Long ago, before the establishment of any road network in Western Crete, there was a route for the inhabitants and goods of Selino province, and Ottoman troops stationed on the South Coast, to travel through the mountains to Chania. This became known as the Vasiliki Strata, or Royal Path, and what remains of it, or has been recently restored, is stunning.
Michelle and I inadvertently ‘discovered’ part of the path several years ago, while looking for a way back to Omalos after walking through the Askidia Gorge. Although the route was obvious enough, parts of the ‘kalderimi’ * were loose and broken, the path overgrown, and fallen pine trees occasionally made progress difficult. Read the full story on Explore ! for October 2017. At that time I described the path as “ an absolute gem, which deserves to be better known and more frequently walked …”
Now, after restoration by the Municipality of Platanias earlier this year, it certainly will be. But first, a little about another part of the Vasiliki Strata which is well known and used regularly, both by walkers travelling through the Figou Gorge, and for centuries, and still today, as a transhumance trail to convey sheep and goats between winter lowlands, and summer grazing pastures at and above Omalos.
This begins in Agia Irini, close to – just a few metres away – from the entrance to the gorge.
Take the road down to the river, over a stone bridge, swing left, then right (signed E4 path) and into the pine trees, where, after only ten minutes from the main road, is one of the best-preserved ‘kalderimi’ that I know. This fades as the path climbs a ridge, then with more excellent stonework towards the col, and after passing the head of Figou Gorge, again as the trail zig-zags up to meet the Omalos road.
The “new” section of the Vasiliki Strata begins at Vatali, 3km east of the Seli junction, where the wind turbines stand tall. This was inaugurated at an Opening Ceremony in April this year, and the Information Board blew down in a gale two days afterwards. Details show the path as 4.75km, time 2.5 hrs, height difference 285m and Degree of difficulty 1/5 (Low). Strangely, the signpost at the walk start gives 5.254m, and 1.32 hrs, which is more accurate.
So, six years after our previous visit, and after an overnight stay at the ever-hospitable Exari Hotel at Omalos, Michelle and I set off on from here early on a July morning, cool at 935m (over 3000 ft.) Hopeful of making the walk linear, we had optimistically left a car earlier on the road down to Lakkoi, some 6km below the plateau.
Very soon the path, contouring high above the wooded Askidia Gorge, developed into one of the best I have ever walked along on Crete, the kalderimi a tribute to the craftsmanship of stonemasons ancient and modern. Posts at intervals indicate distance and timings, with occasional benches to pause and rest below shady pine trees. Prases was far below, the outlying villages of Askidia and Chosti closer, and the north coast hazy on the distant horizon.
All too soon the path winds down into the valley, and after exactly 1.5 hrs we reached an identical (but still standing) Information Board which marks the end of the trail. Although Chosti is a c.30 minute walk from here, the optimum solution would be to walk back to Vatali.
But, ever adventurous, we thought to prolong the expedition by continuing east …. On leaving a car earlier, we had noticed blue paint markings, possibly denoting a route/path ? And here, encouragingly, were similar, although faint and infrequent. Nothing ventured, belying our ages and “living our days instead of counting our years” we followed the rough track out of the valley for 800m until it narrowed, then abruptly ended, at animal feeding troughs.
Searching around, we eventually located the onward path, almost indiscernible, but still intermittently waymarked, which climbed a narrow ravine, steep and rocky in places. After 500m it became easier, the gradient less, and we reached the main road, and our car, with some relief. This is not for the faint-hearted, and in reverse would be even more difficult.
* The word ‘kalderimi’ derives from the Turkish – ‘kalderim’, meaning a path/pavement connecting villages by foot, or for ‘hoofed’ animals, especially mules, and built with ‘cobble stones’. A large number were built on Crete (note especially those crossing the Aradena Gorge.) Some were constructed on existing Venetian routes using new paving ; our way up to the Omalos/Lakkoi road is marked on Google Maps as Enetiki Monopati, or Venetian Footpath.
Why ‘Royal’ Trail is open to conjecture, but possibly a reference to Venetian or Turkish nobility or royalty. What is certain, is that by following this path, recommended from the start at Vatali, to its end, and then back again, you will be treading the same way, and enjoying the same views as those who constructed the route several hundred years ago.
If you never do another walk on Crete, do this one ….. it’s that good.