On the east coast of Crete: Vai and Zakros.
The famous palm beach of Vai Finikodasos and Zakros with its Minoan palace and the walk through the Dead’s and the Moni Toplou monastery.
The beach at Vai – the Vai Finikodaos – famous for its palm trees, contrasts with the surrounding area and rest of Toplou.
The beach at Vai
The sudden appearance of Europe’s only wild-palm forest is indeed an outstanding sight. The palm trees are the local species Phoenix theophrasti (Cretan date palm) and have been native to Crete for thousands of years. Their fruits are inedible, as is the case with all the palm trees in the northernmost region of the Mediterranean.
Probably there were more of them at the time of the Minoans, as they are depicted on many ceramics.
Nevertheless, the legends were concerned about the origin of this unusual place. Supposedly, Phoenician traders or the Saracens in the year 824 have eaten dates here and from the remaining cores the first palm trees should be grown.
The islands in front of this dream beach were already used as hiding places by pirates and the legends reported that the notorious Chaireddin Barbarossa buried a treasure here after plundering almost all the islands in the Aegean in 1537 and 1538.
Also, for ages, farmers have been using the upper valley of the stream for the planting of well-developed vines.
And when the ‘flower children’ were expelled from the caves of Matala, they settled under the palm trees of Vai until the location was placed under the protection of nature.
The picture with the fine, white sand beach together with the palm trees makes the visitor the impression to be on a Caribbean island, especially in the spring and late summer. In fact, a film about ‘Bounty’ advertising was shot here in a tropical paradise.
The palm trees grow along a stream that runs through the valley along with the access road.
Today, the beach is overcrowded during the main season. Numerous excursion buses with tourists from Sitia and the whole island meet daily in the large parking lot. Nevertheless, the parking lot is quickly overcrowded, so also vehicles are parking left and right of the access road.
In the area of the car park the place is touristy strongly marketed by kiosks, souvenir shops and tavernas.
On the beach itself one can often walk only along the promenade, because on the sand body lies next to body. There are not really cheap sun loungers to hire and various water sports activities are offered, such as water skiing, ringos and high-speed rides.
Also, there is a café and an expensive tavern. For the use of the showers or toilets must also be paid extra.
Behind the tavern one can climb the steps to a rock, from where one has a magnificent overview. Further to the south you can also reach a less shady bay – or with more effort climb to the next bay over the rocks at the northern end of the beach at Vai.
At the end of the day you can also enjoy Vai during the season as it should be in this environment. Or you can visit at the beginning or at the end of the season.
The pictures here from the beach at Vai were taken all at the beginning of the season (first days in May) or from January, where there are often two wonderful weeks on Crete (the so-called ‘mid-winter summer’).
Vai beach in winter
Video about the beach at Vai
Link to map with directions:
Link to map with directions:
Click here: Directions Vai beach !
Tip: Itanos beach
On the other hand, Itanos – about a mile north of Vai – has three smaller beaches, which are not so crowded. Although the sand and the ambiance is not as impressive as at the beach at Vai, however you can enjoy there a beach holiday much more during the season.
Not far from there, scattered over the hill above the beach, is a freely accessible historical settlement that has been inhabited since Minoan times. Ancient Itanos, however, reached its peak of prosperity later, when it competed with Hierapytna – today’s Ierapetra – for control of eastern Crete during the classical Greek and Roman eras.
A twenty-year conflict between the two cities ended in the arbitration of Magnesia in 132 BC, part of the records of which, carved in stone, still survive in the monastery of Toplou.
The settlement remained prosperous until its destruction – probably by Saracen pirates – in the second Byzantine era in the Middle Ages. Any number of chaotic ruins, strewn with fragments, have survived the time below the twin acropolis, but there is little whose forms can still be assigned. There are also the remains of two early basilicas and the beautifully cut lower layers of the city wall from the Hellenistic period on the western hill.
Palace of Zakros and Dead’s Gorge
In the area of Pano and Kato Zakros (‘upper’ and ‘lower’ Zakros), there were in the Protopalatial from 1900-1700 BC. a wide, large settlement, which is characterized by the tombs, which were found on the surrounding heights.
Spratt was the first archaeologist who visited the area and mentioned Zakros in 1872. In 1901 the English archaeologist Hogarth dug on the side of the hill east of the location of the palace and discovered a settlement with buildings.
In 1961, finally, Professor N Platon began excavations on the eastern side of Agios Antonios and discovered two building complexes. Then he began a new excavation at the western end of the small valley of Kato Zakros, which ultimately led to the discovery of the palace of Zakros. The excavations are still running.
Palace of Zakros
The palace had an area of about 8,000 square meters and its facilities are arranged more or less the same as in the other palaces found so far.
The west wing was dedicated to religious ceremonies. The royal apartments were in the East, the workshops in the south and the premises for the staff in the north.
The wings were built around a 30 x 12 meters large, rectangular courtyard and had a majestic sight, with carved porous stones and large doors, monolithic thresholds, double-glazed windows and a small gallery with columns and windows.
The west wing had two floors. A hall led into the waiting room and to the sacred places, to the archives, pleasure pools and in the main rooms, where religious ceremonies were conducted. There were two staterooms, a large with an inner colonnade (portico), door pillars, courtyards, frescoes walls and a floor made of red mortar. The other room had three doors and was decorated inside with spiral pattern.
There are many side rooms in the north wing and a large kitchen, the ceiling of which was supported by two rows of three wooden pillars. There are many cooking devices were found.
The royal apartments were in the East Wing. The Megaron of the king had a light shaft, a door pillar, inside a gallery and a double door to the other neighboring rooms. The Megaron of the Queen was right next to it, but was smaller. In the same wing there is a large, square hall with a door pillar, and in the middle of it a large pool with a fancy border, columns and eight stages. The floor was paved with stones. The adjacent rooms on the ground floor contained a probably sacred spring. The entire palace had a complete and complex water drainage system.
Under the palace other premises were found in various sizes, for which has been confirmed in the meantime that they come from a building under the eastern part of the palace dating back to the Protopalatial period. This building was overbuilt by the palace of Zakros at about 1600 BC. The palace was still at its discovery in the state, which must be shortly after the surprising destruction around 1450 BC. It was presented and was not sacked. This results in numerous, well-preserved finds of ceremonial equipment, clay tablets with Linear A and B were discovered, such as amphorae, utensils made of clay, bronze kettle, swords, stone bowls and other equipment, conical rhytons, a range of cups, and more.
The urban area north of the palace is only partially exposed, and you can commit outside the fence, of which one has a beautiful view of the excavation site.
A little further behind the palace to reach the Dead’s Gorge, which leads to Epano Zakros. The valley is good to hike in summer and autumn, and the name comes about, because the Minoans had buried their dead in the numerous caves inside the rock walls. The walk takes about 2 to 2.5 hours.
At the pebble beach you can swim wonderfully and directly behind it are some taverns. In this remote area, visited by only a few tourists, there are also some hotels.
Hotels at Zakros
Overview of available hotels at Kato Zakros and Zakros at the best price!
Video about Kato Zakros and Dead’s Gorge
Video of the entrance to the bay (overlooking the Dead’s Gorge), the beach of Kato Zakros, the entrance to and from as well as inside the Dead’s Gorge.
Directions to Zakros
Link to map with directions:
Click here: Directions Zakros.
Monastery of Moni Toplou
Already barely 15 kilometres east of Sitia (and thus even before Fai Finikodasos, the village of Palekastro and, of course, Kato Zakros), a turnoff leads to the Moni Toplou monastery, 3.5 kilometres away.
Defiantly, the monastery, whose real name is Moni Panagia Akrotirani (‘Monastery of Our Lady of the Cape’), stands in the middle of a landscape that is deserted except for a series of wind turbines along the ridge behind it that provide electricity.
The monastery looks much more like a fortress and must have been built in the mid-15th century. The monastery’s epithet ‘Toplou’ is no accident, for in Turkish it means ‘with a cannon’. This was a reference by the Turks to a huge weapon with which the monks defended themselves and preserved the tradition of Cretan monasteries to defend themselves against invaders. There were always one or more loaded cannons on the 10-metre-high walls.
Legend has it that you can see all the way to Rhodes from the monastery’s bell tower, but in any case you could see any approaching dangers early enough from the high monastery.
Highlights of the monastery’s history include being sacked by pirates and destroyed in 1498, then sacked again by the Knights of Malta in 1530, an earthquake in 1612 again causing severe damage, falling under Turkish suzerainty in 1646, then being conquered by the Turks during the Greek Revolution of 1821 when twelve monks were hung from the gate as a deterrent, and its function as a refuge for partisans during the Second World War. Even a simple radio station was built in the monastery during this, which is now on display in the museum next to the monastery’s church.
The monastery is also immensely rich, claiming most of the north-eastern corner of the island as its own. This is undoubtedly why the order could afford the extensive restoration work that makes the place so immaculate.
Stairs lead up from the cloister-like courtyard to the arcaded corridors in front of which the cells are located. The monks, dressed in blue, keep out of the way of visitors as much as possible, and in quiet hours you can also visit their cells and the refectory with its spectacular modern frescoes.
Inside the church is one of the masterpieces of Cretan art, the eighteenth-century icon ‘Lord, you are great’ by Joannis Kornaros. This wonderfully intricate work comprises 61 small scenes full of detail, each illustrating and inscribed with a part from the Orthodox prayer which begins with this phrase.
Next to the church portal is the ancient inscription already mentioned, which includes parts of the treaty between the Eastern Cretan cities of Hierapytna and Itanos.
At that time, the Romans ruled Crete, yet these deadly rivals were constantly clashing. When Rome had had enough and found itself unable to placate the two squabblers, it called in the Magnesians as honest mediators. The inscription records part of their verdict, which was in favour of Itanos, and was placed in the monastery wall at the suggestion of the English traveller and antiquary Robert Pashley, who found the inscription tablet in 1834, which had previously been used as a tombstone.
Next to Moni Arkadi near Rethymno, Moni Toplou is the most visited monastery in Crete.