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Published: October 12th 2007
It made perfect sense, from any angle
. Renting a car, that is. Yesterday's adventure to and from Samaria Gorge had collectively cost us €32 in transportation alone. And that was just about the daily rental price. Plus, it would be impossible to do Crete justice by public transportation because of its size and topography And so, into our lives came IEK-2400
- a fiesty little silver Opel Corsa. And, right then and there, our Crete experience morphed into a totally unique and unexpected affair.
Besides holding the record for smoking the most cigarettes of any EU country, Greece also chalks up the most annual road fatalities. It was easy to see why. Impatient Greeks drove too close for comfort forcing us to the shoulder of the road and then executing insane overtakes around corners and downhill. We quickly sought out the secondary roads where the pace was slower and the sights more interesting than on the highway. From Hania town we drove further west thru coastal resort towns of Platanias, Maleme and into Kissamos Kastelli. The drive afforded us sometimes near-perfect views of the deep blue Sea of Crete. While not as blue as the waters off Anguilla, it was
rather tempting all the same. With no particular destination in mind, we became modern-day nomads vowing to remain fluid and flexible. Bound by only one thing - to find a safe place to sleep before nightfall - we exited the box of conventional vacation and emerged into a liberating, exhilarating realm reserved for only true adventurers
. We rotated the driving, swam when we got hot, ate under the shade of someone's olive tree and followed any road, track or trail which promised some historic or scenic sight. We didn't know where we were going and so any road was the right road. We chose a tiny, winding, upward-leading road enticed by the thought of seeing 'The Acropolis' and 'Roman Aqueduct'. Just a ramshackle collection of houses, the hilltop community of Polyrrinia had old-world charm. It was built by the Dorians in the 6th century BC and subsequently housed invading Romans and then the Venetians. Brimming with authenticity and commanding stunning views of olive-tree covered, terraced hillsides, the village seemed frozen in time. Small, square houses mounted and surrounded each other in a tight little maze. The whitewash on the rough-plastered buildings was not really white anymore but this only
served to further authenticate the village. The road at the entrance of the village narrowed dramatically and then even further and soon we were forced to close the mirrors of the small car just so we could squeeze between the houses. Finding a spot big enough to clear the 'road'
, we parked and continued on foot.
Zigzagging, we negotiated the maze finally finding an old man who limply pointed around the back of his house. There we found a trail leading to the zenith of the mountain and we struggled to climb in the blistering sun. On the way up we stopped regularly to admire the sprawling landscape filled with jagged peaks, treacherous precipices and deep valleys. A church and burial ground, a sign saying "Ancient Sanctuary or Telesterion" and a few sheep hiding from the sun appeared but we still had a fair distance to climb. A church came into view after another 20 minutes or so. This one was so high up and far away from the community that the worshippers surely enjoyed perfect peace and reverence. It was an immaculately maintained building, brilliantly white and spanking. Just beyond it was a Roman well. Now devoid of
Placed at spot where a loved one 'passed'
water, the chasm was fresh and cool despite the aweful heat. Another 10 minutes of climbing landed us in the heart of the Acropolis which was once the best fortified town and western Crete's administrative center. Fortress walls built by the Byzantines and the Venetians were still standing testifying to remarkably strong construction. The place had an eerie feeling like something major in history happened here. We explored, careful not to disturb the surroundings. Not to take anything away from the awesomeness of the walls, but the view was divine
. The spot surely was strategically chosen because it afforded scintillating, panoramic 360-degree views. We'd stay longer and drink in the vistas but the sun, which somehow seemed closer and hotter, drove us down from the mountain😞. And like first-time rats, we got truly lost in the maze of houses before a friendly, elderly couple set us right and gave us two bunches of the sweetest grapes we had ever had😊. We found the Roman Aqueduct and springs and quenched our thirst in the cool, clean, free-flowing water before bidding goodbye to Polyrrinia.
It was after 4 pm when we pulled into another small village. This one, Ancient Falasarna, was
Placed at spot where a loved one 'passed'
a double treat. First, it was an real-life, ongoing archaeological site. The really ancient Falasarna was being uncovered after generations and active dig sites could be seen all around. These were cordoned off to stop public interference. The not-so-ancient Falasarna, the new village, sat picturesque on a nice-ish beach. From there, we had an impended view of the sun setting. Falasarna was as far west as we could get in Crete. The Mediterranean Sea and Malta was further. A family was busy setting up a tent apparently preparing to camp for the night. Two other tents were snuggled up against some rocks on the beach. And then a wonderfully practical idea surfaced in a moment of sheer genius: we'd camp on this beach tonight!!
We cleaned a flat little area on a bluff overlooking the car, spread our sleeping bags and gazed up at the clear star-filled sky serenaded by the incessant, calming sounds of waves breaking on the shore. Ever so slowly the big old moon pushed up over the surrounding cliffs and winked at us and a cool sea breeze fanned us to sleep.
Breakfast was lovely at one of the two joints in Falasarna and
then we headed "4 de road"
again. This time it was southward and thru Platanos and Sfinari, Kampos and Amigdalokefali before taking an unknown fork in the road after Vathi. During the process we'd get lost numerous times as roads simply disappeared from the map. Sometimes paved roads suddenly disintegrated into harrowing dirt tracks which threatened to put on hurt on our tyres. But IEK-2400 was a true trooper with serious off-road capabilities and she was up for the challenge. Hours later we pulled into the intolerably hot parking lot of Elafonisi - one of Crete most popular beaches. It was 38-degree Celcius in the shade
. So hot it was that we couldn't muster up the energy to make the 20 meter walk from our umbrella chairs to the waters. But hundreds of people frolicked and cavorted in the sun. Ironically, the sheer heat which usually drove us to the water, drove us from the beach. Back up to Vathi it was and then Rogdia and Vlatos, Tsiskiana and another
Platanos before the head-spinning, super-curly descent to the true south village of Paleochora. There, we squeezed thru the tiny, maze-like streets of the Old Venetian Quarter, ate a most scrumptuous
And breakfast of Champions
dinner by candlelight under a tree on the pavement outside Taverna Dionysios and retired in the parking lot of Camping Paleochora.
The next morning we were off exploring again. Thru Anidri, Podromi, yet ANOTHER
Platanos and into Kandanos. We drove thru delightful little towns comprised of only a few houses (say ten or so) and sometimes we could touch the houses as we drove by. These darling little villages seemed to get progressively cuter by the minute. Just a cluster of houses, old men playing cards under a tree, women (mostly in black) knitting, two or three eateries and a whole bunch of charm. ALL the villages had immaculate church buildings demonstrating the premium the villagers placed on their religion. About 98%!o(MISSING)f Greeks belong to the Greek Orthodox Church and there is a sprinkling of Catholics, Jews and Muslims. We explored, on foot, tiny towns like Vamos which was restored using original materials and tools, scrambled up the mountainside after mountain goats, enjoyed unbelievable panoramas and chased the wind when we parked on the summit of some dizzying mountain. With our heads literally in the clouds, we wouldn't help but thinking that this was life and how blessed
and fortunate we were to be living it with such passion.
Our journey continued up from deep south Paleochora diagonally and right up north to the parched Akrotiri peninsula. Fried feta cheese (Saganaki), Greek salad with olives, Tzatziki (Yoghurt, cucumber and garlic), seasoned and fried eggplant and Dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) created the most delicious and heartiest (if not the healthiest) lunch ever. We ate in a small resort town of Kalathas overlooking the sea. All meals were finished with complimentary fruit, usually watermelon or grapes, and raki - a fiery, moonshine-type drink. We went straight up to the end of the peninsula at Stavros where a small, sandy beach stared up at a mammoth rock that was featured in the movie Zorba the Greek
. From Stavros we found ourselves driving thru a dry, rocky but attractive valley which ended at the 11th century Moni Gouvernetou. Signboards posted by the 'Holy Fathers' informed us to dress appropriately and that photos were disallowed. From outside the monastery looked like army barracks but inside had a solemn, sacred feel. Pale-looking monks, dressed entirely in black chanted in monotone and lit candles before throwing open the church doors to reveal a stunning,
ornate altar with gold (or gold-looking) trimmings. Outside the monastery a stone pathway led downwards and we followed it until we got to the ruins of Moni Ioannou Erimiti. Behind this monastery, also known as Moni Katholikou, is a cave where St. John spent his hermitage days. His tomb supposedly lies at the end of the cave. We didn't see it though since we didn't have a flashlight and after the first 10 meters or so everything was pitch black.
The night we spent in Camping Hania with its glut of people, tents and luxurious and not-so-luxurious camping caravans.
Here the free spirit of mankind, at length, throws its last fetters off; and who shall place a limit to the giant's unchained strength, or curb his swiftness in the forward race?
William C. Bryant
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