Our day’s drive from Chania to Agios Nikolaos (St Nicholas) was a long one as we stopped at two places along the way, Phaistos and Gortyn. We were staying at a hotel on St Nicolas Bay for two nights; one of these nights would be recovering from the long day’s drive with the next day being the only chance for us to see the sights of Agios Nikolaos. Our hotel was 3-4 kilometres north of the centre of town so we had to drive to visit this lovely city built on the east coast of Crete, surrounded by great beaches and built around a lake that was only opened up to the sea in 1890. The area has been developed to attract the Northern Europeans looking for sunny beaches and expensive hotels.
The map above illustrates the layout of Agios Nikolaos with its well protected lake and various sea walls to ensure that tourists with large boats have plenty of places to shelter when they go ashore to visit the cafes, taverns and restaurants that crowd the business frontage of the town. On the ‘civilized’ side of Lake Voulismene, there is no question you are in the 21st century. When we walked around to the other side of the lake to get a good view of the rock cliffs plunging into the depths of the lake, we suddenly found we could accept the local tradition that this is where the Greek Goddess Athena came to bath at nightfall. Over this side of the lake it was also easy to accept the long held belief that this lake was bottomless; unfortunately non-romantic scientists like Jacque Cousteau came and measured the depth of the lake and found it was a mundane 60 metres deep.
As we noted at Gortyn, one of the Greek myths associated with that long lasting community was the story handed down from classical times of how the head of the Pantheon of the Greek Gods Zeus, abducted a beautiful Phoenician princess, Europa, after he had wooed her in the shape of a huge white bull on the seashore near modern day Lebanon. He then flew her to Crete and according to ancient Gortyn propagandists, it was near their citadel that he had his way with Europa and the result was Minos and two other earlier Minoan Kings. The story of the rape of Europa, like other Greek Myths associated with Crete, may have had some basis in reality, harking back to Cretan raids on Phoenicia. As a visitor to Agios Nikolaos and you move away from the lagoon towards the port area, you will come across a huge statue of Europa sitting on the back of a giant bull. On one of the stones near the Europa statue is the following statement… “Europe is my name I am the daughter of the Phoenician King Aginoras and mother of King Minos creator of the Minoan civilization.”
Further along towards Kitroplateia Beach, is another large impressive statue called the Horn of Amalthea. Again this memorial reminds us of other sites that we passed on our drive across Crete. On the previous day we passed Mt Ida not far from Phaistos where, according to local legend, Zeus was born to his mother Rhea and hidden in a cave on Mt Ida, to save him from his baby-eating father, Cronus. Apparently it was the milk that came from the goat called Amaltheia that nourished Zeus in his difficult early years. Unluckily during an incident when Zeus was playing with the goat, he broke its horn off. (Immortal Gods tend to not know their own strength!) To make up to the owner of the goat, Zeus blessed the goat horn so that the owner would find anything he desired in the horn. It became known as the Horn of Amaltheia or the Horn of Cornucopia. It was this legend that the artist used to generate his sculpture on the seafront of Agios Nikolaos. The circular frame at the base of the structure enables the visitor to take a great photo, pretending they are a part of the abundance represented by this Horn of Cornucopia.
One of the other treats in walking around Agios Nikolaos is the many churches and chapels that you can encounter. Even our hotel had a small chapel (below, Right) that was available for weddings with a view out over the Gulf of Mirabello.
We had a great day cruising around this lovely resort town in Eastern Crete but of course one day is not enough to visit all the places that can be accessed from Agios Nikolaos. The one activity that is on my bucket list if I ever return to this area of Crete is to visit the Island of Spinalonga which can be accessed by ferry from Agios Nikolaos and cruising north along the Gulf of Mirabello for 15.5km. Its location can be seen on the map of Crete at the start of this article.
Like all of Crete, the area around this part of the coast has had a long history of human habitation. The island is opposite the town of Elounda and today a narrow bridge crosses from here to Spinalonga and the remains of the ancient city of Olous can be seen under the water near this bridge, dating as far back as the Minoan Age. Fortifications started on this island around the time the region was being populated by Dorians from Greece. By the time of the Venetian period (1204-1669), the island and its surrounding waters became commercially valuable as it was a great area for building salt pans. Like Chania, when the Cretan war broke out between the Venetians and the Ottomans, the fortifications had already been expanded and futher developments to defend Spinalonga were made. It is no surprise then to see a beautiful map of the island by the Italian Cartographer, Francesco Basilicata, very similar to the ones he drew up for the coast around Chania. Spinalonga was so well fortified that it lasted much longer than any other fortified town in Crete and didn’t fall to the Ottoman Turks until 1715
In 1866, Cretans revolted against their Turkish overlords and many Turkish families came to Spinalonga and a Turkish community lasted on the Island until 1903 when the last Turks left the Island. From 1903 to 1957 the Island was used as a Leper colony. It was one of the last active Leprosariums in use in Europe when modern medicine finally caught up with more effective treatments for this ancient disease that caused its sufferers to be isolated from the rest of the community.
An Island with such a lengthy and mixed history was bound to become a tourist attraction in the modern era. With so many of its building being still in reasonable condition as well as being a perfect spot for those who also want to check out its lovely beaches, it is no wonder it is a popular destination for Europeans on holiday.
We enjoyed our break around Agios Nikolaos but after two nights at our lovely hotel on St Nicholas Bay, we were due back in Heraklion on the next day for our flight back to Athens.
The third largest Minoan Palace site to be discovered on Crete is located off the coast road between Agios Nikolaos and Heraklion. It is three kilometres from the party, resort town of Malia. We pulled over at the turn off to Malia on our drive back to the Capital of Crete and had an early lunch. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to visit the archaeological site that was discovered in 1915 and has had extensive excavations throughout the 20th century. The Minoan Palace period seems to have followed a pattern throughout Crete where a non-militaristic people developed a wealthy society through widespread trade around the Aegean and were able to build large palaces around central courtyards where they were able to celebrate their religious beliefs through art and spectacle. The uncovered remains at Malia showed that the local Minoans followed this same pattern. They also followed the pattern of palaces being built, destroyed and rebuilt between 2000-1800BCE; surviving for a few more centuries before their culture was destroyed by invading Mycenaeans from mainland Greece or by the impact of volcanic activity emanating from the destruction of Thera around 1646 BCE. It is likely that large sections of the North Coast of Crete, particularly the eastern end around Palaikastro (See map at start of article) were impacted by a large Tsunami that would have destroyed towns and fishing fleets and resulted in devastating economic loss to the people of these areas.