Jean-Louis Gallo - 2011-03-03
The early hours of the morning is the moment to stroll around the deserted wharfs of the old Venetian port of Haniá (or Chania), the ancient capital of Crete, because as the evening arrives hordes of tipsy tourists and musicians invade these ancient places which have witnessed many a bloody episode of history.
At the crossroads of the Mediterranean, Crete has managed to conserve its remnants from the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire, which successively occupied the island. The best examples of these are the Mosque of the Janisseries (Akti Tombazi) the oldest on the island with its pink coloured domes which are visible across the whole harbour and the Venetian lighthouse overlooking it. With its cobblestoned wharfs and majestic lines the Venetian harbour unfolds gracefully between the fortifications. Its beautiful display of rich facades can be admired by standing facing them from the inlet at Kountouriotis quay.
Before leaving the old Cretan capital a visit to the indoor market in Venizlou square with its plethora of colours and smells, is a must. In this impressive neoclassical style building, shoppers navigate the stalls of fish and shellfish, meat and charcuterie, cheese, olives and oil in an atmosphere heavily loaded with whiffs of fruit and vegetables. With their appetites already whet they succumb to the temptations of steaming eateries that run alongside the grocers’ stalls in the straight aisles.
Travelling south towards the region of Sfakiá
and the numerous gorges cutting into this landscape which is rough and difficult to access, you arrive in the heart of Crete. Here you find its obligatory Samariá gorges
and its eponymous nature reserve replete with stunning sights. Upon leaving Haniá
, the ascent towards the gorges first brings you to pastoral scenery which then rapidly metamorphoses into wild terrains.
At Xilóskalo, upon reaching 1250 metres altitude there is a view to marvel at: the highest peaks of the White Mountains covered with a layer of late snow, with a coat of greenery at their feet. We’re ready to set off and for the hardiest walkers there is a five hour hike before discovering the Iron Gates, Europe’s biggest gorges and a true jewel, the first steps of which consist of pine tree roots. In the very heart of the Gorges the old village of Samariá, huddled against the left bank of the river has a path leading up to it from a stone bridge. Abandoned when the National Park was created, wild goats are now its only inhabitants.
After a long crossing, the Libyan sea and its clear waters await the weary hikers for a relaxing bathe at Agía Rouméli. This part of Crete radiates an undeniable charm: its Kántanos region, its dozens of Byzantine churches, the valley of Azogires, covered with ancient olive trees and finally Paleóchora, reached by boat. This tiny, isolated port and haven of peace facing the Libyan sea is an irrefutably attractive destination for those wishing to escape mass-tourism. It once used to be one of the most popular destinations for hippies! It remains one of the island’s rare resorts that is active all year round, making it a place of residence for “off-season” Crete lovers.
Here, in shady little squares, the kafeneion decorated in traditional white and blue colours bring together an authentic clientele who while away the hours to the rhythm of the kolomboï, before a glass of ouzo. With a nickname of Pelekanos, the “Pelicans’ town” because this web-footed bird likes to hang around near the old town, you’ll find good reason in Paleóchora for prolonging your stay just a little longer!