Places of Interest
A strategic stronghold in Venetian times, the fortress of Spinalonga was built in 1579 to defend any approach to the Gulf of Mirabello. It appears to have been impregnable: the fortress was handed over to the Ottomans only by treaty in 1715, some fifty years after the rest of the island was subdued. \r\nA growing number of Ottomans settled in the former Venetian fortress, expanding to the amount of some 200 families in the 1880s. When the Greek government decided to turn the islet into a colony for all lepers of Crete, the last Ottomans left. The lepers were expected to spend the rest of their lives on this forsaken islet, under almost inhuman conditions. They made the best of renovating the Venetian-Turkish houses, even grew a vegetable garden and kept some livestock. Life was harsh throughout the 1930s, with medical care restricted to morphine and the amputation of the parts affected, operations which many patients did not survive.
Towards the end of the 1930s a disinfection ward was established, so that family could visit. A hospital followed and in the 1940s the disease was treated with sulfamid to heal. Electricity was introduced in 1949 and an effective medicine to treat leprosy came about in 1953. The last lepers returned to their communities in 1957 and the colony was closed.
Over the years the lepers had formed a little community of their own; they even got married and had healthy babies which, however, were taken away from them and put in an orphanage, in fear of infection. In this context, doctor Grammatikakis has to be mentioned in particular: he took care of the lepers for twenty five years (1924 – 1949) without becoming infected himself.
(Departures for Spinalonga: from Agios Nikolaos every hour; from Elounda and from Plaka every half an hour)
Archaeological museum of Agios Nikolaos
The archaeological museum of Agios Nikolaos holds extremely rich finds from Eastern Crete and Malia and takes you from the Neolithic period past Minoan, Geometric and Classical/Hellenistic times into the Roman period.\r\nAt the town’s hill top, near the hospital, lies this excellent museum with in its neat front garden deliciously smelling nerantzia trees (wild inedible oranges). The archaeological museum of Agios Nikolaos is easy to survey; its items are displayed in chronological order and include extremely rich finds from eastern Crete and Malia. Starting with the Neolithic period it takes you past Minoan, Geometric and Classical / Hellenistic times into the Roman period.
Look out for the Athlete’s skull: found in a Roman first century tomb at Potamos of Agios Nikolaos, the skull has a wreath of gold olive leaves around it. At the man’s feet a bronze oil container and strigil were found, both used by athletes to tone and clean their skin, which suggests he was a victor in one of the athletic games. The silver coin found in his mouth was put there to pay Ferryman Haron, who carried the dead over Lake Aheron to the underworld. \r\nThe Goddess of Myrtos is another extraordinary piece of art dating from around 2500 BC; it shows an unusual bell-shaped figure holding a jug in her arms. It may have been used for a kind of fertility ritual.
Still Waters Run Deep…\r\nPrey to fantastic stories, many a man in Agios Nikolaos believes the lake to be bottomless. Allegedly, sea researcher Jacques Cousteau dived the lake and could not find the bottom; In World War II German soldiers are said to have thrown tanks and cannons into the lake that were never found; A truck that accidentally ran into the lake years ago just disappeared; In 1956, after Santorini’s last volcanic eruption, dead deep-sea fish turned up in the lake out of nowhere. This strengthened the fantastic theory that the lake should be connected underground with the sea, or even with Santorini itself.\r\nNever a dull moment with us Cretans! The English Captain Spratt is said to have it had measured in the nineteenth century and found it to be exactly 64m deep. He’s probably right!
The lake’s various names include Xepatoméni ("the bottomless"), Voulisméni ("the sunken") and Vromolimni ("smelly lake"). This last name holds a nucleus of truth, as until 1867 it used to be stagnant and gave off a stinky smell, especially in summer. This stopped when a canal was built that linked it with the sea.
Panagia Kera / Kritsa
Kritsa is one of the oldest and most charming villages around. Mostly known for its embroidery, it has its own charm beyond its tourist face. Explore the alleys in the old village, admire the little churches and watch women do needlework, sitting outside their homes.
- Church of Panagia Kera (Holy Mary the Lady)\r\n
Just before Kritsa, on a side track to your right (signposted "Panagia Kera") lays this pretty little 3-aisled church that holds Crete’s best preserved Byzantine frescoes. Surrounded by tall, slender cypresses, the six hundred year old building looks rather plain on the outside. Its interior, however, is stunningly covered from top to bottom in Byzantine frescoes that are painted in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. A colourful picture-bible is on display, depicting beautiful, detailed bible themes.
The dome and the nave that are dedicated to Panagia and were built in the thirteenth century, hold the oldest frescoes. They represent the Presentation, the Baptism, the Raising of Lazarus and the Entry into Jerusalem. Exactly according to the Byzantine School, its characters are stereotyped, stern-looking, with expressionless faces, painted in dark colours. Pay particular attention to the vault, where the frescoes are best preserved and its impressive Nativity with an exhausting looking Mother Mary.
On the north-west pillar, unrelated to the complete picture, there is a depiction of Frances of Assisi; his presence can be explained by the Venetian presence on Crete of that time. The right aisle – as the left dating from the fourteenth century – is dedicated to Saint Anne, mother of Mary, and recounts the Life of the Virgin. Influenced by the Cretan school, it carries style characters of the Italian Renaissance. The frescoes are light and fresh, with less austere-looking faces that actually show emotion, passion and drama.
The left aisle, painted by another artist, is dedicated to Saint Anthony. It presents the Second Coming, Paradise and Judgment Day. It has good colour combination, but shows little care for expressions. On the whole, it gives a darker impression.
On the west wall, placed in a corner next to the Punishment of the Damned, look out for a depiction of the church’s sponsor, Georgios Mazizanis, together with his wife and child.
After this religious stop-over, continue one more kilometer to reach Kritsa, one of the oldest and most charming villages around. Mostly known for its embroidery, it has its own charm beyond its tourist face. Explore the alleys in the old village, admire the little churches and watch women do needlework, sitting outside their homes. Have a coffee break in one of the cafes around the square or try ‘kafenío’.
Upland plateau of Katharo
Sixteen km west of Kritsa and at an altitude of 1150m, is the upland plateau of Kritsa. Smaller than the plateau of Lassithi, it covers a surface area of some 15,000 acres and is crop-cultivated and covered with vineyards and orchards, home to flocks of thousands of sheep and goats.
Visit Lato, one of the most important city-states in Dorian Crete (1100 – 700BC) with substantial economic power and let the beautiful panoramic view of the area and of Agios Nikolaos sink in on you.\r\nThe archaeological site of Lato dates from Dorian period Crete and provides a beautiful panoramic view of the area and partially of Agios Nikolaos. \r\nLato, named after Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis, grew into one of the most important city-states in Dorian Crete, although it must have existed before the coming of the Dorians. It is built on a saddle between two hills, a location that protected it from possible attacks but that also blessed it with a splendid view over a large area of the Bay of Mirabello. \r\nThe harbour of the city was Lato pros Kamara (today’s Aghios Nikolaos), which was so flourishing by the middle of the 2nd century A.D. that the administrative centre was transferred there and thus Lato was gradually abandoned. Before the end of the 3rd century B.C., the inhabitants of Lato participated in the League of the Cretan cities and shared the same laws. However, they were in continuous conflict with the neighbouring city of Olous, for the arrangement of the borders between them.