Agios Nikolaos & Surroundings
To the north of the Bay of Mirabello is the Spinalonga peninsula – the small channel separating it from the rest of Crete was only opened in 1897 by the French army, in order to link the bay of Spinalonga with the open sea.
This narrow isthmus was the site of ancient Olous (which gave its name to the modern town of Elounda), the most powerful city-state near Lato.
Olous was famous for its wooden statue of Britomartis, also depicted on coins. Several inscriptions have been found that shed light on aspects of the towns history, such as the agreement (in about 200 BC) providing facilities for the citizens of Rhodes who wanted to control eastern Crete.
Part of Olous is now under water due to the general submergence of the eastern Cretan coast. When the sea is calm, it is possible to see some of the port in the shallows.
The ruins of an Early Christian basilica (7th century AD) have also been found here, with the typical mosaic floors.
Between Elounda and Agios Nikolaos on a hill near the settlement of Lenika, are the ruins of a temple dedicated to Ares and Aphrodite, whose ownership was the cause of conflict between Olous and Lato (eventually the Roman Senate recognized Lato’s jurisdiction).
North of the peninsula is the islet of Spinalonga, where in 1579 the Venetians built one of their strongest forts in Crete under the supervision of the Proveditor Giacomo Foscarini.
In antiquity it was also the site of an ancient fort that controlled the entrance to the bay of Olous, and whose ruins must have been still been visible in the 16th century (parts were used in the construction of the Venetian fortress).
West of Agios Nikolaos is ancient Lato, on of the most important Dorian city-states in Crete. Built on the side of a mountain, it had a double walled acropolis and covered a large expanse, from which considerable finds have been unearthed.
Visit the location of the Agora (early Hellenistic) and the nearby Prytaneum, which includes a stepped road dating from the 7th century. Further south, ruins of a large temple have been found, to the east of which was a kind of rural theatre.
Near Lato is Kritsa, a lovely village known for its local arts and crafts, particularly its handwoven woolen textiles and clothes. Close by is the important Byzantine church of Panagia Kera, dedicated to the Dormition of the Virgin. Initially, the church had only one nave, but two more were added later (north and south).
An alternative route is to the northeast coast of the Lasithi prefecture and the village of Milatos, which has a lovely beach close by, as well as the ruins of ancient Milatos, a Late Minoan settlement.
Very close to Milatos is a cave that was the site of one of the most tragic events of the Cretan Revolution of 1821. About 2000 civilians, mainly women and children and old people, ad taken refuge here, and in February 1823, they were besieged by the Egyptian army, headed by Hassan pasha, a relative of Mehmet Ali of Egypt.
The Sfakian leader Roussos Vourdoubas tried in vain to save them, but in mid-February they were forced to surrender. Most were massacred on the spot and the rest sold as slaves.
Nearby Vrachasi is a pretty village, known for its Monastery of Agios Georgios. On the eastern side of the bay of Mallia is Sissi, a well-developed tourist resort.
The Lassithi Plateau - No visit to Lassithi is complete without a trip up to its plateau.
The route from Agios Nikolaos first passes through Neapoli, which during the Venetian period was the site of the small village of Kares that suffered serious damage when the Venetians crushed the uprising of the Psaromilingi in the 14th century.
It was named Neapoli (New Town) when it became the administrative centre during Turkish rule and Adosidis pasha (a Christian from Istanbul in the service of the Sublime Porte) undertook considerable building works. In its mosque, about 400 Muslim Cretans were burned alive in 1827.
Despite the protests of the locals, in 1904 Agios Nikolaos was designated as the capital of the prefecture. Neapoli houses a small archaeological collection which includes ceramics, stone jars, jewellery and tools from the Minoan period, as well as a rich numismatic collection.
The road to the plateau passes first of all through the village of Vrysses, near the Kremaston Monastery, a wealthy centre that played an important role throughout the 19th century as an educational centre. It was also where Adosidis pasha chose to have his home and administration centre.
The road continues up through beautiful mountain villages (Amygdali, Zenia, Roussapidia, Mesa Potami).
The plateau is not only an impressive landscape but a unique geological phenomenon. It is 817 metres high, but is surrounded by high mountains.
The spectacle of 10.000 windmills scattered throughout the area is unique. During Venetian rule this inaccessible area was a centre of resistance.
The largest village in the region is Tzermiado. Like neighbouring villages it is a textile centre. Near the village of Psychro is a cave of the same name, which visitors should not omit. The cave of Psychro is identified with the Dikteon Andro cave where Zeus was born and raised.
On the northern side of the plateau on a sharp rise is another impressive archaeological site, the settlement of Karfi. The uphill slog is somewhat tiring, but it provides a view of an important, yet relatively unknown, aspect of Crete’s ancient history.
The Dorian invasion of the island in about 1100 BC was violent, but in some cases the Minoan inhabitants, as well as the Mycenaeans who had settled here in the previous centuries, sought refuge in mountainous areas.
One of these settlements was Karfi, in an essentially inaccessible and therefore protected position. But in an inhospitable landscape that also suffered very heavy winters (even though the slope is protected from the north).