Photo: GNTO/ Y.Skoulas

Lasithi (Sitia)

The eastern quarter of Crete is known as Lasithi (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 Lasithi and Katharo to the sparkling seas that lap Lasithi’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 Lasithi 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 Lasithi plateau and quite a few of them offering accommodation. A centre of revolution against Venetian rule in the 13th century, the Venetians depopulated the Lasithi 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 Lasithi’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 Lasithi 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 Lasithi 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 Lasithi 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 Lasithi’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.

Photo: GNTO/ Y.Skoulas

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 Lasithi is a wonderful place to spend as much time as one can afford to spend.

 

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Location - Lasithi (Sitia)

Ha Gorge

Definitely one in the category “do not try alone”, the Ha gorge is spectacularly set on the western side of Mt. Thripti, before depositing its walker east of the village of Vassiliki, Whilst only 1.5 Kms long, it is very narrow in places and has walls towering up to 300 metres above ones head.It is the perfect gorge for abseiling, but only the very experienced should try this, and even then, with a guide.

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Ierapetra

Ierapetra has a sandy town beach, and the coast stretching east is suitable for swimming.

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Vai

There’s no doubt that this a lovely spot. During the 1970s a British advert featured Vai as the place where one could experience “the taste of paradise”, if one were to bite into a coconut sweet, covered in chocolate. Palm trees (phoenix theophrastii) can be found here, and they are endemic to Crete; it was rumoured that they grew as a result of Saracen occupation in the 9th and 10th centuries), but this is equally untrue! The beach and environs are owned by the monastery of Toplou, and one has to pay to get onto the beach. One can hire pedalos (pedal boats) and water-skiing is available if that floats your particular boat.

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This is a wonderful area for bird-watching, with varieties including eagles (golden, harrier and grosbeak), vultures, Eleanora's falcons, red-footed falcons, black-winged stilits, the glossy ibis, as well as all sorts of wades and sandpipers. The mountains are a great place to spot birds of prey while the coastal areas have an abundance of waders and waterfowl, with the Ierapetra reservoir being a particularly good spotting spot.

Photo: www.cretetravel.com

Here’s a list on the birds of Crete and their photos: www.cretewww.com/birds/list.htm

As one would expect there is plenty of opportunity for those who like to paddle all around the nomos of Lassithi. Organised beaches, such as those at Aghios Nikolaos, Elounda, Vai, Sissi etc., have canoes and kayaks for hire. Some of the higher class hotels have their own facilities, too.

Photo: www.wondergreece.gr

Ha Gorge

Definitely one in the category “do not try alone”, the Ha gorge is spectacularly set on the western side of Mt. Thripti, before depositing its walker east of the village of Vassiliki, Whilst only 1.5 Kms long, it is very narrow in places and has walls towering up to 300 metres above ones head.It is the perfect gorge for abseiling, but only the very experienced should try this, and even then, with a guide.

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Hametoulo Gorge

A straightforward enough hike this, from the village of Hametoulo, to Xerokambos, on the south east coast. A number of gates have to passed through en-route (make sure you close them, as they’re there to keep sheep in). When you arrive at Hametoulo, make sure you don’t stray to far north or west of the village or the gorge, as the hill behind you is a military base.

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Kapsa Gorge

This is a tough gorge to crack and should only be walked by experienced hikers, and never alone, as it can be dangerous in places. The waymarking is good, thankfully, but at one stage there’s a 10 metre climb, over practically sheer rock, to negotiate, with the aid of a piece of rope, which should be checked before use. Alternatively one can scramble across the scree which covers the hill surrounding the drop. An alternative name for the gorge is Perivolakia, as this is where it ends, some three to four hours after setting off.

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Kritsa Gorge

Kritsa is a beautiful village, located some 9 Kms west of Aghios Nikolaos. Also known as the “Havga” gorge, it stretches for 13 Kms before depositing walkers at the village of Tapes. The descent is some 300 metres.

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Milonas Gorge

Seven Kilometres east of Ierapetra, the gorge of Milonas starts at an elevation of around 500 metres and ends on the south coast. Waterfalls form pools, along the gorge’s course, enabling the hiker to become swimmer.

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Pefki Gorge

A lovely place is Pefki, and its gorge compliments it perfectly. A walk of about a kilometre on a path from the village, brings one into the pine-strewn (pefki is the Greek word for pine) gorge itself. It’s approximately six KMs from here to the coast, where the gorge deposits one at Makriyialos There are even a couple of stone benches en-route, for those who need a rest, or prefer just to savour the rarified atmosphere.

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Zakros Gorge (The Valley of the Dead)

A wonderful, relatively easy, walking experience greets the hiker, which ever direction one chooses to walk the Zakros gorge. There are at least three entry/exit points, at, or close to the village of Ano (Upper) Zakros, and the route down is spectacular in the extreme, depositing one at Kato (Lower) Zakros,replete with its own Minoan “palace”, lovely beaches, and accommodation aplenty. If one chooses to walk east to west, Ano Zakros has a nice, rather old-fashioned hotel, so there should be no problem with where to lay ones head for the evening, though in the height of summer, do book-up in advance. Interesting features along the gorge, include a Roman aqueduct, and if one looks up, caves where the bodies of humans dating back to Neolithic times were discovered.

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Of all the Cretan nomoi (or districts), Lasithi lends itself to those who prefer two wheels and no motor, best. Stunning scenery will surround the cyclist, and there are routes for all levels of experience, expertise and fitness. The Lasithi plateau can be explored on foot (see Hiking) or pedal, and one can take a bespoke spoked trip around plateau. visiting all the villages which run round its circumference en-route.

These include: Kato Metohi, Aghios Haralambos, Plati, Psihro, Magoulas, Kaminaki, Avrakontes, Agios Georgios, Aghios Konstantinos, Mesa Lasithaki, Marmaketo, Tzermiado, Lagou and Pinakiano. This round trip of just shy of 25 Kms, starts and ends at Pinakiano, and has a total elevation of some 200 metres. Depending upon ones level of expertise, it can take anything from a couple of hours to the best part of a day. Also, the temptation to stop at the villages en-route, may become overwhelming. so factor this into your day's ride.

Lassithi is a wonderful nomos to be in, for those who like taking to their feet, either by walking or on pedal (see Cycling). Below are edited extracts of Stelios Jackson't walk through this region, trying to stick to the E4 (Pan-European Footpath No. 4) trail, but first let's allow ourselves to become familiar with some of eastern Crete's gorges.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

Ha Gorge

Definitely one in the category “do not try alone”, the Ha gorge is spectacularly set on the western side of Mt. Thripti, before depositing its walker east of the village of Vassiliki, Whilst only 1.5 Kms long, it is very narrow in places and has walls towering up to 300 metres above ones head.It is the perfect gorge for abseiling, but only the very experienced should try this, and even then, with a guide.

Find Out More

Hametoulo Gorge

A straightforward enough hike this, from the village of Hametoulo, to Xerokambos, on the south east coast. A number of gates have to passed through en-route (make sure you close them, as they’re there to keep sheep in). When you arrive at Hametoulo, make sure you don’t stray to far north or west of the village or the gorge, as the hill behind you is a military base.

Find Out More

Kapsa Gorge

This is a tough gorge to crack and should only be walked by experienced hikers, and never alone, as it can be dangerous in places. The waymarking is good, thankfully, but at one stage there’s a 10 metre climb, over practically sheer rock, to negotiate, with the aid of a piece of rope, which should be checked before use. Alternatively one can scramble across the scree which covers the hill surrounding the drop. An alternative name for the gorge is Perivolakia, as this is where it ends, some three to four hours after setting off.

Find Out More

Kritsa Gorge

Kritsa is a beautiful village, located some 9 Kms west of Aghios Nikolaos. Also known as the “Havga” gorge, it stretches for 13 Kms before depositing walkers at the village of Tapes. The descent is some 300 metres.

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Milonas Gorge

Seven Kilometres east of Ierapetra, the gorge of Milonas starts at an elevation of around 500 metres and ends on the south coast. Waterfalls form pools, along the gorge’s course, enabling the hiker to become swimmer.

Find Out More

Pefki Gorge

A lovely place is Pefki, and its gorge compliments it perfectly. A walk of about a kilometre on a path from the village, brings one into the pine-strewn (pefki is the Greek word for pine) gorge itself. It’s approximately six KMs from here to the coast, where the gorge deposits one at Makriyialos There are even a couple of stone benches en-route, for those who need a rest, or prefer just to savour the rarified atmosphere.

Find Out More

Zakros Gorge (The Valley of the Dead)

A wonderful, relatively easy, walking experience greets the hiker, which ever direction one chooses to walk the Zakros gorge. There are at least three entry/exit points, at, or close to the village of Ano (Upper) Zakros, and the route down is spectacular in the extreme, depositing one at Kato (Lower) Zakros,replete with its own Minoan “palace”, lovely beaches, and accommodation aplenty. If one chooses to walk east to west, Ano Zakros has a nice, rather old-fashioned hotel, so there should be no problem with where to lay ones head for the evening, though in the height of summer, do book-up in advance. Interesting features along the gorge, include a Roman aqueduct, and if one looks up, caves where the bodies of humans dating back to Neolithic times were discovered.

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There are so many lovely beaches around Lassithi's three coastlines. The most popular of these are in and around the town of Aghios Nikolaos, which is itself situated on the bay of Mirabello. Elounda, and Pachaia Amos.

On the east coast, Vai is very popular, but whilst undoubtably positioned in a beautiful setting, it can get rather crowded in the height of summer, and one has to pay to position oneself on its golden sands.

Photo: GNTO/ Y.Skoulas

Itanos (also known as Erimoupolis), slightly further north than Vai, has two beaches either side of hill, on which sits a Venetian castle. Zakros is a wonderful place to be, for numerous reasons, including its famous "gorge of the deads" (sic), its archaeological site, and its beaches.

Photo: GNTO/ Y.Skoulas

Further south is the still unspoilt village of Xerokampos, On the south coast, Makriyialos is a splendid place to spend some time, and it ideal for those wishing to take a family holiday. It's satellite villages of Analipsi and Koutsouras have practically blended in, to create a rather large tourist resort.

Aghios Nikolaos

Several beaches can be found here and hereabouts, including the following:

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Chrissi Island

About an hour’s boat trip from Ierapetra, there are a number of beaches here for those with a sense of adventure. There are only two boats per day so be prepared to be out in the open for a minimum of six hours. The water here is exceptionally clear.

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Ierapetra

Ierapetra has a sandy town beach, and the coast stretching east is suitable for swimming.

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Itanos (Erimoupolis)

Two beaches can be found here, and if you’re interested in history, the Dorian town of Itanos and a Venetian/Turkish castle straddles the hill which separates Itanos’ two beaches. A lovely spot for a swim.

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Makriyialos

There are a couple of beaches here, one of which is sandy, the other pebbles and shingles. The sandy beach is especially popular in the summer, and as its waters are quite shallow, it makes an ideal destination for those with young children.

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Milatos

There’s a nice, sandy beach just west of Milatos itself, which lies some 35 Kms north west of Aghios Nikolaos, close to Sissi.

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Mochlos

Mochlos beach is situated some 50 Kms east of Aghios Nikolaos, or 35 Kms west of Siteia, is a sand and rock beach, ideal for snorkelling. A few amenities can be found here, and 400 metres to the west is another sandy beach, named Limenaria.

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Myrtos

A lovely destination with sand and pebble beach, and close to two archaeological sites. To the west of the village, swimming is also possible, and its rocky nature makes this an ideal place for snorkelling.

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Pachaia Ammos

One can find a nice, sandy beach with facilities such as sunbeds here.

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Sissi

A fishing village boasting its own sandy beach, with that of Boufos close enough to be a viable alternative, and easily reached by foot.

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Siteia

There’s a sandy beach to the east of the town, on the road leading to Vai.

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Vai

There’s no doubt that this a lovely spot. During the 1970s a British advert featured Vai as the place where one could experience “the taste of paradise”, if one were to bite into a coconut sweet, covered in chocolate. Palm trees (phoenix theophrastii) can be found here, and they are endemic to Crete; it was rumoured that they grew as a result of Saracen occupation in the 9th and 10th centuries), but this is equally untrue! The beach and environs are owned by the monastery of Toplou, and one has to pay to get onto the beach. One can hire pedalos (pedal boats) and water-skiing is available if that floats your particular boat.

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Zakros

Kato Zakros is a wonderful place to stay, and is a fine destination for those who like to spend time by the sea. As well as the beaches one can take a walk up the “valley of the dead” (Zakros gorge), to Ano (Upper) Zakros, which also has accommodation.

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Ha Gorge

Definitely one in the category “do not try alone”, the Ha gorge is spectacularly set on the western side of Mt. Thripti, before depositing its walker east of the village of Vassiliki, Whilst only 1.5 Kms long, it is very narrow in places and has walls towering up to 300 metres above ones head.It is the perfect gorge for abseiling, but only the very experienced should try this, and even then, with a guide.

Find Out More

Ierapetra

Ierapetra has a sandy town beach, and the coast stretching east is suitable for swimming.

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Vai

There’s no doubt that this a lovely spot. During the 1970s a British advert featured Vai as the place where one could experience “the taste of paradise”, if one were to bite into a coconut sweet, covered in chocolate. Palm trees (phoenix theophrastii) can be found here, and they are endemic to Crete; it was rumoured that they grew as a result of Saracen occupation in the 9th and 10th centuries), but this is equally untrue! The beach and environs are owned by the monastery of Toplou, and one has to pay to get onto the beach. One can hire pedalos (pedal boats) and water-skiing is available if that floats your particular boat.

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Bramiana Lake

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Ierapetra (Kales) Castle

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Panaghia Kera at Kritsa

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Spinalonga

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Toplou Monastery

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

For those interested in ancient history, this nomos has some of the most spectacular and well-positioned sites anywhere on the island. Of Crete's six Minoan "palaces", two can be found here: those of Zakros and Petras (the other four are in the adjacent nomos of Herakleion. Other Minoan sites include Palaikastro, which may yet yield a "palace", Gournies; which was a sizeable town, three sites close to the lovely sea-side village of Myrtos, on the south coast (Myrtos Phourni Korifi, Myrtos Pyrgos and further north, Simi), and a house at Vassiliki. Add to these sites those of a slightly later date such as Itanos, Praisos, Lato etc, and one could spend months here, just visiting the sites.

Ierapetra (Kales) Castle

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Castle of Siteia

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Spinalonga

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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There are many caves to explore in this district, including one of the most famous in Greece. Psychro cave (also known as the Diktaeon Andron Cave), can be found just above the Lasithi plateau, and is steeped in mythological importance, for this is the place where the great god Zeus was supposed to have been born.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

Trapeza Cave

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Churches and monasteries abound in this part of Crete, with the two most famous being the church of Panaghia Kera in Kritsa and Toplou monastery, some 16 Kms east of Siteia.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

Keramos Monastery

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Monastery of Areti

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Panaghia Kera at Kritsa

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Toplou Monastery

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Vigliotissa

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Despite the fantastic sites in this nomos, the museums, up to degree, suffer from their proximity to, and the importance of the Herakleion museums; especially the archaeological one! There are still excellent artefacts to be seen, however, especially in the Siteia museum, including the Palaikastro Kouros and Linear A tablets from Zakros, although there isn't one bull-head rhyton, which is slightly disappointing given the quantity of them found at that site.

Photo: www.cretanbeaches.com

Where Crete comes into its own, is with its diversity of flora, with over 2000 different specimens identified, of which more than 160 are said to be endemic to the island, with a further 38 found only here and on the island of Karpathos in the Western Dodecanese. Mountainous areas and gorges are the best places to see these endemics, but the foothills are a riot of colour as winter becomes spring, so March, April and May are the best times for keen botanists to visit the island. Orchids are particularly spectacular and diverse, with some 67 varieties accounted for to date.

Crete has the perfect climate for for flowers, being cool and wet in the winter, before Spring brings milder weather and long, hot sunny days. Endemic dicotyledons include the CampanulaCretica, various subspecies of Dianthos Juniperinus, such as Idaues and Kavusicus, amongst many others, whilst endemic monocotyledons such as Allium Platakisii, Bellevalia Sitiaca and Crocus Sieberi can be seen here, and there is even a pteridophyte, namely the Asplenium Creticum, endemic to the island.

Bramiana Lake

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Bramiana Lake

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Ierapetra (Kales) Castle

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Panaghia Kera at Kritsa

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Spinalonga

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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Toplou Monastery

Crete / Lasithi (Sitia)
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