The Monastery of Agios Petros

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I’m back in Heraklion since the New Year festivities.  I find that whenever I set foot here, there is something else I had not seen before, and this time I’m writing about one such discovery.

Strolling around the seaside wall, I wandered into the ancient Monastery of Saint Peter (Agios Petros), built by Dominican monks.  It contains the only surviving 15th century frescoes in Heraklion.  This was a Catholic monastery, and one of the most important in the city.

The monastery has two main buildings.  This was not always the case, and the fact that you can see the marks of many different epochs if you look carefully at the building is the main reason that it caught my eye in the first place.  The main and original building dates back to the 13th century as a one-nave basilica, but it collapsed in 1303 and was rebuilt.  Chapels were built into it throughout the next three centuries.  Perhaps this period was not just about building and adding new chapels to the basilica, but also about rebuilding it over and over again, as it is said that it collapsed at least three times between the 14th and 16th centuries.  The two smaller chapels with vaulted ceilings that stand by the southern wall are from this time.

In 1669, shortly after the Ottoman invasion, it was turned into the Sultan Ibrahim Mosque.  A minaret was added at the southwest corner.  New windows were opened on the north and south walls during this period, too.

In the 19th century, the basilica collapsed yet again.  This time, it was rebuilt and a dome was added.  Some signs of this reconstruction can be spotted in the northern wall.

After the Turkish invasion was over, the religious building fell into disuse.  It was then repurposed as a cinema and then a carpentry.

In 1991, a comprehensive restoration started, which concluded in 2010.  The whole area was expropriated and excavations were carried out in the surroundings.  Archaeologists were fascinated by some of the finds from the 2nd Byzantine period. Some objects can be seen in the Historical Museum. The restoration was supervised by the Cretan Archdiocese, and the building’s religious vocation was also restored. In fact, in recognition of its history, it has become an interfaith place of worship, and also a venue for cultural events.

If you would like to explore Heraklion with  local guide, contact Karma Travel!  Their experts can also advise on interesting sights off the beaten track and sort out all your travel needs to make your stay in Crete unforgettable.

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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.

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