Heraklion

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

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Location - Heraklion

Kamares Cave

This is one for those who like their caves at a high elevation. Situated 1,700 metres above sea level, Kamares, also known as Kamaraiko, is accessable by a trail leading north, and upwards from the village of Kamares. Beware, it’s quite a hike to the cave from the village, and be of more interest to those with a penchant for archaeology than speleology, as this was an important site in Minoan times, with votive offerings having been found here.

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Neraidospilios Cave

It is found some 25 km from Herakleion, not far from the village of Myrtia. Situated by a river, with highly mythological associations, for the ancients, who believed this to be the dwelling place of nymphs and fairies.

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The area of Herakleion has plenty of places to visit for those interested in ornothology. Among these are: Zaros and the Rouvas gorge, the "lake" at Thrapsano and the area around Gouves, especially the Aposelemis river and the lagoons formed in winter. Common to the area are buzzards, little egrets, blacked-winged stilts, griffon vultures, wheaters, plovers, stonechats, kestrels, herons and in the mountainous regions, occasional glimpses of eagles.

Photo: cretedoc.gr

So many places along both coasts have equipment for hire, though the north coast is especially rich for those wishing to partake in a bit of paddling. Resorts with such facilities are listed within the "swimming" section, but below are a couple of bespoke companies offering courses in all kinds of sea-sports

Due to the physical nature of Crete, opportunities abound for such sports as canyoning. Gorges slice their way through the limestone mountains, allowing ample opportunity to partake in this sport. ‘Canyoning in Crete’ may be able to realise your dreams, and include places such as: Kamaraiko, Valaha/Apathos. Agia Paraskevi, Abas/Mousoulis, Mesosfini, Ethiano, Kakoperato and Maridaki.

Photo: GNTO/ Y.Skoulas

Kamares Cave

This is one for those who like their caves at a high elevation. Situated 1,700 metres above sea level, Kamares, also known as Kamaraiko, is accessable by a trail leading north, and upwards from the village of Kamares. Beware, it’s quite a hike to the cave from the village, and be of more interest to those with a penchant for archaeology than speleology, as this was an important site in Minoan times, with votive offerings having been found here.

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Matala Caves

Located on the south coast, and were most likely used as dwelling places from neolithic times, before being converted into burial chambers during the Roman and early Byzantine era. Nowadays they are better known for the annual festival, with latter day hippies descending upon its beach, in the footsteps as such luminaries as Joni Mitchell (whose song ‘Carey’ was written in deference to Matala), Bob Dylan (allegedly) and Joan Baez, who all came here in the 1960s.

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Neraidospilios Cave

It is found some 25 km from Herakleion, not far from the village of Myrtia. Situated by a river, with highly mythological associations, for the ancients, who believed this to be the dwelling place of nymphs and fairies.

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There are so many places one can cycle in this nomos, but for the real enthusiast, trips up to the eastern side of the Psiloritis (Ida) range of mountains, can be both challenging and rewarding. As with hiking, the roads are quiet enough to ride practically undisturbed, in the foothills, and the area around the southern side of Ida, makes for especially fine cyling. Some trips with distance and elevation are listed below and are supplied courtesy of ‘Cycling Kreta’:

Kapetaniana-Koudoumas ~ Distance 34,5 km ~ Elevation gain1380m
Heraklion -Xiloria- Dafnes ~ Distance 16,3 km ~ Elevation gain 400m
Gazi-Sarxos ~ Distance 14,2km ~ Elevation gain 262m
Malia-Krasi-Mohos-Stalidha ~ Distance 29,5km ~ Elevation gain 876m
Avdou-Kera-Apotyposi ~ Distance 15,5km ~ Elevation gain 820m

Food on the island is a splendid example of Modern Greek fused with Turkish. Cheeses here are especially diverse, and the tangy ‘myzithra’ a particular favourite. The Cretan diet was mostly vegetarian up until the 1960s, due to the cost of meat. Village festivals and saints days gave your average Cretan peasant the opportunity to partake in meat-eating, which they generally wouldn’t have been able to afford at home very often. Because of this, there are numerous delicious vegetarian dishes available in most tavernas, though if you are of a vegetarian ilk, do beware that meat hasn’t been added to the old recipe, as sometimes it is in the stuffed rice dishes (such as the tomatoes or ‘dolmades’/vine leaves). The Greek word for vegetarian is “hortofagos”.

Photo: www.arttable.gr

Being an island, fish is, of course, a very important part of the average seaside taverna’s menu. Village wine can be rather off-putting for those who are more used to quaffing a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but it’s generally very cheap, and quite often organic. Bottled wines come in all the usual colours and varieties (see Wines). Beers inlcude Amstel (Dutch), Kaiser (German), Mythos (Danish owned, though like Amstel, it is brewed in Greece), Alpha and Fix (both Greek). There is a microbrewery in the Rethymnon nomos, called ‘Brink’s’, which produces a couple of rather tasty, organic beers, which can be a very pleasant change from the usual suspects listed above, though do tend to be slightly more expensive.

Photo: www.kritikes-geuseis.gr

Read more about Cretan food in the Chania section about Crete which provides a good summary that applies to the whole island.

Both long distance (E4 path) and short gorge walks are available for those who like to stretch their legs. The E4, which runs between Kato Zakros on the east coast, and Kissamos Kastelli, on the northwest coast, runs through the Herakleion nomos, passing Kastelli (Pediados), Archanes, Profitis Ilias, Ano Asites, before taking you across Mt Ida, or around it (via Zaros and the village of Kamares), depending on your choice. Included at the bottom of this page, is an edited piece by Stelios Jackson, on the E4 trail through Herakleion, which has appeared on other websites, but for now let’s concentrate on the gorges of this nomos.

Photo: www.newsit.gr

Kavousi Gorge ~ Situated a short distance west of the site of Chondros, and south of the three villages of Viannos, this gorge, starting at a monastery, is around 3 Kms in length.

Rouvas Gorge, Zaros ~ Walking around Zaros is an absolute delight, and the gorge of Rouvas, one of its highlights. Situated by a "lake" (really a reservoir), north of Zaros itself, one passes the monastery of Aghios Nikolaos. Behind the monastery, the gorge starts in earnest; the forset which was here a few years back, was sadly desrroyed by a fire, but don’t let that put you off. The undulating path has wooden bridges to cross what would be inaccessable parts of the gorge, and is a round-trip (from Zaros) of some four to five hours.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

Knossano Gorge, Archanes ~ Otherwise known as the ‘Aghia Irini’ gorge ~(not to be counfused with the one of the same name in the province of Chania), this gorge is 6 Kms long and runs from the northwest of Kato Archanes, at the edge of the famous Mt. Juktas (a curruption of the Roman god Jupiter, equivalent to the Greek Zeus, who legend has it, died here), down - as the name would suggest - to the Knossos area. Near the village of Kato Mylos, you’ll come across a beautiful bridge, visible from the gorge, named the ‘Karydakiani bridge’.

Aghios Antonios Gorge ~ Situated some 30 Kms south of Herakleion, and a short distance north-west of Kato Asites, this gorge is named after the church which nestles within. It high elevation (1100 metres) make this a walk for those interested in flora, with four species threatened by extinction.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

Portela Gorge ~ This gorge’s entrance can be found close to Chondros, and should be walked only by experienced hikers, and with extreme caution. It ends at the sea, at Keratokampos, which is another name by which the gorge sometimes goes.

Ambelos Gorge ~ 14 Kms south of Malia, and close the village of Gonies, the Ambelos gorge is one of those which can be walked or driven, and at only two Kms long, walking it should be quite easily achieved by most. There are three springs along its length, providing water year round. It is crossed by the Aposelmis river, and in itself becomes a trubutary of that river during the winter. Another gorge - an offshoot of Ambelos - can be found within, and is called the Roza gorge.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

 

Crossing the E4 through Herakleion

Just west of Herakleion’s border with Lassithi, a village called Toichos can be found (though somewhat cut-off from the latter nomos due to the road between having collapsed!). This road continues west from here, taking one to Kastelli Pediados, via the rather splendid ruins of ancient Lyttos (see Archaeology). Accommodation can be found here, which should set you up nicely for the following day’s walk, to the beautiful town of Archanes. The road runs adjacent to the E4 trail, and is worth sticking to.   

The road can be quite a pleasure to walk for a glimpse of life in the hinterland of Herakleion. It has the occasional passing car on it, and it is customary for cars to offer hikers (or hitch hikers) rides. It is hardly the quietest road but the scenery more than makes up for that. One of the villages you come across is Aghies Paraskies, a pretty place with smiling people, a mere 1Km from the main road which take the driver from Heraklion to the South. Continuing on the road, one comes to a couple of wineries, and a further Km or so beyond these, a left turn after the village of Zagousianoi (which is not at all a bad place) takes you through relatively ugly territory, and then into the village of Katalagari. Here, everything reverts to the Cretan norm. This is a pretty village, close enough to Herakleion and the town of Archanes to allow for a couple of kafenions (coffee shops) and ice-cream parlours.

A few winding turns later you should come across the town of Archanes nestling beneath, in a valley. The town looks very pleasant from up here. You will probably pass a couple of rather nice looking holiday villas (rented out on a weekly basis) as you descend down into Archanes. After a tour round Archanes stop at the square for a beer at a large and the rather nice kafeneion called 'Spitimo'. If you want to stay overnight, a 15 minute walk will take you to 'Rooms Orestes' which are comfortable enough.

Consider going the next day from Archanes to Ano Asites, perched on the west of the Ida range of mountains. On the south-western side of Archanes, a rather pretty trail skirts the southern side of Mount Juktas, and half an hour after setting off, you can reach the mountain's other side. You may spot E4 sign followed soon after, as you head north. Another sign suggests that you could head west, but you could also find yet another sign painted onto the side of the mountain to continue walking North. This will take you through a village before heading west to the village of Profitis Ilias and the church of Pouka.

The track takes you past a couple of other churches, as it winds its way upwards to Pouka. Relax at Profitis Ilias' coffee shop (kafeneion). The old castle of Kanli Kastelli on the west side of the village is worthy of a visit. As you hike along and if you're lucky, an E4 pole could appear to your right (north). After some winding and possibly a couple of incorrectly chosen paths, you could come across a series of E4 poles, eventually leading you to a river. Don't cross the river as it's full of silt. It would be best to head back towards Profitis Ilias and take the route through Kiparissos, then the remote villages of Pyrgos and Sinapi, and then on to Venerato.

You'll be met here with an element of "je ne sais quoi"; a kind of remoteness; a spirit of place, disturbed only by the extremely occasional passing of a car. Just after the village of Sinapi, the road swings from a westerly direction to a north westerly one, and this is where it becomes, all up-hill. The distance between Sinapi and Venerato is 8Kms, so you may want to sit down beside a river and take in a bit of scenery. The road up to Venerato, is pretty splendid. As you ascend the couple of hundred metres altitude from the river to the village, look back on the panoramic vista that presents itself. The village is a relatively sizeable place with a population of around 1,000, and a Venetian heritage.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

Arriving in Ano Asites (population 423; elevation 480 metres) you will see that there isn't much to discover after lazing in the local coffee shop, leaving you with two options: the first is to cross the Ida range via the Ideion Andron, the second is to walk around the Ida range.

From Ano Asites, if decide on the climb, a sign points you in the direction of a mountain hut. It’s a steep climb, as you’d expect, but in little more than an hour and a half, you will find yourself besides two stone buildings, one of which was supplies accommodation for those with a key, the other which accommodates without a key. The following morning you could walk to the Ideion Andron mostly in a downhill direction. A road bisects the mountain side, and by walking along it you eventually get to your desired destination, though it’s a tough slog at times. There is a taverna here, which should also supply accommodation, but it might be closed so don't count on it. You may have to spend another night sleeping out, or hopefully enjoying some shelter in an annex of the building. For the following day’s walk climb to the top of Ida (Psiloritis) before taking a westerly path which ends at Fourfouras. The trail is well way-marked, but tough going at times. It could take you most of the day, but the scenery is splendid and the summit of Psiloritis, with its chapel of Timios Stavros, affords spectacular views from Crete’s highest mountain (2456 metres). If you do climb the mountain make sure you have enough water supplies.

Next on your path should be Aghia Varvara (pronounced "Varvaara", often transliterated, wrongly, as "Barbara"), a likeable little town with something real and vibrant about it. Continuing along, pretty villages minding their own business will cross your path, and the last of these, Nyvritos, is an hour’s walk from Zaros.

After a night in any of these, you can head to the village of Vorizia. You may end up at Kamaras (Alt.: 600 metres; pop.1991: 491), passing by a sign for the path that leads to the Kamares cave. Consider also visiting Phaistos (see archaeology), which you will see looking in the direction of 'Psiloritis' way, depending on the weather. Trudge towards the village of Lochria passing through villages of Ardaktos, Platanos and Vathiako, for an exhilarating hike.

Kamares Cave

This is one for those who like their caves at a high elevation. Situated 1,700 metres above sea level, Kamares, also known as Kamaraiko, is accessable by a trail leading north, and upwards from the village of Kamares. Beware, it’s quite a hike to the cave from the village, and be of more interest to those with a penchant for archaeology than speleology, as this was an important site in Minoan times, with votive offerings having been found here.

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Neraidospilios Cave

It is found some 25 km from Herakleion, not far from the village of Myrtia. Situated by a river, with highly mythological associations, for the ancients, who believed this to be the dwelling place of nymphs and fairies.

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Four of the island’s six known "palaces" (as dubbed by Arthur Evans) can be found in the nomos of Herakleion: Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Galatas. Add to these the so-called "summer palaces" of Aghia Triadha and Archanes, and one can see why this area is known as the richest archaeologically in Greece. It doesn’t stop there either. Gortyn, one of the most incredible sites on the island, Kommos, a wonderful port, is situated right on the south coast, alongside a beach bearing the same name. Evans’ interpretation of these sites as "palaces" is almost certainly a misnomer, though there may well have been some sort of "royal" connection, in Minoan times.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

Aghia Triadha

Crete / Heraklion
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Amnisos

Crete / Heraklion
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Archalochori

Crete / Heraklion
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Galatas

Crete / Heraklion
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Knossos

Crete / Heraklion
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Kommos

Crete / Heraklion
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Lyttos

Crete / Heraklion
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Malia

Crete / Heraklion
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Phaistos

Crete / Heraklion
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Tylissos

Crete / Heraklion
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Crete abounds with caves, and Herakleion is no exception. From the wonderful archaeological site of the Kamares cave (see landmarks), a couple of hours north and decidedly uphill walk from the village of the same, to the famous Matala caves on the south coast and plenty betwixt and between.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

Hundreds of chuches are scattered across the district of Herakleion, and there are no fewer than 20 monestaries here too.

Photo: GNTO/ Y.Skoulas

The Morosini fountain, in Eleftheriou Venizelos square (better known as ‘Liondaria, or ‘Lions’ Square) is a wonderful piece of Venetian sculpture. Built by Francesco Morosini in 1628, it brought water via an aqueduct from Archanes some 15 Kms away. Beautifully embellished with four lions, from whose mouths gush-forth water, whilst the base has water-themed carvings of dolphins and water-nymphs. At the time of its building there was also a statue of Neptune (Poseidon) perched on top, but that has since disappeared.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

During the second world war, Greeks gathered here and tried to destroy the fountain in response to Mussolini’s ultimatum to Greece’s prime-minister, General Ioannis Metaxas, to join the war on the Axis side, as it was seen a symbol of Italian rule. Thankfully, both the demonstrators and Mussolini failed, with the Italian troops forced back to whence they came by the Greek army, suffering terrible losses on their way. Metaxas’ refusal ("alors c’est la guerre" or "so it is war") to adhere to Mussolini’s demands, are celebrated as a national holiday to this day, and are known as "ochi" ("no") day. The square itself is a meeting place for Greeks and tourists alike, with coffee shops and tavernas flanking the fountain.

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