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Introducing Lasithi Plateau

The Lasithi Plateau, 900m above sea level, is a vast expanse of pear and apple orchards, almond trees and fields of crops. It would have been a stunning sight when it was dotted by some 20, 000 metal windmills with white canvas sails. They were built in the 17th century to irrigate the rich farmland but there are less than 5000 still standing today and few of the original windmills are in service; most having been replaced by less attractive mechanical pumps.

The plateau’s rich soil has been cultivated since Minoan times. The inaccessibility of the region made it a hotbed of insurrection during Venetian and Turkish rule. Following an uprising in the 13th century, the Venetians drove out the inhabitants of Lasithi and destroyed their orchards. The plateau lay abandoned for 200 years. Food shortages led the Venetians to cultivate the area and build the irrigation trenches and wells that still service the region.

There are 20 villages dotted around the periphery of the plateau, the largest of which is Tzermiado (population 747), with a couple of ATMs and a post office. The town sees a fair amount of tourism from the tour buses going to the Dikteon Cave.

The Restaurant Kourites (28440 22054; wood-oven specials €7-8; www.kourites.eu) serves excellent Cretan cuisine, including many vegetarian delights. Try some of the wood oven dishes – the suckling pig with baked potatoes is delicious. There are simple rooms (single/double including breakfast €25/40) above the taverna with small balconies and you have free use of the bicycles. The same family also runs the lovely Argoulias (28440 22754; www.argoulias.gr; d incl breakfast €60-80) complex of stone-built spacious apartments built into the hillside in the abandoned top part of the village, with panoramic views.

In the relaxing village of Agios Georgios (pronounced agh-ios ye-or-gios; population 554), Hotel Maria (28440 31774; s/d €20/25) has nicely decorated rooms with weavings and traditional furnishings (although larger people should note that the beds are very narrow). Maria also does the cooking at Taverna Rea (28440 31209; mains €4.50-6.50) on the main street.

Psyhro is the closest village to the Dikteon Cave. Its main street has a few tavernas, and plenty of souvenir shops selling ‘authentic’ rugs and mats of non-Cretan origin. It is prettier and less dusty than Tzermiado and makes for a better rest stop. Buses to Psyhro drop you at the end of the town where it’s about a kilometre walk uphill to the cave.

Petros Taverna (28440 31600; grills €6), opposite the entrance to the cave, is run by former cave guardian Petros Zarvakis. It has great views from the balcony. He also organises regular hikes up to Mt Dikti, camping out under the stars.