Walking Aradena gorge

The new school year was about to start. Should we have a little late summer trip before the start? Of course we should!

We had also been planning for a while to test out the van as a campervan of sorts.

So we spent some time on Sunday getting out some camping stuff. Then on Monday morning we loaded the van with everything, including the kayak and one e-bike.

We set off for Chora Sfakion and got there around lunchtime. We stopped at the bakery for sandwiches and pastries, and after that some ice-cream! We decided to go and walk Aradena gorge in the afternoon.

Aradena is a pretty wild place, some distance from Chora Sfakion which is itself a good distance from most other places in Crete.

There is an impressive metal and wood bridge that crosses over the gorge. It shakes and rumbles every time a vehicle goes over, with the sound carrying a considerable distance.

Today Aradena is not a very populated village. There is a canteen on the other side of the crossing, for the hikers who come here all the way to walk the wild gorge. There are many abandoned houses falling apart. We also met a good number of wasps, both outside and inside the gorge.

Before the walk, however, we drove down the long, winding downhill road to Livaniana, towards the exit of the gorge. We parked the e-bike there, locked to a fence, to use at the end of the walk to go back and retrieve the car.

After all the preparation, we drove over the bridge to find the beginning of the path. At this point it was 4pm, and we knew we only had a few hours before sunset.

To descend into the gorge, we walked a path that from the side looks carved in stone on the gorge wall, but it is really well kept. Then we walked on the riverbed, passing under the famous bridge, hearing all the cars rumbling.

We walked on the stony riverbed, over big boulders. We took a detour up the side on some stone steps, with an impressive view from the top. Then back down. We met other walkers during the first half of the excursion. Then it was just us. Still more boulders, and more walking. Goats and ravens. Some falling stones. A big cave. Signs for old paths to other villages, Livaniana and Agios Ioannis.

It was mostly shady and cool in the gorge, but pretty still. Some dips were pretty hot though, especially getting close to the sea.

After about 3 hours, feeling tired, we saw the sea! And in another 5 minutes we were on Marmara beach. The sun had just set. Giulia and I jumped in the sea for a quick swim, as people were leaving the tiny beach on taxi boats. We saw big groups of lionfish, 6 here, 3 there. They are really invading the Cretan sea. We saw them for the first time in Falasarna about a month ago, and we have seen them since many more times in Falasarna, in Sougia and now here.

I rushed up the path from Marmara to Livaniana to get the bike. I almost run and it took a good 20 minutes. In the twilight, I jumped on the e-bike and gave it all up the steep hill. It was a beautiful ride, with the soft dusk light below me as I ascended the hairpin bends. I was sweating exhilaration and effort. Towards the top it was dark enough and I was fast enough that I almost lost control on a bend, going up what must have been 15% slope.

I rode over the bridge in semi-darkness, invisible, announced by the rumble. I loaded the bike on the car and drove again back down the same road, to meet the girls. They had walked up the path to Livaniana, then made it another km or so up the road. We finished the day with a glorious dinner at a taverna in Anopoli, with super tasty vegetables and the best appetite after walking (and cycling) for hours!

 
Total distance: 6.42 km
Max elevation: 573 m
Min elevation: 3 m
Total climbing: 132 m
Total descent: -701 m
Total time: 03:05:16
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E-bike ride on the South coast: Paleochora – Sougia

The South coast has been beckoning for some time, I have been wanting to do some cycling there for a while. The road between Paleochora and Sougia promised to be spectacular.

Studying the map, I wasn’t sure it was paved all the way through. Not a big deal either case, as we loaded the trusty Hillmaster electric mountain bike on the van.

We also planned to do some of the cycling together, and loaded bikes for all the family. Sofia is still too short to ride one of our electric bikes, she rides a plain mountain bike that was originally Giulia’s. This limits our range together a bit, and we decided to pedal the first flat part together until the road becomes too steep.

We drove from home in the morning, on the mostly quiet mountain roads from Kissamos. In about an hour, we were buying lunch from the bakery in Paleochora.

We cycled through town, then along the coast going East. After a couple of km, we hit the hill that goes up to Anidri village. We tackled it for a good while, until the girls had had enough and turned back. I switched on the motor, and set off.

The road climbed regularly, up and up and up. I kept the assistance always on the lowest level, Eco, I wanted to make an effort! I cycled through Anidri village, I zig-zagged on. Low Mediterranean scrub everywhere, sea views in the distance. I passed the village of Prodromi, the road was still paved all the way. Some trees in the small valleys, plane and carob trees.

I was getting higher, the air was cooler. Gavdos island was there, in the hazy distance. Pine trees on the roadside now! I met 4 cars in 15km, about one hour of cycling. The col was marked by a blue and white church, stereotypical of Greece but not a common sight in Crete. Shortly after, I rejoined the ‘main’ road going from Paleochora.

On my right, the valley side facing North was now covered by a proper tree forest, an interesting change! I took a break for some water and banana in Rodovani, wondering how far behind the girls driving to Sougia I would be.

Then I launched myself into a full speed descent towards Sougia. Corner after corner, I tried to slow down as little as possible, touching a maximum speed of 60 km/h. Pines on both sides of the road, until I reached the valley bottom with the river bed on my left, marking the arrival in Sougia. I must have done the 15km in half an hour.

Sougia was hot and sticky. The sun was not shining very strong, but the air was not really moving. I found the girls already cooling down in the sea.

Fiona came to meet me. We had a picnic all together in the shade of a tamerisk behind the beach. After food, we moved back to the shore for a refreshing swim.

Even the sea was hazy! We swam along the beach, going East, towards the big rocks just a few metres off shore. There were continuous changes in temperature in the sea. Cool, hazy surface, a warmer layer of water below, then cool again at some depth. We spotted some small groupers and some lionfish hiding between some rocks on the bottom.

We found some waves between the rocks. We swam around them, the water was clearer here. We saw plenty of fish, damselfish and many very big and bright saddled seabreams. Cretan parrotfish, of course. We passed some submerged rocks, circled the big rock sticking out and swam back. A beautiful swim.

We walked into town for an ice-cream, then drove home.

 

Total distance: 33.61 km
Max elevation: 759 m
Min elevation: -9 m
Total climbing: 871 m
Total descent: -852 m
Total time: 02:16:25
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A day in Antikythira

On a hot July day, we embarked on a day trip to the small island of Antikythira.

E-bikes in Antikythira!

E-bikes in Antikythira!

Antikythira is really a small, wild rock in the middle of the sea, between Crete and the Peloponnese.

An old resident, with an Aussie intonation from a lifetime spent downunder, recounted a condensed, local version  of the island’s origin myth for us.

God was creating the land, mainland Greece. He was using soil to make the big, vast plains. He flicked a few of the remaining small rocks around in the sea. A tiny one landed here; thus our island was born.

We took with us our new favourite mean of transport, our e-bikes. We would have some help on the steep local roads.

When you arrive in Antikythira, you are greeted by a few locals expecting people or stuff from the 3-times-a-week ferry. Residents seem bemused to receive visitors, but they are quick to be welcoming, offer information and generally show friendliness. We struck more conversations in Antikythira in one day than in a week of regular life back home.

On landing, you are also instantly offered a taste of the landscape. The only road from the harbour and main town goes up the steep hillside, with a slope somewhere between 10 and 20%. The vegetation is low bushes and climbers. Rocks and red earth. Even the goats are sparse.

The power of our legs combined with the electric motor, makes the climb doable. When we get to the top, we opt to visit a small bay a little way North of Potamos village, on the way to the dwelling of Patakiana, where the map shows we might be able to get in the water from the rocks.

We cycle up and down the main road inland, then take a turn and soon we’re on a dirt road in good conditions. After a little while, we park our bikes and descend walking towards the coast. The rocks are dark and hot, but walkable. The sea is beautiful, calm, cool and clear. There’s a small traditional fishing boat in the bay, laying nets, and nobody or nothing else.

We jump in the sea for a swim all together, in awe of the wilderness surrounding us. After the family swim, I set out swimming towards the small rocks out at sea visible from the shore, about 700m away, expecting good snorkelling grounds. I am rewarded by shoals of countless fish around the shallow rocky reef on the edge of the tiny island. There’s not a wave, but a strong current is pushing against the steep side of the reef. I swim around the rocks, along the sheer underwater cliff on the Eastern side. I find a gap between the rocks and swim through it, getting back to the sheltered, main-island-facing side with its shallow underwater rocks.

After our swim, we have our picnic on the dark rocks. Then we decide to go see the other side of the island. We retrace our steps on the ebikes for a while, then turn towards the scenic bay of Kamarela. This is an enclosed, rocky bay on the West side of Antikythira, with postcard-worth views of rock arches from the top and an exit to the sea. We find some shade on the tiny beach and go snorkelling again. We venture through the exit out in the open sea, where the sea-bottom drops steeply as to remind us of our limits. We stay close and get back after seeing fish, sea snails, crabs, shrimps, starfish.

We hear more stories, about the Italian and German viewing posts in the area, from a local shepherd. We decide to leave exploring those paths, and the rest of the island, for another time.

Back in the main town, we eat some delicious food at the local taverna, again peppered with some local stories and conversations with the only other fellow visitors we have seen around.

After dinner, we use the spare energy to walk to the church at the top of the town. We absorb the view of the small bay as the day ends, anticipating the appearance of the ferry that will soon take us home.

We promise to return for more adventures.

A track of my swim around the little offshore rocks:

 

Around Kissamos: November swims, rides, hikes, paddles and otherwise outdoor excursions

November 18th: rode the kids down to school with the trolley. Beautiful warm sunny day. Counted about 22 minutes down and 23 minutes up.

Total distance: 6.45 km
Max elevation: 89 m
Min elevation: -44 m
Total climbing: 173 m
Total descent: -75 m
Total time: 00:28:39
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November 17th: we went down to Viglia, in the first bay after the port. Had a nice swim with goggles and gloves, 25 minutes. Sea temperature was decent, some West wind, flat by the shore but quite wavy out. Warm sun. Giugiu and Sofia went in to their waist.

November 15th: in the morning we drove to Sougia, a good 2 hours. We went to the East end of the beach. We saw a couple of kayakers getting ready to set off East. Had a nice swim with snorkel and fin. Saw some big grey mullets, sea breams, a nice grouper! Swam around big rock, strong currents. North wind, especially strong a bit out. Nice sun. Then had lunch with the Italians from Chania that we met there, Matteo, Agamennone and their families.

November 14th: quick morning swim in Viglia just me and Fi, only goggles. Swam one triangle in the bay just before port.

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In Kissamos

The bike trip that became a cycling-kayaking weekend

Olly had talked about cycling back to England for a long time this summer. He was always going to go back that way, up the Balkans, through central Europe. When I left the turtle project I realized maybe I could join him for part of the way to Italy, I didn’t have anything else to keep me busy for the rest of September/October other than Giugiu and Sofia, but Katja would be still here.

So we found ourselves talking about a route, and stops and dates as if it was a very natural thing. We also started going on some cycling excursions together, to get me fitter. Olly didn’t really need any training, but I hadn’t been on a bike since the early spring pretty much. I had also decided that in September I would start cycling Giulia to school a few times, and that is very good training, it’s a steep way up with the extra 15kg.

Over the last few weeks of the summer we cycled to the reservoirs in Tzannata, to Avithos lake in Agios Iannis, to the beaches North of Poros (on a very extreme bad and steep road), to the tombs in Mazarakata (over 50km return for me). I also cycled a few times on my own, once with Florian to Koroni from the Eastern side, once to the road going up Mt. Ainos past Digaleto, stopping at the junction where it meets the road coming from Argostoli-Sami, then turned back. My leg was doing well, it was my ‘good’ knee that betrayed me. After the first few rides (and walking the path from Pastra and on Mt. Aenos) I started getting sharp pains on my left knee. I kept training because the pain would go away the day after, until one day it hurt just to move the knee, let alone walking or cycling. I gave it some rest and it was fine, but I knew I couldn’t go on a 3-week cycling trip where we planned to cycle about 3 hours/day. I still thought a miracle, as in a sudden recovery, could happen.

Well loaded

I got all my stuff ready to leave with Olly, and we set off for Sami on the scheduled date, which had changed a few times. Last plan, after Olly also left the project, was to take the ferry from Sami to Vassiliki, Lefkada on September 22nd. And that’s what we did.

Bikes well loaded, we started our ascent to Pastra first. My knee started hurting straight away and my spirit wasn’t too merry. But as we went ahead I felt less pain and more exhilaration for being so light on the road, with my own legs. Down the valley and then up again towards the lemon pie stop halfway up the pass. We took it easy, and we went up very nicely. A few hundred meters before our planned stop, Olly got a flat tire. We stopped to fix the puncture, but it was the valve, broken off the tube. So we just replaced the tube and caught our breath, then decided to not stop and just go for it. Slope steep enough, 10% in some points, but morale was so high that I found it very easy. We got to the pass in Digaleto and it felt almost effortless. Olly suggested we could roll down all the way to Sami, I was ‘no no’, he tried for a while till we hit the plateau after the big descent. A young volunteer-looking girl on and old mountain bike appeared on the road, asking how long it would be to the top. To the top of Mt. Ainos? Or just the pass? Either case, it was past noon on a hot day and she hadn’t started going up yet. After we left her, Olly wondered if she could make it, I shook my head vehemently. Cruised down to Sami and there we were. Lunch at the bakery, little wine to celebrate, off to buy the tickets for Lefkada before I could change my mind. The ferry was due at 4pm and it was due to be on time. When I took it the previous month it was 3 hours late.

Lunch break in Sami

We had a couple of hours, took a picture by the seafront where we had our lunch then decided to have a break in Karavomilos. Siesta in the shade and back to Sami. The ferry was right on time, empty and perfect for staying outside. My head felt a bit funny, the effort, the sun, the wine, the adventure?

On the ferry we resolved to go for a swim and maybe find a way to get to the cape in Lefkada the day after. First we had to find accommodation though. When we landed in Vassiliki the sun was already low, we had little time. Managed to find a cheap room just over the port, it was easy to bargain a little to take down the price. Managed also to understand that my knee was pretty bad now, it gets bad when it’s cold, after it’s had some time to rest, I thought. This will be the end of my cycling trip. Then we rode our steeds to the Western part of the beach, but the sun had already gone behind the hill. Took a refreshing dip anyway among the windsurfing and watersports places. Then asked around for a kayak for rent, no luck because it was too late and they were all closed, we’d have to come back in the morning after 10am. We were positive because there were quite a few kayaks around.

We got back to the village for dinner, checked all the restaurants on foot as well then picked one at the opposite end of the village to where we were staying. Had a decent dinner, maybe ate too much, then checked the distance to the cape with my thumbs on a map from a shop. It was doable. Had an ouzo and off to bed.

The morning after, Sunday, we got out at 9.30 and Vassiliki was still sleeping. Got some breakfast and lunch then we went to find a kayak to rent. One place rented sit-on-tops by the hour. We bargained and he took the price down, but he had no dry bags and we definitely needed one or two. The other place rented proper sea kayaks, it was more expensive but our stuff, importantly my leg, would stay dry. So after long consultation we decided to go for the incredibly long and attractive closed-in red tandem kayak. First we had breakfast though, while watching a pretty clueless looking American couple load their kayak for a 5-day trip to… let me get the map so I can tell you where we’re going, ah yes it’s called Meganissi. They were already there when we arrived, we had the time to have a good look around, sit down, have breakfast, talk about what to do, try different dry bags, life jackets, get the kayaks, get our stuff inside, get in the sea, paddle away, and they were still there!

Balance was easy on the tandem, direction another matter completely. I sat at the back, left the rudder up, and off we went in the most comical zig zag direction we could. After half an hour we still hadn’t figured out how to go straight, so we decided to land on the first beach and put the rudder down. We swapped places so Olly could steer from the back.

From there it went smoother. It took a while to get to the cape, it is definitely further than the 5-6km that the guy who rented us the kayaks said. It was beautiful. We saw some beaches on the way, the little island just before the cape, the lighthouse on top. We paddled around to go see the famous cliffs from down below, and as soon as we crossed the cape line we hit real waves. The view on the cliffs was amazing, I couldn’t enjoy it too much because I was a little concerned with the kayak’s balance now. The cliffs looked high especially from close to the wall. We saw a little cave and a whirlwind of rubbish dancing just outside, that looked like birds from a distance. We turned back to go land on the sheltered side, by the little island. A young couple was swimming in the small bay. It took us a while to figure out what to do with the kayak. After seeing how badly it hit the rocks being tied with the rope to a metal hook on the rocks, we thought it would be better to just lift it up on the rocks, and it turned out to be a better idea.

We swam to the rock-island, and it was just amazing. No exaggeration here. The water was very clear, and we could see thousands of fish around the rock. Breams of all types, smaller blue fish, lots of parrot fish, a grouper, bright red starfish. It is still the best place for swimming I have ever seen in the Mediterranean sea, together with Ustica maybe. I got cold quickly so after circumswimming the rock I headed back hastily. Well worth it.


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We thought we could have lunch by the lighthouse, walked up the path and in 15 minutes we were eating bread and olives and cheese, salty food on the salty sea water we’d drunk on the way. Didn’t hang around much, it was a bit late and we were tired at this point. Walked back down to the kayak and proceeded to get on.

The way back was harder, we took a straight line from the start this time, but the wind had picked up and it was coming from the side. We were torn between taking the most direct line cutting from headland to headland, which meant staying more exposed, and keep sheltered by following the coastline very tightly, to avoid the growing side wind, which was actually coming at a slight angle from the front-left, or bow-port if you prefer. After getting splashed in the face for over an hour we steered decidedly close to shore. As we were doing so a fishing boat came by very close, the fisherman wildly gesticulating to come away. We couldn’t see the reason for his obviously serious concern, and thinking it was the right choice we persisted until the breeze was gentle enough that we were actually drying out a bit. At this point the sun was setting on the bay, but we resolved to perform one last act before returning the kayak. When we rented it in the morning Olly had asked if it was possible to get in the sea then back onboard. The only reply was ‘have you been on a kayak before? It’s like a surfboard’, and that was that. We paddled almost all the way to the beach before taking up the challenge. The sea was a table, we could observe the people standup paddling going faster than the people windsurfing. We had a good laugh at the whole scene as we jumped in the water. And we got back on fine, although it’s not quite like a surfboard. The rental guy was just waiting for us, it was past 6pm. He pulled ashore the kayak and left everything else there, paddles, lifejackets, drybags, spraydecks which we hadn’t even used.

Second evening in Vassiliki was good, still amazed by the number of young people around after spending all the summers in Katelios. Ouzo before and after dinner, game of tresette. Went to bed late but slept better than the first night.

On Monday morning I got up early, my ferry back to Kefalonia was at 9am. Bought some breakfast in what felt like the very early hours of the morning, no people around other than the baker. Just the time for a quick goodbye to Olly then I got onboard to have my breakfast, as the ferry left the port and he was eating his pastry on our balcony, a few meters away. It was a Dorian Gray-like image, seeing the young image of myself sitting still right in front of me, getting more and more distant as my real self drifted away towards inexorable ageing. Back to reality, we talked about kayaking the Ionian next summer, a few week long adventure, which I intend to do.

Back in Assos, Kefalonia

In Fiskardo just after 10am I hurried off the boat to get on my bike and go meet Fiona in Assos. The road was harder than I thought and my knee wasn’t happy at all. I cycled uphill for a good 10-12km before the road finally hit a plateau and I could cruise for a short time, as the steep descent to Assos came up very soon after. I went down with all the weight from my bags rocking at every hairpin bend. I was happy to see Fiona, and wondered how Olly would do on his long trip that I wish I could have joined.