Lassithi (Sitia)

The eastern quarter of Crete is known as Lassithi (or occasionally Sitia) and is an area of such wide diversity, one could spend months here and still have barely touched the surface of the place. The variety of things to do and places to see is quite incredible, from the lush plateaus of Lassithi and Katharo to the sparkling seas that lap Lassithi's three coastlines. Archaeological sites abound while gorges tear through the predominantly limestone hinterland, affording visitors the opportunity to escape the more beaten track and become one with nature. The birdlife, especially in the more mountainous districts and on the east coast, is superb, and sightings include vultures, eagles and Eleanora's falcons (see Bird Watching).  

 

The plateau of Lassithi itself, is the highest such place in Crete (817-850 metres), populated year round. Even higher lies the Katharo plateau (around 1150 metres) where winters are too harsh for permanent habitation. There are 17 villages on the Lassithi plateau and quite a few of them offering accommodation. A centre of revolution against Venetian rule in the 13th century, the Venetians depopulated the Lassithi Plateau in 1263 and forbade cultivation due the rebellious nature of the locals; a couple of centuries later and with Venice's desperate need for corn, the plateau was allowed to be resettled. The ditches (or 'linies'), still in use today for drainage are almost certainly from Venetian times, though the watercourse may follow a previous Roman built system. In the 16th century, people of the Peloponnese settled here to escape the Ottomans who had taken mainland Greece. Of course, by the end of the following century, Crete too was under Ottoman rule, and the plateau was destroyed twice under its new overlords in the 19th century. Sadly, most of Lassithi's 10,000 cloth-sailed windmills, which used to punctuate the skyline here have all but disappeared, other than as tourist attractions. Windmills now are of the alternative sort, supplying an alternative source of energy, and whilst these towering metallic structures may not quite have the charm of the old mills, they are ecologically important.

This is the ideal area for hiking; a particular favourite is from Selakano to the Lassithi plateau and through the Dikte range. Yet there are so many paths to cross, mountains to climb and gorges to ascend or descend, it really is a walker's paradise. Another fabulous way to see the plateau and its environs is by pedal or on horseback, which can be arranged before you arrive. Whilst not quite as towering as the mountain ranges of Psiloritis (Ida) or Lefka Ori (White Mountains), further west Lassithi boasts two ranges: Thripti, whose highest peak, Stavromenos, rises to 1476 metres, and the Diktian, within which Mount Dikte (or Spathi) stands tall at 2148 metres – one of three mountains in this range to climb to over 2000 metres. According to Greek mythology, the great god Zeus was born on Mount Dikte, and the cave above Psychro, on the Lassithi plateau, is well worth a visit, both for its natural beauty and its relation to the Zeus myth.

Tourist facilities can be found all along Lassithi's three coastlines. Aghios Nikolaos (with its "bottomless", 64-metre deep seawater lake), is a lovely place to while away anything from a couple of days, to three weeks) and Elounda, on the north-eastern side of the bay of Mirabello, are the most famous, both affording access to the Venetian castle, and later, leper colony, on the islet of Spinalonga. On the east coast, is Zakros, one of the island's great spots, replete with its own beach, and rooms to rent, a Minoan "palace", and a wonderful and eminently walkable gorge (The Valley of the Dead). Palaikastro, to Zakros' north, Palaikastro is also worth visiting, and perhaps spending a few days; further north still is the famous beach of Vai, with palm trees and toll-gate, and the less famous but rather lovely beaches at Itanos. For those who like to get away from it all, Xerokampos south of Zakros is a fabulous place to be almost alone. Way down south, Makriyialos (or Makrigialos) is a popular seaside destination, especially for families.

There are two Minoan "palaces" here; Zakros, mentioned above, and the far smaller Petras, which lies slightly east of Siteia. Also well worth a visit, is Gournia, which was a Minoan town, and some say – with some justification – a "palace complex" too. Palaikastro, on the east coast, is a wonderful and superbly excavated Minoan site. On the Isthmus between Pachia Ammos and Ierapetra, where the island is at its narrowest (a mere 12 KMs wide), lies the famous 'Red House' at Vassiliki (slightly east of the charming modern village), and is accessible year round (in season by paying at the gate, and out of season by crawling under the fence, by the gate). Post Minoan sites such as Itanos on the northeast coast, rose to prominence during the Dorian period, while Praisos south of Siteia and close to the modern village of Nea Praisos has an isolation and spirit of place, which can hardly fail to send a tingle down ones spine, especially as this is believed to be one of the places inhabited by the ancestors of the Minoans for more than a millennium after the final destruction of all the palaces (with the exception of Knossos), some time in the mid-15th century BC.

For those interested in Byzantine frescoes, icons, churches and monasteries, this is the ideal place to come, with the three aisled church of Panaghia Kera, at Kritsa, an absolute must-see. The monastery of Toplou, east of Siteia, has a rather fortified look, and as it takes its name from the Turkish word for "cannon", it will come as no surprise to learn of its rather turbulent past. Castles abound, testifying to Crete's disturbingly violent past. The most famous of these is Spinalonga, on an island opposite the village of Plaka, located on the northeast coast of the bay of Mirabello, and accessible – to those who pay the ferryman – from that village, as well as Aghios Nikolaos and Elounda. Brave Venetian and Greek resistance to the Ottoman siege of Herakleion which lasted some 21 years (1648-1669) led to an agreement, wherein Venice was allowed to hold on this stronghold before the Ottomans broke the treaty in 1715. A number of novels have been written about Spinalonga's infamous leper colony. The most famous are 'The Island' by Victoria Hislop which has been turned into an excellent Greek TV series of the same name ('To Nissi', in Greek), and a series of novels by Beryl Derby (including 'Yannis' and 'Anna') which are also set here.

All in all, the nomos of Lassithi is a wonderful place to spend as much time as one can afford to spend.

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