Friday, 31 August 2012

Gramvousa and Balos (Γραμβούσα και Μπάλος)

All photos (found in this link) taken on 28 August, 2012.

The island of Crete has two 'fingers' (or 'legs' as we like to call them in Greek) at its north-western tip, both of which are bare rocky uninhabited peninsulas.

The Gulf of Kissamos is found between Crete's two 'fingers': the small peninsula of Gramvousa and the larger Rodopou peninsula.

These peninsulas (Γραμβούσα - Gramvousa and Ροδοπού - Rodopou) are generally accessible only on foot; visiting them in the winter, you would be left exposed to the very harsh elements of the season, while in the summer, they provide no shade and there is no place to top up your water supplies. But they are still bewildering places to visit: the stories they hide are shocking tales of survival and patriotism.

Full house - the cruise offered something for both the sun-and-sea reveller and the history lover.

Apart from spectacular views, Gramvousa, the westernmost peninsula, offers very little to the trekker, besides that feeling of having walked through a remote area and feeling on top of the world. A narrow rural road makes it possible to drive over it, to admire the flora and fauna of the area. You can then walk down the hill to end up at the mesmerisingly beautiful lagoon of Balos on the west coast of the peninsula (after the drive, you need about an hour's walk to the lagoon). After your swim there in the shallow calm waters, you would also have to walk back up the hill to get back to your car, unless you manage to make it in time for the departure of one of the mini-cruise boats back to Kissamos harbour on the mainland (and you have someone to drive the car back). This would also entail missing out on visiting the little rocky island of great historical importance, where the Gramvousa fortress is located.

The cave below, located on the eastern side of the Gramvousa peninsula, is believed to be Tersanas, an ancient shipyard - the level of the sea was higher in ancient times. 
The Gramvousa peninsula also encompasses three or four islands, depending on how you classify the piece of land that forms Balos lagoon. Άγρια Γραμβούσα (Agria Gramvousa = Wild Gramvousa) is located north of the peninsula. It is largely inaccessible due to its rocky inhospitable formation - little wonder how it gots its name. Ήμερη Γραμβούσα (Imeri Gramvousa = Tame Gramvousa) is located west - this is the island where the fortress is situated. Then there is a tiny rocky islet further to the west, in the middle of nowhere, appropriately known as Ποντικονήσι (Pontikonisi - Mouse Island). 

In this photo, the effect of the earthquakes 2000 years ago can be seen: the black strip of land used to be below sea level.

Closer to the coast, there is an islet that looks like a little mound of land which helps form the lagoon on the peninsula. The lagoon is known fittingly as Μπάλος (Balos), which is probably derived from the word 'bale', as this piece of land looks like a big round ball. The coast on the peninsula is called Τηγάνι (Cape Tigani), 'frying pan' in translation, because of the shape of the lagoon, which is round and shallow like a frying pan, and is separated from the deeper waters by a long strip of sea bed that looks like the handle of the frying pan. Mini-cruise boats leave from Kissamos harbour and pass through the strait between the tip of the peninsula and Wild Gramvousa, to take you out to Balos lagoon, stopping first at Imeri Gramvousa for a tour of the fort.

Agria Gramvousa

Imeri Gramvousa (about 70 minutes sailing from Kissamos harbour) is not as tame as its name suggests. The first thing you see as you approach it is a rusty shipwrecked boat, which is a spectacle in itself. The fort at the top of the steep hill was built in the mid-sixteenth century by the Venetians (from Venice) who were occuping Crete to guard the area against the Ottoman Turks who wanted to occupy Crete. Eventually a Neapolitan (from Naples) betrayed the Venetians and the Turks captured the island. The Venetians left and the Turks were now in power. In the early nineteenth century when the modern state of Greece was formed, Cretan rebels (with their families) got rid of the Turks on Imeri Gramvousa and began to occupy the fort, even though Crete was still under Ottoman and not Greek rule. In order to survive, the rebels resorted to piracy as there was no other way to get food supplies. They even established a school for their children and a church was built, Παναγία η Κλεφτρίνα (Panagia i Kleftrina - Mary the Klepht), dedicated to the wives of the pirate rebels. Up to 3000 people lived on the island for three years until Greek authorities smashed the pirate rings.

Imeri Gramvousa, with Pontikonisi in the background
The shipwreck at Imeri Gramvousa

The day-long boat trip to Imeri Gramvousa stays at the island to allow tourists to see the fort and possibly get a chance to take a swim at the beach. Then it departs for Balos lagoon (about a quarter of an hour away) where you can continue to swim. If you're up to it, you can take anther nature walk to the top of the peninsula, something I would have done if I didn't have children with me - naturally, we stayed at the beach. Balos lagoon will not fail to mesmerise even the most critical tourist, with its wide range of blue hues - let's just say it was an incredible feeling approaching one of the most beautiful areas of the world*.

Boats are used to ferry people off the ship and onto land when the weather conditions aren't good at Imeri Gramvousa - thankfully, this didn't take place on the day we were there, as it takes away precious time that could be used to stay longer on the sites. 

During the height of summer, the whole cruise ship thing can be very tiring. There must have been something like 1000 people (half of them Russians) on the boat when I took this tour. Lucky for us, it wasn't so hot - meltemi winds were blowing, which made the weather cooler, but it also made the journey rather rough, thankfully not so rough that people were throwing up. I enjoyed the rocking movement of the boat - it almost felt like a cradle. One second we were looking at the sea, the next we were looking at the sky. 
Before we landed on Imeri Gramvousa, it seemed deserted; when the ship docked, the steep road up to the fort looked like an army invasion! But the view was worth it - from the fort, we had a very clear view of Balos lagoon (which was also waiting for our onslaught). 
I booked the tour through Balos Cruises - they offer a highly professional cruise, which I found faultless. The crew is multi-national with all languages represented by the passengers used over the intercom; everyone could remain informed with each and every announcement, and there were quite a few, ranging from routine messages, guided explanations of the scenery, changes in departure times and happy hour announcements (ie cheap booze). It is a cruise ship after all, and there are all sorts of other gimmicks on board to help people get the most out of the trip.

Above: the entrance to the fort and the church of the Virgin Mary the Klepht.
Below: although I didn't try any meals on board apart from a coffee, the food seemed to be freshly prepared. Towards the end of the trip, I saw some kitchen staff preparing yemista (stuffed tomatoes and peppers) from scratch. Souvlaki was also cooked at the time of serving. 

You need to be fully prepared before the trip when it comes to food and water. We bought some supermarket supplies and prepared a packed lunch. A very wide range of Greek and international meals is available on board the boat, which I noticed were all reasonably priced - very important during a crisis. There is also something like a small canteen run by the authorities on both Imeri Gramvousa and Balos lagoon. Together with the boat tickets (€22/11 adults/kids, cheaper if you book online), and bus tickets to get to Kissamos harbour (I took my car), the journey will be an expensive one if you need to buy all your food needs.

This rock simply rose out of the sea after an earthquake - the black part used to be below sea level.

The most important need is water. I managed to avoid the need to buy any during the trip by freezing 500ml bottles of water, one for each person. The very thick ice did not melt immediately, so we all had enough water to last us throughout the trip. The bottle would melt just enough for us to be refreshed with an ice-cold gulp of water, which we first needed as we climbed up to the fort (you probably don't want to drink too much - especially ice-cold water - while you're walking, to avoid stomach cramps). By buying water constantly, you are not saving much effort, since refrigerator water heats up quickly. I noticed a lot of half-empty bottles being cast aside: who wants to drink tepid water on a very hot day?

Approaching Balos lagoon: the light green waters were shallow, while the whitish sand was soft.

Above all, the cruise combined adventurous fun with stunning scenery. It's hard not to feel a sense of exhiliration as each amazing view comes into sight. The forces of nature are very visible to boat passengers: a discernible strip of land along the coast shows the 3-9 metres where the peninsula was raised after two strong earthquakes about 2000 years ago, which also shows the general trend that southwestern Crete rises, while northeastern Crete sinks with the very slow passage of time. There are also interesting caves, believed to date from ancient times, that would be difficult to access or even see if you trek instead of sail through the area.

To get to the lagoon, we had to walk over a kilometre-wide expanse of ankle-deep water.

Gramvousa, in my opinion, is one of those places where I have truly experienced the must-see-before-you-die sensation. I would definitely do this trip again: it's a great place to take friends visiting my homeland. My photos don't do the area justice - but you will find loads and loads of others on the internet.

If you were an angel was playing while I took this video.

*One thing ruined it for me - there is a lot of tar stuck on the rocks where the ship docks. And a stinky methane smell, presumably from the boats. You win some, you lose some.

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