Agios Nikolaos, Crete

Have you heard the legend of the Minotaur – the beast who prowled the labyrinth at King Minos’s Palace?

Knossos and the Minoans

3.5 miles (5.5 kilometers) outside the city of Heraklion, the first stop of our road trip was at the famed Minoan, Bronze Age, Palace of Knossos. This huge archaeological site of the Minoan civilization (3000 to 1100 BCE) is often called Europe’s oldest city and evidence shows it was a sophisticated and wealthy civilization.

Remains of a Neolithic settlement found beneath Knossos date back even further to the 7th millennium BCE. Visiting Knossos, the capital of the Minoan civilisation was one of the key reasons for our visit to Crete.

The Palace of Knossos

The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete and other Aegean Islands. It was the first advanced civilization in Europe with huge palaces that featured elaborate plumbing systems, stunning artwork and frescoes, tools, two writing systems: undeciphered Linear A and Linear B that has been decoded and proof of an extensive network of trade throughout the Mediterranean region. Archaeological evidence of Minoan pottery has been found in Egypt, Syria, Anatolia, Rhodes, the Cyclades, Sicily and mainland Greece.

The site of Knossos was discovered in 1878 by amateur archaeologist, Minos Kalokairinos. However it was the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans who purchased Kephala Hill and excavated the site between 1900 and 1936. At 3 miles long by 2 miles wide and a total inhabited area of nearly 4 square miles, the size of the complex far exceeded Evans expectations.

The palace building alone is 150,000 square feet. Knossos was a labyrinth-like structure made up of more than 1,300 interlocking rooms, used as workrooms, store rooms, kitchens, wine presses, living quarters for the entire administration, religious leaders and naturally the residence of the royal family members. The palace would have been very colorful both inside and out and filled with frescoes. Notably no war or war-like frescos were discovered at Knossos. Knossos showed no signs of being a military site as it had  neither fortifications nor stores of weapons.

Within days of the first dig in 1900, a tablet covered with script and a stirrup jar were found.

A stirrup jar

Soon after, the Throne Room was discovered and in it, more tablets with scripts, surrounded by the remains of a terracotta piece that had once been a bathtub. The tablets were extremely delicate and friable and many were lost. They also began to unearth flakes of fresco plaster early on so a fresco restorer was hired to supervise the delicate excavation. Many frescoes were also lost but artists were able to reconstruct some scenes from the flakes. This bull leaping ritual or contest has to be our favorite fresco from Knossos.

Fresco of a bull leaping ritual or contest

Evans discovered that the Minoans had built a sanitation system with the first flush toilet, one of the first drainage systems for runoff and the fabled labyrinth at Knossos. They found an abundant amount of pottery, heavily-decorated and uniquely-styled by period and a large cache of objects and jewelry in precious materials, including the ivory snake goddess figurines we posted in ‘Yasou from Crete’. They excavated the Royal Tomb then a theatre that would have held 400 spectators and a monumental staircase which has partially been rebuilt. It is a fascinating site, especially when you know the history surrounding it and it was easy to imagine life existing here. 

The throne room where the indentation of the throne seems to be shaped for a woman’s buttocks, is flanked by the Griffin Fresco, with two griffins, symbols of divinity, lying down facing the throne, one on either side. 

A Griffin lying down

It is generally accepted that the cause of the Minoans decline was an invasion of Crete by the Mycenaean Greeks. The weakened Minoans could well have received heavy damage from earthquakes and the volcanic eruption and ash fallout of Thera (Santorini today) …… or perhaps the destruction of Atlantis was to blame as Plato intimated.

After leaving Knossos, we drove east along the Cretan coast before turning southeast driving through mountains and rain squalls and dodging herds of sheep and goats that meandered slowly next to or across the road in front of us. We also began to spot large decrepit rectangular structures scattered every few miles along the road and it wasn’t until we captured the photo below that we realized they were the remains of old windmills, called Axetrocharis (they have a rectangular shape with a round side where the mill is installed). These mills would have been used to grind grain.

Cretan windmill

Agios Nikolaos

Agios Nikolaos, named after the old Saint Nicholas church, is a seaside town east of the island’s capital of Heraklion. This attractive small town, population ~12,000, is partially built on top of the ruins of the ancient city of Lato pros Kamara. (4th-2nd centuries BCE) We had hoped to visit the archeological site of Lato but it was closed in winter.

Agios Nikolaos is best known as a tourist destination with its picturesque lagoon, numerous beaches, museums and churches. It was a pleasure to stroll through the charming streets, explore the town and gaze into the shop windows full of traditional Cretan art and artifacts, museum copies of jewelry and dazzling embroidery. 

There is a great walkway around the lagoon where we spotted the Horn of Amalthea. 

The Horn of Amalthea is the Horn of the she-goat Amalthea who nursed the god Zeus when he was born in a cave in Crete. When Rhea gave birth to Zeus, she hid him in a cave on Crete to hide him from his father Cronus, who would swallow Zeus, which he had done with his previous children, if he found him.  There, it was the goat Amalthea that nourished Zeus with her milk until he was grown.

One day Zeus was playing with Amalthea and he accidentally broke off her horn. To make up for it, Zeus blessed the broken horn, so that its owner would find everything they desired in it. It became known as the Horn of Amalthea or the Cornucopia, the symbol of abundance. 

The Horn of Amalthea

Churches

Church of Agios Nikolaos

The church of Agios Nikolaos, built 827-828 CE, is a small single-aisled church on the coast that gave its name to the city of Agios Nikolaos. The chapel is now on the grounds of a hotel and there are apparently keys available from the hotel reception to unlock the church but all was closed during our visit.

The church of Agios Nikolaos

Church of Evangelistria 

This was such an eye catching Greek orthodox church that we had to drive up the steep hill to see it. It was painted a creamy white with brilliant orange domes but unfortunately it was closed so we could not see inside.

Church of Evangelistria

Afentis Christos

Afentis Christos – Greek for “Lord Christ” – is a teensy islet off the northern coast of the town of Malia and named after the small chapel built on it. The islet and chapel may only be a short distance away from the beach at Malia but the day we visited was incredibly windy and the surf was choppy and full of white capped big waves, so all we could do was view the tiny white and blue chapel out in the surf far from shore.

Afentis Christos

We also stopped at the small coastal town of Malia, population 3,200. It was still extremely windy, so the surf was fairly violent.  We watched city crews shoring up the coastlines to protect buildings and homes and beaches as our seas begin to rise and adversely impact these coastal communities.

Malia is also known for its Malia Palace Archaeological Site, the 3rd largest Minoan site in Crete discovered in 1915 and excavated in 1922 by a French team. Knossos is by far the largest Minoan site but Malia’s Palace still covered one square mile. Like the other Minoan sites on Crete it was destroyed by an earthquake. This site was later rebuilt and many of the ruins visible date from this second period of construction. 

Church of Megali Panagia 

We stopped for a light lunch in Neapoli, a tiny bustling town of less than 3,000 residents, located in the municipality of Agios Nikolaos but a 20-minute drive outside the city limits of Agios Nikolaos. We chose our cafe for its location.  Seated at the window we could gaze at the striking metropolitan church of Megali Panagia standing majestically in the main square of Neapoli, just across the street from us. After our fresh and delicious Greek salad and chicken souvlaki lunch we wandered over for a peak inside before continuing our journey.

Church of Megali Panagia

Monastery of St Michael & St Gabriel

Also known as the Kremasta Monastery, this dark grey monastery founded in 1593, has been built on a rock in the prettiest setting. It began as a mens monastery but in 1993 it became a womens convent, with only a handful of nuns remaining today. The grounds are spotless and everywhere we looked it was orderly and pristine. As the name implies the Kremasta monastery is dedicated to the Archangel’s Michael and Gabriel.  Like nearly every other stop on this trip, it was closed to the public. 

Chapel of the Monastery of St Michael & St Gabriel

Unfortunately for us, every olive press, archaeological dig and monastery we had planned to visit was closed for the winter season and we had not much better luck getting into many churches. (Online information did not reflect the closures) Although disappointing we still thoroughly enjoy our day and the sites we visited. Traveling certainly teaches one to be flexible. 

Books: Ariadne’s Story by Joyce Hannam  – This children’s book was in our apartment and it was a quick and easy read that captured the story about Adriadne, King Minos’s daughter, Theseus the prince from Athens and the flesh-eating Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull beast hiding in the labyrinth beneath Knossos Palace.

The Minotaur demanded a sacrifice of seven young men and women each year. The powerful King Minos in turn demanded that Athens must send their young men and women to satisfy the Minotaur. On the third year Theseus was chosen to go to Crete to be sacrificed. However he and Adriadne devised a plan to destroy the Minotaur. Theseus would be given a sword to fight and defeat the beast and Ariadne also gave him a ball of thread which he unwound as he went into the Labyrinth so that he could then use the thread to retrace his steps to freedom. Theseus and Ariadne then quickly fled from Crete to avoid the wrath of King Minos.

There is enough archaeological evidence that corroborates with this mythical tale to make one wonder. 🐂

Safe travels everyone.

Yasou from these Cretans,

Ted and Julia

View our the Palace of Knossos photo gallery here

View the Town of Agios Nikolaos photo gallery here

View the Agios Nikolaos Road Trip photo gallery here

View the Churches of Agios Nikolaos photo gallery here

View the Monasteries of Agios Nikolaos photo gallery here

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