Sep 23 2007

Road Trip: Part 1

Published by at 12:09 pm under Crete,Greece

One aspect of Hania that makes it such an attractive destination is its position on the western side of Crete. Attractions on Crete’s western half range from isolated, self-sufficient, villages to mountain caverns to some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe. And Hania makes an ideal base for exploring them all. Wanting to take in as much of Crete as possible, we rented a car for two days last week, bound for the island’s Southwest corner. We set our ultimate destination as Elafonisi Beach, and opted to take the “inland road” to get there. There is an alternative “coastal road” that is billed as more scenic, but the inland road offers some of the best chances to take in the more traditional Cretan way of life. With a picnic lunch and a map written in a language we can’t read, we hit the inload road on Thursday morning.

Our first destination was a village called Vouves, which would never have been on any tourist’s list until recently. Just a few years ago, scientists dated an olive tree in Vouves to be approximately 4,000 years old, and the village was suddenly on the map. I still don’t think I’m able to fully comprehend just hold old this tree really is. Chew on this: If Christ had visited Vouves, he would have been marvelling at a tree already 2,000 years old. That’s an old tree.

Brittany In 2004, the Olympics committee visited Vouves, and cut two branches off the olive tree. These were used to fashion wreaths, which were presented to the first and last gold-medal winners in the Games. This ceremony is slated to become a tradition going forward. The proprietor was pleased to show us photographs from the ceremony held at her home, and was also pleased to try to sell us soft drinks and/or novelty ice cream bars. The gnarled tree (which still bears olives!) is surrounded by a ring of bricks, and is the centerpiece of the property’s garden. We had read that before the tree became famous, a nearby neighbor was using it as a kennel for her dogs. This was possible because the tree has a large hollow interior, and it didn’t take Brittany long to climb inside the oldest tree in the universe.

Before getting back on the main road, we stopped to eat our picnic lunch in a nearby olive grove. We were joined by a chorus of tree frogs, but my attempts to capture a specimen continued to be met with failure.

Ayios Nikalaos Church Our next detour found us seeking one of Crete’s oldest churches, Ayios Nikolaos, noted to be somewhere within the mountain village of Mouri. We questioned why our directions would be so vague until we got to the village. I would have no way of accurately telling you how to find this church. The best directions I can think of sound like this: drive around Mouri until you see a sign written in Greek that looks something like “Nikalaos.” Follow the arrows on any such signs until you (hopefully) arrive at a roadside sign that seems to be pointing nowhere. Find a place to park your car on the cliffside, and start walking into the nearby olive grove. You can’t see it from the road, but there is indeed a church back there among the trees. Let me futher clarify: we went in expecting “church” to mean one of those big buildings with a steeple and pews, and maybe some Sunday school rooms. Not quite. Ayios Nikolaos is no bigger than a woodshed, and sort of looks like a woodshed tucked in among the trees. Open the unlocked door, and you’ll find one room with no seats, and standing room for probably fifteen people. What you’ll also find is an amazing collection of frescoes that adorn the walls and ceiling of the room, as well as several framed paintings and a large wooden cross. The frescoes depict different scenes from the Bible, and survive largely in fragments today. Ayios Nikolaos is tiny, hard to find, and definitely worth the detour.

Back on the inland road, we soon found ourselves winding higher and higher into Crete’s Lefka Ori Mountains (“White Mountains”). I typically don’t mind mountain driving (Brittany can’t stand it) but driving through the Lefka Ori Mountains is nothing like the Blue Ridge Mountain drives I’m accustomed to. The road circles you round and round up into the peaks, but you don’t realize how high you really are until you find yourself skirting the edge of a several-hundred foot ravine, on a a two-lane road only wide enough for one car, with no guard rail. Looking out the window is at once an awesome sight, and a terrifying one. In addition to the unsettling fact that the road is often only wide enough for one car, it also tends to takes blind curves around the mountainside. It’s very clear at these times that if another car is coming around the bend in the opposite direction, you will have no way of seeing each other until you’re hitting each other head-on, and subsequently tumbling into the ravine. The only preventive measure I could think of was to approach these blind curves slowly, honking like mad in hopes of announcing my presence to any unseen on-comers. Then it’s time to hold your breath, take the curve, hopefully breathe a sigh of relief upon finding yourself alive, and brace yourself for the next one. Of course, this routine is always accompanied by the question, “why did we take the inland road again?”

The highlight of the cliffside drive for me was a tunnel that cuts into the mountain, and is of course, the exact width of one car. The solution to this problem is a traffic light that lets you know when it’s your side’s turn to pass through the tunnel. I was the only car at the light when it turned green, and I proceeded to take us into the mountain. I hadn’t gone very far into the tunnel when I saw it: a tour bus, coming directly at me. Aside from a crushing death, I had one option: back up out of the tunnel and along the cliffside, until I could reach a point wide enough for both myself and a tour bus. My subconscious is preventing me from reliving much of this experience, but I do wish for the record to show that instead of receiving a friendly wave from the bus driver, I received some sort of Greek death stare.

Our reward for this harrowing journey was our next stop: the cave of Agias Sofias. The cave lies along one of the road’s deepest ravines, and can only be reached by parking your car and climbing a long set of stone steps that ascend the mountainside. Remains found in this cave date back to Neolithic times, but I marvel at whatever super powers evolution decided to deny us that allowed Neolithic people to reach this cave without its modern staircase. It’s easy to imagine a small society making a home of this cave, and it’s easier to imagine them abandoning it after the incessant dripping of water from stalactites drove them to madness. We managed to film a short video at the cave of Agias Sofias, so you can see it for yourself!

This does not conclude the story of our first Cretan road trip, but it does conclude Part 1. More pictures and videos to come in Part 2!

NEXT: Road Trip: Part 2 »



6 responses so far

6 Responses to “Road Trip: Part 1”

  1. Hollyon 23 Sep 2007 at 2:17 pm

    Great videos guys!! Can’t wait to see more…..I really want to see some shots of the beach!
    Love you, Holly

  2. Sally Mooneyon 23 Sep 2007 at 4:06 pm

    Hi Ben and Brittany–I just read your entire blog from start to today. Love your writing! It’s really entertaining. You should publish when you get home! I can’t believe you’re really doing this! We’re actually going to be on a cruise to Greece Nov 9-16. We’ll have to get some travel tips from you. Love, the Mooneys

  3. Benon 23 Sep 2007 at 4:57 pm

    Hi Mrs. Mooney!

    Great to hear from you :) That’s so exciting about your Greek cruise – where are you going? We have still only really been to Athens and Crete, but we’ve picked up some language/culture tips that would probably be useful all around Greece. I think we’ll be in Italy in November, so we’ll wave to your cruise ship when you pass. Look for us!



  4. Kerryon 24 Sep 2007 at 9:24 am

    Hey guys,

    I’ve been meaning to post a little something for a while now, to tell you a. how incredibly jealous I am of your trip, and b. to say how much I enjoy your blog. I’m glad you guys are having such an amazing time so far. Ben, I read your “Five Tips for Not Looking Like an American” to my coworkers and we were all laughing outloud (and I work with a bunch of writers, fyi.)

    Anyway, good luck and I can’t wait to hear/see/read what you do next!


  5. Brittanyon 25 Sep 2007 at 10:38 am

    Hey Kerry! Great to hear from you!

    You’ll be pleased to know that Ben has yet to throw away or steal any of my contact lenses. It’s a record!

    PS: You and Dan should plan a visit when you get a break from school!

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