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Southwest of Heraklion

Gortyn, Phaistos, the Plain of Mesara and Mátala


The main road southwest of Heráklion to Górtyn, Phaistós and Mátala passes through dense vineyards. Veneráto offers the principal reason to stop, with a 2km detour to the serene convent of Palianí, home to 50 nuns. Besides early Christian capitals and 13th-century frescoes, Palianí boasts the venerable Holy Myrtle; the nuns claim there’s an icon of the Virgin in the heart of the tree and use a pair of ancient capitals for the consecration of bread offerings every 23 September.

To the south, the large, straggling village of Ag. Varvára stands amid orchards at the geographical centre of the island, and in June shopfronts are festooned with garlands of cherries; a chapel dedicated to the Prophet Elijah sits atop a large rock known as the ‘omphalos’, or navel, of Crete.

The weather in this area can be dramatic: at Mégali Vríssi, to the east, aeolian windmills, the biggest in Greece, harness the cross-island winds.

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Text © Dana Facaros

Images by Andy Montgomery, Cadogan Greek Islands, Carole Raddato, Claudia Schillinger, Jebulon, John and Melanie (Illingworth) Kotsopoulos, Marc Ryckaert (MJJR), Olaf Tausch, Roberto Strauss from Frankfurt am Main