Sitía is now the only sizeable city at the eastern end of Crete. It has been inhabited since Minoan times, but excavations have turned up no major palace. Sitía lived in the shadow of the larger town of Ítanos, off to its north and east. Ítanos was at the base of a long northeast-pointing peninsula that the guidebooks call Cape Síderos (‘iron’), although Wikipedia reports that this name properly belongs only to a small extension at the tip of it. Itanos’ location on the east side of the cape was ideal for trading with Egypt and the Fertile Crescent: ships from Sitía would have to sail a long way around Síderos to get that close.

We don’t know much about the relations between these cities in Minoan times, but in the classical Greco-Roman period Sitía was was conquered by the city-state of Praísos, inland and to the south of it. Praísos, however, was itself eventually conquered by Ierápytna, the predecessor of modern Ierápetra. That city (now Crete’s fifth largest, ranking between Réthymno and Ágio Nikólaos) is off to the southwest, on the southern coast, and may have been content to leave ancient Sitía alone. According to some scholars, however, Sitía was never an independent city-state conquered by Praísos, but—they cite such evidence as a lack of coinage—was probably a mere seaport outpost of Praísos that survived after Ierápytna destroyed that city.)
The Kazárma, Sitía
Bigger isn’t always better. Praísos went under, and pirates, probably Saracens, destroyed Ítanos later, during the Byzantine era. By the time the Venetians took over Crete in the early 1200s, Sitía was the biggest town that was near the eastern end of the island, so they made it the center of their effort to develop that area (or to exploit it, depending on one’s point of view). They built and garrisoned a fortress to protect the town, though this didn’t approach the scale of the fortifications in Iráklio, Chaniá, or Réthymno, and held out no longer than the latter two when the Turks showed up in 1648. The fortress, or at least its shell, still looms over the city; it’s called the Kazárma, from the Italian Casa di Arma.

During the first few centuries under Venetian rule, Sitía grew large and populous, but a devastating earthquake in 1503 and a raid in 1538 by the notorious Turkish pirate (or invincible Turkish admiral—again, this depends on point of view) Hayreddin Barbarossa. Venice and the Ottoman empire were then at war, and Barbarossa, high admiral of the Ottoman fleet, was not freelancing but carrying out the Sultan’s orders. (1538 was a busy year for him; he also destroyed Réthymno, almost took Chaniá, and in the Battle of Preveza defeated a huge Christian fleet sent against him so soundly that the Mediterranean essentially belonged to the Turks for the next three decades.)

One Venetian legacy is that Sitía’s name was attached to the province that contains the whole eastern part of Crete. Because Venetians prefixed a definite article to the name of the city (“La Sitia”) and put the stress on a different syllable than the Greeks did, the name has come out in Greek as Lasíthi.

How far back the present name of the city goes is not easy to know. Some say that it was called Iteía or Etaea in classical times, connecting this with the Homeric Greek term Eteókrites (‘true Cretans’) for the people who were believed to be surviving remnants of the Minoans. Tradition does place them in the eastern region, and helpful scholars have suggested that the initial s originated in a grammatical structure such as tís Iteías (‘of Iteía’) or eís Iteía (‘at Iteía’), with the s coming from preceding word. Other scholars, however, assert that as far back as the archaic period (about 750–500 BCE) the city’s name was already something like Setaía. This would make it unlikely that the name began with a vowel in the classical age, which came later.
Marina promenade
Sitía today is a pleasant town, less involved in tourism than the larger towns we’d visited, but by no means a rustic backwater. The oldest part is set on a curved hillside overlooking the inner harbor, a cozy marina in the form of a quarter-circle, its straight sides formed by two moles projecting from the shoreline at right angles to one another, almost but not quite meeting, so that a gap is left for small boats to come and go. The marina's landward border is an elegant marble-paved promenade ornamented, at a point where several restaurants cluster, by a row of portly palm trees.

According to the guide books, the town still fulfills its functions of supplying the surrounding farming country with everything it needs in the way of tools, tractors, and animal feed, but it has begun to attract tourists—mostly Greek, French, or Italian—who aren’t looking for the wild and wooly attractions of Maliá and similar places. The Rough Guide, by way of explaining the ethnic composition of this clientèle, speculates that the French may harbor some folk memory from the years before Cretan independence, when the French military had this part of the island in its charge, and that Italians may recall their occupation of the same area during World War II.

Since the tourist season was winding down when we were there, I have no personal observations on which to base a dissenting opinion, but I think it's likely that Sitía’s combination of grace and tranquility exert more influence than memories now several generations old.

We saw nothing to deplore in Sitía’s current engagement with tourism, as it probably helps support more good restaurants and hotels than a provincial town of 9,000 (or about twice that if you include the surrounding area) would be able to keep in business.
Sitia Bay Hotel
The Sitía Bay Hotel, where Yiánni delivered us in the late afternoon, offers apartments rather than mere rooms. They’re all on the first and second floors (that is, the second and third floors, by American reckoning, and since there’s an elevator we had decided to go for the view. The apartment gave us more space than any other place we’d stayed. Its big kitchen served as a dining room (it had a table) and living room (there was also a sofa). Since it was an apartment hotel, the Sitía Bay didn't serve breakfast, but we took advantage of a reasonably priced option to have them deliver breakfast makings to us.
Our balcony
The bedroom was large and comfortable, and, like every other apartment (the hotel has 19 in all), ours had a balcony overlooking the bay. No mere token balcony either: there was room for a table and chairs, and we ate our breakfast there each morning. Sitía has ferry connections with the Dodecanese islands at Greece’s southeastern corner as well as Piraeus and Iráklio, and this picture from our balcony shows one of the big ferries coming in. (The freighter in the picture was anchored out there in the bay when we arrived, and was still there when we left town.)

The roof, just above us, was arranged as a pleasant terrace from which guests could get a wider view taking in the town, the bay, and the mountains on the other side of it. We could also see a sandy beach in front of us, well attended despite the lateness of the season, though far from crowded. The side of the hotel that faced away from the bay had a pretty swimming pool and lots of attractive greenery and flowers. (But we hadn’t come to Crete to swim, and we didn’t.)

We sat on the balcony sipping water for a while, but had to go into the kitchen to check our email. That was the only place in the apartment where the wi-fi signal was available—but having wi-fi anywhere in our living quarters was more than we were used to, and we had no cause to complain.
Alt Tag
At about 7:30 we decided to look for a restaurant, and asked the young man at the desk, who is the owner’s son, for a suggestion. He recommended three, and we decided to seek out the one named Meráki, which is a pun in Greek: the phrase me rakí means ‘with rakí,’ but the word meráki means ‘passion.’ As the restaurant’s sign indicates, the pun is intentional. (We don’t remember seeing this sign, but that may be because it was inconspicuous: I recall that we had to ask someone to tell us which of several adjacent restaurants it was. This picture, by the way, is as large as it gets, so you can’t magnify it by clicking.)

The dictionary tells us that μεράκι means not only ‘passion,’ but also ‘yearning, sorrow.’ However, it seemed a cheerful enough place, and we didn’t notice anyone acting especially Byronic.

The cluster of restaurants was a straight walk down the waterfront to the widest part of the marble promenade, and once we got straightened out as to which one it was, we went in. Being early, like the elderly Westerners we are, we had our choice of tables, and walked through the long, narrow plastic tent where most of the tables were and chose one at the open end, not far from one of the massive palm trees that shade the promenade. (All the seaside restaurants we visited had, if not plastic tents, plastic curtains that could be let down in the event of rain or excessive wind. Oceans can be volatile neighbors, and the Mediterranean is no exception.)

Regardless of its name, The Meráki is an ouzerí, the name for a type of restaurant that specializes in serving oúzo, which (in Greece but not in Turkey) differs from rakí in having a strong aniseed flavor. But whatever one chooses to drink, the menu of an ouzerí generally consists entirely of mezedákia, like a Greek version of the Spanish tapas restaurants that have become popular in the US.

The Meráki’s mezedákia were good. We shared spanakópites (spinach pies) made with pastry instead of the usual filo, and flavored (Cretan style) with cumin, as well as sausage saganáki that was baked in tomato sauce with feta cheese melted on top. (Like the breakfast sausages we’d eaten at the Lató in Iráklio, these tasted more like kielbasa than the loukániko that most Greek-Americans are used to eating.) Our salad was made with lettuce, celery, tomato, prosciutto, and graviéra (our favorite Cretan cheese), dressed with balsamic vinegar. Plus—these were snack portions, remember, not full-size entrées—yioúrtlou kebab: keftédes (Greek meatballs) sauced with a mixture of yogurt and tomato. Small pieces of grilled flatbread came with this. According to a note in the Rough Guide, which I didn’t notice until after we’d come home, we would have received a free mezedáki with each drink (of oúzo or rakí, presumably) that we bought. But we’d never have made it through dinner if we’d tried to buy the food that way, and we accompanied our snacks with the usual white wine. At about 9:00, while we were still sipping and munching, the place began to fill up with local people. This would have let us know that the food was good if we hadn’t already found that out for ourselves.

We strolled back along the marble promenade (which didn’t extend all the way to our hotel, but was succeeded by a regular sidewalk). Eric, the young man at the counter, gave us some freshly baked bread for the next day’s breakfast, and we found koulourákia (cookies flavored like kouloúri, Greece’s sweet Easter bread) on the kitchen counter when we got upstairs.

The bread, and very likely the koulourákia as well, were made by Eric’s mother. The two of them were running the hotel by themselves, or so it looked to us—they might have had additional help during the high season, but at this time there were few guests. During the winter they live in Athens—or so I suppose, since that’s where we sent the deposit when we made the reservation early in the year. The mother was cordial, but not fluent in English. However Eric spoke English well and gave us friendly and useful advice. For example, when we mentioned our intention to visit the archaeological museum, he told us to be sure to go there on Sunday, since it was closed on Mondays, and we were going to fly to Athens too early on Tuesday morning to visit it then.

That night we slept soundly in what felt like sybaritic luxury, compared to the simplicity of our little room in Káto Zákros. Adding to this the friendly warmth of our hosts, the Sitía Bay was one of the most pleasant lodgings we found in Crete.