The alternative would turn out to be a winding and costly improvised road, like many others in which, in the days we were already wandering around Crete, we had gotten involved.
Thus, we chose the easiest route on the Greek highway 90, better known as VOAK, the island's supreme route, which runs along its north coast and from which countless secondary roads depart, serving as many places to the south.
In the middle of Kolpos Kissamou, the Bay of Kissamos, we diverted to one of them, Epar.Od. Kaloudianon-Chrisoskalitissas.
Even at its beginning, the inflatable window of a store gives us the impression that we are on the right path. It is filled with a formation of gaudy buoys, flamingos, white swans and even unicorns.
Above the building's detached sign, a sign informs the store's address and contact details. In Greek, and in blue and white, the colors of the Greek flag, so that there is no doubt about the patriotism of the business. Disguised behind the buoys, a green panel almost identical to the one on the façade, versa, in English "Going to the Sea".
Kaloudianon-Chrisoskalitissas Road Down Towards Topolia Gorge
From there down, there was almost no mistaking it. Back to the nations and their alphabets, that's what the owners of a rural produce stall did, one of many serving the Kissamos region, especially at the end of spring and summer, when fertile Crete becomes even more prolific.
This time in white, red and green, a sign was promoting TraNditional Products, even so, with an unnecessary N, a derisory error considering how much the Greek alphabet could mislead us.
Above all, we must boast about the diversity and quality of everything that comes out of the agricultural land and small farms in the Kissamos region: cheeses and smoked meats, olive oil, jams, rakomelo (raki with honey) and, the exponent of the exponents, the famous thyme honey that we will soon find, in different viewpoints over the Topolia gorge.
Distraction after distraction, we find ourselves at your entrance. We parked next to one of these lookouts, in the opposite direction to the one we were following, overlooking the depths of the canyon.
We devoted ourselves to appreciating the rocky cliffs ahead and a pair of large golden eagles that, it seemed, hovered around a nest on top of the cliff.
Golden Eagles, Goats kri kri and the Cretan Fashion of Dress
A salesman from the stall approaches us and approaches us, in English with some Hellenic accent: “I understand that eagles deserve your full attention. It's the same with us. Here, in these parts, we are in the territory of the goats kri kri (Crete goats). And, believe it or not, these eagles have the strength to catch the smallest goats and take them to their nests. It is not the first time, nor the second that we have witnessed it. In fact, peasants from here have already gone there to try to rescue their goats. Want to go peek at the nest? If you want, I'll take you there and take amazing pictures!”
Confronted with our excuse, Savvas – that was the name of the interlocutor – directs us to the window of his honey and introduces us to his friend Giorgos Papantonakis. This one immediately dazzles us. Giorgos wears traditional clothes from the area, a black shirt with a scarf ending in an X with different legs.
He is also wearing light gray trousers, the same shade as the handkerchief, tucked into tall boots just below his knee. Giorgos still held a crooked wooden staff. And he has a reddish beard and mustache that matched the outfit, as genuine as Crete could prove.
As if that wasn't enough, he didn't speak English.
From time to time, he made an effort to do so. But his speech soon fell to the Greek and forced Savvas to come to his aid. “He is asking if you want to see his goat” the translator tells us.
Curious, we agreed. Giorgos, look at a small corral below the wall that separated us from the back of the gorge. We heard him call “Yero! Yero!” In a flash, a huge goat throws its front legs over the wall, straddles its owner and kisses him on the cheek.
Giorgos takes the staff. Without even having to suggest it, he holds the animal's black beard and composes a Cretan-goat production that takes us out of our minds. We photographed the unexpected duo. Soon, Giorgos sends the goat to his quarters. Savvas resumes his speech. “It's four years old. Have you seen the size well? Amazing isn't it?”
We say goodbye. We continued down the Topolia Gorge, just a few kilometers, just enough to reach Kythira.
The Inescapable Visit to the Agia Sofia Grotto
In this village, a large brown sign to the right of the road indicates the Agia Sofia cave, and the windy beginning of the one hundred and fifty steps that give access to it.
We reached the staircase imposed on the cliff, among wild fig trees and other trees that renewed the unmistakable aroma of the Cretan summer. Higher up, certain openings revealed the canyon's grip to the north. And how, to get rid of it, the road zigzagged in trouble, one of the steepest climbs on the route.
At the top of the stairs, already inside the cave, we come across a lone employee, seated at a table overlooking a gallery of stalagmites and stalactites in front of us. The employee raises his head. He gazes at us with a mole's gaze, from behind some glasses with full-bottle lenses.
He greets us with a “kalispera” contained and leaves us free to explore the dismal and orthodox sacredness of the sanctuary, also known as the Wisdom of God, according to the icon brought from a temple in Constantinople by Cretan fighters.
In a corner of the cave, a simple wall and a roof crowned by a belfry with a stone cross and an electric star make up a chapel.
Inside, we find an area exclusive to priests, delimited by a screen filled with an assortment of iconographic images of Christ, Our Lady, angels and the like, set in a golden setting that the natural light that ventured there and that of some lamps made shine.
Around it, a large wooden armchair and several other icons lined up on a low wall completed the grotto's Greek Orthodoxy.
Despite its historical and religious importance, in the time we spent there, we were the only visitors. We didn't stay long.
By the time of the Hi Myloi Iliakis Michael Tavern, we had left Topolia's throat behind.
We continue along its sequence, the long, albeit less constricted and deep gorge of the Potamos River. Even diminished by the summer's dryness, the river gave itself to the Mediterranean in the bay of Ormos Stómio. We, bend south, towards the southwestern ends of Crete.
We spotted Elafonisi from the top of a point overlooking the road, next to a restaurant that, with positional and etymological justice, called itself Panorama.
From there, we see a half-island and half-peninsula extending into the blue of the sea, separated from land only by a shallow lagoon and, as such, much clearer, with a translucent gradient of cyan and emerald.
Although distant from the main cities in the north of the island – Chania, Heraklion, Retimo – Elafonisi has become one of Crete's revered coastal domains.
Thousands of Cretans, other Greeks and foreigners frequent it, many of whom rent country and beach houses at the back of the island.
To prove it, when we went down to sea level, we came across a makeshift car park among the pine cones.
At that hour, the tide was as low as possible. It kept uncovered the amphibious isthmus that separated the island of Elafonisi from greater Crete and that, at the same time, opened onto two opposite beaches.
The turn to the east preserved a sea almost worthy of the name, less shallow, even if it took several dozen steps to climb up to the waist.
Despite the shallowness and immobility of the Mediterranean, the Greek authorities took their responsibilities seriously. A watchtower prominent high above the Straw Hat colonies watched the bathers' movements.
It was identified in red, as "Lifeguard” but, in order to demonstrate the Hellenicity of that domain, it sported a blue and white striped flag waving in the wind.
In the shadow cast by the top of the structure, a young lifeguard kept his post, not quite post. “Do you, with this sea, have anything to do? we shoot, as a joke, in order to establish a conversation. Giorgis is surprised by the approach.
"Hello! Look, it's not quite what you think. Last month a foreign lady died here. Of course it wasn't about waves or currents. He was the victim of an epilepsy attack and no one noticed it in time. I was off duty”.
"Where are you from? In Portugal? Oh, so glad I went there. I did an entire Erasmus in Lisbon, did you know? The hardest part was studying, I don't need to explain why, right?” and winks at us mischievously. “Climb up. Take some pictures from up here! My shift is up. I'm walking. That way they even have more space”.
For a good ten minutes, we enjoyed the benefit. Back on the sand, we walk to the permanent ground of Elafonisi Island, a nature reserve protected from the crowds that hides delightful mini-beaches.
We explore its dunes. We admired the immaculate Mediterranean of that remote south, stretching out to a jagged bay to the east, at the foot of the mountains that hid the fishing village, now more of a summer resort than anything else, of Gialos.
Even the paradise that surrounded us preserved its macabre past.
As is the case in so many other parts of the Hellenic homeland, it was caused by the conflict between Greece and Turkey for centuries and vice versa.
In April 1824, in full expansion of the Ottoman Empire, hundreds of Greek inhabitants of these parts took shelter from enemy incursions. Unfortunately, the Turkish troops decided to be quartered nearby. As if that wasn't enough, one of his horses ran away. In the commotion generated, the animal ended up revealing the Cretan's hiding place.
The story goes that, between 650 and 850 Greeks, a good part were killed, and the survivors taken to Egypt, where they found themselves sold into slavery.
A plaque at the top of Elafonisi marks the tragedy and the eternal Turkish-Hellenic dispute, which is now fiercer than ever, over the dispute over the Mediterranean treasures, minerals, not bathing.