The only drawback to the summer KTEL bus which runs to Omalos, leaving Paleochora at 6.15am, is just that  –  the early morning departure is not to everyone’s liking, especially after a leisurely meal and maybe some relaxing drinks in the cool of a late evening in our village.  But if you can make it in time, as we did recently, and then stay awake, the journey is spectacular, as dawn spreads over the mountains and through the olive groves to the numerous Cretan villages passed en route.

Several passengers left the bus to walk through the Agia Irini Gorge, those remaining would be descending Samaria, and must have wondered where we were heading when driver Yiannis dropped us off, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, soon after 8am.  We were actually at Agios Theodoros church, on the western fringe of the Omalos plateau, and our route was along an alternative section of the E4 path, to Koustoyerako, and from there down to Sougia for the ferry home.

Ag. Theodoros

Ag. Theodoros

This is one of three alternatives to the difficult (usually 2-day) coastal walk between Sougia and Agia Roumeli, the others being through Agia Irini/Figou gorges, or from Koustoyerako via Achlada and Linoseli, both reaching Xyloscala to then descend Samaria Gorge to Agia Roumeli.

E4 path starts here

E4 path starts here

A short walk back along the road took us to a turning SW, the surfaced road climbing gently then falling abruptly  to a sharp bend, and a water cistern, where the E4 path heads off south. But first we went to “inspect” the mountain hut at Ghreleska,  one km further, where the road ends.  Built as an observatory to watch the rare “kri-kri” (and we were lucky enough to see two), it’s a substantial building, and would make a superb overnight stay ; more of this another time.

Ghreleska Hut

Ghreleska Hut

Back on the trail, the waymarking (red paint dots, but concentrate on route-finding, it’s not easy at times,) led us for some 3km, contouring at around 1200m height under shady trees and over rocky limestone terrain, then dropping down to Olisma, where the path from Achlada joins from the east.  A break here, then on down a rather loose gully, which, around fifteen minutes later, the path crossed, climbing a well-defined “kalderimi” or mule-trail.  All too soon afterwards the path ends, joining a rough track at Agia Ekaterini.

Ag. Ekaterini

Ag. Ekaterini

A story about the church (St. Catherine) ; in 1943, after the battle at Achlada (see below) when a number of German soldiers were killed, a group of local resistance fighters (“andartes”) were hiding in a cave near here, as the enemy combed the area searching for them.  One of the men had an icon of Agia Ekaterini, and they all prayed and swore that if they escaped the Germans, they would build a church in her honour.  To seal the oath, they wrote their names on the icon. A thick mist descended on the mountain, forcing the Germans to abandon their search, and the ‘andartes’ were able to survive.  A church was built after the war, this one more recent, and a festival held annually on the 25th November.  Nearby is a memorial to those killed hereabouts.

Memorial to 'andartes'

Memorial to ‘andartes’

Koustoyerako is still some way off, following the rough road (with some ‘short-cuts’) all the way into the village, which we reached some three hours after setting off.

Path to Koustoyerako

Path to Koustoyerako

And in the ‘platea’ is a ‘kafeneio’,  –  “Achlada” –  where refreshing drinks were most welcome.  Meals are available too, but call first (28230 51092) for special requests or a large group.  The history of Koustoyerako has been well-documented, as the centre of resistance fighting in this area over centuries, especially during the last war.  The best book I know is “Vasili – the Lion of Crete”, by Murray Elliott, which tells the story of Dudley Perkins, a New Zealander, one of many left behind after the German invasion of Crete in May 1941, and who joined local resistance groups.  Chapters 7-13 are particularly relevant to this area.  A film is currently being made of his life, to be called “The Straggler”, and filmed in New Zealand, which will be fascinating.

Koustoyerako

Koustoyerako

To the immediate left of the kafeneio is a footpath to Livadas, descending terraces of almond and later olive trees, which avoids a much longer road walk.  Below the village, 1.5km later, we left the road to take a track south for the final 2 km into Sougia, tantalisingly in view for some time, with its promise of more cold drinks, ice-cream and a swim in the Libyan Sea, before a “mini-cruise”  back home to Paleohora on the good ship ‘Samaria’.

Home on the 'Samaria'
For those interested, the ‘Samaria’ was built in 1986, length 48m, capacity 368.07 gross tons, and can carry 850 passengers, 40 cars or 12 buses (and several kayaks) at a top speed of 13 mph. And there’s a bar on board ….

A long and serious day’s walk, this route is covered by the Anavasi Topo25 map (Samaria/Sougia) and is described in “The High Mountains of Crete” (Cicerone), both available at ‘To Delfini’ bookshop in Paleochora.

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It’s June, it’s Crete, and it’s hot. And with the Libyan Sea warm and inviting, and a dozen or more beaches close to Paleochora, there is understandably less enthusiasm for long walks. But I wanted to go to Argastiri, for reasons explained later. So here’s a walk of around 8km, taking less than three hours, perfect for early morning or late afternoon, before or after the heat of the day.

Park here ..

Park here ..

The start (and finish, the walk being circular) is at the cafe/taverna ‘Maganari’, just before Kambanos on the main road north beyond Rodovani. Distance is just 26km from Paleochora through Azogires and Strati, slightly longer and more tortuous through Anidri and Prodromi, but a scenic drive by either route. Park below shady plane trees beside the taverna.

Start this way ...

Start this way …

A few metres past the taverna, take the road (left) signed to Skafi, Argastiri and Tsagariakos, but after 400m, at the 2nd sharp bend, go right on a rough track through the trees. “Does the road wind uphill all the way?” asks Christina Rossetti in her poem. “Yes,” it does, “to the very end” at Argastiri, passing en route the church of Agios Vasilios, a plain building but with extensive views, to the hill villages of Koustoyerako and Livada, and the sea below Sougia. Turn left on reaching the surfaced road on the outskirts of Argastiri, passing the cemetery and Agios Giorgos, a far more attractive church, but without the views.

Agios Giorgos

Agios Giorgos

Argastiri, 650m above sea level, and now with a resident population of only 19 (2011 census), is an isolated village, the access road from Tsiskiana not surfaced until 1997, and only supplied with electricity and running water in the 1960s. It’s name is Greek for “loom”, and the village was famous for its weaving products. During the war, villagers sheltered many Allied soldiers, but did not incur the reprisals and destruction of homes suffered by many other local villages. It’s a very peaceful and panoramically situated place . And my reason for coming here – for the beautiful green stone on Lynne’s grave, found, polished and oiled by Costas, and engraved by Gerhardt, came from a stream-bed near Argastiri.

Argastiri village

Argastiri village

Follow the road downhill out of the village, heading NW after a ‘hairpin’ bend, with very soon the houses of Skafi coming into view.

Colourful Skafi

Colourful Skafi

Below Skafi, where the road bends sharply, are two turnings – the first signed to Loukiana, and the second (take this) to Tsagariakos, rising alongside a shallow stream-bed. Spring flowers are all but over now, although the oleanders are spectacular, and the tall summer-flowering Verbascum macrurum were in yellow bud.

Verbascum macrurum

Verbascum macrurum

Soon the track, now surfaced, climbs away from the gully and heads south. From here, turn and look north, to the summit of Agios Zinas, 1331m, where a tiny white chapel stands out against the blue sky (already marked down for a future ‘Explore’.) Approaching both midday and 30c, I left Tsagariakos for another day, and forked left (it’s marked to ‘Astratigos’, but that’s some distance away), soon reaching Ag. Marina and some shade for an early lunch.

Skafi & beyond

Skafi & beyond

Below the church, fork left as the track winds down towards Pera Skafi. “Pera” translates as “beyond”, “further”, and the English equivalent would be ‘Upper Skafi’. Go left again below the first houses, to join and turn right on the ‘main’ surfaced road, passing what may (or may not) be the village cafeneio, stores and Post Office, but was closed to all three. All that remained now was to follow the road south, gradually losing height. Soon Kambanos, the largest village hereabouts, appeared below, against a backdrop of the White Mountains outlier of Psilafi, 1984m, rising high above the Agia Irini Gorge. Gavdos Island, hazy in the distance, was reminiscent of South Pacific’s Bali Ha’i, with its “head sticking out of a low-flying cloud.” Turning left for 600m at the main road, I was soon back at the car.

If you’re hungry on reaching the ‘Maganari’ taverna (as I was), I can strongly recommend the ‘kalitsounia’ – cheese & spinach pies, accompanied by a somewhat inevitable Greek salad. The route is covered by the Anavasi Sougia/Samaria map (11.13) although the track from Ag Vasilios church reaches Argastiri on its east, not its west side. Please close and re-fasten three ‘gates’ on the ascent.

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