Mountains and gorges in western Crete
Crete is one of the most mountainous islands in the Mediterranean, with over 400 gorges, most of which are in the west. This is an ideal choice for a walking holiday in early spring when the weather is usually warm and sunny, and the flowers are at their best.
After the past two years of restricted travel it was good to get away, and we set out in early April for the west of the island, armed with our copy of the Cicerone guide Walks and Treks in the High Mountains of Crete to give us ideas. The mountains were still heavily snow covered so high walks were not possible, but we found plenty at a lower level to choose from.
We left Heraklion on a bright sunny day to drive south-west towards Mount Psiloritis, also known as Mount Ida, at 2456m the highest point on the island. We skirted its southern slopes to reach the Amari Valley, a fertile area of small villages and frescoed Byzantine churches.
We were following the route taken by Patrick Leigh Fermor and Stanley Moss after abducting the German General Kreipe in the Second World War, vividly recounted in their books and in the film Ill Met by Moonlight.
On their journey to the south coast they were hidden in caves and shepherds’ huts by members of the Cretan Resistance, and we were told that all the Amari villages were burnt by the Germans in reprisal for the abduction. This area was the centre of even earlier resistance too, for the monastery at Arkadhi was where the struggle for Greek independence against the Turks began in 1866.
We were heading for the small town of Spili to the west of the Amari, in the foothills of the Kedros Mountains, stopping en route for a short walk at the Gious-Kambos plateau just before the town.
We followed a track leading to a small chapel, past fields with tiny red tulips and purple crown anemones growing among the crops, and then came to a rocky hill. This was an area well known for orchids, and we spent some time trying to identify the different species.
In past years we have met several botanical groups here, but this year very few people were travelling and we did not meet many other orchid hunters.
Spili is a delightful spot to stay, with a large monastery, several tavernas and a central square surrounded by plane trees and a fountain with 25 stone lion heads spouting water.
This is attractive walking country, and on our first day we started steeply uphill through the cobbled streets of the old town, past shady archways and flowery balconies. We were soon out of the town and came to a viewpoint with glorious views of the snow-capped Lefka Ori, or White Mountains, to the west.
Then the path became narrower and entered a wooded gorge, the first of many that we encountered on our trip. There was just a trickle of water in the stream, but the banks were covered with tiny white cyclamen and purple irises.
At the top we reached a picnic area at the small chapel of Agia Pnevma, the Holy Spirit, where we followed the path as it contoured round to return to town through scattered woodland and olive groves. Here we met a lone botanist, his zoom lens trained on the rare carnivorous Cretan aristolochia, patiently waiting for a fly to be caught in the hairs of its tubular throat.
We came across small chapels on many of our walks, often with well-preserved frescoes painted on the walls inside. On a circular walk near the Kourtaliotiko Gorge to the south of Spili we stopped at two chapels, both dedicated to Saint George, and found 14th century frescoes of the saint inside, his lance pointing down at a fierce-looking dragon.
Bright yellow Jerusalem sage grew everywhere, although the nearby gorge looked wild and bleak. If we had followed it down to the sea we would have come to Preveli, where monks at the nearby monastery had helped ANZAC troops escape to North Africa during the Battle of Crete in 1941.
We were not surprised to meet so many New Zealand tourists, come to see where their compatriots had been saved and the monument built in commemoration.
The Kourtaliotiko is only one of the countless spectacular gorges plunging southwards to the Libyan Sea, all of which make for interesting walks, from easy strolls to strenuous climbs.
On another day we drove to the beach resort of Plakias to walk up the small Kotsifou Gorge to Mirthios. This was one of the easiest walks, through orchards and olive groves, where the nets from last autumn’s harvest were being collected in large sacks.
There are two 16th century Venetian mills in the gorge, now in ruins but originally used for grinding corn, with the overflow water used for washing wool. A water-channel, also built by the Venetians, starts at the higher mill, and we followed this along to the old village washhouse at the entrance to Mirthios.
From here there was a more direct path back to Plakias, with glorious views down onto the coast, and we arrived in time for a delicious lunch of Greek salad in a sunny seaside taverna.
From here we continued westwards along the coast road to Hora Sfakion and our next hotel, briefly stopping at the Venetian castle of Frangokastello nearby. This was built at the height of the Venetians’ Mediterranean empire in the 14th century to guard their territory, and their symbol of the winged lion of St Mark is carved on its entrance gateway.
I had first stayed in Hora Sfakion more than 50 years ago, when there was just one small hotel with three bedrooms. The village had inevitably grown, and now there were several places to stay and a wealth of tavernas to eat in, although with such an idyllic setting it had retained its charm.
The most popular walk from the town is along the cliffs to Loutro and Agia Roumeli at the foot of the Samaria Gorge, from where a boat can bring you back to the town.
One of the most dramatic gorges near Hora Sfakion is the Aradhena, directly beneath the Lefka Ori. In order to view it, we first drove up to the village of Anopolis, situated high above the coast in a fertile plain of orchards, vineyards and olive groves.
In the main square was a statue of one of the earliest Cretan Resistance heroes, Dhaskaloyiannis, martyred for leading a rebellion against the Turks.
Anopolis is a popular walking centre, with several tavernas with rooms, and we met a group about to start on their long hike to the summit of Pachnes, at 2450m the highest peak of the Lefka Ori.
We were not so ambitious, and set out on a much shorter walk towards Aradhena, first climbing up to the small chapel of Agia Ekaterini high on the hill above. White and yellow asphodels coloured the slopes, and from the chapel there was a spectacular view straight down onto the village of Loutro, 600m directly below, set in a small bay accessible only on foot or by boat.
We then found a path leading through the ruined houses of the old town to the Byzantine-style church of St Paul, surrounded by large white asphodels.
From here a cobbled mule track led across the plateau, and suddenly before us there was the gorge, plunging straight down into the depths 200m below. Straddling the gorge was an iron Bailey bridge, which vibrated noisily whenever a car crossed over to the abandoned village on the far side.
When we looked more closely, we saw there were large gaps between the slats – crossing on foot was clearly not for the faint-hearted! And neither was the way into gorge itself, for an exposed, zig-zagging path cut into the steep overhanging sides.
We were quite happy to make our way back to Anopolis on the track we had taken, and to have time for a drink in the local taverna before driving down the winding road back to the rocky coast and the sparkling blue sea.
Another gorge near Hora Sfakion is the Imbros, not as long as the famous Samaria Gorge, but much more accessible.
After leaving our car at the village of Kommitates at the bottom of the gorge, we took a taxi up to the top and started on the 700m of descent. It was a warm sunny Sunday, and we were soon overtaken by families enjoying the easy walk, and by a large party of schoolchildren, jumping from rock to rock in the dried-up riverbed.
The gorge closed in as we got further down, and at the narrowest point it was possible to touch the walls on either side. Soon after we passed through a large natural archway before the gorge finally widened out as it neared the sea. A variety of brightly coloured flowers had rooted in minute fissures in the rocks, the most prolific being large clumps of yellow tree flax and tiny pink stock.
There was no road from Chania to the south until the 1960s, and the route down the gorge was that taken by more than 10,000 Allied soldiers after the Battle of Crete in May 1941, escaping the pursuing Germans to reach safety on the coast and evacuation to Egypt.
The locals paid dearly for helping the Allies, for all the men and boys in the village were executed by the Germans in reprisal. On a hillock above the village we found a monument commemorating the event, with the names of all the murdered Sfakiots.
To the north of the gorge, at the village of Kares on the Askifou Plateau, we came across a small museum, created in memory of the Battle of Crete. Georgios Hadzidakis was a young boy at the time of the German invasion, but he never forgot how all the houses in his village had been destroyed and his younger sister killed.
After the war he collected more than 2000 objects jettisoned by both sides in the immediate area - weapons, helmets, canteens, even a Norton motorcycle used by the British commander – which are displayed in the War Museum of Askifou, his aim to show the futility and the evil of war.
The museum is now run by his son, who showed us round, his pride in his father’s achievement clearly visible. In the museum there were more recent newspaper articles with moving accounts by relatives of soldiers who had escaped down the gorge, who had travelled all the way from New Zealand to walk the gorge themselves, in their memory.
Our final days were spent on the north coast, at the attractive old Venetian town of Chania, once the capital of the island. From here we planned to drive south into the White Mountains to see the longest and most famous gorge of all, the Samaria. We knew that it would be too early to walk down it, for it is closed each year until 1 May because of rockfalls, but we were keen to see the start.
As we left Chania we drove through orange orchards, the brightly coloured fruit still on the trees at the same time as the new blossom, but higher up it was clear that winter had not long passed. The road had partially collapsed, and from then on there were potholes and bulldozers to negotiate, as well as herds of wandering goats.
Busloads of hikers are driven up this road to walk down the Samaria in the summer months, but there was no chance of a bus getting up here so early in the season.
The road finally flattened out when we reached the Omalos plateau, an idyllic spot encircled by mountains which is a popular walking centre in the summer months. We were now over 1000m high, just below the snowline, but the fields were already covered with brightly coloured purple and blue crown anemones, delicate pink tulips, and small white crocuses.
Unfortunately it was not always possible to get off the road to inspect them as fences enclosed grazing goats and sheep, but the views of the snow-covered peaks were glorious. After a brief lunch stop at one of the tavernas, we set out on a short walk round the plateau and then headed for Xyloscalo, the wooden staircase going down hundreds of steep steps into the Samaria Gorge, now a national park and home of the rare kri-kri wild goat.
The gorge is reputedly the longest in Europe, 18km long and 1250m of descent down to the sea at Agia Roumeli; from here the only way out is by boat to Loutro and Hora Sfakion. This is undeniably the most popular walk on Crete, with as many as 3000 hikers setting off down it on some days in summer.
The view from the top was spectacular, with snow-covered mountains rising straight ahead and the high rocky peak of Gingilos to the left. There was too much snow for us to go higher on this occasion, but hopefully there will be another time.
The Cicerone guide gives ideas for many more routes; but make sure you also leave time to explore some of the rich historical treasures on this beautiful island, in particular the spectacularly restored Minoan palace at Knossos and the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion.
Photos by Pamela Harris and Alan Norton
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