Ierapetra is famous for its amount of sunshine hours per year, it’s beautifully clear sea and pristine beaches, its friendly and hospitable residents, its large number of greenhouses, and its great raki, (of which there is plenty). Whether this is your first or a return visit, we are confident that as you gaze over the sparkling turquoise water of the Libyan Sea, you will feel confident you made the correct choice for your holiday destination. “Here we are, again!”.
Ierapetra, is the southernmost town of the European continent and the largest in the Cretan Prefecture of Lasithi. It has dominated the southeast of Crete since the Minoan times, thanks to its key geographical position.
The town was first called Kyrva but that was later changed to Ierapytna. Gradually it grew into one of the richest ancient cities of Crete, encompassing the largest land areas and playing a leading role in the commercial life of the Eastern Mediterranean area. Throughout its long history, the town has been destroyed many times, but it has always been rebuilt and never ceased to be a key trading port.
This strategical position, combined with a warm climate, have made Ierapetra the wealthiest town in Greece and the second wealthiest in Europe. From a different angle its wealth could be seen to be the sun. Ierapetra has the most sunshine hours in the whole of Europe, a temperate climate and rich and fertile soil.
These key factors were precisely what impressed the Dutch agriculturalist Paul Cooper and encouraged him to carry out a life changing experiment in 1965 when he constructed the first nylon greenhouses in the village of Gra-Lygia, just outside Ierapetra. They were such a success that the livelihoods of the local farming community were vastly improved and they quickly became “kings” of tomatoes and other cultivated vegetables. He thereby unwittingly ensured the future of the “Ierapetritans” Today an area of 14,000 square metres has been filled with greenhouses.
The Municipality of Ierapetra
The province of Ierapetra is bordered to the north by several traditional little coastal villages named Pahia Ammos and Kavousi and to the south by Myrtos and Kapsa Monastery. Most people’s knowledge of the south of the Lasithi prefecture is usually limited to Ierapetra, Chrissi Island, Agia Fotia and maybe Myrtos and Makry Gialos, the most well-known and visited places. However, each of the surrounding little villages have a unique charm of their own.
Having passed through the picturesque little coastal village of Pahia Ammos, heading towards Ierapetra, you arrive at the narrowest point between the north and the south coast of Crete. The route veers inland and as you travel along the 12km route towards Ierapetra you will find yourself in an area which is truly rugged, wild, rich and in some places unexplored ~ even by the locals…
The coastal village of Myrtos became famous when it was flooded with hippies many years ago and nowadays the traditional mountain village of Agios Giannis is being re-inhabited by Europeans, who want to put down roots on Crete. To find out the true meaning of the word “windy”, climb to the top of Afentis Christos and if you happen to be in the area around August you should not miss the daily festival in the village of Psychro. There are other places of interest such as the Theriospilios Cave just west of Kavousi and the beautiful Monastery of Faneromeni situated high in the hills affording a splendid view of the Libyan Sea. Or for romantics, the view of the sunset over Ierapetra from Peristeras Hill is not to be missed.
From a cultural point of view, it should be mentioned that some of the greatest concerts ever presented in eastern Crete took place on the Oreino Mountain. While at the coastal village of Makry Gialos a famous festival of classical music has been taking place since 2003. Lovers of literature would probably be interested in the monastery of Kapsas and in discovering how it is connected to the work of Nikos Kazantzakis, the famous Greek writer and author of “Zorba the Greek”.
The options are countless and cover all tastes. Departing from the town of Ierapetra you can spend a few days on a magnificent tour around this unexplored area.
The mountainous route that takes you from the town of Ierapetra to the mountains of Lasithi continuously provides views of the Libyian Sea and the “sea of greenhouses” that can be seen on the west coast of Ierapetra. Also in the same area are the impressive rocky formations called “Little Meteora” which make the route remarkable.
We strongly suggest you make a stop at Kalamafka, a small, yet lively village and one of the most traditional villages in Crete. The inhabitants retain many of their customs and in the last couple of years they have revived the traditional yearly harvest in an effort to keep alive the traditions and activities of past eras.
On top of Kastelos rock you will find the cavernous church of Timios Stavros which was built on top of the sacred place of Asclepius, while the figure that is formed during the summer months – and is often called the “stone god” – resembles an Indian figure!
Then, there is the village of Anatoli with its beautiful houses and its “vrises” (water taps providing sparklingly clear, fresh, mountain, drinking water). And the picturesque little village of Christos. Also Kefalohori, Malles which is thought to be situated in the location of the ancient town of Malla. Then the Monastery of Exakousti and some other important temples. Also worth a visit are the “burnt villages”, which were decimated by the Nazis, during the holocaust of the provinces Viannos and Ierapetra, in 1943.
The village of Selakano is markedly important because of its eponymous forest, which is the largest, continuous pine forest on Crete and is one of the largest bee producing areas of the island.
There is a dirt road which can be followed through the woods, all the way to the mountains of Lasithi, where it brings you out on the Katharo Plateau, an experience not to be missed.
Further south, places of special interest and worthy of a mention are the village of Mythos, a typically Cretan village, and the beautifully coloured Sarakina Gorge. The gorge is very popular and is traversed by people of varying levels of fitness and experience. There is water in the gorge throughout the year and care should be taken as the rocks can be slippery.
The final place of interest in this area is the coastal village of Myrtos. It first achieved fame when it became a meeting place for hippies in the 1960s some of whom still live in the area.
To the north of Ierapetra a must visit is the beautiful Byzantine church of Agios Georgios, in the village of Episkopi. This ancient church was the baptistery for the people of the dioceses of Episkipi, Ierapytna and Sitia during the Middle Byzantine period.
Also look out for the impressive ruins of Minoan settlements which have been excavated in Gournia and the little village of Vassiliki. The dramatic and inaccessible Ha Gorge is a popular attraction as is the Fanenromeni Monastery, which was built during the 2nd Byzantine period. It has a cavernous temple and is strikingly situated high in the hills. It played a key role during the Ottoman occupation.
To the east of Ierapetra are the beautiful little mountain villages of Agios Ioannis and Schinokapsala both situated high in the mountains with views over the Libyan Sea. In the last few years their traditional stone houses have been rapidly restored by Greeks and foreigners, (some famous) who use them as second homes or holiday homes. Ai-Giannis, as it is pronounced by the locals, is the starting point for the Gorge of Milonas which ends in Ferma. Although the gorge is not entirely accessible in one walk, there is a well maintained path which starts at Kakia Skala and leads up to the 30 metre high waterfall. The beauty of the area, the waterfall and pool of sparkling clear water below it, make this a nice place to visit.
Two other gorges which are worthy of note are the one at Oreino, which spectacularly fills with red butterflies every year in Spring and the other is the Gorge of Pefkoi and its caves. In the coastal village of Makry Gialos, very popular with tourists and Greeks alike, there is a Minoan Villa and a Roman Mansion, both of which are worth a visit.
Finally, it is strongly recommended that you don’t miss the tour to Thrypti. There you will be able to visit the small settlement called Aori (by the locals), which comes to life at the weekends as the residents of Ierapetra converge on the area. Many people have converted old shepherds’ huts into weekend getaways or summer homes. After this you should arm yourself with sturdy tires and head for Afentis Christos.
The route is a superb little dirt track, which gives a unique view over the whole Lasithi area. From the height of 1,476 metres you appear to look down on the mountains of Sitia, the Mirabello Bay, the mountains of Ierapetra and Lasithi, and the Cretan and Libyan Seas, as if from an aeroplane. From this vantage point the richness of the Lasithi land is plainly visible. Here, the words of the greatest Cretan writer, Nikos Kazantzakis come to mind, as he exited the house of Madame Hortense, which is said to have been located in Ierapetra:
The Cretan landscape […] looked elaborate, reticent, free from unnecessary riches, strong and moderate, delivering by simple means, the substance of things. Not playing, not accepting the use of any ploy, not preaching, saying what it wanted to say with vigour. But in these strict lines that stand out in this Cretan landscape you could feel unexpected sensitivity and tenderness…”
Kato Mera is the oldest neighborhood of Ierapetra but unfortunately, modern designs have destroyed its distinctive character for the most part. It remains however, the most beautifully quaint, corner of the town.
Visitors can admire the mosque, and the impressive fountain which were built in the late 19th century during the Turkish occupation. There is a little square in front of the mosque and this is where the final celebrations of the annual cultural festival “Kyrveia” are held. The Kyrveia takes place from the middle of July till the end of August and it includes cultural, artistic and sports events. There is a third Ottoman building which has been preserved in the town, the commercial Ottoman School or Mehtepi. It now houses the Archaeological Collection which includes many archeological finds from the surrounding area.
The old town of Ierapetra is truly exceptional and wandering through the narrow lanes and streets is an unforgettable experience. Among the unexpected images on view are narrow houses mostly painted in pretty colours, with yards and balconies brimming profusely with colourful flowers in prettily painted flower pots and bursts of vibrant bougainvillea climbing up the sides of buildings. The house of Andreas Peroulades is also in this area. According to lore, Napoleon Bonaparte spent a night or two in this narrow little house, thereby making it forever famous. At the entrance to the harbor sits the old Venetian Fortress, Kales as it is called by the locals.
For those looking for more places of interest to visit there are varied options both cultural and natural. The churches of Panagia of Kales, Timios Stavros and Agios Nikolaos are all beautiful and very traditional. There are also the Roman fishponds in Kakos Bay which are carved into the sandstone rock. An artificial lake was constructed in Bramiana in 1986 for the irrigation of the many greenhouses. Over time however, this has become a very important and protected, wetland and home to many bird species.
The landscape of the area is varied: Forests alternate with windswept slopes, gorges and ravines lead to amazing pebble beaches with deep water, waterfalls and rocky formations reminiscent of Meteors appear unexpectedly. Villages where the houses are made of stone look down their slopes onto the popular coastal settlements. People who hold their traditions dear welcome you at every corner.
“Here we are, again!”.
So, what is so special about Ierapetra? From where do the people of this land derive so much vitality and appetite for life and laid-backness? It might be their Doric origin that makes them different from the rest of the inhabitants of Lasithi or it may well be due to their geographical location. Perhaps it is the wind, this possessed wind that stirs the clothes and souls. Perhaps the aura of the sea, or the sun that bathes the area for 340 days a year, the Rock disposition. Perhaps it’s people themselves, who in Cervantes’ eternal question seem to choose, the wise folly instead of the foolish logic.
The people of Ierapetra are hard-working, fun-loving, with an inherent zeal for success, as well as an unexpected taste for culture that one sees in the events they organise. Great festivals, where people fall about with laughter, somewhere someone can be heard knitting serenades, feet tapping to the rhythm of the violins, the ecstatic Cretan sounds which patiently and effortlessly win you over too. Here, you will learn to eat raw artichoke and cauliflower, sprinkled with pure sea salt, oil and lemon. With the locals you will try authentic “lantouristo”, and wherever you go, you know for certain that the juicy, bright red, fragrant tomato, is always Ierapetritan and always produced here.
With every visit you will learn a little more of the culture and the way of life. The Ierapetritans for example have a caring side too. They do not only think of having a good time for themselves, they also like to help people who are less fortunate. They have formed grocery stores where free food is donated and shared among the needy. The townspeople join together at local events as people do who live in a tight caring community.
If you take the time to truly discover the place, understand the people and learn the culture, you too will probably be hooked on Ierapetra forever.
Article : Olga Charami, Ilektra Fatourou
Photos :Hercules Milas, Panagiotis Sarris
Translation : Margaret Bollan Haralambakis, Christina Chrisoula