Over the ridge.
Last week we left you in a car park on the north coast, not far from Kissamos.
We had had to backtrack there after closed roads defeated our trek down the west coast.
Once the blog had been published we set off to try again, on a bigger road.
In case there were no fuel stations further south we filled up, and started to climb. And we climbed. And we climbed.
Crete isn’t a huge island, but it has real mountains that top out over 2600m. Many have snow on them into the middle of summer.
Up until now we’ve had glimpses of the gorges and hills that make Crete such a special place. Today we experienced it all for real.
The stratum of limestone scenery usually lies flat, leading to the phenomena known as limestone pavement. On the drive over the top the strata are closer to vertical resulting in an extremely craggy scenery with deep gorges to the left and right of the road.
We climbed away from heavy rain and strong winds, then 25 winding miles later we descended into warm sunshine. When the sea finally appeared again it wasn’t the angry choppy water we’d left, instead the sparkling blue was calm and inviting.
Stares from a no horse town.
En route the mountain town of Kandanos was as Hicksville as you could hope for. I’m used to being stared at, but here everyone followed me with their eyes. The bakery sold bread, nothing else, but it was a friendly place where little 3 year old Eleni was delighted to see Saint Vasilis (Santa) come in.
At the end of the descent is Paliochora. Town. Port. Casual resort. And we love it. It’s smarter than most of what we’ve seen on Crete. And there’s a pizzeria. Minty was in and had ordered almost as soon as it opened for the evening. What a beauty. A huge pizza for the girl, a baking dish full of pasta for me, half a kilo of wine, a beer, the customary flask of raki, and all for €21.
We plan to be back in Paliochora soon, but there are a few gorge walks leaving nearby Sougia that we fancy. It’s the next stop east. Although it’s about 12 miles along the coast, on the road it’s close to 30 challenging mountain miles that climb gruellingly steep tracks with terrifying drops to the side and the traditional crumbling edges.
The road phenomenal road, and I’m delighted that it even exists. After all it only connects a few hundred people and the cost per person of maintaining it must be huge. We have driven great roads in many countries, Austria, France, Germany and others, but then there are always vehicles behind, something else in front. Today there was nothing on the road, we could drive as slowly as we wished, taking it all in. The goats, their kids, the lambs, puppies and kittens. The few villages we passed were hard looking places that probably haven’t changed much in decades. The ruthless resistance fighters of the Second World War hid out in places like these, and there are memorials all over the hills to those slaughtered for their efforts.
Sougia isn’t up to much. There’s a short strip of bars, a few dozen tired looking houses, a smattering of people living off grid in vans and caravans, a ferry port and not a lot else. But there is a British couple in the sweetest Karman Gypsy van, and more than that, they (Dave and Marsha) helped us with a push when ArchieVan got stuck in soft sand.
Lissos Gorge. Walking with Goats.
What brought us to Sougia was its position as the start point for many interesting looking walks.
The Lissos Gorge is labelled as a three hour round trip. Ideal for The Wanderers. We’re easily capable of more, but we haven’t had a hard stank in ages and so we’ll build up to it.
The walk is immediately interesting – several hundred goats hung out at the gorge entrance and ambled along with their new English shepherds for half an hour or more. There was the music of over a hundred goat bells, and the bleating of as many youngsters always looking for their mums. While we were sufficiently challenged by the gorge floor our escort took to the sides with nimble hooves scampering along near vertical slopes. The kids, some only a few weeks old, were as bonkers as the parents, and our favourites climbed trees to show off their skills.
Warm rock of yellow and orange towered above us, and often overhung the route. The scrub was mostly myrtle, with some pines, and spikey stuff nearer the ground. The perfume was mainly goat, but occasionally a delicate sweet scent would drift on the breeze. For the first mile or so the going was flat(ish), but then we turned onto a donkey track and our body temperatures rose with the height.
If you’ve ever wondered why donkeys look so down trodden you only have to follow a donkey trail to understand.
Our path switch-backed at a ridiculous gradient up the side of the gorge, hard underfoot even in boots. The thought of beasts of burden lugging heavy loads up the slopes, whipped all the way, helped me realise that Eeyore’s sullen expression is a thing evolved.
On the high plateau there’s little vegetation, but the red soil path is pierced here and there by this week’s flower, this pretty white star which would most likely go unnoticed were it not for its choice of site.
A walk in clear air, with the sea ahead, and snow covered hills behind is a wonderful thing on its own. This one was even better. The descent to Lissos Bay opens a vista that includes the remains of a significant harbour town established thousands of years ago and occupied through until Roman times.
The ghosts of its inhabitants have long since blown (thanks for sewing the thought R), but the level of sophistication they enjoyed is evident two thousand years later. This mosaic is part of the temple floor. The walls were of huge dressed blocks, each would take several men to shift.
Elsewhere there are the remains of many two storey houses, public baths, churches, the necropolis.
What’s particularly rewarding is that you can just walk in, enjoy it all, and leave.
I guess that we might have been the only visitors for the week, so it makes no sense to have a janitor there.
On the beach we picnicked on fruit, a hand full of nuts and a couple of boiled sweets. The recent downturns in the fortunes of religion meant that our wine had turned to water, but we were probably better for it that way.
Since the town was established the only way in, apart from by boat, was by our path, and the one that exits in the other direction. Despite thousands of years of foot traffic the hard limestone remains a jagged trail, very few stones have been smoothed.
Lights will go out early tonight. We’ll hope for a good sleep and take on another march tomorrow.
We didn’t think much of it when we arrived. We loved it by the time we left. The more we saw the more we realised that this is a free living kind of place. There are caravans hiding in the bushes wherever you look, a few solar panels giving them all the power they need.
Along from us a cravat wearing dandy lives in his van, a woodburner’s chimney cut into the passenger’s window. While he disguised himself as a German by wearing socks with his sandals, his cut glass accent gave him away as an English eccentric with an alternative take on life.
Greece. Its roads and drivers.
When I started this blog a couple of years back every aspect of van life was new and I commented as much about the life as I did about scenes en route. Much of that mystery is common place now, but we’re still charmed by so much of our life on the road.
Something that we have become used to, but that still amazes us when we stop to consider it is the very act of driving in Greece.
First there are the roads – the surface tends to be OK, far better than Poland or Italy, although often there might not be a tarmac surface at all. What’s alarming about the roads is how often the edges have simply crumbled away. There are rarely any warning signs, but generally a local will put a few rocks around the missing bit to alert you.
Landslides are ridiculously frequent. Most towns have a couple of JCBs purely for the purpose of keeping the roads clear. Only this week in the mountains we rounded a bend and had to brake hard for the yellow plant working right across the road. No traffic lights. Not even a sign. Just a big JCB, a huge swing shovel and dozens of car sized rocks. The guys were busy, they didn’t wave us through, we had to blow the horn as we took our chances and hope that the massive shovel didn’t push us off the edge.
Then there’s the driving itself.
Greek drivers are Europe’s most casual. They’re definitely not the worst, that’s an honour reserved for Poland and Romania. In Greece they’re just a bit too laid back.
Some don’t seem to reach 20mph and even the kids don’t race.
When a Greek gets to where he wants to be he simply stops, gets out and goes about his business. If that means double parking, or parking on a junction then so be it. Often he won’t bother switching the engine off, after all he’ll be going again soon, unless he meets someone he knows, and everyone knows everyone.
Seat belts are for whimps, but the pinging noise gets annoying, so they have a little clip that silences the alarm. And you can buy one in any garage.
Staying in touch.
While the seatbelt is overlooked, the phone isn’t. Most drive along, phone in one hand, cigarette in the other (they smoke for their health), gesticulating wildly.
Overloading is interesting too. During the olive harvest we saw so many trucks bottoming out their suspension under the load, and then a few workers will climb on top too. You know those images of African villagers all riding in the back of a truck with scant regard for safety? You don’t have to go to Africa, just take a trip into the Greek countryside and you’ll see plenty.
It can feel like a bit of a challenge to you or I, but the Greeks bolster themselves against fear by starting with an ouzo or tsiporo early in the morning, topping up regularly through the day.
For the English all this is interesting, for the disciplined Germans it must seem like the circus.
Three days on a site.
Three days on a campsite.
The sun shone. We washed every item of bedding and clothing in the massive 15kg machine. We showered, how we showered. It was Minty’s first since Italy several months ago (although she has bathed plenty of times since).
Chris, the site’s winter guardian, is an English guy who arrived at Gramenno in his van ten years ago. He kept visiting for a couple of years until in 2013 when he stopped going back to England.
There’s not much room in the van, but there’s enough for a romance that knows no bounds.
Valentines Day was celebrated with a family pack of Jammie Dodgers and a bottle of pink fizz. Oh yeah! We live well.
And that pizza place we liked in Paliochora? We were back there to finish off the night.