We arrived here in Agios Nikolaos under very trying conditions, entering the marina just after sunset on August 5th with a blistering Meltemi gusting to 50 knots out in the bay. Three weeks later, looking out at the crystal blue water and enjoying the gentle warm breeze, it is quite difficult to remember the Gulf of Mirabella in its darker mood. “Ag Nik” was a great place to wait out the Meltemi and to use as a base for exploring the extraordinary island of Crete.
We were fortunate indeed to end up in the marina here. Not only does it offer the best protection available on the island, it is also a very pleasant and efficiently run marina, at a reasonable cost. It even has features that seem to be rare in Mediterranean marinas – a coin-operated laundry; a cruisers’ barbecue area; a book exchange; really clean and private showers and toilets – besides good haul-out facilities where people can work on their own boats or draw on the wealth of excellent boat services available here. The staff and the small community of mostly British and German cruisers are friendly and very helpful – Ag Nik Marina is highly recommended. The town is also very pleasant, with a good beach, a lively shopping and dining precinct and a scenic lake right in the middle.
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands and divides the Aegean from the Sea of Libya. It is visible from way out at sea as it is so mountainous – the landscape looks slightly surreal to a couple of flatlanders like us. In legend, the island of Crete was the home of King Minos and his Minotaur – a vicious half-man half bull that inhabited a labyrinth under the palace and fed on the flesh of unfortunate foreigners sent as tribute. The hero Theseus killed the Minotaur and escaped from the labyrinth with the help of the King’s daughter (and the Minotaur’s half-sister) Ariadne. The least likeable of Greek heroes, Theseus then abandoned Ariadne on the island of Naxos (where she took up with Dionysus the God of wine – a much better prospect in my opinion). Continuing the theme of total disregard for others, Theseus forgot to change his black sails as he approached mainland Greece, so his aged father Aegeus leapt from the cliffs at Sounio, as this was to be a signal that his son had perished. The Aegean Sea is named for him.
Knossos is Crete’s most famous site, believed to be the palace of Minos and the Minoans, an extensive estate excavated and restored by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans early in the 20th century. We attempted a visit but unfortunately four large cruise ships were in Iraklion that day and the site was jam packed with tour buses, cycling tour groups and others – it looked like a packed football stadium so we drove right on by – it will have to wait for another day..
We did manage to get to some interesting places however. Spinalonga Island is situated in the Bay of Elounda, just offshore from the town of Plaka. Originally the site of a Venetian era fort, it fell to the Turks in 1715. During the 20th century, Spinalonga was Crete’s leper colony where those suffering from the disease were banished and isolated. It is a melancholy place of abandoned buildings, despite the vivid blue water and the lovely views of the nearby coast, but apparently it was quite a thriving community in its day, with a café, taverns, theatre, bakery and other amenities typical of any Greek village. British novelist Victoria Hislop’s book “The Island” is a moving story of a family’s experience of life on Spinalonga. You can easily imagine the outcasts looking across just a couple of hundred metres of water to the mainland, knowing that they would never see their loved ones again.
A visit by local bus to busy Iraklion, the capital, was interesting, especially the Archaeological museum with its bronze age Minoan artefacts.
Can't take it with you
After we had attended to a few repairs and maintenance jobs, we hired a car to do a bit of touring, particularly to see some of the western part of the island and the mountains. We stayed for a couple of days in the beautiful town of Rethymnon, set on an old Venetian Harbour where many of the 16th century buildings are still intact and in use. The Old Town is a maze of narrow cobbled streets full of cafes, restaurants and some great little shops amongst the usual tourist supplies.
Pigadi restaurant, Rethymnon
A day trip out to Hania (or Chania) the old capital, revealed a similar Venetian port, though it’s a bigger and busier town. The naval museum, housed in an old Turkish prison, was well worth a visit, especially the artefacts and photos from the Battle of Crete during World War II. This happened in May, 1941 when the Nazis landed thousands of paratroopers on western Crete, where, after fierce fighting the Allies were defeated and forced to evacuate. It was the first airborne invasion, and it was also the first time the Nazis had encountered unrelenting civilian resistance, which took them by surprise. It shouldn’t have – Cretans have always been formidable guerrilla fighters against their various oppressors. The first wave of paratroopers were virtually wiped out by New Zealand troops assisted by Cretans – old men using their walking sticks, armed priests, kids with weapons taken from museums. Nazi reprisals were utterly brutal – villages burnt to the ground, civilians tortured and in some cases all the men of the village executed – but this only fueled the fires of the Resistance. The photographs on display are haunting. One in particular shows a group of elderly men and women, the caption stating that they refused to leave the scene of a mass execution: “We will stay to witness you murdering our children,” they said. Another shows a line-up of young men facing a firing squad. They could be any under 18 football team. Muller, the German general responsible for this thuggery was captured by the Russians at the end of the war and turned over to the Greeks, who tried him and shot him.
Moni Arkadiou was an interesting stop; a 16th century monastery, it is another potent symbol of resistance for Cretans. In 1866 thousands of Ottoman troops arrived in Crete to crush increasing rebellion against Turkish rule. Hundreds of villagers congregated in the monastery, but it was besieged by 2000 Turkish soldiers. Rather than surrendering, the Cretans set alight the monastery’s gunpowder store, wiping out villagers and Turks alike. (Apparently here it is quite normal for a monastery to have a gunpowder store.) The beautiful church is still in use, cared for by a tiny, ancient lady with one arm – she couldn’t possibly be a survivor from 1866 – could she?
Crete is mostly mountains, and a drive through the ranges and gorges is a spectacular, if hair-raising experience. Every few miles there is a tiny village with its kafenion full of old men and its little white church(es). The hillsides are covered in olive groves, some of them dating back to Minoan times, while the valleys have vineyards, citrus groves, walnut trees, carobs, figs and vegetable gardens. It is a real pleasure to go for a walk down a track in the countryside and feast on grapes, blackberries and figs along the way
2000 + year old olive tree
On our last day with the car, we visited the archaeological site of Lato, once a powerful Dorian city (7th century BC) set on a hilltop with spectacular views to the sea and the distant mountains. These are amazing ruins, with stone blocks cut and set perfectly. With no tour buses to the area, we had it pretty much to ourselves and it is certainly easier to tune in to the spirit of a place that way. Back to the coast for an excellent meal at a beachfront tavern with yet more views of Crete’s glorious blue waters, then back to Agios Nikolaos to do a bit of heavy shopping (beer) while we had use of a vehicle.
Temple ruins at Lato
We could happily have spent more time exploring Crete, but it was time to move on. Next up – an overnight sail to the island of Astipalia, about 90 nautical miles to the north-east. Let’s just double check that weather report …