Crete and Greece 2017 – autumn sun

Oh thou! in Hellas deemed of Heavenly birth,
Muse! form’d or fabled at the minstrel’s will!
Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
Yet there I’ve wandered by thy vaunted rill;
Yes! sigh’d o’er Delphi’s long deserted shrine,
Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;
Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine
To grace so plain a tale – this lowly lay of mine.

Lord Byron – Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Two weeks in Crete. One week in and around Athens. Time to relax and reflect.  Forget about schools and forget about Brexit. Weather was sublime.  Perfect temperature in the low to mid 20’s, mostly sunny with two half days of cloud or light rain.

So what was originally meant to be a point-to-point cycle holiday through some Greek islands with just touring bikes and luggage turned into a lot of driving in hire cars with a road bike in the back.

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Delphi and the Pleistos Valley

Managed about seven cycle runs, the most unforgettable was into the heart of the Cretan mountains. I now realise however why there are such limited options to hire a road bike on the island. Other than a few low lying coastal strips in the most densely populated parts (Chania for instance) every trip entailed some serious climbing.  Road surfaces were mixed – like home – but you could never quite trust the absence of a deep pothole or rutted section. This was compensated by quiet roads meaning little traffic hassle from behind on fast descents.

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city of Chania, Crete

My thoughts go out to keen cyclists in and around Athens. Dedication required. A combination of narrow, rutted and busy roads, impatient drivers and worst of all – aggressive dogs all over the place. It was not pleasant being surrounded by four snarling beasts and having to use your bike as a shield. On the mainland dogs are well out of control.

Cretan people were friendly enough, without being overbearing. Relatively calm and laid back compared with home. Some were a bit dismissive but this inevitably the result of the island being dominated by overseas tourists and being the end of a long season.  As our previous trip to Kefalonia – some quarter of a century back (yikes!) – it’s the women who are undoubtedly the driving force in Greece.


Crete

Arrival at the airport in Heraklion we were met with ‘Momma car hire’ which amounted to a couple of young boys hiring out what looked like their cousin’s bashed up Astra with 80,000 miles on the clock. Thankfully the bike box fitted in the back of the hatchback (just). We got used to its odours and its idiosyncrasies. And at least our vehicle did not shout out ‘hire car’ on the roads of Crete.  Just like one of the locals eh …..

First night was an upgrade to a room with a jacuzzi at a very pleasant hotel in Rethimno.  Very welcome after lugging a bike box through the narrow streets of the conservation area.  Rethimno was neat, very touristy (including us) and on a very warm and balmy evening we were immediately swayed by the meze and the accompaniments:  spanakopita (spinach pie); tzatziki; souvlaki bread; garlic and other dips; washed down with the ‘free’ Raki and fresh, crisp grapes to finish.  Don’t worry: not going to rehearse all our meals throughout the blog!

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West Coast, Crete

Next morning the bike was assembled: we headed around the west coast to the rugged south west and Elafonissi Beach (mildly impressive).  The mountain and coastal scenery was much more impressive …. but far too much driving on the winding mountain roads in the heat of the day took its toll.  Tiredness and short tempers set in, we ended up bailing out in the isthmus town of Paleochora.  Highlight of evening – the day even – was watching the taverna dog chasing the taverna cat around the tables.

sunrise from apartment

West to east travel along the south coast of Crete was simply not possible with any directness. This was not a great start, lack of pre holiday research to blame …….. so we decided to head back to the north coast and the city of Chania for a few days.

We stayed with Vera Airbnb – a room in a mansion house, Vera’s late father was a senior officer in the Greek navy and his presence adorned the hallway alongside some beautiful antiques. The cool and airy mansion was an oasis of calm in the city and we would stay there for three nights.

Chania was the base for the most memorable cycle to one of the highest points to be reached on tarmac.   6.15am start from Chania in the dark for the most exhilarating climb on the bike up to the start of the Samarai gorge https://www.strava.com/activities/1237339196

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Just love these hairpins – so tranquil
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Seems like home for the goats with all the skid marks! https://vimeo.com/241323649

Chania also has the famous Venetian lighthouse and is a short drive to Stavros: a day at the beach where Zorba the Greek was filmed.  Peak heat was reached at 24 degrees. Sunburn to prove it.

 

Change of scene it was time to move out of the city. Decided to drive almost the length of the island to a booked AirBnB in the south east. Pefki was sold as a traditional Greek village over 1500 feet up into the hills overlooking the Libyan sea.

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village of Pefki

Pefki delivered tranquility the number one priority. Stayed four nights in a traditional village house which has been tastefully restored. (Shame they could not leave toilet roll or washing up liquid mind you). A friendly black snake lived in the wall opposite.

Pefki outside the apartment

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Tasteful apartment, Pefki

Completed a couple of challenging cycles along the south coast of Crete both ending with a slog up the mountain in the heat of the day to ‘home’ in Pefki.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1241566604

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The Pefki Gorge down to the sea was impressive and a testing walk up to the small chapel on the rocky outcrop above the village: Stavromenos.

https://www.strava.com/activities/1243521731

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view from Stavromenos Chapel down to the sea through the gorge

 

Really lovely beaches a 20 minute drive down the mountain in Makry Galios with the beach and sea front very much winding down for the season.   Just as we like it.  A most relaxing four days in the south east of Crete.  We ate well.

 

Time to move on we headed back north over the mountains to Agios Nikolaous but firstly visited the laid back hippiesh resort of Myrtos along the south coast.

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road to Myrtos
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Cat of the day, Myrtos  https://vimeo.com/241322878

Agios a very agreeable town, obviously a bit of money around here, we found a huge sea front apartment for our last nights on Crete.

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Agios Nikolaous

Contemplated boat trip to Spinalonga (which had never heard of before) but decided to view it from above instead.

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Spinalonga former leper colony

 

Managed another cycle into the hills – wonderful sunrise leaving Agios Nikolaous, visited a chapel carved into the hillside and found a village away from the tourists to sit and watch the locals (men) …. eh … sit around.   https://www.strava.com/activities/1247673451

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Morning cycle

So it was back to Heraklion and farewell to Crete:  the overnight ferry with bike (and bike box) which would take us to the port of Athens at Piraeus.


Over to mainland Greece

Based ourselves to the east of the city in Artemida – a lovely Airbnb apartment convenient for the airport.  Artemida itself forgettable.

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Nea Makri cycle ride

Managed to get a Saturday morning cycle run in along the coast to the town and small fishing port of Nea Makri.  Tried to get off the main road on the return – narrow and rutted up into the coastal hills to the east of Athens.  Ended up getting surrounded by aggressive dogs, and running the gauntlet of many others frothing at the mouth.  Disgrace.   https://www.strava.com/activities/1250163520

Hired another car from the airport – Hertz job, this one did scream out ‘hire car’.  Spent a few days on Greece’s second largest island (behind Crete) – Evia.  Linked by a bridge at Chalcis, Evia is not one of the most romanticised of islands.  The journey to the north was however spectacular in parts, ‘neck-juddering’ in others with the state of the road.  We came across an unassuming little town with a tame grasshopper next to the church.

 

Evia has a lush and mountainous northern part we headed to the spa resort of Edipsou.

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North Evia – forest and mountains
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St Georgios

Stayed in a spa hotel in Edipsou, experienced a Hammam (ancient Greek steam bath with ethereal music) and made use of the spa waters spewing on to the rather scraggy beach in the town.  Very much end of season feel in Edipsou many hotels and restaurants having closed down … but like it that way.

 

…… this is what they were after:

 

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I have to confess my favourite dog of the trip got a fair bit of squid too

The most wonderful sunsets of the entire trip were on Evia:

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Morning ferry out of Edipsou back to the mainland at Arkitsa and a couple of days on the slopes of Mount Parnassus a sacred mountain in central Greece, near Delphi.  The name “Parnassus” in literature tends to refer to its distinction as the home of poetry, literature and, by extension, learning.  Arachova where we stayed was a touch less classical and very much an aspiring ski resort with its designer shops.  Sitting at over 3,000 feet the sun worshipping clothes were packed away.

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Arachova

Stayed in a wonderful guest house – most comfortable bed yet – with very kind hosts.  Just a few miles and many hundred feet above the village of Delphi.  Before we get to the classics, a ‘dog of the day’ shot in Delphi:

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The site of Delphi was fascinating:  myths dating to the classical period of ancient Greece (510-323 BC), Zeus determined the site of Delphi when he sought to find the centre of his “Grandmother Earth” or Gaia.  He sent two eagles flying from the eastern and western extremities, and the path of the eagles crossed over Delphi where the omphalos or navel of Gaia was found.

The forum and the athletics stadium still intact giving a sense of the gladiatorial and the sense of theatre

 

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Earlier myths include traditions that the Delphic oracle Pythia, already was the site of an important oracle in the pre-classical Greek world (as early as 1400 BC) and, rededicated from about 800 BC, when it served as the major site during classical times for the worship of the god Apollo.  Apollo was said to have slain a serpent or a dragon who lived there and protected the navel of the earth.   Anyway, the settlement with its ancient athletics stadium; its forum and wash houses overlooking the Pleistos valley was a special place.

The Charioteer of Delphi, also known as Heniokhos is one of the best-known statues surviving from ancient Greece, and is considered one of the finest examples of ancient bronze sculptures. The life-size (1.8m) statue of a chariot driver was found in 1896 at the site.

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The Charioteer of Delphi
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and Agios, the idealised portrait of an athlete!

Next day it was up into the mist to the ski centre (above 5,000 feet) and a walk above the clouds to nearly 8,000 feet and two of the summit peaks of Mount Parnassus itself.  Met an interesting couple from Columbia in the medical profession, good to get some company.  Perhaps the most astonishing experience of the day was a mountain dog attacking the wheels of the car … I was doing about 50 miles an hour.  Crazy.  No wonder there are not many cyclists around!!

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Mount Parnassus

It was back down to sea level (using the fast Greek toll roads) by passing Athens and a lovely drive down Attica’s west ‘riviera’ coast.  Stopped in Palaia Fokaia to shed the layers and enjoy some bread, cheese and coffee al fresco.  Temperature back above 20 degrees.  Our destination was Cape Sounion at the tip of the Attica peninsula.

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Cape Sounion contains the site of ruins of the ancient Greek temple of Poseidon, the god of the sea in classical mythology.  The remains are perched on the headland, surrounded on three sides by the sea. The ruins bear the engraved name of English Romantic poet Lord Byron.  The sunset though is altogether more impressive (than engravings) and we stuck it out to be last off site getting some great shots.

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Athens was left until last.  Decided to do by bike tour. Highly recommended at 32 euro each.  Good bikes, knowledgable guide with good depth.  Avoided main roads too. It was an informative and slick way to see the sights in a morning. http://www.athensbybike.gr

https://www.strava.com/activities/1259648858

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Olympic Stadium

The city was a bit too much after being out and about in the countryside or smaller towns for 3 weeks.  Lot of walking around – sprinted up to the Parthenon, last entry (I was the very last of the day) to catch the sunset.  The Akropolis was clad with scaffolding:  but still very busy, goodness knows what the crowds are like peak of the day and peak of the season.  Most of the afternoon in a Street Food café eating Gyros (flatbread) with various fillings!

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Last day was a cycle in the damp and rain to Marathon Lake, largely taking the route of the ‘original’ marathon where the fabled run of the Greek soldier Pheidippides, a messenger from the Battle of Marathon to Athens, who reported the victory after running the 26 miles and 385 yards into the city.  https://www.strava.com/activities/1260603649

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Damp at Marathon Lake

Stayed away from the dogs this time hugging the coastal road taking my chances with the traffic.  Back to Artemida safely.  Bike packed away wet and muddy for the plane back to Edinburgh.

THE END

 

 

 

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