The Greek Cyclades – Exploring Central Crete

After 2 weeks, we were nearing the end of our first ever trip to Greece. Wanting to see as much as possible of this beautiful and history-filled country, we’d certainly packed a lot in. Starting in the Sporades Islands where we’d made flying visits to both Skiathos and Skopelos, we’d then spent 3 days exploring the fascinating city of Athens, sailed to the Saronic Islands and then moved on to the Cyclades making stops on Naxos, Iraklia, Koufonissi and Santorini.

Aposelimi Dam

Now on our final island destination, Crete – the largest of the Greek Islands – we had already made trips out to Chania and Rethymnom in the West and to Agios Nikolaus, Elounda and Spinalonga Island to the East of our base in the city of Heraklion. Today, we would be heading inland to Crete’s Lassithi Plateau.

Another escorted tour but this time with a difference – instead of boarding a huge coach, we would be travelling in a small group on a Jeep Safari with Crete’s Safari Club company.

Ancient Aquaduct

Meeting our guide outside our city apartments, we were once again driven out to the resorts to the east of us stopping to pick up two couples staying in the pretty resort of Analipsi. We’d be just a small group of 6 as another couple had cancelled last minute and with room in the jeep already quite sparse, we were quite glad about this!

Our guide outlined the day explaining that we’d regularly swap seats between the front and back of the jeep throughout the day to make it fair before we began our adventure.

After stopping at a viewpoint overlooking Aposelimi Dam and watching huge vultures circling overhead, we began to make our ascent upwards.

Views over Crete

Pulling over again, our guide pointed out the remnants of an ancient Roman aquaduct before we continued our climb to the traditional village of Kastamonitsa. Here, we learnt how laundry would have been done in ancient times before visiting a local cafe to sample olive oil and raki – a rather potent alcoholic beverage.

Above, the view as we made our way up the mountain, and below, visiting a goat farm

Despite it being way too early in the morning and despite not really being much of a drinker, I felt obliged to knock back the shot to accept the host’s hospitality but one was definitely enough!!

Back in the land rover and now sat up the back after a seat switch, we continued our climb driving up narrow roads with a sheer drop on the one side. This made for some spectacular views.

Our destination, at the top of the mountain, was an alpine goat farm and as we parked up and jumped out of the jeep, we were met by some friendly goats wanting to say hello! As well as greeting the goats, we learnt a bit about the farm and after seeing some of the home-made wheels of cheese produced on the farm, we got to sample some. We were even offered some more raki to wash it down with which, this time, I politely declined!

Leaving the farm, we continued along some of the ancient Minoan Trail and began our descent back down the mountain, stopping again to take in the views and get some photos.

Reaching the Lassithi Plateau, our next stop was at Vidiani Monastery where we had a bit of time to visit the 19th century church. Next up was our lunch stop and we were taken to a local restaurant where a buffet style lunch was served giving us time to chat with the rest of the group and swap stories of our time in Greece and on the island of Crete so far.

After lunch, we made our way to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Lassithi Plateau, the Cave of Diktaion Andron, also referred to as the Psychro Cave or Cave of Zeus as legend has it that this was the cave where Zeus, the king of the ancient Greek gods, was born.

Above, views over Lassithi Plateau from the entrance to the Cave of Zeus, and below, inside the cave.

After hearing the rather grisly story of his birth, we were dropped in the car park for the cave from where we had to climb a steep, uneven path to the cave’s entrance. After paying a small entrance fee, we headed down the steps into the dark cave, following a well lit path to look around before walking back downhill to our awaiting guide and land rover.

Birds in the fields of the Lassithi Plateau

The day now almost at an end, we drove through the Lassithi Plateau past farms and fields and even some old Greek windmills before reaching our final stop of the day in the town of Krasi.

Here, as well as finding yet another ancient laundry, we saw the oldest Plain Tree on the island, thought to have stood there for almost 2500 years.

Another ancient laundry

After taking photos with and of the tree, it was back into the land rover one last time as we were taken back to our various resorts.

The day had been really fun and it was interesting to see another side of Crete away from it’s resorts and Venetian port cities and towns.

Once back in Heraklion, we made our now daily trek into the main town finding a local restaurant to have dinner at followed by an ice cream and a wander down to the sea front as the sun started to set.

The following day, we would be flying out of Crete – and Greece – and returning to the UK but as our flights weren’t until late evening, we had the day free to explore more in the local area.

Above, and below, visiting the Archaeological site of the Palace of Knossos

We began our day with a walk to the local bus station where we caught the bus out to the Palace of Knossos. After reading advice on line, we had pre-booked tickets into the site and after seeing the huge line at the entrance, were glad we had. The Palace of Knossos is famous for it’s links to Greek mythology as beneath it, is where the labyrinth containing the Minotaur is said to have been.

The site was discovered in the late 19th century and excavated in the early 20th century. Unlike other archaeological sites we’d seen while in Greece, parts of the palace had been restored to show what they could have looked like in ancient Minoan times. We actually felt this took away from the site a bit although at the same time, it was interesting to see how it would have been. We were surprised at how busy the site was and it reminded us of our visit to the Acropolis in Athens a week or so before.

Despite booking an early timeslot, we had to queue to see some of the indoor areas and often had long waits to get the front of a viewing platform to see some of the ruins which spoilt our visit a bit. A late afternoon or early evening visit might have been a quieter time to go if we had had the time to fit it in then.

Artefacts at Heraklion Archaeological Museum

We had booked a combo ticket for the Palace of Knossos which also included entrance to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum so after leaving the Palace of Knossos, we caught the bus back into Heraklion city. The museum contains many of the artefacts found during excavations of the Palace of Knossos and gives a bit more background to the site so it’s definitely worth visiting both.

There were also plenty of other relics from archaeological sites around Crete including some from the Cave of Zeus we had visited the previous day.

Above, and below, exploring Heraklion

We still had some time left before needing to make our way to the airport that evening so following our visit to the museum, we spent some time walking through the streets of Heraklion city, stopping for some lunch at one of the many cafes tucked away down its backstreets, souvenir shopping at its markets and admiring its fountains and churches.

Above, Rocca a Mare Fortress, and below, wandering along the Venetian harbour of Heraklion

Our stay in Heraklion wouldn’t be complete without a walk to its Venetian Harbour so before making our way to the airport, we battled the howling wind to walk along the sea wall to Rocca a Mare Fortress and back.

Then, it was time to say goodbye to Heraklion, the island of Crete and Greece itself as our summer adventure came to an end. We had packed a lot into our 2-and-a-bit weeks in this amazing country but there is still so much to see and I hope to return one day.