Lefka Ori

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I’ve spent quite a while wandering about, around, and between these mountains, so I thought they deserved a post of their own.  The beloved mountain range that sits majestically in western Crete, the Lefka Ori (white mountains), is also known as Madares (bald mountains).  The ‘bald’ side refers to a high desert —unique in the northern hemisphere— which lies at an altitude of 1,800 m.  It is located in the central and southern side of these mountains and can be entered via Anopolis.

The Lefka Ori are made of limestone.  This is why from a distance they look white or blueish -or pink if the sun hits them at a certain angle and you are quick with the camera!  More than this, the ‘white’ probably refers to what the locals think of as wintry white, perennial snow caps, which disappear in late spring.  

The highest peak is Pachnes (Cretan for ‘fog’), which is close to 2,500m above sea level.  There are also Mount Ida and Psiloritis, which I mentioned in previous blog posts.    There are also about 50 gorges cutting across the mountains.  The most famous is the Samaria Gorge.  There are also the Imbros and Agia Irini Gorges (mentioned before).

The gorges, the mountains themselves, and the plateaus between them are fabulous for hiking. In fact, the European E4 path crisscrosses these mountains. During spring and summer, there is stunning vegetation to be seen, not least a few species of flowers unique to this region.  In wintertime, though, it is advised that only experienced hikers and mountain climbers attempt to come here, as it can be dangerous.

Plan your springtime or summertime hikes and contact Karma Travel for advice regarding walking tours where you can take in the beauty of Lefka Ori and also learn about the flora and fauna of the region.  You will not be disappointed!

Milia and a Chestnut Festival

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I thought that perhaps a new experience was in order. Somewhere without TV’s and gloomy news that make me conscious of living in ‘interesting times’. I thought a few days perhaps even without Internet access could do me good.  Mind you, giving up my Internet connection seems like being deprived of human contact, almost like becoming a modern-day anchorite.

So what is really essential for living?  What or how much can you give up?  I thought for these considerations alone, it was worth going to Milia.

Milia is a 17th century mountain settlement nestled in the Lefka Ori (white mountains) which has been transformed to accommodate tourists -mostly hikers- in its stone houses.  These have been restored to provide simple and basic yet very hospitable accommodation.  There are wood burning stoves for heating, and the furniture in the bedrooms is rustic. Solar panels generate enough electricity to meet the very basic needs, but there is no access to media or the Internet.  The houses have simple bedrooms, bathroom and a dining room.  Stream water is piped into the houses.  The experience is not about locking yourself up in one of the houses, though -there is a spacious communal dining room, where you can enjoy home-grown organic food lovingly prepared by Giorgos and Tassos.  Their delightful stifado with chestnuts, baby onions and potatoes in red wine sauce will stay in my memory.  I really enjoyed my stay and did not want to leave!  Indeed, it is possible to give up technology and embrace a simpler life without so much as a hiccup.

Then again, here I am, back in ‘civilisation’ and blogging.

From Milia, you can rent a bike or hike to visit the surrounding little towns, called the Innaxorion (‘nine villages’) dispersed in this mountain area, where time seems to be elastic and go slowly.  I found a few gems, such as a 15th century basilica dedicated to Agia Varvara (near Latsiana) and a church dedicated to Agios Nikolaos (near Mouri) which contains beautiful frescoes.  There is also the Topolia Gorge nearby, which makes for a most enjoyable hike.

Elos is the largest of the Innaxorion.  It is a pretty village surrounded by a chestnut forest and several natural springs,  and boasting  a few well-preserved Venetian buildings, such as a governor’s house and a fortress.  There are also fragments of Roman mosaics to admire.

The speciality of Elos are chestnuts.  I arrived in time for the annual Chestnut Festival, which this year was held on Sunday 4 November.   The festival sees everyone in the village get involved.  There was food, wine, music and dancing. A particular form of raki typical of this region was on offer (‘koumaroraki’). Small children had prepared ‘mantinades’ (poems) about chestnuts. Or at least this is what I was reliably informed that they were reciting!   Huge, sweet and juicy chestnuts were on offer, and you could also try them in a variety of dishes, sweet and savoury.  Then, in the climax of the event, the chestnuts are roasted.  What a pleasure!

If you would like more information about Milia or want expert advise to include local festivities in your travel plans, which will make for an unforgettable stay in Crete, contact Karma Travel!  Their expert advisors will help with accommodation, transportation and offer knowledgeable tips to make your travel a true delight.

Psiloritis

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I’ve gone to explore a mythical mountain this time. Having spent all that time seeing Mount Psiloritis (also known as Mount Ida) as a backdrop to many places I have visited, I had to go and see the mighty giant for myself. This is Crete’s tallest mountain, at 2,454m above sea level. The climb is demanding and quite exhausting. It’s not something I could easily have done in one go. Luckily, there are hiking shelters and my place in one of these was reserved in advance by helpful Karma Travel. At the very top stands a small and rustic stone chapel dedicated to the Holy Cross (Timios Stavros) which holds the prayers of many pilgrims.

This mountain has its place in mythology as the birth place of Zeus. His mother, the Titaness Rhea, went to the Idaean Cave when her delivery time was approaching.  She squatted in the cave and pressed her fingers into the ground, so giving life to the Dactyls, small finger-like beings who were smiths and magicians, and would protect Zeus.  Her baby would stay in the cave to guard him from Chronos, his father, who had eaten all five  previous children she bore him for fear of a prophecy -he had been told by his parents that one of his children would dethrone him.

Hidden in the cave, Zeus was raised by a goat, Amalthea. A company of Kouretes helped conceal him, and they spent all their time making raucous noises in a continued effort to hide the baby’s crying, lest Chronos should hear him. When Zeus attained manhood, he confronted Chronos and forced him to disgorge all his siblings.  Zeus also freed the Giants, the Hekatonkheires and the Cyclops.  To show their appreciation, they gave him the gift of lightning, and helped fight and overthrow not only Chronos, but all Titans (his brothers and sisters) in a war called the Titanomachy.

Beyond its mythological connections, Psiloritis is considered a Geopark, part of the natural and cultural heritage of Crete, and is protected by UNESCO.  It is a geologist’s paradise, as it has unusual combinations of volcanic, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks, some of which are a million years old.  The plant life is not only beautiful and fragrant, with wild thyme and sage patches like in the other gorges I have visited, but also includes orchids and tulips which are exclusive to this region.    Some parts of the park are also dotted with cylindrical stone structures built by shepherds, called ‘mitata’, which are used to make amazing local cheeses.

To discover the flavours of Crete and sort out your travel needs, contact Karma Travel!  Their friendly experts can advise you and will help you find small wonders you did not know existed in this Mediterranean island.

The Palm Beach of Preveli

I heard of the wonders of Preveli and decided that an area that offered a spectacular sandy beach with a palm forest, a gorge, and a monastery was definitely my kind of place to go explore. So off I went.
The trip started in Rethymnon, to where I had returned shortly. It did not take very long to get to the Kourtaliotiko Gorge. I arranged to be taken there and left to wander through the beautiful, steep gorge, then picked up at the end to be taken to Preveli Monastery, all thanks to wonderfully helpful Karma Travel.

The setting is, like my book promised, nothing short of ‘stunning’. The gorge’s red face is steep and narrow, and dotted with caves. There are quite a few springs, and in fact, the Megalopotamos river, which cuts through the mountains and drains at the Lybian Sea, has its source in the gorge. Legend has it that two monks once came to settle here. One of them was reluctant, and his reason for not wanting to stay was the lack of water. The other monk, Nikolaos, prayed and laid his hand on a rock. Miraculously, where his fingers touched the rock, a spring welled up. So now, there is a pretty little church with beautiful frescoes in the gorge, and it is dedicated to Agios Nikolaos.

The next leg of my day trip took me to Preveli Monastery –which actually contains two building complexes in a huge estate. The main (upper) monastery is dedicated to St John the Theologian; the name Preveli comes from the Venetian donor that funded its construction in the middle ages. I visited the beautiful buildings and an exhibition displaying religious relics and icons. The monks pride themselves in the monasteries’ active role in the history of Crete. In the 17th century, during the Turkish occupation, the monastery was allowed to remain operational, and served as a social hub, not just a religious centre. A century later, the abbot participated in an uprising and was sentenced to death, but then pardoned. In the 19th century, the monks became part of the revolutionary movement to drive out the Turks, and in the meantime managed to operate ‘secret schools’ to educate the local children. They also provided shelter for rebels and sustained them. The monastery was set on fire in vengeance, but it was rebuilt shortly thereafter. By the turn of the century, the formerly secret school had become a college, which continues to be important for the region to this day.

The lower monastery, dedicated to St John the Baptist, was the object of heavy bombing in the Second World War. The monks had provided shelter for a group of Australian soldiers, who were rescued by a submarine at Preveli Beach. In revenge, the German forces destroyed the lower monastery, which remains ruined, and severely damaged the upper monastery, which was again rebuilt.

From the monasteries, I walked along a path towards the beach. At the point where the Megalopotamos meets the sea, there is a little lagoon surrounded by a palm tree forest. In August 2010, on a Sunday morning the palm forest caught fire and burned to ashes. The wind was terrible that day, so it made the fire brigade’s task quite difficult. At one point, even the monastery was threatened by the fire, but a change in the direction of the wind saved it. The damage was extensive, but two years on, the palms seem to have pretty much recovered. I can report that they are very much alive and well!

The landscape, with the palm forest, the lagoon, and the beach with a backdrop of steep cliffs is gorgeous and I very much enjoyed spending the afternoon on a lounger under a parasol and diving into the sea as I pleased.

If you want to visit lovely Preveli and would like to replicate this itinerary, I would strongly recommend approaching Karma Travel to organise your transfers (not least accommodation if you choose to stay overnight in the area). I couldn’t just rent a car myself because I’d forgotten to take my drivers’ license with me, but the road is beyond bumpy and the section where we went across the gorge had me gasping a few times. I can’t imagine to have driven myself! Very grateful to my driver for the day.

Elafonisi Beach

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If you want more information and need to book transfers or accommodation, contact the experts at Karma Travel!

Agiofarago

Agiofarago

In search of tranquility, I went to Agiofarago. This is in the Heraklion prefecture (southern coast of Crete), between the Odigitria Monastery and Kaloi Limenes. It was described to me as ‘a perfect place to go seeking solitude’. This is a secluded beach with emerald waters; the shore is covered by small pebbles, and the sea is ideal for snorkelling, which I love. The pristine beach of Agiofarago remains so because there is truly nothing here. Unlike the other beaches I went to, here there were no taverna, parasols, or loungers. There’s nowhere to buy food or water, so you have to carry along all the things you consider necessary. Some people camp here, and it would indeed be the only way to spend the night here, as there are no hotels nearby.

Following a footpath for about 30 minutes, I crossed the gorge towards the beach overlooking the Libyan sea. Hiking along the silent trail took me to the church of Agios Antonios. Its sanctum is inside a cavern. The church was built in the 14th century A.D, and it has been restored three times, but the figures of saints depicted on frescoes on the walls are nonetheless quite faded, destroyed by humidity.

A story goes that Agiofarago was visited by Saint Paul, the Apostle, in 62 BC, when his boat capsized near Kali Limenes. It is said that St Paul spent some time as an anchoret inside the caves scattered within the gorge. Since then, this became a holy place where hermits came to live in the caves, and there are records of this practice from the 7th century A.D; the first known hermit was Agios Kosmas. Agiofarago was ideal for meditation. It’s not hard to picture why: you really seem to leave the whole world and its noise behind!

According to the story I was told, the hermits gathered once a year inside a cavern close to Agios Antonios called “goumenospilios”. They sat around a table, and noted who was absent. Any absentees were considered dead! An oath of silence was imposed on the members of this ascetic community which remained unbreakable. Therefore, they sought solitude even to avoid contact with each other. The austerity of these hermits was extreme. Their life was frugal; in the first place, food was scarce, and only a well outside Agios Antonios provided them with water, as no other springs are found along Agiofarago.

It is said that hermits were seen here until the end of the 19th century. Some claim that they have come across silent monks, and I heard stories that invisible monks appear only to those whose faith in God is strong. You can come and find out for yourself!

I have to say I did not encounter any invisible monks. Perhaps my faith was not strong enough to attract them… Anyhow, I crossed the gorge and reached the beach. Here are absolutely amazing high rocks, ideal to take a dive into the clear waters of the Libyan Sea.

The seclusion of this beach is due to locals’ and tourists’ preference for easily accessible beaches. Since Agiofarago is not one of them, it remains ‘untouched’. It’s also a great place for practicing rappel. I saw several people practicing this on the cliffs as I crossed the gorge. I was really sorry I did not come prepared to join in!

If you want to organise your travel to this remote beach, contact Karma Travel.

Monasteries

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It was my last day in Chania, and a Saturday.   I had promised myself I would visit Moni Agias Triadas and Moni Gouvernetou, which are in the Akrotiri Peninsula, to the northeast of Chania.

I had foolishly forgotten my drivers’ license, so I could not rent a car.  I thought it was easy enough to follow the rough instructions on my Lonely Planet tourist guide and just get there.  So I went and took a bus.  Firstly, I made enquiries at the bus station, and the girl in the information booth sent me to buy a ticket towards the airport, which is south of the peninsula, and told me to get off the bus at a particular point, then take a taxi.  I bought the ticket.  When I was about to board the bus, I looked closely at my map and the guide, and realised that she had sent me to the opposite end of the peninsula, which would make the taxi fare quite costly.  I had to quickly exchange my bus ticket, and boarded a bus to Stavros.

Without knowing the region, traveling by bus becomes a bit of an adventure, as stops are not necessarily called by the driver, and at bus stops, there are no signs to tell you the name of the place.  I was following my map carefully and looking for any signs we passed on the road, as I was not going all the way to Stavros, but getting off two villages before.  I did manage to get off at Horafakia, and called a taxi to take me from there to Moni Agias Triadas.

The monastery of the Holy Trinity is proudly active and still plays a part in the local economy. Monks own a vast amount of land, and they produce olive oil, wine and other products.  You can visit the gardens, a chapel, and an exhibition of Byzantine icons and religious paraphernalia.  The paintings were particularly beautiful.

From there, my book said you could walk about four kilometres to Moni Gouvernetou.  I am a keen walker, and thought of this as a short ‘pilgrimage’ of sorts, so I set off walking.   About one kilometre down the road, an Ucranian couple stopped their car and generously offered me a ride to the monastery, which I accepted.   I am glad I did, as little did I know, a few hundred metres down the road, it narrowed to the point that two lanes became one tightly winding road, which could have been dangerous to walk on, particularly if cars were coming from up the hill at some speed and would not necessarily see you!

We got to the monastery at about 4.20 PM, and the gate was open, but the actual monastery was closed. It would reopen at 5.00 PM.  We could go in and take a walk in the premises, though.  These, I have to say, are spectacular.  The monastery is the guardian of a vast amount of land that includes mountains and valleys rolling towards the sea.  They have some olive groves and vineyards, but the valley, importantly, is home to another monastery which is located closer to the coast, and is where St John the Hermit used to live in a cave at the bottom of a rock staircase.  You can walk down a beautiful rock path towards it, and visit a few caves where his disciples dwelled, which hold small chapels.  Again, the hills are covered in aromatic herbs, so you walk amidst the smell of thyme, sage, oregano, and olive trees.  The natural beauty of the place is breathtaking.  It inspires awe and gives you a feeling of tranquility.

I walked down, then up the path, and returned to the monastery, where you are welcome to visit a patio and a small church in the middle of it. By the time I walked in, it was time for vespers.  It was beautiful.  Chants and sweet incense wrapped around me and engulfed me.  I stayed there quite a while to meditate and pray.

When I got out, I figured I would just call the same taxi company that brought me to Moni Agias Triadas and ask them to pick me up at Moni Gouvernetou to take me to Chania.  By then, I already knew that I had missed the afternoon bus from Stavros to Chania; I was conscious of the need to find my way back.  However, I had not considered the possibility of being unable to call the taxi in the first place.  My mobile had no signal!

Luckily, a French couple walked out of the monastery and made their way towards a car.  I explained my problem, and they kindly agreed to take me down to the first village.  I was really very grateful.   From where they stopped, I called a taxi and finally got back to Chania.

The adventure was worth it.  The monasteries were beautiful and I enjoyed the journey.  However, if you are considering a visit to these wonderful places, I suggest you save yourself some trouble and plan your own transportation ahead.  Contact Karma Travel and get a great deal in car rental, transfers or a guided visit!

Glyka Nera, near Sfakia

Beach Glika Nera,near Sfakia

After following the E4 path from Loutro,  I ended up in Glyka Nera Beach (Sweet Water beach). The seascape in this secluded beach is absolutely gorgeous, but there is yet another remarkable detail about this beach, which is also the reason for its name:  there is a fresh water gurgling spring just by the sea!

This beach is not busy at all. I was coming from the beaches in Chora Sfakion and Loutro, which had a fair share of tourists. Having been in other places with massive beach resorts, I really feel I need to clarify that I was pleasantly surprised to discover that at the height of summer, Cretan beaches I visited were busy, but by no means teeming with people. This said, I was looking for solitude, which I was very pleased to find at the pebbly shore in Glyka Nera.

The beach was not deserted, though.  There were quite convenient parasols and loungers for rent, and a simple Taverna, where  you can buy a delicious Greek salad, sandwiches or snacks.

If you wanted to get to this beach without walking the E4 path along the cliff, I recommend contacting Karma Travel for advise. I am told that you can reach it by boat, too.

Imbros Gorge

Imbros Gorge, Sfakia, Crete, Greece

I am a keen walker, and had heard of beautiful gorges which extend across the middle of Crete.  I wanted to see for myself, so I went to Imbros, a small village, and started on an 8Km walk through the gorge which ends at another small village called Komitades.

The walk is not difficult at all, and I would say it is not strenuous either.  The terrain is not difficult: you march along a beautiful path with breathtaking scenery.  Holding your breath would be a pity, though, as the gorge is lined with bushes of aromatic wild herbs such as sage, thyme and oregano, pine and cypress, and the scent is a delight.

When you reach the end, it is a 5Km ride (or walk, if you still have the energy and will) to go to Chora Sfakion.

There are organised tours to visit this region.  Consult with Karma Travel to find out the best option to suit your plan.

Paleochora

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I spent the fourth day in Paleochora.  This is a beach resort town which, according to the Lonely Planet travel guide, was ‘discovered by hippies’.  It does have a hippie vibe to it, and is very laid back.  There is a huge and apparently quite organised camping site towards the west of the town.

My initial plan was to walk along the E4 European Walking Path, but several things defeated my original intention.  Firstly, although I had read a travel guide and bought a map, I was not sure I had actually found the correct walking path. There was no signposting,  however intently I looked.  I found a path which wound uphill by the seaside and followed the rugged coastline.  I was not alone: I found what had been described as ‘the elusive kri kri’ (wild mountain goats).  These little goats were not elusive at all; they were quite happily trotting down towards the beach, and not in the least bit startled to see people.

The intense heat and the fact that I was not sure whether I had found the correct walking path, the E4, made me reconsider.  I ended up swimming in the sea for the whole afternoon.  There were parasols and loungers for rent, and a kantina with very friendly patrons who could sell you snacks, beverages or a salad or a sandwich, so I had a brilliant time there.

In the end, I found out that the path I followed had been the correct one, so I could have gone on walking to find an archaeological site and other beautiful beaches.  I was not too bothered by the fact that I did not continue walking towards the ancient ruins.  I had a perfect afternoon and then enjoyed the walk back to Paleochora, which has very nice places to have a drink and have a supper of Mezedes.

To get to Paleochora, book your transfers and accommodation through Karma Travel.

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