Heraklion Prefecture from North to South
This route leads to the fertile valley of Messara, an agricultural centre ever since Minoan times.
If travelers take the road to Agii Deka and Gortys, they can start their tour with a stop at the Paliani Monastery, one of the oldest in Crete, which historical sources refer to as being powerful by the Early Byzantine period.
The faithful who visit the monastery often take away a leaf or twig from the tree, which they treasure or use as a charm or in therapeutic tisanes.
The nearby Church of Agios Ioannis (Saint John) is worth visiting for its 14th century murals.
Ancient Gortys is situated at the entrance to Messara, next to the highway linking Heraklion with Tymbaki, and near the Mitropolianos River (ancient Letaeus).
Gortys is one of the biggest archaeological sites in Greece (covering 988 acres), though three villages (Agii Deka, Mitropoli and Abelouzos) that date back to Byzantine times and the period of Venetian rule are literally built on top of it.
Despite of 120 years’ worth of excavations by the Italian Archaeological School, only a small part of Gortys has been brought to light.
According to myth, Zeus, in the form of a beautiful white bull, copulated with Europa on the banks of the Letaeus under the shade of a plane, which has never lost its leaves since.
From this union, she bore him three sons: Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon, born at the exact same spot under the tree. Later, Minos established Gortys, where the white bull was born that mated with his wife Pasiphae, creating the Minotaur.
This is also where Demeter, goddess of the harvest and fertility, slept with Jason and gave birth to Pluto.
Gortys was first settled in Neolithic times (4000 BC).
The two settlements, located to the north and west of today’s Gortys, continued to thrive during Minoan times and appear to have reached their zenith during the New Palace period, counter-balancing the decline of Phaistos
(read more about Gortys).
The village of Agii Deka (Holy Ten) is important not just for the antiquities of Gortys, but also for its history.
Its name derives from the martyrdom suffered by 10 Christians under the Emperor Decius, who were later made saints.
A north-easterly direction will lead to Gergeri, a picturesque village from which travelers can visit various points of the southern slopes of Mt. Psiloritis.
There is also a road that leads to the beautiful Rouva forest.
Nearby Zaros is a lovely little town, especially for a meal or even an over night stay.
In the vicinity, the Votomos Spring, from which the famed mineral water Zaros comes from, and the Zaros Gorge, where there is a small lake and a picnic area, made for pleasant outings.
It appears to have been established in the Middle Byzantine period, but developed mostly during the Ottoman era.
From the end of the 16th century onwards, the monastery became a spiritual and artistic centre of repute.
The abbot, Laurentius Marinos, was an important scholar with whom the patriarch corresponded.
This is where Michail Damaskinos, a leader of the Cretan Renaissance, created some of his greatest works of art.
Today, his icons are on display at the museum at Agia Aikaterini in Heraklion.
Take a close look at the monastery’s fountain, which has a relief sculpture of Adam, Eve and God while the water spouts out of the mouths of four figures depict the four rivers of Eden.
The nearby Valsamonero Monastery, a spiritual and artistic centre as well, is also worth visiting.
Note the monastery’s church, a 15th century building with a very particular architectural style and impressive Byzantine murals.
There is a path starting from the village that leads to Kamares Cave, though it is a three to four-hour walk.
In Neolithic times, people used to live in the cave and around it, while during Minoan times it was a place of worship.
The Middle Minoan clay vessels found here gave their name to the Kamares style of pottery.
The trek up here may be a long one, but the stunning view of the Messara valley that the 1,524 m altitude affords is more than adequate compensation.
Alternatively, travelers can move west from Agii Deka towards Messara. Mires is an important part of the local agricultural economy of the region as a whole.
Kalyvianis Monastery, one of the most important monastic communities on present-day Crete is on the same location as an older monastery, of which only the church survives.
Further along the route, the half-ruined Church of Agios Georgios (Saint George) in Flandras is the only shred of evidence that remains of an important fortified monastery of Venetian times.
Agia Triada is located some km west of Phaistos.
Even though the area was first investigated as early as 1902, it was only recently that the exact location of a Minoan centre was unearthed.
Indeed, several researchers have begun referring to a palace (instead of a royal villa) over the past few years, since this is where the New Palace capital of Messara was located. According to plaques in Linear B script, it used to be named Pa-l-to (probably Phaistos) or Da-wo.
Agia Triada was first settled in the Early Bronze Age (Pre-Palatial period).
Excavations so far have uncovered a wealthy repository south-west of the sanctuary and two residences east of the path that leads to the riverbed of Geropotamos.
At a distance near the residences, digs have unearthed two impressive vaulted tombs, suggesting a manner of burial that appears almost exclusively in Pre-Palatial Messara.
The palace of Phaistos on the road which leads from Heraklion to Tymbaki in the south of the Heraklion prefecture is located at a small distance from the Libyan Sea, on a spot that overlooks the Messara valley, between the mountains of Ida and Asterousa.
Messara, strategically positioned in central Crete in a lush environment, was settled as far back as 4000 BC and became a Minoan centre during the Pre-Palatial period (approx. 3500 – 2000 BC).
It also stands out for its own very particular character (expressed in archaeological finds such as the pottery ware of Agios Onoufrios and Koumasa, and circular vaulted tombs with unique burial rites).
Phaistos was founded either by Minos or Rhadamanthys, the hero of Messara. Rhadamanthys, son of Zeus and Europa, and brother of Minos, was king of Phaistos, which fell to him by lot when Minos divided the kingdom of Asterius.
According to another version of the story, the kingdom was not divided; instead, Rhadamanthys became its law-giver.
His fine reputation as a lawmaker prompted Minos to send him to promulgate laws in lands where both his sons, and those of Ariadne, served as rulers.
After his death, Rhadamanthys became a judge of the dead in Hades, along with Minos and Aeacus, the grandfather of Achilles.
Phaistos, the son of Hercules, was the eponymous hero of Phaistos.
In another version of the story, Phaistos was the son of Talus, nephew of Minos, and father of Rhadamanthys. The possibility of Phaistos being Rhadamanthys himself cannot be excluded.
Phaistos was first inhabited in the fourth millennium BC. It was a densely built settlement in the post-Neolithic period, with its own distinctive character.
During the New Palace Period, a new and larger settlement was built over its Neolithic predecessor, stretching from the modern-day Italian School to Agios Georgios, Agia Fotini and Halara.
Over the years, the years the region became increasingly prosperous, and its ruling class, which began to take shape, constructed the first palace of Phaistos between 2000-1900 BC. Phaistos, which at its zenith was as prominent as Knossos or Mallia, more or less controlled the entire region of the modern-day prefecture of Heraklion and part of the Rethymnon prefecture.
In approx. 1700 BC a powerful earthquake destroyed Knossos and Phaistos.
Knossos was rebuilt immediately while building activity in Phaistos stopped abruptly after the buildings were daubed with a mixture of crushed pottery and shells, leaving only some projects completed.
It remained a place under construction for an entire century until the palace of Agia Triada was completed (read more about Phaistos).
The village of Vori, featuring numerous examples of traditional architecture in the region, lies within close proximity of Phaistos.
Don’t omit to visit the Museum of Cretan Ethnology, an impeccably organized museum focused on presenting the island’s traditional activities and folk culture.
Tymbaki, a large village, bears all the signs, and suffers all the consequences, of its recent expansion.
Visitors wishing to stay at a seaside spot ought to consider Kokkinos Pyrgos beach, where numerous rooms for rent are available, or heading further south.
A vaulted tomb of the Middle Minoan period has been discovered in Kamilari, not far from Pitsida.
From the latter, excursions to a series of beaches are possible.
The first in line is Kalamaki, which tends to get overcrowded during the summer months.
The beach of Kommos is vast while the region is also renowned for its significant archaeological site. Excavaton work here led to the discovery of a Minoan port that was in use until the Classical era.
Finds were located by the beach and on the nearby hill.
The imposing caves of Matala beach made the spot a major attraction during the hippy era in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The same caves had been used as rock-cut graves during the Later Roman and Early Christian periods.
Archaeological finds here indicate that a developed seaside settlement existed here during the Hellenistic period.
It was destroyed by the Arab incursions of the 9th century AD (read more about ancient Matala).
Pombia, a large village on the slopes of Asterousa, is the homeland of Michail Korakas, a legendary freedom fighter of the 19th century.
The nearby Apezanon Monastery, a major monastery from as far back as the 16th century, was badly damaged by Turkish forces in 1827.
Kali Limenes holds a special place in the island’s history. It is believed that the Apostle Paul arrived here to preach the Christian faith on Crete.
The region and its beach are renowned for their beauty.
The scenery, however, is somewhat spoilt by a nearby refueling station for ships.
Before reaching Kali Limenes, it is worth visiting Odigitras Monastery, an old monastery with significant history, which features a distinctive tower, nowadays known as Pyrgos tou Xopatera.
It was named after a legendary monk-turned-revolutionary who was eventually killed in 1828 while fighting against the Turks.
Agiofarangos, placed between Kali Limenes and the Odigitrias Monastery, has an impressive beach accessible only from the sea or on foot.
It is worth visiting the region’s hermitages, such as the sensational Goumenospilio and the Agios Antonios (Saint Anthony) church on the beach.
There are both plenty of good beaches in close proximity, and an important archaeological site.
This was the location of ancient Lebena, a port of Gortys, as well as a significant Hellenistic and Roman-era Temple of Asclepius, where health and culture were promoted in harmony.
Trypiti beach lies east of Lentas.
The route leading there will surely impress.
It requires going through a narrow passage between boulders, just wide enough to fit a car.
An Early Minoan settlement has been discovered along the hill east of the attractive beach.
excerpt from Explorer Guide Crete