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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.

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Hiking in Spain: Autumn in Andalusia

  

Granada

Who knew I’d get stood up in Spain? One thing to be stood up at the movies – but Spain?

I’d planned to meet a friend in Madrid, then we’d fly to Granada to meet our hiking group. There were clues that this might not come to pass – oh, for example, when she said: Now if I’m not in Madrid when you land, don’t wait for me – catch your plane to Granada. But of course, who thinks this means: Guess what, I’m not coming!

That being said, I arrived in Madrid about 9AM – no-one seemed to speak English, even a flight captain. I was at a total loss as to my connecting Iberian flight to Granada, but eventually found out they don’t announce a gate until an hour prior. Better be sure you’re within running distance.

Still no sign of Diane, so I boarded Iberian. The sun was shining brilliantly – and I arrived at the (tiny) Granada airport and stood outside waiting – waiting – waiting for a taxi. Finally! I arrived at Guadalupe Hotel in the Alhambra (which, I found out is a medina, or city, not just a palace, as I had thought…always learning). Diane never showed up. Around 5PM Granada time…after hours of calls and worry…. I decided to change my tickets home, moving them up two days so I’d arrive home early Sunday rather than late Tuesday. Incredible hassle. I spent about $200 on long distance calls to airlines and to the office…let alone the cost of re-purchasing the Iberian A/L ticket and changing Continental!

Finally late that evening I found out from Wilderness Travel: Diane was not coming! I took a sleeping tablet, and slept until noon Saturday, and awoke feeling much better!

Saturday, Sept 30

Never hear from Diane.

The view from my room at the Guadalupe Hotel

My room, (on the 3rd floor) was charming although spartan…but what views! The busloads of tourists had come and gone, and peace reigned. I decided to wash my hair and get an early night. Reminder for next trip: Be sure to check the hotel hairdryer before you plan to use it!  First try: I blew the electricity.  Then I popped the breaker, and plugged the dryer back in…electricity came on. But every time I tried to use it, it blew.  I called the concierge, who flipped  breakers high upon the wall across the room several times – same problem. “Too bad,” she said. The only thing I could do was dry one strand of hair before blowing the fuse, cross from the bathroom, climb on a chair, flip the breakers, dry another strand, and so on and so forth. Fun!

The Guadalupe Hotel at the Alhambra

Next, I tried Room Service. When I couldn’t get anyone on the line, I called the front desk. They suggested I come down to the bar, which is also the Room Service. So down I went. One lonely girl was behind the counter…only two customers. I asked her “is this Room Service?” She: “Do I LOOK like Room Service?” Hmm…inauspicious beginning. I asked if she could fix me a sandwich. She looked at me as if I were requesting a 6-course meal, but we finally had a meeting of the minds, and when I offered her a big tip, she decided she could, of course, bring the tray to my room. Yay!

Meeting the group 

I met the group and off we go to the Alhambra. The palace was beautiful with incredible lacy walls with the coats of arms etc. of bygone times. I loved the gardens…oh, they were heavenly… architecturally designed…flowers brilliant…cedars and boxwood – all wildly scented.

We left the Alhambra and walked to charming restaurant up, up, up a narrow street. It was delightful sitting outside under a canopy eating a wonderful lunch. Weather, by the way, was hot – hot – hotter, not the usual October weather for Andalusia.

After lunch, we all piled in a van to Bubion, a tiny village atop what seemed to me an incredibly high mountain.  I turned green as round and round we went on the narrow road – each lap around the mountain more terrifying than the previous. The drop was precipitous. Thank god Didier was an excellent driver. I was so nauseated by the movement of the van, I really thought I’d lose it. Sweat broke out all over my face and neck, and I could barely climb from the van after an hour and a half drive up the mountain. (But this was the only time I experienced this.)

All the little towns have these wonderful narrow streets

Three hours later, after washing my hair again (glutton for punishment), I was able to go to dinner, always late at night. It was fabulous, but almost too much for me to finish (I valiantly manage). Spanish meals seem to be HUGE. But oh, we were relaxed, sitting outside in the courtyard looking over the mountains at the sunset, and then at a glorious full moon, having drinks, then going inside the tiny restaurant for dinner. Wine flowed, good conversation reigned. What a wonderful night!

We meet in hotel lobby at 9:30 after quick breakfast. First hike – and it was a doozy. The first couple of hours we hiked down – which was great. The trail was rocky and pebbly, so needed to watch feet. No-one else in the group likes downhill.

It is very dry here, and unseasonably hot. The ground is parched, but vistas across valleys are stunning, the mountains incredible, and you see clusters of whitewashed towns scattered at intervals across the great divides. Not a lot of water.

We are accompanied on this trip by Antonio and two mules. Bea asked me several times if I wanted to just ride one of the mules, when I thought I’d pass out from heat – but add to the weight already on the backs of the animals I would not … although they were well fed and cared for – Antonio rode one of them almost all the way back up the mountain.

Two mules for…

Now imagine, if you will, hiking in 87o F weather – with humidity – most times with no shade – sun fierce – not a cloud in the sky – followed by Antonio on a mule yakking away on his cell phone!

After about three hours, we come to our lunch spot, with a fabulous view across cliffs and valleys. In the distance, our town of Bubion, where we would begin heading after lunch. We picnic on tomatoes from Bea’s garden, homemade olive oil, two kinds of Spanish cheeses, cured ham, long loaves of crusty bread, Spanish olives…all absolutely delish (also wine, orange and peach juices).

Up again, on hike back to Bubion – this was so steep I had to keep stopping in the (very few) shady spots…the climb was intense. Bea kept me going – it was easier with the stops, but woof: talk about hard (my hardest hike…the rest got easier by the day.) Finally got to Bubion and she and I stopped in a small taverna for a drink. It was such fun to just not be “in train” and I loved Bea for doing it. She is a remarkable person – so Spanish, absolutely tiniest person I’ve every met. She used to be a dancer, until, as she says, her boobs got too big! She is funny and encouraging and has been such a friend on this hike.

On the road

A note on Granada, Bubion and Andalusia in general: I feel in many ways I have come to the back of beyond. It’s not that restaurants and inns lack amenities but the landscape does not allow for a Milan or New York frame of mind. People do things here they have done – in the same way – for hundreds of years. Bea herself lives in a tiny village up a hill from Bubion – she is restoring her house – it takes an immense amount of time – you cannot drive to her village, the roads are too narrow and inaccessible. She has to park her car elsewhere and walk uphill to her home. As she pointed out, in the winter, they may lose the electricity, but they have the fireplace, good wine and friends to sit and talk with (sounds great to me).

We meet a man on the hike who lived in a hut with dogs and a cat and probably other animals – no electricity, running water etc. – 84 years old, wizened – and happy. Time definitely stands still in Andalusia – except, except, except.

You cannot escape the cell phone. For example, Antonio, sitting astride one of his mules, climbing up the mountain, talking away a mile a minute on his cell phone to his girlfriend. Technology – even in the back of beyond.

The charm of Andalusia is everywhere

But perhaps back of beyond doesn’t really describe Andalusia – it is just timeless. Its villages are whitewashed, streets are rocky and cobbled and narrow, pots of flowers in all colors abound, dogs run free and doorways are open. All towns seem to be on mountains – all streets are steep – and life is very laid back.

I keep forgetting to mention the tapas. Every time you stop at a taverna for a drink, you are always given a grand array of sliced ham and/or cheese, maybe, but always olives and bread. And the size of the platter is dependent on the number of people.  On the climb to Bubion, we all stopped for a “clara” or “shandy” or Alhambra beer and were served the platters of the above as well as potatoes with scrambled eggs. Yum. Of course, who wants to hike after beer and potatoes!

And another thing: There is no mustard in Spain, or if there is, it must really be searched for! Jaro spent two hours looking for mustard when he went to Malaga…he wanted a ham sandwich with MUSTARD, but all they kept giving him was mayo or butter. Oh the challenges of this dreamy spot!

I am back at the inn, sitting on my little back patio underneath a chestnut tree writing in my journal. The sun is still high in the sky – but it’s cool in this shady enclosed grassy space, rimmed by scented boxwood. I am drinking an Alhambra beer and thinking: how lucky am I.

Off to wash my hair.

The incredible Ronda Gorge 

Up early this morning – suitcases must be in van by 8:45. Suck down some cereal and yoghurt and on the road again from Bubion on the way to Ronda.

Our hike is not as strenuous today – mostly down, with a few uphills just to keep us on our toes. Views are incredible, as usual. We stop for lunch at 1PM. Didier says this is the most primitive part of Andalusia, and from all points of view he is right. We are at a small taverna where the construction workers come to eat lunch – the food is delish, and there’s lots of it – egg pies, crusty bread, salad, and lemon souffle for dessert. I am gaining weight as I write this down.

Then it’s into the van for the 3.5 hour drive to Ronda. Uneventful trip – no nausea this time.

We arrive in Ronda. Our hotel is in the “parador” or palace, which fronts right onto the gorge. My room has a balcony overlooking dales and gorge and mountains. Fabulous.

In the rush to leave, I left behind my hairbrush, and my earrings. Really ticked at myself, but Didier finally finds a shop selling hairbrushes (big relief – obviously I am ecstatic over small things in life.)

Dinner in the lovely dining room. And so to bed…hiking the gorge tomorrow.

Woke up early, I thought. Next time I look it was 9:30 and that was “leave time”. O God! Never moved so damned fast in my life – surprised that Bea was not banging on the door! Glomp on sunblock, brush teeth, drag brush thru hair, clothes, boots – downstairs!

Only to find out it’s only 8:30. I must have forwarded the time when I was clicking on the alarm clock. Am now exhausted, and haven’t left the parador!

Breakfast. Then out the door to walk around the gorge and check the Roman/Moorish/Muslim baths within the battlements, circa 1250.

Then it’s across the bridge, down and through fields and around a trail for about five hours…then back up-up-up the gorge for lunch at a taverna, sitting outside overlooking the gorge, fields and faraway hills. I love it…it’s wonderful to be so far away from my “everyday” life in a completely – and I mean completely – foreign part of the world.

Incredible views. Our hotel is right on the Ronda gorge itself, and is truly magnificent. Inside are marble floors, stately columns, wonderful architecture. My room has a fantastic view over the fields below to the mountains beyond….never has the phrase “over the hills and far away” been so appropriate.

Lunch as usual was fun – but having a beer knocks me out. I’m going to sleep like a log tonight, but first we’re going to the bullring (but not to see a bullfight, which I would NOT) – then dinner at 8:30. After quick trip to a ceramic shop for a Ronda keepsake, it’s back to the parador to sleep for a couple of hours, then meet the group, after which, back again to parador and drinks with Bea, Didier and Jaro. And after a 2.5 hour-long meal, back to bed!

Ro, Didier and Bea after hiking Ronda’s beautiful plain

We’re on the way to our next hike. We pack and leave Ronda at 9:30AM…the hike is through some beautiful country, more green than before. Trails very very VERY narrow. We hiked for four hours to a quaint and lonely taverna…a converted “train barn” beside a railroad track. It is one room, very large, high ceilinged…painted terra cotta-ish within, marvelous architectural details.

Lunch was incredible – and huge! We start as usual with olives, then crusty bread and a salad…then we have soup…then grilled seabreem. Each of us has an entire fish, head, tails and all – we debone it at table, and squeeze lime on its white interior – it is delicious. We each have different desserts. I have chocolate mousse cake…talk about decadent. Wine is always served, but I decided to just wait until dinner, otherwise I’d be under the table.

A little rest after a fabulous meal

After this gorgeous lunch – we all have an hour to siesta or read. As I sit on the patio looking at mountains in the distance, the sky is completely clear and deeply blue, the sun is warm on my face. As I sit with my feet up on a couple of chairs. I think again: “how lucky am I?”

Then the blissful moment is over. It’s back in the van – driving through the incredible mountain scenery to climb and clamber up and over rocks and boulders to a huge and deep cave filled with stalagmites, stalagtites, paleolithic paintings, and “lakes”. We enter about 500 KMs into the cave…which is – they say – about 20,000 years old. (Have panic attack here, but it passes. Bea holds my hand through the whole thing, and I hope I didn’t break her fingers!)

Then back in van, driving through horse country…lovely rolling hills and fields – cork trees abound here, throughout our trip, we’ve seen chestnuts (with the nuts falling from the tree), almond trees, olives, oak, aspen – chestnut trees are used in much of the new construction. Not many flowers.

We left Bubion (we found out) just before a mini-hurricane struck, causing much destruction in that area (so far we’ve had nothing the most gorgeous weather…)

Grazemala – my favorite small town

About 6:30 we come to Grazemala, the town where we’ll spend the night. Of all the tiny charming towns, it is absolutely the most charming: hilly cobbled streets, a tiny town square overlooked by the Catholic Church, many small boutique shops with high end goods, (which are extremely reasonable and beautiful). I love it, and wish I could have stayed longer than two nights. Oh, and gorgeous bougainvillea.

Beautiful magical Grazemala

We dine at 9 (I can’t get used to all this food – and eating so late  – I must have gained a ton – but oddly enough, LOST inches, as I found when I returned home.) We have: wine, salad, crusty bread (a given), a huge bowl of gazpacho, fabulous paella (which the maitre’d brings out on a huge pan – it looks like a flower, all gorgeous rice and seafood and veggies), and then flan. Yum-o!!!

Up at 8AM and out the door of this delightful hotel by 9:30, in hiking boots, ready for another “harder” hike. This one lasts about 6-1/2 hours. The trail at first is fairly placid, earthen and downhill (my kind of trail). Then we come to the boulders. The trail becomes rocky here, and the climb is up – up – boulders all shapes and sizes cover the mountain. It is so important to watch where you put your feet. This area is extremely dry, and the sun is fierce, with very little shade.

We are in the open for much of the hike. Then we come to a grassy area atop a mountain after about three hours, and stop beneath a shady oak (the only one) and Bea lays out a wonderful picnic lunch: the usual crusty bread, tomatoes in olive oil with olives, peppers in olive oil, incredible thinly sliced ham, and goat cheese and cheddar (the cheddar is the best I’ve ever had, and there have been some marvelous cheeses on this trip.) Dessert (if you wanted it) was orange-chocolate cookies. No wine this time, only peach juice. Delish!

Ann on the trail

After wrapping up my blisters (yet again) it was back on the (ever-rockier) trail. We had seen wild ponies and mountain goats. Now we come to a fenced area (huge) which encloses massive wild black pigs – the noise they made would have wakened the dead – there were about 100 of them, and I’m glad they stayed on their side of the fence. Bea told us that during an earlier hike she’d been on, they were loose – and they completely obliterated the food brought for a picnic.

The rocky plain

We continue clambering down over boulders and the rocky trail and finally at about 3:30 came to our little taverna, where we sat in the shade drinking cokes and yakking up a storm. Back in the van for a drive back to our hotel through incredible mountain scenery.

As I sit here writing this, the church bell is tolling the hour, and it is incredibly quiet afterwards. Siesta until 5PM.

Back to the hike for a moment: at one point, Bea and I were hiking alone and we stopped to look at the beautiful valley spread before us. The silence was intense – we were literally in the middle of nowhere, and not a sound to be heard – not a bird, not a stream, no wild animals, no wind. Magic…I believe, despite Diane’s not showing up, that this is one of the loveliest trips I’ve ever made.

The quest for mustard – and a newspaper

Halfway through this trip, Jaro decides to go alone to Malaga on the coast, instead of hiking Ronda. He gets on a bus that should’ve gotten him there in an hour, but which took almost three. Then he spent hours looking for an English-language newspaper – had lunch, during which he looked unsuccessfully for mustard – took a walk around town – then caught the bus back to Ronda. He says that bus ride was a real trip – all women except him, all chattering wildly back and forth. The only words he got were “Mi madre!” and the girl pronouncing them did not say them in a happy tone of voice. But the bus ride was wonderful – so full of life. Jaro is really a fascinating individual – a real gentleman, great conversationalist. So now, I go to wash my hair and tidy up (I’m going to have to rethink this hairwashing business). Tomorrow we leave for Sevilla at 8:30AM, I’m cleaning out my suitcase for the trip home…

The ubiquitous cell phone

Bea and I went for a quick drink after a trip to the ATM (there’s that technology again) – then we all met for drinks in the hotel lobby – then walked the cobbled streets of Grazemala for a last meal together. It was one of those lovely evenings where everything went well: conversation, food, laughter. A really magical night. We walked back to the hotel under a clear midnight blue sky and the moon was full, a silver orb in that incredible sky.

Must get up at 7AM. And so to bed.

As scheduled, we leave the Hotel de la Villa at 8:30, and are on the 2-1/2 hour drive to Sevilla – first part through very mountainous and beautiful terrain, to a flatter but still rolling landscape into town. (Note: we have come to Sevilla from our highest elevation – 4500 feet.)

We find our hotel: Didier takes off to try to find a parking place for the van – 2-1/2 hours later, still no sign of Didier! Luckily, the luggage was dropped at the hotel.

Sevilla

The group takes off with Angela, guide to Santa Maria Cathedral (3rd largest in Europe) and the Royal Palace. Cathedral is astonishing – the nave is 500 km and completely gold leafed over cedar carvings of the birth of Christ up to his crucifixion. The inlays, the statuary, paintings, frescoes – gorgeous. Christopher Columbus’ bones are buried here – interred in coffin supported by four  magnificent carved figures, twice life size – incredible.

The gardens of the royal residence

The Royal Residence is beautiful: layers upon layers of Moorish/Christian architecture – inlays, everything restored or as it used to be. The rooms are far richer than the Alhambra – and the gardens are Persian/French/Italian/English – gorgeous trees and plants – all scented – just beautiful.

The palace, Seville

And then back to the hotel – quick goodbyes – went to my room for wash and a sandwich – get suitcase zipped – taxi due shortly to take me to airport, and then to Madrid where I’ll spend the night. And so I bid Andalusia, Bea and all farewell – the culmination of another little dream of travel.

Note to self: NEVER fly through Madrid if you can help it – airport is a nightmare – lines so long, it’s a wonder you don’t miss the flight (not that it seemed to matter on this trip), and once you get past customs into the waiting area – you cannot get out to find the bathroom, unless you want to go back through the humongous custom lines again!)

Further notes: I have to say a couple – or more – words about this hotel I’m at, in Madrid – it is gorgeous! Decor is a kind of Zen/Japanese/modern – gray grasscloth walls, black leather chair and tuffet, shoji screened closets, big square bed – white linens, tons of white pillows, hardwood floors, high-tech phones – and the bathroom! Fabulous molded-glass sink, frosted glass doors and shower and bath, gray tiles…it’s really really elegant. So comfy and so calming after the stress of the plane (little do I know about stress until I try to get home on Continental, but I won’t go into that here) and then trying to get a taxi to the hotel in Madrid. The first taxi driver threw me out of the cab because he didn’t have a clue where the hotel was (even with the address), he didn’t speak any English, and we were both yelling. I thought I’d be stuck on that curb for life!