The travel agent who I bought all my island hopping ferry tickets from at Piraeus strongly recommended visiting Ayios Nikolaos which is in the north east of Crete - only about 45 minutes from Iraklion with good motorway road all the way - and it was lovely with blue blue water and a cute town centre.
From there it was a nice drive up towards Spinalonga though I didnt go all the way up instead turning inland again and driving up and over the hills that are there through really quaint rural villages and olive groves to Neapoli where I headed on up to the Lasithi plateau and back to Neapoli to stay the night.
From there its only about 15 minutes back to Ayios Nikolaos but just before arriving back into the township there is a road to the left which 10 km along gets you to Kritsa where there are apparently the most complete set of Byzantine frescoes in the church there of Panayia Kyra from the 14 and 15th centuries.
I am glad I did make the effort or use the precious time I had to go see them - couldnt take photos which a minder in the church loudly alerted me to the fact after I had taken 2 photos - flashless though - but sadly couldnt capture the pretty much stunning painting portrayals of biblical characters and events around the walls and roof of the small church.
There is a shop there though that does have postcard photos of the frescoes and also the choice of an old book or a revised one with photos of the frescoes and their stories and also the history of the area - which includes info and photos of the nearby Doric city ruins of Lato. I bought a copy which I thought was good value at only 8 euro. Postcards were 50 cents each.
Tickets to enter the church to see the frescoes are 3 euro per person and are sold at the booth that is at the roadside where roadside parking is provided.
Directly across the road is a cafe with cold drinks and meals available - indoors and outdoors covered seating available. and toilet facilities.
The church of Panagίa Kerá is just outside Kritsá, (on the right just before you get to the town). It dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries and contains the most complete series of Byzantine frescoes on Crete. The Church Closes at 15:00 and so it’s best to get there early as with Lato which is not far away.
Closes at 15:00 last entry 14:50 Tickets are purchased from the modern Barack block type building on the main road.
Nice couple of shops, one has a cafe were we tried a local drink here called Soumadha
Kritsa is a small town about 12 km inland from Agios Nikolaos and 3km from the Ancient city of Lato, There are some nice shops selling local produce, Rugs and materials at prices a lot cheaper and better quality than in the more Tourist Places also carved olive wood items and The knifes that the locals used to wear.
8kms out of Ayios Nikolaos and 2kms before Kritsa is the Church of Panayia Kira, sitting beside the road. It is argued that this Byzantine Church contains the most complete set of Byzantine frescoes in Crete. The 14th and 15th century works have, over time, been renovated/retouched, but the frescoes, the delightful little church and its location nestled in the Lasithi mountains make it a worthwhile visit (and Lato is easily accessed form here).
One of the most popular day trips out of Ayios Nikolaos is to the mountain village of Kritsa, just 10kms out of the town (with buses running at least every hour, it is a very straightforward trip). It provides a typically 'Greek mountain village atmosphere', in spite of the commercialism of catering for the day trippers. But its not commercialism gone mad - and there are plenty of crafts etc to be purchased here. Slip up (its mountainous, don't forget) a side alley to get away from people to catch a glimpse of the everyday life of the village.
A trip to Kritsa is usually combined with Lato (see separate tip).
A walk through the village especially in the early morning is recommended for only then can you feel the pulse of this charming village. A goat tied in the street, splats of milk on the cobblestones, garlic clusters hanging from the eaves and fat lazy cats. Old men and women appear from painted doorways, and start down toward the the town's center at the Platanos tree. From every nook and cranny they come, the men in bloomered pants, woven vests, and white shirts with balloon sleeves and walking sticks and the women in black with scarves and ready smiles
A glimpse through the houses of these narrow streets reveals a view that looks for all the world as though it's been painted with its olive and almond groves stretching down and away from the village. From this angle, the higher mountains appear majestic, even ominous,shrouded as they are in deep clouds. Overhead the sky is pure, Greek blue. Kritsa is a delightful mixture of sights, sounds, and smells.
Set amidst the olive and cypress trees of the Kritsá plain, this church dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries and is a treasurehouse of religious art.