Seductive Southern Crete

By Chris Deliso

Although Crete hosts one-quarter of Greece’s annual visitors, one can escape the crowds by heading south. Thanks to the rugged mountains that stretch across much of the island’s spine, southern Crete remains a place apart.

Known for their hospitality, traditional music and healthy home-cooking, Cretans are also fiercely independent. They often rebelled under Venetian and then Ottoman occupation, with southern strongholds like Sfakia (a rocky, barren territory centred on port village Hora Sfakion) remaining unconquered. Here, the towering cliffs overhanging the sea ensure that the region will continue to stave off overdevelopment. (And then there are the good-natured bullet holes pock-marking all the road signs around Sfakia).

Due to the mountains, the Sfakia area remains peacefully isolated; nearby settlements like Loutro, shimmering white with little houses, or Sweetwater and Marmara (Marble) beaches, are accessed by boat (the intrepid can hike there instead). Boat trips hug the coast westward from Hora Sfakion to Paleohora, via Loutro and Agia Roumeli; the latter is where throngs of tired hikers stumble out of the Samaria Gorge- at 16km, Europe’s longest.

This boat trip is ideal for traversing the south coast. It concludes at Paleohora- a little town that has preserved its laid-back character, despite being the jumping-off point for popular Elafonisi Beach on Crete’s southwestern tip. The soft pink sands and islet here are undeniably enticing and, except for in high summer, serene. Palaeohora also offers great live traditional music; in the songs, known as mantinadhes (15-syllable folk verse accompanied by the Cretan lyra, or violin), is fully expressed the island’s powerful and melancholy spirit.

Crete is big enough to be its own country, and its people love distinguishing themselves from other Greeks. Lakkis Koukoutsakis, a young tour guide/restaurant owner in Azogires, a placid hamlet seven kilometres north of Paleohora, sums it up: “among us here live about 13 Cretans, eight Greeks, two English and one Dutch,” he quips. It is this sense of otherness (amply displayed in Lakkis’ splendidly curling, pencil-thin moustache- a relic of centuries past), that makes the Cretans, and especially those from the south, such good company. They can entertain one with eccentricity or anecdotes, vex with their stubbornness, seduce with hospitality and amaze with feats of strength. It almost goes without saying that being among them is rarely dull.

The southern mountains are dotted with tiny traditional villages, great spots to buy hearty local olive oil and thyme honey, though Azogires alone has a freshwater lagoon where the itinerant nereids – those beguiling sea-nymphs of ancient Greek myth – can allegedly steal a man’s soul on one specific sacred night.

Additional otherworldly characters – the so-called drosoulites, or ghosts of fighters killed by the Turks in 1828 – can sometimes be seen marching around dawn each year in late May, over at Frangokastello. This magnificent 13th-century Venetian fortress stands above a tranquil beach east of Hora Sfakion.

Occasional yoga groups visit Azogires, though unruffled Agios Pavlos, further east on the south coast, is more established. Just three kilometres west of it, the outpost of Triopetra comprises barely one set of domatia (rent-rooms) complemented by a seafront terrace restaurant. Here, all sense of time quickly recedes, and the menu varies according to whatever fish they happen to catch each morning. Keenly aware of the irreplaceable value of Triopetra (a place were some regular visitors book rooms three years ahead), locals protested vociferously when a Chinese consortium sought to build a huge container ship port- as ever through the centuries, the Cretans stubbornly resisted a much bigger foreign foe.

Triopetra’s relative inaccessibility and tiny size have kept it blissfully quiet. Yet even the places that attract more visitors, such as lazy Plakias, west of Preveli, stand apart from the north and its resorts. Having one of the south’s longest beaches, Plakias has attracted some smallish hotels and restaurants, though the truly extraordinary Youth Hostel Plakias (open from Greek Easter through October) also attracts devotees of all ages.

Part of the reason why Plakias and other southern getaways have remained relatively immune from mass tourism is the terrific summer wind that roars through everything, pelting beach-goers with sand and whipping up whitecaps on the sea. But the winds also do drive away the mosquitoes, and break through that solid wall of summer heat. Channelled up and down Crete’s mountain canyons – veritable wind tunnels – these stiff breezes are known to locals by individual names, depending on from where they come, how long they stay, and what gifts they bring with them.

How To…

Good but winding paved roads connect the south-coast towns, where the terrain allows. Paleohora, Hora Sfakion and Plakias get regular buses from the north-coast hubs of Hania and Rethymno.

The informative website www.sfakia-crete.com offers local information including updated timetables for the Hora Sfakion-Paleohora ferries.