DAY 5 - THE WESTERN LOOP

 

This a a long drive which will take you on an enchanting rural drive, through lush green hills right down to the far Western tip of Crete to the amazing lagoon of Elafonisos, where the sand is tinged pink at the waters edge by coral fragments and a wade across the shallow blue lagoon brings you to a desert island of spectacular sand dunes and rock formations. The route then winds back along the South West coastal road with its magnificent wild beauty and breathtaking views. The long coast of dramatic cliffs is punctuated only by a few idyllic bays and remote hamlets, popular with visitors but relatively still untamed. However, you can reverse the route depending on your starting point. Although after a long day there is nothing finer than stopping at the beautiful bay of Falasarna for a well earned swim prior to returning on the National road.  

To start the route take the National Road then 4 kilometres before Kissamos you turn south towards Kaloudiana following the signs for Topolia and Elafonisos

 

 TOPOLIA - GORGE & AYIA SOPHIA CAVE

 

The drive is delightful passing through the picturesque villages of Potamida and Voulgaro whose pretty church of 'Ayia Paraskevi' 'St Friday' has fine frescos from the late Byzantine era to view. Then for the next 3km you start to continue to climb towards Topolia. The village high up in the hills of Western Crete, is the archetypical Cretan mountain village. It straddles the road that runs south to Paleochora or west to Elafonisos. It is remarkably pretty with its Byzantine church of 'Ayia Triada' and an Venetian style bell tower and steeple. 

 

The numerous white houses are set against the green of the valley and the village is placed just below the entrance to the impressive Topolia Gorge. The village remains relatively unaffected by tourism and boasts a taverna, baker and two small mini-markets mainly for the local inhabitants. The gorge of Topolia is magnificent and wild, unique due to its fantastic echo. The Topolia Gorge also referred to at the Koutsomatados Ravine is approximately 1.5 km in length. Its walls are 300 metres high and sheer. The gorge is full of plane-trees, wild olive trees, flowers, and bushes. The floor of the deep ravine is covered with beautiful plane trees which are synonymous with water. Although dry in the summer months the river Tiflos flows in the winter along the bottom of the ravine.

 

Not far past Topolia you will drive through a small tunnel cut out of the rock face. After the tunnel to your right there is a well-maintained footpath leading up the mountainside to the cave of Ayia Sophia at a height of 80 metres. Its name comes from the small church built to the left of the entrance to the cave,  a star that shines in the sun has been placed on top of a bell tower of the tiny church. Inside are stalactites  and stalagmites some measuring up to five to six metres. Many ancient finds were also discovered on the cave floor these even included shells from the Neolithic period. 

 

The church has a long tradition, gained during the struggle for freedom against Venetians and Turks. According to tradition Cretan soldiers, who fought during the siege of Constantinople, brought back the icon of 'Santa Sophia', which was later found inside the cave embedded in a rock.  The cave of Ayia Sofia was used for many years as a place of worship, but is also linked with many legends one includes none other than St. George the dragon slayer, it is said that the hoof of his horse left an imprint on a rock inside the cave. Two feast days take place here each year. One on the first Tuesday after Easter and a second on 24th December, when the birth of Jesus Christ is represented.

 

Continuing on the main road past Koutsomatados you now start to reach the Innahorion region, often referred to as 'Ennia Horia' meaning 'nine villages', however as you will see there are actually more than nine villages in the area. You are now entering a district known as the Forest of Peace which is the area that surrounds Vlatos. The park was founded in 1970 and has an array of trees and plants which covers an area of a million sq. metres and is part of an extended area of 20sq kilometres that has been re-forested. Planted with the help of the Bavarian authorities as a gesture of reconciliation for the denuding of timber in 1941-1945 by the Nazis. 

 

You can either continue onwards from here to Elos or carry on to the beautiful village of Milia. However if you do decide to pass on the the journey to Elos I do suggest you try again to visit this eco-village as it is well worth another trip.

You will soon see a wooden sign at Vlatos. Here you turn right and follow a dirt road to Milia. Just a few metres further prior to the Milia turnoff, you pass the very old and highly original miniature kafenion come village shop of Vlatos. It has irregular opening hours, but if it is open, have a good look inside. As you enter, you step back in time at least 50 years. The locals over the years have made their living out of farming, stock breeding and beekeeping but with the abundant surroundings of Olive and Chestnut trees it's not hard to understand that the main products are making olive oil and collecting and selling chestnuts. 

   

MILIA

 

The approach road is not for the faint hearted, in fact I would suggest lots of people who do not know about Milia would have abandoned the trip at the bottom of the long, winding dirt road. Especially if they were driving their own car rather than a hire one! Albeit the philosophy of this eco-tourism project is that if the road was tarmaced they would encourage more visitors, and more noise which defeats the aim of Milia. Although once there - any noise can be heard by virtually the whole valley. The views are stunning as the village is approx 500m altitude above sea level. A high climb some 5km from Vlatos on an unpaved road right up into the mountains transport you to another world to this fairly new developed eco-village, built in the traditional Cretan - architectural style. 

 

On your arrival at the top of the village you will see a sign indicating where you can park, then continuing on foot it down hill approximately 150 metres to the village itself. The guest-houses have been built from the foundations of the old village houses with local materials, chestnut wood and stone, keeping to the architectural characteristic of the area, these houses are furnished with old restored antique furniture collected from the surrounding villages or newly made from the areas abundance of wood. 

 

There is no electricity, except for some lamps that use solar power and candles as there is no electricity. The heating is from wood burning iron stoves and the water comes from two springs. The houses are separated into rooms for rent  - so not for the faint hearted but a must for the adventurous and not really suitable for families. They try so hard to responsibly minimize the negative aspects of conventional tourism on the environment and enhance the cultural integrity of the local people, promoting recycling, energy efficiency, water conservation and creating opportunities for the local communities. They work to the old traditions of Crete. Which were the same principals as most of the old traditions that our forefathers used all over the world prior to modernisation. 

 

Throwing away very little and using every part of the food source trying to find alternative uses for everything. All natural products are recycled, and everything else is reused. All edible fruit and vegetables end up in the kitchen, while their remnants and other plants feed the animals, who in turn provide Milia with milk and cheese, meat, leather, wool and manure. The village is surrounded with aromatic herbs, various flower-bearing bushes, olive trees, wild pear, and carob trees. As soon as you arrive at the settlement you start to see the amazing houses and to the left you will soon find the restaurant where you can enjoy a drink or even have a lovely meal, I love to buy the mountain oregano and thyme herbs and the olive oil is the best I have personally ever tasted.

 

The food and oil is all produced at Milia and is a totally different experience from what most people are used to.  Albeit, don’t expect a huge menu as they choose to focus on the essential seasonal ingredients, which means quality to us! There is often, Rabbit with mizithra, baked in the oven (mizithra is a soft cheese of western Crete made of goat or sheep’s milk, or if one is short they combine both), potato, chestnut (of course) and onion stew, pork with orange cooked in the woodstove oven. 'Boureki' courgette and potato pie with mizithra and 'kalitsounia'  traditional small cheese pies are just some of the mouth-watering dishes. 

 

You may be fortunate enough to catch sight of the rare vulture 'Gypaetus Barbatus', the bone-eating vulture or locally known as 'kokkalas' gliding in the breeze on the rocky masses punctured with mammoth hollows. On your return to the next destination.

 

ELOS & PREVOLIA

 

Elos is surrounded by trees and has running springs throughout the village. In its midst there are some coffee shops in which to enjoy a cold drink in the shade of the the plane, eucalyptus and chestnut trees that surround the square, making it pleasantly cooler than some of the beaches in summer.  Elos gained its name from the river 'Xeropotamos' which in the past created a swamp, which no longer exists. Swamp in Greek means 'elos'. By now you will have noticed that many villages take their name from characteristic influences of the village. Whilst others end in 'ana'  they have then taken the name from a local prominent family such as 'Papadiana' or 'Douliana. 

 

Behind the village square is an old Turkish aqueduct which used to provide enough power to run the mill. Just beyond this is the Byzantine chapel of the 14th century. As with the other villages around they make their money from producing and selling on what is to hand, Olives are gathered for Olives to eat and of course the oil production, at the beginning of the year April to June they make cheeses. September it the Grape harvest with  the pressing of the grapes for the local wine 'krasi'. Their main produce is Chestnuts and honey 'meli' production. On the third Sunday of October every year the famous Chestnut festival of Elos happens. Then prior to the cold winter months 'Tsikoudia' 'raki' is produced around November, here in Elos is where they use the wild strawberry berry called 'Arbutos unedo' in this lethal but warming drink! 

 

In the municipality of Innahorion is the Mountain of 'Ayios Dikeos' their is an observation post for the endangered species of 'Gypaetus Vultures'. The road leading to the observation point begins at the village of Elos, just past its square, taking the first road to the right.  One of only two pairs of this rare bird species lives in the area and you could be lucky to see them from the observation post, with the vast view of the surrounding countryside which is breathtaking.

 

Next is the village of Prevolia which means 'orchards' 5km away this village is another cooling oasis if you park your vehicle and cross the bridge above the 'Stomio' Prevolia river. Then walk to the bottom of the village where you come across a fountain and the bust of the noted local guerrilla fighter 'pallikari' Anagnostis Skalidis. Renowned for the revolution against the Turks. Their is a small but interesting museum named after him full of photographs and old guns, letter and coins and memorabilia to be admired. This small village is surrounded by small gorges, water falls and of course a chestnut forest there is also the archeological site of 'Myrina' and tombs from the Roman Era. Its inhabitants are farmers stock breeders and bee keeper. With others involved in the old traditions of the making of barrels, traditional lamps and basket weaving.

 

KEFALI & VATHI

 

Shortly after Pervolia you come to Kefali which means 'head'. For many years intrepid travellers from Hania to the fabulous beaches of Elafonisos, have breathed a sigh of relief after the long twisting road up through the mountains and gorges from the north coast, finally bringing them to Kefali and the first glimpse of the sea again. The road is much improved today of course and the journey much easier, but the sense of achievement still remains. The lush and dramatic scenery en route is as incredible as ever.  

 

Kefali stands at the head of the beautiful Vathi valley leading down to both the legendary monastery of Chrisoskalitisa and the beaches of Elafonisos. When visiting the village of Kefali, you can see the church of 'Ayios Christos' and 'Ayios Athanasios' 'the black Mary'. From this point you can either take the road down to Elafonisos or make a right turn and loop back along the picturesque West coast. On the most scenic route on Crete, which we will return to on our way back from Elafonisos. Vathi believed by several Archeologists to be the exact location of the Roman city Inahorion. The village has two more ancient churches 'Ayios Yeorgios'  build circa 1300, off the central square and 'Ayios Michail' circa 1380, just outside the village both with well preserved frescoes.

 

MONASTERY OF CHRISOSKALITISSA

 

The road follows the small ravine of 'Xiropotamos' leads to the monastery of Chrisoskalitissa means 'Our Lady of the Golden Step' and is just before Elafonisos, perched on a rock view out to sea. During the Venetian period the monastery of St. Nicolas (patron Saint of sea-farers) stood on the site of the present-day monastery. In accordance with a legend, one of the 90 steps leading up to the monastery is made of gold, but only those who are pure and free from sin are able to see the step. Its name comes from the Byzantine era,  'hryso' in Greek meaning 'gold' and 'skala' meaning 'stairs'. 

 

Whilst others believe that the golden step had existed in former times, but the monks were forced to sell it in the early years of the Turkish rule in order to help the Patriarchy of Constantinople to pay off its debts. At the beginning of the Turkish occupation, the monastery was deserted and the whole vicinity of Chrisoskalitissa was uninhabited. There were only a few cottages for the farmers, who spent the summer here. In those days the monastery was the only shelter for the fishermen and seamen caught in stormy seas.

   

The monastery was deserted until 1855 when the Reverend Manassis Glynias, came to live in the area and gave the monastery new life. Under his guidance new cells and storerooms were built and around fifteen nuns from nearby retreats came here to live. In 1894 the present day church was built and consecrated. In 1900, the monastery ceased to exist and its lands sold. In 1955 an amazing priest Father Nektarios, from Askifou near Skafia renovated the monastery, built guest rooms, storerooms and cells. The monk still lives inside the monastery today and maintains the old buildings as best he can, with the help now of only one remaining nun. 

 
The saint’s day of the monastery falls on 15th August 'panayia', celebrated the previous day with a wonderful feast  including food and of course 'Tsikoudia'. Today the monastery is open to the general public and you can also stay for a couple of nights if there are free cells.
 

ELAFONISOS

 

Continue on a fairly good dirt road to the end of the beach (which has been turned into a huge car park). In the height of the season it is full with excursion buses, cars and the throng of resident camper vans, that wait for the multitudes to disappear. Prior to having one of the best spots in the world to sit in peace and enjoy the calm of the beach and its warm shallow waters, whilst awaiting one of the most magnificent sunsets imaginable. Hard to imagine in July and August that twenty years ago this was a little paradise!

 

Elafonisos owes its name to the small Greek island between the Peloponnese and Kythira (see photograph right, spookily similar!) It is believed that when their fishermen in Caiques explored this far south they found a virtual mirror image of their region and named it 'Lafonisi' Elafonisi another variation of this name one of the purest and the most natural beaches of Crete with turquoise waters and colourful sand made up from fragments of pink coral. The islet of Elafonisi is connected to the beach by a shallow reef that allows you to cross when the sea is calm, it is about 100 metres wide and 0.5 to 1 metre deep, this shallow isthmus is called the 'Perasma' 'crossing or walk way'.

 

Most people refer to this as an island or islet. It is however a peninsula and the less visited west side of the island is entirely different from the eastern lagoon with 40 metre high cliffs falling into a rock scattered sea with reefs that are particularly dangerous for passing ships. Many years ago due to the lack of a lighthouse this made the island a real death trap for all the ships that were caught in storms. 

 

It was on these rocks that the Austro Hungarian Lloyds Steam Ship 'Imperetrix' sunk off the coast in February 1907. The island is also the unfortunate common grave of some of the crew who lost their lives. The ship had a crew of 120 hands and carried 20 passengers, including two children and four nuns. A severe storm was the cause of the wreck. Varying numbers of reports of death have been noted from 300 to 40 however, the latter figure was the nearest quoted by company reports. Sadly it took this tragedy before the Elafonisos Lighthouse was built. 

Imperatrix

 

The original lighthouse was quite tall and had an internal stone staircase but was destroyed in World War ll. The remains of the original lighthouse are still visible behind the new tower constructed of steel and what bits are left of the original reflector lenses can still be found scattered on the ground in front of the new beam. Behind the beacon is sited the church of St. Nicolas, the patron saint of sailors.

   

In a certain light the sand has a pink glow caused by the coral, but according to legend it has its colour from the blood of all its victims. On 24th April Easter Day 1824, 600 women and children and among them were 40 armed Cretans refuge on the islet from the fury of the Turks, led by Ibrahim Pasha and a barbarian Turkish-Egyptian force. However, the Turks managed to find a passage from the mainland beach to the islet when it is thought a donkey walked through the water to the inlet looking for its owner, the fighters went over to retrieve the animal. They discovery the masses lying in hiding in the sand and slaughtered them all. There is nothing here to tell of the slaughter except for a marble slab. With some old folk still calling it 'the Turkish ditch'.

 

There are no permanent inhabitants on the island or beach area for the moment, but in the summer there are a few kantinas and a handful of tavernas. Though a lot of the land is up for sale! Elafonisi is one of the most beautiful and magical inlet and beach in Crete, and is protected by an EU environmental program. When visiting the beach various plants and bushes can be found during the year, also the small frog endemic to the island 'bufo viridis viridis' lots of various lizards considered a protected species. There are also reported instances of the snake 'coluber gemonensis gemorensis'. The small island also serves as a breeding spot for the 'caretta caretta' sea turtle so sun parasols are banned incase there are any nest you could disturb or even damage the eggs.  Finally thank goodness, local fishermen have reported noticing Mediterranean seals  'monachus monachus' in the seas around the coastline once more. The area is very important to ornithologists since it is the last stop for migrating birds on their way from Europe to Africa.

 

COASTAL ROUTE BACK TO FALASARNA

       

The route then winds back up to Kafali following on part of the E4 hiking trail, you can however if your walking or have a 4x4 take the dirt road around the lower coast line to Livadia a route of exceptional natural beauty with amazing changes of scenery between olive and locust trees and sea-beaten rocks of black and red volcanic lava. The entire seashore is peppered with small, protected coves with sand and pebbles. In the village of Livadia, you could stay for the night and spend some time admiring the locale if you wish. 

 

This is an area where the old traditions still mingle with some of the new. Buying food for instance is even now done in the traditional way – you may buy fish from the fishermen in the small harbour, vegetables, dairy products and meat from the farmers, but you will also find three small taverns. 

 

The beach at Keramoti bay, can be reached by walking to the edge of the cluster of bamboo, where almost all year round water falls from the natural mountain springs into the sea, offering a wonderful experience of sight and sound. Discover the magic of the secluded and wild Cretan landscape at the beach of Xotikospilio, ( best not to take your vehicle down to the beach, but to leave it on the plateau before the shore). Visit the beach of Afratolakos from this point if you like adventure, and have the right car (4x4),

 

Alternatively from Kafali continue along the South West coastal road with its magnificent wild beauty and breathtaking views. This long coast of dramatic cliffs is punctuated only by a few idyllic bays and remote hamlets, popular with some visitors but relatively still untamed. With magnificent views unfolding at every bend, the first hamlet you pass is Papadiana then you start to climb through the mountains again before Amgdalokefali, with beautiful sea view point outside of the village. 

  

Next is Kambos, a small village built at an altitude of 340 metres overlooking the Libyan Sea. Also a good place to stop for the night as you can walk down the gorge to the beach of Afratolakos which takes around an hour. Discover the church of 'Ayia Paraskevi' 'St. Friday' with frescoes from the 9th- 10th century in village of Kambos, visit two old water mills operated once by the flow of water, and thier is an old olive press to visit along with the church of 'Ayii Pantes' built in a cave. The local inhabitants are farmers, beekeepers, fisherman and goldsmith's. 

 

Continue on the winding road for another 7km until you reach Sfinari, (a long way down if time is now against you?) to the slightly more developed pebble beach but still laid back, this agricultural village is surrounded by greenhouses. After Sfinari you get even more coastal views with plenty of places to stop for a photo shoot as you cross Mount Manna, before dropping towards Platanos and the turning for Falasarna.

 

If you do decide to drop down to the beautiful beach of Falasarna you will firstly have a stunning panoramic view of the beach and cape, where the ancient town was built, the valley to the south of the beach is today full of olive groves and agricultural land. The larger of the beaches is one of the best in Western Crete, with very fine sand. This whole area is renown for its stunning sunsets. If you like quiet and solitude this is the place for you - apart from July and August that is. Still tranquil for the time being at least, with not much development. Occupied since the 6th century B.C. The town then owed its wealth from the agricultural produce grown on this fertile land. Later this unique area became a haven for pirates. 

   
From here it's an easy descent to the coast and the Gulf of Kissamos and the main road back. Long day but well worth it!
 

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