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Trekking in Western Crete

GREECE | Wednesday, 5 August 2009 | Views [3912]

E4 path marker.

E4 path marker.

One of my favourite places to trek in Europe is around Loutro a village/resort in district of Sfakia on Crete’s South Coast. It nestles around a small bay, the only natural harbour on the South Coast and there has been a settlement here since Roman times. Nowadays only a few hundred people live here, and the place is almost deserted in the winter months. One of Loutros main attractions is that you can only get there by foot or by boat, the foothills of the Lefka Ori - the White Mountains, rise up directly behind the village, effectively cutting it off. As well as making it a very quiet and pleasant place, it is convenient base for some great trekking, particularly as it’s on the E4 trans European walking path. I have been coming here since 1988, walking my favourite routes many times as well as exploring the rest of the E4 and the Lefka Ori.

I have described some of easier trekking routes around Loutro, which I first wrote up for the Lonely Planet guide to Crete (3rd and 4th editions) but I have expanded and revised these online versions.

Two Easy Walks

Loutro has a small pebbly beach which can get quite crowded at weekends. Luckily there are here are two good beaches to the west and east of Loutro, both about an hours walk away. Both have small tavernas where you can food and drink, and have a boat service to Loutro if you can’t face the walk back, which is how the majority of visitors get to and from them.

Loutro to Marble Beach (Marmara Bay)

Marble Beach is a small beach at the mouth of the Aradhena gorge which lies 3 km to the west of Loutro and takes about an hour to walk to. There is almost no shade on the trail but there are places to stop and get drinks. The route starts in ally next to the Hotel Dhaskaloyiannis, in Loutro and climbs up to a gate and the top of the headland. To your right are the ruins of the sizeable Venetian fort. The Venetians scattered forts all along this coast the remains of which can be discovered in even very remote spots. The headland jutting in to sea is the site of ancient Finikas, a major town in Roman times, but there is nothing left to see now.

Bare left and follow the signs to Phoenix, note the black and yellow paint marks and poles which waymark the E4 path. Walk over the top of the headland bearing west until you are looking down on the next bay which contains the small settlement of Phoenix. The route now descends down a rough path to a junction with a sign to Phoenix. Take the right hand path that goes around the houses and which leads up to a dirt road. Cross the road and head up hill to the corner of a fence where there is a path junction with a very battered sign to Livaniana, which is the village you can see on the hillside above you. Bare left and head towards the gate in the fence.

The route descends down to Likos which is just a few houses, and is the place to stay if you want to get away from it all. You may be surprised to see a few cars here and in Finix. Roads were pushed through from Anopoli in 1996 which has led to some development particularly in Finix, although it must be a nerve racking drive and not the place to bring the hire car.

The trail now passes by the tavernas on the beach, including one called the ‘Small Paradise’ which is lovely spot for a drink. Walk past the last house and head towards the large cave and black/yellow paint markers at the end of the beach. You now climb up to a rock arch, care is needed here as the rock is very polished, (especially if you are coming the other way) and the easiest way not always apparent. Walk on with care as there is sheer drop to the sea on your left.

Shortly afterwards there is another short climb, then the path begins to open up. You will pass a junction with a path on your right which goes up to Livaniana, you continue on until you reach an open hillside. The path then descends easily, down to Marble Beach.

The beach is fairly small and pebbly but it’s a great place to swim. There are caves to explore and an area of rock beside the main beach is colonised by nudists. You can rent sun lounges and umbrellas and when you’ve had enough of the beach you can retreat to taverna on the headland above which does very good meals. You can even stay here in their very simple (no electricity) rooms. There is regular boat to take people back to Loutro each afternoon, if you don’t want to walk back.

Loutro to Sweetwater Bay

This is a very easy walk with no climb involved, about 3km distance and which takes about an hour. The path begins on the eastern edge of Loutro, ask for directions for the path as it starts behind the houses. You should end up at a gate with a small shrine and goat pen just beyond it. This is also the junction for the walk up to Anopoli. You are walking directly ahead along the coast, a little further on the path has a short climb up over a small spur at the bottom of which the village burns some of its rubbish.

Continue on for about an hour, the path is obvious all the way along. At one point it descends to the sea and a small beach if you fancy a swim. Just before it reaches Sweetwater the path crosses a headland with the small church of Timios Stavros on it. The concrete benches are for when people come here on his feast day. The path then descends steeply to the bay.

Sweetwater Beach is so named because there is fresh(ish) water here but you have to dig for it, as it’s around half a meter down. You will see rock pools that have been dug out by the semi permanent residents who live here, they are quite possessive of their water so don’t stick your water bottle in their pools. The beach is all pebbles and there is very little shade, though the taverna now rents out umbrellas. It’s also a nudist beach, so feel free to take your clothes off.  Because there is water here, some people live on the beach all summer long, heading into Loutro of Sfakia only for provisions.

Try to avoid being too close to the cliff face, as stones do come down, particularly if it’s been raining and in the Spring and Autumn. One local told me that people run along this beach if they have to come this way out of season, because of the risk of falling rock.

When I first came here in 1988, an English man was selling food and drinks out of a cool box; by the mid nineties a hut was built on a concrete block which is still there selling drinks and simple meals. There is also a regular boat service to Loutro, which leaves in the late afternoon.

If you want to continue onto Sfakia, pick up the trail at the end of the beach. The path now continues across a large rock fall, which involves some climbing around, although it is waymarked. The route then climbs upwards until you are walking on ledge which has been cut out of a cliff face. Soon afterwards you join the tarmac road that goes up to Anopoli from Sfakia. Sfakia is 2.5km further on along the coast. Loutro to Sfakia, non stop will take about 2hrs.

Loutro to Marble Beach via Livaniana  (3 ½ hours) 6.5 kms.

An alternative route from Loutro to Marble Beach that goes via the small mountain village of Livaniana and the lower reaches of the Aradhena gorge. This walk takes around 3 ½ hours and is 6.5 km long.

Take the path beside the Hotel Daskalogiannis up to the Venican fort. Follow the yellow/black E4 paint spots over the headland to Phoenix. As you descend there is a sign to Phoenix, take the right hand path that goes around the houses. Cross the dirt road and head directly up the hill towards Livaniana in the distance. At the top of the hill there is a junction with one path signposted to Livaniana. Follow the blue paint marks, the path now heads uphill and crosses the road again before entering a small gorge.

The old mule path then traverses up the gorge and links up the road again on the outskirts of the village. (One hour)  200 meters on is a simple taverna that sells cold drinks.

When I first passed through Livaniana in 1989 the village falling into ruins and was only inhabited by a few old people who moved like black ghosts amongst the derelict houses. All the young people had left for the towns. It’s notable feature was the remains of an enormous olive press, which is still there. In 1996 the road to the outside world arrived and this has allowed some redevelopment like the taverna and renovation of some of the houses.

To continue, walk past the taverna and up the hill into the village aiming for the church at the top. Walk past the church, following the blue spots to a fence where there is a sign pointing to Marble Beach and Anopoli. Follow the sign to Marble Beach, the blue spots will take you around the field and along the edge of the old olive terrace. After 100 meters you come to a gap in a fence, from where you can look down into the Aradhena Gorge.

The olive terraces you now see before you are hundreds of years old and from these generations of villagers extracted a living. After been nurtured by tens of thousands of hours of back breaking work, they have now been left to nature. 

Turn left and follow the blue paint beside the fence, the path then lead you down towards the floor of the gorge. (35 mins) At one point you are directly under the gorge wall so watch out for falling stones and hurry through this section. If you look above you, you may see Bonelli’s Eagles riding the thermals. These large raptors nest on the gorge walls in this area and are commonly seen.

At the bottom there is sign up to Livaniana, beside a large tree. Turn left here down the gorge towards the sea and Marble Beach. After a few minuets you will pass a trough where you can collect water. The route now crosses an area where the gorge is filled large boulders. Often the path is not obvious but if route seems particularly difficult, then you have probably gone the wrong way. At one point the path reaches a sheer drop and turns left through some trees. Red and blue waymarking paint spots mark the way, with the red being the most reliable. As the path levels out it passes close to a sheer cliff, again move quickly here as there are goats above who can dislodge rocks; you will pass the remains of goats which have fallen off. The last few hundred meters are flat and easy and you then arrive at Marble Beach and its welcome taverna. 1 ½ km (45 mins).

To return to Loutro, follow the E4 path that starts behind the beach and the yellow/black paint spots. After half an hour you reach the hamlet of Likkos. Walk through the tavernas then follow the path (blue paint spots) which lead over the headland where you meet the path to Livaniana.

Loutro to Anopoli and the Aradena Gorge. 7km (9km if walking back to Loutro on the E4)         (5 – 6 hrs).

A strenuous, full days walk, which takes in an authentic country village, and spectacular gorge with a beach at the end of it.

Make an early start (I usually get going about 0700) as all the hard effort is at the beginning, a 680 meter climb from the sea up to the plain of Anopoli. The path starts behind the Kri Kri taverna in Loutro, follow the path up to a fence with a new metal gate. On the other side is small shrine and goat pen. A path continues along the coast which leads to Sweetwater Bay (see Two easy routes). You turn left here and follow the good path which traverses back and fro across the hillside. After twenty minutes you will reach a junction by a small gorge, this path leads to Phoenix, you bare right here and continue climbing. Your objective is the small chapel you can see high above you. 

After one hour you reach a dirt road with bee hives on it, cross it and keep going until you meet it again higher up. Then turn right and walk 100 meters until you reach a cistern on your left where you pick up the path again. At this point I am usually racing to beat the sun which is just over the horizon.

When walking this route in Summer 08 a new development was a goat fence that had been strung across the path. Turn left when you meet it and continue up the hill on a newly made path which soon reaches the original path higher up, turn left again when you reach it. Continue walking up, you are aiming for the point below the walled compound you can see above you. At the top (1 ½ hours, 4.7km) you have a fantastic view of the coast and the plain of Anopoli with the Lefha Ori mountains behind. Follow the tarmac road, which leads to the town square at the centre of Anopoli. (20 mins, 800 meters)

Anopoli is a small country town which sees few tourists. This is a place where you will still see old men dressed in black with large boots and hair nets, although they are dieing out fast. There are a couple of tavernas where you can get a simple breakfast and stay the night if you really want to get away from it all.

The easiest way to get to the Aradena gorge is simply to follow the road. Walk on following the road sign to Aradena. You soon reach the hamlet of Aghios Dhimitrios which has a shop and small guest house. Walk through the hamlet, the road soon switches back on itself by a large sheep fold.

Just as the ruins of Aradena come into view. 1 ½ kms (20 mins) look for a small charin and path on the right side of the road marked with faded blue spots. This is just after a bend. Walk along the path, it points directly at Aradena, until you reach a small shrine and the start of the path that traverses down into the gorge. Until the bailey bridge was built in 1986, the only way to get to Aradena and Ayios Ionnis further on was to walk down into the gorge and up the other side. The bridge is now used for bungee jumping.  

At the bottom of the gorge turn left and walk on passing under the road bridge which is 130 meters above you. After 20 mins you will reach a wooden fence and the start of a staircase cut into the side of the gorge, complete with handrail - follow it with care as the path is not in good condition. After 300 meters you descend into the gorge again.

In the past the Aradena Gorge was a tough proposition as getting around this section meant scrambling using fixed ropes and ladders. The staircase was built in the mid nineties to make it more accessible, with the aim of popularising it for groups, which has not really happened because of poor transport connections, you still have a fair hike when you get to the bottom. Thankfully Aradena is still a wilderness walk, unlike the Imbos gorge near Sfakia which when I first did it in the late eighties was rarely walked. Now it is an ‘alternative’ Samaria, with ticket offices, a collection of tavernas at the bottom and coach loads of walkers marching down it every day.

Continue down the gorge following the cairns and faded red paint spots as the path passes over rock falls. Just before an area of vegetation you will see blue paint marks which indicate a path up to Livaniana and on right side of the gorge the same blue paint marking a path up to Aghios Ioanis. Walk on down the gorge until you reach a second junction just below a hillside with olive terraces. There is a large tree here and a sign for the taverna in Livaniana, which is above you.

Walk on and after a few minuets you will pass a trough where you can collect water. The route now crosses an area where the gorge is filled with large boulders. Often the path is not obvious but if route seems particularly difficult, then you have probably gone the wrong way. At one point the path reaches a sheer drop and turns left through some trees. Red and blue waymarking paint spots mark the way, with the red being the most reliable. As the path levels out it passes close to a sheer cliff, again move quickly here as there are goats above who can dislodge rocks; you will pass the remains of those who fell over. The last few hundred meters are flat and easy and you then arrive at Marble Beach and its welcome taverna. The gorge length is 5.5km from the bridge to the sea and the walk should take 2 to 2.5 hrs.

If you got up early, after a swim it’s probably time for lunch. A boat from the taverna  backs to Loutro in the late afternoon  or you can walk back, see Two easy routes. 

Practicalities

Crete is a tough environment, particularly in summer, which in many ways is part of its appeal. Most of these routes are fairly rugged and it helps to have a decent pair of boots. Although on these treks you are never to far from civilisation you must carry some water, I work on an average of one litre per hours walking. You can usually buy more along the way. Also essential is a hat and plenty of blocker. Try and get the climbs done as early in the day as possible, slogging up in the midday sun is no fun.

Try and tell somebody, such as your guest house owner, where you are going and when you expect to be back. A twisted ankle could be a major problem if you run out of water. On some routes like Aradena don’t expect too many people to be passing by.

Maps. Maps of Greece used to be a state secret as they always imagined that the Turks would use them to invade the country. With the advent of Google Earth you can count the hangers at the Air Force base in Chania, making restricting maps a bit pointless. The Greek map publisher Anavasi now covers the Lefka Ori on three excellent maps to a scale of 1:25,000. On one side is a topographic map and on the reverse the same area showing the trekking routes including distances and walking times. The routes above are all covered on sheet 11.11. These maps can be bought locally or from Standfords in London.

GPS. The Anavasi maps use the Greek Geodetic Reference System. I took a GPS unit to Crete for the first time this year and tried to set my unit up to use the Greek system. This is extremely complicated (even with expert advice) and I didn’t manage to do it. Of course you can still use the lat/long coordinates and they are marked on the maps. On the walks described, a GPS really isn’t necessary, a good eye for the path most trodden and paint spots are a better instrument for finding the way ahead.

See pictures of landmarks along the route

 

 

 

 

Tags: beaches, trekking route descriptions

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