A route full of nature, history and centuries of religious devotion
1st stop: Melidoni cave (aka Gerontospilios)
Melidoni cave is situated about 2km from the village of Melidoni, near Rethymno, in an alitutude of 220m. You will reach it by following the signs to Perama (about 25km from Rethymno) and Melidoni, from the old national road.
According to mythology Talos lived here, a prehistoric giant robot that Zeus gave to King Minos as a present to protect the island of Crete by crossing it from side to side with just a few steps! The cave’s history goes back to the late Neolithic period, as indicated by the various Neolithic tools and items found inside it. During the middle Minoan period (2100 – 1600 B.C) the cave was a worship site, probably of some female deity. Among the findings is a double copper axe was found dating back to this period. During the Roman period the cave was used as a sanctuary of “Taleos Hermes” and sacrifices were performed here to honor him. The cave was actually a significant sacred site in the region, as it was situated on the “crossroad” of three great ancient cities: Axos, Eleftherna and Grivilon.
But when you start descending towards the cave’s interior, your first encounter will be with modern history, surrounded by the cave’s astonishing adornment. The cave houses a small communal tomb, standing witness of a tragic moment in the cave’s history. Back in 1824, when the blood thirsty Houssein Bei camped with his army in Melidoni, he found the village empty. The men had hidden in the mountains and 370 women and children along with 30 armed men found refuge in the cave. The siege of the cave lasted 3 months and ended with the Turks setting fire in the cave entrance, causing the asphyxiation of all the people inside. When you up in the surface and daylight again, have a drink in the cafeteria of the site and enjoy the view of Psiloritis and the surrounding villages. The people working there might have more interesting stories to tell you!
2nd stop: Arkadi Monastery
This is most probably the most impressive (in terms of architecture) and historic monastery of Crete. Valleys with high pine trees will accompany your route as you approach the monastery, creating a metaphysical atmosphere! And then, as you cross the central gate, one of the most breathtaking architectural monuments of the Cretan Renaissance will unravel before your eyes. No matter how atheist or down to earth you might be, this imposing religious site will make you gaze in awe.
The Basilica in front of you is a typical example of mannerist architecture that dominated in Venetian Crete and was built somewhere between 1572 and 1587 over an older 13th century temple. The form of its stone-built façade was directly influenced by the work of the famous architects Sebastiano Serlio and Andrea Palladio. The rest of the buildings you see were built later, between 1670 and 1714. The basilica is dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ and to Saint Constantine and Saint Helen.
The history and beauty of the Monastery extends to its other interior and exterior spaces. When you go out the courtyard, a strange fairy tale-like tree will catch your attention. This is actually a cypress tree, one of the oldest trees of the monastery that has been marked by history… find the arrow indicating the bullet shot by the Turks, stuck within the tree’s flesh. Then, continue exploring the other buildings of the Monastery and don’t miss the museum, where some of the Monastery’s relics are held, and of course, the powder magazine.
The Basilica of Arkadi is a typical example of mannerist architecture that dominated in Venetian Crete and was directly influenced by the work of the famous architects Sebastiano Serlio and Andrea Palladio
Yes, it sounds weird for a monastery to have a powder magazine, but in reality this was an old wine cellar that was transformed into a powder magazine during the revolution against the Turks. On November 1866 the “Arcadian drama” took place when 259 Cretan rebels and 705 women and children gathered here and were seized by the Turkish army. When it became obvious that they could not win this battle, the people trapped in the powder magazine decided they preferred to die than fall into the hands of the Turkish army. So they blew themselves up, setting fire in the powder magazine, killing many Turks as well. This is how the tragic history of Arkadi was written. The building outside the walls of the monastery, that once was the monastery’s windmill, now houses the bones of those who lost their lives in this holocaust. Today you can still see the signs of fire on the powder magazine’s walls and the destroyed rooftop. The peaceful landscape and monastery from the one side and the overtone of its tragic history on the other… with this contradiction you leave Arkadi behind and you hit the road again to your last stop, the gorge of Patsos. On the road it is easier to follow the signs to the restaurant “drymos” (δρυμός), situated right in the entrance of the gorge, because you will see them more frequently!
3rd stop: Gorge of Patsos (aka Gorge of Agios Antonios)
Ok, time for trekking! The gorge of Patsos, aka the gorge of Agios Antonios, is one of the most beautiful in Crete. Already from its entrance you will find yourself under centuries old plane trees and the calming sounds of running waters. The gorge is home to about 80 flora species and 24 fauna species, many of which are protected. A few meters after you cross the entrance you will meet the chapel of Agios Antonios (St. Antoine), carved into the rocks. Votive offerings hang from the walls, as well as various small objects, such as dolls, letters, clothes and… crutches. These offerings are basically the continuation of ancient religious practices performed in the same place, where god Hermes was worshipped. Excavations around the rock have brought to light anthropomorphic and animal idols (some are kept in the Archeological Museum of Heraklion, and some in the Museum of Oxford), as well as shells from the late Minoan, Hellenistic and Roman periods. Therefore, the sanctity of this site is diachronic and the surrounding landscape just magical...!
Until the chapel and a few meters further the path is easily accessible and very pleasant to walk on. There are several alternative routes you can take, some leading you up in hills for panoramic views. The waters shape small waterfalls and lakes and wild birds fly through the narrow passages of the ravine. The total trail is 5km but it is wiser not to go all the way, because you also have to walk back and take your car. Plus, some parts are not so easy to cross and you might need hiking footwear and some equipment. What we suggest you do is go back to the entrance and enjoy a tasty Cretan meal in the tavern, next to the stream!