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Monthly Archives: February 2021

Hiking New Hampshire, and the beauty of the White Mountains

This was a brief few days of hiking in July…it was challenging and satisfying. Our group consisted of 8 women and two guides; some of the women had not been on a group hike before, some were looking for people to travel with, and some, like me, just wanted to hike! Our little group consisted of our guides Jan and Ruthie; Anni, Australian from Brisbane; Rebecca from Canada; Ann, Cindy (whose room I stole), Deb, Susan, Debbie and me.

Sunday

Deb drove Susan (who’d never been on a group hike) and me to the starting point, which we needed to reach by noon. We got to the White Mountains Visitor Center in Lincoln, NH off the Kancamagus Highway (try saying that very quickly) where we had a quick picnic lunch.

The Zealand Falls, Susan in background

After picking up the condo keys from Loon Reservations (love that name), we all drive to drop off various and sundry cars at the condos/lodges – then beaver on to the first hike of the trip – to Upper Greely Pond, where we experience the variability of the trail… rocky granite paths and leaf-lined walks…of the mountains.

The weather is glorious…warm, dry, cool breeze, vivid blue skies…perfect for hiking (around 3.5 miles round trip). We hiked over rocks, streams, tree roots, marshy ground – seeing all kinds of flora and fauna. The trail was beautiful: between the trees are moss-covered boulders that make me think of Wales, where I lived when I was a child (at the base of a mountain).  Ferns lined the trail, and lichen covered trees and rocks. The air smelled of pine as we climbed upward to Greely’s Pond, where Susan was the only one to take a dip in the chilly waters.

Our merry band!

Our merry band!

The sun was intense and very soporific. After Susan’s swim and various snacks all round, we hiked back down the trail…I have to say my feet were feeling it by the time we got to the car and back to the condos. The condos are set back in the woods…pretty (although they don’t match up to the lodge we stayed at in the Smokies last year.) But Jan is great…it’s super having her as our guide again. She and Ruthie prepared a wonderful meal in the condo, and after a long discussion about upcoming hikes, I was pooped – and so to bed to be ready to get on the trail by 9AM tomorrow.

Monday: Leave no footprint

On the AT

On the AT

A really long day – up at 7 – breakfast at 8 – leave at 9. We all drive to the beginning of the hike 45 minutes away – only to find we’ve left Cindy behind at the condos!! Once it’s decided that she is NOT in the bathroom, or hiking on her own, Ruthie pops back in the van to go get her, and we all commence on our hike on the Zealand Falls trail. A glorious hike through forests and past marshes, alongside the Zealand River.  We see beaver dams, waterfalls, beautiful ponds, serene woods, blue sky, fluffy white clouds…manna for the soul.

Everywhere you look...great beauty

Everywhere you look…great beauty

During this hike, we actually get onto the Appalachian Trail, and are hiking to one of the AMC huts which has an amazing view from the rocky crags surrounding the waterfall. The vistas all around us are breathtaking…so much green and blue, you want to kiss the ground for the pleasure of knowing these places still exist in the world.

The last stretch of this hike is boulders, boulders, boulders…huge and challenging. Here we take a break for lunch, scattering ourselves over the boulders and enjoying the breeze.

A trail of boulders

A trail of boulders

At this point, Cindy and Ruthie arrive…Cindy barely has time to sit down before it’s time to leave, back down from whence we came. The overall round trip hike came to about 6 miles (although going uphill, a mile seems like much more than…a mile!)

After this hike, we piled in the vans and drove to the beautiful and historic Mount Washington Lodge – historic because in 1944 it hosted 44 nations at the Bretton Woods International Monetary Conference, where the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were established, with the US dollar designated the basis of international exchange.

Walking up to Mt Washington Lodge for lemonade

Walking up to Mt Washington Lodge for lemonade

This lodge is absolutely gorgeous…the hotel, the grounds and the views…perfection. We sat on the veranda or in Adirondack chairs on the lawn overlooking the mountains beyond, drank our lemonade and thought ourselves some of the luckiest people on earth.

View from back of Mt Washington Lodge

View from back of Mt Washington Lodge

Then it was back to our condos for a home-cooked dinner (barbecued pork chops, salad, chocolate)…and I had my usual one beer. Tomorrow we leave earlier than usual…and so , to bed.

Tuesday: Make sure to have super-high spf sunblock

On the Saco River

On the Saco River

Good breakfast at 7:30 and we are out the door by 8:30, on the way to the Saco River for a day of canoe-ing and kayaking.  Four canoes are booked, two kayaks. Deb and I hope to partner in one of the canoes – NOT the greatest idea in the world, as we keep driving the canoe into sandbanks. So Deb and Jan exchange places, and we’re finally on our merry way.

Just before I got overturned!

Just before I got overturned!

We paddled down the peaceful river for about an hour…all was quiet except for birdsong and the trees as the breeze rustled through.  The river is clear as a bell…the bottom lined with boulders and flat rocks…just purely beautiful. We come to a sandy shore for snacks, and for some, swimming. I’m very covered up as the sun is really intense, although not unpleasantly so…I’m slathered with 50 spf suncream, and it seems to work well. (I remember in Utah not being so smart, and as I was wearing shorts, my lower legs burned to a crisp.)

A peaceful moment on the Saco

Time to return to the canoes – Jan and I crawl in, and then, somehow, we locked our canoe with another – and the next thing, we’re both in the water…soaked. My camera was encased in a waterproof pack – the only thing not soaked through.

Onward we paddled for another hour…another break…then we arrived at the dock, at 3:15. Unloaded everything, and then we all piled on the bus, back to town, where we stopped at an ice cream shop for a cone and a rest. The ice cream was yum-o (me? I had traditional chocolate chip…) Then it was back to the condos, quick clean up, nice meal cooked by Jan and Ruthie…and so to bed. Heavy duty hike tomorrow!

Wednesday: Duct tape and poles

This was the most difficult hike of all for me. We left the condos around 9AM – usual hearty breakfast, pack our lunches…and drive an hour to the start of the Welch-Dickey hike in the Waterville Valley (Welch and Dickey are actually two mountains), where we will achieve two summits. Jan wrapped my and Ann’s toes in duct tape – worked super-well to prevent blistering or cutting. I came without poles – will never do that again on a hike of this nature!

The start of the Welch-Dickey hike

The start of the Welch-Dickey hike

The hike was uphill all the way to Welch’s peak (no little flat places to take a breather) – not high, but strenuous…with much of it “scrambling” or climbing over humongous granite boulders to the very top. Who knew I could do this!

Movin' on up

Movin’ on up

I take it easy up this trail so as not to wear myself out (recommendation from Jan – sounded good to me), but Jan and Rebecca hang in with me, which I much appreciated. At the summit, I gracefully tripped on a tree root, went down on my knees on soft trail with a splat. But nothing to really write home about (although I hate falling).

Scrambling!

Scrambling!

The trail from base to peak was a mixture, actually, beginning with fir-lined paths with a few rocks and boulders…then climbing steadily upward to the huge monoliths halfway up Welch. We took a few breaks for lunch, snacks, water and photography.

I was sweating hard by the time I reached the peak…but the views, absolutely incredible!

O happy day calloo callay she chortled in her joy

Looking down from our viewpoint atop granite, across the valleys filled with firs, maples, birches and other trees, to mountains ranged along our field of vision…and the vast sky overhead…all is so still and peaceful. Of course, if you happened to fall off the granite, it was a loooong way down. Must try not to do that!Looking across the mountains and valley

Looking across the valley to Welch Mountain from Dickey

After stopping a few minutes on Welch, we headed down and onward to Dickey’s summit, about 1800 feet, all in all.

The White Mountains

The White Mountains

Then it was back onto the trail, heading downwards…lovely, even with gigantic boulders, I loved it, partly because I enjoy hiking down which is definitely easier for me to negotiate, and it’s also very pleasant for my toes. It must have been in the mid-80s today, and the weather all week long has been so perfect, you couldn’t order anything better. In the 50s/60s at night, and high 70s/low 80s during the day…ruffly white clouds, deep blue sky…

Heading homeward

Heading homeward

Our hike round trip: around 4 miles. We made it in just about 6 hours. (As I think Bill Bryson said, and I concur: A mile in the mountains is not just a mile!)

Now we’re back in the condos, and most of the group has gone to the Bathtub for a quick swim. Then it’s on to the Gypsy Café for our farewell dinner…the food there is fabulous!

Thursday

Peace and love...courtesy of Ringo Starr

Peace and love…courtesy of Ringo Starr

Up and out of the condos, packed and ready to go by 9. One more short hike, at the Flume Gorge, about 800 feet long from the base of Mount Liberty. The granite walls rise to 70/90 feet and are studded with ferns and tiny vines and flowers, while the water drips everywhere…we take a 2-mile walk over boardwalks and gravel. Lots of people visiting, whereas on previous trails, very few.

Cindy kissing a moose goodbye

Cindy kissing a moose goodbye

A quick lunch, and it’s time to say goodbye. After great conversations, good food and drink, the incredible beauty of the wilderness…I am ready to go home and mull over all the experiences. Back to civilization, back to real life.

Just want to add a couple of books that I highly recommend: Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” – so funny and a terrific source of information about the AT. And “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed – I loved this book about her hiking the PCT, the reasons why she did it, and what she found out about herself at the end of it all. Couldn’t put it down.

Hiking in Crete to the song of the goatbells

 

Ro on the steps in Prevali

Note: This adventure took place in May 2001 – a few months before 9/11, and many years before Greece’s financial meltdown. The times, they are a-changing.

When I was much younger, I read a series of Mary Stewart books…”Bull from the Sea”, “The King Must Die,” but the one that really fired my imagination was “My Brother Michael,” set in the 1950s. The descriptions of Greece… the sound of goatbells in the air, the whitewashed houses, blue Aegean Sea, and sunswept mountains and gorges…all made me long to travel there. The time had come. Meeting a girlfriend, I was on my way to Crete by way of Athens by way of Paris.

Traveling to Chania

We landed in Athens, and a slight Marx Bros. comedy ensued, wherein we found our seats from Athens to Chania to be arbitrarily cancelled. Lucky enough to rebook immediately, we decided we’d better confirm our flight back to Athens at the end of the trip, and were told to go to Olympic Air Sales. Unfortunately, Olympic Air Sales didn’t want to confirm our return….the man behind the desk kept telling us “too soon, too soon” before we were able to make him understand that we just wanted to ensure our names were in the computer.

With these slight problems, we thought it might be well to reconfirm our return flight to Houston. Finding the Information counter, we were told that the counter was NOT Information (despite the sign). Could anyone behind the counter help us? No…because there was no-one working there – three people to the contrary. We found another Information counter, but no Continental or Air France counters were apparently anywhere in the airport. While all the above was going on, people kept jumping in line, butting in ahead of us to the irritation of one traveller – much loud shouting ensued!

A street in Chania

Finally, Chania! At the airport, we met up with Joanne and Eileen, fellow travelers in our small band. We piled into taxis to Hotel Dorma – a charming four story hotel in downtown Chania (pronounced Hania, as if clearing one’s throat) on the coast of the Sea of Crete in the Aegean. Our room overlooked the sea, and was clean and light-filled. Two twin beds, a chair, bedside tables with lamps, and a rush-seated stool and optional similar chair. Hardwood floors. The bathroom had a shower, no bath. Note: we are the only ones with a shower curtain (not that it matters, as we soaked the room every time we turned on the shower.)

After a short rest, four of us from the group, Joanne, Eileen, Elisa and I, walked in the moonlight down a tiny, dark, deserted street to a restaurant on the beach. Passing an office on the road “below-ground”, we looked into the lighted room where two men were sitting discussing business into the wee hours. Like something from a stage setting – this golden block of light set against the darkness of the night.

Our restaurant was built on a slight promontory overlooking crystal clear water. Tables dotted about the sand. The moon was a great silver-gold globe in the sky, and boulders in the water were reflected white against the inky blue. Platters of food were carried to us from the kitchen. The moonshine was brilliant, the water lapped the rocks jutting from the bay, and then there were…the cats. Many cats. I put most of my food down for them. As we left around 11 PM, however, Eileen pointed out that the restaurant had put a bowl of fish parts and a big bowl of water down for the cats and possibly a stray dog I noticed on the way in. Relief.

While we were finishing our dinner, more and more people arrived, as 11 PM is dinnertime for most people on Crete…

Chania

Awoke around 8:30. Elisa wore a night mask – knew nothing! Once we both come to, we walked to the third floor of our hotel for breakfast – wonderful! Brown fresh crusty bread, butter and soft cheese, heavy marmalade, cornflakes and yoghurt, wonderful coffee with hot milk, and and fresh orange juice – sweeter and more taste-intensive than any other I’ve tasted. Omigosh – I’m hungry just reading this!

An exquisite pastiche

Elisa and I strolled for half an hour along Chania’s sea front. What wonderful views from the charming outdoor cafes dotting the water’s edge. You could sit and watch the sea all day and all night. The water was crystal, clear as a bell…beauty everywhere we looked.

Back to the Dorma just before noon. We met Yannis, our guide who lives on Crete (also known as Kriti to the islanders) and who was a dentist in “real life.” Off we went with Eileen, Joanne and Yannis back along the front. As we wandered all over town (never far from the water), we viewed Venetian walls and castles, an abandoned Muslim mosque now a museum, the Chania lighthouse, Turkish castles…finally stopping for lunch in a small outdoor cafe, where we ate Greek salads, and more of that wonderful brown bread. For the first time I had frappe meh gala (iced coffee fluffed with milk…manna!)

Bougainvillea blossoms Chania

After the break, we started off again – checking out old ruins, wandering down tiny alleyways filled with flowers – the bougainvillea is incredible – walls dripped with blossoms of crimson and mauve. Red and lilac geraniums, red and yellow poppies, masses of white daisies – all were out in abundance, planted in terra cotta pots, old tin cans, or just scattered in the grass or over walls.

Before we shopped, we stopped for a drink at a rooftop cafe. Along with the drinks, I ordered baklava which was wonderful – huge! We sat and talked for an hour or two – never hassled by waiters. From our vantage point on the rooftop, we looked over the waterfront to the sea -the sun was shining and it felt like very heaven. Finally, reluctantly, we flagged down our waitress (very laissez faire about getting us the check) – then walked to the shops in Old Town.

Chania’s Old Town is charming and quaint. Narrow cobbled streets were filled with tiny shops holding all sorts of wonderful pottery, jewelry and the ubiquitous postcards. I bought some marvelous Greek calendars – pictures so vivid they jumped off the page. I also bought a beautifully-shaped vase in the wonderful blue that is Greece. Elisa and Joanne bought worry beads (no need for those here).

Atter which, we wandered back along the waterfront to the hotel, arriving around 6:30. Dinner was at 8, early for Yannis, and anyone else who lives on Kriti. A more perfect day couldn’t be imagined.

Dinner in Chania

Downstairs in the sitting room are two more of our hiking group, Gina and Theresa. Together in the gathering dusk, we walk the mile and a half along the coast – the sky turns a particularly vivid and inky shade of blue; stars are reflected in the Sea of Crete. Back through Old Town, past the Venetian and Byzantine ruins – we walk to one of the most original and beautiful restaurants I’ve ever seen in my life.

Up stone steps, through a Venetian archway, to a table under a wide canopy of vivid deep pink bougainvillea.

The restaurant’s walls are stone, its ceiling – sky and flowers. The walls end in jagged ruin, and vines twine over them. Through the canopy of bougainvillea, in the deep inky blue of the sky, a brilliant full moon is shining – it looks like hammered silver. We are early; very few people are here. The atmosphere is quiet and relaxed. Greek music plays in the background. Yannis is joined by two of his friends, and we spend a little time getting to know one another.

The chef greets us at table, and Yannis orders our meal: dolmades, tzatziki, cheese pies, grilled mushrooms, baked potato with soft cheese – these are just a few of the hors d’ouvres. Everyone drinks wine, except for me – I order Mythos, the Greek beer.

Then comes the main course – a special dish the chef had copied from an old Minoan recipe seen in a museum: pork loin flavored with spices and herbs baked for eight hours in a clay dish molded to the pork. The clay is broken to serve the meat, and it tastes like heaven on a plate.

After dinner, we are brought raki {not only an after dinner drink, but also apparently a chest rub), and two plates of fruits such as sliced bananas, figs and strawberries, with grated nuts atop and drizzled with honey mixed with yoghurt. Unbelievable!

As we sit eating our dessert and drinking raki, a wind from the sea begins to blow: as it strengthens, it loosens bougainvillea petals from the vines, scattering them across the floor and tablecloths. Through it all, we eat, drink and talk, until Joanne reminds us we have breakfast at 7:30AM! That brings us to our feet, although Yannis and his two friends remain at the table; the night has only just begun for them.

This is one of the most memorable and magical meals I have ever eaten in my life – I have a hard time believing how incredible this all is! The night air, the color of the sky, the waterfront, the brilliant moon and stars, the scent of flowers – and the wonderful food and company…sensory overload!

As we walk back, Crete embraces you: the seemingly endless waterfront is filled with wall-to-wall outdoor cafes – peopled with young and old, drinking, eating, laughing – full-blooded life! What a night!

Polyrinnia Gorge and Polymeria

This is our first “real” hike day. After another splendid breakfast of brown bread, plum and marmalade jams, hot milky coffee, fresh orange juice and that marvelous yoghurt, we board the bus, (including Yannis’s two friends), to make the hour’s ride to the top of Polyrinnia Gorge.

We drive through achingly beautiful country – mountainous, deserted, and windy. Some hillsides are terraced, olive trees are everywhere.

We reach the top of the gorge – the plan being to hike down and through it. As we stride along, we gaze through mountain passes, and ramble by bright yellow bushes of gorse, banks of daisies – what seem like fields of daisies! – red poppies, heads bending in the wind, yellow celandine, purple thistle, orange trees with fruit ripening on their branches, plane trees, and of course, the olive, often in flower.

Could I be any happier?

At first we stop often as Yannis explains some herb or plant, such as the yellow sage and poison onion.

Then the rhythm of the hike takes hold. Vangelis and I disappear ahead for a while; it is wonderful to hike swiftly over these trails, rocky in some parts, grassy or sandy in others. It is, however, a little disconcerting when Vangelis sends up a few yodels to the vultures flying high above – when I ask him if there is a meaning to this call, he replies basically he is just telling them “we’re not dead yet!”

At the hike’s end, we pile into a green flatbed truck and truck to the base of the “Acropolis”, a small mountain we hike in half an hour. The mountain is covered with wildflowers, and the mountain trail is bordered by showers of small, golden but many-branched blossoms. When we reach the peak, in what we would call “gale-type” winds in Houston, with the sun intermittently shining, we can see 360° around the isle of Crete. Seas, mountains, valleys and the rich colors of the flowers and trees are everywhere we look – very, very beautiful.

Atop a boulder in Kriti’s highlands

We pass a small Greek Orthodox church placed at seeming random on the side of the mountain – snowy white without, immaculately clean within. Standing inside, the spirituality of Crete takes you out of yourself and to another plane.Then it’s back out into sunshine and down to the little taverna where we eat another wonderful meal: rice in butter, grilled chicken, Greek fried potatoes, Greek salad – and soft cheese pies soaked in honey. Yikes! And then of course, the raki! (Darned good thing we’re hiking!)

After lunch, we head to the tiny town of Polymeria, with its whitewashed houses banded with blue shutters and doors, stair-stepping down the hillside. Literally covered with double-headed geraniums, one small house is a color-soaked painting against the Greek blue sky. An unbelievable adventure.

Then, back to the bus and back to Chania to get – hopefully – a hot shower. This morning’s shower was pretty chilly- Elisa almost shrieked when she turned it on! A note about these showers: all are hand-held, and it’s an adventure in itself to:

  • Turn on the shower,
  • Hold the handle between your knees,
  • Soap up,
  • And soak the bathroom floor and walls as you try to get a grip with soapy hands to rinse yourself off!

The White Mountains Museum and The Mirovolos

While we are all tired from the fresh air and hike, around 8 o’clock we return to the waterfront in the dusk to walk to the White Mountains Museum with its display of Greek artifacts and photographs and icons of events and happenings in World War II and other times.

After which, we walk further still until – off a side street we come to a Greek taverna, The Mirovolos, in Old Town. Music spills into the night air, two men play guitar and bouzouki, singing romantic Greek songs. Yannis sings along. The high point occurs when a young girl joins the two performers. She has the most wonderful voice – evocative and poignant – the atmosphere becomes drenched in deep beautiful folk music. Her voice is magic.

Another table full of wonderful food, which I think now I could go on eating forever (as long as I hike 20 miles a day.) Tzatziki, Greek salad, some wonderful crispy vegetable chips deep fried in olive oil, the fabulous crusty Greek bread, and so forth…finished off with (as usual) raki.

We all walk our usual brisk walk back to the hotel. Now it is 1 AM, and we arise at 7. And so to bed.

Myloi Gorge, Ksiro Horio and Rethymno

Although the vote is tied this morning as to where and how long we shall hike, Yannis breaks the tie and opts for a shorter ramble through the Myloi Gorge to a tiny town called Ksiro Horio (Dry Town) and then to Rethymno for lunch.

Before leaving Chania, we stop at the Covered Market to look around. Elisa, Joanne and I need the bathroom, as usual. Pointed by Yannis to what we think is the WC, we all barrel down a flight of stairs directly into the wide open spaces of the men’s room – with a row of urinals and one lonely man unzipping! Our turn in unison is worthy of Esther Williams and her water ballet choreography.

We drive on to the gorge, arriving around 10, and hike until 2PM. The gorge is beautiful: perhaps one of the greenest parts of Crete. Down a trail sometimes banded with ivy, we hike over rocks and pebbles, crossing many crystal clear streams in the heart of the gorge. Mid-hike, we come to an abandoned village, houses with walls two feet thick, crumbling and vine-covered…a leap back into the past, although we note some reconstruction work going on.

Reconstructing an old village deep in green countryside

It is so very green here, with splashes of ochre red at intervals on the face of the gorge. Flowers sprout from rocks; birds are singing. The sun is shining, filtering green light through the vines. Plane trees, olive, cedar, fir and oak trees are everywhere, as are the trailing vines. We are in a lost kingdom of some leafy green people. Flowers star the pathways, as we go down, and down, and down.

On the road to "dry town"

On the road to “Dry Town”

After rambling for about three or so hours, we come to the tiny village known as “Dry Town.” The village is very lovely: whitewashed walls and red tile roofs glow in the sunlight. Bright pink and red bougainvillea drips from every overhang; patios are covered with grapevine, and the orange blossoms of the flowering pomegranate blaze. Other flowers we see: wild pink oleander, white daisies galore, orange nasturtiums, blue speedwell, blue cornflowers, white roses, and wildflowers whose names no-one knows. Magic kingdom!

We leave this small enchanted town, and drive to Rethymno. As we approach the coast, the beach, seen from the distance, is all yellow sand, and the sky a brilliant blue. Sunbathers dot the sand. The air is balmy – and the sea! Deep, deep blue creaming with little whitecaps, a movie set couldn’t be more perfect. The beach, sea and sky are absolutely soaked with color- yellow, blue and white, colors of Greece, colors of Crete.

We reach Rethymno and visit the Museum Shop, where I buy a beautiful little bust of Aphrodite, and Eileen buys the fresco she has been looking for. And so to lunch…

We are all seated at a corner table in the shade. Taking what I think is a brief break in the bathroom, when I come out: no-one is to be seen! I mean no-one and nothing – not even a plate! I must look completely dumbfounded and dopey until shouts from Yannis make me realize the entire table has moved to the opposite side into the sun.

After lunch, we wander at will around town, Iooking at everything and nothing. Then on to dinner, which is held tonight at the Hotel Dorma…it is heaven to look from the third floor window of the hotel’s restaurant, across the road to the “wine-dark” sea of Crete. How I love it here.

A slight problem has arisen: we are to walk the Samarian Gorge on Tuesday, but high winds and a stationary ferry make it seem that we will have to hike to Loutro, with nothing but our backpacks…waiting for calmer seas to bring us the rest of our luggage. I look forward to this with great expectations.

Agia Aikaterini and Loutro

On the hike to Loutro – incredible!

As Yannis had thought, no ferry to Loutro today, so the plan is to hike over the mountains to Loutro, (which can only be accessed by hiking or by ferry.)

The hike is exhilarating: over increasingly higher mountains up to a tiny whitewashed chapel, Agia Aikaterini, which rests atop the highest hillside. The church blazes white against the blue blue sky. Flowers are everywhere – unusual ones such as the dragon flower (which eats insects its purple throat), and the wild mountain thyme, which drenches you with scent from its sun-soaked blossoms. The sun shines, the air is clear, and the wind, fresh.

Aigia Aikaterini – a beautiful small white church

The trails are steep, but the view is worth it: the overlying colors are vivid greens and blues. Everywhere is the mountain thyme – tiny purple flowers covering low-lying prickly bushes. I pick some leaves and run them over my hands. The scent is so strong, at times it comes over the air in waves. Whenever I smell this in the future, I shall always think of Crete.

We walk the last remaining mile to the ruins of an old Turkish castle, which for some unknown reason, has a few primitive weights inside its (roofless) walls.

Hiking through castle ruins

Hiking through castle ruins

The sun is brilliant, the grass green and sweet and all is quiet, except for the distant far away plink of the goat bells. We leave this gentle haven to walk into Loutro.

Loutro – heaven on earth

Loutro – seen from the mountains above

Our first glimpse of Loutro is of a heavenly small port on the Libyan sea coast, its buildings whitewashed and edged with the vivid blue shutters of Greece – all facing the water. Our hotel, the Sitis, is at the far edge of the tiny waterfront.

It is hard to describe my feelings on first seeing Loutro: it is all I had hoped Greece and Crete would be.

Flowers climb the walls, in colors so brilliant your heart aches with the desire to paint them. The warmth of the sun brings the scents to you vividly. Against all the blue and white of the houses and small hotels are splashed brilliant red geraniums, bright blue convulvus, pots of white and yellow daisies, bougainvillea and oleander in purple-pink, dripping flowers into the sun. Here is a never-land. You understand now why no-one wants to leave once they arrive. All this glamor is set against the crystal blue of the Libyan Sea. Two small white boats float on the waters off the small pebble beach.

Fishing boat in Loutro

We are led to our rooms up an outside stair into marble-floored halls. I walk out onto our whitewashed balcony, looking over the hotel’s tiny outdoor café on the waterfront, to the sea and the mountains beyond. Below in the courtyard of the hotel, spits are turning, roasting chicken and a kebab of pork and vegetables.

Another world, timeless, far from all we have ever known or seen before.

A doorway in Loutro

Luckily, too, there is hot water! After washing up, I take a brief journey up the road behind the hotels, up through a whitewashed narrow path lined with houses, hotels and small markets. Fascinating!

Dinner is served in the outdoor cafe, close to the water’s edge. We drink Greek wine and Mythos beer, and watch the sky turn inky blue as a full moon rises over the white unresisting ferry.

Yannis, our guide, is delightful: good to talk to, attractive, very sweet – somewhat chauvinistic and very Greek. Great smile. Good sense of humor.

This is the perfect day.

A little back alley in Loutro – quintessentially Greece to me

The Samarian Gorge

We are to walk the Samarian Gorge today – the lazy hike, says Yannis (I wonder what he thinks is a tough hike.)

Early morning walk to the mountains above Loutro

Before we leave for Samaria, Eileen, Joanne and I take an early walk past the ferry and up the coast to castle ruins on a small hill. An idyllic spot, with the blue, blue Libyan Sea down below. Wild thyme covers the ground … the scent lingers in the air. The sun is shining brilliantly, even though it is fairly early – and it is warm, which intensifies the scent of the thyme. I am surrounded by the drone and the hum and the buzz of the bees in the thyme.

I hear the sound of the goatbells

Goats run across rocky outcrops, their goatbells tinkling as they crop the grass. This is the song of Crete…and the wild mountain thyme is its scent.

Dotting the landscape are the remains of Turkish and Venetian castles, and a small whitewashed chapel. The vivid green of the grass is starred with small white daisies, and even smaller “yellow flowers,” as Yannis calls them. The spirit of this enchanted spot will live in my heart forever.

The ferry takes us across to Samaria, where we begin our hike into the longest gorge in Europe. It’s tough. But the sun shines all day – not a cloud in the sky. We tramp over rocky paths that slide beneath our feet – over sand – across funny little wooden bridges -across rocks fording the stream/river bed – through wonderful green areas where trees reach up the canyon walls- past boulders piled almost building-high.

Waiting to begin our hike through the Samarian Gorge

Many, many people are hiking today…making the trail more treacherous and challenging than it might have otherwise been. But it is a very challenging hike to me because of the rocks and boulders, (round trip 10 miles) and I finally trip and fall to my knees. Very attractive! And my feet definitely feel the last mile.

The start of the walk through the Samarian Gorge

Once we pass the various hikers and ramblers, silence descends … uncannily quiet, other than the sound of the occasional bird, and trickle of water drifting over stones and rocks. We pause somewhere in the heart of the gorge to rest a moment, each finding his or her own special spot to absorb the magic of this place. We then turn slowly back to the ferry, early enough so we can sit on the waterfront at a small café. Another beautiful day.

Hiking in the Samarian Gorge

I must admit that I am very tired tonight. Our luggage has now arrived, so we are able to “clean up good” for a fabulous meal of grilled swordfish and what must be the best fried potatoes in the world in the hotel’s edgewater café. In the dusk, the sky is inky blue, the sea is deep and inviting, and the moon is a hanging silver ball. But try as I might, I can hardly keep my eyes open, so goodnight, and to bed!

The Imbros Gorge

Today we leave Loutro.

Above Loutro – a morning walk

Again, I take a short walk to the castle ruins on the hill before returning for breakfast on the waterfront. We have fresh orange juice – an unbelievable tang – toasted thick Greek bread, feta cheese, fried eggs, yoghurt with honey, olives, and the wonderful coffee. Pack up and onto the ferry, on our way to our next hike and our next town.

Our goodbye to Loutro breakfast on the hotel’s waterfront

I feel emotionally drained as the ferry pulls away from Loutro. Seeing it recede across the bay brings tears to my eyes…I don’t know if I’ve ever been so drawn to a place before. It is very odd and strange.

We are to hike today in the Imbros Gorge, approximately three and a half hours, as it is one of the shorter gorges. The trail through the gorge is stony, rocky, pebbly, bouldery -­beautiful. Endless cliffs to the sky. At one point, wild goats can be seen cropping greenery atop a canyon ledge; you wonder idly how they got there.

The entrance to Imbros Gorge

The entrance to Imbros Gorge

Halfway through the hike, we stop at a small clearing and sit talking to…well, frankly, I don’t know who! Here we eat sweet sesame bread and soft white cheese. Various strangers come and go. Two dogs lie in the sunshine. We are stamped on the arm by our “host.” Then Joanne and I attempt to find the WC behind the hut.

What an experience: balancing in the little cubicle over the ceramic “hole in the ground” in a hut about the size of a breadbin (with a pail of water to rinse off)…well, words fail me! However, Joanne is now hot to write a book on “WCs I have known,” possibly rating them 1-5 on the toilet-paper rating scale. Or she might do a PBS tv show, “WC of the Week!” Loads of opportunities for varying entrepreneurships seem to be available on this subject, and I must say on this trip we have seen a wide variety! (I prefer a bush.)

You can’t meander on this type of hike – you must move rapidly, partly because the stones beneath your feet are apt to turn if you linger…it’s easy to lose your balance on the rocks if you move more slowly. I like hopping from stone to stone as quickly as possible!

The sun streams down in golden sheets, and the floor of the gorge is covered with pebbles and rocks of all sizes and shapes. Birds, flowers, plants, lichen, plane trees …these are everywhere, as is the red poppy- another symbol of Crete and Greece – so fragile, so beautiful. As the trail ends, we see nasturtiums dripping down the walls and glowing orange, as well as blue convulvus and a gorgeous anenome-like flower in vivid magenta with petals of neon-green.

Yannis and I are the first to arrive at the end of the trail. I force him to listen to my rendition of “I love to go a-wandering…” otherwise known as “Valderi, valdera” –  Dear Yannis: very patient!

Once we’re all together, we walk up a hill to a restaurant situated high above the sea, where we eat grilled goat, Greek sausages, Greek salad, Greek fried potatoes – and I have what is now my favorite beer, Mythos, and then frappe meh gala (it’s embarrassing to even write this down.)

We pile onto the bus: next destination, Plakia. When we arrive, I beg off dinner, for a night alone to write and to sleep. A wonderful day…but then, just another day in paradise.

Preveli Monastery and the Libyan Sea

I’m already homesick for Crete, and I haven’t left yet.

Around 9AM, we pile onto the bus on the road to the Preveli Monastery of St. John the Theologian. Up – up – up we ride – seemingly up to the end of the world. On arriving at the monastery, the sun breaks through overhanging clouds and it is brilliant for the remains of the day.

The Preveli Monastery

The monastery is very beautiful: exquisitely clean, austere, spiritually comforting. Colors fill the eye. Creamy walls. Flowers in all their glory – magnificent red geraniums, huge clumps of white lilies. The monks in black from head to toe stand out in high relief. Down below, the crystal blue of the beckoning sea.

Down below, the blue of the beckoning sea

The church has wonderfully ornate silver, gold and brass chandeliers, and its cross has a long and intricate history. People are praying within the chapel, and the hush —peaceful, calm – underscores the appeal of the spiritual life.

We leave the monastery for another brief ride (George, our driver, is adorable!) to the top of  “Lake Palm Tree” where we will walk down steps carved in rock to a freshwater river and lagoon, and then to the Libyan Sea below. From this great height, far away islands in the sea appear, cloaked in a lingering mist.

Walking down to Preveli beach on the Libyan Sea

However, at the clifftop, the sun is out in full force, as we go down – down – down. It is beautiful here. The sea is that Greek blue that must be the most vivid and vital in the world. Set against it is a small yellow sand beach with thatched umbrellas dotting the shore. From above, we see a grove of palms, deep green, which grew when pirates dropped the pits of dates into the sand. Around this oasis, all is green – brilliantly green. Through the wealth of jungle we walk, taking off our boots and replacing them with water shoes to help us over the rocks in the river. The water is cold.

Once we reach “dry land” boots are again in place, and we hike over rocks and massive boulders alongside the river. Higher and higher we climb, until we reach our destination on a rocky outcrop; we can go no further. Here we rest, snack and talk. This is a particularly enchanting place, windy and wild, and the sun is on our faces. No sounds but the lonely birds, and the gurgle and rush of the river passing by.

After an hour’s sojourn, back we amble to the seashore.

It is warm, sunny and so soporific. Eileen and Joanne go for a quick swim in the Meditteranean, but the water is too chilly to dawdle.

Yannis, Theresa, Elisa and I sit beneath the thatched overhang and sip frappe meh galas and desultorily talk…while Joanne and Eileen perch on a rock a short distance away. It is a special moment, one of many, in time here….I am happy and sad at once. I feel emotionally touched by Crete, and feel constantly on the verge of tears. Why?

We leave our little oasis and climb two million stairs to the top of the cliff, where the faithful (and handsome) George is waiting patiently to drive us back to Plakia.

Heraklion and Goodbye to Crete

This morning we take brief trip through the Museum in Heraklion … then a tour of the Minoan Palace of Knossos…a wonderful way to end this adventure of all adventures.

Otherwise

I’m writing down a few Greek words and phrases, as I don’t want to forget: Kalimera -good morning; Kalispera – good evening. Adio – goodbye. Sagapo – I love you. Agape mou – my love.