Crete’s enviable strategic location has attracted many civilizations. The island has been inhabited since the Neolithic era, and was a significant center of culture and trade long before Athens was, thanks to the glorious Minoans. Dorians, Romans, Byzantians, Ottomans, and Venetians also controlled the island or parts of it in waves, before it was briefly the autonomous Cretan State, then finally joined Modern Greece in 1913. Even after this, the island was occupied during WWII, when the Cretans distinguished themselves for unusual valor. Traces of every era survive, making for an unusually complex and rewarding cultural experience for the curious traveler.
The Palace of Kato Zakros
Fourth in size behind the palaces of Knossos, Malia, and Phaistos, the Minoan Palace of Kato Zarkos was a special find. This most remote of the palaces was the most recent to be excavated. Initial excavations were carried out by the British School of Archaeology at Athens but were abandoned. Excavations in earnest began with the archaeologist Nikolaos Platon in 1961, and his perseverance was rewarded. Remote Zakros has never been looted, and many findings were exactly as they were when the Minoan civilization came to an abrupt end in the middle of the 15th century BC. The findings attest to the notion that Zakros – located beside a sheltered harbor on Crete’s eastern edge – was a city of trade, with goods from the east. Moreover, the store rooms are much smaller than those of the other palaces – suited to goods, not agricultural products. The only unlooted Minoan treasury was found at Zakros, yielding finds of significance, including stone ritual vases. The magnificent findings of the Palace of Zarkos are in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
Zakros is a fascinating destination. In addition to the palace, you can hike through the Valley of the Dead, a portion of the European E4 path. The Minoans chose a beautiful spot to lay their dead to rest, In the caves high in the sides of the gorge.
What a spectacular sight Spinalonga is. This Venetian island-fortress, just 200 meters from the coast, is one of the most beautiful and significant attractions of Crete. Its story is complex, beginning in the 15th century, when the Venetians arrived and saw the site’s potential. The area at the time was ravaged by pirates – in fact, a skilful guide can help you make out skilfully camouflaged stone dwellings above the shores nearby. To gain control of the spot, the Venetians built an island fortress to defend the salt pans they constructed around the island. Spinalonga became one of the most significant fortifications of the Mediterranean.
Spinalonga is though perhaps even better known for the more recent, and poignant, chapter in its history. From 1903 – 1957, Spinalonga was a leper colony. Today, the island serves as a beautifully moving and atmospheric museum, where amid ruins covered with wildflowers you can learn about this chapter of Spinalonga’s history and the life of the inhabitants. On Spinalonga, people who had left their families started new lives here, meeting, falling in love, and even having children. This was truly a community, and the survivors missed life in the colony after it was closed down.
The Toplou Monastery
Crete has many stunning monasteries, but the Toplou Monastery may be one of the most dramatic. On a barren and windswept cape, the monastery in enclosed by walls 10-meters high, and topped with a spire of 33 meters, it resembles a fortress. This perhaps is the secret to its survival; Sitia once had many monasteries, but wars and pirate raids destroyed all but this one.
Now, this 15th-century monastery is filled with rare and sacred treasures, including a splendid selection of significant icons, Gospels, vestments, and crosses. There are also artifacts of secular importance, including Ottoman decrees and revolutionary banners.
Like many of Crete’s monasteries, the Toplou Monastery played a great role in Crete’s proud history: the Greek War of Independence of 1821, the Cretan Revolt against the Turks in 1866, and the Cretan Resistance during WWII.
Today, the monastery owns much land, and puts it to excellent use, pressing organic first quality extra virgin olive oil, and making excellent wines. Drawing on five centuries of winemaking tradition, the monastery produces top quality organic wines that feature indigenous grape varieties, as well as tsikoudia, a pure and fragrant spirit of grape mark. The Toplou Monastery has an elegant tasting room where you can enjoy their wines with quality local products.
You’ll find the Toplou monastery just 15 kilometers east of Sitia. Continuing to drive another 15 minutes to the eastern side of the cape will bring you to the magnificent palm forest of Vai.