The port of Agios Nikolaos is one of the prettiest and most popular places on Crete. Justifiably so as it is beautifully located on the Gulf of Mirabello, retains some of its old mansion houses, has a beautiful fishing harbour and another inner harbour which is in fact a lake: Lake Voulismeni. All these attractions, and many more in and around the town, do turn it into one of the busiest places on Crete in midsummer, yet despite all this it manages to cling onto its own character.
Agios Nikolaos was a thriving place in ancient times. It served as the port for the city-state of Lato, which was inland from here. It remained a port under the Venetians, who renamed it Agios Nikolaos after a 10th-11th century church of the same name. The Venetians named the gulf Mirabello: Beautiful View in Italian.
The town declined a little under the Turks, who destroyed a Genoese fortress, but in the late 19th century it began to thrive again as a popular destination for travellers, something it looks set to remain. It is also still an important port, and you will find fishermen drying their nets in the harbour, and ferry boats coming in regularly from the Dodecanese, Cyclades and from Piraeus, the port for Athens.
The harbour is lined with shops, bars, cafes and tavernas, which make full use of their setting by charging prices that are expensive by Greek standards. If you want better food and a slightly more Cretan atmosphere, forego the setting and wander into the back streets. On the south side of town is a small beach and a marina, also home to some pricey restaurants. At the western end of the marina is the church of the Panagia Vrefotrofou, which dates back to the 12th century.
The Lake that acts as the inner harbour, Lake Voulismeni, is known as the Bottomless Lake. It has very steeply sloping sides and is certainly deep for its size, but its depth has been measured at 64m (210ft), which is a long way from being bottomless. It links with the outer harbour by a channel that was built between 1867 and 1871.
Overlooking the channel and in the Port Authority building is the town’s Folklore Museum, which is worth seeing for the examples of Cretan folk costumes, as well as the crafts of the island. Being large and with a distinctive character, Crete has a strong and unique folk-art tradition.
Agios Nikolaos also has an Archaeological Museum, slightly out of the centre to the northwest, which is one of the highlights of the town. There are several Minoan sites for the museum to call on, and it has a good display of recovered artifacts. One notable exhibit is the Goddess of Myrtos in Room II, found at Mochlos just outside Gournia. It is a drinking vessel made of clay and dating back to the early Minoan period. It was obviously used for fertility purposes as it has a neck and head that is clearly phallic but the vessel itself has two breasts shaped onto it.
The most unusual if unsettling exhibit is a skull which is thought to be that of an athlete as it was found intact complete with the golden laurel wreath which was traditionally given for athletics victories, and a silver coin to pay his fare to the ferryman for the journey across the River Styx to the Underworld. The skull was found near the town and can be dated by the coin to the 1st century AD.
Around the town the beaches themselves are not that good, but that does not stop them being busy for much of the summer. Better beaches are to be found at Elounta, and also at Ammoudi and Almyros on the road towards Sitia.
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