Crete continually steals my heart, but there are some places and some memories that are more profound than others. So, when I found myself back in the beautiful village of Kamariotis, the memories came flooding back. It was here where I met the marvellous Mrs Georgia Papadaki, who was more than happy to show me the wonders of her home and help me immerse myself into the fascinating history that emanated from the land.
Nothing could get me up at the crack of dawn better than the promise of a day discovering something new. As a nocturnal spirit who hears the call of the owl more often than the lark, I rarely see the sunrise by coincidence. This time, my unconscious self couldn’t shift the excitement, and I was wide awake by the time the violet sky was traded for roses, and the bird song gently breezed in through the open window.
I was staying in a quaint little cottage house in Kamariotis, a simple affair with the traditional vibe that made me feel as though I’d always been here and was always welcome. The views outside my window of the luscious greenery and delicious breakfast smells were the same as I remembered. I heard the bell chime from upon the hill of Church of Agios Georgios as I sipped a fresh coffee I’d brewed on the stove, and I excitedly packed my bag to head out and explore the joys of my surroundings.
Day 1 – A Walkers Paradise
Kamariotis – Gonies – Astyraki – Aidonochori
The inner sanctum of the Cretan countryside is like walking on an old pirate’s map; each road leads to treasure. Any moment I could capture a view like no other, an undiscovered type of flora, or (if you’re a foodie like me) a new type of Cretan cuisine! I took the south provincial road out of Kamariotis, grabbed a morning coffee and a bag of breakfast treats at the local taverna called Archontariki tis Pandoras, and headed on toward Gonies. I knew that there was an almost circular route that would take me through the picturesque villages of Gonies, Astyraki and Aidonochori, and back to Kamariotis. Trekking through a forest heavy route. I took note of the time, knowing I would be much slower having to stop to take up-close photographs of all manner of views, plants, sheeps & goats on the way. But, as it was barely 9 am, I had the world at my feet.
This part of the land is littered with incredible rock formations and geological treasures amongst the vegetation. I often climbed up higher on one or two occasions to enjoy the immense views. When I reached Gonies, I couldn’t help but stray off my chosen path when I spotted the most adorable windmill. The windmill of Manousakis, was built for grinding grain in 1904, and is fully functional after a renovation. Cuter than typical European windmills, the brickwork is squatter. There are lots of fans to catch the wind, making it look straight out of one of my favourite anime movies. It was the perfect spot to sit in the shade and enjoy a few homemade ‘sarikopitakia’ pastries.
Back on the rugged road, I came to a fork and I heard the words ‘to the left, to the left’ in my head. Having always trusted my inner voice, I obeyed, and before long arrived at my next destination – Astyraki. The village is named after the sacred astyrak tree, and has a few lovely looking traditional homes that I made a mental note to research later. During my enchanting chats with Mrs Georgia of Kamariotis, she had mentioned the cave of Spiliara, where the local residents were hidden during the war, just as the ones in Kamariotis hid in the ancient forest. It lies along a path that leads through fields up to a torrent behind the church of Agios Konstantinos. Mrs Georgia had marked it on my map.
The cavernous hall was quite profound, but there was a sheer 2-metre drop just inside that made the cave inaccessible without ropes.
Shaking off the sudden chill from imagining what lay lurking inside the cave, I tracked back onto the road to check out the rest of the small village. Then travelled onwards to the picturesque Aidonochori. A sucker for a view, I headed through the pretty provincial village to a high point and came upon a cafe taverna. The soft traditional music coaxed me in towards a table. I got settled on the terrace and immediately noticed a glorious view of the plateau and the stretching greenery below. I hastened to order something refreshing and settled in for the afternoon. Good drinks, good views, and a day full of memories are always my favourites in Crete, and this was certainly one of them. My watch ticked on my wrist, and I noticed it was already 7:30 pm. I’d turned a 3-hour walk into a delightful all-day adventure. Time flies when you’re having fun.
Day 2 – The Road to Discovery
Halepa Monastery – Melidoni Cave – Margarites Village – Patsos Gorge
Another day, another adventure. A weekend away is my favourite part of any day. Today I was set to cover more ground by driving around the parts of the Psiloritis range that I couldn’t reach on foot, and my inner adventurer had made sure I awoke to enjoy another spectacular light show. Being from the north of England, any bright morning sky is a sheer delight, but Crete really outdoes many places when it comes to painting the skies with colour every sunrise and sunset. My traditional map was now looking worn from marking my favourite spots and planning new adventures. Turning it into a precious treasure itself. A pockmark of dots was taking shape along the northern road out of Kamariotis. Since for me, this was the road less travelled, I decided to take it.
I thought I’d racked up a good number of impressive monasteries during my stay here in Crete, but I was about to add one more. Halepa Monastery, or ‘Christ the Savior of Halepa’ is one of those sites that just screams “Welcome to Crete!” But that might have just been the birds calling from their perch on a roof long since crumbled. Halepa Monastery lies atop a hill surrounded by miles of vineyards and olive trees that taper off into misty mountains, and it gave me pause. I imagined what it would be like to be one of the birds, blessed with a sweeping view of this whole area, and only the wind to tame their direction. Halepa Monastery was the centre of several battles during the Ottoman Period. It made for the perfect hideout for Turkish leader, Hassan Pasha, in 1822, or so he thought. The Cretans followed his soldiers there, and the Turks had suffered many casualties by the end of their own battle. By now I was the only person in sight. I could hear nothing but the breeze rustling through a nearby pine tree. One that looked ready to protect the monastery with as much force as the Cretans, should the time call for it.
I drove towards the north shore, singing in the car as I made my way towards a place I’d had on my list for a while. Crete has an abundance of caves, but Melidoni is one of the most famous inland caves. Since Spiliara cave had warned me against entry, I felt this one pull me in. (Call ahead if you’re planning to visit.) This particular cave became infamous in 1824 when the Ottoman Housein Beis ordered to set fire in its entrances so for 370 villagers hiding in there (denying to surrender) to die of suffocation.
The memory of Crete’s tragic past is held fast in places like this, and the ossuary at the centre of the cave is kept in remembrance. The first chamber of the cave is aptly named the ‘Room of Heroes’. As usual, the temperature dropped intensely as soon as I entered the dim cavern, and I was glad I’d remembered to bring a cardigan in my pack. My favourite chamber has to be the “Room of the rocks”. Despite the lack of imagination in the naming, this room felt like walking around on another planet. Like I was kicking moon rocks under my feet and ready to discover new life at any moment.
The cave itself is a grand sight and is so cavernous it could house a giant. According to Greek mythology, this might actually be true. Historical legend tells that the cave was once home to Talos. A bronze giant made by Zeus, and tasked with the protection of Crete transpassing the island twice a day. Alerted to an attack, he would have it to the north shore in a few strides. He could probably reach the summit of Mount Psiloritis in seconds, but I had only the slowness and joy of the road. I continued on my journey inland.
Margarites Village is hailed as one of the most picturesque villages in Crete. This quiet, breezy village at the foot of the Psiloritis mountains is best known for pottery. Even if I hadn’t known this upon arrival, I would have been sure of it as I marvelled at the sheer amount of beautiful pottery creations that decorated every building in sight. Making it a vibrant, almost magical looking place that would be at home as the inspiration for a Disney movie.
There are 17 workshops here, but I only had time to duck into one or two. I spent far too much time marvelling at a collection of clay hot air balloons dangling from the ceiling in one of the shops. I watched the artisans work, my eyes glued to their talented hands as they threw the clay with such ease and vigour. I thought back to the time I went to a pottery class. With collected confidence, I leapt at the clay ball and willed it to rise into a dome shape. I carefully curled the edges and carved out a large space for the inside of my bowl. It was almost there. I pinched it a little more and watched in horror as the whole thing collapsed into a ruined heap. Pottery, it seemed, was a skill. The village of Margarites was the principality of pottery, and the inhabitants had perfected the unique skill of creating such beauty out of clay. They’d been here for centuries, passing the skills down through families and preserving the art. It brought to mind the phrase, “Do one thing, and do it right.”
Hiking the Patsos Gorge
3 hr – return hike / Skill level – Moderate / Some water crossings
I took a short stop at the Arkadi Monastery, which seemed silly not to witness a second time since I was on the way. Then, I ended the day at Patsos Gorge, the smaller cousin of the grand Samaria gorge. It is also known as Agios Antonios, thanks to a glorious little church inside the cave entrance. I love the gorges of Crete. The sound of the ever-running water. The sunlight glaring in and bouncing from the water to the rock and beyond. It always makes me feel like I’ve entered through a grotto into a secret world. The feeling was even more enveloping at Patsos Gorge, as I had the place to myself. Partly due to the later hour, as the sunlight fades rapidly in the gorges and caverns in Crete. The route that travels through the gorge is a 3-hour return, and I had just the right amount of daylight left to conquer it. If I was sure-footed, I could probably cut the time down. It was a cool day, and the shadowy gorge made the air even cooler on my skin, but I was disappointed to find that the first plunge pool after a few bridge crossings and a fun rope climb wasn’t deep enough to submerge into. I checked my sandals were secure, rolled up my dress, and waded into the crisp, refreshing pool. After a few strides, I gave up and plunged right in, feeling the water sweep over my head and wash away the grime of the day. I never feel as though I’m worthy of a gorge trek unless I emerge soaked from head to toe, even if it isn’t because I fell in! By the time I emerged from the gorge and back out into the entryway, knees dirty and stomach grumbling after a couple of hours, I was bone dry and ready for a feast!
A good evening meal had been well earned after the day’s discoveries. Fortunately enough, there’s a taverna at the entrance to the gorge that was serving up fantastic aromas. The fare is always local in places like this, and I practically wolfed down a helping of gemista, which is tomatoes stuffed with rice and a delectable selection of herbs and spices. If there’s one thing that Crete knocks out of the park when it comes to food, it’s perfect seasoning.
These short, sudden arrangements with little planning are always the highlights of my trips. I love taking days to pin down adventures and tracking precise maps through popular territories, cities, and towns. But give me the freedom to wander through the wilderness and discover lands rarely enjoyed, and I’ll choose the option every time. Packing to return to Heraklion from my cute little cottage in Kamariotis was a sad affair at the end of the day. As once again, my whistle-stop tour around the wonders of the Psiloritis had not disappointed, and I was sad to be leaving.