Steeped in legend, the lesser-known historical sites in Crete have an authentic charm that fascinates in-the-know visitors as much as, if not more, than their more famous counterparts like Knossos and Phaistos.
With its signature mix of exotic beaches, rugged mountains and gripping landmarks, Crete is brimming with attractions. Perhaps the most famous of them all, the 4,000-year-old palace of Knossos receives an average of five thousand visitors in a day. This spectacularly (though somewhat speculatively) restored Minoan palatial complex captures the imagination of young and old with its sheer size, expressive frescoes and fascinating myths. But there are other, just as captivating, though lesser-known historical sites in Crete that beg for exploration – and the good thing is you won’t have to beat the crowds to it.
Lesser-known historical sites in Crete
The abandoned village of Aradaina
Located in Sfakia, in the prefecture of Chania, Aradena is one of the longest and most beautiful gorges in the country, with steep cliffs, stunning Libyan sea views, endemic flora and some quite rare animals, including bearded vultures and Kri-Kris. Scenic hike aside, Aradena also holds a special fascination for history and anthropology buffs. A thriving settlement since ancient times, the homonymous village (the trail’s starting or ending point) was deserted in 1948 when a dispute over the bell of a goat led to a vendetta culminating in the killing of seven people. An open-air museum of traditional Cretan architecture, this ghost town features elaborate (albeit by now roofless) stone houses with arches, staircases, overgrown yards and ruined wood ovens. A stroll through the cinematic scenery makes for an eerily charming experience and gives a vivid glimpse into the life of times bygone.
As emblems of faith and symbols of resistance, Crete’s monasteries have played a key role in the island’s development over the centuries. The most famous, Arkadi – a gorgeous example of the Cretan Renaissance – is in fact the 2nd most visited historical site in Crete! But if you’re interested in a spot of religious tourism without the crowds, the lesser-known Toplou monastery in Lasithi is fascinating for many reasons. Founded in the mid-15th century, this fortress-like structure had its defences tested by pirates, crusading knights, the Turks and the Nazis alike. The name Toplou derives from the Turkish word for cannon, which is what the monks used to defend themselves against sea bandits in Venetian times. As is the case with most Cretan monasteries, Toplou also played a pivotal role during the aeons-old fight for Cretan independence: Under Turkish yoke, Toplou operated a secret school on its premises; while later on, in WW2 it sheltered resistance fighters their wireless radio. As a result, the monks and abbot were slaughtered paradigmatically. Despite its turbulent history and thanks to its strong walls, Toplou has managed to salvage many of its artworks, including rare Byzantine icons, books and frescoes. Nowadays, only four monks live there – but as the area’s largest landowner, the monastery is an active producer of award-winning wine, raki and olive oil, which you can sample in the onsite tasting room, or buy at selected stores throughout Greece.
Crete has more than 2.000 caves – and many of them are associated with the legends and the stories that have shaped the island’s identity. The most famous is the spectacular Dikteon Cave in Lassithi Plateau – the mythological birthplace of Zeus, which every year attracts a lion’s share of visitors. However, for a significantly less noisy, though equally mesmerising, experience, you may head to Melidoni, located east of Rethymno, in the southern part of Mount Kouloukonas. With impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations, the cave seems to have been frequented by people for as long as there is a human presence on Crete. Starting from the early 20th century, excavations have brought to light Neolithic tools; pottery from the Late Minoan, Geometric and Roman periods; and various voting offerings indicating that this was the place of worship of Talos, the giant bronze robot who guarded Crete against its enemies and the messenger god Mercury – Hermes, respectively. Melidoni, in fact, never lost its relevance throughout the years. On October 10, 1823, 370 civilians and 30 Cretan resistance fighters sought refuge from the Turks in this cave. Alas, Hussein Bey’s patrol found them, blocked the entrance and lit a fire. The smoke was channelled into the cave choking these heroic men, women and children in January 1824. Nowadays, Melidoni’s ossuary stands as a reminder against tyranny and oppression.
Did you like our feature for the lesser-known historical site in Crete? There’s more to come in our upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned to Oscar Suites & Village for local insights and tips on what to see and do on the amazing island of Crete!