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Akrotiri Crete: The Holy Mountain

Akrotiri (“The Cape”) is not a town or village but a peninsula on the north-west coast of Crete, about 10 kilometers north-east of the town of Chania. Akrotiri is the perfect spot for enjoying nature and hiking gorgeous mountain ravines that lead to beautiful small coves.

Map of Akrotiri CreteApproximately 10,000 residents live in around the 20 villages and settlements of Akrotiri that include
Sternes, Chorafakia,  Mouzouras, Korakies, Argoylides, Aroni, Agios Nikolaos, Pazinos (or Paxinos), Anemomyloi, Marathi, Kathiana, Kalathas, Kampani, Stavros, Kalorouma, Chordaki, Rizosklopo, and Agia Zoni. Kounoupidiana, the largest town in Akrotiri, and is home to the Polytechnic University of Crete andhas a good selection of stores, restaurants and other services. 

Akrotiri is a region with beautiful, sandy
beaches although some can get pretty crowded in July and August; however, they are very clean, generally have great facilities and most are awarded the European Blue Flag every year. The road network is good and there is frequent bus service to Chania.

There are plenty of accommodation options on Akrotiri Crete, small and large: camping sites, hotels, apartments and  villas for rent. If you decide to spend a night or more on Akrotiri, the best way is to rent a suite in one of the many lesser-expensive waterfront "apart-hotels" on the stretch between Kalathas and Stavros where you will have hotel-style services but also have the option to try your own hand at cooking Cretan style while watching the ever-changing views. And you will not have to plan your days around restaurant hours.

Although growing, Akrotiri is still relatively untouched by traditional tourism. At the same time, you will not find any real night life anywhere in Akrotiri. If you really must get your fix, head to
Chania.

Most of the peninsula is quite flat, except on the eastern side which is rocky with a rugged hill range; the tallest hill is Mountain Akrotiri Crete [goforchris@flickr.com]Sklopa which is 528 meters high. A few of the hills have gorges that end at the sea in scenic rocky coves, some of which are fantastic for snorkeling and fishing. You will also find caves full of stalagmites and stalactites; archaeological and historical artifacts show that some of the
caves were used as places of worship and/or refuges from pirate invasions. If that isn’t enough, you will also find some interesting monasteries to visit, justifying Akrotiri’s nick-name of "The Holy Mountain of Crete.”

The hill of Profiti Ilias lies just north-east of the town of Chania at the western perimeter of Akrotiri. Here you will find the
Venizelos Tombs and the Spyros Kayales Memorial and their magnificent view of Chania. Chania’s international airport is situated in the middle of the peninsula.

A Tour of Akrotiri

Although known best for its history, agriculture and small beaches, Akrotiri's clear atmospheric conditions throughout the year are perfect for military activities. No doubt at some point during your visit you will catch the occasional sight and sonic booming sound of military jets flying overhead; Chania International Airport in the middle of the peninsula is not only a commercial airport but is also the site of the Souda Air Base where the Hellenic Air Force 115 Combat Wing and US Navy units reside. 

As well, NATO has a Missile Firing Installation (or NAMFI), with an extensive missile firing range, located north of Souda Air Base at
Marathi; it is currently used as a NATO training facility for Air Defense Systems and is regularly used by the armed forces of Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, and the United States. In the past it was also used by Denmark, France, and Norway.  Today the firing range is used mostly for Patriot and Hawk launches, although a wide range of surface to air and air to surface missiles are fired occasionally. As the trajectories of the missiles cross busy air and sea areas, an Air and Sea surveillance radar system is used to resolve possible conflicts.

Souda Bay serves as an additional strategic military location for the Hellenic Navy and NATO naval base.

The Venizelos Tombs & Spyros Kayales Memorial is contained in one of the most popular Venizelos Tomb Crete [e~s@flickr.com]yet peaceful spots: a hill-top park offering a panoramic view of the town of Chania. The spot is a few kilometers drive (about 10 minutes) east of Chania on the road to Akrotiri and the airport.

You can take some amazing photos of the aerial view of
Chania from a terrace adorned with a statue representing Liberty, a gift from the American people. Not far from the terrace lay the simple, unadorned tombs of Eleutherios Venizelos and his son, Sofoklis. Eleutherios Venizelos is considered one of the most important figures in Modern Cretan and Greek history and is still admired as one of the greatest patriots and statesmen Greece has ever had. Eleutherios Venizelos was born in Ottoman-occupied Crete and died in self-imposed exile in Paris. He chose this burial site himself, which is a few kilometers east of his home in nearby Chalepa. His body was brought from Paris and entombed here, and in 1965 a tomb was built for his son Sofoklis, who served as Prime Minister of Greece from 1943 to 1952.

A fragment of a patriotic poem by Kostis Palamas is etched on the wall that surrounds the tombs:
"If any adornments befit the tomb/ place an upright pillar candle on top of it/ with a flame which, like Greece, cannot be extinguished."
Profiti Ilias Akrotiri Crete [Cogitent Inc.]
Next to the tombs is the small church of Profitis Ilias ("Prophet Elijah") which was originally built in the 15th century and is a popular wedding spot. Destroyed in the bombardments of 1897, the church was rebuilt in 1899.
 
In the same park there is a statue honoring Spyros Kayales (sometimes "Kayaledakis"). In January 1897, in a bid to oust the oppressive and murderous Ottomans, about 100 Cretan revolutionaries, Eleutherios Venizelos among them, set up a camp at this spot with the intention of uniting Crete with Greece at any cost. They chose this location because it was close to Chania and they could see every movement in and out of the town.

The “Great Powers” of the time (Italy, France, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Great Britain and Russia) did not accept the revolutionaries’ demands for freedom and decided to place the cities of Chania, Rethymno and Iraklio under international occupation. This development led King George I of Greece and the Deliyannis government to intervene directly by sending troops to Crete.

On February 9, 1897, the Great Powers’ fleet began bombarding the revolutionary camp. The shells were aimed not only at the Cretan fighters but also at the Greek flag flying over the encampment. Twice the flag fell and the revolutionary Spiros Kayales repeatedly risked his life to raise it.

Spyros Kalayes Akrotiri Crete [Cogitent Inc.]When a third shell shredded the flagpole’s lanyard, Kayales made his own body a flagpole to keep the flag flying. When the leaders of the opposing troops saw the flag flying proudly with a man holding it and, amazed by the Cretans' bravery, they ordered and end to the bombardment.

Eleutherios Venizelos later reported that the Italian admiral told said that he was struck speechless with admiration at Spyros Kayales’ heroic act. Not only did his actions bring the bombardment to stop, but the Great Powers’

The is contained in one of the most popular yet peaceful spots: a hill-top park offering a panoramic view of the . The spot is a few kilometers drive (about 10 minutes) east of Chania on the road to Akrotiri and the airport. You can take some amazing photos of the aerial view of from a terrace adorned with a statue representing Liberty, a gift from the American people.

Not far from the terrace lay the simple, unadorned tombs of Eleutherios Venizelos and his son, Sofoklis. Eleutherios Venizelos is considered one of the most important figures in Modern Cretan and Greek history and is still admired as one of the greatest patriots and statesmen Greece has ever had. Eleutherios Venizelos was born in Ottoman-occupied Crete and died in self-imposed exile in Paris. He chose this burial site himself, which is a few kilometers east of his home in nearby Chalepa. His body was brought from Paris and entombed here, and in 1965 a tomb was built for his son Sofoklis, who served as Prime Minister of Greece from 1943 to 1952. A fragment of a patriotic poem by Kostis Palamas is etched on the wall that surrounds the tombs: Next to the tombs is the small church of Profitis Ilias ("Prophet Elijah") which was originally built in the 15th century and is a popular wedding spot. Destroyed in the bombardments of 1897, the church was rebuilt in 1899. 

In the same park there is a statue honoring Spyros Kayales (sometimes "Kayaledakis"). In January 1897, in a bid to oust the oppressive and murderous Ottomans, about 100 Cretan revolutionaries, Eleutherios Venizelos among them, set up a camp at this spot with the intention of uniting Crete with Greece at any cost. They chose this location because it was close to Chania and they could see every movement in and out of the town. The “Great Powers” of the time (Italy, France, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Great Britain and Russia) did not accept the revolutionaries’ demands for freedom and decided to place the cities of Chania, Rethymno and Iraklio under international occupation. This development led King George I of Greece and the Deliyannis government to intervene directly by sending troops to Crete.

On February 9, 1897, the Great Powers’ fleet began bombarding the revolutionary camp. The shells were aimed not only at the Cretan fighters but also at the Greek flag flying over the encampment. Twice the flag fell and the revolutionary Spiros Kayales repeatedly risked his life to raise it. When a third shell shredded the flagpole’s lanyard, Kayales made his own body a flagpole to keep the flag flying. When the leaders of the opposing troops saw the flag flying proudly with a man holding it and, amazed by the Cretans' bravery, they ordered and end to the

 

In the two parking areas at the park of the Venizelos Tombs (one above the park, one below) there are a couple of cafés with lovely views of Chania as well as the sunset in the evening. Have a drink and a light meal or dessert while enjoying the beautiful panorama.

bombardment.

Eleutherios Venizelos later reported that the Italian admiral told said that he was struck speechless with admiration at Spyros Kayales’ heroic act. Not only did his actions bring the bombardment to stop, but the Great Powers’ admirals submitted favorable recommendations to their respective governments, and a few months later Crete won its independence from the Ottomans. Crete finally united with Greece on December 1, 1913.

The Municipality of Akrotiri celebrates the anniversary of the February 9, 1897 bombardment each year, and lays wreaths at the statue of the hero Spyros Kayales. 

All facets of nature around the world are disappearing at an alarming rate, especially through habitat destruction; approximately ten percent of Crete's plants are considered threatened. The Park for the Preservation of Fauna and Flora, run by the Technical University of Crete in Kounoupidiana, is a 30 hectare park where native plants and animals can develop without human interference. This park is unique in Crete and one of only a few in Greece.

As you walk through the well-maintained trails, you will find identification markers for many of the plants and may also see small mammals such as hares, hedgehogs, beech martens, badgers, weasels, rats, mice and, in the evening, bats. Reptiles include the European cat snake and various lizards. Over 1,800 plants species have been documented in the park, of which 159 are endemic to the island of Crete. Akrotiri Crete Flora Fauna [jamjoys@flickr.com]

Individual habitat areas are in place and under development showcasing life endemic to the park as well as other areas of Crete. Highlights include wetland and coastal habitats, as well as a small gorge at the east side of the Park that is a good example of the rocky habitat of Crete including examples of plants that typically grow on cliffs. There is also an old olive grove and semi-natural grasslands, probably remains of former cultivation. The small museum houses antique agricultural equipment, including an olive press.

The seaside settlement of Kalathas has a beautiful, wide sandy beach in a small natural bay on the edge of a ravine, lined with spots of pine trees. The beach has crystalline waters, great facilities and the fantastic Kalathas restaurant serving classic, freshly homemade Cretan food. The water is quite shallow. Take a swim out to the small island in the lagoon and entertain yourself, as do the local kids, by jumping off the small cliff into the sea. If you want more privacy, there are pebbly private coves a short stroll to the east or west end of the main beach, but there are no facilities in these spots. Kalathas does get quite busy on weekends when the weather is nice: residents of Chania flock here to enjoy the sun, sand and water.

Stavros is not even quite a village but more a collection of houses, two small mini-markets, and Stavros Akrotiri Zorba Beach [Cogitent Inc.]small apart-hotels. However, the beach is worth visiting: there is soft sand and the water is relatively protected - natural rock dikes divert the incoming waves and create a harbor so when the Cretan winds kick up, it is often the calmest beach in the area. Stavros was also the filming site for the beach and mountain scenes in the movie “Zorba the Greek” (1963) – you will recognize the lagoon and the famous Zorba rock. Grab a table right on the beach at Christiana’s Restaurant some home-made kalitsounia (Cretan cheese pies) or grilled octopus. Also ask Maria if you can have your picture taken with the Oscar™ statuette won by cinematographer Walter Lassally for his work on Zorba. Like Kalathas, the beach at Stavros can be busy with Chania residents on at-least-temperate weekends.

Caves in Akrotiri

As you walk in the hills of Akrotiri you will find many interesting caves, with excellent rock formations and wonderful stalagmites and stalactites. Some of these caves were places of worship and also served as shelter from pirates who attacked the peninsula over the years. You probably won’t be able to visit them all, but don’t miss:
Lera. This cave overlooks the harbor and beach at Stavros; you can reach it by walking up the simple but steep path on the mountainside across from the beach. There is evidence that the cave was used from Neolithic times as well as a sanctuary from the end of the Bronze Period through all the Greek periods.

St John Cave Akrotiri Crete Greece [Wolfgang Sauber@commons.wikimedia.org]10St. John the Hermit. This cave, near the
Katholiko Monastery, is where St. John the Hermit lived and died after coming to Crete from Egypt and being active in other parts of the island. Once the bed of an underground river, it is relatively large: 100 meters long with an area of 1,500 square meters. The cave is dank and dripping with stalagmites and stalactites.

The cave's legend says that St. John lived off wild greens in the winter and carobs in the summer and near the end of his life he was no longer strong enough to walk upright because of this meager diet and the suffering he endured as an ascetic. One day a hunter mistook St. John for an animal and injured him with his arrows. The injured saint returned to his cave and died on a rock, now known as “St John’s bed.” This rock is supposed to have healing properties and many people used to break bits off to take away with them.



The path to Arkoudiotissa ("She-Bear") is only accessible on foot from the
Gouverneto Arkoudiotissa Cave Akrotiri Crete [Wolfgang Sauber@commons.wikimedia.org]Monastery. Believed to have been used for worship since ancient times (as there is evidence of activity of  cults of Artemis and Apollo), the cave was dedicated to the Arkoudiotissa Panaghia (“Our Lady”) during the Christian era. At the center of the spacious hall of the cave there is an impressive stalagmite resembling a bear bending over a pond to drink water. According to tradition, monks suffering from thirst prayed to the Virgin Mary; she petrified the bear so that it would not drink the water that they needed. Ascetics also lived in the caves in the surrounding area.

Beaches in Akrotiri

Although some of the beaches in Akrotiri are small, most have tavernas offering good Greek food including freshly caught octopus, fish and even the local delicacy of sea urchin.
Marathi beach is in Sternes, a charming village on the Akrotiri peninsula.  The beach Minoan Ruins Marathi Beach Akrotiri Crete Greecehas outstanding views towards the Bay of Souda and White Mountains. Small but busy, Marathi beach rarely has winds due to its south-facing direction. However, the best part of Marathi is not the beach itself, which is small and can get crowded, but the remains of the ancient city of Minoa which can be seen there. Minoa was one of the two harbors of the powerful city-state of 
Aptera during Minoan times. It dominated the entrance to the protected bay of Souda. Excavations have revealed part of its harbor and some buildings dating from the second century AD. 


Also see Kalathas  and Stavros .

Unless you have access to a boat, your visit to Seitan Limani (“Satan’s Harbors”) will start at the village of Chordaki, the trail-head for a 2 kilometer trek through the Diplochachalo Gorge along some dangerous cliffs surrounded by a wild, rocky and thyme-scented landscape; you’ll think you're in paradise. At the end of your hike you will find three parallel narrow coves, unexpectedly calm although they are in the middle of this wild setting. The northern-most cove has a tiny but fantastic beach with deep and clear azure waters. On the right and the left sides of the cove, stands of marble rocks protect the beach from any uncomfortable winds. This place is, fortunately, unknown to most people, even locals. If no one seems to recognize the name when you ask about it, try using “Pervolitsa” or “San Rafael,” the names of the church at the starting point of the gorge.

 

Monasteries in Akrotiri

Akrotiri is often called the “Agion Oros” (Holy Mountain) of Crete, Greece because of its multitude of monasteries and churches. Most are surrounded with olive groves, vineyards, wonderful gorges or fantastic ancient ruins - on your visit to some monasteries you will see all of these.

The following three monasteries are easy to access and should be highlights of your visit to Akrotiri:

The Monastery of Agia Triada ("Holy Trinity"), also known as Agia Tzagaroloi (“Sacred Family of Tzagarolon”) is not only very important but also extremely beautiful, so it is really well worth visiting. Combine your visit with the monasteries of 
Gouverneto and Katholiko which are just a few kilometers away.

Getting to the Monastery of Agia Triada
From Chania, take the road to the tombs of the Venizelos Family and Kounoupidiana. At the crossroads toMonastery Agia Triada Akrotiri Crete Greece Kounoupidiana, turn right to village Kambani and follow the signs for Agia Triada (some signs say Agia Tzagaroloi and are combined with signs for Gouverneto, so watch carefully). This drive is very pretty at any time of the year, and the final stretch of road is exquisite as it runs through an expansive grove of olive trees edged with cypress trees.
Generally, the monastery is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 8am to sunset, although in the winter it is closed between 2pm and 4pm. On Sunday mornings you will have the added benefit of experiencing the sights and sounds of an Orthodox service in the small but finely decorated church in the courtyard.

History of the Monastery of Agia Triada
This is the biggest monastery in Crete, named after its noble Venetian founders, brothers Jeremiah and Laurentius Giagarolo, Catholic monks who were converts to the Orthodox faith. Originally from the Agios Ioannis Monastery, the brothers were tormented by the other monks probably because they were ex-Catholics, wealthy, well-educated, young and apparently handsome. So they decided to build their own monastery a few kilometers south at the current site of Agia Triada. With their money, courage and faith, they decided to go “all out:” Jeremiah brought back great architectural designs from a trip to Holy Mount Athos while Laurentius started gathering stones and other building materials they would need. Construction began in 1612 and proceeded practically around the clock. Laurentius died before the monastery was finished, but Jeremiah continued the building. Thirty years later the monastery still was not completed because the plans were so ambitious and complex.

In 1645, the Ottomans first arrived in Crete. The Ottomans had a reputation for destroying monasteries and slaying monks, but for some unknown reason they spared this monastery, although they didn’t allow the brothers to complete it, either.

During the Greek Revolution in 1821, the monks living in the monastery escaped, abandoning all the historical relics and manuscripts they had collected. These were destroyed by the Ottomans.

The church remained without a dome – open to the sky - until 1834 when the Ottoman Pasha of the region allowed the dome to be added and the rest of the construction to be finished.

The monastery is still active with an excellent library, and you can buy traditional olive oil from the monks.

What You Will See at the Monastery of Agia Triada
Climbing the front steps, you will first see the Venetian-style church through the opening arched doorway, which Church at Monastery Agia Triada Akrotiri Crete Greeceopens onto an expansive and lush courtyard that winds throughout the complex and around the church itself.
 
Before entering the church walk around the well cared-for courtyard grounds and admire the many different plants that are kept by the monks, including oleander, mandarin, orange and lemon trees; ornamental peppers; and a wide range of other green and flowering plants. Don't miss the huge poinsettia in the raised bed just to the left of the church entrance.

Climb several of the sets of stairs for some fantastic views of the courtyard and the church, including its dome.

Of Further Interest Interior Church at Agia Triada Monastery Akrotiri Crete Greece [Wolfgang Sauber@commons.wikimedia.or
The monastery grows organic grapes and olives to make wine, tsikoudia (raki), olive oil (20 tons per year), and also produces honey, vinegar and olive oil soap. These are available for sale in the museum shop. Also spend some time in the museum itself. Although older relics were destroyed by the Turks, it does have a large collection of interesting woodcarvings and icons. There is, however, one original piece of art that survived the Ottomans: the icon screen in the ground-floor of the chapel. 


Gouverneto (“Lady of the Angels”) was built on a small plateau in the 15th century. It is a fortress-type complex with a rectangular courtyard dominated by a chapel that has some of the oldest frescoes in Crete.

Getting to Gouverneto
From
Agia Triada, continue along the same road for about four kilometers. For most of the way you will be surrounded by steep and wild hills on either side of the road as it twists and turns upwards. Park in the dirt lot on your right; after an easy 5 minute, thyme-scented walk on the continuation of the paved road you will see the monastery.

Gouverneto Monastery Akrotiri Crete GreeceAlthough the monastery was intended to be a place of solitude for its monks, the ones that still live there are probably overwhelmed by the tourists that arrive here every day in July and August. If you can, try to visit at another time of the year and you will feel more welcome and better appreciate the serenity.

History of Gouverneto
The Gouverneto Monastery was built in 1537 and prospered from the proceeds of the products grown on its land. Shortly before the Ottoman invasion, an estimated 50 monks lived there, making it one of the largest in Crete. The Germans established a guardhouse in the monastery during the Second World War; Cretan resistance fighters were very active in the area. The monks have been actively restoring and preserving the many areas of the monastery since 2005.

What You Will See at Gouverneto
The outside of the monastery resembles a Venetian fortress, with towers which were used for defense. Inside there are 50 monks’ cells on two floors, and there used to be towers in each of the four corners; only two survive but you can see remains of the others from the courtyard. The walls have openings that are tapered: wider on the inside than the outside; this “embrasure” design allowed defending fire from inside, but protected the interior from its attackers.
Gouverneto Monastery Akrotiri Crete Greece [Sauber@commons.wikimedia.org]
The small courtyard is simple, but pretty with flowers, trees and the wooden Talanton, a wooden plank that is hit with a heavy stick to call the monks to service.

The domeless church is dedicated to the Virgin, which is why Gouverneto Monastery is also known as Our Lady of the Angels. The most interesting and impressive features are the gargoyles carved in relief on the front of the church. The style is also quite unusual, influenced by the Venetian Renaissance and Baroque.

As with others in Crete, work on the church began in the Venetian period but was interrupted by the Ottomans.

Next to the church is a chapel dedicated to the founder of the monastery, St. John the Hermit, whose cave is in the nearby Avlaki Gorge near the
Katholiko Monastery. At the side of the church there is a second chapel dedicated to the Ten Saints of Crete.

The small on-site museum in the monastery has a variety of relics.

  Katholiko Monastery was built into the sides of a ravine and includes a church dedicated to Agios Ioannis Xenos (“St. John the Hermit”), the founder of the monastery, who lived and died in the nearby cave that bears his name. The church itself is carved into the rock of the mountain side, and its facade follows the Katholiko Monastery Akrotiri Crete Greece [Wolfgang Sauber@commons.wikimedia.org]slope of the mountain. The bridge across the ravine and some buildings of the old monastery are still preserved, and the view is amazing.

Getting to Katholiko Monastery
From the parking area at the Gouverneto Monastery, enjoy the specatcular views as you wind down the marked path through a wild and stunning ravine for about 25 minutes (you will pass the cave of St. John the Hermit at the halfway point).


History of the Katholiko Monastery
The buildings are carved from rock in the Byzantine style, and tradition says that it was built on a much earlier 11th century monastery here, which would make it the oldest in Crete. Unfortunately, this is not confirmed by historical sources. Despite the lack of physcial evidence katholiko is the word for the main church of a monastery where the monks gather for daily prayers. This name may indicate that an old monastery did exist here.

Katholiko was abandoned in the 16th century after successive pirate raids, and has been unoccupied since then.

What You Will See at Katholiko Monastery
Hermit Caves Katholiko Akrotiri Crete Greece [Wolfgang Sauber@commons_wikimedia_org]The Venetian facade is impressive, and don't miss the various cells and crypts. You will also be able to see several hermit caves while walking through the beautiful gorge.

If you are up to it, cross the impressive stone bridge and after about 30 minutes you will reach a tiny cove and the sea - enjoy a swim from the rocks if the weather is right. There are also some ruins with a Minoan shrine to Artemis. Finally - and once again! - don't forget to bring water with you as the round-trip will be approximately 1-1/2 hours. 

Images: Attribution, per copyright license or Creative Commons , as indicated. All others ©2011 Cogitent Inc., All Rights Reserved.

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