Matala is a popular tourist destination located 68km southwest of the city of Heraklion, at the intersection of the Messara Plain and Asteroussia Mountains. It’s world-renowned for its carved caves in the rocks, as well as its reputation as a haven for hippies back in the 70s. The area is close to the second largest palace of the Minoan civilization, Phaestus, and was once a port for both Gortyn and Phaestus.
Matala is situated at the exit of a small valley, providing a stunning view of the nearby Paximadia Islands. The 300m long beach features fine gravel and crystal clear, deep waters – though it can get a bit rocky in certain areas due to the frequent west winds. There is also a large cave at the north end of the beach, where some people like to dive off the top of it. The beach is well equipped with umbrellas, toilets, showers, a lifeguard, first aids, volleyball courts, snack bars, water sports, excursion boats, and a camping site. Around Matala there are plenty of places to stay, eat and have fun. The beach is shaded by tamarisk trees, and in the evenings, the bars on the beach are full with locals and foreigners alike. Every June, the internationally renowned Matala Festival takes place.
The most well-known feature of the area are the many graves of the Roman and Christian Eras, which were carved into the soft white limestone thousands of years ago in the northwest walls of the bay. There are also several underwater caves, some of which have rooms, stairs, beds, and windows, suggesting they were once used as residences. It was at this time that hippies found their paradise in Matala and made it their own, free to express themselves and enjoy love and creation. However, all that changed during the Greek dictatorship in the 70s, when the local Church drove them away. The area was abandoned for a long time before slowly developing into what it is today – a popular tourist destination with modern hotels and plenty of people enjoying the beach. The caves are now open to visitors as an archaeological site, but overnight stays are not allowed.
The surrounding area boasts more natural caves, accessible by boat. There are also many archaeological sites, shipwrecks, and ruins of an ancient temple and beacon. The cape south of Matala is believed to be the Cape Nysos, where the ships of Menelaus were wrecked, and there are also ruins of the ancient sunken city, a few mansions, and a fort. Finally, there is a cave nearby with the old church of the Virgin Mary, which was a catacomb during the Christian persecutions. All of this historical and natural heritage has helped to protect the region under the international program Natura 2000.