Mountains rearing straight up from the sea, gorges, and valleys and yet more glorious mountains. There are few places in the world where high mountains so close to the sea combine with an often-perfect climate. Crete’s rugged terrain is an adventurer’s paradise and in many respects the culmination of the Greek experience because its natural beauty is equaled only by the richness of its history. The island after all is the birthplace of the first advanced society in European soil.
For all these reasons, it holds a special place in my heart and every time I leave, I am already thinking about the next time I am going to be back again. My favorite part is the South-West one and there is a reason for that, the White Mountains! They borrow their name from the shining bleached limestone in summer and the rich snow cover in winter. They include over twenty peaks over 2000m and due to the nature of its rocks and intense geological movements in the past, they also have hundreds of gorges, many of them leading straight to the sea. In addition to the above, this rugged interior is largely untouched by mass tourism, a dreamy mosaic of sleepy villages where the people will smile to you and might offer you something to eat and drink. Most of the times of course is Raki, a local alcoholic drink that contains 40% to 65% alcohol by volume, which is distilled from the pomace of grapes pressed for winemaking.
Hiking this network of ancient paths and shepherd trails, is by far the best way to explore them, so in the following post I will describe a six-days hike which includes the very best of the region. The ideal place to start, is the historical city of Chania, one of the longest continuously inhabited city sites in the world and Crete’s most beautiful town. It’s perfect setting with the White Mountains as background, lively harbor, historical remains, busy market, and nearby beaches make it the ideal spot. Moreover, the winding streets of the old town conceal charming boutique hotels and some of the island’s best dining options. By the way, Cretan diet is one of the most beneficial and most delectable in the country. The diet is high in local fruits and vegetables and one of the key aspects of Cretan cuisine is the use of olive oil as the only fat.
From Chania a good idea is to head towards Sougia and ask the taxi driver to take you to the Oasis restaurant which is positioned just at the end of Agia Irini Gorge. This gorge has been made easily passable by mechanics and man and it is a great introduction to the region. From the Oasis restaurant you can start ascending towards the tiny village of Agia Irini and from there continue to Omalos plateau which at an altitude of around 1100m, is the largest of several high plains of the White Mountains. Historically, due to its isolated and inaccessible location, the plateau was used as a refuge during uprisings against the Turks and you can still see the ‘castle’ of the famous chieftain Hadjimihalis Giannaris, one of the great rebel leaders of the 19th century near the northern entrance of the plateau. Nowadays of course, there is a road and electricity and few families live here all year around to run few hotels and tavernas. This makes it an ideal spot to spend a day or two in order to hike Mt Gingilos. By climbing it you can totally immerse yourself in the deep solitude, silence and majesty characteristic of high mountain walks. The view from the top towards the Libyan Sea and the surrounding mountains is breathtaking and the hike itself is enchanting.
Next morning wake up early in order to escape the crowds, and head at the entrance of the famous Samaria gorge, the longest in Europe. This walk is one of the most impressive in Crete as you pass through forests of scented pines and the “Iron Gates”, the narrowest point, where the rocks on either side are 600m high. The hike ends up in the welcoming resort of Agia Roumeli, with its much-appreciated fine pebble beach and sparkling sea. You can spend the night here, and after a morning swim, put on your hiking shoes again to head back to the mountains and towards the secluded village of Agios Ioannis. You will walk the coastal E4 route and after about an hour you will reach the beach of Agios Pavlos. The highlight of the beach is the Byzantine church that is built next to the coast, dating from the tenth century. The temple was built in honor of the Apostle Paul who, according to church tradition, had baptized Christians here in one stop of his trip to Rome.
After Agios Pavlos, there is a 600m ascend with amazing views to the Southern coast of Crete, and when you reach the top you will need about an hour more to arrive at the tiny village of Agios Ioannis which has only 15 inhabitants. This mountain hideaway offers quietness, while blocking out the rest of the world affording a feeling of tremendous peace and tranquility. The following day have a short transfer to the deserted village of Aradena. Since 1950’s no one lives in the village after two boys had a fight over a goat bell, which ultimately resulted in a vendetta and the death of nearly all residents. From the iron bridge, follow the cobblestone path down to the where the rocky riverbed is forced into an extremely narrow gap between sheer walls that rise vertically above you up to 150m. On a hot summer day, heading down to the mouth of a gorge is the ideal hike. Walking shaded from the sun’s ferocity and looking forward to a welcome swim at the end as a reward.
The hike ends in the beach of Marmara, meaning “marbles” in Greek, which was named after the towering white rocky cliffs that surround it. From there you follow the coastal path to the final destination of the hike, the village of Loutro laying in the embrace of a cliff which towers nearly 800 meters above its inhabitants and it is accessible only by boat, which connects it with the Chora Sfakion.
Hiking in South-West Crete, or real Crete as some would say, always gives me a feeling of solitude and an even greater feeling for the island and its people.
Written by Dimitris Papageorgiou