Viannos has its own Omalos, lesser-known compared to the one over Samaria gorge, but equally (or perhaps, differently) impressive. A trip to Kato Simi and Omalos Viannou will reveal one of the most charming mountainous landscapes of Crete: a little village with shuddering history nested among ancient plane trees and forested slopes and a vast pine tree forest –for Cretan standards- once the “Holy Mountain” of the ancient islanders.
Before you enter the village set in a green valley, you will see a monument honoring those who lost their lives during the Kato Simi battle in WWII, which might not be well known but it is perhaps the most important battle; mainly because the overwhelming defeat of the German army by the rebels and the dramatic retaliation acts that followed.
The old villagers have many stories to tell from that period and they are usually found in the picturesque coffee shop “Karavos” at the central square, under the shade of huge plane trees. The purling sound of water breaks the countryside silence, as the region is full of springs nurturing a landscape that seems to belong to northern Greece. The forest almost invades the gardens of the last village houses and the imposing mountain slopes surround the settlement with the color green.
In one of those slopes stands a temple that catches the eye with its unique architecture, even from a distance. It is the temple of Panagia (Mary) Galaktoktismeni & Nistikoktismeni. Galaktoktismeni means ‘built with milk’ and nistikoktismeni means ‘built unfed’; this strange name derives from a local legend, according to which the temple was built with milk and the workers did not eat anything throughout its construction period…
The Lord of Simi and the temple of Galaktoktismeni & Nistikoktismeni
Even though many elements of this story are based on oral traditions that touch the limits of legend and myth, they are still based on historical facts.
Once upon a time, during the Venetian period, Kato Simi has its own Lord who lived in a noble house (the ruins of this house are still preserved in the outskirts of the village). One day the wife of the Lord of Chandax (today Heraklion) visited the village and was hosted in the house of the Lord of Simi, who took advantage of her and raped her. When the Lord of Chandax found out what happened to his wife, he called the council of Lords of Crete to discuss how the dishonoring of one’s wife should be punished. Lord of Simi himself, unaware that it was his punishment under discussion, suggested the death penalty. And this is where the real story ends and the legend begins: according to one edition, the Lord of Simi was built alive in the building of Loggia in Heraklion (!). According to a second edition, he was tied to a tree, covered with honey and left to be eaten alive by bees; and according to a third (and less imaginative) edition dominant in the village, he was simply hanged.
However, the story does not end here, as the Lady of Simi wished to atone her husband’s sins. Under this scope, she ordered the construction of the temple of Panagia (Mary) using the milk of her sheep and she did not allow the workers to eat anything for as long as the construction lasted. For this reason the temple is known as ‘Panagia Galaktoktismeni & Nistikoktismeni’.
The Battle of Kato Simi
The Battle of Kato Simi is not well documented, despite its great importance during the WWII resistance on the island of Crete and its dramatic consequences for the whole region of Viannos. It took place on September 1943 and resulted in an overwhelming defeat for the German occupation army. The cause that initiated the clashes was the murder of two German ‘potato-collectors’ in Kato Simi. They were called like that because their task was to collect potatoes for the German army; even though what they really collected was information, as the region of Viannos and the forest of Kato Simi was the center of the Cretan Resistance at the time and base of the great rebel army of Manolis Mpantouvas. After the murder of the ‘potato-collectors’ the Germans sent a whole legion in Kato Simi; what they didn’t know, however, is that the Cretan rebels had set an ambush. The German army suffered great losses: some talk about 84-86 dead and according to other sources there were more than 100 dead and many prisoners. The Germans did not let this insult go unanswered and the response was very harsh: the villages of Kato Simi and Pefkos were burned down while all neighboring villages were surrounded and all men were killed. Retaliation acts did not end there; a month later, on October 1943, group executions were conducted and many villages of the region were blown up with dynamite: Pefkos, Simi, Krevatas, Kalami, Sykologos and more.
The forest of Kato Simi and the plateau of Omalos
So many sad stories in such a beautiful place…today, fortunately, only beauty prevails in the region. Since you are here, do not miss the (almost) abandoned village of Ano Simi and the temple of Agios Georgios, a few kilometers up the road after Kato Simi, and the pine tree forest with striking views the further up you go. On the way to the plateau of Omalos you will meet the sanctuary of Hermes and Aphrodite at the archaeological site of Kria Vrysi.
It is one of the most important sanctuaries of antiquity and it functioned continuously for 27 centuries (!), from the mid-Minoan period to the Roman Empire. Its ideal location in the pine forest with the Libyan Sea in the background suggests that this was probably the ‘Holy Mountain’ of antiquity, which, according to Geographer Ptolemy was located between the ancient cities of Itanos and Ierapitna (today Ierapetra).
The plateau of Omalos, an uninhabited, deserted, untouched landscape...in other words: mystic!
When you finally reach the plateau of Omalos in an altitude of 1350m, be prepared for a mystic landscape: uninhabited, deserted, untouched, naturally beautiful. A landscape with a thousand faces, according to season and weather conditions. In winter a small lake is shaped and gradually disappears in summer. The clouds travel low, almost touching the ground, huge birds of prey fly over your head and this wild, nearly primitive landscape becomes the kingdom of absolute tranquility. Enjoy it, because in our times it has become one of the rarest luxuries…