‘Honey, I Don’t Do Goat Paths’: Hiking in Greece Presents Its Own Unique Situations
Many first-time canoe trippers aren't properly prepared for what to expect. Finding the right gear is one of the crucial steps to enjoying the outdoors. Here, Steve Piragis portages his canoe around Curtain Falls, Minn., in a boundary waters trek in 2001. (Doug Smith/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)
Travel not only nurtures the soul, but it also gives you altered and often appreciative perspectives on the routine of home.
The basics as simple as language, food, driving, hygiene, greetings, purchasing and more no longer are ordinary.
They become rewarding and frustrating adventures.
Throw hiking into the mix.
How we take for granted the signed pathways of northern New England. Mileages, direction, precise maps and designated trailhead parking are as commonplace as air.
Not so much on the Greek island of Crete.
We did find well-marked trails, distances and parking on a mountain-to-the-sea trek through spectacular Samaria Gorge in the Lefka Ori (White Mountains), one of Europe’s longest.
My wife Jan and I walked through a brilliant calf-high lagoon with pink corral sand to the tiny island of Elafonisi with its marram grass and juniper trees along a nature trail.
While hiking the acropolis (though known for the monuments in Athens, the word means “hilltop citadel”) in the small village of Polyrinnia, we came upon one of the island’s ubiquitous elderly women dressed in black.
She spoke Greek. We spoke English. Yet we communicated.
Each trek is itself worthy of countless words, but it was a ramble along a barren rocky peninsula jutting out in the Sea of Crete that came to symbolize the topsy-turvy world of hiking abroad, featuring concentration, uncertainty and fascination.
Base camp was Kissamos, a small town about a half-hour drive from the seaside city of Chaina in western Crete, called “The Wild West” by a transplanted British nurse we met.
The town is both ordinary and beautiful with its mountains and sea, accented by the Gramvoussa and Rodopou cliff-heavy peninsulas forming the U-shaped shimmering basin of Kissamos Bay.
They must be explored with Gramvoussa, known for its white sand Balos beach accessible by a five-mile dirt road or boat (we chose boat), while windswept and remote Rodopou is best explored by four-by-fours or foot.
So we walked, armed with a guidebook we bought in Athens.
No signs. No mileage along the way. Dirt roads. Churches. Rare shade. Prickly plants. A few colored dots and cairns. Goat paths. And sheep with bells like wind chimes.
But there were also new landmarks to find that provided some smiling and awe.
The taxing seven-mile remote loop ramble over the barren landscape with ancient olive trees, wild oregano and reminiscent of the high desert towered over the stunning sea.
No trailhead, instead leaving the compact car rental on the street in a sleepy square, with a taverna containing old men drinking coffee. Instead of miles, the guidebook called for minutes.
Landmarks were road bends, stone walls, a concrete pillar and — egad — a cistern.
The roads were easy to follow, but not the loosely footed tracks. How’s this for directions: “Head off left beside the cisterns, on a smaller track (more like a goat’s trail — or like a stream bed after wet weather). One or two minutes past the cisterns, cross a track and continue straight on.
“A couple of minutes later curve round to the right. Continue round to the right and then, where the track forks a minute later, keep left uphill.”
Talk about high anxiety!
The directions worked well once we realized we had passed the cisterns.
And how about this: “… (F)ind a waymark indicating a path leading to a low wall on which a metal shrine is bolted.”
We found the shrine — two of them — and gingerly negotiated the hairpin goat paths, descending steeply on loose stones with astounding views out to sea, across the mountains and down to a shaded church.
There was also lots of stinging nettles that tormented us often with shooting flares of pain, our flesh exposed because travelers wear shorts.
The path seemed to go on forever, slowly inching down to hallowed level ground and shade trees by the church.
Though the sheep we saw quickly bolted when they saw us, they were no doubt much more sure-footed than we ever will be in such terrain.
Later, hills, pastures and pens were part of the landscape before the return to the small village of Rodopos and that rented car where, once again, even the most seasoned of travelers are often humbled by what they find along the way, and what they learn about themselves.
When it was all over, Jan said “Honey, I don’t do goat paths.”
Seems fair to me.