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.

Psiloritis

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I’ve gone to explore a mythical mountain this time. Having spent all that time seeing Mount Psiloritis (also known as Mount Ida) as a backdrop to many places I have visited, I had to go and see the mighty giant for myself. This is Crete’s tallest mountain, at 2,454m above sea level. The climb is demanding and quite exhausting. It’s not something I could easily have done in one go. Luckily, there are hiking shelters and my place in one of these was reserved in advance by helpful Karma Travel. At the very top stands a small and rustic stone chapel dedicated to the Holy Cross (Timios Stavros) which holds the prayers of many pilgrims.

This mountain has its place in mythology as the birth place of Zeus. His mother, the Titaness Rhea, went to the Idaean Cave when her delivery time was approaching.  She squatted in the cave and pressed her fingers into the ground, so giving life to the Dactyls, small finger-like beings who were smiths and magicians, and would protect Zeus.  Her baby would stay in the cave to guard him from Chronos, his father, who had eaten all five  previous children she bore him for fear of a prophecy -he had been told by his parents that one of his children would dethrone him.

Hidden in the cave, Zeus was raised by a goat, Amalthea. A company of Kouretes helped conceal him, and they spent all their time making raucous noises in a continued effort to hide the baby’s crying, lest Chronos should hear him. When Zeus attained manhood, he confronted Chronos and forced him to disgorge all his siblings.  Zeus also freed the Giants, the Hekatonkheires and the Cyclops.  To show their appreciation, they gave him the gift of lightning, and helped fight and overthrow not only Chronos, but all Titans (his brothers and sisters) in a war called the Titanomachy.

Beyond its mythological connections, Psiloritis is considered a Geopark, part of the natural and cultural heritage of Crete, and is protected by UNESCO.  It is a geologist’s paradise, as it has unusual combinations of volcanic, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, some of which are a million years old.  The plant life is not only beautiful and fragrant, with wild thyme and sage patches like in the other gorges I have visited, but also includes orchids and tulips which are exclusive to this region.    Some parts of the park are also dotted with cylindrical stone structures built by shepherds, called ‘mitata’, which are used to make amazing local cheeses.

To discover the flavours of Crete and sort out your travel needs, contact Karma Travel!  Their friendly experts can advise you and will help you find small wonders you did not know existed in this Mediterranean island.

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