GOOD GORGE HUNTING
Ian Robert Smith walks a lofty series of scenic routes in southwest Crete
EAST of Paleochora, in southwest Crete, the Levka Ori, or white mountains, bunch like an evil intention. Part of the high central chain that bisects the island, they fall sheer, in skirts of grey limestone, to a dramatic and roadless section of the south coast. At their heart lies Sphakia, a region once famed for the lawlessness of its inhabitants: high-booted, sashed and ostentatiously moustachioed fellows armed to the teeth. In former ages, deprived of foreign oppressors to fight — primarily Venetians, Turks and, during World War II, Germans — they happily fought each other.
While the Sphakiots have mellowed a bit these days, the Levka Ori remain a challenge to trekkers: lonely, barren, snow-capped until June and essentially dangerous unless one is familiar with the territory. Yet splitting the massif are numerous gorges: vast, steep-sided seams that anyone who is in reasonable shape may tackle.
The Samaria gorge is the most famous and becomes overrun in season. Others are just as spectacular but far less frequented. On a bright spring morning, I leave Paleochora intending to negotiate the mountains on foot via the gorges. Outside town I encounter the E4 footpath; part of a pan-European network, theoretically the E4 crosses the island, although reports suggest its quality fluctuates. Here the way runs true as I traverse a wildly beautiful coastline following black and yellow flashes daubed on rocks and trees and the odd metal sign conscientiously perforated by buckshot. Crimson poppies dapple the landscape and the air reeks of salt underscored by hints of sun-dried oregano and sage. Finally the track lifts me, arduously, to an upland plateau where a view opens of mountains tilting into the Libyan sea and the island of Gavdos, Europe’s most southerly inhabited point, leaning mistily toward Africa.
Across the plateau I drop into a lonely valley where the ruins of ancient Lissos slumber amid greenery. Wild flowers — spiny broom, cistus, lupins, cyclamen, hyacinths and chamomile — paint the hillsides and I descend past rows of vaulted Roman tombs, sited like condominiums on seaward-facing terraces, into a dappled glade enclosed by high cliffs.
Lissos was a Greco-Roman settlement renowned in antiquity for its sanctuary of Asclepius, the god of healing; an impressive temple enclosure — a few courses of ashlar masonry enclosing a floor of pebble mosaic — occupies a knoll, while extensive foundations and a pair of Byzantine-era chapels can be discerned among the trees. It’s a delightful spot that is apparently visited by boats from Souyia, although the only people I meet are a French walking group, in a clearing, washing down gourmet sandwiches with tumblers of wine. My hearty ‘‘ Bonjour!’’ conceals desperate envy; trekking past the Panayia chapel to a secluded pebble cove, I console myself with a swim and a can of beans.
Dusk is falling when I reach Souyia, a friendly backwater crouched beneath mountains on a long swath of beach. Waterfront tables cater to the evening ouzo-drinking crowd. In the ramshackle main street I meet Giorgios, a prancing bear of a man whose budget lodgings boast cracked walls, a shattered mirror and spiflicated mattress. Possibly it’s the retsina but I sleep well anyway and, early next morning, embark on the Ayia Irene gorge, which begins in the foothills a few kilometres behind town.
Wild and cavernous, the Ayia Irene is a benchmark Cretan gorge; in a potent stillness, I ascend along a watercourse of smooth white pebbles choked with oleanders and flanked by towering plane trees and sweet-smelling pines. Conventional wisdom decrees that one descends gorges; my decision to go uphill, although more challenging, means I don’t meet another soul until almost halfway. A black snake slithers across my path, I encounter clouds of vermilion butterflies and see an owl, perched on a branch, its head turned full-face as depicted on Greek coins.
When, about 8km later, the gorge spits me out, I find myself among mountains. The air is thin with a trace of wood smoke. Outside the village of Ayia Irene, I approach a couple of old-timers, sitting hunched over crooks of polished cypress wood, and ask directions to Omalos. ‘‘ Sto kalo,’’ go to the good, they chorus, having pointed me sternly upwards.
At 1100m above sea level, the Omalos plain is a fantastic sight. From its western rim I look down on a vast, triangular-shaped basin dappled with flocks and enclosed by craggy mountains, capped with snow.
Crossing the plain I pass masses of longhaired sheep and goats and Sphakiot heroes astride motorcycles who, conditioned by generations of rustling, eye me warily above bristling moustaches.
Lying across the traditional mountain routes, Omalos no doubt saw its share of the smuggling, banditry and blood feuds that once bedevilled the region. Today, however, the village makes an excellent base for an early start on the Samaria gorge. At the Samaria Hotel I wash down lamb chops and potatoes with robust local wine as the mountains blush in the sunset and the sheep bells tinkle in the brittle air.
Next morning, anxious to beat the crowd, I rise at dawn and trek across the plain to the head of the gorge, only to find the first tour buses spilling walkers into the car park.
Seventeen kilometres long, with a drop of more than 1000m, the Samaria gorge is the longest in Europe and one of the continent’s most astonishing natural features. Particularly memorable is the descent into the chasm on the Xyloskalo, or wooden staircase; elated to the point of recklessness by the cold, pinescented air, I plunge down the zigzag track beneath the sheer wall of the 2080m Mt Gingilos, the upper reaches of which catch the first rays of sun.
Along with a degree of physical difficulty, negotiating the crowds is the greatest challenge on this spectacular trek. However, in early May, my precipitate start means that numbers are manageable and by midmorning I find myself virtually alone among gushing springs, wild flowers, ancient cypress trees, birdlife (including a couple of hoopoes) and teetering crags. I stop at the abandoned hamlet of Samaria, where the little chapel of Osia Maria, dated 1379, has weathered frescoes. At the Sideroportes, or Iron Gates, where walls 600m high narrow dramatically, I resist the urge to try to touch each side with outstretched arms and negotiate the stream on a wooden footbridge that wobbles precariously beneath me.
Finally, the air stiffens with salt and the sea appears, deep ultramarine in the sun, between sloping walls that cradle the ruins of old Ayia Roumeli. In the modern village I have time for a swim and a leisurely, if overpriced, lunch before ditching the coastal track in favour of the afternoon ferry.
This not only gives my legs a break but offers a fine view of the mountains, which rise, a solid wall of grey and orange limestone, to a savage and apparently barren interior. The white mountains are named after their harsh, glittery appearance beneath Crete’s merciless sun; I become tired just looking at them.
The ferry stops at Loutro, an increasingly chic resort girded by ramparts, where tourists enjoying pre-dinner drinks wave from their balconies. Then it’s on to Hora Sphakion, which piles up around a harbour beneath beetling cliffs. From here, in May 1941, the Royal Navy evacuated 10,000 British and Commonwealth troops (including many Australians) escaping the Germans following the Battle of Crete.
Now the village acts as a clearing house for gorge walkers who throng its narrow laneways before being bussed back to the north coast towns and resorts.
Staying overnight allows me to see its tranquil side, while a harbour-side meal of octopus stifado puts me in excellent spirits for my assault next morning on the Imbros gorge, the last of my journey.
In hazy sunlight the sea gleams like pewter and, looking out over descending rows of terraces, I can see Frangokastello, the 14thcentury fortress built by the Venetians to keep the locals in check. The air at the mouth of the gorge is fresh and tremulous with dew. After Samaria, the unpeopled silence feels eerie as I ascend between ramparts of black and cream-coloured stone which, leaning together overhead, threaten perpetually to engulf me.
In May 1941, the gorge provided an escape route for the exhausted troops retreating from the Germans. Written accounts of the epic battle appear all over the island. In Antony Beevor’s excellent volume Crete: The Battle and the Resistance , I read how a patchwork allied force resisted a huge German airborne invasion of the north-coast towns and their airfields; the initiative was lost when the paratroops captured Maleme airfield, near Hania, enabling them to land reinforcements and supplies.
During the retreat, Australian and New Zealand troops fought rearguard actions as the column threaded over the mountains and down to the sea. Despite the efforts of the Royal Navy, many troops were left stranded and became prisoners or escaped into the hills, where they were sheltered by the Cretan people before being evacuated.
It seems like another world away as I emerge from the gorge, having not seen another soul, and enter the village of Imbros where I sit on a restaurant terrace beneath a gigantic plane tree and order a salad and a beer. ‘‘ Go to the good,’’ the old-timers had said. It feels like I am there.
Adventure operators such as Sherpa Expeditions offer self-guided walking holidays in Crete, including the white mountains. More: www.sherpa-walking-holidays.co.uk.
Into the chasm: Dropping more than 1000m along its 17km length, the astonishing Samaria gorge is Europe’s longest