This seems just another quiet, semi-mountains village of Crete when taking a look at the map. Well it is not quite so! With its impressive semi-ruined cathedral of Agios Ioannis Cathedral (Saint John), this place is one of the best kept secrets of the island. There are several villages called Episkopi on Crete but nothing like this one - off the beaten path, well hidden from main roads and travel paths - utterly surprising. Let's explore!
Agios Ioannis Cathedral
Entering the village, the impressive semi-ruined cathedral of Agios Ioannis Cathedral Episkopi Milopotamos strikes the view. It draws like a magnet to explore ins and out of once-upon a time impressive building. The remains of the church of Agios Ioannis have cruciform architecture that was completed with rooms so that it had the external shape of a parallelogram. The church had five domes, one in the centre and four in each corner. It did not have supporting columns, but the arches went down to the floor directly. On the exterior there were blind arches decorated beautifully with bricks. In the upper part of the church there are two small marble columns with column capitals forming a window with three openings. The church also has traces of frescoes. It is known that in 1568 the church was partially renovated by the Venetian Bishop Sorreto and on one of the side doors is the coat of arms of the bishop and the above date.
To experience collective, uncompromised and unique Cretan spirit? You shall join the village festivity in Crete, known as 'panigiri' (festival, feast) that are organised throughout summer and devoted to the particular Saint of the island. And not only. Those kind of village feasts on Crete are compared to the spice bazaars around the world - your taste buds, flavours and senses boosted, appeal to novelty is aroused, spirit awakened, openness and friendliness unlocked.
In fact, any occasion for celebration that makes the villagers come together is appreciated and welcomed but even better if the centre piece, a very star of the eve are snails - 'chochlios' or 'kohli' (that means a spiral, or a screw) as they are called on Crete - one of the traditional dishes on the island.
'Chochlidovradia' or so called 'snail feast' or 'snail night' though is something unique and unlike 'panigiri' scheduled in almost every Cretan village throughout summer, is organised only in one - Agios Thomas (Saint Tomas) village in Central Crete.
Take your seat!
The preparations for the snail feast in the village have started well in advance - provision of food supplies and cooking for hundreds of guests have been planned weeks ahead. As a rule, cretans are respectful about food - the ordering, delivery and savouring procedure.
Here, at the snail feast, if you haven't secured your seat at the table well in advance (advisable!), you have to arrive as early as possible as the chances are hight that the place will be too busy for you to find a seat. Each table is assigned a number. The closer to the improvised stage in front, the more prominent the seating is supposed to be.
There are more than 40 ways of cooking snails on Crete and here, in Ag. Thomas village you get the snails cooked in three different ways - snails with rosemary and wine, snails with cracked wheat or bulgur and snails with vegetables. Delicious and generous!
More food to come
Note that the snails act only as a teaser as more of the food awaits you. Guests are presented with a simple-looking menu that lists lamb, patatoes, greek salad ('horiatiki'), fava, and roasted peppers, wine (white and red), the list goes on - to choose from and to order for a fair price.
Manolis, Georgios, Takis and the rest of the waitress' army are running all night long to deliver hundreds of plates on large trays to the villagers and the guests. Even the village kids have been recruited and the relatives engaged in the honorary waitressing function of the eve. Only after the hectic ordering process and when the food is served one can finally relax and the festivity can start.
Dance till you drop
This is the occasion when the Cretans seem one big unique tribe on the world map with its own unique rituals, spirit and identity (that are different from mainland Greece) and no other replace to feel it better as here - in the 'tribal gathering' - collective festivity. Dancing in Crete is a must and no serious festivity is considered without dancing. The courtyard of the elementary school of Agios Thomas village is turned into an improvised festivity place.
Cretan lyra, laouto and the rest of the parea
It seems that the music likewise waitressing (which rather is food and customer relations business) is strictly man's business. Cretan celebration usually are fast and furious that are intensely challenging even for experienced musicians. In Crete, the lyra-laouto ensemble retains its power and influence as emblematic men’s/ sheperd’s instruments and as the national instruments of Crete. Along the rhythm of Cretan lyra, glasses of wine (and later raki) are raised and "yammas" shouted.
Generations meet and melt
It all might seem like a culinary celebration of the village accompanied by music and dance performance yet it is more than that. An occasion for the youngest and the oldest to get together, to talk, to dance, to feast. Togetherness happens without a pathos, as a matter of fact . Different generations together is not a rare sight in Crete but in this kind of festivities the natural ease just becomes so obvious. And this, just like any other place in Crete, is where generations meet and melt - old young, kinds, parents, gandpas and omas, everyone become a part of festivity.
"Snail night" is organised by the Cultural Association of St. Thomas in the courtyard of the elementary school in the village of Agios Thomas (Saint Thomas). In 2014 the festivity took place on Saturday, August 3.
To get initiated into a manhood, the Indian boys have to go through the rites of passage. Likewise, to get a slice of the Cretan spirit, regardless your gender and age, you have to be inaugurated by shots of raki - the Cretan local spirit. Raki is a fuel, a vital element to ensure the smooth transition of unknown visitor into a guest and even a friend. Raki is the drink that lifts your spirit and therefore it wouldn't be the exaggeration to say - it is a Cretan holy fire drink.
The idea is deeper than that - raki is part of the eternally burning fire that keeps the Cretan spirit, zest for life and vitality alive. The Cretans are willing to share it with you and to pass on this fire to you, to initiate you. Than, leaving this island you might become one of those initiated ones, the ambassador of the island, the carrier of Cretan vitality, like the runner carrying the Olympic light, for the next stretch of your life ... till you come back to Crete to fill it up again.
To be offered a shot of raki is a ritual that suggests the hospitality, friendliness. Raki is distilled from grapes and entails the very essence of Cretan climate, mountain sea breeze and sunshine. However plain, brusk at times Cretans might appear when met atthe airport, the candid and genuine warmth and hospitality envelops you as you delve in the depths of the island.
How to make raki?
So where does the raki come from? You find raki distilleries or so called 'kazani' all over Crete - they are almost in every village. After the harvest of grapes and the wine making, the 'moesta', the remains of the grapes have to ferment for 6 weeks, after which the distillation of raki can begin. Kazani or raki distilleries start working around mid October and are active till Christmas. Distilling raki anything but technical - it is a social gathering, opportunity to get together and have a celebration. Families come with large barrels with moesta to making raki. Especially at night it is nice in the raki factory or kazani: with the music, food grilling meat and lots of fun. Everybody is full of anticepation for the first drop of raki! Actually you hear in every factory the same: my raki is the best of Crete. Raki should not be confused with rakia from Turkey, that tastes the same as ouzo. Greece is the land of ouzo, Crete is the island of the raki and it tastes very different then ouzo. If you have a cold or the flu, warm raki with honey is a good alternative medicine!
What is a kazani night? Participating in kazani night might look like some kind of unsolicited paganistic Cretan night fire ritual - 'raki' makingis a ceremony and only few consecrated and blessed ones can take part in raki-makers, family and friends. As it appears watching the whole process, the kazani masters and raki 'gurus' are performing archaic, almost primordial ritual to bring out the grape-fire-water out of aged grape residues (that, after wine-making have been preserved from 2 weeks up to one year).
When it comes to 'kazani' tradition, it's a "man's man's man's world" … and ‘raki’ (the spirit) is the king! Lots of preparation for Cretan parea and kazani masters to bring out warm, fresh, virgin raki that refreshes your body, purifies soul and strengthens the friendships. ...but, for sure, it wouldn't be "nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl"... Don’t worry overdoing is almost nonexistent and its not to be compared to the drinking habits of vodka.
Crete has always been the meeting point and melting place between East and West. Because of its strategic location in the region the island has naturally become of great interest to neighbours, invaders, wonderers, pirates and traders. Here is the quick sum-up of the history:
Venetians and construction of fortress
Rich and flourishing Venetian Republic bought Crete for 5000 golden ducats from Crusaders. The Venetian merchants immediately recognised the value of the natural harbour of Elounda and naturally exploited it. In the shallow, salty waters of the bay they built salt-works, a particularly while continuing to export local agricultural goods. It should be noted that the Venetian rule over Crete proved troubled from the beginning, as it encountered the hostility of the local populace. In the words of the medievalist Kennerh Setton, it required "an unceasing vigilance and a large investment in men and money to hold on to the island". Although the local Greeks, both the noble families and the wider populace, were allowed to keep their own law and property, they resented Latin rule and the strict discrimination between them and the Latin Venetial elite, which monopolized the higher administrative and military posts of the island and took most of the benefits of the commerce (trade) passing through it. During the early period of Venetian rule, the Venetian colonists consciously maintained themselves apart; until the end of the 13th century, even mixed marriages between native Cretans and Venetians were prohibited.
After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinopoulis in 15th century (1454) and Cyprus in 16th century (1571), Crete remained Venice's last major overseas possession. By mid-16th century Crete had remained the only and single bastion towards the West and therefore very much desired territory. The Republic's relative military weakness, coupled with the island's wealth and its strategic location controlling the waterways of the Eastern Mediterranean attracted the attention of the Ottoman Empire.
In order to protect Crete from the pirate rides (the famous Turkish pirate Barbaross that is also featured in the film Pirates of Carribean) the Venetians built a big fortress on the island on the ruins of an ancient acropolis in 16th century (1579) under the supervision of the General Proveditor of Crete Giacomo Foscarini.
How did the fortress look like?
To get an idea of what Spinalonga was like at the time - the fortress is a fortified complex including high double walls and stern towers. In 1630 it had 35 (gunpowder) cannon. That means that it had been turned into an island fortress with great firepower. This explains why it was never conquered by an enemy. The island had well organised military camp – with residences for the provedditor and the garnison commander, barracks, gunpowder magazines, storehouses for food and weapon, churches (7 churches were originally built, today 2 churches have remained) and water collecting system (cisterns). Most of the Venetian camp buildings were altered or destroyed later. Today most of it is preserved in reasonable condition and it is considered one of the most important sea fortresses in the Mediterranean.
It should be man tined that there are 222 Venetian fortresses around Mediterranean and 29 fortresses built around the Crete.
In the long and devastating Cretan War (1645 - 1669) the Ottomans quickly overran most of the island, but failed to take Heraklion (Candia), which held out, aided by Venetian naval superiority, until 1669. Only the three island fortresses of Souda, Gramvousa and Spinalonga remained in Venetian hands.
The Turks invaded Crete in 1645 and conquered most of the island in two to three years. Heraklion (Chandia) held out for 21 years before falling in 1669. Spinalonga, however, was only surrendered 60 years after the Turkish invasion, showing how well the Venetians had designed its defences. Nevertheless, in late June 1715 Turks laid siege on Spinalonga. Following three-month blockade during which all the food-supplies were exhausted, Venetian commander Zuan Francesco Guistiniani handed over fortress to Kapudan Pasha (Otooman Lord Admiral). Under the terms of the treaty, all Frankish or Greek inhabitants of the island were free to leave the island together with their belongings or to remain there as subjects of the Sultan. Guarantees were given for the safe withdrawal of Venetian guard and all the rights to Christians remaining in the fortress to maintain an Ortodox church ‘so as to worship their faith’. However, the treaty of surrender was only observed as far as Venetian withdrawal was concerned but the islands inhabitants who were refugees from the Ottoman controlled-Crete were imprisoned and sold on the flourishing slave market of the time. Approximately 230 men and 240 women and children living at the time on the island were sold as slaves.
During the Turkish occupation, a new era in the history of the island began. The island become one of the main seats of Ottoman families as due to its isolation it was regarded as safe from Cretan attacks. Due to Cretan revolt and hostility, in the second part of 19th century the island became even more densely populated and in 1879 became an independent Municipality. It seems that in 1881 it reached the peak - there were 1112 people living on Spinaloga.
Most of the buildings standing inside the fortress were houses in the Ottoman settlement. These were two-storey structures with wooden doors and window frames painted in bright colours. Each house had its own courtyard, surrounded by a high wall which usually houses small ancillary buildings such as cooking area and latrine. Floors were tailed and the courtyards were often pebbled. The most well-to-do houses had also a rainwater cistern.
When Crete was placed under Great Powers of the time (England, France, Italy and Russia), French forces were stationed on the island. Following Cretan autonomy most of Spinalonga’s inhabitants migrated to the shores of Asia Minor.
Recent history of Spinalonga
In spite of its long and turbulent history, today Spinalonga is mainly known as the Leper Island. In 1903, a leper colony was established on Spinalonga, to isolate people suffering from disease. Even though today leprosy is curable and sufferers can lead a normal life without transmitting the disease, the world “leper” still carries a social stigma. However at he beginning of 20th century the cure for leprosy had not yet been discovered, and the contagious disease was regarded with horror. People were terrified of leprosy and lepers had to wear bells to warn people of their approach. It was not known that most of the population is naturally resistant to the disease and that the risk of contagion was much lower than thought. But who would run the risk of catching an incurable, fatal disease? So a small island was the ideal solution for isolating sufferers from the healthy population, who could thus feel safe. Spinalonga was ideal because it was close to shore, permitting the easy transfer of patients, food and supplies. There were also many empty houses there after the departure of the Muslim inhabitants. On 30 May 1903 the decision to transform Spinalonga into a leper island was signed, and 250 patients were moved there from various parts of Crete. More came following the unification of Crete with Greece in 1913.
How the daily life of lepers was?
Lepers - the patients of Spinalonga were entitled to a small monthly allowance, which was often not enough to cover their food and medicine. These were hard times, when Greece was rocked by successive wars (Macedonian Struggle, two Balkan Wars, two World Wars, the Civil War), worsening the position of the lepers on Spinalonga. Living conditions were extremely poor at that time. The great change came about in 1930 when lepers from Athens were brought here. Many of them came from wealthy families and therefore had money to sustain and improve the life in Spinalonga. This is when the houses of Spinalonga were renovated after many years of decay. The road around the island was opened. In thirties Spinalonga opened its own cinema where they showed films weekly. The film title was published in weekly Spinalonga magazine and it was very popular. The cinema, the films brought very much joy to the people of Spinalonga. An outdoor cleaning service was set up, a theatre and cinema were built, and classical music was heard from the loudspeakers in the street. People fell in love and were married on Spinalonga - about 170 marriages took place. They had children, some of whom grew up with them without ever catching the disease - 154 children were born. Lepers looked after one another, did any work they could to improve their lives, ran their own kafeneion and barber shop, and had their own church of St. Panteleimon, with a brave priest who, though not a leper himself, volunteered to spend his life among the exiles.
From 1948 onwards, when the cure for this dreadful disease was discovered, the number of lepers on Spinalonga fell.
The Leper Hospital remained operational until 1957, when the last 20 patients were moved to a leper hospital in Athens. Many others had recovered and gone home in the meantime.
Afterwards Spinalonga was abandoned and looted, and many pieces of architecture from its houses now adorn the luxury hotels of Elounda. In the 1970s Spinalonga was declared a protected archaeological area
Ask to Manolis!
Suvlaki is the best known street food all over Greece - small cubes of pork threaded on a wooden skewer.
It seems that eateries are more than anything on Crete and even more so are the places where to get the Greek street food - souvlaki (that sometimes is sold in a booth right next to the street). So, where do you find the best souvlaki? I would not recommend relying on google or TripAdvisor. Do do ask the locals instead! "That one is the best in Crete", Manolis re-assured confidently. So, did Kostas and Georgios. To be more precise - the best souvlaki on island between Heraklion and Agios Nikolaos.
The ingredients of souvlaki experience
How to tune your nose for a good souvlaki? How does a 'good souvlaki' eating experience looks and feels like? First of all, it should start with hospitality - you are greeted as an old friend and welcomed to come in for a bite even at 11am which is not the most typical grill-time in Crete (and Cretans are not in favour of breakfast). But if the host truly honours your visit (as that was the case in this village, off the beaten path), he or she will make it happen.
Maybe it was just lucky coincidence as we felt expected. Despite the relatively early hour we had to wait for only about 25 min for freshly grilled souvlaki to arrive. Here it is - the hero of our journey and reward for our 'souvalki quest' in all its glory - freshly grilled, juicy, mouthwatering, crispy pieces of meet neatly arranged on a stick, seasoned by salt and lemon. Having grown up and developed my souvlaki-taste over the years, I can truly confirm this was one of the best souvlaki experience ever (not only in Crete but whole of Greece). We were warmly welcomed to come back on the final accord.
The decision to come back was clear. This time for the dinner and with parea!
Tavern "Athivoles" is in Latsida village, few kilometres from Neapoli, in Lassithi Prefecture, Crete.
Over the years, Spinalonga island has gained the reputation as one of all time favourite ones - it is a dear classic from the 'must see' repertoire on Crete that never fails to meet the expectations. You get it all - a rich and exciting history, turquoise waters and a stunning landscape. Besides, it is not only the island but the whole journey to and from it.
The fact that Spinalonga island is one of the most frequently visited sites on Crete is not a secret. In fact the island has been named as one of the Greece's Top 10 Archeological Sites. Despite the hot, baking sun in summer and prospects of crossing paths with quite few other people, it is still one of the most popular places to be. Here are 3 main reasons why:
Striking setting and a view
Wouldn't your imagination unleash and your phantasy unfold seeing this awe-inspiring view? This is one of those rare sights in every travellers portfolio that makes the trip worth it. Yet like an elegant beauty against a backdrop of the blue Mirabello bay an dominant sky, Spinalonga island is not as delicate as it seems afar. The barren plot of land as small as 0.085 km2, powerful walls of Spinalonga fortress and ruins of former life that has now become the island's ghost town conceal the history of powerful Venetian and Ottoman times and the touching story of suffering, love and advancement of the outcasts at the beginning of 20th century. You've got to get closer!
Hundred and one story to tell
Crete has amazingly rich and diverse history and here, on Spinalonga you can find it all - layer upon layer of centuries, stormy events, the suffering and victories of its inhabitants, all of it are witnessed by and sealed in pathways and alleys of the island. Spinalonga is often associated with its most recent history and tagged exclusively as the 'leper island' which would be somewhat limiting and unfair to its rich past. The little plot of land has experienced it all - ancient times, 400 hundred years of Venetian siege, Ottoman rule that lasted almost 200 years - all of it that all have left its footprints on the island. Spinalonga is like a Cretan version of thousand and one night tales, except that those are true stories - collected over centuries, most of them not as romantic but hardly less exciting and, shall we be a bit more humble, - there are about hundred and one of them. All you have to do is to choose a good story teller to make history alive.
Spinalonga's atmospheric, winding streets are now abandoned, but still seem full of history. The island has inspired artists and writers through the centuries, and was the setting for Victoria Hislop's international bestseller book, The Island, is a moving account of what life for the lepers of Spinalonga must have been like.
Journey over turquoise water
A boat trip to the island makes one truly feel what it means to visit an island, as most of us come to Crete by plane. If you are visiting Heraklion a day trip to Spinalonga is a great opportunity to see the Cretan landscape and experience the vibe of the island.
The boats to Spinalonga island depart from Agios Nikolas, Elounda and Plaka. Spinalonga island is 75 km from Heraklion that takes about 1 hour and half by car or minivan.
Once upon time, in ancient times Crete has been rich with forest and there has been an abundance of trees. In those days many dramatic natural features - mountains, forests, springs and caves have been accorded sacred status. Among them, the most revered are monumental trees - you will find lots of long-lived olive trees all across Crete, many of palatnos trees on the island have reached impressive age (for instance the platoons tree in Krassi village). These are some of the sacred and revered trees in Crete that are well worth visiting:
East Crete - the monumental olive tree in Kavousi
The legendary olive tree of Kavousi has the diameter of the trunk is 4,9 m and the circumference is 14,20 m. Based on the method of annual rings, it is estimated that the tree was planted in the period 1350-1100BC.
Central Crete - myrtle tree of Paliani Monastery
On the side of the main church of Paliani monastery in Central Crete there is a big, centuries old myrtle tee, which is called Holy Myrtia by the nuns and represent the startling survival of of the worship of sacred trees, which had flourished in Crete during Minoan period. It is believed that an icon of the Virgin is inside the trunk. There is a special annual feast of Holy Mytria on 23th September. The consecration of bread offerings under the sacred tree is a remarkable devout event which connects the past Greek-Christian tradition with the present.
West Crete - monumental olive tree of Agios Georgios
The tree is in municipality of Kandanos in West Crete. The olive tree of Saint George is one of the many ancient olive trees in the areas Anisaraki and Vardaliana near Kandanos village. It has been declared as a memorial by the Association of Cretan Olive Municipalities due to its flattened shape and textured trunk.The elder residents remember that it produced about 220 kg oil, however today it produces 80-90kg. It belongs to Michael Sargetakis and its variety is mastoid grafted on wild olive. The trunk of the tree at 0.8m height has a maximum diameter of 4.35m, a perimeter of 12.32 m while at its base has a diameter of 6.85m and a circumference of 18.27m.
Walk in ancient footsteps
Excitement of discovery, stunning beauty of nature, revelation of some of the Crete's well kept ancient secrets and healing power of the sanctuary, all come to live and manifest in one place - ancient Lissos. Ancient Lissos is likened to Crete's lost city - in the heart of nature on the coast of Libyan sea, it can be reached only on foot or by boat from Sougia, West Crete.
The story of ancient Lissos
The area that is a beautiful valley in the mid of mountains was largely unexplored until 1957, although the position of the ancient city was known. That year one of the locals, wishing to find the source of the water, dug exactly on top of the sanctuary of Asclepius and found about twenty statues portraying Asclepius, Hygeia, Pluto and a few devout patients. Fortunately, it was not an illicit dealer but a lover of antiquities, so he informed the Nikolaos Platonas, who immediately started an excavation of the area.
It is known that Lissos (as well as Syia) was the harbours of the city of Elyros, the most important ancient city of the area. It was established in the Classical period and flourished until the Late Antiquity. Its name was made certain by inscriptions. The early history of the city is unknown. Based on inscriptions and coins of the 3rd century BC, it is know the city allied with King of Carthage Maga, and joined the League of Oreians. Lissos had powerful trading and fishing navy. Most of its inhabitants were sea merchants and fishermen, but the greatest source of wealth was from visitors coming to a religious shrine of the healing god Asclepius with a famous healing water spring. So wealthy was Lissos, it even minted its own golden coins. Coins of the 4th-3d c. and the treaty of the Oreioi with King Magas of Kyrene indicate that the main divinity of Lisos was Dictynna, but excavation has now revealed an important Sanctuary of Asclepius.
Remains have been found of an aqueduct, a Roman theater only 23.4 m in diameter (that has not yet been excavated), and a large Roman bath building. From the findings it becomes clear that the city was small and it had little cultivable land and was barely approachable, except by sea. However, this site has produced more sculpture than any in Crete except Gortyn. Many of the heads of statues and statuettes were found in a heap some distance away from the torsos; most of them represent Asclepius or Hygieia, or girls and boys (presumably consecrated to the god). They are of Hellenistic and Roman date, but the types are mostly Classical. A number of statue bases bear dedications to Asclepius and Hygieia. The finds are in the Chania and Herakleion museums. This fact testifies the prosperity and the power of Asclepius of Lissos.
Lissos also has its own coins with the images of Artemis and dolphin and the word LISION (of the Lisians). Lissos and Yrtakina were allies and they had trading intercourse with common currency. Their coins had dolphin or flying dove on the one side, and eight-ray star with the word L/I/S/I/O/N (of the Lisians) on the other.
Lissos always maintained good relations with the other cities that existed in this part of western Crete. During the Roman and first Byzantine periods Lissos was still a thriving city. It is worth noting that in the Byzantine era the city was a bishop’s seat till 9th c. A.D. which was a privilege of the most important cities of the time. It seems however that in 9th c. A.D. activity in Lissos ceased, the city was deserted after the liberation of Crete from the Arab dominion and it was never inhabited again. However, the religious character of the place has been preserved until the Byzantine period.
What has survived till the day?
Arriving on foot the valley of ancient Lissos opens up in all its glory: in front of you, on the other side of the valley one see Roman necropolis. This cemetery occupies the entire southwestern and western slope of 118 visible graves. For the most part is created, vaulted, single spaced with a rectangular plan. In three cases we-storey tombs, while at least four small hall there on the scale.
On the left hand site is located ancient residential area, while the public operations of the town (mainly the Agora) should be sought in the middle. However, all of it now left are ruins. No trace of fortification is preserved as the town, reputed religious centre, was in no such need. Ruins of towers are present though, probably serving as watch towers on the surrounding summits. No certain traces of roads or ancient paths have been discovered.
Except for the sanctuary of Asclepius, it won’t be easy to identify the other ruins of the ancient city, because not only have the excavations not been completed, but the place has been left to its fate as well. There was one temporary guard some time ago that is not anymore and now thick bushes cover everything. If you walk through the rocks and bushes, you will find indications of ancient Lissos in each step you take.
Healing sanctuary of Asclepius
The most impressive remains have survived from the sanctuary of Asclepius - the healing god of antiquity and god of medicine, with more than 900 temples and sanctuaries located across the Graeco-Roman world. The cult of Asclepius flourished from the 4th century to the imperial Roman period. The Asclepius of Lissos was possibly the main reason for the wealth of the city. In ancient Greece, the temples of Asclepius were what hospitals are in our present-day society. Thus in Lissos many people from all over the surrounding region came to be healed.
In ancient times, the waters of Lissos were considered medicinal and in the Asclepius many illnesses were cured by methods of what we call today holistic medicine. The purity was especially important element in the cult of Asclepius therefore there were often found water sources near the entrance of the temple.
The Asclepius temple in Lissos was well adapted to the rocky landscape: it was entered from east and had a colonnade on the south side. Hellenistic honorary (‘proxeny’) decrees are built in its entrance, while another inscription dedicated to Emperor Tiberius has been discovered among the fallen inscribed stone fragments. Together with mosaic floor added during the Roman times (69 BC - 330 AD), that is partially preserved till the day, they witness a long-lasting flourishment of the sanctuary. During the early Christian period an attempt to purify the temple has been made (signs of the cross were engraved on the masonry). A monumental staircase leads to the temple, on the right side of which lies the fountain were the healing water of the ancient source gushed out.
The temple of Asclepius was excavated by Nikolaos Platon during the years 1957 - 1961. It turns out that the sanctuary was destroyed by earthquake as enormous rocks that tumbled down from higher and crushed the place. They turned the small Doric building into ruins, thus sealing its content: a wonderful collection of Hellenic sculptures, offerings of the worshipers whose names were engraved on theis bases, as well as the statue of god Asclepius himself (all of it moved away from the place, to the museums).
Clearly, the thermal water of the area was the reason to acquire Asclepius great reputation. Nearby was a building used by priests or visitors. The spring itself was approached by steps from the terrace; beside it was a large cistern. It became an important center of hydrotherapy with visitors from all over Crete and the northern coast of Africa.
Chapels from Byzantine period
Another highlight of Lissos are two beautiful chapels - the chapel of Agios Kyrikos and the chapel of Panagia that belong to the Byzantine period of the 13th and 14th century. Both are built on the ruins of early Christian churches. The chapel of Agios Kyrikos is located near the Roman theater, and the chapel of Panagia dedicated to Virgin Mary is located close to the beach of Lissos.
A chapel of Agios Kirikos was built where the Holy Bema (= a platform before the entrance to the adyton of an Orthodox church) of one of the basilicas existed. It appears to have measured 22.8 x 11 metres, and it celebrated on July 15th.
To and from ancient Lissos
On foot: the trail starts at the small beach next to the harbor of Sougia and continues well into the pine-clad, scenic gorge. At some point, it exits the gorge, climbing uphill, and continues over the plateau. Approaching over Lissos, you see a panoramic view across the Lissos area. It takes about 1.5 hours one way.
By boat: you can reach (or leave) Lissos by boat that takes about 20 min from Sougia. If you have arrived to Lissos on foot and have no desire to walk back, you can call to order a boat - there is a phone number of a boatman written on the table at the beach.
The description includes text from the Princeton encyclopedia of classical sites, Princeton University 1976, website http://www.alpha-omegaonline.com/road/route_2b.htm and other information and materials available online.
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.
She waves standing in the doorway and greets you like the long time not seen son, like a lost child. Than she is off, rushing to get you a chair, some fresh musmula to peal (it's beginning of June) and refreshing, cold raki. They both - Maria and Konstantinos are so happy to see you - someone who is a total stranger, who just had happened to pass by their home. Well, you are not a stranger, in fact. Here you are a dear guest - welcomed, received with open arms, warmheartedly greeted. People passing by our house rarely stop, she says and smiles. She is happy. The whole life written in a tiny lines of her face. And her hands. Beauty is a light in the heart. Kindness.
Having made sure you are comfortable, that you have your chair, water and raki, she finally sits down. Her time-worn hands seem not to be afraid of life - they have cuddled children and embraced work. She is the one - keeping the gate of the house open, keeping the fire on, the kindness. The beauty.
She takes care of her Konstantinos. His big, blue, sightless eyes facing infinity seem looking right into your soul. It is like meeting the whole world in a long-lived soulful eyes even if they are blind. Konstantinos was a priest for over 40 years on Crete. It has been many years now since he is retired and for the past years also blind - sightless. But you cannot turn away from his eyes, his eyes seem to see everything.
They tell about their life of 64 years together, about their four grown-up children some of them living in Athens, some in Heraklion. They visit as often as they can. And than they have a bunch of grandchildren. Maria grows quiet as Konstantinos tells about his grandson - a very young, beautiful, strong Cretan who just little time was killed in a car accident. It is not always easy for them to manage on their own but they want to be independent. The house is big enough for everyone and the doors are open always for their children, friends and visitors. They go on.
They ask about me, where am I from, what is my life, how is it going, where the travel takes me. We lift the shot of chilled raki. It is all good.
Precious moments with beautiful Cretans. The feeling that it was a blessing of meeting Maria and Konstantinos does not fade away. I remembering this wonderful encounter and my heart smiles.
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.