The region of Herakleion (Iraklion) lies between those of Rethymnon, to its west, and Lassithi, to its east. A wildly diverse area, where some of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world can be found against a backdrop of sparkling seas, and the rugged mountain landscape, of the eastern side of the Psiloritis range (or Mount Ida). Resorts of all types are spread across the northern coastline, and there’s something for all tastes, here.
Chersonissos (or Hersonissos) and Malia to the east of Herakleion city (along with Aghios Nikolaos in the province of Lassithi), are probably the best known tourist resorts on the island, though there are plenty of quieter spots too. Getting out and about in this region can be quite thrilling. There’s so much to see and do, that one would need months, if not years, to discover all that Herakleion has to offer.
Of palaces and castles
Of the six Minoan "palaces", so far unearthed on Crete, four are in this nomos: Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Galatas. The latter of these has only recently been elevated to that status, and is practically unknown outside the archaeoligists’ world. The other three, however, are world famous, and are in settings of such disparate geography, that visiting all of them should be a must, for anybody interested in the wonderful world of these Bronze age Cretans. It doesn’t stop there, either. If anything the sites at Aghia Triadha and Gortyna are even more impressive than the "palaces"; add to these the three excavated sites in and around Archanes, that of Arkalochori in the foothills, and Phaistos’ port, Kommos, on the south coast and we’re still only scratching the surface.
Castles abound; villages nestle in the foothills which continue to climb, before reaching a crescendo just over the border of Rethymnon, where Psiloritis (Mount Ida) rises to 2,456 metres. On the Herakleion side of the border is the Kamares cave, where the eponymous Kamares-ware vases were found, with their beautiful design and egg-shell thin pottery. The city of Herakleion itself can hardly be described as beautiful, but there’s more than enough to see, to make it well-worth visiting. It has a vibrancy associated with a small modern city, which has been through many transitions throughout its turbulent past.
Arabs, Venetians, Ottomans and Germans
The city’s name is a modern rendering of the Roman port of ‘Heracleum’, and was called ’rabḍh el-Khandak’ ("fortress of the moat"), by the Saracens (who were here from 824 AD until their expulsion from the island by Nikiphoros Phokas - later, Byzantine Emperor - in 961. Phokas’ castle at Prophitis Ilias is well worth a visit (see castles). The Venetians, who acquired the the island from the Boniface de Monferat in 1204, were later to currupt the by-now-Hellenized version of the Saracen name "Chandax", to Candia, which also became the generic title for the whole island. Under Ottoman rule (1669-1898), the city was known Kandiye - though the Greeks tended to call it ‘Megalokastro’ (Big Castle) - before being renamed once more as ‘Herakleion’ during the island’s autonomous period (1898-1913).
Looking at what remains of the Venetian fortifications (known then as ‘Rocca al Mare’, and now by its Turkish name, ‘Koules’), one should spare a thought for those who were caught within and without its walls, during the latter days of Venetian ownership. For here it was that the longest siege in European history took place. For over 21 years, between May, 1648, until a treaty was signed on September the 16th, 1669, the Greeks and Venetians living within, resisted Ottoman attempts to enter from without. The treaty allowed those within the city’s walls to escape the island, and Crete - with the exception of the three fortified islands of Spinalonga, Gramvoussa Isle and Souda Isle, which remained under Venetian ownership until 1715 - was in Ottoman hands, in which it would remain for the following 229 years. One could happily spend a fortnight in the city; the Venetian walls are still standing in parts, as are some of the arsenali, though like Rethymnon and Chania, Nazi bombing raids prior to the commencement of The Battle of Crete (20th May 1941), destroyed much, and in their inimitable and unspeakably brutal manner, the Nazis punished the people of Herakleion for their resistance during that battle by blitzing the city again, after they’d conquered the island. Ignore the modern architecture the best you can, and look out instead for some spectacular examples of Venetian, and to a lesser degree, Ottoman architecture.
The hidden vs. the not-so-hidden side
Mountain villages such as Zaros, Venerato, the twin village of Asites (Kato and Ano) and Kamares are wonderful places to escape the heat of high Summer. Archanes, southeast of the famous Mount Juktas (where Zeus is supposedly buried, much to the annoyance of the Greek poet Callimachus, who called all Cretans "liars" as a result of this assertion), is a lovely small town, and is a great place to stay. The north coast resort of Malia, the setting for the recent "boys-behaving-badly" film of the British TV series, ‘The Inbetweeners’, has a reputation for young people drinking far too much, but the old village, across the main road from the resort, is a delight. Chersonissos too, has more bars than one could reasonably be expected to visit during a fortnight’s holiday, but the atmosphere here is far more toned-down, and the holiday-makers generally a little more mature, in every sense. The Minoan "palace", of Malia, is a further three KMs to the east of the resort, and is an essential place to visit, whilst Chersonissos was a port of some import, through the Classical Greek to Byzantine eras, and there is a wonderful pyramid-shaped fountain, dating back to the Roman period, replete with fishing-themed mosaics on the seaside road, as well as an early basilica, with mosaic floors, perched on a hill behind the port.
To Herakleion’s west lies the tourist resort of Aghia Pelaghia, a modern development, set within a cove, which itself nestles within another cove. It’s a lovely place to have a beach-holiday, and is close enough to Herakleion (22 Kms from its centre), to allow one to enjoy the best of both worlds, and mix water-sports with culture. The south coast is relatively barren, compared to that of the north. The environs of Kommos have accommodation, and would suit those wanting to get away from it all on the spot where the port of Phaistos and Gortyna were situated in Minoan, Dorian and Archaic times (see archaeology). The busier southern tourist resorts, are just over the Rethymnon border, so places such as Aghia Galini and Plakias can easily be visited if you find yourself on Herakleion’s south coast.
Written by Stelios Jackson exclusively for Ecotourism-Greece.com