I am always looking for the more unknown places in Lasithi, but there are also many touristic places that are definitely worth a visit. A good time to drive around and see those touristic places is after the Summer season ends and before the rains starts, or in Spring before the hot Summer starts. Then you can be almost alone in places that are normally (over)crowded. Crete is wonderful to visit any time of the year, but Spring and Autumn are the perfect times for driving around and for hiking. As there is already loads of information about some of the places below (the touristic Vai, Moni Toplou and Sitia) available on the internet, I won’t go to deep into them here, but I do want to show them as they are an important part of Lasithi, and absolutely worth seeing.
Sitia is the easternmost city on Crete with about 10 000 residents on the west side of a bay. The city has its own airport (with a very new terminal) and port so is easy to reach from the mainland or other islands. The old town is nice to walk around in with its traditional houses and the city has it’s own (long) beach, lovely promenade and many nice shops and restaurants.
What to see in Sitia?
- Kazarma (Casa di Arma) fortress, built by the Venetians in the 13th century on top of the hill, with a beautiful view of the town.
- Petra, a Minoan settlement, the site of ancient Itia or Itidas. Of course I hád to visit that, but it was closed. Passing policemen told us that they never see it open, but it is in the season from what I’ve heard and read (TUE-SUN: 08:30-15:00). I was there in November, so that doesn’t say much about opening hours in season. The view from up there towards the town is beautiful, and worth driving the few hundred meters up to see.
- The Venetian villa at Etia, a classic example of Venetian architecture.
- Tripitos, Hellenistic Sitia, 3kms east of Sitia.
- The archeological museum.
- The Monastery of Panagia Faneromeni.
Toplou Monastery is 10km east of Sitia and one of the most historic monasteries of Crete. It is also known as the Monastery of Panagia Akrotiriani (Virgin Mary of the Cape). The monastery owns most of the lands on this eastern tip of the island, all the way to (and including) Vai.
Built like a fortress, it has a 10m high wall, three floors with 40 rooms, a 33m high bell tower and a well. Built mid 15th century with a long, eventful history. The monastery is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St John (the theologian) and has famous 18th century icons. It’s on every ‘what-to-see list’, so it is visited by busloads of tourists. But outside the season it’s much more quiet. We followed a group of Greek tourists in and got to walk around in relative quietness. The monastery also makes organic olive oil and wine, and the winery can be visited (just across the road from the monastery).
Vai Palm Forest and Beach
Vai is the most famous beach in eastern Crete. It is the largest palm grove in Europe with some 5000 trees, the Cretan Date Palm (Phoenix theophrasti). Together with the golden sandy beach and the clear blue-turquoise waters gives the place a Caribbean feel and look, making it a major tourist-attraction. It has payed parking, umbrellas and sunbeds and a canteen, and if you want a nice spot on the beach you have to come very early. There is also a little, less crowded beach at the other side of the hill behind the viewpoint. It is so beautiful that it is a must to visit, but if you want to really enjoy it go outside of the Summer season. Later in the year there is almost no one and you can still swim. To see the beach like you see in the pictures, empty and idyllic, go between end October and March.
The longest beach in the area (> 1.5km long), lying between two capes, is Kouremenos beach. It is somewhat organized with a few umbrellas, showers and tavernas/bars. The beach has brownish sand, shallow turquoise waters and tamarisk trees.
Kouremenos is famous all over Europe for windsurfing and kite-surfing as the wind here is always strong, with an average of 6 Beaufort in Summer, making it the most wind-certain spot in Europe. It is thé place to go if you are into windsurfing or kite-surfing, and there are some surf-schools, you can rent gear, and it is suitable to both beginners (close to the coast) and experts.
Palekastro is the biggest village of Sitia, with about 1100 permanent residents. Already in Minoan times it was a trade center and the Venetians had a fortress here (on a hill named Kastri, giving the name to the village). Nowadays it is the center of the area, where tourists gather. But no mass tourism here, so it’s still a nice village to visit or to stay. Many nice beaches around!
Zakros or Epano (Ano) Zakros lies in a fertile valley between hills. It is the commercial and administrative center of the area. The area is famous for the springs, making the land very fertile and green and there are many orange and olive groves. Zakros is a relatively large (about 1000 residents), picturesque, traditional village.
It consists of Epano and Kato Zakros. Between the two lies the Valley of the Dead, a gorge full of oleanders and plane trees, with caves that were once used as a burial site by the Minoans (hence the name “Valley of the Dead”). The famous E-4 path ends in Kato Zakros, passing Zakros and going through the gorge to the coast. At the upper part of the village are the big and renowned Springs of Zakros and in the village you can see some restored water mills. The springs are worth a visit. Having a coffee on the central square is also recommended to see Cretan life pass by.
Drive down to Kato Zakros for a visit to the Minoan palace, walking in the gorge, or for a swim and a bite to eat. More on Kato Zakros can be found here: Kato Zakros
After visiting Kato Zakros, there are two possibilities:
– If you still have time, take the road to Xerokambos . From there you can drive the serpentine bends up to Ziros and Handras to the coast at Makrigialos. (tip: buy some local wine at low cost from the supermarket or kafenion in Handras, Ziros or Armeni!)
– Drive back through Zakros and take the small road on the left at Adravasti to Karydi. This road is amazingly beautiful, driving through the mountains with a middle-of-nowhere feeling. The road goes to Handras, and from there down to the coast. One of my favorites roads!