Eastern Crete – a bite to eat?
Kritsa is a popular vacation spot in winter and the best way to the lonely plateau of Katharo, where we almost always have the best chance of seeing snow on Crete. The lonesome Kafeneion, adorned with Che Guevara posters, is the only place available to warm up with a hot coffee and local 4×4 club race along the region's meltwater-filled river beds. Today, however, Katharo would remain in great isolation, at least from us. My friend Kostas Argyropoulos, a local mining engineer, had pointed me to a recently completed new road that I wanted to investigate. Shortly before the main street in Kritsa, we turned left to drive up the street to Kroustas. With a panoramic view of the Gulf of Mirabello and a church that juts out into the street at one corner, it's an interesting and spectacular drive. The village itself is one of the few places that seem to be untouched by the passage of time. Old men are sitting in the coffee shops with knee-length leather boots and the traditional black costume of the Cretan villagers. The village women prepare Horta, a variety of wild plants including dandelion leaves, or pick fava beans before serving their version of the pease pudding with onions and sprinkling with fresh olive oil.
The road meandered down from Kroustas into the forest, and bands of sunlight peered through the autumn deciduous trees. The first rains had already damaged the newly laid road and some areas had been washed away, so caution was advised. A roughly written sign pointed to the left to Istron, a bumpy road that leads to Pirgos, which I have traveled to many times. But Kostas had advised me to continue to Prina, a village near Kalamafka, the only place on this part of the island where you can see the Cretan Sea and the Libyan Sea at the same time. From Prina we followed a new road into the picturesque village of Meseleri and turned through the winding streets of the village before we went back to the new road. On the right, the Vramiana reservoir sparkled in the distance. The area is an important nursery and a constant water supply is necessary to ensure the quality and quantity of the nearby cucumbers, tomatoes and fruits, most of which end up on tables in Northern Europe.
The semi-industrialized landscape of Ierapetra was a shock to the system after the sheer natural beauty we had previously experienced on our trip, but the city's economy has given the residents and the grand and grand villas a rich lifestyle. We bypassed the north of the capital and were on the way to Siteia.
In the meantime we were very hungry and turned left into the village of Koutsounari to find out where nothing was open. We could have returned to Ierapetra, but decided to continue east via Ferma and Achlia. We arrived in Koutsouras, where there is a well-known restaurant called "Robinsons", which was also closed. The desire for food or at least a coffee became urgent now. We found a free spot in Makrigialos, but for reasons that we know best, we continued towards Siteia.
The Makrigialos road rises northward and offers a spectacular view of fertile valleys in the west. Churches on monolithic hills characterize the landscape, many of which were built on old shrines of the pagan sun god. A tourist bus was parked outside in the tavern in Lithines. In winter, horse-drawn carriage rides to religious sites and monasteries are a popular pastime for the older women, sometimes accompanied by garish songs on the return journey that would make a rugby player blush. Shortly after the village you turn to Ziros and reach the spectacular Xerokampos. Reached by a winding road, this is one of the jewels of Crete. Some say that the clear water and calm of this bay, reminiscent of the Seychelles, are now disturbed by the almost inevitable sound of JCBs and concrete mixers as developers snatch another piece of paradise from us to sell to the highest bidder.
I continued north to Siteia and braked the car until it was only a few meters away from a migratory Eleonora falcon (Falco eleonorae) standing at the roadblock. Of course it flew away before we had time to really appreciate it, but it was another magical moment on our unplanned day. Via Agios Georgios and Maronia we slowly descended to Siteia, another industrial and market center with a large and prestigious winery and one of the best olive oils in Crete. For the first time, despite my many visits to the city, I saw the old Venetian fortress, which was named Kazarma after the Italian word for "barracks". This fortress was built to withstand the Turkish invasion and withstood a siege for three years (1648-1651). It has recently undergone extensive renovations and now hosts concerts and other events in the city.
It has long been rumored that Siteia Airport will accept incoming charter flights, so we went to the airport on an unpaved road to investigate. The airport still looks more like the military airfield than it has always been, and flights to this particular area seem to be more distant than ever. Perhaps it's not a bad thing to protect the area from mass tourism, though developers have bought the area near Vai Palm Beach and plan to build a huge complex of golf courses, villas, and hotels.
The new road, every 3 km, led us home before we returned to the old road. We are currently working on this project and we have undertaken bridge building projects which, together with the other road improvements and bypasses, will shorten the 72 km journey to Agios Nikolaos, the capital of the region, to 45 minutes. The sea and the mountains glowed red as the sun set behind the Lassithi Mountains, and when despair set in, we turned towards the coastal village of Mochlos in Sfaka. We parked and walked past the kafenions, where each head was pointed at the TV for the live soccer game. When we turned the corner to the harbor, loud music came from a pickup. As we approached, we found the door wide open and there was no driver inside and realized that this was the background music for the next Kafeneion. Nobody seemed to pay attention to the music. They too loved the soccer game.
The tiny village offered us the choice between two taverns, both with a view of the island of Agios Nikolaos with its Minoan city ruins. We decided to sit inside, the evening had cooled in the air and turned to the menus. Lamb with artichokes and a mixed grill were on the menu, so we went drinking fava and baked feta cheese and tomatoes, followed by chicken souvlaki (kebabs) and a huge pork chop, both served with French fries and with an old diet soda rinsed off. As usual, half a loaf of bread and some Cretan rusks seemed to keep us alive until the food was prepared, along with some delicious pickled anchovies and a rich brown olive pie. As hungry as we were at the time, we still couldn't complete everything, especially the free fruit platter that came with the bill for EUR 23.00 (£ 16.00, $ 32.00).
It was dark when we left the tavern, and driving and a very full stomach had made me a little tired. The sign at Paxia Ammos read "Agios Nikolaos 19km". We were home in half an hour. It may have been the longest trip we've had to have a bite to eat, but the miracle of Eastern Crete has fully justified it.