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Crete: Agios Nikolaos

Agios Nikolaos – The Heart of Mirabello

by Richard Clark

Ag Nikolaos, CreteI have just been lucky enough to return from a visit to Agios Nikolaos, a gem of a town nestling beside the Gulf of Mirabello on Crete’s north-east coast. More self-contained and less sprawling than its larger counterparts, Heraklion and Chania, it retains an effortless beauty, not in the least part aided by its natural location. Looking as though it has always washed its face and brushed its hair, the town sparkles, even on the odd occasion when it rains.

My first visit there was by bus from Heraklion. Even in the early Eighties, before the new main highway was built and when the busses where less sophisticated than the luxury air-conditioned fleet now in operation, the destination made a day trip to Agios Nikolaos worth the discomfort. Nowadays it is little more than an hour’s drive from the airport.

Agios Nikolaos, CreteThe question I have most frequently been asked by journalists this year when doing press for my latest book is how Greece is faring in the eye of the financial crisis? The answer is not straightforward. Outwardly everywhere I have visited remains much the same, although on closer inspection some businesses have succumbed and more property stands empty. Many of my friends, I sense, are putting a brave face on things saying business is good, but my eyes tell me a different story, as even in August, at the height of the season, numbers of tourists are down noticeably. But the Cretan people are still as open and welcoming as ever and there is certainly no reason for the tourist not to visit this beautiful corner of Greece’s largest island.

The Gulf of Mirabello undoubtedly lives up to its name. It means, ‘beautiful sight’ in Italian. Rumor has it that during the Venetian occupation of the island, between 1204 and 1669, an Italian ruler looking down from the mountains was asked where this magical place was. Not knowing, but captivated by its beauty, he gasped the words ‘mira bello’ and the name has, appropriately, stuck.

Ag Nikolaos, CreteThe town radiates out from a small inland lagoon, Lake Voulismeni (sunken lake), which since 1870 has been connected by a narrow channel to the old town harbor. Surrounding the lake are tavernas and cafenions and it is the most delightful place to pass the time.

For years we have eaten at Dionysos, a taverna on the edge of the lake. The twin brothers who run it, I look upon as friends and I have certainly been dining there for more than a decade. In my mind I’m convinced that I visited that same restaurant on my first visit to the town, although the twins would not thank me for imagining they could have been working there at the time.

The only trouble with eating at Dionysos is walking past the other restaurants. In Greece it is not unusual for waiters to tout for business outside their tavernas and the more popular the location the more competitive they are. For the most part I am immune to this, saying a courteous 'ochi efheristo' (no, thank you) usually gets me off the hook. But with our much-loved taverna sandwiched between other restaurants and the water’s edge, we have to run the gauntlet of several waiters who have taken it as a personal affront that we only eat in our friends’ establishment. I’m sure their forceful selling techniques must put many people off eating in any of the restaurants on the lakeside. Perhaps a less invasive approach would improve business for all.

Agios Nikolaos, CreteThe restaurants by the lake are the perfect place to people watch, particularly in the evening as Greek families promenade before dinner. Cooked for hours in a low oven, the kleftiko is not to be missed. This lamb dish is a Cretan specialty.

It usually has to be ordered in advance and when done properly, as it is in Dionysos, the meat is so tender it just melts in your mouth. The flavors are so unmistakably Cretan and can be recreated anywhere, but rarely does it taste as good as in a Greek taverna. For those who are not familiar with this hearty delight it is essentially a type of lamb stew. The browned meat is slow baked in olive oil with potatoes, onions, tomatoes, garlic, oregano and feta cheese in a sealed oven dish, paper or foil for about four hours.

When the dish emerges from the oven, the smells herald the pleasures to come. Feasting on kleftiko, late in the evening with the tiny fishing boats lightly tugging at their moorings, drinking from a jug of dry red Sitian wine, one can’t help but think that Dionysos could not have been more appropriately named than after the Greek god of pleasure.

Agios NikolaosLegend has it that the lake is bottomless, and that the goddess Athena used to bathe in it. In 1853 however, a British admiral had soundings taken and found that it did have a bottom, albeit at a depth of 200 feet. This fact did little to quell the belief that it was bottomless, which in more modern times was a marketable factor in promoting the town as a tourist attraction. This is why in 1976 the highly-respected undersea explorer, Jacques Cousteau, became something of a local villain.

That year the Frenchman and his team of divers came to Crete in search of evidence of the remains of lost civilizations. Taking time out from their underwater searches for Minoan artifacts, he sent a diver into Lake Voulismeni, and he confirmed once and for all that it was not bottomless.

Cousteau’s high profile meant that this myth-busting dive made the truth common knowledge, and the Frenchman was blamed for any subsequent loss of trade! In the Noughties he was let off the hook, as the local businessmen transferred their ire to the global recession.

Elsewhere on the island Cousteau is held in greater esteem. On the same expedition his team made some remarkable discoveries. In search of the lost island of Atlantis, they were diving in the waters around the small island of Pseira out in the gulf of Mirabello. Here they found a wealth of Minoan pottery, which was believed to have come from ships that were sunk in the huge volcanic eruption that destroyed the island of Thera (Santorini).

Since then, Greek archaeologist Elpida Hadjidaki has found evidence of a shipwreck in the area. Discovering numerous Minoan jugs, cups and other artifacts on the seabed in 2003, her team has mounted numerous dives and brought to the surface upwards of 200 ceramic pieces. Many of these have been identified as amphorae, used for the transportation of cargoes of olive oil or wine, reminders of the lasting quality of what was valued all those years ago, and how they still remain the heart and soul of Greek culture.

Ag Nikolaos, CreteAgios Nikolaos is the perfect base to explore the surrounding towns and villages, including the upmarket small resort of Elounda or a little further north along the bay, the busy village of Plaka, a place that is bucking the trend of the economic slowdown having been discovered by many tourists following the success of Victoria Hislop’s bestselling book The Island and its subsequent dramatization made for Greek television. The island in question is Spinalonga, the old Venetian fortress and former leper colony lying just a stone’s throw offshore of Plaka and can be reached by boat from here, or indeed from Elounda or Agios Nikolaos itself.

Despite the controversial development of resorts like Malia and Hersonissos to the west, the Gulf of Mirabello retains its authentic spirit of place, absorbing and welcoming tourism but at the same time retaining the identity it revealed to those Italian invaders some 600 years ago, it remains a beautiful and timeless place.

Richard Clark is a writer and journalist, and is the author of two books about Greece. Both are available in paperback or in eBook format from Amazon and other major retailers. The Greek Islands – A Notebook, and Crete – A Notebook  

Thank you to Laura-Andreea Sterean and Lucy Hainsworth for the photos on this page.

Suggested Hotels in Agios Nikolaos

St Nicolas Bay Resort and Villas, CreteThe 5-star St. Nicolas Bay Resort and Villas lies on a private beachfront, 1.5 km from Agios Nikolaos. It features 4 swimming pools and a luxurious spa and wellness centre. Its stylish accommodation offers spectacular views of the charming Μirabello Bay. Also in the 5-star category nestled on a hillside overlooking its own private bay, the Grand Melia Resort and Luxury Villas boasts 165 private sea-water pools, a 26910 ft² spa, and luxurious rooms with spectacular views of the cove and the sea. Boasting a waterfront location, Candia Park Village offers 4-star accommodations overlooking the Mirabello Bay. It has 3 pools, 2 private beaches with lounge chairs and sun umbrellas, and a children’s club. Situated on Kitroplateia Beach the 3-star Palazzo Apartments are a short walk from the middle of Agios Nikolaos. These self-catered, air conditioned apartments offer panoramic views of the Mirabello Gulf and Sitia Mountains. Another 3-star hotel with self-catering, in the center of picturesque Agios Nikolaos, next to the harbor, Mantraki Apartments are traditionally furnished, and can accommodate between 2 and 4 people. They come with air conditioning, free internet connection, ironing facilities and a kitchenette.For budget conscious travelers the 2-star Melas Apartments are on Agios Nikolaos’ promenade, just 150 metres from the sandy beach of Ammoudi. The lake and town are just a 5-minute walk away and a beach is right in front of the apartments. The 2-star Polydoros offer traditionally furnished studios and apartments with free Wi-Fi. Lato Hotel enjoys a privileged location in Agios Nikolaos, overlooking the beautiful Mirabelo bay, just a mile from the center of the city, and offers free Wi-Fi internet..Surrounded by palm tree gardens, Lato Hotel offers well furnished rooms with mini fridge, TV, free wireless internet and air condition.

You can find hotels, apartments, rooms and even houses through Booking.com's Agios Nikolaos Pages which also contributes to my website when you book.

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