2015/01/14-17: To Lasithi Plateau
Riding east toward Mires we met a French couple – Lisa and Matthias – who tend a market garden near Toulouse; they travel in the winter season. We chatted briefly, and moved on to Mires. We ate crepes across the road from our hotel to the strains of Bob Dylan, and chatted to the owner whose sister lives in Toronto. In the morning, we set out on back roads but were forced to backtrack due to a river in full flood that rendered a ford unsafe. We never found the early Minoan tombs we were aiming for, but we were invited by kindly Despina to sit in her garden while she squeezed us fresh juice from oranges plucked in her orchard, and loaded us with more fruit for the road as we left. We soon met Matthias and Lisa again, and shared our generous (and heavy) load of fruit.
We navigated sociably on quiet roads with them for the rest of the day, lunched on the steps of a church, and camped together in an olive orchard as dark fell, sharing food and a bottle of wine.
In the morning, we headed out sooner than they did, and although we’d had a similar final route in Crete to theirs planned we changed our minds when we saw a sign for “Lasithi Plateau.” I’d heard of this once-isolated high plateau, where rich soil and a cooler climate allows production of apples, pears , tomatoes, potatoes and more. We hadn’t realized it could be accessed from the south; we could see only tiny tracks on our map, but the fact that the route was signed looked promising. When asked our destination at a coffee stop, we pointed to where we were headed. The woman who’d made our thick Greek coffee was aghast that we would attempt such a route on bikes at this time of year. It was probably a good thing we couldn’t understand details of her warnings. The Lasithi plateau lies at 850 m, and the access from the south means a long steep climb to 1400 m. Recent storms had dumped snow, in fact we were later told that this winter’s snowfall has been the heaviest for over a decade.
We stocked up on food before leaving the last village. Lots of large raptors were circling above us as we began to climb, but as we pushed and rode alongside a rocky gorge we approached the level from which they seemed to be taking off and alighting. Then there they were! It must have been a flock of more than twenty-five huge vultures. They were perched on a point of land above what we soon saw was a garbage dump, and a mound of sheep’s wool made us suspect that carcasses or parts of animals were attracting the birds.
Later reading informed us these were griffon vultures, Gyps fulvus, wingspan 2.6 m.. We watched them with respect — their beaks and talons mean business.
It was getting late as we crested the ridge and dropped in switchbacks to the plateau below. The snowbanks were over a metre high, and my feet were wet. We put on our lights, crossed the plateau to Tzermiado, and dove indoors for hot chocolate to discuss where we might stay. Lonely Planet is sometimes a good resource and sometimes utter rubbish, but I’d read there of a newer establishment – Argoulias – where each room in a building of local stone had it’s own fireplace.
We pushed our bikes through snow up narrow alleys that climb steeply where the upper town is built up the steep slope that encloses the plateau. In the pitch blackness, an old woman in a shawl appeared from a low doorway. “Argoulias?” I asked, pointing ahead. “Nei, nei!” she replied. Nei is yes in Greek, confusing to Anglos at first, but I realized she was confirming we were on track so we pressed on and found it. What a perfect place to celebrate our final few days in Crete! Hospitable and welcoming, Ioannis lit the fire in a our room, and after a deep hot bath we used our camping pots to toast ham and cheese sandwiches over the fire. We were too tired to venture far, and the restaurant across the road was not open that evening.
We weren’t the only customers; In the morning a family joined us at breakfast. Knowing we’d found a perfect spot to nest, we decided to stay a second night. We spent the day mostly sitting by the fire. I knitted; we put together the last post; we went for a walk. Our room looked out at the snowy range we’d crossed, and across the plateau dotted with skeletons of windmills once used to pump water. In the evening, we went to the restaurant for a soul-warming Cretan meal. That second evening we had the company of quite a few Greeks in hiking boots and cosy woollens, likely from Irakleo for the weekend. They seemed to know where to go for comfort and spectacular views in January!