Another short and easy walk this month, even more so than the stroll around the Botanical Gardens described in April’s Explore ! But it’s a walk you will have to wait for almost a year to enjoy, as access is only possible on one day each year, the 8th June.
The islands of Agii Theodhori are situated off the north coast of Crete, 7km WNW of Chania, and a kilometre offshore from Agia Marina and Platanias. As everywhere on Crete, they have a long and turbulent history. In ancient times the larger island was known as Akytos, meaning “unsuitable for habitation”, and during the Minoan period the islands were a sacred sanctuary. The Venetians referred to the island as San Theodoro, and in 1574 built two forts to protect the coastline from invasion and piracy, one, Turluru, on the highest point, the other lower down, close to the original church, now in ruins. These defences proved in vain, as the Ottoman Turks invaded in 1645. The Venetians regained control in 1650, but the Turks recaptured the island in 1699, and held them until the Liberation of Crete in 1898.
In 1930 Ag Theodhori island was designated a wildlife sanctuary to protect the endangered Cretan wild goats or “kri-kri”. In 1935 one male and two females were brought from the Samaria Gorge and released here, and to prevent in-breeding, further animals were later added.
The herd now numbers around eighty. In addition to the kri-kri, the island is a sanctuary and breeding ground for peregrines and the threatened Eleonora’s falcons, who live well off the island’s population of hares and rats. Cormorants and gulls nest and breed in the crevices and ledges of the sea cliffs.
As an established Nature Reserve, no visitors are allowed, the only occupant a resident Warden, although boat trips from Chania, Platanias and Agia Marina circle the islands, and then anchor off-shore for swimming and snorkelling. I’ve kayaked around several times, an exciting expedition of 5km, especially through the narrow 30m passage separating the main island from the rocky islet (Theodhoropoula) to its north, and landed (briefly and illegally …) on the small beach to stretch legs (ref. Explore ! from the Archives, February 2013.)
So it was a new experience to visit the island officially, and walk up to the tiny church of Ag. Theodhori, for the annual pilgrimage and short service. We arrived early in Platanias and parked in the small harbour, from where boats, as at Agia Marina, were ferrying visitors to the island.
With (return !) tickets, we were soon on board for the short crossing, far faster than by kayak, if not as rewarding.
Some facts about the island : it covers an area of 697 sq. metres, with a high point of 165m at the N point, on which the Venetian fortress was built. From end to end it measures just 2km, but the only path measures just 400 m, with a rise of just 50m, from the beach to the church.
The short climb passes an Information Board, below the Warden’s house, from where is a panoramic view beyond the coast of Crete to the White Mountains. Knowing where to look, we identified the high summits of Kastri, Pachnes, Melindaou, Volakias and Gingilos, with snow still lingering in patches above 2000m after a prolonged winter.
Joining the procession, of all ages, shapes and sizes, we walked up to the church, where the ceremony was in progress. Responses of “Kyrie Eleison” came from the ‘congregation’ to the priest’s chants, followed by a circuit of the church with the icon, and a lengthy homily of which I understood very little.
Afterwards, with the traditional ‘feast’ bread but thankfully no wine or raki, we made our way back down, stopping frequently at well-placed benches to enjoy the views. The kri-kri, wisely, had wandered off to quieter parts of the island, and there were none to be seen.
Soon after midday the last boats had left the island, which now would return to peace and tranquillity for another year.
So maybe make a date for the 8th June, 2023 ….. and see you there ….