Exploring Ancient Aptera

A different ‘Explore’ this month, with August heat heading for 40c, and a trip over to the north coast to visit the ruined city of Aptera. Most visitors to Chania, and on over to Paleochora, will arrive in Crete through the airport at Daskalogiannis, or on the overnight ferry from Piraeus. Both might give a glimpse of Aptera, and the imposing Turkish fortress, high above Souda Bay.

Aptera view

Aptera is situated 17km east of Chania along the national road, taking the exit to Megala Horafia, climbing steeply up into the village, then a left turn to the archeological site. Once through the village there’s a parking space, information boards, and the first view of the cyclopian walls which surrounded the city, enclosing an extensive area of c.1000m from east to west, c.700m north to south. Aptera’s existence occurs in the Linear B tablets, evidence that there was a settlement here in the 14th/13th centuries BC, from when it grew to be one of the most important city states of Crete. Recent excavations show the road leading to the main entrance, with rock-cut tombs nearby.

From here, drive on – or better still walk above on a walled track – to the main area of Aptera.

Aptera main gate

Aptera main gate

The city reached its peak during the early Hellenistic period (end 4th/3rd cent. BC) when it flourished as an economic and political centre, minted its own coins, developed diplomatic relations and forged a substantial trading network throughout the Hellenistic world. It’s two harbours either side of Souda Bay, at Kissamos (now Kalives) and Minoa (now Marathi on the Akrotiri) gave control of naval activities. Jurisdiction as a city state included Akrotiri, Apokoronou, the islands of Souda Bay, and as far west as Kydonia (now Chania.) With an estimated population of 20,000, of which a fifth were “freemen”, merchants, land and ship-owners, and the remainder slaves, Aptera continued to develop.

Aptera ruins

Aptera ruins

Further prosperity came under the Roman occupation (69BC – 365AD) when Aptera signed the “Pax Romana”, along with Polyrhenia, Gortys and other city states. Habitation continued through the early Byzantian period, but following a destructive earthquake in the 7th century, and the subsequent Saracen invasion and destruction, Aptera was abandoned as a city.

Aptera cistern 1

Aptera cistern 1

Much of the main area is fenced off, as excavations are ongoing, including access to a Doric temple and amphitheatre to the south. The two Roman cistern complexes, one superbly three-vaulted, can be admired from the perimeter fencing, but admission to the Monastery of St. John the Theologian, and a closer walk around the ruins, is limited to Tues/Sun, 8am – 2pm. As with many similar ancient sites, imagination (and some wonderment) is required when exploring here, treading in the footsteps of ancient Greeks, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Dorians, Romans, Saracens, Venetians and Germans, all of whom have played a part in Aptera’s long history.

Aptera cistern 2

Aptera cistern 2

Further on, and where the road ends, is the substantial Turkish Fortress, built after the Cretan revolt of 1866, and using much material taken from Aptera. There’s no access, but it’s a superb viewpoint over Souda Bay, Apokoronou, and inland to the high peaks of the White Mountains. Far below is the Itzedin Fortress at Kalami, also Turkish, once used to hold political and other prisoners. With no shade at Aptera, a morning visit is advisable, or wander around the site at sunset, and enjoy a meal afterwards at one of the tavernas in the nearby village.

Aptera Turk fort

The Turkish Fort

Footnote
Readers of our “Ten Walks” and “More Walks from Paleohora” – the former recently revised and re-published in memory of Lynne – will know of the contributions to the descriptions of Lissos, Kadros and Viena by our friend Tony Fennymore. After Tony died in England in 2007, his family and friends brought his ashes to Crete, and were buried at Aptera, his favourite place, and about which he knew more than probably anyone.

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The only drawback to the summer KTEL bus which runs to Omalos, leaving Paleochora at 6.15am, is just that  –  the early morning departure is not to everyone’s liking, especially after a leisurely meal and maybe some relaxing drinks in the cool of a late evening in our village.  But if you can make it in time, as we did recently, and then stay awake, the journey is spectacular, as dawn spreads over the mountains and through the olive groves to the numerous Cretan villages passed en route.

Several passengers left the bus to walk through the Agia Irini Gorge, those remaining would be descending Samaria, and must have wondered where we were heading when driver Yiannis dropped us off, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, soon after 8am.  We were actually at Agios Theodoros church, on the western fringe of the Omalos plateau, and our route was along an alternative section of the E4 path, to Koustoyerako, and from there down to Sougia for the ferry home.

Ag. Theodoros

Ag. Theodoros

This is one of three alternatives to the difficult (usually 2-day) coastal walk between Sougia and Agia Roumeli, the others being through Agia Irini/Figou gorges, or from Koustoyerako via Achlada and Linoseli, both reaching Xyloscala to then descend Samaria Gorge to Agia Roumeli.

E4 path starts here

E4 path starts here

A short walk back along the road took us to a turning SW, the surfaced road climbing gently then falling abruptly  to a sharp bend, and a water cistern, where the E4 path heads off south. But first we went to “inspect” the mountain hut at Ghreleska,  one km further, where the road ends.  Built as an observatory to watch the rare “kri-kri” (and we were lucky enough to see two), it’s a substantial building, and would make a superb overnight stay ; more of this another time.

Ghreleska Hut

Ghreleska Hut

Back on the trail, the waymarking (red paint dots, but concentrate on route-finding, it’s not easy at times,) led us for some 3km, contouring at around 1200m height under shady trees and over rocky limestone terrain, then dropping down to Olisma, where the path from Achlada joins from the east.  A break here, then on down a rather loose gully, which, around fifteen minutes later, the path crossed, climbing a well-defined “kalderimi” or mule-trail.  All too soon afterwards the path ends, joining a rough track at Agia Ekaterini.

Ag. Ekaterini

Ag. Ekaterini

A story about the church (St. Catherine) ; in 1943, after the battle at Achlada (see below) when a number of German soldiers were killed, a group of local resistance fighters (“andartes”) were hiding in a cave near here, as the enemy combed the area searching for them.  One of the men had an icon of Agia Ekaterini, and they all prayed and swore that if they escaped the Germans, they would build a church in her honour.  To seal the oath, they wrote their names on the icon. A thick mist descended on the mountain, forcing the Germans to abandon their search, and the ‘andartes’ were able to survive.  A church was built after the war, this one more recent, and a festival held annually on the 25th November.  Nearby is a memorial to those killed hereabouts.

Memorial to 'andartes'

Memorial to ‘andartes’

Koustoyerako is still some way off, following the rough road (with some ‘short-cuts’) all the way into the village, which we reached some three hours after setting off.

Path to Koustoyerako

Path to Koustoyerako

And in the ‘platea’ is a ‘kafeneio’,  –  “Achlada” –  where refreshing drinks were most welcome.  Meals are available too, but call first (28230 51092) for special requests or a large group.  The history of Koustoyerako has been well-documented, as the centre of resistance fighting in this area over centuries, especially during the last war.  The best book I know is “Vasili – the Lion of Crete”, by Murray Elliott, which tells the story of Dudley Perkins, a New Zealander, one of many left behind after the German invasion of Crete in May 1941, and who joined local resistance groups.  Chapters 7-13 are particularly relevant to this area.  A film is currently being made of his life, to be called “The Straggler”, and filmed in New Zealand, which will be fascinating.

Koustoyerako

Koustoyerako

To the immediate left of the kafeneio is a footpath to Livadas, descending terraces of almond and later olive trees, which avoids a much longer road walk.  Below the village, 1.5km later, we left the road to take a track south for the final 2 km into Sougia, tantalisingly in view for some time, with its promise of more cold drinks, ice-cream and a swim in the Libyan Sea, before a “mini-cruise”  back home to Paleohora on the good ship ‘Samaria’.

Home on the 'Samaria'
For those interested, the ‘Samaria’ was built in 1986, length 48m, capacity 368.07 gross tons, and can carry 850 passengers, 40 cars or 12 buses (and several kayaks) at a top speed of 13 mph. And there’s a bar on board ….

A long and serious day’s walk, this route is covered by the Anavasi Topo25 map (Samaria/Sougia) and is described in “The High Mountains of Crete” (Cicerone), both available at ‘To Delfini’ bookshop in Paleochora.

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