The White Mountains of Crete offered spectacular scenery as we traversed the home of the ancient Minoans.
For the majority of our time on Crete we stayed in Heraklion on the North coast. We traveled east as far as Agios Nikolaos on a day trip and west to Rethymno and Chania, where we spent a few nights. We crisscrossed gorges, passed through isolated villages and dipped our toes into the Mediterranean in a picturesque cove where the village of Agia Galini is located on the southern side of Crete. This part of the Mediterranean is also called the Libyan Sea. Crete is located in the Mediterranean mid way between Greece to the North, Turkey to the East, Libya and Egypt to the south. The Mediterranean to the north of Crete is usually called the Aegean Sea as well as the Sea of Crete and the Libyan Sea is off its southern coast.
Rethymno (also called Rethimno or Rethymnon) is one of the best preserved old towns we discovered on Crete. Today a population of ~ 40,000 people, this charming town was a delight to walk and explore. There is a small Venetian Harbor filled with fishing boats and lined with cafes and tavernas. Overlooking the town is the hilltop Fortezza Fortress, a star-shaped, 16th-century citadel.
The Fortezza was built by the Venetians in the 16th century and captured by the Ottomans in the mid-17th century. As was common, it was built on the same site as the ancient Rhithymna’s acropolis from the 10th and 13th centuries.
A windy and cool day found us exploring the fortress virtually by ourselves except for some very friendly, well-fed, clean cats that kept us company. A beautiful site with so many photograph worthy vignettes to capture.
Saint John at Platanakia
The tiny 1898 Saint John the Forerunner church is located just outside the village of Stylos off a quiet little-used country road.
Giant plane trees surround and shade the small church and there are benches and tables placed beneath the trees for guests to rest, have a picnic or sit and soak in the tranquil setting.
Archeological Site of Gortyna
During the Roman empire, Gortyna was the capital of Crete but today all that remains is an archaeological site not far from the Libyan Sea.
Both Homer and Plato referenced the fortified Gortyna as one of the most powerful and prosperous cities on Crete. One of the first Christian churches, dedicated to Saint Titus, the first Bishop of Crete, was built here in the 6th century CE and the ruins can still be seen today.
Invading Arabs completely destroyed Gortyna in 828 CE. An archaeological dig for the lost town began in 1884 and ruins of a settlement were discovered that dated to 1050 BCE and to its destruction in the 7th century BCE. Evidence of life as far back at the Neolithic age (10,000–4,500 BCE) was also discovered at this site.
The Lion Fountains
It was time for a coffee and a walk so we planned our next stop in Spili, a lovely tiny village in the hills south of Rethymno. We ordered a refreshing Greek coffee in a quaint cafe then off we set to find Spili’s main attraction, the Lion Fountains.
The Venetian Fountains have 19 stone lion heads that spurt fresh, cold, drinkable, spring water from their mouths into a long trough.
Holy Monastery of Paliani
You never know what you will find when you walk through a monastery’s gated entrance. The Monastery of Paliani claims to be the oldest Convent on Crete and it was built on top of older ruins of an ancient temple. The convent has been operating since the days of the Byzantine Empire. During the Ottoman era, the convent was set on fire and only three of the 70 nuns survived. It was renovated and revived in the late 19th century. Through these gates, in the photo below, are a great many buildings, chapels, gravestones, gardens, pottery and orange and grapefruit trees, all fully loaded with delicious ripe fragrant fruit.
The ancient Minoans of Crete were well known as tree worshipers and Paliani Convent has a centuries-old myrtle tree that is proudly celebrated annually in September, continuing the ancient worship tradition.
Monastery Panagia Kaliviani
An even larger complex we visited was the Monastery of Panagia of the Hollow Rock. It was a large and busy setting with both a convent for nuns on one side and a monastery for men on the other. We were able to walk through at least 3 magnificent churches and smaller, equally impressive chapels. The original church was from the 14th century and the most recent largest church was built in the early 20th century.
Seemingly out of place, near the entrance was a handful of large cages with various birds inside. The complex also shelters troubled teens and abused children so perhaps these birds have a greater purpose.
The Kourtaliotiko Gorge is about 2 miles long and one could easily spend a few hours exploring it. Near the center of the gorge is a noteworthy Entrance Arch built of stone with steps that lead down to the bottom of the gorge.
The strong winds funneling through the gorge make the steep rock walls whistle and the tumbling and crackling of small stones blown about by the winds gave this gorge its name. Kourtaliotiko means crackling. As you near one end of the gorge there is a 5-fingered waterfall that plunges 130 feet (40 meters) down to the bottom of the gorge.
The cliffs on the sides of the gorge provide roosting sites for the Lammergeier or bearded vulture and sure enough, we spotted about a dozen or more of them circling on the air currents above the cliffs. This is the same vulture we wrote about in our Adventures in Aragón blog last year; the only known vertebrate whose diet consists almost exclusively (70 to 90 percent) of bone.
At the base of the gorge we were pleasantly surprised to come across the small Church of Saint Nikolaos of the Kourtaliotiko. Churches, chapels and shrines in Greece are absolutely everywhere. Further along, during our drive, we spotted the cutest little chapel tucked between a 2-lane highway and a tall cliff face. There was very little room to pull our small car safely off the side of the road, so when a large truck stopped and the truck driver got out, we thought he may have been a maintenance person. But no, he walked up the steps and into the tiny chapel, said a prayer, lit a candle and per the instructions, blew it back out, walked back to his truck and drove off. The stop wasn’t longer than a couple of minutes. (There is rarely anyone around these tiny chapels so lit candles can be a fire hazard.)
Village of Agia Galini
This stop was special because it was on the southern coast of Crete on the Libyan Sea. The sun was out, the skies were a bright cerulean blue, brilliant white snow capped hills in the distance provided a perfect backdrop to the pretty village of Agia Galini. There is a wonderful boardwalk in front of the town that follows the curve of this peaceful turquoise bay. It was a stunning location to dip our toes in the water.
Kandylakia – the roadside shrines
As we left the larger cities behind we began to see small roadside shrines scattered along the sides of the roads in Crete. Initially we were told the shrines represent lives lost, but that is not the only reason shrines are erected. Drivers that have had their lives saved may also add a shrine. Another use for the shrines are as markers to indicate a hidden monastery or church nearby and we saw a number of these type of shrines. These shrines is designed to look like a mini version of the nearby larger monastery.
The roadside shrines are called kandylakia and are made of wood, stone, concrete, brick or metal. Some are really striking, some are quite simple and some are very, very old. Greeks are known to be very religious people and the kandylakia are one age old tradition that continues to this day. The custom is that on each anniversary, family members visit, tidy and maintain the shrine.
The shrines are a way to remind all travelers to use caution driving these curving and mountainous roads. They are also reminders, for all who pass by, to appreciate each and every day we have on this splendid planet.
Yasou from these Cretans,
Ted and Julia
- The Lion Fountain
- Ligaria Beach and Area
- The Town of Rethymno
- Archaeological Site of Gortyna
- Shrines [Kandylakia] of Greece
- Church of Saint John Platanakia
- Kourtaliotiko Gorge
- Church of Agia Kyriaki
- Church of Saint Nicholas of the Kourtaliotiko
- Monastery of Koufi Petra
- Monastery Palianis, Heraklion
- Monastery Panagia Kaliviani, Heraklion
- Monastery of Our Lady Theotokos of Halevi
- Monastery of Sts Michael & Gabriel Kremasta