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Monday, 9 November 2015

Insanely awesome Balos

I had been to the Balos lagoon a few years ago on a short-cruise ship, which also took us to a fortress built on an islet close to Gramvousa peninsula where Balos is located. But for a long time now, I had also wanted to do the road trip to Balos, which involves taking a very rough drive on a rather stony tract of mountainous rocky road, leading right down to the lagoon area.

Last weekend's weather was perfect for walking, sunny and windy, but not too cold. The tourist season is over now in Crete, and the area, which was buzzing with cars and people throughout the whole summer, has now returned to its natural peaceful state. We set off via the motorway, which gets you to Kissamos harbour. The cruisers were all tied up at the port, including the ferry boat that goes to the island of Kithira and the Peloponnese.


The harbour is located between the two 'fingers' of Crete, Rodopou and Gramvousa. Continuing west, we entered the first finger, Gramvousa peninsula. Here, we passed field after field of stamnagathi (Cichorium spinosum, spiny chicory). Gramvousa is mainly where this salad green is grown on the island. It used to be very expensive to buy stamnagathi, as it grew only in the wild, selling at anything up to 13 euro a kilo, but since the species began to be cultivated, the price has dropped to 4 euro. Organic stamnagathi  continues to sell at a high price. Apart from stamnagathi, the Gramvousa coastal area is mainly covered in beautifully maintained olive groves and vineyards. The land is flat here, making agricultural work much easier. There were people working in the fields as we passed, picking stamnagathi and harvesting olives, something our summer tourists do not  get a chance to see because all the European flights in and out of the island stopped in the first week of November this year. 


To get to the Balos lagoon, you pass through the very picturesque village of Kaliviani. A few tourist hotels are located here but they are only open during the summer season. Kaliviani village has a very traditional look to it, but it has also been modernised in many ways; tourism symbols are seen all over the place. The aromas emanating from the kitchen of the one restaurant that remained open were very enticing. We decided to stop here after our trip to the lagoon.


At the Grambousa restaurant in Kaliviani, you look for the sign pointing to the road for Balos and follow the rocky road from hereon. After Kaliviani, the road gets kind of lonesome in the winter but you will not be completely alone: there are quite a few goats on the road. The area is actually part of the NATURA protected region and although there are no buildings of any sort (save a church and information centre), signs of human intervention exist with the roughly built shelters for the animals, delapidated cafes, and some unusually positioned old boats that are no longer in use*. The animals are all a part of locals' self-sufficiency: they grow olives for oil, grapes for wine, all manner of vegetables (but not much fruit), and their meat and dairy needs are met by goats (but not sheep due to the rocky terrain). The rugged road is not tarmacked, which is why we preferred to use our pick-up truck, but cars are also able to handle the road conditions. You are basically driving on top of a rocky peninsula, with very beautiful views of the coast. The black outline on the Gramvousa coastline is due to the strong earthquake that took place in 365AD. The earth was literally elevated. Gramvousa is most often the epicentre of earthquakes that take place in Hania, which is a very seismic region.


Balos Lagoon Cape Gramvoussa
The road offers no shade, so I would say it's not very comfortable in the summer. You drive along the narrow rocky road, where you will find a toll gate. During the summer, a small fee of one euro is asked from every driver passing this point. The proceeds of the tolls are used to strengthen the road. The road has in fact been improved over time: I recall people telling me that they suffered flat tyres while trying to traverse the area. In the winter, the gate is left open, as we found it when we visited. When the road stops and you find you can't drive any more, you park your car on a large square. A rough looking (and not very enticing) cafe was open at this point - we were among twenty or so tourists who were visiting Balos at the same time.



From the square, you walk about a quarter of an hour to get to the lagoon which is not immediately visible due to the hilly nature of the terrain. So when you first see it, you are totally overwhelmed by its beauty. At this point, we sat on the low wall of the path, and took in the view. A couple of tourists were approaching the area. We were just two metres away from them when I overheard an American say: "Wow, man, this is insanely awesome." It certainly was. From the viewpoint, on the left you could also see Pontikonisi ('mouse island', due to its shape) behind the 'frying pan' land mass (τηγάνι - ti-GA-ni, as it's often called in Greek). On the right, the fortress on the island of Imeri Gramvousa (it looks like a ship) was also clearly visible - it is only accessible by boat during the summer months. So there really are many good reasons why you need to visit Balos twice, both by road and by ferry.

#crete #oils #salad #potato #kaltsounia #kaluviani #mushrooms #chania #food #peppers #κρητη #καλυβιανη #καλτσουνια #μανιταρια #κρητικη_κουζινα #χωριατικη #γραμβουσα #παραδοσιακο #traditional #greece

We could have walked down to the lagoon itself - there were a couple of people walking along the sand while we were there - but the hike back up the hill deterred us. We were running out of time, and we had those restaurant aromas on our mind. So we went back to Kaliviani and had a really delicious lunch at the Grambousa restaurant, which served a number of locally grown delicacies - mainly meat dishes - including the signature crop of the area, stamnagathi. They also had a really kinky hobbit-house doorway leading to the interior: take a peek here... The Grambousa serves mainly traditional Greek cuisine with a novel twist. For example, my favorite dish of all that we tried was the lamb cooked in honey and wrapped in filo pastry. Heavenly! And for desert, we got fried pastry and a beautifully ripe persimmon.

When we came home, I was about to upload my photos onto the computer, when I pressed 'delete' instead of 'copy'. The photos in the post all came from the internet. Oh well, too bad, I thought, I will just have to go again some time. But I don't think I want to do the road trip in the summer. With so many tourists, Crete is awesomely insane in the summer. It's the winter I look forward to, when it becomes insanely awesome. Come and see it for yourself. A ferry boat leaves Pireas harbour every night for Hania, while there are 3-4 daily flights from Athens.

*Apparently, they have all been demolished: 
http://www.haniotika-nea.gr/katedafisi-afthereton-ston-balo/ 
But the debris remains:
http://www.haniotika-nea.gr/eminan-ta-baza/
And now, the Cretan macho seeks revenge:
http://www.haniotika-nea.gr/anazitisi-enos-atomou-gia-tin-pirpolisi-tis-kantinas-ke-tou-filakiou-sto-balo/

UPDATE 27/1/2016A record 350,000 people, up by 30%, visited Balos this year. They came from as far as Iraklio to visit it and they were from Central/Eastern Europe. Interestingly, only 9% were from Scandinavia, even though 50% of Hania's tourism is from Scandinavia. (Scandis prefer the notorious AIs - they had everything they need there, I guess). More info here: http://www.haniotika-nea.gr/rekor-episkepsimotitas-ston-balo/

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