FROM SANCTITY TO HOLLYWOOD
CRETE ON THE ROAD: AGIOS NIKOLAOS
A stop in Agios Nikolaos
We leave Stalis as well. We leave its Minoan Palace behind too. Agios Nikolaos is a popular destination and there is we are heading to.
Agios Nikolaos (Άγιος Νικόλαος) does not look like Crete to me. It is the copy of some enchanted town in the middle of the Alps, the only thing that betrays its Greek roots is the ocean. There is something to this city that I find everything but Cretan.
It looks like a film set, almost too perfect: streets with immaculate cobble-stoned sidewalks and thoroughly trimmed trees on both sides of the sidewalks. Tiny, spotless, organized shops; people so quiet that don’t even seem Greek. A place so posh and international, with such a taste of jet-set… Nothing in it feels Greek, nothing is loud, there is no chaos. It is not my Greece, not the Greece I adore.
The morning goes by on one of the beaches, Ámmos, then, we decide to have lunch, we slowly walk the village at our own pace. A while later we find the magic port attached to Lake Voulisméni through a narrow canal, a street crossed on top of it. Beautiful and elegant, Agios Nikolaos is stunning in an ungreek way.
One thing surprises me: I thought prices were going to match the high standards, they didn’t. Still, Agios Nikolaos had already given all it had to me, so we moved North, to Elounda.
A village popular among the rich & the famous. Sport and movie stars tend to book millionaire hotel rooms on this strip of land facing Spinalonga. My hopes for getting a piece of authentic Cretan life are vanishing. I know we are going to go around Elounda just for a while. I’m too eager to see the Libyan sea. There is nothing truly Cretan left for me on this side of the island.
Elounda still keeps some traditional magnetism I was not able to catch from Agios Nikolaos, there’s a more authentic spirit on the streets, in its colors and flavors. However, massive and super expensive hotel chains have taken big portions of coast. It’s now hard to find a free and calm spot on the beach. Every place is either small, or rocky or packed.
You can do something different, though.
Sailing to the now notorious island of Spinalonga (Σπιναλόγκα), officially known as Kalydon, which lies on the Gulf of Elounda. A wild islet that had the bad luck of being assaulted by mass tourism thanks to the success of a book by Victoria Islop, The Island, set on this scenario. A romantic, but also historical novel, that tells the story of Alexis and the past of his family, closely connected to the island, once a leper colony. The Greek television turned it into a successful tv series, To Nisi («The Island»).
Trips to Spinalonga are a popular attraction in Crete, there are daily boats from Agios Nikolaos, Plaka and Elounda. We descended all the way to Vathi, then moved to Istro and drove along most Mirabelo bay, enjoying one of the most inspiring views of the Aegean, where blue cannot be darker, deeper or more thrilling.
We take the longer road to enjoy the views driving towards the inner side of the island. We cross the utmost side of the Lassithi Plateau, passing near peaks and gorges (but not climbing them a bit, yeah!!!), under a late but still burning September sun.
The landscape has a scarce green pattern, spotted with grey and brown dry stones. Old ruins from Minoan settlements everywhere. Crete is an open air museum if you want to, there’s no need to wait in line for a ticket if you’re lucky to drive the right way.
That evening we reach the town of Ierapetra. The kind of tiresome town I love. They say the village is not nice, old, and that there’s nothing to see, or do. They say it survives thanks to Chrissi island. To me, Ierapetra is an authentic slice of Crete. There I will meet true amazing Greeks and real inspiring conviviality. But that… that’s our next stop.