Long before we landed in Crete, or could see the coastline, we could see the mountains looming large. I was especially amazed by the size of the mountains, with some of the peaks in excess of 2,500m, on an island that is as narrow as 20km in some places.
On schedule, the ferry from Santorini boarded at Rethimno, and we jostled with the crowds waiting to rush our way outside, hoping to grab one of the taxis that were lining up and waiting.
That might have been the plan originally, but the sun was just setting behind the old walled city, and it had felt like such a long time since I’d seen a minaret. It was a stunning sight, and even now looking at the photo, I get a sensation of blind spots from staring at the sun.
Rethimno was just a minor stop, just long enough to get on a bus to Chania, where my friend used to live, and where we would spend a couple of nights before continuing further south. The sky continued to be gorgeous as the drive continued westward along the coast. It was a combination of soaring peaks, rocky coves, and vivid glowing skies. The light show seemed to not want to end, and I was grateful for that.
Eventually the skies did go dark, and with that, we had arrived in Chania, one of the larger cities on the island. It was loud, and a little dirty, and somewhat of a shock after Santorini – even the activity in Thira felt quiet in comparison.
It was a short walk from the bus station to the centre of the old walled city where our hotel was. We quickly dropped bags off, showered, and went for dinner at a fantastic little place next door – Tamam.
The food was incredible, said to resemble traditional Sunday family meals. My knowledge of traditional Sunday Greek meals consists of barbequing a lamb over coals in a friend’s backyard, or going to the Brisbane Paniyiri for gyros and those sticky honey coated donut balls, so I can’t really say how authentic it was.
Anyway, if the photos from my phone don’t make you feel hungry, I’m assuming you’ve just eaten. I’ve just eaten, and I want some more of this. I also want to have more traditional Sunday Greek meals, if this is an accurate representation.
It was Saturday night, and the small bars that lined the back alleys looked lively. We wondered around the old town for a while, walking around the old Venetian harbour, and past countless other bars and clubs that were filled with sound and activity. Maybe jetlag was catching up, maybe it was a long day in the sunshine, maybe I’d already eaten/drunk too much, but I didn’t have the energy to stay out late – I mean, it was already after midnight, so I was doing decently well! I also did manage another cocktail at an outdoor bar, while listening to some nice deep house music.
Day 4 – Chania
I was happy to have slept in a little later than usual. I hadn’t felt tired other days, but, I felt rather good waking up today. The hotel was right on the Venetian Harbour, and breakfast was on the terrace, giving great views of the area. Or, at least it was once we’d patiently waited for our turn to shuffle to the table by the edge of the balcony.
It might not have been an entirely historically preserved waterfront, but for the most part, the buildings seemed genuinely old and, well, genuine. It had been pretty last night, but was beautiful today in the sunshine.
Today was a pretty relaxed day, spent walking around the old town, lamenting the loss of affordable local accommodation with the introduction of Airbnb rentals, drinking coffee, drinking cocktails, and enjoying being in an old city once again after 18-months living in a recently manufactured part of San Francisco.
Being a Sunday, the city was rather quiet, with people either staying in, or travelling outside of the city to other beaches. Amazingly, there appeared to be a really pretty beach right beside town, with gorgeous clear water, and plenty of sand. However, the locals mostly shun it, and it was nearly empty, despite perfect weather for the beach.
As we walked towards dinner, I tried to follow the beach, rather than the walking trail that took us away from the waterfront. As we rounded one of the small capes, we came across what looked like an outdoor bar, with makeshift tables and chairs setup around a small sandy beach. It turned out this little area was created/run by some migrants, who manually shifted sand here from the neighbouring beaches, as well as collecting various pieces of furniture that were being thrown away. If we didn’t have strict prior appointments, it would have been interesting to stay a while longer.
My friend, having worked and lived here previously, knew some of the amazing restaurants in town. For dinner, we had one of the prime tables at the beautifully situated Thalasino Ageri. It is a small fish restaurant set up in a part of town that was once an industrial neighbourhood (tanneries), but is now mostly vacant. The tables are set up outdoors, lining the small beach beside the cove.
I can’t describe just how amazing it was to be walking down along a beach in this quiet cove, surrounded by defunct buildings, watching the sun set behind distant mountains across the bay.
We’d pre-ordered the lobster, and even with another friend joining in, it was impossible to complete all that had been ordered – even with absolutely minimal starters.
Actually, speaking of starters, for the first time, I enjoyed sea urchin. Hmm, maybe enjoy is a strong word, but this time I didn’t dislike it. I usually think of it as bitter, but these were quite sweet. Anyway, the lobster was enormous, and delicious, as was the spaghetti it was served with. It got to the point where there was just far too much to eat in that lobster, that fighting to get the last morsels out of the legs and arms just wasn’t worthwhile – which made me feel somewhat bad/wasteful.
Tomorrow was going to be a (very) early start, so no late night walking around town. To be honest, I could have used a few hours of walking around before bed, with this enormous meal sitting in my stomach. Tomorrow morning we are catching a 6AM bus bound for Samaria Gorge.
Day 5 – Samaria Gorge
As I mentioned from last night, this morning was a very early start. Up at 5AM, packing and walking to the bus station, and cramming on to the 6AM bus bound for Samaria Gorge. I was expecting it to be completely empty, but every single seat was booked, and everyone was doing the same thing – headed to the gorge early, to try and avoid some of the heat from the midday sun.
The drive from Chania took us to the top of a mountain range, and the hike then follows the gorge south towards the ocean. It was a beautiful drive, and even though it was just a touch too early, it was nice to watch the sky transition from night, to dawn over the mountaintops.
We arrived at the start of the hike, right about the same time as 5-6 other tour buses worth of people. It was a little crazy to have so many people taking off on a hike around the same time. We held back for a while to try and get some peace/quite/space, but the buses seemed to be relentless, and we realised that we’d just have to carry on in the conga line – OK, a conga line is a slight exaggeration.
Enough with the complaining, it was busy for a very good reason – it’s stunning. The gorge is enormous, with the floor far below where you could see, and the peaks stretched still further above. The light was just starting to filter into the gorge as we started the hike, and I was happy to just stand and take this in for a while longer.
The trail started with a consistent descent down what felt like a neverending series of switchbacks. The trail was wide, with steps, and would have been quite easy – if it wasn’t for the extra weight on the shoulders. Walking down so many steps slowly, and carefully with the additional weight certainly added additional strain to my knees. At least here in the shade at higher altitudes, and in the early morning light, temperatures were still quite pleasant.
That being said, when we came across a small waterhole, filled with beautiful clear water, it was an easy decision to jump into the freezing waters for a quick swim. It made me feel a little better when some other hikers decided this was a good idea, and also jumped in!
I was extra glad to have gone for a swim when we did, as there didn’t turn out to be any more (easily accessible) spots to cool off until the beach at the end of the trail, several hours away!
The switchbacks eventually ended, and now I was stood at the base of the canyon, with cliffs rising high above to either side. The sky closed in. The gradient eased off a little, but it was still a long grind, and even with the shade from the walls of the canyon, it was still hot enough to cause a decent dose of perspiration.
Now, for all that I was loving about this hike, with the grand scale of the scenery, the crowds of the trails really detracted, and made it harder to fully relax. At many places the trail was quite narrow, and when someone stopped in the middle of the trail to take a photo, everyone behind them also had to stop in the middle of the trail while they took their photo. And then there were the conversations and questions, like people asking if the zen garden sketched into the sand was done by a person, or by the wind… It got a bit much after several hours. Maybe it was just the heat.
We wondered if it would have been better to have started closer to lunch time, as the upper temperatures would have been bearable, and it would likely have started to cool by the time we were lower in the canyons. The only risk is missing the ferry…
Eventually, the crowds did disperse a little, and there were pockets of blissful solitude – just the sound of my laboured breathing, and my boots dragging along the rocky trail. Oh, and the occasional rock that would fall from far above.
There was strong winds, and in places there were members of the military/coast guard/something that were controlling access, blowing their whistle and trying to get people to spend less time in some of the danger zones. Somewhat reassuring…
The canyon continued to get narrower and narrower, until at one point it was only a few meters wide! This (Iron Gates) was almost the end point of the canyon, with the walls suddenly receding, and a feeling that the ocean was nearby.
It wasn’t, but it wasn’t too much further. Still, we’d reached the park’s southern entrance, which was cause for celebration with a can of icy-cold Coke. From here it was just a few flat smooth kilometres until the beach, which I opposed to being completed in a shuttle bus, and invigorated by the sugar and caffeine, shuffled onwards for just a little further.
I was a sweaty mess when we made it to Agia Roumeli, where was overjoyed to drop my bags from my shoulders, and drink an icy-cold Greek beer – though, first I wanted to make sure that we had tickets on the only ferry that was headed to Loutro, plus a swim. Oh, and as amazing as it felt to take my hiking boots off, the scorching hot sand made me wish I’d done that closer to the water…
It was a tough day, but I didn’t regret it for one moment.
I just had enough time for a quick flight of the drone, to check out an interesting building high up on the entrance to the gorge, before having to semi-run to the port to board the ferry.
The next stop was a few nights in Loutro, which was a little to the east. There is a popular trail (the 10,000km E4 European Long Distance Trail, to be precise) that continues on from Samaria Gorge hike, and continues to Loutro and beyond. The mapping application seemed to think it was only a few kms, even though it looked much farther on Google Maps. There was the briefest of moments of consideration to continue with the hike, and walk to Loutro, instead of taking the ferry. Thankfully they subsided, as it was a further 14km hike.
Anyway, the ferry ride to Loutro followed stunning coastline, passing by several other narrow gorges, and countless other beautiful bays and beaches before pulling into the secluded port of Loutro – which immediately captured my heart.