War cemeteries of Crete

Linked to Chania by an urban wasteland of car dealerships, small factories and wasteland sites Souda or Suda is the main port of Crete, thanks to one of the best deep water anchorages in the Mediterranean. Souda itself is dreary, dirty and noisy place dominated by large military bases.

The British and Commonwealth War Cemetery is by the shore at Souda Bay, near Chania. It is found off the road to the airport on the Akrotiri peninsula. The cemetery is in a very secluded spot in an olive grove right by the sea.

Many of the graves are to unknown soldiers because German occupying forces moved many of the remains and identities were lost. Like all cemeteries maintained by the War Graves Commission, it is beautifully kept. Three dead Germans were buried at Souda Bay, two civilians and a German corporal. His remains were discovered near Maleme in 1956 but his identity tag was removed. An English-made watch was found and it was assumed he was British.

Following an agreement it was decided to leave the remains at Souda Bay and so there is a single headstone to a German soldier in the British War Cemetery. The two civilian Germans were also buried at Souda following a mix-up over identities.

On the hillside overlooking Maleme is a cemetery dedicated to the German paratroopers that were cut down as they dropped from the skies in the Battle of Crete in World War II. The cemetery overlooks the shore and the former airfield below.

The capture of the vital airfield on the plain eventually led to the loss of Crete for the Allies who, in a mixture of stupidity, incompetence and inertia managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Thousand of Allied troops marched over the White Mountains to be evacuated from ports on the south coast.

Apokoronas region of Crete

This distinctive region of Apokoronas lies to the southeast of Chania and is typified by quiet, narrow roads and tiny, peaceful villages.

Those that base themselves in Apokoronas are really looking for holidays that take in the whole area, for walks along country lanes and visits to hillside hamlets.

Car hire is pretty well essential to get the best out of it. Hamlets seems to have been by-passed by tourist development yet careful renovation of old houses gives the place plenty of character.

The former regional capital at Vamos is built on a small hill and is full of splendid neo-classical town houses built for rich merchants. Euro grants have helped restore many homes and to build a large health centre. A kafenion and a taverna are run by the local preservation society and the local bakery is considered the best in the region. The local tourist office gives guided walks and tours.

Above Kalives is the once powerful city state of Aptera founded around 600 BC and now a weed infested field full of ruins, the most notable of which is a huge triple-vaulted cistern dating from Roman times. But restoration work in under way and there is a nearby Turkish fort that is well worth a visit.

The nearby village of Kalami is dominated by the Turkish fortress Izzedin built in 1646 and enlarged in 1872. It once housed political prisoners for the Greek Junta (1967-74) but now serves as an administrative centre for the military.

Other villages of note include Plaka where there are good walks,Kokkino Chorio which has a glass recycling centre and Gavalochori, full of traditional Cretan houses with preservation orders slapped on them. The village boasts more than 30 springs, an interesting folklore museum and a large contingent of British ex-pats.

There are lots of good walks in the area. The road from nearby Drapanos to Kefalas has particularly splendid views over the bay as does the walk from Plaka through Kambia to Kokkino Horio.

Over the main Chania - Rethymnon highway is the important crossroads at Vrisses where many tourists change buses. It has existed as a village only since 1925 and the pleasant wide streets are lined with good tavernas nestled beneath huge plane trees. The village is noted for its fine yogurt - the locals even claim to have invented the stuff.

 

Koumos stone house at Kalives

A short walk out of the village of Kalives, heading west, is a bizarre collection of Gaudi-style stone buildings known as Koumos. The complex has been built by local man who has been working on them since 1990.

Building tour bizarre chimneys and walls covered in intricate stonework. Paths are littered with mosaics of stone, walls are stuffed with stones and shells depicting fish, snakes and other creatures.

Rough tables and chairs of stone and cement are planted about for visitors to sit and view it all. The place is outlandish enough to be well worth a visit. There is a cafe and toilets and even a small chapel.

There is no entrance fee but it's a good idea to order some drink or food in the taverna. Visitors are free to walk around the grounds. It is all quite amazing, if slightly bonkers. There's a sign to the Koumos Taverna very close to the Inka supermarket between Kalami and Kalyves. Follow it up the hill and you can't really miss it. There is a large car park.

Arkhadi Monastery

The Arkhadi or Arkadi, around 25 kilometres south-east of Rethymnon, stands as a Cretan symbol of revolt against the Turks.

In 1866 around 600 Cretans blew up the gunpowder store, and themselves, rather than surrender to the Turkish army. Each November 9 the event is commemorated all over Crete with fireworks and dancing.

The distinctive facade, built in 1587, is an extravagant mix of styles. The fortress-style complex to the north-west was founded in the 14th century but the original date of the monastery is unknown.

It is enclosed by a thick wall with two main entrances. The arrangement of monks' cells imitates those found in Catholic monasteries with cloistered porches facing a courtyard. The original powder house is on the south side.

There are many ancient trees in the monastery, with one cypress scarred by a Turkish cannonball. A small museum houses several religious relics and pictures of the rebels, sporting astonishing moustaches and dressed in traditional Cretan costume of headbands and baggy trousers.

In one of the outbuildings called 'The Sanctuary of the Dead' are several rows of neatly arranged skulls.

Amari Valley

To the south-east of Rethymnon is the long, fertile Amari Valley, dense green with clusters of oak and walnut. Mountain springs flow all year round making this one of the most beautiful parts of Crete island with good views of the coast as the road rises into the hills.

There are east and west routes down the valley which sites between the mountain ranges of Psiloritis to the east and Kedros to the west. The routes divide at Apostoli about 30 kilometres from Rethymnon.

There are several picturesque villages before the road divides, notably the Venetian Prassies, built in a deep gully with the Amari valley spread out before it and the Prasano Gorge nearby, a favourite for walkers between June and October when the river dries up.

In the hills to the west is the village of Patsos where there is the cave of Agios Antonios with a 16th century chapel built inside it and, at Apostoli itself is the 14th century chapel of Agios Nikoloas with some fine wall paintings.

The western route is the least interesting as virtually all the villages in this area were destroyed by Germans in eight days of savage reprisals on the local population in World War II. Every able-bodied man was shot, houses were dynamited and the old and infirm left to burn in their homes in a criminal move to quell local resistance.

Today the western villages are all modern cement, though the landscape is still most attractive and the villagers among the most welcoming you will meet on Crete. Near Kardaki are the impressive ruins of the abandoned 13th century monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos with some striking frescos. On the eastern slopes the first most notable village is Thronos, which has 14th century frescoes in the church.

Beyond here the heart of the valley opens up in lush greenery and the road leads to Amari itself, which is a maze of whitewashed alleyways overlooked by a Venetian clock tower. Despite lending its name to the area the village is tiny with a small cafe in the centre and very little else.

Further along the valley is Vizari, where there are remains of a Roman town and an early Christian church. The Roman ruins are in a pretty decrepit state though, overgrown and lost in the lush greenery.

Further up the valley is the pretty village of Fourfounas where walkers can head off along waymarked tracks into the Psiloritis Mountains

 

Lake at Kournas

Crete's only freshwater lake is - well it's a lake. Hidden from view until you are right upon it, Kournas lake is almost circular with a depth of around 30m.

A small sandy strip surrounds the lake offering pleasant walks. Pedal boats add fun and bathers often take a dip in summer between relaxing on the sunbeds that dot the shore.

On the road down is a small cave with stalactites opposite the taverna. It is not easy to find and rather dangerous but the chap in the taverna will show you the way if you want to stick your neck out.

The village is a little higher than the lake and forms a horseshoe around the mountain. The baker is known for his 'paximadi', a double baked bread that is very filling.

Brothers Stelios and Eleftheris, from an old Kournas family, established the excellent Terra Cotta Pottery on the outskirts of the village in 1992 specialising in the traditional blue Cretan ware and very nice it is too.

Stone lions of Spili

The more direct route south from Rethymnon heads past an ancient Minoan cemetery at Armeni and across the mountains to Spili which sites on the western slope of the Kedros mountain range.

Spili, about 28 kilometres from Rethymnon, is a rather dreary mountain village that has little other attraction than its mountain springs, the water from which spouts from the mouths of 19 stone lions set into a stone wall. Six more spouts are mere water pipes used by the locals for washing.

The remarkable stone lion heads have helped put the village firmly on the tourist coach trip circuit. Otherwise it is little more than a narrow street lined with shops and tavernas and choked by parked cars and surprisingly heavy traffic.

A narrow lane leads up from the main road to the old village where the houses are much more attractive and where there are fine views across and down the valley.

Just before Spili a fork in the road heads west to the Kurtaliko Gorge and the monastery at Preveli

Monastery at Preveli

Beyond Spili the road drops down to the resort at Agia Galini, but a west turn takes you to the famous monastery at Preveli. The approach is though the Kourtaliotiko Ravine, a spectacular gorge with many springs and waterfalls, near vertical cliffs each side of the road and a tiny church built into the west face.

An arched bridge spans the Megapotamos River, one of five on the island which does not run dry even in high summer, and the steep, winding road snakes up past the ruined monastery of Agios Ioannis, abandoned in the 17th century.

Preveli monastery itself is heralded by a huge tarmac car park built to accommodate the huge number of visitors. The monastery is noted for its role in the Battle of Crete when monks sheltered marooned Allied troops before their evacuation by submarine from the shores below.

Plaques and flags at the entrance testify to the sacrifice made by the monks who suffered 'ferocious' reprisals by the Nazis. The monastery was subsequently looted and turned into a German outpost to prevent further Allied escapes.

Most of the buildings date from the 19th century and the architecture is nothing special. In fact, the place has a sad and scruffy air despite spectacular views over the Libyan Sea. The former monks' quarters resemble ramshackle stables and there is a tiny one-room museum which houses a few old clerical relics. A recent fire burned down many of the trees that once surrounded the place.

Below is the picturesque and popular Preveli beach with a sandbank, lagoon.

Argiroupoli falls and Lappa ruins

The road southwest of Rethymnon leads into the Krioneritis mountains which form an impenetrable barrier to the south coast. Two rivers, the Petre and Moussella flow either side of the village at Argiroupoli.

The rivers feed the nearby waterfalls which spill down through groves of plane trees intermingled with tavernas. The water and shade make this a favourite picnic spot for Cretans as well as tourists. Small waterfall gardens have been built up the cliff and beneath he shady trees.

The village itself is built over the ancient city of Lappa. Greek and Roman ruins however are quite hard to find, though the shop selling local avocado-based cosmetics will happily provide a map.

Village inhabitants now number around 450 but at Lappa's height, at around 200 AD, there were about 10,000 people living here. There is not much left to see - just the odd stone doorway and a few old walls.

South of the village is a water cistern, built in 27 BC and still working, and a recently discovered Roman mosaic floor. But most of the interesting stuff has long ago been carted off to various museums.

More of interest can be found east of the village down a stone path to the tiny Church of the Five Virgins. Passing a plane tree, thought to be about 2,000 years old, are many ancient tombs that have been carved out of the rock. There are believed to be hundreds of tombs around here but most people visit a prominent line of them carved into the cliff. Visitors can walk inside many of the cave-like tombs.

Plain at Askifou

The newly improved road south from Vrisses rises steeply to the unfortunately named Krapi village then drops to the Askifou plain.

Shockingly green after the climb through the grey mountains, flat and fertile it is surrounded by magnificent mountain crags. The village itself has no tourist facilities, just the ruins of a Turkish fortress.

The road drops south from the Imbros plateau to the delightful Imbros gorge. There is a walking trail down the 7km gorge that takes the visitor through tight crevices, some only two metres wide and 300 metres deep.

Cypress, pine and evergreen oaks grow in the bottom of the gorge which is a favourite with walkers.

Rare flowers of Crete

Flowers of Crete is a small group that aims to protext and preserve the endangered native flowers of Crete for future generations. This is a non-profit making organisation that wants to protect the rich and diverse flora of the island of Crete and promote it to a wider and more general audience. They work with botanists, botanical gardening and universities around the world to broaden the understanding of endemic and endangered species on Crete.
As well as an informative Flowers of Crete website, blog and newsletter, they organise walks and trips which can be individually tailors and booked by emailing julia@flowersofcrete.info. The busiest time for trips is in the orchid season from January to June so it's best to book well in advance. Flowers of Crete also sells attractive calendars and t-shirts to help cover their costs and you also accept donations through PayPal

The long Samaria Gorge

Probably the most popular excursion destination on Crete. Walking the 16 km path through the one of the longest gorges in Europe has today become more like joining the queue at a supermarket checkout.

Once dramatic and wild, the Samaria Gorge is now a national park increasingly tamed by dinky picnic tables and tasteful waste bins. It can also be impossibly crowded for much of the year. An impromptu pause to admire a view can trigger an alarming tailback of tourists and probably a sharp nudge in the back.

There are two advertised ways to walk the gorge - the proper way from the north for the full length of the glorious gorge and the 'easy way' way from the south which is a dull trek from the port at Agis Roumelli to the edge of the gorge and back.

The walk proper begins 1250m high in the White Mountains or Lefka Ori around 4 km south of the hamlet of Omalos. The walk, though downhill, is not easy and can take from 4-8 hours over rock-strewn paths that are never very difficult to negotiate but not often easy.

Walkers are advised to leave those flip-flops in the apartment and put on stout shoes or boots for the duration. This does not stop a torrent of sandaled trippers - up to 3,000-a-day in the high season - streaming off the coaches from about 7.30am, buying a one-day ticket at the large tourist pavilion and stepping onto the Xyloskilo or 'Wooden Staircase', a railed zigzag path that plunges down and into the gorge.

Once on the floor the cliff walls slowly narrow as you progress until you reach the former village of Samaria which dates from the 4th century but which was abandoned in 1952. Today it is a resting place for weary hikers with basic picnic facilities.

Further south the walls become claustrophobically close until they almost converge at 'Sidero Portes' - the 'Iron Gates' - where they stand just 4m apart at the base and tower upwards to almost 1,000 ft.

The gorge is closed from October to May when rains can cause flash floods and make the passage dangerous, if not impossible. The park is run by the Department of Forestry and may be closed on rainy days due to the danger from falling rocks. Walking at night is not allowed. Walkers buy a date-stamped ticket so they can be counted in and counted out and they get a set of rules on protecting the park.

The trail is well maintained with water springs along the way, litter bins and toilets (some of which are truly memorable) , park rangers, a doctor on call and even a helicopter pad half way down to carry out the wounded.

The only way to avoid crocodile crowds in the high season is to start at dawn before the buses arrive. There is good, cheap accommodation to be found in Omalos. Alternatively you can start late (after noon) but you will probably miss the last ferry and have to stay the night in Agia Roumeli.