SFAKIA: WHERE WHITE MOUNTAINS
MEET THE BLUE, LIBYAN SEA
Articles on Greece by AURELIA
Photos by Wolfgang Kistler
Come, take my hand. Let us go to another world, where time passes slowly and is marked by the arrivals and departures of majestic ferry boats. Let us go on an adventure to another world that is rugged and wild and seems to be frozen in time.
Sfakia, located South of Chania, is a mountainous area famous for the Lefka Ori or “white mountains,” so named for the white limestone peaks that shine in the summer and are covered with snow in the winter.
Sfakia is one of the most barren and rugged areas of Crete. It appeals to visitors who like natural beauty and a craggy topography; it appeals to those who like to hike gorges, go deep sea diving or snorkeling, swim in “sweet” water, and perhaps enjoy fishing. And it has a special attraction for seekers of exquisite solitude. I came for the solitude.
The capital of Sfakia is the Village of Chora Sfakion with approximately 400 full-time residents. There is just one long, winding road that leads here from Chania and it was recently expertly paved. Before the paving, I found it rather frightening when the bus made its way down the narrow, winding paths.
Xan Fielding, author of The Stronghold, came to Crete for the first time in 1942 during the German occupation and then again ten years later. He wrote about his experiences living in Crete during the island's four distinctive seasons and this account was first published in 1953. Fielding describes his experience entering the Village: “On the Sfakian (bus) route…one of the passengers usually has to get out and run in front of the vehicle in order to shift the larger boulders out of its path. Besides, there are frequent stops to allow the poor old seething engine to cool.”
But perhaps one should not complain. According to a web site called “Travelers Tales,” for many years, the only way to reach the south coast part of Chora Sfakion by land was through the Imbros Gorge. Some people dispute this, but unless you are interested in the history of the area, what really matters is how one gets there today.
Even today, with the meticulously planned and paved new road, choosing the area of Sfakia as a holiday destination is not for the faint of heart. But if you like the challenge of hiking gorges and if you treasure peace, quiet, and solitude in an unspoiled setting of natural beauty where “the mountains meet the sea,” in Xan Fielding's words, this is the place for you. I met one couple who say they come to “just walk and fish;” they hire a local fisherman for a day or two to take them on his boat
The unique character of Sfakia has been immortalized by an artful photographer named Wolfgang Kistler who has been taking pictures here for more than thirty years. For Mr. Kistler, Sfakia is “the hub of the world.” When he began his photographic odyssey of Greece, he saw and took pictures of most of the inhabited Greek islands, (estimates on how many are inhabited vary according to the source) which he found “marvelous, archaic, beautiful, fascinating,” but every trip ended in Sfakia. Please visit his web site.
On Mr. Kistler's web site, you will find thousands of photographs, An exciting addition are photographs taken in Sfakia during World War II of the German occupation and the fabled Cretan resistance. He and a friend discovered the archival material in Germany in Bundesarchiv Koblenz. A web cam that records the daily arrivals and departures of the Daskalogiannis ferry can be found at www.webcam-crete.com.
Locals call the White Mountains, so named because of white limestone peaks, “Madares.” There are many tall peaks and the largest is said to be Pachnes, which rises to 2,453 m. according to some guidebooks.
Chora Sfakion makes an outstanding base for hikers and, according to two different web sites, approximately twenty different hiking routes start from here. One guidebook that is on display on a table outside the Lefka Ori Hotel in the village describes nine magnificent hikes of varying degrees of difficulty; the text is interspersed with very nice color photographs.
The most famous hike in Sfakia, however, is the incomparable and world-renowned Gorge of Samaria, which some say is the largest in Europe. Following is a brief overview of hiking the Imbros gorge, plus an equally brief description of the Samaria gorge trek.
THE IMBROS GORGE. From Chora Sfakion, you can catch a bus to the Imbros gorge, or you can drive to the Village of Komitades, leave your car there, and take a taxi up. You must pre-arrange the taxi. The walk can be done in less than three hours; most guidebooks say it is eight kilometers in length. I was told that some people arrange to take a taxi to the gorge's entrance and that others were able to have a taxi met them when they finished the walk, but this requires both planning and luck. If you choose to return to Chora Sfakion by foot, the walk is approximately 5 km, more or less.
The Imbros Gorge is quite picturesque, has narrow passages, many canyons, varied and rich vegetation, and
is a picture post card for a spot of unspoiled natural beauty. All guide books say walking the Imbros is safe and straightforward. It provides a solitary experience for the walker who wants to avoid crowds and commune with nature.
THE GORGE OF SAMARIA. And then there is the world famous Samaria Gorge, located in the National Park of Samaria. A friend, who has great affection for Crete and considers himself “an expert” on the island, likes to ask travelers to the Great Island, “Well if you are not going to Crete to walk the Gorge of Samaria, why are going?” The gorge is 16 km in length, more or less, and is one the longest in Europe. It begins on the plain of Omalos and ends at the Libyan sea in Agia Roumeli. You begin your journey into the gorge in Omalos by descending steps called the Xylosskalo pathway.
Depending upon your level of fitness, walkers make the descent anywhere between three and seven hours. Some people like to walk slowly and take pictures. Others, such as young Cretans, claim to have “run” the gorge in two and a half hours and say they have “bragging rights.” This practice is discouraged. People who are relatively physically fit can enjoy a marvelous hiking experience here. This gorge, however, is not for those in poor physical shape, who are not dressed properly, or who are faint of heart.
If you are staying in the Village and want to walk the Gorge of Samaria, you need to take the bus to Chania and then another bus to Omalos. The ideal way to do this is to stay in Omalos overnight and attack the gorge when it opens in the morning hours. You will finish in Agia Roumeli where you can catch the ferry back to Chora Sfakion. You can also go on a guided, group tour and these usually leave from Chania.
Alternatively, you can walk the Samaria “the lazy way” by taking the morning ferry from Chora Sfakion to Agia Roumeli, walk part way up to what is called “the Iron Gates,” (no iron here, just stone portals) and then take the ferry back to your starting point. ( I chose the lazy way, or rather my knees made the choice for me.)
Check guidebooks for details about bus and ferry schedules, hotels at Omalos, and what to wear and take. If you are going to do this marvelous but challenging walk, read as much on the Gorge of Samaria as you can and go totally prepared. The most comprehensive information on walking the Gorge of Samaria can be found on the web site www.west-crete.com and it was written by a guide who has extensive experience with leading groups on walks in west Crete.
The Village of Chora Sfakion is relatively small and compact. There is, however, a nice choice of places to stay, ranging from one modern hotel that has a lift to very basic and simple “rooms.” The food served by the various tavernas is excellent and the chefs excel in preparing vegetarian dishes with fresh produce grown locally. From what other tourists have told me and from my own experience, I don't think you can get a “bad” meal here.
You will also find a potent drink made from the skin of the grapes called raki (also called tsikoudia) served at the tavernas; you can buy gift bottles of this in the shops to take back to friends, but be aware of what size bottle the airline will permit you to carry on board. My large bottle was confiscated at customs, and I almost wept as I saw it being looked at with desire by the attendant and then reluctantly thrown into the round cylinder. I wondered if he would retrieve it later and I hope he did!!
Starting at the far end of the harbor near the ferries, there are two small tavernas where hikers congregate before boarding for the lovely village of Loutro and Agia Roumeli, the place where the gorge ends. Next one finds a mini market for food and souvenirs, the Taverna Delfini, which looks like a snack bar, but is said to be a “fine restaurant with a great chef,” a Rent A Car and Money Exchange, and the Taverna Nikos and Taverna Obrosgialos. This taverna is a delightful place to spend a few hours; it serves a spectacular lobster and spaghetti dish second to none in the whole of Crete. It is said some people come here just to savor that very special dish. It is 50 euros for two people and worth every euro.
Across from the Taverna Obrosgialos is a gift shop run by Maxine, a woman from England who has lived here for many years and who is very helpful to all, especially visitors who seek answers from someone fluent in English. Maxine has a great variety of gifts, including beautiful leather handbags handmade by artisans in Chania.
There is a second street behind the harbor where you will find a supermarket, a taverna with studios, a very nice gift shop, and a bakery run by Marco and Nikki, a man and wife who prepare excellent breads, muffins, pastries, croissants, and a very large variety of Cretan specialties. Marco, the baker, is considered an “artist” by many locals. On this end of the harbor there is also the Llingas Beach Taverna, a medical post, a butcher shop, the local post office, and two ATM machines. There are also pay phones in the Village.
Moving along the sea front are Rooms Samaria and Restaurant, Room Livykon, a super market and gift shop, and the popular Cafe Despina, where the locals tend to congregate for frappes, the Café's famous cheesecake, and other baked goods. Next to the cafe is a shop that sells cigarettes, a gift shop, and the famous Lefka Ori Rooms and Taverna, run by a very gracious man and wife and their three very handsome, energetic and accommodating sons.
(Notice to the young ladies—all the sons are single.)
The Lefka Ori has very pleasant rooms and also studios where you can cook if you choose. But why cook when the Cretan specialties there are so delicious and you can be first in line for the famous “fish soup,” the best in the Village? The views of the sea and mountains from the studios are spectacular.
Besides the Lefka Ori, other hotels that seem to be preferred by long-time visitors are Stavris rooms, Hotel Xenia, and the Three Brothers Hotel and Taverna. Behind the Lefka Ori sits Stavris rooms, a favorite hotel for hikers. Xenia is the last hotel on the harbor; it is a wonderful, modern hotel and taverna that has a lift, spacious rooms with tile floors and large baths, patios and balconies with the requisite views of the mountains and the sea, a large parking lot, and a private beach with a ladder that takes the swimmer directly into the sea. Bliss!!! The taxi boats to Loutro and Sweetwater beach rest outside Hotel Xenia.
Above the Lefka Ori Rooms and Hotel Xenia is one of the most romantic places in the Village. It is Hotel Three Brothers and its restaurant/taverna is on a balcony overlooking a small but picturesque pebble beach dotted with blue and white umbrellas. It is so pleasant to sit there after a swim and have lunch, or come back in the evening as the sun sets and enjoy an evening meal and cocktail.
This year, I had a studio at Hotel Lefka Ori for a few weeks and a room at Xenia for another week and enjoyed both immensely. I found the Xenia a bit more comfortable for my taste because it is more modern, and although the studio at the Lefka Ori is commodious with great views, I had trouble climbing the many steep steps and was concerned that there was not a railing. I had to take each step with caution because I was nursing an injured right knee. I did not stay at the Three Brothers, but this hotel has no railings up to the rooms and their steps are much steeper. I had no problem, however, getting to the Three Brothers restaurant or the beach, because there are hand railings to both. During a conversation with the owner, I mentioned how much more accessible his rooms would be with railings; he agreed and said he would consider adding them.
I had the privilege of spending a precious afternoon in a 17th Century Shepherd's Hut in Vraskas, the next village beyond Komitades. The hut was purchased and renovated some years ago by two men from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, and I was a guest of a doctoral student who was staying in the hut.
Up the hill a bit you will find the Four Seasons Hotel which has seven self-catering apartments and panoramic views of the seas and mountains. And at the top of the Village are Eleni Apartments and Notos Suites.
The premier hotel in Sfakia and the only naturist or nudist resort in Crete is Hotel Vritomartis, a mile or so from the Village. A 20-person van comes four times daily to the square in Chora Sfakion to take guests to and fro. Opened in 1989, it has eighty-five rooms and a number of bungalows. It is exquisite.
The Hotel Vritomartis is beautifully and tastefully decorated and there is a large pool and access to a private beach. I found the visitors there to be an international mix of sophisticated travelers who want to sun bathe and swim natural. The atmosphere was welcoming and jolly and it should be a destination point for anyone who seeks a naturist resort in a setting stolen from paradise.
It is not quite enough to say all the owners of the hotels and tavernas and staff members were “friendly.” From the smallest snack bar to the swankiest hotel, the local people were gracious beyond measure. I believe one of the reasons so many guests return here is because of the welcoming and thoughtful service. I hope more of the owners install hand railings so that guests with temporary injuries (such as I had) or the elderly can enjoy their rooms without fear of falling.
Other places accessible from Chora Sfakian which can be reached by water are the Village of Loutro, Sweetwater Beach, and the island of Gavdos.
Loutro, or “this magic place,” as it is called by some, is small and contained and can be reached only by boat or by foot. There are no cars or mopeds and this makes for the extremely peaceful atmosphere. Two of the most popular hotels are Hotel Porto Loutro and the Blue House. You will find a beach, a few tavernas, a mini-market and a fish taverna. You can walk to Sweetwater Beach from Loutro and also to Anopolis, or you can read and relax on the small pebble beach. You can walk, also, to Phoenix and Lykos, and Livadiana. The water taxi from Chora Sfakion takes guests to Loutro in the morning and picks them up for the return around 5 pm., or you can take the big ferry for a day trip.
Sweetwater Beach is a wonderful place for camping, for going to sleep and waking up to the sound of waves. It is a special place that attracts campers, hikers, and swimmers and sunbathers. Those who choose to go natural may, and the naturalists tend to group on one end of the long, pebble beach. Above the beach are ragged cliffs; a very small cave is on the beach itself. You can rent sun beds and umbrellas and simple but good food is served in the taverna. If you are staying at Loutro or Chora Sfakion, Sweetwater can be reached by water taxi; hikers know they must reach it on foot.
If you want to visit the island where the nymph Calypso lived and held Odysseus captive, go to Gavdos. It is a small island with three villages and a number of beaches with sparkling, crystal waters. There are no hotels and very few rooms, but it is known as an excellent camping spot; it can be reached in one hour and fifteen minutes by ferry from Chora Sfakion. The ferries go there about four days a week and you need to do research on where to buy tickets and so on if this island appeals to you. I could not work a visit to Gaydos into my schedule. It is the southern most island in Greece and Europe and various web sites say less than 100 people live there year-round.
Two interesting places usually visited by hikers are the Village of Anopoli, and Frangokastello, each of which is just 12 or 13 km from Chora Sfakion. I did not hike there, but walked around the lovely plateau of Anopoli and had lunch in the O Platanos Café, where they are also rooms. I was with a group and we were taken to see the spectacular Aradena Gorge, which our guide said was one of the best hikes in Crete for those with experience.
Frangokastello is a small Village by the sea where you can relax at very beautiful beaches and visit the rather well-preserved remains of a Venetian castle and also the sand dunes. The restaurants are said to have “excellent food,” and you can choose to stay at a number of resorts. A friend of mine comes for the beaches there and stays at a resort.
All in all, there are many choices for a memorable holiday in Sfakia. I sampled a few of the offerings and I invite you to do the same. The best times to visit are either the Spring or the Fall as the summer months are very hot and not the best times to hike.
When you arrive, stand tall. Stand proud. You are in Sfakia, where the mountains meet the sea.
Aurelia is writing her second novel, Labyrinthine Ways, set primarily in Crete in Askyfou and Sfakia, and also in Greenwich, London.
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