Pitsidia is situated a short drive north east of Matala and Kommos or Komos beach, in the south of the Iraklion district, about 1 hour drive from the Heraklion airport. It’s not much more than the road that leads the people to these two other places and a few side streets. On the main road that leads through the village and around the central square you will find plenty of bougainville covered taverna’s where you can have a bite to eat, and there are a couple of supermarkets, a hairdresser, a butcher and a bakery. It’s got a charm of it’s own and it looks definitely better than some of the ugly villages you can see along the new national road. As you drive through the village on the main road you miss out on the actual old part of the village.
There are quite a few accommodations in the village of Pitsidia and is an option for people who want to visit the nearby beaches (Matala and Kommos) but want to avoid the crowds. Matala beach lies at a distance of four kilometer and Komos beach is one an a half kilometer away. You can walk from Pitsidia to this last beach in about 30 minutes. Yet another beach, the beach of Kalamaki lies at a distance of about 5 kilometer from the village. From Pitsidia there are regular buses to Matala beach (during high season 6 a day). Pitsidia is the oldest village in the area. In Byzantine times the commander of the army settled in the village. The army came from the village of Pisidia, which is in the current Asia Minor (in the south of Turkey). This probably explains the name of the village still has today. Pitsidia was a logical place because there is a water spring in the hills behind the village. There are cisterns and water pipes behind the village hall, but nowadays these are no longer in use and the water comes into the village of Pitsidia through new pipes. There is still a small church dedicated to the water and two saints. This fairly new church has come in the place of an elder one, which was apparently so solidly built that the foundations had to be removed with dynamite.
A safe natural harbour on the Bay of Messara, blessed with a gently sweeping sand and pebble beach, the place in legend where Zeus swam ashore in the guise of a bull with Europa on his back. Many people make this village their base for Cretan holidays, as it is so central on the south coast, and away from the over-development of the north coast. The beach is 250m long and 45m wide.
Matala has something for everyone. Although it has become a popular tourist destination it still retains the charm and character of the quiet fishing village it started as at the beginning of the 20th-century, and the laid-back lifestyle of the hippies of the 60’s and 70’s lives on. Half the beach is fringed by tamarisk trees, leading the eye on to impressive formations of sandstone rock cliffs with their famous caves sliding into the sea at an odd angle, creating one of the most unusual beachscapes on the island.
There have been many pages of history here. Nobody knows quite who started caves but it seems likely that they were first hollowed out as Roman or early Christian tombs. There are other ruins at the eastern end of the village and if you go snorkelling in the clear waters of Messara Bay there are ancient ruins to be seen in the depths. Matala it is one of just over 400 beaches in Greece that have been awarded a Blue Flag. This exclusive eco-label is given to beaches that offer cleanliness and safe bathing areas and has strict criteria dealing with water quality, environmental management and safety. There is a lifeguard and first aid facilities, as well as toilets and showers. Near the beach are opportunities for learning about environmental projects, such as with Archelon, the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece.
The beaches of Matala, Kommos and Red Beach come under Natura 2000, a European Union network of nature protection areas established to assure the long-term survival of Europe’s most valuable and threatened species and habitats. At the beach there are sport facilities as well as activities for children, and if you would like to go further afield you can also rent a car, bicycles and motorbikes. Yet all this is only 65 km from Iraklion.
Kommos (or Komos) is located 66km southwest of Heraklion, just 2km north of Matala and close the village Pitsidia. It is actually the southernmost and the most isolated part of the long beachfront of Messara Bay. Kommos was once the port of Phaestus; you can still see the ruins of the old port of Kommos on the beach. You can access Kommos by driving in the road heading to Matala, till you see a sign to Kommos near Pitsidia.
The entire beachfront of Messara is exposed to westerly winds, which mostly blow in the area. Thus, caution is needed because the seabed in some places is rocky. The protected loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) lay their eggs in the sand of the beach, from May to September.
The northern part of Kommos, Potamos or Potamoserma, is a favorite destination for naturists, since the times when hundreds of hippies flooded the area. There are only a few tamarisk trees around, not buildings, because Kommos is a protected archaeological area and building is restricted. Next to the archaeological site, on the south, there is an organized beach with umbrellas, sun beds, toilet, showers, a canteen and a lifeguard. All around there are sand dunes where you can admire the white lilies of sand, which sign the end of the summer. If you want to find a place to stay overnight or to eat, you can walk to the nearby Kalamaki, or drive to Pitsidia and Matala.
The views to Paximadia islets is stunning, especially during sunset. Just opposite the archaeological site, 300m in the sea, you will see a beautiful big rock, which the locals call Volakas. Volakas could not be absent from the Greek myths. Locals say that the stone is the top of the boulder that the blinded Cyclope Polyphemus threw against the ship of Odysseus in order not to escape. This was after Odysseus, with his companions, escaped from Polyphemus’ cave.
The Red Beach (Kokkini Ammos) is located at location Moudia, 68km southwest of Heraklion and just 800m south of Matala famous resort. To get here you have to walk a trail that begins north of the settlement of Matala and crosses the hill Kastri north of Matala. There are some signs showing the way, so don;t worry about getting lost. In the beginning of the route you have to climb some rocks and in the final meters you have to descend a steep cliff, but it’s not particularly difficult. After walking 15-25 minutes from Matala and after passing a shepherd’s door (close it back, in order goats not to escape!) you will see the magnificent Red Beach from above. The view from the hill is great and is an ideal place for watching the sunset. Alternatively, if you do not want to hike, you can catch a boat from the Matala harbor (it should take about 5 euros / route).
The secluded beach is really beautiful, but is vulnerable to the western winds blowing frequently in the region. Characteristic of the coast, as implied by its name, is the reddish sand originating from the rocks of the region. The color of the sea gets a lovely blue-green color, making the landscape really beautiful. The Red Beach is not well organized, but there is a primitive stone-wall coffee shop (which is not always open), where you can get some food and drinks. There are also a few umbrellas, which may be already taken if you come late. Thus, it is good to have mats and umbrellas with you, because the only natural shade is offered by a couple of tamarisk trees next to the canteen.
The Palace of Phaistos lies on the East end of Kastri hill at the end of the Mesara plain in Central Southern Crete. To the north lies Psiloritis, the highest mountain in Crete. On the slopes of Psiloritis is the Kamares cave, probably a religious or cult centre for Phaistos and the Mesara plain. In this cave a very fine pottery style was discovered from
the Middle Minoan period, which has been named Kamares Ware after the cave in which it was found. Kamares ware has only been found at Palace sites like Phaistos and Knossos, suggesting that it was specially produced for whatever elite was based in the Palaces.
A couple of kilometres to the west of Phaistos is the important Minoan site of Ayia Triadha. To the south of Phaistos are the Asterousia mountains beyond which lies the Libyan Sea. To the south west is Kommos, the ancient port of Phaistos and to the east, the vast Mesara plain, the single largest fertile area in Crete, which in Minoan times was populated with small settlements with their distinctive tholos tombs.
Phaistos: The theatral area, with the West Court and raised walkway The theatral area, with the West Court and raised walkway The Palace was excavated by the Italian archaeologist Halbherr at the beginning of the 20th century. The earliest settlements on the site, which lies close to the Yeropotamos, one of the few rivers in Crete to flow all year round, date from the Neolothic Period (c.4000 BCE) . It is likely that in the Early Minoan period small settlements were scattered over the hill on which the Palace later stood. Dark on light pottery (Agios Onouphrios ware) has been found in the prepalatial levels on the hill, but no Vasiliki ware from the Early Minoan II period has been found on the site. The Old Palace was built on the site at the beginning of the Second Millenium, known as the Protopalatial Period (c.1900-1700 BCE). It required an enormous amount of work to build the palace. First of all three huge terraces were levelled. The palace was then constructed on two of these terraces, the Theatral Terrace and the Lower Terrace.
Very thick ground floor walls were built running east-west along the contour of hill, while less important walls and the walls of the upper floor rooms were orientated north-south. The walls were plastered and painted and in some rooms gypsum dados lined the lower part of the walls. In many rooms benches were built along some of the walls and niches were included in the walls themselves for storing small objects.
Phaistos: Part of the old palace
East of the New Palace Part of the old palace east of the New Palace Each of the three terraces would have had its own courtyard crossed by raised walkways to the west of the palace. The palace was built on two levels with the third floor of the wing on the lower terrace rising to the same height as the ground floor on the upper terrace.
The main entrance to the Palace, Room II, which to the modern eye looking at the remains of the neopalatial palace seems strangely located at the south end of the building, was in fact placed in a central position between the two wings of the Old Palace. Now blocked by structures from the New Palace, it would originally have led straight to the Central Court. Various other symmetrical architectural features were built into the West Facade, which would, to the Minoan visitor, have been one of the most impressive parts of the whole building.
There was a total of six entrances into the palace from the west court. Apart from the direct access through room II, the others would have gone through a maze of small rooms, some really very small, and made to seem smaller still by the benches lining some of the walls. The benches were covered with plaster similar to that used for buildings from the sameperiod at Malia. The plaster covered the entire room. Getting from room to room was not easy. Sharp turns would suddenly appear or one would be forced to change floor level. The orientation changed from east-west to north-south on the upper floor. Rooms in the West Wing were used among other things for storing pottery or agricultural produce, while others were used to prepare food and one group has been identified as a shrine, although the evidence cited may not be sufficient for a definite identification.
Phaistos: storage jar
Twice it was severely damaged by earthquakes and rebuilt so three distinct phases are visible to archaeologists. Levi, who excavated here from 1950 to 1971 believed that the first two phases of the Old Palace of Phaistos constitute the oldest Palatial buildings in Crete. Finds at the site, apart from the Phaistos Disc, include thousands of seal impressions and some tablets containing the Linear A script from Middle Minoan II. When the Old Palace was finally destroyed, almost certainly by an earthquake, a new palace was built on the site. Fortunately for us, the builders of the new palace did not destroy almost all traces of the old as they did at other sites. In fact much of the old palace was covered over at the time of the building of the new palace in order to level the ground. Some of the old palace can still be seen by visitors, especially the original West Facade and in the north-east corner, where the Phaistos disc was discovered. However, the remains of the West Wing of the Old Palace on the lower terrace are closed to the public. (But see link to photos of this area at the bottom of the page). In recent years Italian archaeologists have been taking a closer look at the Old Palace which should provide us with more information about this period of Minoan Crete at Phaistos.
The New Palace
It is very easy to get the impression that at the beginning of the Protopalatial period the Minoans built a number of palaces which continued unchanged for two hundred years and were then suddenly destroyed and immediately replaced by the New Palaces. But the history of the palaces is far more complex than that. We have already seen that the Old Palace at Phaistos suffered so much from earthquake damage that distinct rebuilding phases during its 200-year history are
visible to archaeologists.
The New Palace is no more straightforward than the Old Palace. One of the excavators, F. Carinci, believes that although an attempt was made to rebuild the Palace at the beginning of the Neopalatial period in MM III, these efforts ground to a halt and that during the period MM IIIB-LM IA, the Palace was effectively abandoned. According to Carinci, construction of the New Palace did not finally begin until well into LM IA, possibly after the Thera eruption and that the New Palace was not completed until LM IB, right at the end of the Neopalatial period.
The New Palace covers a smaller area than the old. However, excavators were surprised by the lack of finds that one would expect at a Minoan Palace. No frescoes have been found in the New Palace and there is a complete absence of sealings and tablets. One view suggests that in the New Palace period the importance of Phaistos decreased while that of Agia Triada nearby continued to grow and that the two settlements complemented each other in some way.