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Home / Where to go / Day Trips / East Crete / Sitia - Moni Toplou - Vai
Sitia - Moni Toplou - Vai

This day trip leads you straight into the tranquility of eastern Crete with the attractive coastal town Sitia, the proud monastery of Toplou and the beach of Vai with its unique palm forest.

Sitia

The road to Sitia is a long and sometimes winding one, with scenic views of the Aegean Sea and Cretan landscape. You really get a feeling of driving away from the bustle of the tourist resorts, straight into the serenity of eastern Crete. Set around a beautiful bay, where the locals still outnumber the tourists, Sitia is an attractive coastal town that will pleasantly surprise you with its laid-back, friendly ambience. The wide palm promenade, followed by a sandy town beach is lined with inviting cafes and eateries; a perfect place to chill out. Hometown to Crete’s renowned sixteenth century poet Vitsenzo Kornarou, Sitia is well known for its local confectionery specialities and its excellent wines from the grapes growing in the surrounding hills, not to mention its international award winning olive oil.

A Short History
Excavations in Petras, a southern suburb, reveal that Sitia must have had Minoan settlements that may be linked to "se-to-i-ja", as inscriptions on locally found Linear A tablets suggest. Apart from this, a Hellenistic settlement named Etia is evident at the recently discovered site of Tripitos, in the eastern outskirts of the town, which is still under excavation.

Evidence of Roman presence, other than the fish tanks west of the harbour and some tombs is minimal. In Venetian times however, in an attempt to exploit eastern Crete, "La Sitia" became more developed, complete with a fortress, the Kazarma, on the hill top. Earthquakes and piracy during the seventeenth century, notably the raids of Barbarossa, put an end to this, destroying most of the Venetian buildings. Sitia remained an unimportant ghost town until well into the nineteenth century, when the Ottomans resettled and expanded it. However, this didn’t last very long as in 1898 Crete became autonomous. During World War II it was occupied by the Italians.

The Kazarma (casa di arma), the restored Venetian fortress is used nowadays as an open-air theatre, notably for the Kornaria, a festival that runs from mid-July to the end of August, with concerts, Cretan dancing and theatre productions (Daily from 9am – sunset; Free entrance).

The Archeological museum, with a well displayed collection of finds from Eastern Crete, dating from Neolithic to Roman times. Upon entering the museum, look out for the small ivory sculpture Palekastro Kouros, a male figure. Made of eight interlocking pieces and adorned with gold, it dates from around 1500 BC. Important finds are the Linear A clay tablets. Some show evidence of being burnt by a fire, which has actually preserved them, for unbaked clay would have crumbled to dust. (Archeological Museum, 400m south of the centre on the way to Ierapetra; Open daily 8.30am – 7pm; Adm.2euro).

The folklore museum displays a collection of local textiles and antique furniture. (Folklore Museum, Kap.Sifi 28, near OTE; Open Tue-Sun 9.30am – 2.30pm; Tue and Thu also 5 – 8pm; Mon closed; Adm.2euro)

The agricultural cooperative Sitia Wine Factory is situated on the road into town from Ayios Nikolaos.You can sample wine and get an idea of the wine culture and agricultural products from the region. Buy some wine and olive oil at competitive prices. (Sitia Wine Factory, Missonos 74, Open Apr-Sep, Mon-Fri 8am – 1.30pm; free entrance).

Vitsenzos Kornaros
Born in Sitia in the late sixteenth century, he wrote the epic poem of courtly love Erotokritos that relates in more than 10,000 verses the forbidden love of princess Aretoussa and a young man named Erotokritos. Even today it is held in high esteem by the Cretans; the verses are often referred to as mandinadhes, Cretan rhyming 15 syllable couplets concerning love, death or fate.

Moni Toplou

Leaving Sitia, you follow the coastal road east to Moni Toplou, which is well signposted. Approaching Moni Toplou over a side road, which is also the short way to Vai, your first impression is one of a fortress, rather than a monastery. It stands there, imposing and defiant in this desolate windy landscape; no wonder, with the turbulent times it withstood over the centuries. Repeatedly plundered, even captured and destroyed by an earthquake, it is one of Crete’s historically most important and well-managed monasteries. It is said to be extremely wealthy, owning most of the surrounding land, even as far as Vai.

Originally named Moni Akrotiriani (monastery on the cape) in the fifteenth century when it was founded, the monastery got its name Toplou (top is Turkish for "cannon") after artillery was installed to protect itself from piracy and Turks: cannons, massive gates, a constant guard on the bell tower, even holes above the main gate, through which boiling oil was poured on attackers' heads.

A religious centre, it operated a secret school during Turkish rule and has always been active in the Cretan cause of Independence. During the rebellion of 1821, Turks captured the monastery and hanged twelve monks at the gate for collaborating with the rebels. Again, during World War II, when Toplou sheltered Cretan and British fighters, several monks and the abbot were executed, after the Germans discovered an underground radio transmitter.

For all these cruelties and the grim looking exterior of the monastery, its interior is charming and pretty, with a cobbled courtyard, flower displays and a neat stairway leading up to the arcaded walkways, off which are the monks’ cells.

In the church, at the iconostasis, one of the masterpieces of Cretan art, the icon "Lord Thou art Great", by Ioanni Kornarou can be admired. Sixty one miniature biblical scenes, full of detail and beautifully worked are displayed, like a labyrinth, composing one impressive complete picture. Each scene is inspired by a phrase from the orthodox prayer that begins "Lord, Thou art Great" (Meghas ’si Kirie). A small museum gives a survey of the monastery’s history and its role in the Cretan Independence War and World War II. It exhibits some interesting icons, religious engravings as well as books.

Three monks and abbot Philotheos are living in the monastery today. Abbot Philotheos, a very dynamic personality with a sense of business, has promoted for years now the cultivation of his monastery’s landholdings by organic farming. The monastery offers a relatively small production of excellent wines from organically grown grapes (mainly Liatiko), along with high quality extra-virgin olive oil and thyme honey. Stock up for home if you’re a fan.

Try some local delicacies in the traditional café right outside the museum. In this genuine Cretan atmosphere, home-made yoghurt with local honey or mezedhes with chilled raki are not to be missed!

Palm Beach Vai

Continuing along the scenic road from Moni Toplou, the beach at Vai with its unique palm forest is an exotic contrast to the spiritual Moni Toplou. Prevalent in ancient times in the south Aegean, the Cretan date palm Phoenix Theophrasti is nowadays only found to this extent here in Vai and in Preveli, on the south coast in west Crete. Another grove can be seen at the beach of Stalis.

Popular belief claims Roman legionnaires on their way back from Egypt spread the date pits that made the palms sprout, while others say they were Arab sailors. Whatever the stories, recent scientific research reveals that the Phoenix Theophrasti is endemic to Crete and was not introduced by pit-spitting Romans or Arabs. It takes its nutrients from salty water and carries date-like fruits that are quite inedible. The area that covers some 20hectares in a valley stretching down to the beach has been put for some years now under Nature Reserve Care.

TIP
During peak season the beach is packed with people, so for a more authentic feeling try to get here early in the morning or late in the afternoon, when the crowds diminish. To avoid the masses head for the little sandy cove near the ancient town of Itanos, some 500metres north of Vai.