My Great Greek Adventure: Escape to Eastern Crete

December 18, 2021

The island of Crete is the biggest in Greece and it may take more than one trip to fully explore it all. A few notable cities serve as hubs for their respective portion of the island. Irregular in geography, Crete is more mountainous and wider in the center and narrow on its east and west ends. The east part of Crete is often less frequented due to its distance from the major sea ports and airports in Chania and Heraklion. The east also has evidence of an ancient Minoan presence with ruins of palaces and tombs scattered along the coast. One of the more popular towns is Agios Nikolaos on the north eastern coast. The town is built along a seaside plot of land, with its own miniature inner bay and docks. The small bay is encircled by the buildings of Agios Nikolaos, allowing only small boats to enter under the road bridge that divides the bay from the sea. Larger boats can dock at the peninsula shaped port on the outskirts of town, which hosts ferry routes from Agios Nikolaos to islands in the Cyclades chain. Steep hills and large stairways run through the heart of town overlooking the bay. Restaurants serving traditional local cuisine can be found along the walkways that wrap around the bay and the area attracts its fair share of tourism and is one of the busiest places in eastern Crete.

Eastern Crete – Agios Nikolaos. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

Nearby, on the shore north of Agios Nikolaos, is the small and secluded Spinalonga island. Located adjacent to the town Elounda is the peninsula Kalydon, now only connected by a road bridge. A few meters from the tip of the peninsula is Spinalonga island, which many believed was once attached to the peninsula and was purposely disconnected by the Venetians. Elounda has cultural and environmental monuments like the ancient windmills and buildings, and natural salt flats. Spinalonga has had different uses since it was built up but its most notable era is when it was used to house people infected with leprosy. It was the last place of its kind operating in 20th century Europe, at one point housing around 400 people infected with the disease. The lack of knowledge surrounding leprosy and its causes resulted in people being shunned and sent to the island, which did not have proper living conditions. In 1936 a young Greek law student named Epaminondas Remountakis found himself inflicted with the disease and ultimately exiled to Spinalonga island. After he left his home in Athens and arrived on Spinalonga he realized he needed to speak up and ensure that the people there would have more rights. At the youthful age of twenty-one, Epaminondas was able to help revive the settlement on the island to be a more cheerful and humane place to live. It became a quaint little neighborhood and a safe haven for those suffering from illness. There were small businesses like a barber shop, and street lights and speakers for music were installed. Eventually a medicine was created that aided those infected and caused the symptoms of leprosy to subside. The island’s population declined as people moved to more normal situations on mainland Crete. The legacy of the community remains however, and the footprint of the town has been meticulously preserved so that visitors can explore its history. It follows in second place as the most frequented cultural site in Crete, following the ancient palace of Knossos.

Another popular town is Ierapetra on the south eastern coast, parallel to Agios Nikolaos. Many people come to Ierapetra to take a small shuttle boat to the adjacent Chrisi island for a day’s excursion. The scene in town is very characteristic of Crete because of its Venetian fortress along the waterfront. In the docks and bay that are nestled within the walls of the fortress there are some small shops and cafes. The people are welcoming and the appetizers they bring along with your drink are filling enough to be an entire meal. It is budget-friendly and peaceful, with a view of traditional fishing boats, ancient ruins, and the southern Aegean Sea. Surrounding the town are many fields used for farming. Among the farms are a few villages but the area remains mostly comprised of agricultural fields.

Historians have studied the unique anthropological and geological history of Crete. One body of research noted how the number of major cities in antiquity steadily declined through the ages. It was a challenge in itself for these cities to co-exist on the same island while securing resources and territory. Some proved better-equipped than others, but none were immune to conquests and wars. Along the east portion of Crete on both the north and south coasts there are large mountain ranges. The mountains form natural borders, which make traveling from one region to the other time consuming and tedious, slowly leading to low lying and fertile plains nearer to the coast. This geographical distribution of landscapes influenced the placement of prominent cities and their access to resources.

Eastern Crete – Spinalonga Island. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

The most developed eastern city is Sitia, located on the northern coast by the sea. A half hour drive past Sitia and the road reaches to the very eastern end of Crete. There is no place on the island that has not been touched by the Minoan civilization, the area of Sitia included. The area has been a settlement since antiquity and has a detailed recorded past. The local people have shown a pattern through time of rebelling and demanding their rights. In the Venetian period the people of the city refused to assist their conquerors by supplying their ships, resulting in a fight, which the local people won. In the 16th century Sitia was targeted by pirates like the famous Barbarossa who left the city in shambles. It would take a few centuries for the area to be built up again and despite the recent history of the Ottoman invasion and World Wars, Sitia retained its ancient derived name and its footprint. The east facing coast of Crete consists of golden brown-streaked mountains with hills descending to the sea. There are some main roads with few side streets branching off towards the villages. It is a scenic setting for hiking into the mountains or to secret beaches with no road access. The more east you travel in Crete, the more you will become immersed in nature and the pureness of the land as the cities fade and the mountains rise.


MYKONOS – Apanemi, Mykonos Theoxenia, hosts an unforgettable culinary experience on June 2, 9 PM, with its the Michelin All Star Voyage Culinaire Night.

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