Having travelled extensively in Crete, we have come across many abandoned villages. Here, I have selected three I would recommend visiting as they are interesting on their own right. Discover the abandoned mansions, stone-build hoses and ineffable vibe of past times!
Ethia village in Asterousia mountains
Asterousia mountains harbour many secrets and surprise adventuous traveller with many discoveries. Ethia village is one of them.
A quiet wind is gusting through the alleys of bygone past of Ethia village - grand and empty stone buildings, the few villagers left are having nap during midday siesta, beautiful gardens and many stories to be told. As families have left Ethia village for decades now, the houses have started to crumble. The village population, which had once numbered in the hundreds, dwindled to single digits. Ethia is one of Greece’s southernmost settlements and just above it, the hills overlook the Libyan Sea.
Ardachtia village in Central Crete
One of the most interesting ghost villages - Ardachtia lies just 500 m from Agios Thomas village. This village has quite a history as its name features in all the Venetian documents of the 16th. Its unique location under cliffs, looming rocks and the natural caves, however, became a reason why it was abandoned. The earthquakes, falling rocks threatened to land right on the rooftops of the houses; the landslides shaking the structures of the buildings threatened the lives of villagers. It was abandoned as a result and nowadays it is a quiet, lonely place, except for few houses.
The name Mixorouma was given to this village due to its position at the confluence of two streams. It is worth for visitors to visit old Mixorouma, a wonderful dorp with stone-built houses, submersed in the green landscape. It is referred to with the name Mixorouma in all Venetian censuses. In 1881, it is referred to with the name Mixorouma in the Municipality of Lampis with 126 residents. In 1900, it is mentioned again in the same municipality as Mixorouma with 146 residents. You can walk through the empty streets and see the old houses that are falling apart and that have their doors open.The only building that is in sort of a good state is, off course, the village church.
Agios Thomas (or Saint Thomas) village is deemed to be the very navel of Crete. Dismiss the claims of nearby Agia Varvara! With its 38 churches (!), numerous Roman tombs, rich history, myths and legends it leaves a jolt of untamed even chilling yet absolutely unique, somewhat magic and an epic place. Cleary, an important worship centre in antiquity, it is one of the most mystic places on Crete, arousing the explorer's spirit in its visitors. With quite few travellers having passed the area, there are still secrets to discover. Villagers know to tell about stairs leading underground that none has managed to climb down, associated with myth of Persephone - the Goddess of underworld. Located in the very centre of Crete, Agios Thomas village is surrounded by a farming landscape, olive grows on the hillsides, fascinating rock formations and ancient vineyards - a gorgeous view that truly 'feed one's eye'. .
So here are some of the absolutely must-do and must-see things in Agios Thomas !
Count the chapels
How many other villages do you know that would have that many churches and chapels? I am not sure if Agios Thomas with the number of 38 couldn't make the case for the Guinness World Records. The most beautiful and visible one stands in the centre of the village - the three-aisled basilica of Agios Thomas. It is not quite clear how comes the village has that many churches. Not all have survives - today Agios Thomas has only 15 of them. Just walk the alley of the village to reach, for instance, Michael Archangel chapel that features some mural fragments form 12th century. There have been many changes and adjustment throughout the history - likewise the rest of Crete, Agios Thomas has a period of Byzantine, Venetian era during which Agios Thomas was rather a vibrant town and Ottoman rule that put a big stop to the past development and prosperity of the village.
... and meet Panagiotis
Undoubtedly, the greatest treasure of Agios Thomas are its people - the few met, like Maria and Evangelia are the reason why part of my heart has now stayed in the village. If you are lucky you might meet also Panagiotis - the priest of central, beautiful and historic Agios Thomas church, a very kind and widely respected person. He has served for 35 years as a priest and has lots of stories to tell about the church (the changes it has undergone throughout the history), the very village and the area. I was the audience in a single person and he took his to tell, to discuss, to listen ... What a privilege!
It is a three-aisled with dome church and it was built upon an ancient temple. The two-aisles date to the 10th century and the third to 14th century. The church was full with frescoes which ruined by fire. However, where frescoes have survived!
Explore the tombs and sanctuaries - just like Indiana Jones
There are about 30 tombs around Agios Thomas from the Roman era of the island. If you are not up for exploring all of them, you can take a look at six of them in the very heart of the village. Right next to the monument of the village personality, called Logios the stone paved pathway leads you up the hill. The sign says "Gria Mantra - Greek Roman carved graves with many burial places below ground". However, the mysterious tombs are older than 2000 years and date back to prehistoric times, when most likely they were used as dwellings.
Just another unique example is the sanctuary of Kera Spiliotisa built within a cave of the mountain. Now a chapel, it clearly has the pre-Christian origin. Right next to is an ancient Greek inscription. The sign there says that the sanctuary "hides hole where dead people's personal things are thrown" which, according to locals, is a "hole to the hell" and has a link to the myth of Persephone - the Goddess of underworld.
Hey, how did the Saint from India end up in Crete?
Well, it remains mystery how exactly the worship of a Saint from India - Joasaph (mind you, it is not Joseph!) reached the Cretan village of Agios Thomas in Mediterranean many centuries ago. The thing though is - right here in Agios Thomas one, following the obscure, forgotten path, reaches one of the very few sanctuaries in the whole world devoted to this very Saint from India. The story about Joasaph's life bears a striking resemblance to that of Buddha ...
Who could imagine the tiny village of Agios Thomas has any relation to India? But that's by far not the only secret this village harbours. Soon after Saint Joasaph was forgotten along with his temple and only in recent years its existence was re-discovered. It is believed that the sanctuary of Saint Joasaph was built on the the site of an ancient Greek temple, the ruins of which are still around the courtyard.
It seems that Agios Thomas is like Pandora box of ancient myths and legends - once you discover it and open, it doesn't stop surprising you.
A well-brewed Greek coffee or mountain tea in "Ksobli"
If Agios Thomas is deemed to be the navel of Crete than ‘Ksobli’ is a very navel and centre of Agios Thomas - located just in front of beautiful church of Agios Thomas this is a traditional cafeneio - rakadiko (mmm, what a wonderful herb-infused raki you get there after the lunch!). Run by beautiful ladies of two generations - Maria and Evangelia, it is like an oasis for tomb-tired explorers. There is no better place to observe how the pulse of the village beats during the day that the cafeneio - laid back, relaxed villagers that look for share come here to enjoy a coffee or raki. Simplicity if the keyword. However, if you are hungry ones can get kouneli (rabit), potatoes salad, beetroot salad, keftedakia (meat balls) or whatever is available at the moment! Thirsty ones can taste a very unique herbal raki (trust me, after that many raki tastings all over Crete). Traditional yogurt with spoon sweet comes after.
There is much more to the village such as two great personalities, heroes and source of pride that have been born in Agios Thomas - Kirikas Chairetis Kalamaras and the empirical doctor and fighter Logios. Than there is the abandoned, ghostly village just right next to Agios Thomas which, according to villagers, has been left by locals because of the falling rocks. You might also want to find out about the Minoan presses next to the village and many other things.
The other must-see thing in Agios Thomas is the 'Kohlius Vradi' or, so called, Cretan Snail Evening/ Festival. Likewise everything else in Agios Thomas, the 'Kohlius Vradi' is fairly unique celebration of delicious snail dishes. Read here our blogpost about the snail festival. In 2014 it took place on 2 August (have a look at some snapshots). Apart from this event, there is amalgam of other ones, hosted by Cultural Community of the village. For more up-to-date information check their Facebook page.
As you leave the village you can see, so called 'Rider' - the legendary hallmark of the village - two huge rocks that support a third.
Visiting these 4 tavernas-cafeneios eastward of Heraklion is like being transported back in time or visiting an open-air museum, except that those are not museums but real and functioning tavernas and cafeneios. Run by energetic elderly Cretans who has lots of stories to tell about 'earlier days' these places have also lot of accessories, decorations and folk art elements hanged on the walls - shepherd's sticks/canes (called 'glitza' in Greek), old passed photos, wall rugs either owned, inherited or collected from the nearby village. While looking at the interior of the place one can get a feeling the time here has stopped decades ago, the cooking pots in the kitchen are juggled with swift and dexterity of modern times and ingredients used in cooking have been picked in the garden.
Cafeneio-tavern of Ethia village
To reach this far-away corner of Crete will require you some driving patience. Seated in the main (and truth to be told the only) square of Ethia village, this place seems like an epitome of authentic taverna - old and authentic in every sense. The elderly Cretan lady running the place seemed to be having a nap in one of the chairs in front of the tavern while her husband had retired himself to one of the chambers of the house to enjoy the afternoon siesta undisturbed. We got a cup of a well-brewed Greek coffee with the spoon sweets and learned that full meals are cooked mostly on weekends or holidays when the chances of visitors are higher. Indeed, during two hours we spent in the village (drinking coffee and walking around), we did not see any other villager (probably because of the siesta peak-hour), not to mention any visitor.
Taverna of Thripti village
This is the only taverna of mountainous Thripti village. Likewise the whole village it closes down during winter time because of too much snow. It opens again in summer season with plenty of visitors during weekends and on special holidays. Indeed, the difference is dramatic - on 1st of May (which is a special holiday) it was swarming with people having come from Heraklion and even as fas as Athens but wen visiting it again on a regular working day of another week we found the place quiet and empty. It has lots of interesting wall decors and evan a small collection of empty bottles local wine.
In Kato Karusanous, a village nestled in the rolling, olive tree-dotted hills of Crete, right there in one of the two narrow village pathways you will find a taverna called 'Lagadia'. It has a terrace that provides a beautiful view over the green lush hills. The taverna is run by hospitable and kind lady - the manager of the place and chef in one person. Food has to be preordered as the taverna is off-the-beaten path and not frequented by occasional visitors.
Seated in the corner building of the main mini-square of Krassi village, it is place you'd always get the unmistaken quality and fair price - your share of raki accompanied with some koukia (broad beens), few slices of cucumber and rusk would cost eur 1. For the sake of convenience and simplicity most of the drinks cost the same - eur 1.
Having traveled for over 30 years, since 6 years now, I have found the whole world in one of the most fascinating and unique places on earth – Crete. It is a diverse, rich and inspiring island which even after so many years does not stop surprising me - its rich history and unique traditions, its people, the delicacies of Cretan cuisine, its landspace and its stunning nature. Here I reveal some of its secrets.
I see Crete through turquoise - pink glasses.