On the road heading southwest from Iraklio towards Gortyn and Phaestos is Ayii Dheka (Ten Saints) named for Christian martyrs under the Romans. Byzantine church with stone block where martyrs said to have been decapitated; their tombs in crypt below church. Appealing village. Venerato is close-by, on a side road, where you will find the convent of Paliani with its thirteenth century frescoes and a huge myrtle tree considered holy and said to contain an icon of the virgin in the center. Aghios Varvara a little to the south, is a chapel for Prophet Elijah, and the rock it sits on is considered to be the 'omphalos' or navel of Crete (as it is dead center of this huge island). A cherry orchard surrounds it.
A most enjoyable road to the west takes you to Zaros, a very pretty village with springs, whose bottled mineral waters are sold all over the island. An aqueduct from here to Gortyna was built by the Romans because they liked the water so much. A walk starting out at Aghios Nikolaos will take you to the Zaros gorge. The dirt road goes off to the right just west of the village, and is sign-posted for the church (which also has frescoes), and after the road ends you can continue to climb about 2 km (1 /14 miles) to the gorge entrance. There is a path along the 3km (less than two mile) gorge, with steps and bridges here and there. A very beautiful spot, with great views of the mountains.
At the church of Moni Vrondisi monastery, you can see fourteenth-century frescoes, though the best of them were evacuated before the church was looted and burned by the Turks in 1821, at the beginning of the Greek war for independence. These are housed in Heraklion in the church of Ayia Katerini. There is a fifteenth-century Venetian fountain here and a giant plane tree which was struck by lightning. The resulting hollow is now the kitchen of the monastery café, There are views of the Gulf of Messara and Phaestos from here.
Another ancient church near here is reached from the village of Voriza, at Moni Valsamonero, of which all that remains is the church of Aghios Fanourios. Some of the finest frescoes in Crete are here, by Konstantinos Rikos (fifteenth-century), and depict events from the life of the 'Panayia' (Virgin Mary. This word, which you will see on churches and hear often in Greece, means something like 'the saint of all'). There are also images of other saints.
Messara Plain Crete's largest and most fertile plain. 32km/20miles by 5km/3miles. Runs east from the Gulf of Messara, bounded in south by the Kofinas hills, in the east by the Dhiktean mountains, and in the north by the Psiloritis range and other hills. The Yeropotamos (or 'old river') runs through it. Fruit, vegetables, and olives are among the crops grown there.