Zaros village rose in the ideal place just an hour away from Heraklion city. Built on the southern slope of the Psiloritis mountains, the tallest mountain range in all Crete. Springwater was in abundance, and it was the ideal place to store it amongst nature and build a thriving community. “Zaros” in Greek means ‘a place with a lot of water,’ and so the village was named. The location was originally a wetland and was formed into a full crater lake in 1987. To allow the water from Votomos and Mati springs to collect naturally below and provide the surrounding villages with fresh, crisp water. It attracts many visitors, locals, and travelers alike. Who want to bask in the stunning natural surroundings, sip coffee on the veranda in the tavernas on the water’s edge, and try the freshest trout and salmon in town.
It was the perfect day, the emerald green waters of Zaros lake glistened prettily under the midday sun. Part of me wanted to dive right in, but you can’t swim in Zaros lake, it has a very important purpose. It’s the most famous freshwater lake in Crete. Providing the island with a precious commodity of drinking water. Here, water runs from the springs of Votomos and Mati into the artificial Zaros. Zaro’s, one of the biggest exports of bottled water on the island, comes from right here. A taste of the fresh spring water is a taste of the beautiful Zaros Lake. Their company has a fantastic ethos, and give back directly into the community by employing residents, funding local activities and contributing to the infrastructure and economy of the locals in Zaros.
By tracing a little way from the lake, you can visit the Votomos springs themselves, and try the refreshingly cold water straight from the source in a little fountain where the water spurts out of the mouth of little filigree faces sculpted into the basin of the fountain. After a short stroll around one edge of the lake, the sun was getting high, and I made a beeline for one of the traditional tavernas on the edge of the lake. I needed a luxurious coffee hit under the shade of the plane trees.
Wildlife in Abundance
The perfect time to visit is in spring or early summer when the flora and fauna put on a full show of color and sound. Bird song was rife among the trees and I listened to the chirrups, tweets and swoons from my perch by the water. I had no idea what sound came from what bird. But it all made for a glorious symphony that only nature can create. Trout were gliding through the freshwaters. Along with a plethora of other curious fish large and small. One of the most endearing moments of the day was when a hoard of little turtles began to pop their heads inquisitively above the water. They looked around for a morsel or two, then dived back into the depths below.
Prepping like a Cretan
It was going to be a hot day in late spring, so I chose my outfit wisely. A light summer dress and straw sunhat that would leave me picture perfect for an afternoon picnic by the lake. Plus a pair of hiking shorts and light cotton vest underneath for my foray into the forest. Trusty walking sandals added to the list. And of course, lots and lots of sunscreen to top up throughout the day. My outfit might have been simple, but my provisions were far from it. The evening before in my hotel room, I had curated a bunch of local herbs from ‘Mpaharia & Votana’ on Dikeosinis Street in Heraklion. I boiled dittany, mint, mountain tea, lavender, rose petals, with a little sweet honey. Then decanted the luxurious liquid into a bottle with lots of ice. To make for the most refreshing iced tea I’ve ever tasted.
Food is practically a religion in Crete, and during my stay here I wanted to do as the locals do and make it a priority. My picnic was for one, but the smorgasbord of goodies I had procured would have anyone believe otherwise. A foodie does as she must. An ideal selection to watch the wind send light ripples over the calm water. A delicate balance of cheese, deli meats and nuts on crisp sourdough. Pure heaven. Today’s cheese choice was a delicious peppery Graviera recommended by the shop owner. I also picked up a slice of watermelon from the roadside vendors. The fruit is surprisingly cheap and varied in Crete! The perfect picnic would not be complete without a small bottle of local olive oil to dribble over my snacks. Everything was packed smartly in my hiking pack. With a little extra room to take off my cotton dress (with less weight from all that cheese I ate). When I finally made my way off into the forest.
The Mystical Rouvas Forest
From the lake, a path opens up into the Agiou Nikolaou Gorge.
Around 20 minutes in is the Monastery of Agios Nikolaos (Monastery of St. Nicholas Zaros). Sitting on its parapet beyond a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains contrasting against the striking white walls of the monastery. From there the path heads uphill into the part of the gorge that saw some recent trauma. The beautiful gorge is still recovering from a huge fire in 1994, so some of the colorful greenery has sadly been destroyed, but it continues to revitalize every year and remains incredibly lovely. Here, the views occasionally open up over Zaros and the Messara plain, and on a clear day, the distance to admire is quite breathtaking!
Around 2.5 km along the path a canyon leads into the mysteries of the Rouvas Forest. (The route is 10km, 4-5 hours return). It’s one of the few kermes oak forests in Greece, and to be found in such an unexpected place – on the side of a mountain. The ancient name for Psiloritis is actually ‘Idi’ which means forested mountain. When the Minoans lived, the Psiloritis was much greener and dense with nature. Nowadays the remote corners are few and far between. But here, is one of those special remnants. It’s nothing short of spectacular. As one of the oldest forests in Crete, some of the trees reach over a meter in diameter and climb 15 metres high. Entering into this dense grotto is like entering into a fairytale. As well as ancient oaks and some specific holly trees that are very important to the ecosystem. There are plane trees, pine trees, cypresses; there are also abelitsia; Cretan zelkovas that grow only in Crete. Along with hoards of grand maple trees. Tracing the forest floor in autumn would be a glorious sight as the maple leaves turn the forest foliage deep red and honey gold.
As the path became narrower, I stumbled upon a small river, no doubt fed by the same luscious springs as the lake. Now far behind me. Little ponds and waterfalls formed here and there. I couldn’t help but splash some of the cold water onto my face and hair to cool off in the heat of the day. I was reminded that I was in Greece by the beady eyes of goats that suddenly eyed me from the far side. Those critters are never too far away and love to scramble through the crags and cracks. I’d heard that an endemic wild cat of Crete lives among the majestic forests, but I wasn’t lucky enough to spot him. The only eyes peeking at me through the foliage were that of more goats looking for their next snack. The landscape became even lovelier as I continued. Dancing over a pretty wooden bridge, and into the heart of the Agios Ioannis forest. Reaching the end of my journey here. I was ready to sit and rest in the shade of the old chapel and finish the last of my tea the peaceful setting.
If you wish to do the journey one way, you can arrange for a driver to collect you from St. John. I, however, am a wandering enthusiast so I made my way back to Zaros Lake with a spring in my step. The thought of a fresh bite of grilled trout from the lake farms at the end of my journey had me hurrying back along the track with delight.