We finally took the opportunity to drive to one of Crete’s most fascinating places this week. The Lasithi Plateau, located in the Lasithi regional unit in eastern Crete, Greece is famous today for the thousands of windmills that once irrigated the fertile soils of the plateau. And though only a few skeletons of these windmills remain as a reminder, they remain an iconic symbol to this day. Since distant antiquity, this fascinating area of Crete has been connected with agriculture as well as with resistance to outside influences, but also with archaeology and myth. Here’s a brief introduction to Lasithi and our early excursions there.
The high plateau (990 meters above sea level) has been inhabited since Neolithic times (6000 BC), is reputedly the last holdout of the ancient Minoans, and a later a thorn in the side to invading Venetians and Ottomans. At Karfi, high in the mountains overlooking the plateau, the remaining Minoans and Myceneans are believed to have held out against the Ionians. In subsequent centuries, the strategic position of the plateau, and its defensibility caused many problems for invaders from Venetian times to the Nazi occupation of the island during World War II. A Venetian manuscript of the thirteenth century describes the troublesome plateau of Lasithi as spina nel cuore (di Venezia), or a thorn in the heart of Venice.
For locals Lasithi is synonymous with great agricultural products from sheep to the wonderful little pears I first found in a downtown Heraklion market. When you first get a glimpse of the plateau driving down from the mountain pass from Hersonissos, you’ll understand immediately just why humans have coveted this bowl of fertility on Crete. The wonderful almond and fruit orchards interspersed in between green fields creates a vision of paradise for the visitor. Sparsely populated, we found this new Cretan experience to be unique in many ways. One sense we got, was one of utter calm and peace. I guess “ideal” is the best way to convey the feeling of the place in words. I was unaware beforehand that the soil of the plateau gets its special character and fertility owing alluvial run-off from melting snow, and because it sits atop bedrock only a few feet down. And discovering the entrance to the cave of Zeus was not so inaccessible, was also a surprise.
Beyond the agricultural aspects and the unique people who live here, the archaeological aspects of the surrounding mountains are as fascinating. Rumored to be the birthplace of great Zeus, the Diktaion Andron near the village of Psychro is touristy but still mesmerizing. And aforementioned Karfi, which is located before the entrance to the pass to Lasithi, is about as indomitable a defensive position as you can imagine. Our first stop, after pausing to gape in awe at the biggest herd of sheep I ever saw, was the famous Taverna DICTAMUS, which lies just beneath the path up to Zeus’ cave. It was here we met the tavern owners, Harilaos and Emmanuella, two more extraordinary Cretans born and raised on the plateau. As we’ve come to expect, we always somehow end up leaving such taverns with a lot more than we arrived with. Greeted with fresh squeezed orange juice and delectable cheese pies, the couple spent their time unselfishly, explaining all the particulars of the place and their history. While we took in the view from the taverna’s great balcony overlooking the whole plateau, our son Paul Jules explored the trails and fields below. Another wonderful aspect of this place, the hundreds of birds announcing Spring has arrived can be heard in the video.
After our short reconnaissance to Psychro, we headed out to drive the rest of the 28-kilometer circle of road that takes travelers past the 18 villages of Lasithi. We’d arrived too late to explore the cave of Zeus, so the slow drive along this beautiful circular route made for a totally relaxing drive across some of Greece’s greenest terrain. More sheep, many more sheep, and an indescribable sense of the immortal made me realize why so many have ventured here to pay homage to the god. The place is holy, what can I say?
Other attractions we did not have time to take in include; the Plateau of Nisimos (next to Tzermiado), the Church of the Holy Cross, the Monastery of Kroustaleni, the Museum of Eleftherios Venizelos, and the Folk Museum to name a few. Like we told our new friends Harilaos and Emmanuella, we’ll soon venture back for a two-day exploration with family and friends.