We depart from London on our direct flight to Heraklion in Crete (departures and connections from regional airports are available on request). On arrival we will proceed by coach to our comfortable hotel, the 3-star Hotel Atrion, conveniently located in the centre of Heraklion, a few yards from the promenade. All rooms have private bathrooms, air-conditioning and a balcony. Dinner is served in the hotel this evening.
Today we will travel back 4000 years to the times of the oldest civilization in Europe. The Palace of Knossos, centre of the Minoan Civilization, will leave us breathless as we wonder over the technology and facilities of that period. After this fascinating visit, we will continue to the vineyards area of Peza and Archanes. Driving through this famous wine-county south of Heraklion we will pass vineyards, which have been there since the Minoan Period. We will visit a modern agriculture co-operation, with a permanent exhibition of equipment used in the former times to produce wine and olive oil. We will watch a short video that will introduce us into the three main “treasures” of Crete - Wine, Olive Oil and Raki – followed by a wine-tasting.
On the way to Archanes we will have a photo stop at Vathypetro, one of the oldest farmhouses of Crete belonging to the Minoan Period (16th Century BC) with a ceramic wine press. Archanes is a market town nestled in the broad upland east of Mound Juchtas, where the God Zeus has been immortalized in the profile we see etched against the clear blue Cretan skies. In 2000 the village was rewarded by the EU for the fantastic renovations in old style. We will stop in this beautiful village with many restored sandstone houses from the Turkish period and an inviting square with high shady trees. On the way back we will stop at the Natural History Museum of the University of Crete. Within its hall we have the opportunity to encounter the ecologically and culturally complex environment of Eastern Mediterranean. In the botanical garden one can see characteristic plants of Crete e.g. endemic, aromatic shrubs and coastal plants.
We will enjoy some sightseeing and time permitting a relaxing walk in Heraklion, the capital city of Crete, before we return to the hotel. Dinner is served in the hotel this evening.
We travel over the north coastal road, with views of rocky mountains, gulfs, and sea cliffs to Rethymnon (75 km). The town still maintains its old aristocratic appearance, with buildings dating from the 16th century and Byzantine and Hellenic-Roman remains. Rethymnon is a mixture of Venetian and Turkish influences, dominated by a Venetian Fortress. Significant buildings have been renovated and today house the archaeological museum, municipality services offices and restaurants. The big municipal gardens are ideal for those in search of shade and tranquillity. The long sandy beach with a palm-lined promenade completes this beautiful place.
We will feel at home immediately in the friendly old town of Rethymnon. A walk through the charming old quarter shows Venetian and Turkish architecture in the harbour, arched doorways and stone staircases. In the narrow streets shopkeepers sell a large variety of Cretan goods such as leather, honey, herbs, cheese, yoghurt, olives, oil etc.
We will continue to Vrysses, a small village with a picturesque square, where there will be an opportunity for lunch (not included).
We continue by coach further west to Chania. This city of exceptional beauty, full of colourful aromatic flowers and rich cultural heritage has a remarkable natural beauty. It is built on the ruins of ancient Kydonia and it has seen and survived many invaders, but has also tasted civilisations that left their mark on building faces, castles, walls, antiquities, monasteries and churches. We will have a sightseeing tour by coach past monuments of ancient and modern ages, the Venetian Harbour and the municipal market hall. On foot we have the chance to see the old centre with its picturesque neighbourhoods and day to day life.
Dinner is not included this evening, an opportunity to try some of the local restaurants offering Cretan specialities.
Passing through some of the most beautiful areas of Crete, full of vineyards and olive trees, we will travel via the Aghia Varvara Pass to Southern Crete.
The first stop is at Gortys, an old Greek-Roman town with its famous law stones, Roman amphitheatre and the ruins of the Saint Titus Church - the first Christian Church on the island.
Then we visit Phaistos, one of the most important centres of Minoan civilization, and the most wealthy and powerful city in southern Crete. It was inhabited from the Neolithic period until the foundation and development of the Minoan palaces in the 15th century B.C. The exact location of the Palace of Phaistos was first determined in the middle of the 19th century by the British admiral Spratt, while the archaeological investigation of the palace started in 1884 by the Italians Halbherr and Taramelli.
We visit the Convent of Kalivianni magnificently situated overlooking the Messara Plain and Ida Mountain. The monastery was built during the second Byzantine period. During the Turkish occupation the chapel was deserted, until in 1873 an old small icon of the Annunciation of the Holy Mother was miraculously found there, since when the monastery has been a place of worship. Kalivianni constitutes a unique example of a convent, which identified faith and worship with social offerings and charity, establishing a reception centre for girls in 1958. This peaceful place has rich vegetation, flowers and colourful bougainvillaea along the drive.
Zaros is located at the south slope of Ida Mountain, and here we will have a stop at the pond. There was an aqueduct, which in ancient times supplied Gortys with water; nowadays the whole area of Messara is supplied with water from here. Also from here, we have the opportunity to take a short walk to the monastery of Saint Nicholas, idyllically located at the entrance of the ravine leading to the forest of Rouvas.
Dinner is served in the hotel this evening.
Today is free to relax in the hotel or explore the surrounding area at leisure.
Alternatively, take our optional excursion, which features wild scenery, small villages and an interesting cave. It begins with a drive along the north coastal (heading east) via the new national road up to Limenas Hersonissos, and then turn off into Mount Dicti. On our way to the Lassithi Plateau (850m), we will visit the Kera Kardiotissa Nunnery, a 14th century Monastery housing late Byzantine frescoes.
We continue by coach to the plateau for a beautiful drive through the fourteen villages which are located around the plain. A stop will be made outside the village of Psychro, where a path leads to the Dicti Cave. Going up a steep cobble path it is fifteen minutes on foot or by mule to the entrance of the cave, which is at an altitude of 1025m. The cave has several chambers with fine stalactites and stalagmites, and is also associated with the birth of Zeus (Jupiter).
In the main village, Tzermiado, we stop for a walk through the village, from east to west. This stroll is an opportunity to experience day-to-day life with its coffee-houses, grocery shops and locals selling their products, such as pure olive oil, herbs and ceramics.
At Seli, the gate to the Lassithi Plateau, we can enjoy a truly fantastic view over the plain and walk up a cobble stone path to see the inside of an old stone grain mill. Lunch is served in a beautiful traditional tavern overlooking the plateau.
On the return journey, travel through Mochos where we can enjoy the wonderful view over the surrounding area of the Bay of Mallia.
Dinner is not included this evening.
Today we go high up on Mount Ida. The drive goes down the northern slopes of Mount Psiloritis to Zoniana, the entrance to the Sfedoni Cave. A guided walking tour (270 m) in this impressive cave shows that nature has created an aesthetic miracle with drops of saline water. Colossal columns form labyrinthine chambers, while countless stalagmites and stalactites with a variety of shapes and colours decorate the rooms of the cave.
Then we continue to Anogia, a small market town, at 740 metres above sea level on the northern slope of Psiloritis Mountain. The bare rocky mountain slopes are difficult to reach and hard to cultivate, as a result of which the local people have developed a sense of independence and love of freedom. Men are mainly employed in stock breeding and related products such as milk and cheese, while the women carry on the long tradition of weaving. Anogia became an attraction to many visitors buying hand woven cloth. We visit a dairy factory producing the traditional Cretan cheeses ‘Graviera’ and ‘Kefolotiri. Anogia is famous for its very “limited” and “traditional” cuisine and there will be an opportunity for lunch here (not included).
Dinner is not included this evening.
Today we travel via the national road and through the spectacular ravine of Saint George, to the beautiful village of Elounda, a quiet fishing village sheltered within the Gulf of Mirabello. We will drive by coach further to the even smaller village of Plaka where we will board on our small boat that will take us to Spinalonga, the island that became famous as the setting of Victoria Hislop’s novel, “The Island”. The island was a former leper colony years ago. It houses a Venetian fortress and many of the buildings are awe-inspiring. In a walking tour of approximately one hour through the narrow main street we will have the opportunity to admire ruins and renovated houses.
We return by boat to Plaka and board our coach to drive back to the picturesque town of Saint Nicholas. The small chapel of Saint Nicholas gave his name to the town. We will have free time in this picturesque harbour town with its small lake known as “Voulismeni” that is located in the centre of the town, at the foot of the cliffs. Walk around and take delight in the panoramic view on the lake and the harbour, and take a stroll in the narrow streets with a lot of shops and stores offering a large assortment from typical goods to fine jewellery.
Dinner is served in the hotel this evening.
Following breakfast today, we will check out of the hotel and transfer to Heraklion airport for our flight back to London, where the group will disperse or make onward connections.