GOOD GORGE HUNT­ING

Ian Robert Smith walks a lofty se­ries of scenic routes in south­west Crete

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

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

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