Agios Nikolaos – Crete, Greece
The magnificent natural setting of the Cretan town of Agios Nikolaos which sits on hilly slopes at the edge of the Mirabello Bay makes it almost impossible for this to be anything other than the gorgeous Mediterranean gem that it is. Bordered by sun-soaked beaches and with a beautiful inland lagoon known as Lake Voulismeni, Agios Nikolaos manages to seamlessly weave old and new so that traditional tavernas, quaint museums and tiny picturesque churches from centuries past rub shoulders with upscale boutiques and sophisticated coffee lounges. This means the best of both worlds –a quintessentially Greek town as you picture it but with all the conveniences to enjoy yourself to the max.
Both day and night everything centers around the lovely lake which according to legend was both a bathing spot for Athena and Artemis and is bottomless although the latter was proved to be inaccurate by Jacques Cousteau who dived it in the 1970s, much to the locals’ chagrin. A charming collection of tavernas and bars ring part of the lake and whether you decide to pause at one of these for coffee or cocktails to watch the world go by or stroll the water’s edge the location never fails to work its magic on visitors.
Simply wandering this small-town-feel charismatic place has plentiful rewards as you admire the old buildings, browse for souvenirs along leafy pedestrian streets, gaze at the impressive statues at the port or enter the cave-like crypt of the Fisherman’s Church filled with frescoes and old maritime objects left as offerings by and for sailors. For those who want to explore a little further afield there is a wonderful collection of rural villages within easy reach where life moves at a snail’s pace while also on the menu in the area are old Venetian fortresses, olive farms and ancient leftovers from the Bronze Age Minoan civilization where you can walk in the footsteps of the kings of long ago.
A Morning in Agios Nikolaos
Begin your Cretan adventure by discovering the processes involved in making olive oil before heading out to the highly atmospheric Spinalonga Island with its tragic leper colony history and impressive Venetian fortress.
The Cretan Olive Oil Farm
Part tranquil farm, part living museum and part hands-on traditional skills experience, the Cretan Olive Oil Farm is one of those little gem finds, located just north of the center of town. With instant appeal for anyone interested in Crete’s bygone island life, a self-guided wander around the small farm will cost next to nothing and doesn’t need to take up much time. You can simply dip your toes in here, learning a little about the olive oil making processes or meandering the paths of the lovely olive orchard, herb garden and well-tended farm premises before browsing some of its products for sale such as olive oil, sun-dried tomatoes, raki and honey.
However, as a working operation dedicated to preserving and showcasing the all-but-vanished old ways of the traditional island farms, this great little set up can also be a much more immersive experience, letting you try your hand at all kinds of rural skills ranging from milking goats to cheese-making. The small-fee guided tours which are both fun and educational set off every hour and manage to fit a lot in despite being only 45 minutes long. Along the way you will be able to explore the bee-keeper’s corner, discover the herbs growing in abundance on the farm and their traditional uses as remedies and medicines, visit the old wine press and rustic raki distillery and otherwise learn about the processes involved in olive oil production. A major highlight is the sampling element of the tour during which your taste buds can enjoy a host of on-site-made products.
Taking things up another notch again for those who still want to learn more are the cheese-making, cookery and ceramic workshops. Offering incredible value for money, you can do each individually or go for the ‘Cretan Culture Panorama’ which allows you to combine them all together, at the end of which you will have some basic grasp of three of the most important skills needed to survive on traditional farms.
Morning Coffee in Agios Nikolaos
With both sea and lake-side to choose from the opportunities for taking a waterside coffee break in Agios Nikolaos are plentiful. Just a stroll north from the harbor will bring you to one of these –the lovely Toedeledokie –which serves as cute little cafe by day and cozy cocktail spot after dark. Run by Amsterdam artist Lucia, Toedeledokie has been part of the town scene for more than two decades now and its vibrant splashes of reds and greens are as bright and cheerful as the welcome that awaits you here. There are a couple of chairs and tables set right outside the cafe front but the best spots are those underneath the scarlet umbrellas on the waterfront terrace across the road where you can gaze out directly across the lovely Mirabello Bay.
The coffee quality here is high with a good menu of options along with some amazing ice-cream milkshakes and although it might be a little early in the day to give your drink of choice a kick the Irish coffees here tend to get rave reviews.
If you are on the lookout for souvenirs be sure to check out some of Lucia’s artwork inside before you leave. Her collections include whimsical stones and sculpture but it is her beautiful hand-painting finishes on the ceramic pots created by local traditional artist Yiannis which really steal the show with their bold colors and designs.
Another beautiful view awaits at Chez Georges where from a hilltop perch you have sweeping vistas of the lake, the sparkling bay beyond and the hills framing the background. The chic cafe interior has a color scheme of neutrals and blues and floor-to-ceiling picture windows open on one side which merge seamlessly with a gorgeous open-air balcony terrace. Spread about with comfortable tub chairs and cushions, this elevated spot offers some of the best views to be had in the whole town and has a huge coffee, tea and hot chocolate menu to choose from. For those who need a little energy boost there are also some sweet-treat coffee accompaniment options with specials and a cake of the day.
Sitting just a short distance off the Cretan coast from Agios Nikolaos can be found the uninhabited island of Spinalonga. Like so much else in Greece the draw here is its story of the past but this is a very different kind of history to that of the Ancient Greek civilizations which tend to dominate the sights elsewhere.
Getting here is easy –Elounda, just 6 miles north of Agios Nikolaos is one option while the shortest ride of all –just 10 minutes -sets out with regular ferries from Plaka’s two boat docks around 10 miles north.
The story of Spinalonga starts with the Venetians, a mighty power in the Mediterranean in medieval times who raised a strategic fortress on the island in the 1500s to counter Turkish invasion attempts. So formidable were these protection measures that Spinalonga continued in Venetian hands for four decades after the rest of Crete fell to the Ottoman Empire. Today little remains of this once mighty fortification beyond its bastions but it is what transpired after the Turks departed which now makes this small island such a tourist draw, only second to Knossos as the the island’s most visited attraction.
From 1903 Spinalonga was a leper colony, during an age when this debilitating and disfiguring illness was little understood and which typically resulted in an enforced quarantine for all those who suffered from it, becoming shunned as outcasts in their suffering and misery. Some food and medical supplies were sent to the island but the daily life on Spinalonga was desperate, hopeless and tragic, with sufferers doing little more than waiting out their time to die, surviving as best they could before that inevitable event. In the 1930s a young Athens man arrived to live here after developing leprosy and it was his efforts that led to huge changes in the living conditions of the islanders and the development of an incredible organized island society. Introducing all kinds of improvements and implementing business practices, under the guidance and vision of Epaminondas Remoundakis the colony reached a population height of around 1000 residents and the island had a church, a school, shops, restaurants and cafes. The colony was officially closed permanently in the 1950s following the leprosy cure discovery made more than a decade earlier.
Today you can wander this mostly silent and highly atmospheric abandoned village, weaving your way through its streets, exploring the crumbling stone structures and visiting the cemetery. With restoration work ongoing, some of the buildings can be entered and house displays detailing something of this island’s tragic story and the lives of those who called it home.
While the ‘village’ center is at sea level there are ruins scattered all the way up the hill and making your way to the top gives some fantastic views not just of the entire islet but also of the bay and the mainland.
Lunch in Agios Nikolaos
Agios Nikolaos has a wonderful collection of cafes, restaurants and cozy traditional Greek tavernas, many of them either lake or beachside and, with this being the Mediterranean, the majority offering alfresco dining on terraces or in atmospheric open-air courtyards.
Besides the town’s own set of eating choices the nearby beaches and surrounding villages bring further options, all easily accessible either on foot or with a short taxi ride. If you catch the ferry back from Spinalonga to Plaka you may just decide to pause right here as this charming little seaside village makes for a lovely lunch venue. Among the scattering of local tavernas offering authentic Greek cuisine is waterside Spinalonga whose spacious terrace running along the back of the restaurant offers direct and gorgeous views onto the island that you’ve just visited. Sit back with a glass of raki, beer or house wine and some tzatziki starters as you wait for your main food to arrive and gaze upon the old Venetian fortress which once kept guard over the harbor from atop Spinalonga. With a solid and well-deserved reputation for its succulent fresh-from-the-boat fish and the warmest of welcomes, this little Greek gem also offers great value salads, pastas and meat dishes in a family-owned bistro set-up.
For a setting of a different kind but no less charm-infused head back to Agios Nikolaos and the Creta Embassy. This time you can lunch in a gorgeous Mediterranean garden where the outdoor patio and its wooden tables are lushly wound about with plants and vines while a profusion of blooms spill out of hanging pots. Close to the lake and with its collection of stone sculptures, shells, curios, wall-plates and lanterns, the Creta Embassy is nothing short of enchanting and gives you plenty to gaze upon as you tuck into some high quality Greek dishes. The cozy interior dining area in this old building is also lovely but it is the magical garden with its bright primary colors of red, blue and yellow which steal the scene.
Fish and seafood dominate here but other delights include veal with lemon and lamb kleftiko while certain meat choices come freshly cooked straight from the open-air barbecue.
An Afternoon in Agios Nikolaos and Crete
Crete has an abundance of highly significant historic sites, many of them truly ancient with the menu of possible places to visit including monasteries, churches, forts, palaces and caves.However, no one site is considered more of a must-see than the Minoan palace of Knossos –once the center both in religious and administrative terms of the entire Minoan civilization. Strolling this archaeological site is an essential inclusion in any itinerary while a visit to the vast Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, just a few minutes north, helps you complete your understanding of one of the world’s first sophisticated societies and powers.
The Knossos Palace
Thriving for more than 2,000 years, the Bronze Age Minoan civilization which existed in parts of Greece is generally considered to be one of the planet’s earliest sophisticated societies. Knossos on Crete served as its most important center of all in terms of commerce, ceremony and politicsand at its peak in 1700 BC was home to a population of around 100,000 people.
The first palace here was built around 4,000 years ago, destroyed by an unknown natural disaster some time later and its replacement –thought to date from around 1700 BC -was raised as an even more grandiose and elaborate affair. Knossos was mysteriously abandoned a few centuries afterward and the sudden and complete disappearance of such a powerful and advanced society remains open to debate to this day. A massive volcanic eruption which triggered catastrophic tsunamis is generally accepted to be the most likely explanation.
Not just the seat of kings, Knossos is also woven into the very legends of the ancient Greeks. Here, it is said, lived the Minotaur –a fierce part man, part bull creature -who roamed a colossal labyrinth built on the orders of King Minos and to which he regularly made human sacrifices. The first extensive excavations of this huge site began in the early 20th century under the archaeologist Arthur Evans who uncovered incredible frescoes, paved roads, elaborate running water systems and many sophisticated construction details.
Today, via platform walkways, visitors can explore this amazing Bronze Age site made up of more than a thousand rooms. These include baths, private living quarters, courtyards, pottery and masonry workshops, store rooms, a theater and state rooms along with a multitude of processional walkways and connecting corridors. Several areas have been reconstructed to truly bring to life the grandeur and scale of the palace and while picking highlights from such a magnificent collection is difficult there are one or two must-see elements. These include the crimson-hued Throne Room complete with its simple alabaster throne and griffin frescoes,the Grand Staircase with its columns and several replica frescoes including the vibrant Prince of the Lilies. The originals of these 3,500 year old paintings are now housed in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.
Many who visit Knossos choose to do so independently and although the magnificence and atmosphere are instantly evident to all the labyrinthine sprawl can be a little confusing and some parts easily missed. It is for this reason that taking a guided tour is often considered advisable, allowing you to really make the most of your visit, bringing alive the history and myth and interpreting more fully the treasures you are seeing.
The Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Less than four miles north of the Knossos Palace can be found one of Greece’s most important museums, housing a collection of remarkable treasures spanning more than five thousand years. Dating back to the late 1800s, the vast Heraklion Archaeological Museum covers the entire ancient Cretan story –from the Stone Age to the Roman era –but it is its Minoan exhibitions which take pride of place. Nowhere else in the world has such an internationally significant and richly complete collection of antiquities from this once mighty civilization as that found here, giving the museum an importance beyond measure on a global scale.
While this state-of-the-art museum has more than enough to fascinate and engross all-comers for those who arrive here after first visiting the majestic ruins of the ancient Knossos Palace it will have particular significance. Here you can see many of the priceless treasures recovered during excavation work including the celebrated Snake Goddess figurines and the original frescoes which you will have seen copies of in situ at the site. With an entire room dedicated to these thousands of years old wall paintings –the Hall of the Frescoes –the collection includes the Knossos Palace’s Bull Leaping fresco dating from around 1500 BC with its stylized bull and gymnasts, the beautifully vibrant Prince of the Lilies of the same period and many more frescos taken from other Minoan sites around Crete.
Otherwise the museum’s rooms are organized in an easy-to-follow chronological order beginning with the 8,000 year old Neolithic finds and then further grouped into themes which cover religion, death rituals, commerce and so on, all with in-depth interpretation panels to bring everything you are looking at into context. Between them they showcase a dazzling collection of statuary, pottery, jewelry, weapons, household articles, sarcophagi, ceremonial artifacts and all kinds of other incredible antiquities which are often so well-preserved it is hard to believe you are gazing at treasures from so long ago.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in Agios Mikolaos
When it comes to drinking and dining Agios Nikolaos can be whatever you want it to be. From venues which tuck you away amid serenity to spots where the music and action is lively and from tavernas full of traditional charm offering all that is quintessentially Greek to sophisticated and luxurious lounges and restaurants serving connoisseur cocktails and international cuisine. With beaches, a port and an inland lake all found within the town, enjoying sundowners or dining waterside is not just easy to do but practically obligatory and beautiful views tend to come as standard as the majority of choices are open-air.
The largest concentration of bars and restaurants is found around the lake while those who like an elevated view across to the sea can opt for one of the choices perched above the lake atop the dramatic cliff which forms one of its sides.
When it comes to drinking venues where wines, raki, cocktails and beer flow freely as the sun sets you are a little spoiled for choice in Agios Nikolaos. From tranquil and tucked away to buzzing and bustling, the menu of choice here includes Mediterranean-view terraces, rooftop bars, secret gardens, lively lakeside spots and cozy traditional tavernas.
For those who want a beach setting and uninterrupted sea views as they enjoy a sundowner or two head to the Votsalo Cafe Bar, a short stroll south from the center of town on Gargadoros Beach. Located on the rocks at the northern end of the beach, this long-established casual-vibed venue which attracts both locals and visitors is one of those rare finds which allows you to be as sociable or as separate as you choose. You can gaze across the water and onward to the mountains from a table for two beneath the trees, perch yourself directly on the rocks, find a seat on the terrace or give yourself an elevated view from the balcony. The sea here is of that specifically gorgeous Grecian blue which makes it almost impossible to resist a quick dip in the crystal-clear waters between ordering your drinks and which is in fact what many of the clientele here choose to do.
For those who want a touch of sophistication with their cocktails make your way to the town’s eastern extremities and Kytroplatia Beach where the Palazzo Cafe Bar is located. This charmer offers an old-school elegant interior full of stone and wood while the alfresco terrace out front gives you some comfortable sofas and chairs to relax in as you take in your lovely surroundings. A further selection of tables can be found across the street where from the umbrella shades you can enjoy the same service with an extra-large smile right at the waterside.
Finding somewhere magical to dine in Agios Nikolaos is incredibly easy although trying to settle on just one choice from the many may prove somewhat more difficult. Any short stroll around the lake will instantly show you just how many options you have and into this mix you can add the beach venues strung out north and south and those spots which perch you above the town with their glorious views of lake, sea and mountains. In this latter category and perfect for those who are looking for a traditional taverna-like venue with liberal sprinklings of the romantic Gioma Meze is a great choice. From its elevated position this reasonably-priced gem offers breathtaking views of the lower town and lake. As the colors of sunset fade and evening descends the various bars and restaurants around the lake light their lanterns and strings of fairy lights creating a scene especially magical to gaze upon. There are a choice of tables here, some with canopy covering, but arguably the best of all are those completely alfresco on the edge of the stone terrace.
With fresh seafood something of a focus here, the menu is otherwise extensive offering Cretan cuisine which has everything from stews to salads and Greek sausage dishes to grilled meat delicacies. For washing it all down the ouzo and raki come in a wide range as do the wines of both Greek and international origin.
No matter where you are in the world one often very simple way of instantly and accurately judging the cuisine quality of a restaurant before trying it for yourself is to see how many locals are dining there. If you use such a measure then Ble Katsarolakia immediately ranks highly on the list of choices as typically town residents outnumber visitors here. Located just the other side of where the lake joins with the sea, Ble Katsarolakia is located in one of the town’s oldest neoclassical buildings and can boast an especially lovely setting beside.
Inside this restaurant is a pretty vision of clean white and blue with exposed stone walls, wooden floors and detailed decorative touches. The second-floor open-air balcony runs along the back of the building with every table offering a spectacular harbor view while those who want a different setting can make their way to the inner courtyard. Planted about with trees and greenery, this lovely space has an enchanted secret garden feel with more than a touch of romance about it once lit as night arrives.
The cuisine here is Cretan Greek but with inventive contemporary spins so octopus, tzatziki, halloumi, souvlaki and such staples still feature but in imaginative modern versions for some entirely new culinary experiences. Ingredients are sourced locally for ultimate freshness which means the menu changes depending on what the fishermen bring home or what is currently in season while the wine list is impressively extensive.
An Evening in Agios Nikolaos
After dark everything in Agios Nikolaos pretty much centers around the lovely Lake Voulismeni where a string of open-air cafes, tavernas and bars keep their customers fed and watered until the early hours. If you are still not quite ready to settle down for the rest of the night with a favorite drink in hand and the stars overhead then this is also the perfect place for an after-dinner stroll. Pretty at any time of day, the lake is especially charming at night as the lights and lanterns of the bars and illuminated cliff-face reflect and shimmer on the water’s surface and the small fishing boats bob gently in the night breeze. If you really want to work off some of the excesses of dining then follow the path which takes you above the lake where you can have an especially beautiful night panorama.
You can also combine a night stroll with shopping and browsing, especially if you are on the lookout for gifts and souvenirs. Most of the town’s stores are open until at least 10 pm and feature a collection of delights which includes island artwork, handcrafted jewelry, olive oil gifts and woven or hand-embroidered clothing and textiles. One beautiful store worth checking out is Art on Olive Wood set back one street from the southern part of the lake. The family master carvers which produce the gorgeous olive wood goods here work on-site from their studio which ensures the whole premises is constantly filled with the lovely aromas of wood. From candle-holders to key-chains and wall-art to watercraft models, the unique pieces on sale here are ideal for those who like quality mementos of their travels.
Another option for gift seekers, just a stone’s throw from Art on Olive Wood, is Melissa Traditional Products which sells olive oil, honey, raki, ouzo, wines, herbs and other island-produced goods which are found in their more conventional forms or crafted into cosmetics and toiletries. For those who want to inject their after-dark hours with a little culture this won’t be hard to do if you happen to be visiting Agios Nikolaos during the months of July and August. This is when the town hosts the LATO Festival which encompasses a whole range of events both traditional and contemporary involving not just islanders but those from other parts of Greece and also international participants too. Folk dancing, theater, live music performances, drama, art exhibitions and much more are all held during these summer weeks and if you want to know the full schedule pop into the tourist office for information or keep your eyes peeled for the posters around town.