Crete: Charms and Challenges

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October 15th 2007
Published: October 15th 2007
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[youtube=KUm1WXlGg-M]The prefecture of Hania seemed to have some magnetic presence. It didn't want to let us go. We had already spent 5 of our 11 days. Determined to break Hania's hold, we took to the highway heading east. But highway driving was boring and we longed for those heart-warming little villages. We detoured thru Armeni and on thru Agia Pantes before arriving at Vrisses. The main attraction here should have been the rivers Voutakas and Vrysanos which flowed thru the center but these were now disappointing streams and stagnant puddles😞. But there was a good ambiance and fabulous shade from giant trees and so we grabbed a yoghurt and honey before pushing on. Kourna Lake was next - a large, overrated and highly commercialized body of fresh water. Hawkers touted pedal boats promising sights of turtles. We didn't bite knowing that with the amount of people on the lake if there were any turtles to begin with, they would certainly have been run over by now or dead from frustration😱.

After another 45 minutes we crossed into the prefecture of Rethimnon and an airy, scenic little village called Argiroupoli. Surprisingly, water flowed fast, fresh and clean thru numerous aqueducts from some underground spring. The area was greener and fresher than most places we had visited before. Continuing south we caught, at first, glimpses and then full-on marvellous views of the Libyan Sea. The road suddenly made two ridiculously tight turns before dropping into and running thru Kourtaliotis Gorge. We didn't know whether to be amazed or scared at the narrow strip of asphalt snaking between two solid, lengthy rock walls. Amazement won out as we dodged cars and tour buses until finally we cleared the claustrophobic space. Stopping, we jumped out to admire the grandeur of the gorge thru which streamed the river Megalopotamos. A drive-thru canyon? What an awesome sight. Truly a first! Another first was experienced right there i.e. our encounter with the Meltemi. Caused by a difference in air pressure between the Balkans and North Africa, the Meltemi blasts part of Mainland Greece, the Aegean Islands, the Cyclades and Crete with gusts sometimes reaching category 2 hurricane strength. IEK-2400 occassionally shuddered in the wind but soon we reached road's end at Plakias.

On the south coast (again) of Crete and overlooking the Libyan Sea, Plakias was adorable. It was touristy but not overdone plus it had a lot of space to unwind. It was still light when we checked into Youth Hostel Plakias only after receiving a cold, uncertain 'welcome' and a 'this-is-a-magical-place' speech from Chris - the manager. That aside, the place was charming - dorm-style (i.e. open floor and bunk beds), clean bathrooms and very friendly patrons. We struck up conversations with a few German youngsters and one bubbly Norwegian damsel before heading out to dinner. We had come to expect very high standards from Greek cuisine but dinner at Sofia's on the waterfront totally disappointed. What we got was a weak attempt at 'tourist' food and not food with the authentic Greek smack😞. After checking out the 'ambiente' of Plakias night scene, we retired to our bunks beds only to be aggravatingly awaken at 5:00 am by fellow guests who had one obviously drama- and alcohol-filled night out.

Moni Prevelli stood isolated on a hill about 10 km from Plakias. It had once, under Abbot Agathangelos, been safehaven for Allied Soldiers after the Battle of Crete in the second world war. It had also been the center of resistance against Turkish rule in 1866. On the up to (and, well) down from the monastery was an interesting monument of a gun-toting priest and a Commonwealth soldier.

Our destination was Paralia Finikodasous aka Palm Beach aka Prevelli Beach. Touted as one of the best and most photographed beaches in Crete, it was accessible by car only down the horridest, unpaved mountainside you could imagine. To add to the horror, the beach was another 15 minutes uphill/downhill shadeless hike in the boiling sun. Needless to say, we were more exhausted than exhilarated when we arrived at the beach. Now to be objective, the beach did look good and photographed well. The Megalopotamos exited the canyon and made a right turn and then left over the sand before emptying into the sea. But with every square inch of shade hogged by beach chairs for rent and sizeable ferries dropping people off like rice, our plans for a quiet day with a book at the beach were quashed. Besides, we KNOW beaches and by our exacting standards, this one was good but just below par. We left. The area around Plakias also advertised some waterfalls but ... ah, well ... let's just say we passed.😊

We broke camp and steamed towards Kourtaliotiko Canyon just past Lefkogia. It, too, was stunning, not nearly as narrow and dramatic as the previous one. Spili turned up an unexpected surprise: 25 Venetian lionheads spouting the most cool, refreshing water. Apparently, the core of the island was one big water reservoir although you wouldn't guess it from the island's harsh outward appearance. We filled up our water bottles, eyed the cobbled streets and then beat a hasty exit as tour buses poured in with loads of camera-wielding tourists. From Spili it was all downhill, literally and figuratively. Literally, because of the terrain and figuratively because the next village - Agia Galini - turned out to be an ugly, domatia-clogged, claustrophobic place which got less than five minutes of our precious time. Crossing into the Iraklio prefecture, we stopped at Kommos. Its long, wide sandy beach, decent swimming and unrivalled sunset scenery was a great step-up from Agia Galini. Plus, right on Kommos beach is an active archaeological dig. Even from outside we could see the unearthing of a Minoan city with roads and courtyards, temples and houses. A big 'no camping' sign killed our plans for the night but it turned out right because Camping Kommos was ideal. We
Kourtaliotis GorgeKourtaliotis GorgeKourtaliotis Gorge

Near Plakias
had converted to seeking out campsites because they were a fraction of the price for a hotel, had hot water and clean bathrooms and a place to wash and dry clothes and charge the batteries powering our electronics. This one had the added bonus of a huge freshwater pool and we made good use of it. Who needs hotels? Kommos lacked eateries but Matala, 3km away, had quite good ones and we ate watching the eerie sight of scores of Roman tombs carved into the cliff face.

Again we bisected the island leaving Matala and cutting a path straight to the capital, Iraklio. It was suffocatingly crowded being just before the end of the peak season. A car almost clipped us when a traffic light malfunctioned and parking was impossible. We had come here to reconfirm our flight and as soon as we were able to do so we took the highway out of town and straight into Lasithi province. Completely skirting the big city, Sitia, we wound our way thru the most agricultural province. We passed hillsides of olives - the biggest produce. It is estimated that there are 34 million olive trees in Crete equating to about 62 olive trees for every individual. We passed vineyards with huge bunches of succulent grapes, watched the first stages of a grape winery and petted real-life imported camels all before reaching Kato Zakros. With a population of under 35, a quiet pebbly beach, a few good places to eat and few tourists, Kato Zakros was everything we were looking for. If only for a moment, we abandoned our vegetarian status to feast on the most succulent homegrown rabbit and lamb and then found a quiet spot on the beach, under a tree, to rest our weary heads. From this place we watched the moon rise (a true rarity) and a spectacular sunrise. This was our second-to-last day and with Kato Zakros, dead east, we had now covered all the points in Crete. We freshened up under the beach shower and we pushed on. The last night was nothing spectacular. Just a regular night of sleeping in the car under a tree in Xerokampos. True to form, we had to make the last day particular exciting by almost running out of gas in the mountains. To conserve petrol we free-wheeled downhill a couple of times. On what would be our final excursion from the south back up north and to the airport, we ran into the most memorable Greek man. Like a character straight out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Socrates was jovial and noisy. He hailed out to us while we were passing and beckoned us to share a drink and grapes with him. 'Socrates, great thinker', we said tapping our foreheads so he'd get the message. He laughed.
'No. Me Socrates, me crazy', he said tapping his forehead so we'd get the message. We shared 'small' talk (literally, since his English was slightly better than our Greek) and then continued thru the enterprising mountain village of Anogia.

The airport was packed with sunburnt, lobster-looking tourists heading back to somewhere cold no doubt. The four-hour delay in the flight meant that we'd now reach Schipol at 5 am - a depressing thought. To compound our frustration, the departure gate to the plane could only be accessed thru the smoking section which was thick with nasty smoke. We wondered which 'genius' had so configured the airport to cause such harm to our delicate lungs.

Amsterdam was as expected: cold and wet. Quietly staring thru the window of the cab, we both had similar thoughts. Never before had we so thoroughly explored a territory, wild camped and enjoyed every minute of it. Crete will remain a place of astounding historical value and natural beauty. But overcommercialization and the almighty Euro has all but irretrievably obliterated so much of its uniqueness, charm and history. Only time will tell if charming places like Kato Zakros, Plakias, Kalathas, Kommos and Matala will capitulate on the altar of mass tourism and give up the very thing that make them special: their peaceful, tranquil ambiance. We remain ecstatic that Crete embraced us the way it did enfolding us with friendships, culture, nature and marvellous cuisine.

The verdict is in: Crete Rocks!!!

Thanks to:
😊 Socrates
😊 IEK-2400

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Bridge plaqueBridge plaque
Bridge plaque

Prevelli beach area
On a nice chillOn a nice chill
On a nice chill

Prevelli beach

17th October 2007

Living the dream
I admire you guys for leaving all behind and living your dream. I love all your travel-reports. It reminds me of my 2nd home the Philippines and it also shows that life is not a paved road, but a road in which you can determine your own reaction. I am sure that you guys will come out richer in the sense of quality of life than you can ever imagine. Good luck and may all good things happen to you.
17th October 2007

I Loveeee Crete!
Hi twoforderoad, I enjoyed every picture of Crete. Vibes I saw your new best friend and I am sure that Socrates is your friend too. the kommos monster, the sunset and sunrise were beautiful. Were you not afraid that some one would come walking out the tombs, he, he! I am enjoying your tour. Thank Yoou both.
24th October 2007 on my list of mustsee places

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