Walking on the South Side of Europe

This blog is the second part of our journey through Imbros Gorge and the E4 to Loutros. It takes us from the beginning of the trail near Hora Sfakion to Loutros and home. Enjoy!

The trail to Loutros

A taxi driver takes us from the exit of Imbros Gorge to the beginning of the Loutros trail.

The Road into Nothing
The Road into Nothing

As the road makes a hairpin turn on the mountain side, a small trail leads off at the side of the mountainous coastline. Though it is written as a nice walk in the park and good for kids too, I must admit that I am pretty freaked out for most of our walk to Loutros. Particularly the first part of the trail is daunting, as you look straight down into the azure blue sea while worried of either slipping or getting hit by loose rock from above.

On the E4 to Loutros
On the E4 to Loutros

Along the trail as we near the small paradise Sweetwater Beach, we have to cross an old avalanche of stones, climbing over tons of large rocks before finally resting our tired and sweaty feet in the sweet water.

Sweet Water Beach this way!
Sweet Water Beach this way!

After eating a well-deserved lunch, while gazing out over the sea from the small isolated beach, we push onwards for the final part of our journey.

Ascending the cliffs on the west side of Sweet Water Beach, we come across a small white-chalked chapel lying dramatically on the cliffs out to the sea. Further along we pass the most stunning lagoon, while catching our first glimpse of Loutros tugged away in a small alcove far in the distance.

Timios Stavros on the E4 from Sweet Water Beach to Loutros
Timios Stavros on the E4 from Sweet Water Beach to Loutros

For the remainder of the walk we have Loutros a head of us an within the hour we walk through a flower field full of honey producing bees. The field turns into a small street where the houses are white and everything else from windows to working tools are blue. We’ve finally arrived at our destination, the iconic fishing village Loutros.

Overlooking Loutros
Overlooking Loutros

Out of season only one taverna is open, while only a handful of foreigners walk around – most of them finding their way to the taverna, joining in for a cold drink and Greek salad. Also some of the 50 the locals are retreating from the heat and to the cool sea-side of the taverna front.

Lunch in Loutros
Lunch in Loutros

Greek salad in Denmark can be pretty boring; some tomato, some cucumber, olive oil and feta. It is the desperate 90’s appetizer before getting to the meaty main course. The attempt to convince oneself of being healthy and allow a later-on desert.

Loutros seaside
Loutros seaside

But Greek salad in Greece is so much more than that. Despite the simplicity of the dish, the ingredients are fresh and local, and in the simmering heat after walking 12 kilometres it is the perfect way to freshen up and relax. There is a reason that it is called Greek salad, because in Greece it tastes like heaven.

Loutros Pier
Loutros Pier

Sitting at the edge of the water, eating a Greek salad and a plate of marithes – small fried fish, has been the perfect end to our long and adventurous day in Sfakia. I’ve rarely felt so content and proud of myself, having walked such a long way.

The ferry to Hora Sfakion
The ferry to Hora Sfakion

We spend another few hours resting on the deck of the port while waiting for the boat to bring us back to Hora Sfakion and our evening bus. While the boat was 20 minutes late, the bus for Chania was waiting for us at the other end.

The south coast of Crete
The south coast of Crete

What a perfect ending to a most stunning day.

Zofka

Walking in the Footsteps of Soldiers

One part of me complains, screaming that I will never do this again in a million years. Another part of me wishes that I could have more days such as this.

We are back from a long walk in the beautiful Sfakia.

Imbros Gorge

Since our trip to Crete is outside the normal tourist season, we have had limited options in possible day trips. However with the help of an extremely friendly and engaging lady at the Chania Tourist Information, we have managed to plan a full day to the Southern part of Western Crete.

Imbros Gorge
Imbros Gorge

We begin the day by joining the Cretans in the early hours at the bus station. After a wake-up coffee and lots of greasy breakfast pastry, we board the 8:15 AM bus to Hora Sfakion, the main town of Sfakia. On the trip, the bus drives through the beautiful and snow-capped Lefki Ori Mountains, while the bus-driver is listening to a terrible radio station where the marvellous rock tunes from Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix are constantly disrupted by a speaker, who talks over the songs. Every time I get caught up in a new song, he starts babbling, screaming even, pushing the song to the background. Did he never hear about speaking in between songs?

Imbros Gorge
Imbros Gorge

Around 10 AM we exit the bus at the village of Imbros along with a few other tourists, but it doesn’t take long before they have moved past us down towards the Imbros Gorge entrance and for the remainder of our walk, we are alone. Just us and the beautiful and dramatic nature of Imbros Gorge.

Imbros is one of numerous gorges stretching north to south through the mountainous Sfakia, which have been created as a result of weathering of limestone and erosion along a geological fault.

Spring tree in Imbros Gorge
Spring tree in Imbros Gorge

Imbros Gorge starts at the village of Imbros at an altitude of 740 m above sea level. At its narrowest, the gorge is 1.60 m while the rock sides reach 300 m at their highest. Eight kilometres long, it is a pleasant and beautiful walk which we do in around 2.5 hours, taking pictures at every conceivable spot and angle. Unlike the parallel running and much more trafficked Samaria Gorge, Imbros is easy to navigate and doable for anyone with solid footwear. The gorge ends at the village of Komitades, where a woman greets us and asks us about our walk.

Stone in Imbros Gorge
Stone in Imbros Gorge

But Imbros is so much more than an easier path for those tourists who cannot take the daunting route down Samaria as cattle on a string. Since ancient times and until a paved road was created through the mountains, Imbros Gorge was the principal connection between Chania and the Southern Coast of Crete. As such it is not merely a touristy track, but a central part of the infrastructure on pre-modern Crete.

Kids in Imbros Gorge
Kids in Imbros Gorge

Furthermore, it was central in the evacuation of allied forces following the German invasion of Crete in May 1941. As the Allied Forces were about to lose the Battle of Crete, 20,000 Brits, Aussies and New Zealanders were evacuated through the gorge, 13,000 of them making it to Hora Sfakion and Allied ships bringing them to safety in Egypt. The remaining 7,000 were captured by German forces or went into the hills in hiding. Of these, some left the island on later boats while others joined the Cretan Resistance Movement for the next four years.

Trees in Imbros Gorge
Trees in Imbros Gorge

Thus, walking the trail of Imbros Gorge is also a walk through history and war. The Battle of Crete was bloody and disorganised on the side of the Allied Forces. While many civilian Cretans fought hard against the Germans. The Cretans have every right to feel proud of their part in securing and assisting so many soldiers through the difficult terrain of Sfakia and in their own civilian attempt to stop the Germans from occupying their island.

The Goat King of Imbros Gorge
The Goat King of Imbros Gorge

The gorge itself is beautiful, lush and green for the most parts and pleasantly cool. Goats are grassing the hills side, their mahs heard bouncing off the rocky hills. Halfway through is a small cottage-like structure for rest.

The Goat Tree in Imbros Gorge
The Goat Tree in Imbros Gorge

I couldn’t help comparing our walk down Imbros Gorge to our exploration of Barragh Canyon in Wadi Rum and the famous Siq in Petra. I must admit I find myself rather privileged to having had such wonderful memories. But our day on the Southern coast of Crete is far from over. In front of us awaits 4.6 kilometres of trailing the coastline to the fishing village, Loutros.

Zofka

Learning to Dance in Knossos

Maybe I should follow the lead of the group of second graders from Western Crete who are walking ahead of us. They are dancing their way through the ruins. At each stop their guide teaches them a new step in the dance.

As a student of European Studies, I have read my share of academic articles which begin with the founding myth of Europe and its symbolism in present day EU. According to Greek mythology Zeus fell in love with a Phoenician princess named Europa. While Europa and her maiden friends were out picking flowers by the sea, Zeus approached from the sea in the disguise of a beautiful white bull. As Europa petted the bull, it laid itself down in front of her. Though timid, she placed herself on its back, whereafter Zeus abducted her and brought her across the sea to the island of Crete. Here they made love (some argue that this happened while he was disguised as an eagle) and she ended up as the first Queen of Crete. One must conclude that the ancient Greeks had some wicked stories.

The Cretan Bull
The Cretan Bull

Though no one can truly explain the connection between the Queen of Crete and the landmass to the North and Northwest of Greece, the name Europa gradually came to be used of that barbarian continent which was so different from Hellas. As such, Crete is central to the idea of Europe as the place of its founding myth.

Knossos

But Crete is known for another famous tale, namely that of Minos, the son of Europa and Zeus, whose wife fell in love with another beautiful bull. Apparently, they really did love their bulls in Crete. This particular bull however was the very one which Hercules had to kill as one of his 12 tasks. But before Hercules came into the picture, Minos’ wife dressed up in a Trojan structure of a cow and had the bull give her a good old rump in the hay, where after she gave birth to the mythical creature – the Minotaur. The story does not mention how Minos reacted to his wife giving birth to a half human/half bull, only that he immediately imprisoned it in a labyrinth on the grounds of his palace, Knossos. Wicked, wicked stories.

And here we are at the very reason that I am rambling on about Greek myths and beautiful bulls.

View of Knossos
View of Knossos

For centuries Knossos was considered a mythical place, but in 1878 a large palace structure was discovered not 5 kilometres from Heraklion where it was thought that Knossos should have been. There is however still some disagreement amongst sscholars as to whether any definite proof has been found that the ruins near Heraklion are in fact Minos’ ancient and mystical palace. What does however seem to be definite is that Knossos is considered the main tourist attraction on Crete. In all the research and reading we have done about Crete, Knossos has ranked as the number one attraction on the island.

In my view, Knossos might historically and archaeologically hold meaning for European history and culture, but Crete has other attractions which far surpass Knossos. It seems it has become one of those places that the tourist is told is a must-see, so they come, walk around and leave – crossing it off their list of wonders of old. Thus, it is not unlike Petra, Acropolis or Alhambra, but I find that it fades in comparison. Heraklion Archaeological Museum however is up amongst the best I have seen, but more about that later.

One of the rather interesting things about Knossos is that it is one of the few if not the only Ancient Greek site where archaeologists have attempted to recreate parts of it – a project which has caused large disagreement in archaeological and historical circles for the last hundred years. My boyfriend’s dry remarks somewhat hit the spot for my issue with the colourfully painted and reconstructed site, as he noticed that suddenly the history of Knossos is a history of its discovery and the ideas of Arthur Evans rather than its original function in the Minoan Era.

It seems as if Arthur Evans is the true ruler of this historic site. All information is given based on his observations, ideas and names. Thus the Throne Room is named such because he arguably found an old wooden chair during his excavation and figured it was a throne. The information at the site explains this making Evans speculations central to how the rest of us observe it, adding the story of how people of his own time disagreed with his renovation of Knossos.

As we walk through the sites, the controversy surrounding his excavations suddenly become as important to us as the ancient stories which Knossos might tell on its own. One can only wonder what Knossos would have been without Arthur Evans and whether it would have been better or worse off.

Learning in Knossos
Learning in Knossos

Or perhaps I should just stop contemplating all this and enjoy the atmosphere here. Maybe I should follow the lead of the group of second graders from Western Crete who are walking ahead of us. They are dancing their way through the ruins. At each stop their guide teaches them a new step in the dance. Right now they are moving around like fish with clasped hands stretched out in front of them. Watching this excited group of second graders being taught the history of their island in such an adorable way is amazing, and makes Knossos so much more than archaeological discussions on the use of paint.

Heraklion Harbour
Heraklion Harbour
Heraklion and the Archaeological Museum

After getting seriously beaten by the sun at the ancient site of Knossos and contemplating how much worse it must be for those who come in July and August, we head off towards the main city on Crete – Heraklion.

Agios Minas Cathedral in Heraklion
Agios Minas Cathedral in Heraklion

Unlike Chania, Heraklion or Iraklion as it is also spelled in Latin letters, is a vibrant cosmopolitan city. This is where the young people gather to study, to shop, to go out. While at first glance it seems rather boring for the tourist in comparison to romantic Chania, it wins you over by further acquaintance. We have found a particularly charming area which seems rather hip and full of young people sitting in groups at the cafés, enjoying the wonderful weather. Here we stop to have a well-deserved gyros after the long walk around Knossos.

Masks at the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion
Masks at the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion

And while eating our gyros, I might just tell you about the marvellous Heraklion Archaeological Museum, which we visited just after arriving from Knossos. The collection is stunning and visually pleasingly displayed, the museum is newly renovated and feels open and welcoming. In all a great experience and quite the contrary to the Maritime Museum of Crete in Chania. It seems inevitable that we get caught up in the beauty of every little piece of pottery, every sculpture spending much more time here than we planned.

Lekythos vases at the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion
Lekythos vases at the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion

After a long day in Knossos and Heraklion we made our way home by bus to Chania, ready for another adventure tomorrow.

Zofka

Gallery: Fishing Boats in Chania Harbour

There is something exceedingly picturesque and idyllic about small and colourful fishing boats, and the ones we saw in Chania Harbour were no exception.

Small fishing boat in Chania
Small fishing boat in Chania
Small fishing boat in Chania
Small fishing boat in Chania
Small fishing boats in Chania
Small fishing boats in Chania
Small fishing boats in Chania
Small fishing boats in Chania
Small fishing boat in Chania
Small fishing boat in Chania
Small fishing boats in Chania
Small fishing boats in Chania
Small boat in Chania
Small boat in Chania
Venetian fortification of Chania Harbour
Venetian fortification of Chania Harbour

Getting Ready for the Season in Chania

The last days of March are busy in Chania as the locals get ready to welcome the tourist masses who move in from April 1st.

Our first day in Chania, we are met with people out in the streets cleaning and repainting the inventory and façades of their restaurants. We are close to the only tourists here and seem to have the old town almost to ourselves.

I’m already in love.

It is a long time ago that I experienced something as romantic and picturesque as the old town of Chania. The colourful old houses, the small streets and, in every perceivable spot, potted plants giving off a green and fresh atmosphere. Our hotel is right in the middle of the old town, in the Splantzia Quarter which used to be the Turkish part of town. I can’t imagine a more lovely little square than the one outside our hotel – hidden away amongst ancient houses and potted plants.

Outside the hotel in Chania
Outside the hotel in Chania

I believe it is a mixture of the romance of the place and well-cooked Greek food, which makes me utter out loud after a wonderful dinner with my boyfriend that I am lykkelig. And yes, you might have heard the rumour that Danes are the happiest people in the world, but first of all I think the entire concept of measuring the happiness of entire populations and comparing them is absolute bullocks.

Chania street
Chania street

Secondly, I might in general be happy with my situation in life, but the bubbly feeling of joy is not something one experiences on a daily basis. It usually has a catalyst – and to me that would be the knowledge that I have 5 days ahead of me in this absolutely stunning place at the far most southern place of Europe. So perhaps, at this moment in time I can count myself amongst the happiest in the world.

Message from Chania
Message from Chania
The food

The average human body is made up of 50-60% water. The average Cretan body is made up of 50-60% olive oil.

The Cretan kitchen is not full of overly dominating flavours. However it is rich with a wide range of subtle but complementary tastes derived from the many spices, vegetables and dairy products produced in Crete and the rest of Greece.

Marithes anyone?
Marithes anyone?

The local meat is grilled, the fish is fried and the vegetables are fresh. Lemon and orange trees are everywhere in the countryside and in the parks in Chania, while olive oil and honey is a plenty.

Cretan oranges
Cretan oranges

Though I normally do not travel for food, I have found a great enjoyment in experiencing local cuisines with my boyfriend. There is something about exploring new dishes in the company of others.

Market day in Chania
Market day in Chania

Our mornings begin with a wonderful Greek yoghurt with honey, sesame paste and muesli. For lunch as well as dinner we join the locals on a restaurant or taverna ordering two or three mezzes, which is more than enough to fill us. Mezzes are small dishes, which in many countries serve as appetizers to the main course. In Crete however food is not served as courses following a particular order, rather it arrives at the table when it is ready. This is all finished off with a small desert and a shot of raki on the house.

Lunch time in Chania
Lunch time in Chania

We have in every way had an amazing culinary experience. We have tasted chestnut stew, boureki, mousaka, fried squid and marithes, feta and Greek yoghurt and much much more and all of it with plenty of wonderful Cretan olive oil.

Trimartyri Cathedral in Chania
Trimartyri Cathedral in Chania
The City of Chania

The city which is the second largest in Crete can be traced back to Minoan times when it was called Kydonia. However it is particularly the Venetian and Ottoman rule which has shaped the old town of Chania. The beautiful harbour was mainly build by the Venetians, and so were the fortifications around it.

Hassan Pasha Mosque in Chania
Hassan Pasha Mosque in Chania

The Ottoman Empire overran the city in 1645 after a two months siege, and stayed until the 19th century when several revolts and fights for independence led to further autonomy finally resulting in the Cretan union with the rest of Greece after the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913.

Spring cleaning in Chania
Spring cleaning in Chania

The city of Chania is by all means full of history and tradition and the Cretans are proud people, patriotic to the core. One place where this is particularly visible is at the Maritime Museum of Crete in Chania, where the Venetian and Ottoman periods are described as slavery, while the Cretans, the Greeks and the Byzantine Empire is painted a tad too rosy-red for my taste.

Getting ready for the season in Chania
Getting ready for the season in Chania

The museum is by any standard chaotic and confusing and does not seem to be targeted the foreign visitor. It is over crowded with stuff and much of the information looks like it was made as collages by fourth graders. The English translations are horrendous and I imagine someone figured Google Translate would be the best and cheapest way to go, which again could explain the rather atrocious descriptions of the Ottoman and Venezian Empires. Yet, you cannot deny that the wooden model ships on display are very beautiful.

Chania cat
Chania cat

I picked out a few quotes just for the fun of it:

After the suppression of the Byzantine empire in 1204 by the Crusaders, Crete is conceded to Vonifatios Momferratikos, who sells it to Venetians and a new, lasting and brutal slavery begins, which reaches the year 1669. The pressures and the arbitrary acts of Venetians cause the reaction by the people of Crete that is expressed by a series of revolutionary rebellions, 27 ones, especially during the first 150 hears. But the omnipotence that the Venetians obtain with time condems each offort to shake off the Venetian slavery, to fail.

This was the historical moment when the people of Crete, after slavery of ages under the Romans, Saracens, Genoeses, Venetians and Turks, after having kept unsmirched their Greek origin, made their inextinguishable wish for their freedom and the union with the fatherland true.

It will never be the museums which draw the tourist crowds to Chania, but they are not really needed.

Trimartyri Cathedral in Chania
Trimartyri Cathedral in Chania

The city oozes history and culture and you can smell the Cretan life style and atmosphere from every corner. This is a place so connected to its past and traditions that you do not need a museum to explore Chania.

Locals at Neorio Moro
Locals at Neorio Moro

As our stay is nearing its end, after five amazing days, I can only say that my feeling of happiness has not degraded one bit. The food, the culture, the architecture, the history and most importantly the people have been detrimental to making this an unforgettable vacation.

Zofka

Chania hangout
Chania hangout