Saturday, 11 May 2013

Walking tours in Hania

I am having a number of friends coming over to Crete over the summer. Lucky for me, they are all planning their visits at different times of the year throughout the warm months, and their holidays do not overlap, so I will be able to spend time with all of them individually. Most of our tourists and visitors are here to enjoy the warm sea and hot weather. Many will spend their time by the beach or a pool. But there are also a good number that come in spring and autumn, in the cooler months, for nature hiking trips; it really is far too hot to hike during July and August. It's those nature hikers that this post is aimed for, like my friends.

Personally speaking, I find that the island of Crete is like one long walking track. One day (but not now, of course, while I am a working mother), I intend to walk the length of Crete (and blog about it, of course), with as little money in my pocket as possible - the food and accomodation aspects of this low-cost trip will make for interesting discussion. Crete is relatively easy to hike through, unless you want to do some serious mountain climbing. It's difficult to know when to stop walking, unless you are climbing uphill - you will probably get tired and your body will want to stop. But if you are walking along the coast, only darkness and the occassional spell of bad weather will slow you down. You simply choose where you want to walk (up the mountains or along the coast), and take a road map with you. You won't get lost as long as you can see a mountain or the sea, which you will use as landmarks.

I don't take part in extreme sports and I pity people who insist on walking up our bare and 2500m-high rocky Lefka Ori in hot weather. Cretan locals do not do this, and they never did even in the past. Strenuous walking has always been left for cooler periods; in the past, when people walked from mountain villages to the town and back for trade purposes, they never walked during the hottest part of the day. But the average tourist will want to walk during the daylight hours and rest in the evening, possibly at a charming little village taverna. That's why the cooler months are the best time of the year for walking. From mid-June to the end of August, I don't advise walking in Crete unless it's before 10am or after 7pm. As the song tells us, only mad dogs and Englishmen...

There is a lot of interest in "off the beaten track" places in Crete; the old worn path is too well known now, and too touristy. The most popular 'brand-labelled' travel series books and websites (eg Lonely Planet) usually list only the major sites for Crete, eg Knossos (which isn't at all over-rated - I think it's better than the Acropolis). Googling 'crete off the beaten track' is a little misleading. Most of the time, you are going to get information about exclusive hotels and villas nestled in mountain region, in other words commercial sites; but what you wanted to know may actually be information on walks rather than retreats. I prefer to concentrate on Hania to limit the area a little. Going to an online bookstore and searching for 'western crete' will bring forth a range of book titles that discuss walking routes in great detail. Most of these books - more often than not, written by Northern Europeans for Northern Europeans - are a little on the pricey side, but if you are a stickler for instructions, maps and detailed guidebooks, you will probably find them useful. Most have a 'Look Inside' feature which allows you to see the book's contents which often list the complete guided walking routes, and you can copy the names of the villages to use the routes together with your own map. To name one particular route over another is to make an omission. And if you google 'western crete' you will realise just how commercialised tourism in Crete is: who would have thought that walking can be so expensive!!!

For day trips, all places will need some form of transportation. If you want to be picked up at your final walking stop, you need to check the bus schedules or arrange a taxi. If you have your own transport (eg hired car), you need to walk back, preferably along a different route, but not necessarily (you may have to retrace your steps). So a long walk may not be conveneint in such cases. Some good places for walks are inaccesible by car - you will need to take a boat trip. It all depends on how much time you want to devote walking. A word of warning: Crete is not flat, so it's best to start your walk uphill and so you can climb down in the later part when you are tired, or to start a downhill walk and end up walking by the coast. If you use your own transport, you should arrange a round-trip that covers a particular area, preferably combining an historical/archaeological site with a nature walk.

Here are 10 not so well known places which would use up at least two hours in walking time, located close to the sea. I've been to all these places, some more often than others. I haven't provided photos, as I have photos of nearly all these places in my blog.

Aptera - This is an archaeological site featuring Roman ruins. They are very different from the classical style of Greece ruins. The ancient site is deemed as important as Knossos, and it is under excavation at the moment (it includes an amphitheatre with what looks like orchestra pits), so it is free to visit during normal office hours. The eateries at the village before Aptera (sometimes known as Megala Horafia) will help you to enter the site if you go during a time when there is noone working on the ruins.
Lissos - I visited this ancient site on a walking trip over two decades ago. It involves a 90-minute walk from and to Souyia. You will end up walking the same route there and back. There is an isolated beach located close to Lissos, but it involves more walking, and that means more uphill walking.
Falasarna - most people think of this area as the site of a good beach, but just three or so kilometres away from the beach inland is the ancient site of the maritime city of Falasarna. The coast was thought to reach here in ancient times. This walk will combine easy walking with good swimming.
Ιmbros Gorge - I walked this gorge with the Hania mountaineering club when I first came to live in Crete. This runs parallel to the famous Samaria Gorge. It is half the length of Samaria Gorge and therefore easier to walk. But it is in essence a one-way walk. You need to call a taxi at the end-poin, (the village of Komitades - it is close to the sea, but the vilage is located at 200m above se level, so the walk to the sea is a steep downhill climb, and you have to get back up to Komitades to find someone (eg a taxi) to take you back to your car at the beginning of the gorge.
Therisso Gorge - The village of Therisso has an association with the contemporary history of Crete. It is not lcated near the sea. It involves easy walking up and down the same road, through some of the lushest parts of Hania. Once you reach the village, you can have lunch at one of the tavernas there, and you can return back to your car along the same route.
Lake Kournas - One of the two freshwater lakes of Crete, which are both situated in Hania; it is a nice relaxation spot. A walk around its perimeter is unexciting, but it is located in a beautiful area.
Lake Ayia - This lake is an artifical one, which used to be a swamp. It is located in a working agrcicultural area surrounded by orange and olive groves, and pasture lands. From here, you can walk to the touristy village of Platanias (which is ON the beaten track, but I recommend that you walk as far as the taverna in the now ghost village of Drakiana and find a route back to the lake where you left your car. The area is reasonably well sign-posted.
Gramvousa and Balos - This is the northwesternmost point of Crete. Gramvousa is a peninsula and Balos is the beach formed by a lagoon. You can only do this trip if you take a ferry boat to Balos, which is inaccessible otherwise. It combines a hostorical site which was very important when Crete was seeking independence from the Ottoman empire. Walking the Gramvousa peninsula is only recommended in the winter months because it is too hot and dry. Having said that, the road is rough and your car could easily break down. But it is one of the best places to visit to get a feel of wild untamed hostorical Crete.
The Rodopos peninsula - Rodopos peninsula is the second 'arm' of Crete. It is much greener and easier to drive and walk through than Gramvousa. Still, it is large and the road is not perfect. But it holds many delights and you can plan your walk to finish at Afrata beach if you want to go for a swim. There is a famous church located on the peninsula which celebrates is feast day on 29th August, the day commemorating the beheading of St John the Baptist.
The Akrotiri peninsula: The place where most tourists land when they arrive in Hania contains some of the least tame landscape. The void which was once Stavros (it is now a beach) is where Zorba the Greek was filmed. It rounded peninsula is also well known for its good beaches, there are a couple of monasteries in the area that are open for visitors (be suitably attired!) and the coastal area is very walkable.

And a couple of bonus walks:
Botanical Park Crete - This is a privately run botanical park featuring local and tropical plants and trees that ave acclimatised to the Cretan environment. It is novel in the sense that it takes a modern approach to what can be planted on the very fertile Cretan soil. The site is located on a former olive farm which burnt down. The owners decided to do something different with it. Tours are offered through the area, and there is a restaurant which focusses on creative Cretan cuisine which uses crops grown in the botanical garden.
Patsos Gorge (also known as St Anthony's Gorge) - This is not in Hania (it's in Rethimno), but I've heard so much about it that I would include it in any Cretan hiker's guide. I haven't yet been on it myself, but I look forward to going. Hania is relatively close to Rethimno. The walk is not strenuous up to the church located in the gorge, but it may become more strenuous after that. If you walk up to the church, you can return to your car in the same way you came, but if you walk to the end of it, it's best to have someone waiting for you to return you to your car.

If you like walking without a map, just go to a village square and park your car. Then walk along all the tracks you find. You may not understand everything you see, but you will have seen more than just a view of Crete off the beaten track. It costs you nothing, and you will come out of it wondering if you had just walked through a hidden world.

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