Carefully selecting flights for optimum timings and hang the expense, I booked Aegean via Heathrow/Athens there, and a mid-afternoon Easyjet return to Gatwick. The Aegean flights had only an hour connection time in Athens but this was more than enough, and here I was personally called out in the waiting lounge and given an upgrade to an exit seat with more legroom, maybe mistaken for some celebrity roughing it..... Unfortunately , this proved divisive; the front 10 or more rows were empty....however, locals availing themselves of this good fortune, were ushered to their allocated seats towards the back of the plane by the flight attendants, and a number of high volume greek rows ensued, with, I'm sure, my presence there being a part of it!
I'd been planning this years trip since about last October....and had a lot of help from a guy whose website you may have seen and if not, and you're interested in Lefka Ori hiking, well worth a look http://www.afariz.estranky.cz/en/
What fell apart was 'training'.... now, I'm not the sort to have a proper regime, just thought I'd up the quantity and severity of local hikes in the run up to my departure. This went askew when my reliable walking companion, Alf, a 'bit big for a miniature' 6yo schnauzer, had a spinal embolism, leaving him (after £3k in the vets) with paralysis in front right leg. So the 10-12 mile, up&down dale stuff we used to do....became anything from 1/2 hour in the park, to a max of 5 miles or so, sometimes with him in the backpack. In an effort to at least partially counteract this lack of fitness, I'd done my best to trim weight from my backpack load, you know, featherlite this and superlite that,....no change of pants etc....
Anyway, off I went on a Friday evening, with my still heavy pack and plotted sneaking the single hiking pole snuck away in there through security. I'm no Bond, so this just consisted of fingers crossed and, whahayy, through without a blink.
Arriving in Chania I realised we'd missed the early 6am ish bus and the next one was showing as 7.45, still well over an hour away, but more importantly, the Sfakia bus from Chania bus station left at 8.15 and I would be very tight for that! As luck would have it, just as I was mentally debating getting the 11am bus to Sfakia, or jumping a taxi from the airport, an unscheduled bus turned up at the airport at about 7.20. I had a plan about finding a savoury Bougatsa as breakfast when I got to Chania, but with only about 20 mins in hand, I opted for a frappe, water and a fag at the bus station and "Kalimera!", settled with a table of fellow smokers to enjoy the early sun through our haze.
The lightly filled Sfakia bus got away on time and I relaxed and took in the views as we ascended the hills and adjusted to the this way, then that, of the innumerable switchbacks on the way through the mountains. I was going to ask to be dropped off at the top of the hill in Sfakia, had in mind soaking it in from the Sfakia View cafe at the top, but was past it and on the way down to the bus halt before I realised we were there. Time to test the fitness levels, I hiked back up the road past the police station and made my destination.
As I'd been up all night, and on the go from the airport for a few hours now, it seemed not unreasonable to have a beer to complement the sunshine and toast the spectacle of the village below and the coast stretching away west. It's a picturesque view from here, with the harbour down to the left, the castle remnants on the spur in the middle, and the village nestling into the remaining bowl between the sea and the bluff top.
After a bit more toasting, with comp'd nuts&crisps, I headed back downhill to find a likely looking cafe/bar I could chat up to mind my rucksack for a while, a swimming trip to Sweetwater beach in mind. I probably made a mistake in going straight to the seafront, so places seemed a bit 'smart' and without a laid back look of being ok with "hey guys, any chance I can leave my bag here while I go swimming?", but I admit to being intimidated, so didn't ask. Hora Sfakion is an appealing place, probably suffering from jealousy of Loutro's easy success, and emulating that style to a large degree....with my wife we'd have loved it, but just a little 'hollywood' for a scruffy bugger hiking solo.
However, stocking up on a couple of beers from the minimarket, I set off up the pathways from the village, leading up to the road. At the top, no more than a dozen strides along, and still a little gaspy from the last set of steps, a hire car pulls over and a very kindly couple offer me a lift along the road. I explain I'm only just starting a weeks walking and that I'd better not give in just yet...despite appearances. We wish each other well and I continue the road walk. It's not far, but it's still further and steeper than google suggests and by the time I get to 'Glika Nera bend' I'm pretty warm and ready for a swim. First though, is the marvellous antidote to UK elf'n'safety nannying, with the gloriously steep, unkempt, vertiginous trail across the cliffside and down through the rocks to Sweetwater. If you want to know if you can cope with Cretan hiking trails, this is a good place to start! The sparkling azure sea below draws you hypnotically,... tombstoning almost seems like a good idea..., but resist and head across the rocks and shingle to the crystal waters of Glika Nera.
I imagine the time would now have been after 1, and the beach was, by my standards, busy. I reckon on something like 80-100 people, space under the trees at a premium.....and a full quota of sunbed/parasol encumbents. This is only last week of May, I'd somehow imagined it more Crusoe? An odd mixture of swimwear attired family groups, hikers passing through fully shrouded from the sun, and couples letting it all hang out, some of which really shouldn't. Anyway, I'm here now, so elbow a niche under a tree, and relax. A couple of swims, a couple of beers and a few pages of the paperback I'd shoved in at the last, plus a bit of a kip.....(what's that buzzing, hornets?) and the hours evaporated. If anyone's wondering if the sea's too cold in May, well, not really, not for us who'll throw themselves in the briny off Southsea or the Witterings. It's a bit of a challenge to take that mid-thigh to fully immersed bit, but lovely once committed, and certainly needed and refreshing when the temps pushing 90f/30c as was the case. Not ideal walking weather, but I do like the beach, so late May is as good a compromise as I can get. Slightly disappointingly, I couldn't find a dug 'drinking water' well on the beach, the two I came across were just being used for 'wash down' purposes.
Eventually, I packed up and headed back across the rocks and up the cliff face to the road. Off to check out my campsite for the night, tucked up Ilingas gorge. Largely unknown, this gorge starts by the sharp hairpin in the road between Sfakia and Glika Nera, obvious when you see it. There's a beach and rooms/taverna down at the mouth of the gorge, accessed by a ramped drive down from the apex of the hairpin, and would make a great alternative for anyone who's nerve is overchallenged by the Sweetwater footpath.
As I headed towards the apex, a pickup truck pulled up and a young guy hops out and scans the cliff face. I was aware of a number of goats up the cliff face above and one is making more than the usual amount of bleating (is it still bleating if it's a goat?), ..... "Are they stuck?" I say.... He nods in confirmation, puts a finger to his lips to signify shush, then pulls a rifle from the cab of the pickup. I, very shush, tiptoed towards the apex and just as I left the road a shot rings out. I look back and most of the goats are somehow scurrying up or across the largely vertical face. The pickup guy, like spiderman, finds a clambering route up from the road to where the goats were and manhandles the ex-goat downwards. So, his goats and the easiest way to deal with it...or wild goats giving an opportunity not to be missed, or am I now party to a bit of poaching?
Heading north off the road at the apex, I followed the vaguely discernable trail up the gorge. Thanks to my internet advisor, I know what I'm looking for, and after 15 minutes or so, by now following cairns rather than a noticeable trail, I found the *top secret* camp site. It's been worked on over a number of years and now is a flat, rock-free site for 1 tent. Happy I knew where to go for later on, I wandered slowly back, observing the kalderimi zig-zagging down the east wall and up the west wall of the gorge.
On the eastern side the last 20 foot drop of this to the gorge bed has been destroyed, by flood, rockfall and general erosion. I have a plan to walk this kalderimi from Chora Sfakia, so I check out options to get down this last bit. There's a trail running up through scree, then using 'goat paths' to ascend the last few metres to the wall of the kalderimi, quite a long way from the 'end' so considerably higher, but.... all good, I'll use that.
Reaching the apex on the road again, I crossed over and went down the drive to the grandly named Ilingas Beach Hotel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MRIxy-GB4AY which is remarkably affordable given it's 'private' beach location. Parched and only nominally hungry despite not eating today, I ordered a greek salad, a beer and a large water. As expected, this is delivered with a basket of bread, plus oil/vinegar. There is no sign of the newly introduced 'sealed serving' of oil here, or at anywhere I stopped off on this trip. I think it'll be a long time before Sfakian tavernas kowtow to this sort of bureaucracy! The salad was, predictably, enormous and I am a good long while working through it and the beer, while topping up with water. Advice for this trip was to be as a camel, and get as much water into you when you could. With the sun now sinking I decide I need to head off back to Sfakia to stock up for the night, so asked for the bill. The young guy serving checked his orderpad and asks me for €6....... I say, "it must be more, you have missed the beer", "no" he says, "€2.50 for the beer, €3.50 for the salad" ...anyway, I give him €10 and tell him to keep the change, sure he's at least missed the cover charge for the bread...and the water.
Back in Hora, I visit the same minimarket as earlier, and buy a couple of beers and some more water.....don't know why I didn't just get it at Ilingas really, but I get a last look round and then back up the paths to the road. The remains of the kalderimi from Hora starts off as a steep slope cut into the bank at the side of the road. As you progress upwards there are more discernable cobblestones remaining but it's largely derelict and overgrown. The returning ferry from Roumeli, seen now from up high above the village, tells me its around 7pm or so. The trail eventually reaches a bulldozed track leading upwards to...well, nowhere in particular, just sheep stations in the hills, so the shepherds can get up by 4x4 rather than legs. Only a couple of hundred yards of this and then the edge of the Ilingas gorge is reached and the kalderimi returns, running along the eastern flank. It's pretty well preserved at this point and you can see the aeons old backbreaking work that will have gone into this. It starts to zigzag down the gorge wall and I drew near to the end where it has disintegrated and started looking for the way down I'd seen earlier. From below this looked pretty straightforward but, up there, with a long drop below, suddenly appeared much more of a challenge. Initially over the retaining wall and a drop/scrabble down to the goat paths, I remembered my smuggled hiking pole and think how useful it'd be now, but it's still in the pack and this is no place to start digging about for it, hanging by a fingernail and a toe off a path that's not really a path. Anyway, with more sweat from fear than exertion, I pick a way down and reach the scree, which I mostly slid down. So unfortunately, I can't recommend this as an alternative route to Ilingas, honestly, stick to the roads.
Pitching a tarp at the campplace I settled on a log looking down the gorge to watch the light fading and listen to the evening birdsong and the goat bells. I have a disturbed night with various bugs taking a lump out of me, and at some time in the early hours I'm looking up at the clear dark sky, with just too many stars. I'm used to seeing a relative handful of stars, only able to see obvious configurations,.....here there are so many,... thousands and thousands,you can't even pick out the Plough......it is awe inspiring and disorienting at the same time.
The next morning I packed up and looked for my path up to Anopoli. I'd managed to get the wrong end of the stick in my read research, convinced the trail started up a short side passage a couple of hundred metres into the gorge. As expected, there was an initial climb up a rock wall of about 10 feet. This wasn't too bad but I thought the trail descriptions had been a bit underplayed if this was what it was going to be like. Anyway, having made the top of this I thought the side gorge went right around a blind bend......but this was a dead end just a couple of yards further. In fact the whole of this little side gorge is just a dead end and I had to retrace my steps, which involved dangling my pack down on a shemagh scarf and then trying to drop it to a controlled fall, followed by me climbing down. The only other way it could be, and bleedin' obviously now I look back at it, was up the reasonably good western kalderimi. This zigzags up and you gradually find yourself walking in a small gorge. I gather until fairly recently the kalderimi was well preserved in this, but was mostly destroyed in a flash flood. Now there are occasional glimpses of it, most noticeably where a rocky ascent has to be made, the top edge being an old step on what would have been a level-ish path.
This gorge is narrow and not too deep, but with pretty vertical sides and unnervingly, a lot of goats scrabbling about on the sides, dislodging stones from time to time....thankfully only 'pebbles' and all missed me. There are a few minor climbs but nothing as bad as my false start, so ignore the goats and give this one a go if you're in the area. After a while the gorge flattens and opens out as it rises and I stopped for a while here, with a view down to the plain and Frangokastello. Here I was joined by a german couple, Hans & Lotte (not really, sorry, didn't get the names). I was about to say an older couple, but I really must stop looking out with 25yo eyes from a 58yo body.....I guess the guy is early seventies and his wife presumably similar. Anyway we have a brief chat but they're of the 'get on with it' school, so overtake me and press on. Not too far after this the trail reaches a bulldozed track at a water pumping station and is a bit less than pretty. When I reach the top of this track, I'm looking for the route and see a couple of tiny figures in the distance.....it's Hans & Lotte. They are on an obvious kalderimi path but the direct route from here seems to be pretty near vertically up a red earth gouged landslip to an apex on the Sfakia-Anopoli road.
They guestured to me to take the track left and I work out from their signals that I should follow the road around a couple of serpentines to reach the bottom of the kalderimi again and avoid the landslip. This I did and soon reached this other bit of fairly well preserved kalderimi, leading me up to the radio transmitter masts at the top of the hill. I take a break here, on the rocks below the masts, looking down over the road and then the cliff edge above Sweetwater. Very warm, with a nice breeze up here, I dried off after my exertions and had a beer left over from the previous day.
I had planned to walk a path from Kambia below the ridge to the Agia Ekaterini chapel and then down to Anopoli, but the view from the radio mast put me off, as it looked a lot of down and up and I'd done enough for now I felt. So I went right along the road, a very pleasant stroll, and into the heart of Anopoli. I'd been recommended the Anopoli taverna, rather than Platanos, although I feel sure either would be as good, so I made my way there and was greeted by, Hans & Lotte! They wondered where I'd got to as they were mostly finished with lunch....I flattered them by explaining how unfit I was and that I'd had to take it very siga-siga, and that they must be in very good shape,... actually, no flattery there, nothing but the truth.
The guys at Anopoli had a couple of walking groups on large tables to deal with but are still very quick to provide me with a bottle of chilled spring water, ie. local water, not a plastic bottle (although to be fair, plastic bottles of table water tend to be 'Samaria', from a source in the Lefka Ori, so pretty local anyway), and a pint of Cretan beer 'Charma', from a brewery in Zounaki, near Maleme. I don't know what's happened but despite the very appealing menu, lamb, goat, sfakian pies etc., I am only feeling it for salad,... again. I ordered the special salad and sat back to wait and see.....
It's a monster, of everything.....red & green leaf lettuce, chicory, rocket, green beans, tomato, cucumber, peppers, red onion, black & green olives, and a healthy dollop of mizithra, a spray of olive oil and black pepper. Together with the fresh crusty bread, I am over an hour working away at it. It's properly relaxing at this taverna, just at the junction of the road continuing to Agios Ioannis and a side road to Limnia and beyond up into the mountains. From my front corner table I can watch the limited comings and goings of the occasional pickup and explorers in hire cars, a few of which stop, back up a bit and then join us in the taverna. Several of the delightful Charma beers are consumed and at some point a karafaki of raki is deposited, and then later, another, with a small serving of walnut & honey baklava.....
Eventually, pretty hazy, I remember what I'm supposed to be doing and make preparations to leave, settling the bill of €16.... embarrassing really, I'd been there at least 3, probably closer to 4, hours.
Heading back to the village square it's a right turn for the road up to Agia Ekaterini and then the top of the pathway zigzagging down to Loutro. At 5pm or so, it's blisteringly hot and I'm glad I'd remembered more water for the trip. The view from Agia Ekaterini is breathtaking and then from the top of the path, Loutro hoves into view, tiny white boxes clustered around an improbable cove far, far below. This 600mtr descent takes easily an hour, maybe an hour and a half, all the way with views far and wide out to the Libyan sea. Eventually I made it to the bottom and headed for the small strip of shingley beach at the far eastern side of Loutro, to cool off in the invitingly clear sea. This is backed by a beachbar, Akroyiali, which was packed and with a back projection screen down at one end......it seemed to be largely full of germans waiting for something to start....dunno, was there some big footie thing on the 20th? Too busy for me to sit in all dripping, and too hectic to get a beer in....so I wandered along to Keramos' straw mat roofed patio and relaxed in their directors chairs for a good while. The sun, the walking, and quite likely the booze had all left me exhausted, so I trotted along to my booked room at Madares, climbed the stairs and after a short while taking in the evening scene in Loutro, retired to bed.
Luxuriating in having a bed for the night, I'm in no hurry the next morning and take my time over coffee, and the old camel trick.... and wandered around to the periptero, to buy a bit of baccy as I'd be 'off-piste' for the next couple of days. It was shut, with a back in 15mins notice, so I went back for orange juice and more cameling. Another half hour and I hoick on the backpack and go back to the periptero, still shut for 15mins.....I sat and waited and fairly shortly got some action and purchased some 'Karelia', might as well go the whole greek hog.
There's a path from here between the front tavernas and up past a backstreet minimarket, passing the front of Taverna Stratis https://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/LocationP ... Crete.html which looks like a nice place to eat at on another occasion. The path shortly becomes a more traditional rough hewn Cretan trail and ascends in easy zig zags up the hill to the remains of the turkish fort at the top. A short stretch across the cape to look down to the bay of Finix and shortly afterwards a right turn off the main track down, to ascend the headland between Finix & Likos.
There is a way to Mamara beach from here following the dirt road along and up over the headland ahead of you, but the E4 trail decends to Likos then runs along the shore and up along the cliffs. The official trail takes a left towards the sea just before a farm smallholding, and actually ends up running through the terrace of Nikos Small Paradise taverna https://www.thesmallparadise.com/ where I felt it'd be downright rude not to stay for at least a beer!
The E4 trail route option to Mamara is a bit brown trouser, starting with a climb up the rocks at the end of Likos beach, but this isn't the worst of it, there's more than one point at which it's unclear where to go or just downright scary. Your reward at the end is the lovely beach and Dialiskari taverna. https://www.cretetravel.com/gastronomy_ ... ra-tavern/ I stopped here for a 'special' omelette with the kitchen sink and everything, and Alpha beer, my go to if there's no Fix. The beach and taverna were surprisingly busy given it's remoteness, but there are boat trips from Loutro so probably the explanation. I was planning a swim here but bit too much bustle for my liking so I left it and headed up the Aradena gorge.
Lost track on time but I guess it was maybe 3.30pm, and initially I met a constant stream of down walkers, perhaps heading for the taverna and then the boat. It became a bit of a bore, "kalispera", "giasou", "hello", "hi", "arternown" (in best 'ampshire), "awwight" (estuary)
All the focus on Aradena seems to be about the ladder up the rocks bit, or the alternative 'step' way cut into the cliff face...but there's a fair bit of rock climbing before you get to this point and I was, as usual, swimming in sweat (Oooh, nice)... There were a couple of places where I was pretty sure I was on the right track, only to look down and see people making their way on another route, or at least trying to....I'll stick with I went the right way.
In between the climb's it's reasonably easy and levelish running so you get a chance to get your breath back and as the sun had canted over to the west now, I had reasonable shade throughout the hike and took only several of my customary pauses. Eventually reached the ladder/cliff path choice and opted for the path, just didn't trust my sweaty paws with a lump of backpack hanging off me on the ladders. The initial bit of path is no more than a steep scramble up a scree pile, and the path itself is pretty scrappy, although it's easy to criticise.....you try building one! It's quite a high climb up and pretty steep back down, you definitely go higher than seems strictly necessary, but I guess that's just how the lay of the land worked out. Near the top of the sidepath, out of he corner of my 'fixed on the ground' eye, I caught a glimpse of another hiker, also coming up the gorge, but I was soon over the 'hump' of the side track so saw no more. I also stopped for a rest the other side and thought they'd soon catch me up, unless I was imagining things....no one appeared and it seemed to have been just that.
I got moving again and shortly afterwards was crossing under the Aradena bridge, as a car went across. Christ, what a row! The wooden crossmembers rattle and jump in their sockets and the whole bridge sets up a booming roar as the metal vibrates, all the more pronounced in the quiet and stillness of the gorge. I think I'd be creeping across it personally, but I guess the locals are used to it and probably don't drop a gear.
The zigzag kalderimi up from the gorge to the old Aradena village is a few minutes further walk, and as I braced myself for this last clamber uphill, the mystery hiker appeared, in fact, he and his girlfriend both appeared, both very French, exuding élan and a whiff of garlic ) We exchanged notes over the cliffpath versus ladders, which is the way they went, concluding ladders were best, and they scamper off up the kalderimi, young things you see.
I clawed my way up and had a cursary glance around the ruined village and said hello to a guy at a still active smallholding, just pouring some dry feed for a couple of pigs. Then I was gladdened beyond words to find the kantina/snack bar at the bridge still open....it's amazing how much water you can get through clambering up a cretan gorge and I was down to lowish levels. Wishing everyone "Kalispera!" , I sat down with the 3 chaps shooting the breeze there and the young woman running the place and partook of some fresh OJ, more water, and....more beer. I've noticed a fashion trend amongst Sfakian men, seeming to very much favour the black tee-shirt and camo combat trouser look and these were no exception. You have to wonder if a lorry load has gone astray at some point... I'm nearly part of the gang with my own black teeshirt, albeit a hiking top in polyester with a zip vent, but the boardshorts just ain't cutting it! They are interested in where I'm going and, for the sake of easy communication, I tell them Alonia in Agios Ioannis. "Ah, tou Antonis,.. I'll take you" says one... So, hoist by my own insecurities and Sfakian hospitality,... I am actually heading for Sellouda, the area at the top of a kalderimi which winds 600mtrs down to sea level at Agios Pavlos. My plan was to camp on the clifftop for the night....but I thought that might be a bit complicated to explain. So now I have to make lots of noises about wanting to walk it, to continue the purity of the quest or something..... Anyway, with thanks and handshakes all round, I headed off, leaving bewildered men of Kriti shaking their heads at another lunatic englishman.
There are theoretical paths cutting corners off the road across here, but the road was deserted and there didn't seem any real advantage in picking a way across rocky fields, so I stuck to the tarmac, and a couple of km later took the left turn towards Sellouda. At some point the road surface runs out and you are back on a dirt track, which eventually leads through a sheep station and crosses the Agia Ioannis to Sellouda marked trail. Turning left onto the trail I made my way between the rocky walls of the old muletrack, arriving at the top of the kalderimi after a few hundred metres. Wow!, what a view... 600mtrs of what seems like straight down, with the ancient chapel of Agios Pavlos on the beach, and Agia Roumeli off in the distance.
I have a tip for a campsite here but can't find it and in the fading light rigged my tarp in a scenically ideal spot but a bit of a bugger re. actually sleeping. As the sky darkened I reconsider and go on a hunt with a torch to try to find the camp spot. Success, I found it, perfectly flat, pretty stoneless, sheltered by but not covered by trees....ideal! Then the fun of moving to it by torchlight, with everything unpacked, while not tripping over the rocks or falling into the phrygana. Eventually settled, with the tarp back pegged into the wind and the front open, I'm able to watch the sky continue to darken and the countless stars appearing.....hello, what's this, a forgotten can of Fix is unearthed from the pack.........who could want more!
cont in part 2/
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