126 km | 2.564 vertical meters | Hors Categorie
“… my mind paralysed by the dreadful shape which had sprung out upon us from the shadow of the fog. A hound it was, an enormous coal-black hound, but not such a hound normal eyes have seen. Fire burst from its open mouth, its eyes glowed with a smouldering glare, its muzzle and hackles and dewlap were outlined in flickering flame. Never in the delirious dreams of a disordered brain, could anything more savage, more appalling, more hellish, be conceived than that dark form and savage face which broke upon us out of the wall of fog”. [Hound of the Baskervilles, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1901]
Out Of The Fog: As I approached the little mountain village, taking curve by curve on the steep slope, the wind suddenly carried a muffled growl towards me. From the silence of the fog, an intimidating howl increased, and then broke off abruptly, only to begin again. Just like the horn of a large steamer that makes a warning sound from amidst the impenetrable grey of the fog above the river without there being any other indication of its presence. No shimmering light, no piece of railing, no mast or superstructure is visible through the veils of fog, not even the stomping sound of the engine can be heard until the bow suddenly cuts through the darkness, towering high above the foaming spray in which it lifts up and crushes the small boat of the fisherman.
So I listened into the silence, foreboding what might await me.
But no sound penetrated the fog anymore, nothing could be heard, no bird sang and my mind fell silent, too. Something was waiting for me up there in the village, and it had noticed me long before I even approached its outskirts. Probably a dog, a large dog, I thought. But I certainly didn’t want to cut across country in this fog, so I had to ride through the village.
Shifting back to a small gear for good acceleration was the first step I took, and then, tense and aware of the danger ahead of me, I proceeded into the village which appeared to be empty and lifeless. There was nobody to be seen on the road, just the fog crawling towards me across the nearby fields and through the gardens.
As I passed the last few houses on level ground, already seeing and heading for the hairpin bend leading downhill at the end of the village, there was a sudden roar and rage from a shack, and, in a cloud of dirt and dust, a large mat of reinforcing steel, probably the steel grating to a kennel, crashed before me onto the road, over which I rattled screaming in horror. Behind me, a heavy, coal-black body fell onto the road, that left a torn rope behind. Already standing in the pedals, I accelerated with all my force and scrambled on towards the end of the village, riding for my life at a crazy pace.
Although surprised by its sudden liberation, the black monster was on its feet in seconds. Spotting the prey right in front of it, it was sure of its success. No longer driven by rage and frenzy, as it had been just a moment ago, the dog put on a joyful smile, and seemed to be delighted by the thought that it would only take a quick run-up to jump at this swirling body, dig his fangs into its flesh, and bring it to the ground…
My pursuer’s moment of wonder and joyful certainty gave me a small lead. Looking back to watch him take up speed, I raced into the bend on the outskirts of the village at maximum speed, dangerously tilted towards the road. I was carried far out onto the opposite lane by the centrifugal force, and so was my chaser, but the force was too strong for his heavy body. His front legs snapped backwards, and he fell on his chest. In a sloping position, his hind legs still upright, the monster was catapulted from the curve, dragged across the asphalt on his chin and chest, and disappeared into the adjacent, accompanied by an indescribable howling.
This happened a long time ago and the all dogs I encountered on this tour will surely be in well-deserved retirement by now. It is not hard to guess that this tour is also about the dogs on Crete. This is somewhat like a hot potato, because on the one hand there are unfortunate creatures like the so-called barrel dogs – watchdogs which are kept on a chain in a tin barrel or small wooden hut by the roadside, in merciless heat and miserable cold, often without sufficient food and water – but on the other hand these dogs can be very aggressive when hikers and bikers pass them. Their task is to keep the goats and sheep of the stockbreeders and dairy farmers inside their pasture area, or, in other words, to keep them away from the path to freedom. (The goats and sheep would otherwise run off to Heraklion, take the ferry to Piraeus and bring the already stressful local traffic to a standstill). According to the current EC legislation, however, this form of dog keeping is prohibited. Nevertheless, these dogs are still used as working dogs by stockbreeders (even if in decreasing numbers).
Many tourists who rediscover their love for cats and dogs on Crete do not understand this. But since they are not worried about factory farming, calf fattening, the killing of millions of chicks, the conditions in their urban slaughterhouses or the perverse consumption of cheap meat in their home countries, their concern is pure hypocrisy. Only credible are the activists who oppose against this form of dog keeping and those who have been seriously threatened or bitten, and rightly point out that extreme caution is required when hikers and bikers pass through such a barrier.
Over time, you’ll develop a sense for where those rusty metal barrels and wooden boxes are located, which are, of course, only to be found in the sheep-breeding and pasture regions, mainly along the sides of the paths and usually below a slightly shady shrub or tree.
If you are dealing with one guard dog on only one side of the path, it is a good idea to dash on at high speed and at the greatest possible distance as long as the dog is still dozing in its barrel. Otherwise, you’ll need to check how far the chain reaches in order to pass by safely.
Do you remember the booby traps in warlike conflicts? It’s treacherous, when a sturdy wire runs across the road at the barrier. This means: Red Alert! On this wire, the chain of the dog is attached and this can now be active over the entire width of the road. A bypass outside the range of action of this dog is recommended.
Two guard dogs: If you are put through the mill by two dogs, one on each side of the road, the situation is worse. This maneuver requires some nerves, because the chains will be just so long that the dogs cannot reach one another. Their maximum radiuses of action are only separated by some 20 inches in the middle of the road. But where exactly is this eye of the hurricane?
Hikers should avoid this passage and take a detour outside the dogs‘ radius of action.
Free-range, aggressive dogs: If you are on your way to the valley after an exhausting crossing of the mountain pass, the willingness to turn around because of two dogs who don’t want to let you pass is very low. I’m sorry to say that, but several targeted stone throws are usually the only thing that will help in this situation. More ammunition and your air pump should be ready to hand, as well. The dogs will belong to someone they accept as their authority, and the handling of working and herding dogs on Crete is not squeamish. Always remember: „Never mind the dog but beware of the owner“.
Little nuisances: In towns and villages, you will often encounter nervous little dogs that specialize in spreading terror. Resting in the shade under trash cans or cars, they stay invisible until they suddenly jump out as the cyclist passes by. They will run after you and bark their head off, but these dogs are harmless, as long as they don’t get suicidal and jump out right in front of your wheels. Stopping and driving on slowly will usually help.
The sleeping monster on the street: It may happen that you casually ride into a small and quaint mountain village, where all the houses and gardens appear to be slumbering in perfect peace. But one bend further along the road, you see a huge dog sleeping in the middle of the road. Well, my experience is that these dogs are older, morally mature, and have developed a more relaxed attitude to life – you can tell by their chosen resting position on the road.
Keeping your distance and choosing a low gear for good acceleration, as well as carefully observing every movement of the dog are nevertheless recommended. I always drive by as slowly and quietly as possible, and the dogs appreciate it. You can usually see one of their ears moving back and forth to scan the noises like a radar dome, and when you pass them, they just open one tired eye and give you a look that reveals their age and wisdom. I only watch them from the corners of my eyes and never look the dogs directly in the eyes.
The Tour – Through The Messara Into The Wilderness And To Mirtos
From Kalamaki through the Messara plain to Mirtos: Starting in the fertile agriculture region of central Crete, this tour from Kalamaki to Mirtos takes you along the Asterousia Mountains and through the Messara Plain to the south coast in the east.
From Kalamaki, follow the road going uphill to the village of Kamilaria, then climb through the steep alleys and up to the ridge. With the snow-capped peaks of Mount Psiloritis glowing in the background, two wide hairpin bends take you out of the shade and downhill to the Messara Plain in the sunlight.
Going uphill and downhill on a steady ascent, you will benefit from the strong northwesterly Meltemi tailwind while you proceed to Plora via Petrokefali, Pombia, Peri, and Platanos, and then head east along the northern edge of the Asterousia Mountains.
The green hell of the Messara plain: While I pass through this green garden from stem to stern, I slowly become tired of the scenery. The endless succession of olive groves, cereal fields, small villages and gardens may feature some extraordinary sights such as a tractor sitting in the shade below bougainvillea or an old English anti-aircraft gun by the roadside, but I long for a change of surroundings, and wish to return to the great and spectacular theatre of the mountains, the cyclist’s arena of passion and pain.
Passion and pain: But if you don’t miss the mountains, go straight ahead here and proceed from this point along the northern flank of the Asterousia mountains to Mesochori. By this shortcut you save 20 km and 1,000 meters in altitude [Overall distance 105 km and 1.687 hm – Catégorie 1].
At the village of Charakas, where everything glows in the midday heat, a small, unremarkable road leads you past orange trees and into the mountains. Above it lie the ruins of a monastery, a little church, and a cross, and you can hear the faint sound of a bell ringing in the wind. Leaving you breathless, this path goes constantly uphill in wide curves, and takes you through the soft landscape forms of the marls and limestones of the Pindosflysch and past the towering cliffs of the Pindos limestones.
Up into the mountains – Go for the adventure: With every turn of your filigree wheel, your heart pushes you forward. All alone in this ascent, accompanied only by the shadows cast by the clouds, I proceed uphill to the pass at 650 meters. For several minutes, I am struggling on amidst a galloping herd of sheep, and deep down below, the Messara Plain is flickering in the midday heat like a mirage. Sheep breeding, as well as olive, cereal and vineyard cultivation dominate the plains. Far to the horizon extends the dark blue of the sea.
After a six-and-a-half kilometer ascent, I reach the left turn just ahead of the village of Paranimfi that takes me in the direction of Tri Ekklisies. The narrow, meandering road is lined with small houses, but soon enough, it transitions into a wide asphalt road. Completed in 2015, the road leads through the fantastic mountain scenery of limestone crests, marl and slate for about eight kilometers – all the way up to the beach village of Tri Eklisies on the south coast.
But after some two kilometers turn left again towards the east and half a kilometer further on, turn right on the three-kilometer dirt road to Mournia.
Mournia: On the eroded, steeply ascending passages, it is advisable to push your bike until you reach the asphalted road just ahead of Mournia. Its church standing a bit further away in the small valley, this typical Cretan mountain village is made up of narrow-faced, flat-roofed one-room houses. The stove, cooker and laundry utensils are located outside at the side of the house. Through the open doors you can see the sofa bed, a bench decorated with fabric, a few jugs, a plate shelf, photos of the ancestors, pictures of saints, and a cross. More possessions are not needed.
Passing a row of old, abandoned houses, the route proceeds across a hilltop and into a small valley. The next stage is a steep, five-kilometer climb with gradients of up to 14%.
It takes you all the way through the gently winding valley of Ethia, and up to the pass at 800 meters. Towering high above you are the Pindos limestones of Mount Asfendilias [979m] with the OTE antenna station. A two-kilometer asphalt road with an average gradient of 10% (max. 16%) leads up there.
Before Achentrias, there was a beautiful chained dog lying in his tin shack at the roadside. This intelligent animal would have been a faithful companion for every human being, but he carves out a miserable existence as a convict. Chained up, his thick fur exposed to the scorching sun, he spends every day waiting for a few scattered sheep to attend to or for someone who has mercy with him, and gives him some water and affection.
In wide curves, the road now leads downhill for some 15 kilometers and 600 meters in altitude, passing the villages of Achentrias and Mesochori.
From the depths of the ocean: Just like an exhausted swimmer who reaches the shore after a long workout and the hand is already laying on the wood of the boardwalk to leave the water, so I reached the village of Mesochorio. And just like the unsuspecting swimmer, who puts his hand on the railing, to step out of the water, I rode through the narrow streets of the village, not knowing that from the darkness into the blue, from the depths of the ocean, a large predator was dashing up to the surface. The streamlined body, only dimly recognizable in the first rays of light that penetrate into the depths, reaches the swimmer, hits him in the back with a brutal thrust, and drags him under water.
And as unexpectedly as the big predator from the depth came to the surface, suddenly a huge animal stood in the middle of the road, right in front of me.
Had I been travelling by car, I would immediately have locked the doors and windows, and would still have been nervous to pass by this gigantic Great Dane. Turning back was impossible, and turning my back to the giant was no option, either. So I stood there, bent over my bike, and carefully took off my helmet and sunglasses. Observing each movement of the dog, I tried to sneak past him at walking pace. Appropriately enough, the cemetery was located to the right.
Almost at eye level, we were now facing each other, and stood so close that I didn’t dare to breathe or move. He had a narrow face with a huge dark nose, elephant-like ears, and a wrinkled forehead. He gave me a gentle nudge from the side, and his thoughtful facial expression seemed to ask: “What’s your problem, you funny man?” Then, without further ado, he disappeared into the alleyway.
The gray band of the road slid under my wheels into the past, I crossed the river Anapodiares, climbed 1,000 meters uphill to Ano Vianos in scorching heat, and further on to the pass.
The clouds drifted across the sky like giant ships, it was windy, then stormy, and then the rain came pouring down.
The raindrops hurt my eyes, but I didn’t even think about putting on a rain jacket. My helmet was hanging from the handlebar since I left Mesochorio and the sunglasses were still in it.
I was in a trance, in a mystical fable world full of talking animals, caught in a dream spinning around in my head, from which I only woke when I arrived at the restaurant on the waterfront promenade in Mirtos, where I ordered a double Greek coffee and two glasses of raki, which I emptied immediately. The friendly owner did not bat an eyelid – he must have been familiar with the circumstances in Mesochorio.