Overshadowed by the more famous site at Knossos, the former city-state of Aptera, near Kalives, is not yet on the main tourist route and so can be investigated in relative peace. Perched 230 metres on a hill overlooking Souda bay it enjoys panoramic views of the whole plain of Apokoronas and, for added interest, there is an impressive Turkish fort on a nearby hilltop.
Aptera was once one of the most important city-states in Western Crete. Aptera was an autonomous city from the 6th-4th century BC and minted its own coins. It sent soldiers to aid the Spartans during the 2nd Messenian War (668 BC) and was later an ally of Knossos during the Cretan civil war in 220 BC.
It had two harbours. The first is believed to be Minoan at the north entrance to Souda Bay, where Marathi beach can be found today. The second is thought to be at either Kalami or Kalives.
Aptera continued to be an important city during the Roman and first Byzantine periods but it was destroyed by the Arabs in 823 AD. The Venetians built a fort there but this was destroyed by the pirate Barbarossa. The city was also badly hit by an earthquake and eventually abandoned.
The city walls, still standing, echo the walls of Tiryns and Mycenae and you can also find remains of a small temple of Demeter built around 100 BC, a small Roman theatre and baths and a trio of enormous vaulted cisterns from the time of the Roman occupation. Aptera was founded in the 7th century BC and reached its peak in the Hellenistic period.
In 1942 the site was excavated by the occupying Germans, and more systematic excavations were carried out in 1986-87 and in 1992-95 with salvage operations continuing today. There is clearly much more to be discovered, but what has been found so far is remarkably well preserved. The site is well marked, off the main arterial road about 15 kilometres from Chania.
Three arched vaults enclose a huge cistern that held water to feed the Roman baths that cover the site. You can enter the cistern system through a small doorway to view the central chambers. The best-preserved buildings are from the time of the Roman occupation and, apart from the impressive vaulted cisterns, including bathhouses and other communal areas.
Much of the ancient city and its outskirts has yet to be systematically searched. Inscriptions and coins from the area testify to the trading importance of the city until Roman times when it took on a more rural role.
At the peak of its importance, the city had many coins minted, some say up to 76 different kinds. Most of them have the head of a woman, probably Hera, and the word APTARAION or APTERAION. The reverse has a bearded warrior and the word PTOLIOIKOS. Others had a depiction of Artemis and a bee.
The city is believed to have had up to eight suburbs at the foot of the hill in the Stylos valley. Legend has it that Aptera took its name after the victory of the Muses over the Sirens in a musical contest which took place between the city and the sea. The Muses won, the Sirens lost their wings and turned white. Hence the name of the city Aptera (without wings) and the nearby islets of Leukai (white). More realistic is the suggestion that its name derives from Ptera, the king who first founded the city.