Sitia - Ierapetra
Near Sitia lies the village of Piskokefalo, where, as in the nearby village of Zou, archaeologists have discovered finds from the Minoan period. The most striking of these in the area is the mansion of Zou, whose residents are said to have ruled over the entire, prosperous, region.
Just to the south, the archaeological site of Praisos represented one of the most important cities of the Eteocretans, the successors of the Minoan civilization who fled the area in fear of their lives when the Dorians attacked.
Praisos was built on three hills that Italian archaeologist Frederico Halbherr identified as acropolises. What is most interesting about the finds from excavations in the area are the so-called Eteocretan epigraphs, three inscriptions on stone slabs (on display at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion) written in the Greek alphabet but which have never been deciphered.
Some researchers suspect that these inscriptions are in the language of the Minoans, transcribed into the Greek alphabet. Praisos experienced advanced development, but also came into violent conflict with the neighboring Dorian cities of Ieraptyna and Itanos, over who would control the Temple of Diktaios Zeus in Paleokastro, as well as the island of Lefki (today’s Koufonissi). The struggle ended in 155 BC, when Ieraptyna seized and destroyed Praisos.
Ziros plateau, though located off the beaten track, affords an impressive landscape that is well worth visiting.
Near the village of Handras are the ruins of Voilas, a deserted mediaeval village in the centre of which there is still a castle. The village is identified with the family of Zenon, which had Venetian roots, but which later converted to Islam. The notorious janissary Tzinali hailed from this family and it is said in local lore that the castle used to belong to him.
Another significant monument of Crete’s Venetian past is located in Etia, near the village of Armeni. This where the de Mezzi, a prominent Venetian family of Sitia, had their mansion, complete with an impressive cantonment and luxurious halls.
Moving east from Ziros and its lovely little traditional villages, travelers will come to Xirokambos, a small township that boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in eastern Crete. Excavations are taking place nearby on a site believed to have some connection with the Hellenistic city of Ambelos.
Alternatively, from Ziros head for Goudouras, a lovely beach on the Kala Nera (Good Waters) cape.
The Kapsa Monastery, just nearby, offers stunning sea views.
The main road from Sitia to Ierapetra leads to the Makrigialos Cape, an area that has beautiful beaches on the Libyan Sea.
At the western end of the village of Makrigialos, archaeologists have uncovered the remains of an impressive villa dating back to the Late Geometric period. What is most interesting about this villa is that it has certain characteristics similar to the Minoan palaces, such as a central court positioned in the same manner and of an equal size, two colonnades, an altar and large magazines.
The Romans also valued Makrigialos’ strategic position very highly, which explains why the remains of a Roman villa have also been uncovered here. A small boat leaves Makrigialos to nearby Koufonissi. The small island used to be ancient Lefki, a very important place in antiquity as it was one of the main centers for the production of rhodopsin, a purple coloring agent favored in Roman palaces. Rhodopsin is extracted from a specific type of mollusk and it takes tens of thousands of shells just to produce one kilo of dye. Excavations carried out on Koufonissi have unearthed the southernmost ancient theatre in all of Europe, as well as other buildings, among which the most striking was a large temple, which unfortunately, was quarried for stone to build a lighthouse in 1920.
Lefki was, along with the Temple of Diktaios Zeus in Paleokastro, the most prominent and important of eastern Crete’s cities: Ierapytna, Praisos and Itanos. But visitors should try not to limit themselves to visiting the coastal sites; there are several interesting villages further inland (such as Schinokapsala), perched on the slopes of Thrypti from which you can enjoy the cool mountain air of Crete with a view of the warm Libyan Sea.
At the village of Oreino, there is an interesting church worth visiting. Agios Dimitrios contains 12th century murals and it is also where the mouth of a gorge leading to Koutsoura is located. Even further north, near the village of Kato Krya, you will find the remains of the Monte Forte castle.
The impressive beaches on the island are actually composed of millions of tiny shells, and Chrissi, like Lefki, was a major producer of rhodopsin. There is some shade to be enjoyed under the small cedars, but it should be remembered that the island is mostly arid.
Back at Ierapetra, the coastal highway to the west leads to a lovely little village called Myrtos, which has splendid beaches, several places to find accommodation and many tavernas.
During the German occupation, Myrtos paid a heavy toll as the occupying forces executed many of its inhabitants and razed the village to the ground.
There are two archaeological sites with finds from the Minoan period nearby that are open to the public. The first is widely known by the name Myrtou Pyrgos, or the Castle of Myrtos, since a watchtower was built here during the 17th century.
Excavations have brought to light a pre-Minoan settlement that was destroyed and subsequently rebuilt, while there is also evidence to suggest that an impressive villa was built here in the New Palace period.
The second Minoan settlement is located on a hill, named Fournou Koryfi, with a lovely sea view. At this site, archaeologists discovered an extensive Early Minoan settlement that stood out for the fact that it was composed of a plethora of sleeping quarters that suggest a very particular system of collective co-existence.
One room, which evidence suggests served as a shrine (the most ancient residential shrine to be found in Crete), contained an impressive clay statue of the so-called "Goddess of Myrtos", which is currently on display at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
Returning along the road to Ierapetra, make a small detour near Stomio to visit the artificial lake of Bramiana – an interesting wetland that demonstrates how human intervention may occasionally serve the needs of nature.
After that, the road from Ierapetra to Agios Nikolaos crosses the narrowest section of the island. Make a stop just before you reach the northern coast in order to visit the archaeological site of Vasiliki.