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Home / Where to go / Day Trips / East Crete / Kritsa - Ayios Nikolaos - Spinaloga
Kritsa - Ayios Nikolaos - Spinaloga

For a relaxing daytrip with interesting places to see: the little 3-aisled church of Panayia Kera and its beautiful wall paintings, the charming village of Kritsa and its embroidery, the cosmopolitan harbour town of Ayios Nikolaos and the former leper colony on the islet of Spinalonga.

Church of Panayia Kera (Holy Mary the Lady)

Just before Kritsa, on a side track to your right, signposted Panayia Kera, lies this pretty little 3-aisled church that holds Crete's best preserved Byzantine frescoes. Surrounded by tall slender cypresses, the six hundred year old building looks rather plain on the outside. Its interior however is stunningly covered from top to bottom in Byzantine frescoes, painted in the thirteenth and fourteenth century. A colourful picture-bible is on display, depicting beautiful, detailed bible themes.

The dome and the nave, dedicated to Panayia and built in the thirteenth century, hold the oldest frescoes. They represent the Presentation, the Baptism, the Raising of Lazarus and the Entry into Jerusalem. Exactly according to the Byzantine school, its characters are stereotyped, stern-looking with expressionless faces, painted in dark colours.

Pay particular attention to the vault, where the frescoes are best preserved, and its impressive Nativity, with an exhausted looking Mother Mary. On the north-west pillar, unrelated to the complete picture, a depiction of Frances of Assisi; his presence is explained by the Venetian presence of that time.

The right aisle, as the left dating from the fourteenth century, is dedicated to Saint Anne, mother of Mary and recounts the Life of the Virgin. Influenced by the Cretan school, it carries style characters of the Italian Renaissance. The frescoes are light and fresh, with less austere-looking faces that actually show emotion, passion and drama.

The left aisle, painted by another artist, is dedicated to Saint Anthony. It presents the Second Coming, Paradise and Judgement Day. It has good colour combination, but shows little care for expressions. On the whole, it gives a darker impression. On the west wall, placed in a corner next to the Punishment of the Damned, look out for a depiction of the church's sponsor, Yeoryios Mazizanis with his wife and child.

TIP
Next to the church is a pleasant place for a little coffee break before you head for Kritsa.

Kritsa

One of the oldest and most charming villages in the area is Kritsa. Mostly known for its embroidery, it has its own charm beyond its tourist face. Explore the alleys in the old village, admire the little churches and watch women do needlework, sitting outside their homes. Have a coffee-break or stroll around and make a stop at bakery "Vardas" to buy some of its famous barley rusks to take home. (Ask for "dákko"). They remain edible for months!

After Kritsa, follow signs back to Ayios Nikolaos, where your best option for finding a parking space is at the marina.

Alternative route: From Kritsa you can continue your way to the plateau of Katharo, 16km west of Kritsa and at an altitude of 1150m. Smaller than Lassithi, it covers a surface area of 15,000acres and is crop-cultivated and covered with vineyards and orchards, home to flocks of thousands of sheep and goats.

Lato
This archeological site that dates from Dorian period Crete provides a beautiful panoramic view of the area and partially of Ayios Nikolaos.

Ayios Nikolaos

Holding a fantastic position on a promontory, with a panoramic view of the Mirabello Gulf and its dramatic sheer rocky coast, Ayios Nikolaos is a vibrant, cosmopolitan harbour town. It has everything necessary for a feel-good holiday: attractive shops, a pedestrian zone, good restaurants and eateries and a lively nightlife where you don’t feel out of place once you’re over 30.

Short History
Around 300 BC, during the Hellenistic years, Ayios Nikolaos – then known as Lato-pros-Kamara – emerged as a small port for the Dorian inland city-state Lato. Over the years it gained little importance. In the eighth or ninth century the small Byzantine church of Ayios Nikolaos was built a little north of the town, after which the village took its name.

Castel Mirabello rose on the Kephali hill south of the harbour during the Venetian years, which later was used as a supply base for the fortress on Spinalonga, the little islet in the Gulf of Elounda. When the Ottomans came, the Venetians destroyed their own castle, leaving nothing to remind us of their presence but the name Mirabello, which means "pretty view".

Ayios Nikolaos became more important and larger in the nineteenth century, mainly due to the growing carob pod trade from Kritsa and the settling of families from Sfakia in south-west Crete, allegedly to escape the then widespread vendettas (blood feuds) in their region. Since 1905 it has been capital of the prefecture of Lassithi, having taken over from Neapoli.

A Stroll around Town
Have a stroll along the harbour and a drink on one of the many terraces. Admire the beautiful windows of the jewellery shops. Have lunch at Migomis, high over the lake with a pretty view over the town. As Ayios Nikolaos has had an actual town plan for years, everything looks more ordered, with hardly any unfinished buildings scattered around. Visit the Archeological Museum with its rich finds from central and east Crete and the small folklore museum, based on the ground floor of the port police office. Go for a swim at one of the beaches stretching out north or south of town.

Lake Voulismeni – "Still waters run deep"
Prey to fantastic stories, many a man in Ayios Nikolaos believes the lake to be bottomless. Allegedly, sea researcher Jacques Cousteau dived the lake and could not find the bottom; In World War II German soldiers are said to have thrown tanks and cannons into the lake that were never found; A truck that accidentally ran into the lake years ago just disappeared; In 1956, after Santorini’s last volcanic eruption, dead deep-sea fish turned up in the lake out of nowhere. This strengthened the fantastic theory that the lake should be connected underground with the sea, or even with Santorini itself.

Never a dull moment with these Cretans! The English Captain Spratt is said to have had it measured in the nineteenth century and found it to be exactly 64m deep. He’s probably right!

The lake’s various names include Xepatomeni (the bottomless), Voulismeni (the sunken) and Vromolimni (smelly lake). This last name holds a nucleus of truth, as until 1867 it used to be stagnant and gave off a stinky smell, especially in summer. This stopped when a canal was built that linked it with the sea.

Archeological Museum
At the town's hill top, near the hospital, lies this excellent museum with its neat front garden full off deliciously smelling, inedible nerantzia trees (wild oranges). Smaller than its brother in Iraklio, the archeological museum of Ayios Nikolaos is easier to survey. With its items displayed in chronological order, it holds extremely rich finds from eastern Crete and Malia. Starting with the Neolithic period, it takes you past Minoan, Geometric and Classical / Hellenistic times into the Roman period.

Look out for the Athlete's Skull; found in a Roman first century tomb at Potamos of Ayios Nikolaos, the skull has a wreath of gold olive leaves around it. At the man’s feet a bronze oil container and strigil were found, both used by athletes to tone and clean their skin, which suggests he was a victor in one of the athletic games. The silver coin found in his mouth was put there to pay Ferryman Haron, who carried the dead over Lake Aheron to the underworld.

The Goddess of Myrtos is an extra ordinary piece of art dating from around 2500 BC; it shows an unusual bell-shaped figure holding a jug in her arms. It may have been used for a kind of fertility ritual.

To reach Elounda from Ayios Nikolaos, you can take the coastal road that leads beside the many hotels and resorts: follow the seafront road from the port for about 10 to 15min and then the signposts for Elounda.

Elounda
On your way to the bay of Elounda you can enjoy the most beautiful view of the peninsula Kolokitha, a great place for bird-watching, with on its tail Spinalonga, the little islet known as the base of the former leper colony. Elounda itself with its luxurious hotel resorts has become over the years a national hideaway for Greek celebrities to spend some relaxing days. The village has not much more to offer than a string of hotels and tourist taverns, but it is a convenient starting point for a boat trip to the islet Spinalonga.

Spinalonga

A strategic stronghold in Venetian times, the fortress was built in 1579 to defend any approach to the Gulf of Mirabello. It appears to have been impregnable: the fortress was handed over to the Ottomans only by treaty in 1715, some fifty years after the rest of the island was subdued.

A growing number of Ottomans settled in the former Venetian fortress, expanding to the amount of some 200 families in the 1880s. When the Greek government decided to turn the islet into a colony for all lepers of Crete, the last Ottomans left. The lepers were expected to spend the rest of their lives on this forsaken islet, under almost inhuman conditions. They made the best of renovating the Venetian-Turkish houses, even grew a vegetable garden and kept some livestock. Life was harsh throughout the 1930s, with medical care restricted to morphine and the amputation of the parts affected, operations that many did not survive. Towards the end of the 1930s a disinfection ward was established, so that family could visit. A hospital followed and in the 1940s the disease was treated with sulfamid to heal. Electricity was introduced in 1949 and an effective medicine to treat leprosy came about in 1953. The last lepers returned to their communities in 1957 and the colony was closed.

Over the years the lepers had formed a little community of their own. They even got married and had healthy babies which, however, were taken away from them and put in an orphanage, in fear of infection. In this context, doctor Grammatikakis has to be mentioned in particular: he took care of the lepers for twenty five years, from 1924 to 1949, without becoming infected himself. (Departures for Spinalonga: from Ayios Nikolaos every hour, 15euro/30min; from Elounda every half an hour, 10euro/15min; from Plaka every half an hour, 7euro/5min).