By Laurent Lefèvre
Photos by Yvane Guibert, Paule Gracia, and Laurent Lefèvre
A Kingdom of water taxis and paradise of canyons, Crete is once again open to visitors with a health pass or a negative Covid test*. Combining culture (gastronomy and living traditions), history (presence of different civilizations visible in the architecture of beautiful cities like Chania or Rethymno), treks and the discovery of peaceful bays, the largest of the Greek islands (3,218 square miles) has indeed many assets.
From Chora Sfakion to Sougia via Loutró
Located in the west of Crete, south of the Chania Prefecture, these villages (Loutró had 56 year-round residents at the last census) are connected by coastal paths that in some places follow the E4 long-distance hiking trail, the longest in Europe – more than 10,000 km from Cape St. Vincent (Portugal) or Tarifa (Spain) to the mountainous regions of Cyprus.
“For hikers who want to discover Crete, I recommend visiting this southwestern part of the island in spring or autumn, spending ten days there,” underlines Efi Petinaki, a guide from La Balaguère, a French travel agency specializing in trekking. “You should not stay only on the coast: it is in the mountains, in the small villages that you discover the authentic Crete. “
The island has 57 peaks over 2,000 m and many climbing routes [French article], including in the southern part of Heraklion Prefecture the Gorge of the Saints (Agiofarago) and Mount Kofinas (1,231 m), peak of the Asterousia Mountains, the southernmost in Europe. In the Chania Prefecture, the gorge of Therisso offers various climbing trails.
On The Coastal Paths
The smell of thyme and savory perfume from these rocky paths that offer panoramic breathtaking views of the Libyan Sea is something not easy to forget. Winding along the cliffs, they allow to admire in the background the White Mountains (Lefká Óri, Παχνές in modern Greek), whose highest point (Mount Pachnes, 2,453 m) can be climbed in one day – achievable in winter by ski touring!
In some places, the trail plunges towards pebble or gravel beaches that crunch under the walking shoes: diaphanous sea on the left, cliff on the right. The hiker, vaccinated against vertigo, discovers himself as a deserted beaches lover!
Between the beaches of Agios Pavlos and Agia Roumeli, the path crosses a sumptuous forest of Aleppo pines (Pinus halepensis also called white pine of Provence), a Mediterranean coniferous tree. In Greece, its resin is used to perfume Retsina, a dry white or rosé wine produced for two millennia.
Gold digger of horizons
Deserted by tourists in June, the coves and bays that can only be reached on foot or by water taxis appear isolated from the world, such as Glyka Nera beach (between Chora Sfakion and Loutró), the cove of Marmara or the Phoenix bay (Finix). Each time, departing or arriving from a hike, their translucent waters with turquoise reflections capture the hikers’ attention like a lover in perpetual search of reassurance.
Opening on a large area, they are an invitation to travel and to explore an infinity of possibilities. With a single glance, we admire their rounded shapes that draw a sanctuary conducive to all returns. The cliffs that rise in the background like ramparts seem to stand guard over these havens of rest.
From Marmara beach, several submerged caves are accessible by swimming: swapping his hiking sticks for a simple bathing suit, the walker becomes an Argonaut of the sea bed!
The Trek To Go Back In Time
Kingdom of canyons, Crete has more than 400 gorges. Dotted with oleanders in bloom in June, the Aradena Gorge can be discovered from Loutró. Dried from April onwards, the Agia Irini Gorge start from Sougia and cross the western part of the White Mountains. They lead to the city of Lissos, famous since antiquity for its thermal springs.
Impregnated by this site’s majesty, the hiker takes himself for an archaeologist and goes back in time to the Minoan (3100-1100 B.C.), Hellenistic (Doric temple of Asklipios of the 3rd century B.C. located at the southwestern terrace of the sanctuary), Roman (necropolis of the 1st century with fifty vaulted tombs) and Byzantine societies (churches of the Virgin Mary and of Agios Kirikos of the 14th century) which have lived on these places.
In The Samaria Gorge
Located in the park of the White Mountains which they cross, the famous Samaria Gorge (Farangas) are the most important in Europe, after those of the Verdon. Their width goes from 150 to 3 m, at the narrowest passage called the gates (pórtes). Its cliffs, where the most intrepid figs and cypress trees manage to cling, rise to 600 m. As it has snowed a lot this winter, the water is abundant on this day June 18th**.
The ascent of the gorge – from the village of Agia Roumeli located at sea level to the Omalos Plateau (1,250 m) – makes it possible to avoid the majority of hikers who go through it in the opposite direction.
Shaped by time for thousands of years, this fusion of water, mineral and vegetation (more than 300 species of plants, including 70 endemic and 30 threatened with extinction) is also a landmark of history. Opposed to the Venetian, Ottoman and Nazi (from 1941 to 1944) occupations, the Cretan resistance fighters have found refuge over the centuries.
Originally from the White Mountains, the traditional monophonic songs, rizitika (from the Greek riza meaning root) in Cretan dialect, perpetuate their memory. Frequently, as it happened at the To Exari inn in Omalos in the evening of Saturday, June 19, small groups of men gather to sing these songs in chorus.
Also very present in the local culture are the folk dances – more than thirty, still practiced today especially during weddings, celebrating the heroism, the courage and the rebellious character of the Cretans. “Dance? Did you say dance?”
“The Cretans remain very attached to their history and their values: family, mutual aid, pride and we must not touch their honor! They are mountain dwellers, including in their mentality,” says Efi Petinaki. “Very warm, they are known in Greece for their hospitality and their hot-headed temperament. It is better not to rush them: siga, siga (gently, gently)! ” A rebellious state of mind forged by a tumultuous history that summarizes well the maxim of Níkos Kazantzákis : “I hope for nothing. I am not afraid of anything. I am free.”
Notes About Greece and COVID19
* Greece allows entry for EU and Schengen citizens (with a covid test or a sanitary pass) and for individuals residing permanently in the United States. The Department of State has issued a Travel Advisory Level 3 for Greece advising U.S. citizens to reconsider travel to Greece due to COVID-19: more information.
** Closed in winter, they only opened this year on June 12.
Laurent Lefèvre is a journalist based in Paris, and a frequent traveler.