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.

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.

 

 

The Cretan spirit known as Raki

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Raki (also known as Tsikoudia) is a Cretan distilled spirit.  You will be offered it after meals by hospitable taverna patrons, often even for free, along with dessert!  What’s not to like?

The best raki, I’m told, is homemade. It’s brewed to be shared with friends and family in Crete.  Many families have their own still, or share a distillery with their (often large) extended families.  Raki is made in the autumn, once the grape harvest is done and vines have been pruned.

Some Raki makers will add wild herbs such as thyme or rosemary; others will sweeten the clear liquid with honey, making it a rich golden colour. This sweetened, very palatable blend of Raki and honey is known as “Rakomena”.
The locals claim that the spirit promotes a long and healthy life, and also aids digestion.  For these and I’m sure other many benefits, such as sheer merriment, an enhanced capability to befriend people, and to understand and speak Greek, raki is a ‘must try’ drink. Yammas!!

Contact Karma Travel if you would like to visit a distillery, or want tips on where to get the best raki in Crete!

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