DAY 6 - SOUTH WEST COAST

    

Once more I will use Hania as the base, this then makes it easier for you to join the route at any point. The South West coast has some of the most dramatic scenery from gentle, fertile plains to wild, uninhabited gorges and this area in particular has a haunting history. From its formidable barrier south of Hania, loom the 'Lefka Ori' White Mountains.

  

The road from Hania to Hora Sfakion crosses the island from North to South, through the village of Vryses then heads south. From this village the route crosses the White Mountains to Hora Sfakion hugging the steep shoreline of the Libyan Sea. Halfway from Vryses to Hora Sfakion is the fertile plateau of Askifou, surrounded by high mountain peaks. From here to  Sfakia the road is particularly spectacular.  Winding close to the western slope of 'Lefka Ori'  these are also called the 'Madares', by the locals, meaning the bare mountains. Then onto the rocky, windy Imbros Gorge then subsequently within an incredibly short distance you have breathtaking views of the southern plains around Frangokastello, with the greenery becoming sparse as you reach the southern end of the journey, travelling the seemingly perpendicular mountain sides on increasingly steep winding hairpin roads to the Libyan Sea. If you wish you can continue all along the southern coast and return back up to Rethymnon, but this is a long day. It possibly would be advisable to split this route into two, enabling you to spend more time in each town to get the best out of the region.

 

At the eastern side of Hania at a distance of around 33 kilometres is the village of Vryses with its luxuriant vegetation and spring waters.  As you leave Vryses towards Hora Sfakion a left hand turning leads to Alikampos you can see Madonna's little church which has fresco from the 14th century and visit the Dourakis Winery. This is where Andreas Dorakis and his son Antonis opened up their vineyards, cellars and small museum to the public. Not forgetting the important tasting room. Father and son learned their trade in Germany gaining experience in the production of wine prior to opening their own business in 1995. They use grapes from their own and carefully selected vineyards around the Apokoronas, Sfakia and Kissamos regions to produce white, red and rosé wines. Stini Yamas! (to our health)! 

  

As you continue on your journey you reach the valley of Krapi and a 2km long narrow canyon, this canyon is where heroic battles took place during the Venetian and Turkish occupation of Crete. At the end of canyon you start to climb high up to the Askifous green plateau, surrounded by the tall mountain peaks of the white mountains. It is the 'entrance', and the only pass towards Sfakia and is the reason why the village of Askifou played an important role during the revolution against the Turks. In this area the most notable battles of the period of Turkish occupation took place. 

 

The name Askifou is probably derived from the ancient word 'skifos' meaning cup, because the plateau looks like the top of a huge chalice, thousands of years ago it is probable that this could have even been a large lake. In winter the plateau and its surrounding peaks are covered with snow most of the time. It stands at an altitude of 740 metres. To the left of the plateau on the hill that looks so perfectly shaped, sits the remains of an old Turkish fortress from 1821, it was during this time that the locals managed a victory over the Turks. The Sfakian people paid heavily for the victory with numerous repercussions and eventually two years later the Turks under the leadership of Hussein Bey burnt the village to the ground. 

 

In the village of Kares you can visit the small War Museum of Georgios Hatzidakis. He was born in 1931 and since the age of 14 has been accumulating Second World War (and any other war) artifacts found in the region. Inside and assembled around the small house is a mass of helmets, rifles, swords, shell, revolvers, uniforms, and even an ack-ack gun, a German bomb and the propeller of a plane shot down in the Battle of Crete. He proudly shows of his oldest exhibit which is a ship's cannon from the Daskalogiannis revolt in 1770. 

 
This whole area is a paradise for those who love outdoor activities, horse-riding, mountain biking, hiking, and hunting all to be found at the Lefkoritis Resort.  There is also a shooting range, also hunters can stalk various animals in a controlled private area. If you do not have the equipment you can rent whatever you need.    
 

Next is the village of Imbros this charming mountain village has several good tavernas, and is home to the starting point of the Imbros gorge around a 2 hrs walk. Hard to believe that until the new (now old) road was completed this was the main thoroughfare down to the southern shores. The scenery is quite beautiful and the relative easiness of the hike makes it an ideal walk for families.  The start is 700m above sea level so if you make the walk in spring or autumn, warm clothes are recommended to combat the cooler weather. After a few hundred metres you reach the entrance to the gorge, where there is a small hut where you must pay the entrance fee. 

  

The first half hour of walking is downhill, with the gorge getting narrower along the way. After 75 minutes or so you’ll find yourself in the narrowest, most spectacular spot of the gorge. The walls are less than 2 metres apart and tower 300 metres above.  Fifteen minutes further is a pleasant resting spot. Make sure to take enough water with you as there are no facilities along the way. Another highlight of the gorge is the 'gate rock', a further ten minutes on. Walking through the gate, the gorge widens out again and after another hour you’ll find yourself nearing the end.  A little further on you will find two tavernas, arriving in the village of Komitades on the main road to Plakias. Here you can get a lift back to the village of Imbros if you have left a vehicle prior to starting the hike.

  

The whole region of Sfakia is considered to be one of the very few places in Greece never to have been fully occupied by any foreign powers. Even the Germans in World War ll, never quite managed to conquer Sfakia. There are many tales of this tall, proud inhabitants and their resistance to any occupation. Stories of revolts and uprisings in Crete start in the mountains of western Crete - mountain guerrillas, 'pallikari' fighters and rebel assemblies have fought hard for many years. After the Battle of Crete during World War II, the locals helped many New Zealand and Australian soldiers escape from here on the night of the 31st May 1941, suffering great reprisals. King George II of Greece had already escaped this way when the Germans invaded.

The people of Sfakion boast their lineage from the Dorians who arrived in Crete over 2,000 years ago. They became sailors as the steep and barren rocks were not always suitable for cultivation, with the larger and rocky areas and deep gorges mainly infertile. They became so good at their trade they found even more lucrative ways of making money. Piracy! They soon became feared and these unscrupulous raiders terrorised most of the southern coast of Crete. In becoming good at this trade the next move was easy, during many struggles against the fight for freedom they grew to be great warriors playing many important roles in Crete's struggle for freedom.

 

I have heard lots of people telling me how disappointed they were with the small capital of Sfakia - Hora Sfakion,  (meaning 'chief town'). Seemingly squeezed between the sea and mountains, yet when I ask them what they saw on their visit most only told me about the town. How wrong can you be about somewhere, there is just so much to see especially now the new 'race track'! leads you easier to idyllic beaches and lovely mountain villages of the region. 

Please note:
This is where I mentioned at the beginning of this route you perhaps now need to make a decision, depending on your timing, as to whether you split this day or to carry on.

  

 Hora Sfakion 1963

 

Many revolts against the Venetians and later the Turks started in Sfakia. Albeit the conquerors of the island never actually lived here because of the hard way of life but they were however, more afraid of the inhabitants than hard work. The impenetrable White Mountains to the north combined with the rocky beaches on the south helped the locals fight off all invaders, they also had their own mountain spring which supplies the area. The town was abandoned during the Cretan revolution around the end of the 19th century and the many beautiful stone houses were reduced to ruins. The whole area is dotted with a large number of lovely small white churches and many of the older houses in the area are of a traditional architectural style, many with large stone arches. All reminiscent of an era long gone.

 

As tourism took off in a big way in the early 70's when the development of the Samarian gorge took place, the villagers returned to run business supplying the need for the influx of tourist who arrived by boat after walking the gorge. However, in place of the beautiful old mansions they hastily built modern day boxes of concrete. Destroying the old traditional buildings and the picturesque harbour, instead using the quick and easy material of concrete for speed. Even putting concrete onto the pebble beach in front of the village.
 

old harbour 1980

new harbour 2005

 

Although Sfakia was very isolated in earlier days, it is now readily accessible from the north coast by car and public transport. There are many beaches in the area which do not see the numbers of tourists of the northern coast. More adventurous visitors can follow the European hiking footpath E4 which crosses Crete through the Sfakia Mountains. Hora Sfakion is perfectly situated for day trips into the nearby mountains or along the coast by boat. A wonderful selection of long and short hikes starts from the village along old shepherds’ paths and through the many nearby gorges. The sea and the beaches are very clean with the large beach of the village know as 'Vrissi' (the spring), as well as several other beaches within walking distance. 

 

The coastal villages are not connected by a coastal road, and can be reached only by ferry boat or on foot. Behind the village you continue west on the new road leading firstly to Ilingas beach where there is also a taverna and some caves for shade, before you reach a signed pathway to Sweetwater Beach. Only accessible by a hairy footpath along the rocky shoreline which is the start of the E4 coastal path to Loutro or by taking a small boat from Hora Sfakia, the only building is a taverna situated on a clump of rock in the water. The beach takes its name from the small springs which bubble up beneath the pebbles providing fresh cold drinking water. One thing you can rely on here is the weather it is almost always better than on the north coast of Crete, separated from the north by the White Mountains and is only 200 miles from the coast of Africa.

  

From here the road climbs with plenty of bends 12km to Anopoli or perhaps if you feel energetic you can walk to Anopoli from Hora Sfakion up the old mule-track which takes a much more direct and attractive route than the road. The village of Anopoli is actually an amalgamation of small villages on a beautiful plateau at the foot of the White Mountains. As the village was not visible from the sea it made this whole area secure from the visiting invaders. In the centre of the village square stands a statue honouring the local Cretan hero. Yiannis Daskalogiannis Vlachos, a rich ship owner born in Anopolis, he was one of the most outstanding leaders of the freedom fighters on Crete.  Because of his cleverness and excellent logic he was called Daskalogiannis 'Teacher John'. His vision was the freedom of Crete, he even donated all of his riches to the ideal of the rebellion. He had contacts in Russia, who assured him of their support in his fights against the Turks.  

 
The Pasha of Hania sent 15,000 troops, to invade, pillage and then destroy the villages of Sfakia, enslaved all the inhabitants that remained alive. The rebels then withdrew into the mountains and awaited, the promised help that had come from Russia.  However this did not arrive leaving the rebels, who barely managed to survive the winter. In 1770 the Turks lured Daskalogiannis to Heraklion under false pretences. There he was taken prisoner by the Sultan who tortured him in  public in front of the harbour fortress, he was then skinned alive and executed before the eyes of his brother, who after witnessing this atrocity - went mad, loosing his mind completely. 
 

From the square behind the taverna a road winds around a hill, to the start of a winding track which takes you to Loutro 90 minute walk. There are no roads leading to Loutro as cars are not allowed in the village, you can either go by foot or by ferry. If you climb higher to the church of Ayia Aikaterini you will have magnificent views of the vista below. (This chapel is a 20 minute walk from the central square of the village.) The view from this point down to Loutro is just magnificent. Loutro is a beautiful small seaside village which has many archaeological ruins, around its perimeter, a few houses and a handful of small hotels and tavernas, if you want to get away from it all  - this is the place to be, especially before and after the ferry boats arrive!

 

If you now return back to the square and head out of the village, after around 3km you reach the Aradena gorge and bridge, pull in prior to the bridge and you will see the old cobbled road which zig-zags down into the gorge and continues on another zig-zag direction up the other side of the gorge. This route in the past was the only method of reaching Aradena and Ayios Ioannis until the bridge was built in 1986. The bridge is a magnificent iron structure that covers the gorge and leaves you breathless, the bridge spans a gap of 150 metres and I believe it to be one of the most impressive in the whole of Crete. The drive across the bridge echoes into the canyon below making it sound a lot more dangerous that it really is, thank goodness some of the planks that were looking a little worse for wear are now being replaced. 

    
Also in the summer months Bungee jumpers take their life into their own hands and dive off the bridge into the gorge!!!
 

Across the bridge you will see the church of Mihail Arhangelos with its pepper pot style dome which dates back to the 14th century and was constructed from a much earlier basilica,  inside are some amazing frescoes depicting the life and crucifixion of Christ. Its walls outside its white washed wall and the ruined village still stands proud to this day at the high point of the gorge. The church is still used for high days and holidays, weddings and christenings and this is the time you will hear guns blasting skywards in honour of the bridegroom, bride or baptised child. Sfakia is notorious for the harshness of the environment and its warlike people. Sfakians themselves are still considered somewhat beyond the reach of the law 'and supposedly the taxmen of Athens', with vendettas over stolen sheep and women's honour which have been fought over into the late 20th century.

 
From here you can make your way back to Hora Sfakion perhaps to try the local speciality Sfakian Pie, thin pancakes filled with cream cheese and served with a drizzled of honey.
Leaving Hora Sfakion: Please note: This is where I mentioned at the beginning of this route you perhaps now need to make a decision, depending on your timing, as to whether you split this day or to carry onto Day 7
 
 
 
 

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