Despite taking a cabin, we didn’t sleep much on the boat. We arrived in the dark at a port 8 km from town, so we drank coffee and ate cheese pies till sunrise before riding into Chania. We moved into an aesthetic but frigid room in the old part of this Venetian town, and watched waves crash over the harbour wall as a winter storm passed. Shops were closed for Epiphany, so errands waited till the next day, when we bought Chris a pair of inexpensive rain pants, a decent map of Crete, and me some wool and knitting needles. I was in need of something crafty and peaceful for long chilly evenings.
We made a late start, as the father of the woman who managed our rooms was keen to give us far more advice than we needed. We planned to make our way to the south coast where we hoped to find warmer weather. Temperatures were just above freezing on the north coast and the mountains were snow covered. We didn’t know whether the road that climbed over the spine would be clear or not.
After a late departure and poor navigation out of town, we decided to stop for the night in Vrisses before tackling the brunt of the climb. We shivered under stacks of blankets in a room that we barely managed to get above freezing. These rooms with tiled floors may be OK in warmer months, but when they haven’t been used for ages they take forever to warm up.
The snow was deeper and banks higher as we climbed the next day to the crest at 800 m. Snow ploughs working near the top had cleared only a single car’s width in most places, and we rode carefully through slush. At a cafe at the top, we wolfed down sausages and fries, and piled on all our clothes for the descent to the Libyan Sea.
As we started down, we saw the turnoff to a small road that runs near the crest. It was completely snowed in, but I could see the sign showing the road toward Asi Gonia, the village where George Psychoundakis lived. He is the author of The Cretan Runner, a fascinating account of how local shepherds collaborated with the British during WW2 to form an effective Resistance when the island was occupied. The Brits would fly in from North Africa at night, and drop radio equipment that the Cretans concealed in their cave-riddled mountains whose paths they knew well, and they used this equipment to relay information to the Allies.
This rugged region is called Sfakia, an area that was never subdued by Arabs, Venetians, or Turks, and where the people are still considered ornery or worse by other Greeks. Yes, it’s true the signs have bullet holes. On our descent, we saw a fellow stop his SUV, get out, aim a pistol up the snowy slope and fire it at something. I could not understand what he said as we passed him. I think he was aiming at a bird or rabbit, and he didn’t shoot at us, so we continued downwards.
As we zigzagged downward through tunnels, the snow disappeared leaving a dry rocky slope where the goats must be tough as nails to find grass among the cacti. We turned eastward along the south coast to Fragokastello, and were pleased to find a tiny room where our kitchenette even had an oven. We spent two nights here, cooking a roast, knitting, cleaning chains, and walking to the Venetian castle.
2015/01/11-13: South Coast
The main road – if you can call it that- along the south coast runs eastward some distance inland. Smaller roads reach the coast at fishing villages or beach resorts, and these sometimes connect to form a route closer to the coast. The GPS shows more possibilities than map alone, but sometimes these are not much more than a goat track.
We spent two days working our way through washouts on gravel tracks (I took skin off elbows and knees), sometimes climbing steeply and then dropping, opening and closing rickety sections of fence, and causing sheep to stampede. We spent a night bivouacked in the entrance to the toilet block at a closed beachside taverna. A bat flew in and out, we were sheltered from the wind, we could see the night sky, and hear crashing waves.
In the morning, we continued along the coastal track. After a climb on gravel, we sped down 12 km of pavement into Agia Galini as heavy rain began. We found a room, and Nikos the fisherman who lived across the street invited us for dinner. He is 53, a chain smoker, had tales of a very tough life, and did not appear to be in great health. He would not take no for an answer. He was an excellent cook, entertaining, opinionated, lonely, and very difficult to escape from.
Wind and rain were blowing through with a force that caused rock falls onto roads, and cycling would be unsafe, so we holed up for the next day. Swiss cyclists Anaïs and Gilles arrived near noon, also wet and cold, and moved into the room across the landing. Nikos fed us all dinner, but he allowed us to contribute to ingredients. He pulled out the bottle of red that we had brought the night before, and insisted Chris finish what he dismissively called “tourist wine.” Then he disappeared up the road, empty bottle in hand, returning with it full of something very local. We had much to share with Anaïs and Gilles as they were headed across Asia. We tried to balance time with them, and appeasing Nikos. They were the first long-haul cyclists we’ve met this trip.
We realized there was an odd assortment of expats living in Agia Galini. It seemed like the end of the road, a place where those who didn’t find their niche at home in England, Holland, or Germany fetched up. We’ve seen this scene before, and we find it mildly depressing.