Southern Crete by Boat

By Chris Deliso (2001)

“Keep your eye on her,” whispers the villager warily, leaning over to me, “she’s dangerous.”

A tiny old woman, garbed in a black hooded cloak, and leaning heavily on a cane, is slowly approaching the center of the sleepy village of Myrthios, nestled in the mountains of southern Crete. She is so feeble, in fact, that it is hard to tell if she is even moving at all. “You think she’ll make it?” I ask. Somehow, defying the obstacles of age and infirmity, the one-hundred-seven year-old widow of Myrthios reaches the doorway of the village’s one market.

She pauses on the threshold and shouts something incomprehensible to the proprietor, a stout, dour old woman who retorts in Greek, “Hey you! Get the hell out of the doorway! You’re blocking the door from the customers!”

Of course, it is dead quiet and there are no customers to block; but the old woman obediently crumples into a chair, and stealthily begins to squeeze the loaves of freshly-baked bread, as the menfolk resume with their card games and Greek coffee.

“You know what she does?” asks my confidante. “She comes down here in the morning, buys a loaf of bread, and shouts at Georgia (the shop-owner). Then she goes back home and puts the bread on the windowsill. And at five o-clock she comes down again and complains that the bread is stale, and she wants a new one.”

As I let the terrible ramifications of this diabolical plot sink in, the silence is broken by the abrasive amplified shouting of the vegetable man, bearing down on us with his pick-up truck and a megaphone. After a few minutes, this burly, mustachioed farmer seems to have the effect of a snake-charmer; for the little road fills up with elderly villagers haggling over farm-fresh peppers, tomatoes, and onions. It’s business as usual on a Tuesday morning in Southern Crete.

Myrthios (and Southern Crete in general) attracts its share of adventurous travelers, drawn by the region’s spectacular natural beauty and its endless supply of sun. By far the largest island in Greece, Crete – with its ornery, spirited inhabitants – is a unique dominion. Fiercely proud and independent, Cretans consider their island to be almost a separate country from the mainland, and they have elevated tax evasion to an art.

Far removed from the package-tour centers of the north coast, southern Crete is a wilderness of gorges and mountains, sandy beaches and Byzantine ruins. This rugged terrain, which disallows the construction of giant hotels and highways, can nevertheless be readily accessed from the north. I myself navigated the interior by various means, including the infamous vegetable truck, public bus, hijacked rental car, on foot and by ferry. Since avoiding the crazed Greek drivers should be a priority, you may want to take the last of these, the water route, which also happened to be my favorite

I took this trip with a friend in September, after most of the tourists had left. We had spent a few days in Myrthios, and the adjacent beach town of Plakias, before deciding to tackle Southern Crete by boat. After a superb lunch of marinated octopus stifado, Greek salad, and flaky filo tyropitakia (feta-stuffed pastries), at Myrthios’s best taverna, Plateia, we set out in the rental car. Having negotiated a hair-raising ride along the sharp curves of the coastal road, we arrived in Chora Sfakion, from where the ferry began.

I was fascinated with Chora Sfakion; though just a tiny village clinging to a cliff, this town is historically revered among Cretans as the lair of rebels, goat-thieves, and general troublemakers. The strong-willed and fiercely independent Sfakiots claim descent from the warlike Dorians, and they speak a strange vernacular, which includes many archaic words of Byzantine origin. In a little bookstore I even found a dictionary of such words collected by a Cretan professor. Sfakiot independence of spirit, I found, extended even to the bakery, where we munched on a kind of filo pie I had never before encountered in Greece – blueberry. The baker, a tall, blond woman who seemed living proof of the Dorian connection, proudly informed us that blueberry was just one of the specialty pies they made in Chora Sfakion – so as to stand out from the other Cretans.

The next morning, we boarded the little ferry westward the coast. After an hour we came to the first stop, Loutro. Jumping out abruptly from the barren cliffs, Loutro was an unexpected oasis of dazzling white houses and tavernas set right above the lapping green water of the Lybian Sea. Since Loutro is inaccessible by car, and as such it made a perfect spot to escape the outside world.

Once we’d found a room in the typical Greek house of white walls and blue shutters, it was time for – not swimming, as I was overruled by my cohort – but a forced march up a very steep trail, surrounded by nothing but thorn-bushes and goats.

After copious perspiration, burning calves and burnt noses, we made it to the mountain village of Anopolis, usually ignored by tourists. The villagers took to us, however. Only on the way down that I realized that my canteen was filled not with water, but with raki. I had forgotten, when I stopped to have someone fill it up in the village, that Cretans naturally associate hiking with the wickedly alcoholic dregs of the grape. This deliberate flaunting of the heat shouldn’t have surprised me, however: everyone we had encountered in the olive-groves was clad head-to-toe in black. Some of the old men even sported the netted black headgear common in earlier times.

After a couple of days of tranquility and sunburn in Loutro, we got back on the ferry. The next stop was Agia Roumeli, the end-point for the Samaria Gorge (at 16 kilometers, Europe’s longest gorge). When we began to tackle the winding trail leading up the gorge, we quickly realized why Samaria’s thousands of hikers start at the top, not the bottom. After a couple of hours, we straggled back, just in time for the ferry. Happily, the sea breeze cooled us down. Less fortunately, it also blew my sunglasses overboard.

My temporary ill-temper was forgotten as the scenery became more dazzling. Mountainous cliffs lay covered in thick clouds, and tiny coves with only the smallest splashes of sand emerged to our right. On one rocky beach stood the ruins of a Byzantine church, Agios Pavlos, contemplating us in watchful serenity. We stayed onboard through the next stop, the little village of Sougia (popular with Greek weekenders), as I was eager to press on to the end – Palaeochora.

In pondering Crete as a separate country in itself, Palaeochora seemed the island’s majestic culmination. Practically at the edge of the world, the lonesome, windswept town lay beneath a wilderness of cypress trees, eucalyptus, and rock. Isolated by mountains to the north, and by the Lybian Sea to the south, Palaeochora exudes tranquility, from its derelict Venetian castle to its listless cafes spilled out on the street. Like every Greek village, the old men sat flipping worry beads and arguing about politics.

We found to our delight that in the evening Palaeochora’s main street was closed off to traffic, and the restaurant tables overflowed onto the road. While many of the offerings looked tempting here, we strolled along the waterfront until the very end, where we found a little taverna. Regaled by a Cretan bouzouki player, we enjoyed the evening of grilled swordfish with lemon, kalamari, sea bass and Greek salad, all washed down with the hearty red wine for which Crete is famous. As always, the waiters wanted to drink to our health with a little raki. As I downed the fiery drink, all the heat and dust of Loutro seemed to come back into my mouth. Tomorrow, I thought, is a beach day.

It turned out to be the right idea, because the water was at its warmest in September, and we happened to be pretty close to Crete’s most famed beach – Elafonisi. While I knew it was theoretically possible to get to the beach by car, there were too many stories of tire blow-outs along the way, so we instead took a little ferry which made day trips.

Elafonisi’s reputation owes to its isolation – on the very southwestern tip of Crete – and to its smooth, pink sands, which stretch out for over a mile. This made for an idyllic day wading in the pink-tinged water and exploring underwater coves along the shore.

Overflowing with history and sunshine, Southern Crete calms even the most stressed-out tourist and teases out the sybarite in every one of its visitors. It’s impossible to deny the abundant luxuries of life in this unruly, gorge-laden area – the soft sunsets, the richly marinated octopus and red wine, the coves unvisited and hypnotic Cretan violins. Truly central to the Greek experience, Southern Crete remains eternally enchanting; when you get there, you may never want to leave. Even if you do succeed in escaping, as my Greek friend Georgios put it, “no one comes to Crete just once. You will always come back here.”