A crush on Crete

A crush on Crete

Mighty greece

A crush on Crete

A series of events left me stranded in Greece with a friend, and with no real plan, we decided to visit Greece’s largest island — Crete. The centre of the Minoan civilisation that flourished in 2000 BC, it is best known for the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. This mountainous autarkic land with pristine peninsulas lined with beaches, has some surprisingly secluded spots. It is rich in cultural traditions, the food is unique and the people speak a local dialect of Greek. Organic products abound and the sun and wind generate electricity.

Tourist season in Greece begins in late spring, so in April, public transport in Crete is not reliable. The good news, however, is that renting a car is affordable, so my friend and I got one in Chania for just 25 euros. Our destination was Gramvousa — the second of western Crete’s two finger-like peninsulas protruding into the Sea of Crete. The weather was beautiful as we sped past several seaside towns and at the last one Kissamos, we turned right entering a dirt track squeezed between mountains and the clear blue sea. The stunning views compensated for the bumpiness of the ride. Parking the car, we climbed across the shrubby hill before us and down a path parallel to the coastline.

Greek odyssey

The view ahead was unreal — a misty green peak soared in front of us and to the right two semicircular sandy stretches appeared, one enclosing the dark blue sea and the other with shallow translucent water. Wondering whether it was just a mirage, we scrambled down the sandy path. The landscape suddenly became even more stunning with an island of sorts rising from the water, linked to the mainland by fringes of white sand. The sea was split into distinct shades of indigo, turquoise and cyan. I ran along the sandy coastline trying to find different ways to get to the island. After wading about in the cool limpid water, we climbed over a rocky area full of shimmering pools and made it across to the other side. I soaked up as much sun and sea as I could until we were ready to go.

All this had worked up an appetite, so passing fields of wild poppies and daisies, we turned towards the snowcapped mountains, drove into a gorge and up towards the next highlight of the day — a hidden restaurant called Douniyas, where the chef, George, promotes “slow food”. The atmosphere was relaxed, the people friendly, and soon two plates of dolmas were served with a dollop of thick Greek yoghurt, some homemade earthy brown bread and red wine. It was a good start to a tasty, copious meal. For days now, my friend had been looking for a Greek dessert of candied orange peel or glyko portokalaki. He was in for a surprise when the waitress placed a plate of syrupy orange peels in front of him. It was the perfect end to his trip.

As an avid hiker, one of the biggest draws of Crete for me was the Samaria gorge, but timing the visit is important. The gorge is narrow in certain parts, so in rainy weather, there is a risk of rocks falling on you, so its opening date hovers around May 1. On May 1,when Samaria did not open, I visited Palaiochora in the island’s southwest instead. Back in Chania, returning to a travel agent for the umpteenth time, I was thrilled to learn that the gorge would open the following day and that I would be amongst the privileged few who would trek this path on the opening day.

The next morning, our guide Thomas and three Danish travellers picked me up at 5 am. Located in the south of Crete near the White Mountains or Lefká Óri, Samaria — 16 km long — is one of Europe’s longest gorges. It starts near the village of Omalos at a 1,250 metre altitude and descends all the way into the Libyan sea. We made a short breakfast stop in the mountains where a few Cretan ibexes (feral goats) were kept in an enclosure. They were the only ones I saw that day.

Take a hike!

It was 7 am when we started and the first part of the trek was down a zigzag path in a mountainous area covered in pine trees. After an hour I reached the stream and crossed it over a few large round boulders. It was hard to imagine how this tiny rivulet had carved such a mighty gorge. The joy of trekking was heightened by conversations with my fellow hikers. After a few kilometres, the mountains gave way to a large rocky opening. The stream continued to flow down here and a wooden bridge led to the other side leading to excavated foundations of some old settlements with a wooden hut and benches.

By now, the path had taken on the appearance of a veritable gorge. At this point, the path had tapered and it was necessary to crisscross the brook back and forth on wooden bridges. I spotted a miniscule scorpion, the size of my nail, sitting on a rock, the only animal I saw in Samaria! Walking along the shallow light-blue stream and wild poppies, I finally arrived at the “Gates”, a very narrow opening in the cliffs, also called the “Iron gates”. Parallel lines etched in the rock face bear testimony to centuries of erosion leading to the creation of this structure. The cliff walls seem to sandwich the stream here. The gorge later opened up once again to a place where the smell of rotting meat filled the air. We quickly realised that the odour originated in the least expected place. A huge maroon coloured flower called Dragon Arum (Dracunculus vulgaris) or the Stink Lily emits this smell so as to be pollinated by flies. Nature has innovative ways of propagating itself!

After an incredible six-hour trek, we reached the exit that led us straight to the bright blue Libyan sea. Never have I seen a sea this blue! It was so tempting that we jumped right in. The cool water was very refreshing, especially after the long trek. It was nearly 4 pm by the time everyone had congregated in Agia Roumeli. While waiting for the last few people to get ready, I learnt that Thomas spends all his winters in India when the gorge is closed. What a great way to live! We climbed onto a boat and set off to Chora Sfakion where our bus was waiting. The ride was slightly rough and we were occasionally splashed by salty waves. We went past coves and caves sculpted into the rocky façade along the azure waters.

Later, I was on another boat, but this time to Athens, contemplating the wonderful people and unforgettable experiences in Crete.

Other places to see

 Chania, Crete’s second-largest city, has a really beautiful Venetian harbour, which is the perfect place for a drink or a meal, especially in the evening when it bustles with people.

The Minoan Palace at Knossos is the biggest attraction in Crete. There were once over 1,200 rooms here, and some of them have been recreated to give an impression of the scale and grandeur of the palace.

 Rethymnon is the third-largest city in Crete and has a Venetian fortress, archaeological museum, Old Town area and venetian harbour, while the famous Arkadi Monastery is nearby.

 On the outskirts of the city, accessible by tram, is charming Carouge, also known as the Greenwich Village of Geneva. This 18th century town has a Mediterranean ambience.

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