Vai palm forest lies in a beautiful valley and by a sandy beach, just north of ancient Itanos: 28 km from Siteia, 8 from Palaikastro and 6 from Toplou by their respective roads. Covering 200 stremmata (50 acres), it is made up of the native Theophrastus palms – the largest colony not only in Greece but also in all Europe. A large enough stand exists at Preveli, with smaller clusters elsewhere, eg. at Aghios Nikitas. The palm also turns up here and there in the SW Aegean islands, Cyprus and Turkey.
Many legends exist about its origins. It was formed by the Phoenicians (an erroneous belief springing from the old story that they founded Itanos, back in the day), or it is the result of discarded pips left by the Egyptian soldiers of Ptolemy Philomater, or the allied troops of Mithradates of Pontus .. or even by Saracen pirates and invaders!
Be that as it may, it is certain enough that the development and survival of the forest is due to the arid climate and of groundwater in the valley.
It is also clear that the palm was about in Crete in the past: both Theophrastus and Pliny remark on it, and it is shown on coins and vase-paintings.
Apart from the palms, there exist other plants here of African origin – this unusual mix shows that the area enjoys something of a frontier character, and is a border zone between two different ecologies. The region is also on a major migration flightpath for birds. In terms of its setting, the soft lines of the horizon, the harmony of the rise and fall of the low hills and small plains, the slopes with their vineyards and olive groves, exotic colours and dazzling light – all make it a remarkable place to experience. Add to that the nearby presence of ancient cities and an historic monastery (Toplou), and the sum is an unusual combination of cultural, historical and environmental worth and interest.
Because of its particular value and beauty, Vai is protected by the Greek state, by the European Union and International conventions.
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