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.

Extraordinary Olives

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Olives are truly everywhere in Crete.  You’ll be offered them as entrées or mezedes, you will find a wide variety of them in markets, and you will walk amongst olive trees almost everywhere if you venture to the countryside.  Olive oil will have been used to prepare most of the food you will eat in Crete, and you will find shops dedicated to selling crafts made out of olive wood, and cosmetics and toiletries made out of the wonderful oil.

Olive oil was once considered sacred.  It was used to anoint kings and athletes in ancient Greece. Olive oil was the fuel powering the ‘eternal flame’ of the ancient Olympic Games, and victors in the Games were crowned with olive leaves.

Records deciphered from Linear B scripture prove that as far back as 3000 BC, olives were grown commercially in Crete. In fact, they may have been the source of wealth of the Minoan civilisation.

Fossilised remains of olive trees have been dated 37,000 years old in Greece, and curiously, they were found along with the fossilised larvae of the white fly that continues to plague the trees to this day.   The trees are so hardy and resistant that they can live on for ages.  In fact, one olive tree in Crete has been proven to be at least 2,000 years old using ring analysis.

Olives are harvested in the autumn and winter.  They can be picked at different points in their ripening process, whether green or black, or somewhere in between.  When green olives are picked, it is usually done around September. If they are allowed to turn black, they will normally have been picked between November and January.   the methods for harvesting them range from shaking the tree to using nets, to electric tools.  Where the terrain is mountainous, or the olives are meant to become ‘table olives’, which need not be damaged, then they are collected by hand.

Olives are naturally bitter, so do not be tempted to grab them straight off any tree you come across in your walking.  The taste is truly terrible, and they are really hard!  Once picked, they need to be washed thoroughly to remove a protein that makes them bitter, and then they are cured with salt, lye or brine to make them edible.  Different types of curing will result in different tastes and even consistencies.

If you would like to visit Crete during the olive harvest and want to see the process of curing the olives and also the artisan production of olive oil in the traditional ways, contact Karma Travel!  This can be a true foodie’s dream journey!

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