered support for a revolt against the Turks.   Count Orlov was meant to provide money and backup troops to the rebel army assembled by Daskalogiannis, but they did not show up.  The Turks outnumbered the Cretan rebels and crushed the uprising.  Daskalogiannis was brought to Candia (Heraklion) where he was brutally tortured and murdered in front of his brother, who lost his mind.

Hatzimichalis Dalianis, a Greek rebel, landed in Crete in 1828 to ‘revive’ the revolutionary spirit.  A fierce battle was fought in Frangokastello on 17 May, and again the Turks outnumbered the rebels and mercilessly massacred them. Ambushes by pockets of rebels descending on Turkish troops from the nearby gorges accomplished little in denting the power of the mighty Turks.  It was a bloodbath.  Dalianis died in battle and was apparently buried by a nun in a nearby monastery.  According to local legend, on the anniversary of the battle, every 17 May there is a strange occurrence, whereby a ghost army of fallen revolutionaries returns to Frangokastello and march toward the fortress at dawn.  They are called the Drosoulites.  I can’t testify to this, because I was not there in May.  There is a debate between the traditionalists and scientists who have proposed explanations for these visions which involve winds and sandstorms in the morning mist.  Regardless of the plausible science of floating sand in a misty morning, the poetic vision of an army of fallen revolutionaries materialising on the anniversary of their epic battle is more appealing to me.

After visiting the castle, I enjoyed the sandy beach, and spent hours swimming in the sea and then enjoying a book on a sunbed under a parasol.  There are tavernas around which sell scrumptious food and fresh drinks to keep you going.

If you come to visit magic Frangokastello, contact Karma Travel to sort out your transportation and accommodation.  I heard some horror stories from tourists staying in the area.  Save yourself some trouble and consult the experts!

The Palm Beach of Preveli

I heard of the wonders of Preveli and decided that an area that offered a spectacular sandy beach with a palm forest, a gorge, and a monastery was definitely my kind of place to go explore. So off I went.
The trip started in Rethymnon, to where I had returned shortly. It did not take very long to get to the Kourtaliotiko Gorge. I arranged to be taken there and left to wander through the beautiful, steep gorge, then picked up at the end to be taken to Preveli Monastery, all thanks to wonderfully helpful Karma Travel.

The setting is, like my book promised, nothing short of ‘stunning’. The gorge’s red face is steep and narrow, and dotted with caves. There are quite a few springs, and in fact, the Megalopotamos river, which cuts through the mountains and drains at the Lybian Sea, has its source in the gorge. Legend has it that two monks once came to settle here. One of them was reluctant, and his reason for not wanting to stay was the lack of water. The other monk, Nikolaos, prayed and laid his hand on a rock. Miraculously, where his fingers touched the rock, a spring welled up. So now, there is a pretty little church with beautiful frescoes in the gorge, and it is dedicated to Agios Nikolaos.

The next leg of my day trip took me to Preveli Monastery –which actually contains two building complexes in a huge estate. The main (upper) monastery is dedicated to St John the Theologian; the name Preveli comes from the Venetian donor that funded its construction in the middle ages. I visited the beautiful buildings and an exhibition displaying religious relics and icons. The monks pride themselves in the monasteries’ active role in the history of Crete. In the 17th century, during the Turkish occupation, the monastery was allowed to remain operational, and served as a social hub, not just a religious centre. A century later, the abbot participated in an uprising and was sentenced to death, but then pardoned. In the 19th century, the monks became part of the revolutionary movement to drive out the Turks, and in the meantime managed to operate ‘secret schools’ to educate the local children. They also provided shelter for rebels and sustained them. The monastery was set on fire in vengeance, but it was rebuilt shortly thereafter. By the turn of the century, the formerly secret school had become a college, which continues to be important for the region to this day.

The lower monastery, dedicated to St John the Baptist, was the object of heavy bombing in the Second World War. The monks had provided shelter for a group of Australian soldiers, who were rescued by a submarine at Preveli Beach. In revenge, the German forces destroyed the lower monastery, which remains ruined, and severely damaged the upper monastery, which was again rebuilt.

From the monasteries, I walked along a path towards the beach. At the point where the Megalopotamos meets the sea, there is a little lagoon surrounded by a palm tree forest. In August 2010, on a Sunday morning the palm forest caught fire and burned to ashes. The wind was terrible that day, so it made the fire brigade’s task quite difficult. At one point, even the monastery was threatened by the fire, but a change in the direction of the wind saved it. The damage was extensive, but two years on, the palms seem to have pretty much recovered. I can report that they are very much alive and well!

The landscape, with the palm forest, the lagoon, and the beach with a backdrop of steep cliffs is gorgeous and I very much enjoyed spending the afternoon on a lounger under a parasol and diving into the sea as I pleased.

If you want to visit lovely Preveli and would like to replicate this itinerary, I would strongly recommend approaching Karma Travel to organise your transfers (not least accommodation if you choose to stay overnight in the area). I couldn’t just rent a car myself because I’d forgotten to take my drivers’ license with me, but the road is beyond bumpy and the section where we went across the gorge had me gasping a few times. I can’t imagine to have driven myself! Very grateful to my driver for the day.

Balos

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‘Wake up early and go!’  So I was told, and I obeyed.  The reasoning was that I would find crowds in Balos.  Well, coming from a big city, I expected masses of people. I don’t know if I simply was lucky and they decided not to come on the same day as me, but I would not say the beach was crowded!   Nevertheless, starting early meant that it was not so hot when we got there, and the wonderful day spent at Balos was well worth getting up early whilst on holiday.

Past the tiny village of Kalyviani, you drive along a rough dirt road, following the slope of Mt Geroskinos.  The views going up are simply spectacular, and make up for the bumpy ride!  Then, you get to a car park where you’re likely to have to negotiate a parking space with a kri kri (mountain goat), especially if it’s early.  You get off the car, gather your bits and pieces, and trek down to the beach.

My fellow travellers described the beach as ‘a piece of paradise’, and with good reason.  The beach has fine white sand beaches and clear, light turquoise waters that glisten in the sun.   Cliff walls as a backdrop, and an island with a Venetian fortress in the distance (Imeri Gramvousa) make it picture-perfect.  Dive or snorkel into the clear waters, and you’re in for a treat.

As if this was not enough, there is a lagoon with crystalline waters where even children can jump in and play, as it is not too deep, yet not shallow either.

The island off shore, Gramvousa, has had an important role in Cretan history.   Its Venetian fortress was built to protect ships on the way to and from Venice.  It was also an armoury, and it was so fiercely guarded that the Turks could not capture it along with the rest of Crete in 1645.  It remained Venetian property, although it was eventually abandoned.  At some point, it became a pirate base.  Then, in 1821, the Cretan revolutionaries took hold of it.   During the war of independence, it was taken by the Turks, who used it to blockade and siege the island from this vantage point.

The locals say that pirates hid their treasures in caves around the island, so go look.  You never know where legend meets the truth…

If you are keen to go treasure hunting, or just want to see this treasure of a beach protected by the Natura 2000 Programme, contact Karma Travel!   They can organise a car rental, transfers, or boat tickets to get you there.

 

Spinalonga

Spinalonga, Crete, Greece. Karma Travel. creteisparadise.wordpress.com

I have never read Victoria Hislop’s “The Island”, but my friends are fans of the novel and the TV series it inspired, so when they learnt I was going to Crete, I was told to go to Spinalonga and report what the island was like.

Spinalonga is a small island near Elounda in the east of Crete.  To my friends’ delight, I was able to take pictures of a scenery exactly like that portrayed in the movie, as one proud local informed me that a street has been reconstructed to mirror the scenery of ‘The Island’.  I must say it is not hard to imagine why someone would obsess about this small island and write novels about it.  It is such a fantastic site!

Spinalonga is an artificial island;  the Venetians carved it into an island off the Kolokitha peninsula for military purposes.  They needed a stronghold in this area, and built a fortress which they wanted to be off shore to protect a nearby port.  It was them who named it ‘Spina lungha’, which means ‘long thorn’.   They built fortification upon fortification, first to defend it from pirates, then from the Ottoman Turks.  Their military prowess proved effective in so much as the island remained a Venetian stronghold even after the Ottomans had taken over Crete in 1645.  The Ottomans finally conquered it in 1715.  In the meantime, the fortified island had effectively defended Venetian trade routes and had also become a haven for Christians fleeing persecution by the invaders.   The tables turned in 1866, when the island became a refuge for Ottoman families fearing reprisals by Christians.   The last Turks left the island in 1903.

It was decided that their empty houses could now be used to contain a leper colony -one of the last leper colonies in Europe, which was functional until 1957.   The island then became a slum where outcasts who were suffering from what was then considered an incurable disease were sent to die.  The conditions of lepers improved with time; hospitals were built, and medical staff were sent to care for them.  Then, a cure was found and a leper island was no longer needed, so the island was again vacated.  The last inhabitant left from this rather sad period was an Orthodox priest who stayed behind to comply with the tradition that required a commemoration of a person’s funeral to be held at intervals of 40 days, 6 months, 1 year, 3 years, and finally 5 years.   The priest was able to leave the island in 1962.

The site and its poignant history are so compelling that the Greek Archaeological Service is laboriously trying to maintain the ruins.  A cemetery for lepers still exists and can be visited, and you can wander around ruins of churches and houses, as well as the remains of the ancient Venetian fortifications.

If you would like to visit this UNESCO World Heritage site, contact Karma Travel.  You will need boat tickets and some tips, which they can helpfully provide you with!

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