The Geography of Crete. Islets and coastal areas

The Coastal Areas and the Wetlands

The jagged coastline of Crete measures 1.046 km with several creeks, capes, bays and peninsulas. To the north the coast meets the waters of the Cretan Sea, to the south the Libyan Sea. East of Crete is the Carpathian Sea and the Myrtoon Sea is to the west. The coastal zone ranges between 1 and 5 km in width and is mainly dominated by sandy beaches and low rocky cliffs.

But there are also numerous small areas of wetland where rivers and streams flow from the mountains into the sea. One of the greatest wetland areas is where the Geropótamos river flows into the sea just a few kilometres west of our holiday house. Wetlands are important biotopes with a very high number of flora and fauna species. They are also an important stop-over places for migratory birds. During the past 30 years, however, intensification of agriculture and development of coastal tourism, have increased the exploitation of water resources in Crete. This has destroyed 60 % of the islands wetland areas. One now tries to recreate some of the areas.

If you are interested in knowing more about the wetlands of Crete, The Natural History Museum of Crete and the University of Crete have published an excellent 'Ecotouristic Guide of the Main Wetlands of Crete' which you can download as a pdf-file from here.

Islets around Crete

Around Crete lies approx. 80 different islands and islets. Many of them uninhabited and many of them very small. Some of them have previously been inhabited and have archaeological and historical interest. Others are today important nature reserves. Several of them appear in Greek mythology. Below a few of the islets are described.

Chrissi
The island of Chrissi (or Chrysi, meaning 'golden') is sometimes also called Gaidouronisi (Donkey Island). It lies in the Libyan sea approx. 8 nautical miles south of Iapetra at the south coast of Crete.
Dia Today the island is uninhabited, but there is a chapel from the 13th century on the island's western side, dedicated to St. Nicholas. There are also ruins from the Minoan and Roman times.
The island is protected because it is a particularly scenic area. The island has the largest natural forest of Lebanon cedar (Cedrus libani) with up to 10 meter high, over 200 years old trees.
From April to October boat cruises service Chrissi, which is popular because of its beautiful beaches and crystal clear water.

Dia
Dia is located 7 nautical miles north of Heraklion. Looking at the island from here, it looks like a big lizard. Legend has it that a giant lizard once tried to destroy Crete until Zeus turned it to stone.
Dia In 1976 did the French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau found traces of an ancient port on the island. Later explorations have also found traces of a harbor from the Byzantine period and it is assumed that Nikeforos Fokas used the island as a reference point when he conquered the island back in 961 from the Saracens, who had conquered Crete in 824.
Today the island is uninhabited and part of the European nature conservation program Natura 2000. On the island are rare plants and endemic species such as the Cretan wall lizard (Podarcis cretensis).
In 1958, some Cretan wild goats (Kri-Kri) were taken to the island in an attempt to save the endangered species. They did, however, much damage to the likewise threatened endemic flora of Dia. Especially Carlina diae - a thistle found only in Dia. The animals were removed, but after a period of regeration, the intention is again to take wild goats to the island.
From Heraklion's there are swimming- and diving excursions to the waters around Dia with a landing at a small tavern on the island.

The Dionysades
The Dionysades is a group of 4 uninhabited islands off Sitia on Crete's northeastern coast. They were inhabited in antiquity and in the earliest Christian times, as archaeological evidence shows. Today the only building on the islands is the the small church of Agios Antonios. In ancient times the god Dionysus was worshiped on the islands, hence their name.
Today the islands are a protected nature reserve. They are an important breeding area for among others Cory's Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea borealis) and Eleonora falcon (Falco Eleonora).

Gavdos
Europe's southernmost point, Cape Trypiti, is located on the islet of Gavdos, 26 nautical miles or approx. 48 km south of Chora Sfakion on Crete's south coast. Supposedly, this was where to the nymph Calypso from Homer's' Odyssey lived.
Cape Trypiti In any case, the island has been inhabited since the Stone Age. Especially under the Romans, the island's natural resources were exploited. This started erosions and gradual destruction of the subsistence opportunities, which continued throughout the following centuries. At its peak around 900 there lived 8.000 people on Gavdos. the number had fallen to approx. 500 in the 1880s. In the 1950s and 60s people to the towns in Crete and today there are only about 50 permanent residents on the island. In summer, however, the number growns to about 3.500 people when the island is visited by campers.
A visit to Gavdos is primarily an attraction because of the island's wild nature and isolated peace and tranquility. In the tourist season, there are two ferry routes to Gavdos from, respectively Chora Sfakia (Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. 1 hour, 15 minutes) and Paleochora (Monday and Wednesday, three and a half hours).

Gramvoussa
Gramvousa (Grambousa, Grampousa or Krampouza) is actually not one but two small uninhabited islands of Crete's north coast. Imeri and Agria Gramvousa. At Imeri Gramvousa there are remains of a Venetian fortress and the buildings that were used when the island was a refuge for insurgents during the Greek war of liberation in the 1820s.
Gramvousa like Souda and Spinalonga remained on Venetian hands after Crete was surrendered to the Ottomans in 1669. Gramvousa was first given up in 1691 by a corrupt Neapolitan captain.
Later Gramvousa became a refuge for Cretan rebels who fought against the Ottoman rule in Crete. In 1825 the island was a base for a group of 3-400 rebels. The Turks besieged the island for over two years, but could not take it. To survive the rebels exerted to piracy causing great inconvenience to the Turkish and Egyptian trade in this part of the Mediterranean. In 1828 the island came under British control at the behest of Governor Ioannis Kapodistrias from the new Greek state on the mainland and the pirate ships were destroyed.
Gramvousa Today the area is a popular destination for excursions. From Kossamos you can sail to the island and the nearby Balos lagoon with its' fine beaches.

Paximadia
Paximadia are two small uninhabited islands in the Mesara bay about 12 km south of Agia Galini on the south coast of Crete. The locals also call them Elafantaki because they resemble a small elephant. But the name Paximadia means 'rusks' because the islands also resemble the Cretan rusks or dry bread.
According to Cretan mythology the goddess Leto gave birth to Apollo (god of light and song) and Artemis (hunting, forest and animal goddess) on these islands. Therefore, the islands were also called Letoai.
In summer you can be sailed to the islands from Agian Galini and Kokkinos Pyrgos. There is one beach on the south side of the easternmost island.

Souda og Leon
Souda is a small islet located in the Souda Bay, east of Chania. Beside it lies a small island called Leon. In antiquity the two islands were called Leukai.
Dia Because Souda is located strategically in the natural harbor, which the Souda Bay is, the Venetians built a fortress on the island between 1570 and the 1573. When Crete fell to the Ottomans in 1669 the Venetians succeeded in remaining at Souda (and two other islands, Gramvousa and Spinalonga) right up to the 1715. Also later, there has been a military on the island, since it is located just opposite the NATO naval station at Souda Bay. The island formed the backdrop for some of the scenes in the James Bond film "For Your Eyes Only" from 1981.
The ancient name Leukai comes from a myth about a musical competition between muses and sirens. The muses lost the competition and in anger plucked the feathers of the winged sirens. The sirens faded (turned white), fell into the sea at a place called Aptera (Wingless) and formed the islands Leukai (white).
Souda is open to visitors in July and August. From the port city of the same name are boat trips to the island, but it can only be visited on guided tours.

Spinalonga
Spinalonga Spinalonga is sometimes confused with the nearby peninsula of the same name. The island's official name is Kalydon.
It is actually an artificial island for during the Venetian period on Crete in 1526 the island was dug off the nearby peninsula Kolokitha and a fortress was built on the spot.
The Venetian fortifications on the island are created by the engineer Genese Bressani in 1578-1579. They were one of the most important fortresses in the Mediterranean of those days.
When the Venetians lost Crete to the Ottomans in 1669 they remained at Spinalonga to 1715, when even this last remnant of Venetian domination of the Mediterranean Sea was abandoned. Later, when the Cretan revolt against the Ottomans was at its peak the island in return became a safe haven for many Ottoman families who fled from Crete and the rebels.
From 1903 to 1957 the island was leprosy colony. One of the last of its kind in Europe. Although it sounds harsh, it was a step forward. At Spinalonga the lepers had medical care, food and social services. Before they had to live in caves away from the rest of society and without assistance.
Today you can visit Spinalonga from Elounda and Agios Nikolaos, where there are daily tourist boats to the island.

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