Cretan Monasteries, Caves, and Olive Oil

Costas had marked up a map with some interesting historical sites to go and visit around the island. Map in hand, we set off this morning with the intention of getting to all the places marked by the end of the day.

The first stop was supposed to the Vossakou Monestary, which we were told is really beautiful. We followed a road inland that winds its way through the mountains. There really wasn’t much in the way of shoulder guards, and you could see where other cars had probably gone over the cliff from driving too fast. We passed through at least half a dozen very small villages, so small that you could usually see the “entering __ village” sign in the rear view mirror as you passed the “exiting __ village”. Between the towns is a lot of farmland, especially olive groves. There were a lot of goats wandering around. The views were spectacular.



There had been an occasional sign for the Vossakou Monastery, so we knew we were going the right way. According to the map, we were supposed to turn at the village of Apladiana, but we couldn’t tell which street to turn on. We drove through the town looking for a monastery sign. No sign anywhere. We picked a road at random to turn on, and followed a very narrow service road hanging on the edge of a cliff through farmland as it winded up a steep hill. The end of the road was a farm. Definitely the wrong road.

After being lost in hills for a few minutes, we found a different monastery, Timios Stavros. We figured this monastery would do. We saw two priests walking around, but neither approached us. We walked inside the compound and looked around. This is a smaller version of the ones we had seen in Meteora, similar to the monastery in Bali. The buildings are centered around a church in a courtyard, and all the buildings are made of very old looking rock walls, possibly Venetian or older. Some of the buildings are in ruins, some look to be well maintained. We never did find out the history of the monastery, which is too bad. We’d bet it is interesting. Outside the walls of the compound, there are a few farm animals, a small olive grove, and some other small plots with what looks like assorted crops that the priests grow.




From there, we went to a cave called Gerontospilios in the town of Melidoni. Ancient artifacts have been found in this cave that date back to 2900 BC, which is when it is believed that the cave was first inhabited. The cave is believed to have been continually used since then, since a wide variety of artifacts spanning over most all the eras in history have been found. It is believed the cave was a source of water, and also that a goddess was worshipped near a phallic shaped stalagmite. They even found graffiti dating back to the Roman and Venetian empires. On the mountain outside the cave, remains of a Neolithic habitation were discovered.

In more recent history, the cave was famed when the Ottoman Turks trapped 370 civilians and 30 soldiers inside the cave, blocked the entrance and channeled smoke into the cave, causing the people inside to asphyxiate. The people who died are considered martyrs and were icons for the rebellion against the Ottomans.

Finding the cave was easier. We wound through a number of small villages, following the signs until we came to the end of a road, which was the entrance to the cave. We paid the admission and went around the corner to the entrance, 2 ½ meters tall and 4 meters wide. A staircase had been built from the entrance down to the ground level, probably two stories below. Inside, it looks much the same as any other cave we have been in. It is a large cavern, with impressive stalactite and stalagmite formations. There is no natural light, but several spotlights were placed around the cavern so you could see clearly. There is a sarcophagus in the middle of the cavern, which holds the bones of the people who died in the mass murder. There are two wings that split off the main cavern, both closed at the moment due to ongoing archeological digging. It was cool and moist inside, and the ground was a little slippery. After walking around and getting good looks at the interesting rock formations, we headed out.



The view from the parking lot for the cave is also pretty spectacular.


Our next stop was going to be a place called Eleftherna, another ancient city with artifacts dating back to Archaic times. On the way, we saw an olive oil factory that offered tours to the public. We decided to stop in and learn about the illustrious olive oil. The factory turned out to be someone’s home with an adjoining shed.

Outside the shed was a set of traditional old olive oil production equipment. The first piece of equipment was a giant dish with big, heavy stone wheels strapped to it. The wheels would crush the olives in the dish. The pulp was transferred to another contraption that presses the pulp, and the whole mess runs out through a spout into a big bucket. The mixture sits for a while, and gravity naturally separates the pulp/seeds from the water and oil. All of the equipment was manually operated, and it looks like it took a lot of muscle to move those big stones to crush and press the olives.


In a small shed on the grounds was a similar set of equipment, except the crushing and pressing was done mechanically via a steam engine. This set of equipment was used beginning in the early 20th century through recently. A bonus tool was a vibrating olive picker, that vibrated the olives and leaves off the trees.


Inside the shed was an enormous set of equipment, all stainless steel and gleaming. It almost looks like something out of a 50’s movie where they imagine products of the future. This set of equipment does much the same thing, however, there are some bonuses to the more modern pieces. The machine sorts the olives from the leaves, so the farmers no longer have to do it by hand. The olive mixtures automatically go from one machine to the next with no manual labor needed at all. There is also a centrifuge that separates out the seeds, olive pulp, oil and water. Nowadays, a farmer simply drops a load of olives and leaves in the slot at one end, and an hour later out comes ready to use olive oil.

Interestingly enough, the owner of the olive oil factory is from Alabama, so we had a nice chat about life in the US versus life in Greece.

Realizing we were short on time, we decided to head back to Agios Nickolaos. The car was due back soon, and since we were taking back roads, it would take us longer to get back than if we took the main highway. Back in Agios Nickoaos, we were surprised to see the wind was blowing like crazy. It was steadily blowing in the 20’s (knots), with gusts of up to 30. The car rental place is along the bay, and the bay was completely full of whitecaps. Hmmm”¦.. we were supposed to be taking Costas, Maria, and Koralea’s family out for a day trip tomorrow. They were not going to like these sea conditions at all. We checked the forecast. Winds were supposed to be just as bad, if not worse, than today. Doh! We called and cancelled the trip for tomorrow, promising to try again another day.

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