Vai (Crete)

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Vai Aesthetic Forest
Φοινὶκόδασμος τοῦ Βάι
Βάι φοινικόδασος.jpg
The open forest is shown with Phoenix theophrasti in all stages of development from free-standing trees to small maquis-type bush trees.
Map showing the location of Vai Aesthetic Forest
Map showing the location of Vai Aesthetic Forest
Nearest townPalaikastro
Area20 ha (49 acres)[1]
Max. elevation7.6 m (25 ft)
Min. elevation0
DesignationNational Park
Governing bodyGreek Forestry Service
Vai beach
Παραλία Βάι
VAI 05.jpg
The central beach from the palm line showing the sun shelters.
"Vai Villa" Minoan site
Βάι 1158.jpg
A view to the west up the valley. The access road is on the left. The region of Vai Villa is out of sight over the pass ahead, in the agricultural land of Toplou Monastery.
Site notes
ArchaeologistsFrench School at Athens
OwnershipGreek Archaeological Service

Vai (Greek: Βάι), Greek for "palm," is a region of east Crete on the eastern coast at the northern end of the extent between Cape Sidero to Cape Plaka to the south, just south of the site of ancient Itanus but north of the villages that surround and are part of Palaikastro. Vai does not belong to them nor is it part of any civic unit of the local civic division of Greece. It is not itself a village. The region is somewhat isolated on the isolated northeast peninsula, connecting only to Eparchos odos moni Toplou, the only road between Palaikastro and Toplou Monastery. The same road heads to the south along the coast and also joins the monastery to Siteia. East of the monastery it divides, the branch being the road that runs out on Cape Sidero to the military base. The entire distance is essentially trackless and deserted, as the name of one of the beaches at Itanus suggests, Eremoupolis, "deserted city".

Vai is a protected area under the jurisdiction of the national government. It has been defined as different kinds of parkland by different govermental agencies. Vai Palm Forest, or more officially Vai Aesthetic Forest,[2] contains several thousand palm trees in a valley perpendicular to the beach and running down to it. Before being protected, the forest was used as an ad hoc campground by a large transient population frequenting the beach, and was advertised through informal channels as such. In the late 20th century, to protect it, the forest was declared a national park and was surrounded by a barbed-wire fence.[3] The government, which also ran the beach, always had someone on hand to enforce the rules.

Vai beach is popular but crowded. Staying on the beach overnight is not allowed. Some daytime facilities are collected in a building center behind the beach, and there is a parking lot. A few restaurants have taken advantage of the road. Palms extend across the back of the beach. In front of them are rows of quasi-permanent shelters from the sun, which vary from decade to decade: umbrellas at one time, tents at another, thatched roofs at another. Overnight visitors are expected to find lodging and necessities in the villages surrounding Palaikastro to the south, a few minutes away. To the north is the deserted city of Itanos, which, however, has some camping and two beaches. Itanos beach has been clothing optional. North of Eremoupolis beach, the shoreline becomes rugged and cliff-lined, and the country desert.

The next most general park system imposed on Vai is the Natura 2000 protected areas mandated by the European Union in conjunction with the government of Greece. The abandoned land on the Itanos peninsula of Cape Sidero, from which the national park had been created by eminent domain, is a refugium (biological "refuge") for indigenous plant and animal species, many rare or endangered, as well as a station of the migration routes for a large number of migratory birds. The ecology needs to be protected.

Coincidentally the entire area had come under archaeological scrutiny by a collaboration of archaeological organizations, such as the French School at Athens, which had been conducting excavations on ancient Itanus, just to the north of Vai, and had also discovered the Minoan villa. The resulting Itanos Archaeological Survey conducted during the period 1994-2005 had located roughly 100-200 sites covering occupation of the cape since the Neolithic.[4] The government therefore declared two new Natura 2000 protected areas in northeast Crete, GR4320006 authorized under the Habitats Directive for protection of the species,[1] and GR4320009 for protecting sites of community importance.[5]

Between them the two Natura 2000 areas account for the entire NE peninsula[6] from and including Cape Plaka, but not as far west as Siteia, all of Cape Sidero and the offshore islands, and most of the survey territory. Palaikastro and the surrounding villages are in; otherwise, the region has no settlements, the reason being that until after WWII the land except for Palaikastro was owned by Toplou Monastery.

In the disputes over the land in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the land was regarded as real estate, a form of property. These disputes were to question and redefine the concept of property as it applies to the cape. The owner of land should have the use of it and be able to dispose of it. When the government took possession of the tip of Cape Sidero and built a military base there, it denied the use of the land to the monastery, and yet maintained the monastery's ownership of the land. The Greek Archaeological Service similarly took possession of the sites of Itanus and Vai Villa, and the National Forest Service of the palm forest, and yet the fiction was maintained that the monastery owned the land.

The monastery brought the matter to a final test by offering to lease various locations for resort and golf club development; for example, a golf course was to be built on the north side of the forest. Being at first approved by local government the project entered the initial phase, in which some sites of the survey were destroyed by road-building. A general protest and lawsuit was brought by the citizenry in the Cavo Sidero dispute, which ended in the Supreme Administrative Court. The court found in favor of the plaintiffs on the grounds that the developers had failed to investigate the ecological impact adequately. The coup de grace of developer plans was administered by the 2015 formation of a third level of park, the Sitia UNESCO Global Geopark, protecting the geological formations of all of east Crete.

These develpments left the 2011 municipal planners with the problem of how to treat the former monastic lands. Except for creating the settlement of Toplou to contain the monastery and its industry, and the settlement of Kyriamadi for the base, they did nothing. The spare land amounts to an "unbuildable lot," still considered to be owned by the monastery. It still owns farms and businesses in the area. It can't do anything new in the area without government approval. It is administered as a Natura 2000 protected area, and yet the restaurants and other businesses along the road give their addresses as a number, the name of the road, and "Toplou," "Palaikastro," or "Siteia," all in the Toplou hierarchy.

Vai aesthetic forest[edit]

Wetlands of the lower forest

Vai palm forest is named for Phoenix theophrasti, one of 14 species of the genus Phoenix, "palm," distinguished among the Coryphoideae by having pinnate leaves instead of the palmate leaves of the subfamily. The family is Coryphoideae, palms, which are flowering, evergreen perennials containing a spirally arranged cluster of fronds branching from the top of an otherwise unbranching stem.

Palms bear a wide variety of nut-like fruits. Phoenix, however, bears dates, which are soft, oily, sweet nuts.

Vai coastal features[edit]

Two of the three valleys at Vai seen from on top the headland between Vai and Psili Ammos beaches. The parking lot is to the left. On the entrance road coming down beside the forest on the right can be seen a line of automobiles waiting to enter the lot.

Northeastern Crete is characterized geologically by a coastal range of hills followed inland by a relatively flat plain, followed further inland by a higher range. The coastal hills alternate with coastal valleys that have eroded into the sea perpendicular to the coastline so as to form headlands alternating with beaches behind which are valleys that may or may not have penetrated into or beyond the plain. The Vai area has three of these. On the south is Psili Ammos beach, which penetrates about 318 m (348 yd) between its headlands and is about 40 m (44 yd) wide, consisting of the "fine sand" for which it is named. The next valley up has been utilized for the Vai beach parking lot, which is about 120 m (130 yd) by 43 m (47 yd) and is surrounded on all sides but one by precipitous rocky slopes. Trails lead to viewpoints from the top.

The next valley north contains the forest. It reaches all the way through the coastal range and is apparent in the highlands beyond it. There are no palms there, however. Whatever connection once existed across the plain has been obliterated by agricultural use. Vai Farm, owned by the monastery, is there. The main road north cuts across the mouth of the coastal valley; however, that is not the boundary of the forest. A dirt farm road runs parallel to the main road one field further to the coast, forming the border to the forest, which appears cut off there on the maps.

The valley in which the forest exists drops from about 9 m (30 ft) to 0 at the waterline. Within it a stream emerges from a spring and flows down to a wetlands, providing just the amount of water required for the trees.

The accessible coastline around the forest is actually a collection of named features of the terrain.

Pigeon rocks[edit]

Vai beach[edit]

For tourism Vai was discovered at the beginning of the 1970s by Richard White and friends[citation needed][who?] from North London, Belfast and Bavaria, at the end of that decade it was popularised by the last hippies who fled the hot-spots Matala and Preveli. At the beginning of the 1980s Vai was full of backpacker tourists from the whole world, leading to a mixture of chaotic campground and garbage dump. Vai was enclosed and declared as a protected area. The unique forest recovered, the beach became clean.

The palm beach, which belongs to the Moni Toplou, is the touristic centre of East Crete, with thousands of visitors each year. Vai lies close to Palekastro, Sitia and the Dionysades islands.

Vai beach was apparently used to film a UK advert for the confectionery bar Bounty.

Psili Ammos beach[edit]

Vai villa[edit]



  1. ^ a b "GR4320006". Natura 2000 - Standard Data Form. July 2020.
  2. ^ IUCN 1987, p. 125
  3. ^ IUCN 1987, p. 121 "Under the 1937 law national park administration was to be placed under the Forest Service of the Ministr y of Agriculture. The responsibility for national parks and nature reserves was given to the Section of National Parks and Aesthetic Forests (later renamed the National Park Department (1983) but the name had reverted to the original by 1985"
  4. ^ Rackham & Moody 2012, p. 225, Figure 4.8
  5. ^ "GR4320009". Natura 2000 - Standard Data Form. July 2020.
  6. ^ Rackham & Moody 2012, p. 222, Figure 4.3

Reference bibliography[edit]

External links[edit]

Media related to Vai Beach at Wikimedia Commons

Coordinates: 35°15′16″N 26°15′39″E / 35.25444°N 26.26083°E / 35.25444; 26.26083