Central Crete Itinerary: Things to do and see

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by CreteLocals

  • Posted 1 year ago
  • Central Crete

In the central region of Crete, with fertile valleys guarded by rocky mountains, vegetables and vines are grown. Most of the fresh food consumed on the island is produced here, including grapes for country wine. But this has not happened since yesterday; Minoans settled here, and the Romans also established their capital in this area. Around these important archaeological sites, farming communities are very different from what you can see in the city and the coastal regions. Take the time to explore some of these villages to understand the locals’ way of life better, especially as it is likely to disappear as younger generations give up village life in favour of the cities.

The Knossos Palace: The Principal Centre of the Minoan Civilization.

Knossos Palace (also Cnossos) is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete, located5 km south of Heraklion (open daily from 8:00 to 19:00). Nowadays, Knossos is known worldwide as the place where Sir Arthur John Evans, a British archaeologist, found evidence of the existence of ancient civilizations of Crete. Evans was the one who gave them the name of Minoans, after their best-known king Minos. In Greek mythology, Minos was a King of Crete, the son of Zeus and Europa. Evans’ team began archaeological excavations in 1900, after the British nobleman bought the land, financing the program with his own funds. Shortly after the work started, he found the first traces of the Bronze Age palace, full of valuables.

The Ancient City of Gortys

Another important site is 15 km below Heraklion, near the south coast. The Níkos Kazantzakis Museum (in Myrtia village; open daily from 9:00 to 17:00) is 6 km south of Knossos, and its collection is dedicated to the cultural heritage of the well-known Cretan writer and philosopher, Níkos Kazantzakis.

Continue south-west on Agía Varvára, a vine valley guarded by Mount Ida (Psilorítis). Beyond the valley lies the Mesará plain, whose fertile land surrounded by hills has been worked since antiquity. If you want to enjoy a remarkable view at the foot of the hills, take the road to Zarós de la Agía Varvára. The scenery is wonderful; you can enjoy Lake Votamós, go hiking in the Rouvás Canyon to the north or visit Moní Vrondisíou (Vrondisi Monastery) 4 km away from Kamáres Road to admire the beautiful frescoes. Here were originally the icons of Damaskinos, which can now be admired at Agía Ekaterini in Heraklion.

A little further on, in Vórizia, is the crossroads leading to Ágios Fanoúrios (Varsamónero; Jun.-Oct. Mon-Fri 8:30-15:00), another monastery decorated with frescoes from the 15th century. Beyond Kamáres, where there is a famous cave, the road continues to the Amári valley.

Gortys Gortyn Crete
Gortys, also known as Gortyn or Gortyna is one of the most important cities in Crete

To reach the archaeological sites, go from Agía Varvára directly to the Mesará plain. Near Ágii Déka – named after the ten saints who were martyred there with a catacomb on the west side of the village – are the remains of Gortys (Górtyna), the island’s capital during the Roman period (starting in 67 BC), but which was also an important city in the time of the Minoans.

Gortys was huge – at its height, the city had a population of 300,000 – so you will see the signs that delimit the area even in the olive groves south of the road. If you follow the signs, you will be able to see ancient columns leaning against old olive trees, shards of pottery strewn across the grass and even a governor’s palace and an amphitheatre.

The main site, which is fenced (open daily in summer from 8:00 to 19:00), covers only a tiny part of the old town. It protects one of the most important discoveries made in Crete – the Code of Laws, which dates from the Dorian period, around 500 BC. The stone plaque is inscribed with laws on marriage, justice, property and inheritance rights. It is incorporated into the back of a small Roman odeon. The entrance is dominated by an apse that belonged to a church of the 6th century, Basilica of Ágios Títos (St. Titus), the only thing left after the Arabs destroyed almost the entire building in 825 AD.

The Minoan Palace at Phaistos & Archaeological Site

Pass through the village of Mires to reach Phaistos (today Faistos), the place of an impressive Minoan palace (open daily in summer from 8:00 to 20:00 and in winter from 8:30 to 15:00). As Gortys grew more and more towards the end of the first millennium BC, Phaistos declined, although it had been a centre of power for the southern region of Crete during the Minoan civilization.

Phaistos is probably the most dramatic Minoan site on the island. The palace is perched on top of a rocky hill, with lounges and built-in steps. The view is impressive, with Mount Ida to the north and Asteroúsia to the south. According to legend, the brother of King Minos, Rhadamanthys, ruled here. He was known as a wise and honest man; many came to him for help.

The way the palace is set up is similar to the one at Knossos, but no reconstruction has been done here. Instead, the remains of the three successive palaces can be admired – two from the protopalatial era and one from the neopalatial one – although nothing of the rest is higher than a meter. The entrance goes down the stairs that lead you to the west courtyard, which also functioned as a theatre. The ruins that you can see in the valley, to the south, belong to one of the old palaces and immediately below, those of the new palace. You will also see some vestiges of an altar, with hollows resembling stone ovens, the usefulness of which has not been fully understood. On the east side of the courtyard is the staircase leading to propylon, the entrance to the new palace. The west wing – as in Knossos – was composed of altars and storage rooms, here were found a lot of objects used in various rituals. In some rooms, you can still see the chandeliers for purification rituals.

Beyond all this is the central courtyard. From there, if you take it north, you will reach the royal chambers – two giant píthi (large clay vessels) guard the entrance from the central courtyard. Here is a peristyle (access is not allowed) and some steps leading to the king’s and queen’s chambers – both built to take advantage of the breeze coming from the hill. The eastern courtyard was mainly used for practical activities, as can be seen from the furnaces and workshops here – probably for copper processing. It is possible that the objects needed for various ceremonies were made here.

Phaistos Disk
The Phaistos disk

The Phaistos disk was discovered by a team of workers in 1903 in a small, seemingly insignificant room on the site’s north side. The disk, which seems to date from around 1700 BC, is inscribed with symbols and shapes placed in a spiral, which has not yet been deciphered. The original disc is at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (link to the post about Heraklion) – but you’ll find plenty of replicas for sale in the souvenir shop.

Agia Triada Minoan Little Palace and Vóri

Just 3 km from Phaistos, on the same road, is Agía Triáda (open daily, Jun.-Oct. 10:00-17:00, Nov.-May 8:30-15:00), archaeologists believe it was a summer palace, connected to Phaistos by the Minoan road. Situated on a hill overlooking Mesará Bay, it offered a unique view and coolness from the sea that was much closer in those days than today. The relics indicate that the palace had a modular construction. The rooms could be used individually or to accommodate more or fewer people. The west wing was dedicated to the royal chambers.

Agía Triáda (original name unknown) was built at the end of the Minoan era, around 1700 BC. Although it was badly damaged in the cataclysm of 1450 BC, it was still inhabited, with an entire Dorian city being built around it. As the Minoan settlement was famous for its altars, researchers debated whether the palace had initially served a religious purpose. Numerous tombs were found when the hill was excavated, and the sarcophagus at the Heraklion Museum was also discovered here. The church from the sec. XIV, Ágios Geórgios (always open) has fragments of frescoes inside.

Agia Triada Minoan Little Palace, Crete

Just 3 km from Phaistos, north of the main road, is a traditional village, Vóri, with lovely old houses, a central square and a Museum of Cretan Ethnology (www. Cretanethnologymuseum.gr; open daily Apr.-Oct. 11:00-17:00) near the church in the village. The museum is the dream of lovers of old pieces of furniture, fabrics and tools used in various activities, from cutting pigs to tying books. Don’t miss the eel traps and wicker muzzles; a wheelbarrow made only of wood and the huge bellows used in blacksmith workshops.

From Mátala to Agía Galíni

A perfect place for bathing and good food is the resort of Mátala, 11 km west of Phaistos. Here you will find sandy beaches and lots of taverns. The water is crystal clear, preferred by snorkelling enthusiasts. There are also relics of a Roman port today covered by water. On the north side are high rocks where you can see Roman tombs (open daily Apr.- Sept. 10:00-19:00; Oct.- Mar. 8:30-15:00) carved in stone. Until the late 1970s, these man-made caves were not protected and were used as free camping sites for those who preferred a low-cost vacation. Today, however, this is no longer allowed.

Matala beach
Matala Beach, Crete

If you want a quieter and less commercial place, try Léndas, 23 km south of the village of Ágii Déka, beyond Asteroúsia. It is too far to have time to get everywhere, so it is recommended to spend the night here.

Continue your journey west from Mesará, and you will reach the resort of Agía Galíni, with buildings built on a hillside and a small port from where you can take the boat for excursions along the coast. The most spectacular of these excursions is the one that takes you to Ágios Pávlos beach. North of Agía Galíni, the road leads to Réthymno.

The Mountains in the Center Region of the Crete

Take west, as you exit Heraklion, you can take the fast road, the New National Road that runs along the coast and leads to seaside resorts such as Agía Pelagía, Balí and Pánormos (the most beautiful), or the slower ones, the Old National Road, which winds through the interior of the island, through Damásta and Pérama. The second option allows you to see some of Crete’s most exciting and wild landscapes and takes you back to mythological times when the Gods ruled the world. The Psilorítis Mountains dominate the central region of Crete, with the highest peak, Óros Ídi (Mount Ida), with an altitude of 2,456 m. On its peak is the chapel of Timiós Stavros (Holy Cross). In summer, the top of the mountains seems to reach the sky, while in winter, it is covered with snow and almost always surrounded by threatening clouds. The villages at the foot seem to be suspended against the grey background of the mountains. The hike to the top takes about eight hours (round trip) from the Nída plateau, which can be reached on foot from Zarós or Kamáres, or by car from Anógia. The best time is May-June when the day is long, and there is not so much snow.

Mount Ida
Mount Ida, Crete

The inhabitants of this region were among those who bravely resisted the enemies of Crete and therefore suffered the worst reprisals – especially those in the village of Anógia. The village was almost wiped off the face of the earth first during the Ottoman occupation and then during World War II. After Cretan partisans and British soldiers abducted General Kreipe, the leader of the German forces, German soldiers stormed the village, killing all the men and setting fire to the houses. Several monuments in the village commemorate these tragic events. In peacetime, the village was known for the fabrics and embroideries created here and its musicians (especially those from the Xylouris clan). This is also one of the few places left where you can still see men in traditional outfits: stivánia (high leather boots), vrákes (shawls) and saríki (fes).

Anógia, on the secondary route above the old national road, is one of the favourite places for those who want to climb Mount Ida. Follow the paved road that leads from the village to the Nída plateau where, in the past, only shepherds with herds used to arrive. From there, it is only a short walk to the Idaean Cave (Idéon Andron) where Zeus spent his childhood, away from his father, Cronus, protected by the kouretes fighters. Although the cave itself is not impressive, it was crucial to the ancient peoples due to its mythological significance. Archaeologists have found here offerings over 3000 years old.

Hope you enjoyed the reading and got some inspiration for your next trip. If you are interested to find out more about Crete: local stories, events, adventurous itineraries etc. – don’t hesitate to sign-up for our newsletter

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