A late October escape to the beautiful island of Crete begins with my arrival in Chania. My gamble to visit the island so late in the season seems to be blessed by the Ancient Gods, as the sweet Aegean sun is still most definitely shining in this part of the Mediterranean; the summer hordes of holiday tourists have long since departed and the island is begging to be explored.
Base camp for this autumn adventure, the ancient and “off the beaten track” village of Aptera, situated on the north-west coast of Crete between the towns of Souda and Kalives. Aptera lies approximately 13 km east of Chania. A hidden treasure of a location; unspoilt, and unique in its rich history and local hospitality.
Home to two important and impressive historical sites. The ruins of the Ancient City of Aptera and the Fortress of Sousbasi, also known as Koules of Aptera. Both sites just a stone’s throw walk away from the Aptera Hotel, a small family run complex of modern studio apartments, with a most spectacular view of Souda Bay and the White Mountains.
Traditionally furnished, spacious, self-catering apartments, well equipped, with all necessary amenities and complementary Wi-Fi access.
A place to call home after a long day out, on the road, mountain or beach out exploring Crete and all it has to offer its guests.
With the relatively short time I have to spend on the island a hire car is a must, as I wish to see as much as one can possibly see in Crete and the freedom of having your own transport to accommodate your schedule offers a freedom of possibilities and destinations.
The island roads are well maintained and destinations for the most part well signposted.
The first port of call is the Old Town of Chania and its famed Venetian built harbour. The quaint narrow shopping streets and waterfront restaurants, all housed in old buildings of Venetian or Turkish design make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
I recommend taking a lengthy stroll through the town, taking in all the sights, sounds and smells it has to offer – which are plentiful. Then pick a spot to rest, order a meze and some tsikoudia (the Cretan raki drink) and watch the world go by, the backdrop of the Venetian lighthouse and the Mosque of Yiali Tzami is sure to make the moment magical.
My second day in Chania, Crete is spent exploring the local area. In the morning I set off by foot, a visit to the ruins of the Ancient City of Aptera and the Fortress of Sousbasi. What a nice way to start ones day.
I won’t lie, I’m no history buff and I’m not here on a quest to enhance my knowledge of history and classical antiquities but my mornings walk through the Roman ruins has been a wonderful, serene experience and the views from the top of the hill have stolen my heart.
The most impressive monument on the site, in my humble opinion, is the impressively preserved Roman cisterns which have survived centuries and earthquakes galore in order for me to feel like Lara Croft exploring them.
The Fortress is also astonishingly well preserved and an imposing landmark I can look to in awe, in order to guide myself back to Aptera if I find myself geographically challenged during my travels.
I then travel by car, to explore the neighbouring villages of Kalives and Almyrida, the October sun still guiding my travels, I take a stroll in Kalives and stop for a coffee, astonished to still see tourists still swimming in the crystal blue waters so late in the Autumn season.
I then drive a few kilometres east to Almyrida where I stop for fresh fish and glass of wine, watching the sun set and planning my adventure to Samaria Gorge the following day.
An avid adventurer and a keen walker the main reason I wanted to visit Crete was to walk the famous Samaria Gorge. Knowing that visits to the National Park are only allowed from the beginning of May to the end of October and fully aware that weather this time of year may very well take a turn for the worse, I was keen to attempt to cross the Gorge as soon as possible.
Research taught me that the usual way to “do the Gorge” was to take an organised tour, from Chania by bus to the starting point of Omalos, travelling through breath-taking mountain scenery, and then departing on the beautiful yet treacherous 13km trek through the Gorge, arriving in Agia Roumeli some 5-6 hours later.
The only way to then leave Agia Roumeli, which is only accessible by foot, and return to Chania is by boat via Chora Sfakion or alternatively to Sougia. This is the usual way to pass the Samaria Gorge.
However if you’re up for a challenge and are physically able to, there is another way. Drive to Omalos in your own hire car, arrive early, (you can call the Park Rangers the previous evening to confirm opening time on +30 28210 67179), pay your 5 euro entrance fee and depart on a most adventurous and exciting journey of a lifetime.
Walk through well-trodden paths, with plentiful water stops, take in the stunning scenery and stop off to say hello to the Kri Kri (indigenous to Crete and protected species of mountain goat), walk joyful mile after mile, appreciating the wilderness along the way.
You arrive in Agia Roumeli, take a well-earned break and then … well you walk back up to Omalos again! The Park Rangers give a guideline time of this route of 10 hours, so if you are trusting of your ability to undertake such a walk and allow plentiful time you can appreciate the Gorge twice fold and experience both routes.
Only the last 4km are of a significant physical challenge, where the gradient increase rises back up to 1236m quite rapidly and unforgivingly. Those with weak knees should not attempt this. Walking the Gorge in late October, providing the weather is on your side is an unprecedented experience. No long queues of busloads of tourists littering the way, fair weather and a sense of achievement await those who go to Samaria.
Fourth day in Crete and understandably after the challenging walk down and back up Samaria Gorge it is a relatively easy going day. A nice, easy going, excursion to Lake Kournas just 30 minutes away from Aptera, provides an ideal location to relax, recuperate and take a slow pedalo journey across the mystical mountain lake.
An afternoon visit to Souda and the Souda Commonwealth War Cemetery is a worthwhile drive, to pay respects to the fallen soldiers of past Word Wars. A serene, beautiful and peaceful place of rest, worthy of our respect and reflection.
A visit to Rethymnon, another stunning Venetian built harbour town of Crete, greets my fifth day on the island. After a walk up Mt Vrisina a few kilometres north of the town, where poor weather now prevents summiting, a rainy October walk leads me into town.
There I seek refuge one of the towns welcoming and hospitable tavernas and pass away the time, sharing stories and travel experiences with other travellers.
My final day in Crete beckons me to try my luck walking another Gorge, this time the Gorge of Agia Eirini, inland towards Sougia. The lesser known sister of Samaria Gorge is a much easier trek of 7km down a gradient of 500metres.
Alas the previous day’s rains have made the Gorge impassable after the 3rd kilometre so the planned journey is cut short. Onwards and upwards through mountains to the beautiful southern seaside town of Sougia, where the sun is still shining and people are still swimming in its luscious bays.
There I stop off to walk along the shore, watch fishermen head out to sea with their boats and feed local stray cats the leftovers of my most delicious fish supper.
My six autumn days on Crete have too swiftly come to an end. What a diverse, lovely landscape I have been treated to in the last few days. What generous, hospitable and honourable people I have met along my travels. One thing is for sure, I will return to the beautiful island of Crete as my journey here is far from complete.
To be continued….
Travel blog by El Mitropoulou.
Travelling solo around the Globe, seeking adventure and challenge.