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Published: October 1st 2007
"They" (does anybody really know them?) say that first impressions are lasting
. And we subscribed to that theory. So when this little uninhabited dry, barren and blasted rock crept on the right side of the Transavia plane, we almost freaked. The island had a reddish color and not a single tree. Now, having just come from cold Holland, we surely would appreciate some warmth and sunshine but never did we envisage a place so hot that you could see the vapours ripple from above
😱. The pilot landed just past the uninhabited island and the flight attendant (to be politically correct)
threw open the doors. We stepped out to face Niko Kazantzakis Heraklion Airport and a super-heated blast of wind. Crete welcomed us warmly.
The largest and most populous island of the Greek archipelago, Crete brims with history and myth. Minoans, Mycenaeans and Dorians once inhabited the island and built great civilizations. St. Paul and Titus of biblical fame landed on Crete in AD 63 bringing Christianity. Romans and Arabs conquered the island followed by the Venetians, Ottomans and Turks. Finally, it found its way back to Greek rule. In mythology, the Greek god Zeus was supposedly born in the Ideon
Adron Cave on the eastern flanks of Mount Dikti. Rhea - Zeus' mother - hid him and his siblings from their father, Cronos, who had a reputation for eating children😞.
Iraklio, Rethymno, Hania and Lasithi are the four subdivisions or 'prefectures' of Crete. Hania, the most western prefecture, is a nature-lovers paradise with great hikes and scenery. Rethymno features the island's highest peak, Mt. Psiloritis, a few outstanding monasteries and nice beaches. Lasithi is greener and more agricultural and less dependent on tourism and Iraklio is the capital, the administrative and commercial hub. According to legend, Iraklio (also called Heraklion)was named after Hercules who had strangled the raging bull that had impregnated Pasiphae, King Minos' wife. The encounter between Pasiphae and the bull spawned the dreaded Minotaur. Legend has it that the Minotaur caused great havoc. To calm him down 7 youths and 7 maidens were offered to him each year in his labyrinth until Thesius, a young and brave Athenian man, eventually killed this vicious monster with the help of his beautiful wife-to-be, Ariadne.
It became immediately apparent that we had to get out of Iraklio. Mass tourism had changed the face and flavor of the capital.
Authentic Greek architecture had given way to haphazard square concrete units that littered the hills and the narrow streets were gridlocked with traffic. Most of the accommodation was 'domatia' which were like 'bed and breakfast' joints but without the breakfast. We didn't know this before but we had arrived just before the end of the peak tourist season and the mad crush of people was too much to take especially since the 35 degree Celcius felt like 55. And so we decided to bus westward, to Hania, and somehow work our way backwards with time. The journey took 3 1/2 hours in a posh sleeper bus and it was after 5pm when we hopped off in search of a place to spend the nite. After heavy, sometimes heated negotiations, we settled for hotel Minos - tiny, clean and safe and just a street from the waterfront. Then it was off to check out Hania aka Chania aka Xania.
The city impressed early. Old, restored Venetian townhouses, some dating back to the 13th century lined the Old Harbour. Most had been transformed into delightful waterside restaurants. Remnants of magnificent walls, built to protect the city against invaders in the 16th
century, still stood as did the remains of a fortress. The sun was setting and a few roads were blocked off with chairs and dining tables creating a jolly, festive atmosphere. Children were playing in the golden brown sand of the beach, a brightly painted 'train' chugged thru and dried octopi swayed gently in the cool late afternoon breeze. Walking the streets was divine. Greek music wafted on the wind and then Rihanna's 'Umbrella', old men smoked and played cards as tourists' flashbulbs worked overtime. It was busy but not the 'get-me-out-of-here' kinda busy. It was more like a fun kinda busy. Dinner was a feast. We had swordfish, calamari, rice, fries and salad with feta cheese. Food was cheap and very good.
Early the next morning we made the hour long ride on Minoan Lines to the entrance of Samaria Gorge. Quite possibly the longest gorge in Europe, the 18km trail winds steeply downhill from Xyloskalo and thru jaw-dropping canyons before ending in the sea at Agia Roumeli. It was thru this very canyon that King George of Greece and then leader of government Emmanouil Tsouderos had fled Adolf's Germans in 1941. The write-up stated that seasoned hikers
completed the course in 4 hours and novices took between 6 and 8 hours. And with that in mind, our journey of 18 km began with our first step. Rough-cut steps marked the steep descent between towering white-ish grey or grey-ish white walls of solid rock. The canyon walls surely topped 500 meters/1640 feet dwarfing us and everything else. God-sent trees shielded us from the piercing, energy-sapping sun as the first few minutes ticked by. The rugged beauty of the gorge unfolded with every step. We drank in the sights of funky rock formations, gnarled and knotted trees and the sheer breadth of the gorge. The trail was well-marked included signs like the one Shanna fell in front of: "Caution: Falling Rocks!"
Nibbling sandwiches and sipping water and powerade, we bypassed quite a few people chilling at designated rest stops. Minutes turned to hours and the gorge began to narrow. Six km fell away before we reached the village of Samaria (no Biblical significance). The residents had long since been relocated when the national park was created. A few of the abandoned houses were still present. We pushed on. Anxiety was beginning to build because the gorge became more
and more dramatic. And then we reached Sidioportes - The Iron Gates
. Here, the walls were just 3.5 m/9 feet apart and the formations and layers were easier to examine. And here, some 11km in, we stopped to take our first break and admire the spectacle displayed all around us. It's really difficult to put into words a panorama so beautiful, so serene. A unusual calm washed over us and the incessant throb in our calves and thighs melted away. Yes!
A resounding 'YES'
we'd answer to the 'was-it-worth-it' question. Surely, this gorge of Samaria must rank among the top great natural wonders we were so fortunate to experience.
A cool, narrow, flat stream appeared and wriggled between the Iron Gates before burying itself in a pile of rocks. Gradually the gorge widened and a restaurant came into view - a watering hole of sorts for the parched traveller. We were almost there. And as the alarm on Vibert's watch signalled that 4 hours had passed, we completed the trek from mountain to sea. A few tavernas, shops and houses and the most wonderful black pebble beach was all there was in the ultra-cute seaside village of Agia Roumeli.
The water soothed our aching feet - its temperature and clarity among the best we had ever experienced. We floated, swam and chilled for hours until a cruise ship-sized ferry docked. The 'Daskalougiannis' was our only way home except, of course, for a trek back thru the gorge😱. It was an easy decision
. The boat sailed alongside an arid south coast and past the isolated but picturesque resort village of Loutro. Access to Loutro was only by foot and boat. We paused briefly to collect a few passengers before heading on to Hora Sfakion aka Sfakia. It would take another 2 hours on a hairy, winding, scenic bus ride from Sfakia before we reached back to Hania and Hotel Minos.
What was that about 'first impressions' again? Two days in Crete. Two wonderful
days in Crete. And with 9 days remaining, we knew that Crete would up the ante and bring on remarkable fun and adventure for two hardy, gung-ho world travellers. 😊
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