84 km | 1.877 vertical meters | Category 1
I was seeking for loneliness and solitude but I was not prepared to dance.
He was called „Il Falco“ and I admired him for his downhill driving skills. The limits of physics seemed to be suspended when Paolo Savoldelli raced down the mountains as he did when he achieved his victories at the Giro d‘ Italia in 2002 and 2005. As a mountain specialist and excellent timekeeper, he was able to win in this renowned competition, among other successes.
After I had left Mesa Lassithi behind me and climbed the pass at an altitude of 1,050 metres, I had pictures of the Giro in my mind as I embarked upon the winding descent – a 30 kilometer route leading almost 1,000 metres of altitude downhill into the plain around the ancient town of Lato.
The ribbon that is the road winds its way through the villages of Mesa Potami, Roussapidia, Zenia, and Amigdali, which are adorned in white. It runs on and on below apple and cherry trees, past fruit and vegetable gardens, descending further and further into an ocean of shiny silvery olive groves. And as this ribbon runs along the slopes of the Selena and Machera mountains, it constantly picks up speed and drags me along. The world races past as if distorted by a concave mirror. Accelerating on the straight passages and leaning into the headwind with all your force, you keep on sliding into the bends and onto the oncoming lane – much too fast and in a dangerously sloping position.
I was exhilarated by this exuberance until the inevitable happened, and it still makes my blood freeze in my veins today. Something big and fast popped painfully against my forehead at full speed. Tickling and dizzy, this something staggered across my forehead and tried to crawl under my helmet. From there, it proceeded to my glasses to seek shelter from the wind. It sat on the inside of the lens, between my eye and the glasses. The three segments of its red-brown body appeared to be huge, the abdomen with its large yellow ring pulsated right in front of my eye. It stretched out its wings for keeping balance, and every single hair on its shell was visible, looking way oversized in the glare of the backlight, while I was racing on at high speed.
Fear, abhorrence, horror – these are the feelings of the dreamer who awakens from a heavy nightmare. This here was not a monster of the night but a big hornet, and it recovered quickly. “Brake,” I thought, “for God’s sake, slow down!” The rear wheel hurled through the split, I almost ended up in a ditch by the rock face – no matter.
Just a moment ago I enjoyed the rush of speed, but now I was ever so careful, slow and gentle. I took off my glasses, rocked the insect like a baby and murmured some calming words until it flew up and away. I jumped off the bike and tore down my helmet, because my entire head seemed to tingle. I shuddered with disgust and then did a little happy dance on the road until an approaching car honked its horn and made me jump into the ditch again.
My mother used to carry a little flask of cognac in her handbag to be prepared for such cases of mental derailment. If need be, she drank from it with a bitter expression. Therefore, here’s a piece of advice for the inclined reader: Please keep your mouth shut at all times on downhill runs! And let me assure you that a small bottle of Cretan raki in my backpack has already defused many a critical situation and led to new, unexpected friendships.
However, my ambition was to travel light, so I had banished all the unnecessary stuff from my backpack for this tour. But I had obviously counted my chickens before they were hatched. Just before I departed, my hostess Maria gave me a big bag of sweets as provisions for the journey, a pack of Hotel Maria business cards she wanted her friend from Argyro Rent Rooms in Kritsa to display in her lobby, as well as six wonderful oranges for her relative Katharina of the Taverna Paradosiaki on the Katharo plateau. Equipped with these things, I cycled towards the pass of the Katharo Plateau at an altitude of 1.200 metres.
At the village of Drassi you leave the road to Neapoli and turn right towards the east. Proceed via Ag. Konstantinos, Karterides, and Exo Lakkonia, and enjoy the picturesque downhill route leading to the valley through fields and olive groves. After some 36 kilometres, you’ll pass the large building complex and sports field of the „Technological Educational Institute of Crete“ on the left hand side. Keep to the right, and soon after you’ll reach the lowest point of the descent at 120 metres above sea level. After another 2.5 kilometres with a slight ascent you’ll arrive at the north-facing turnoff to the ancient ruins of the city of Lato. The Doric town was founded in the 7th century BC. This marvelous location boasts a panoramic view ranging from the southern peak down into the plains and all the way to the east up to the coast, to Agios Nikolaos and the gulf of Mirabello.
Lato: “The ruins of a city more purely indicative of the early heroic time I have never seen in such a remarkable state of preservation, (nor one more singularly situated – occupying the hollow of a crater-like basin), where nearly every house can be traced out in its original length and breadth, the walls of many being still from six to ten feet high, and, as I before remarked, with their doorposts still erected. Some of the houses had two, and some three compartments, and varied from 10 t0 20 feet in length, but in generality seems to have consisted of but one room, like the habitations of the poorer peasants of Crete at the present time, the door also often serving both for light and air to all compartments, …[Thomas A. B. Spratt, Travels and researches in Crete, Volume I; S131- 133; London 1865 – Travels in Eastern Crete 1851- 52]
Kritsa: Leaving the site and descending by the terraced road leading from the ruins, we follow a narrow plain running to the south-east, and in half an hour arrive at Kritza, the largest village of Mirabella, picturesquely situated under some cliffy steeps, just where the valley begins to expand in its course towards the head of the Gulf of Mirabella, and where some fertilizing springs issue from beneath them. The valley is well cultivated with olive-trees and vineyards, and confined by ridges covered with brushwood. But high above Kritza a grove of cypress and wild oak forms a dark line between it and the bald summits of the Lasethe Mountains, encircling them as belt just below the snow-line.” [Thomas A. B. Spratt, Travels and researches in Crete, Volume I; S137; London 1865 – Travels in Eastern Crete 1851- 52]
This is where the movie „Celui qui doit mourir“ (The man who has to die) was made in 1956, based on Niko Kazantzakis‘ novel „Greek Passion“. Starring Melina Mercuri, it was filmed by Jules Dassin and has an astonishingly current relevance to today’s European reality. But the inhabitants of Kritsa are actually famous for their handicrafts, namely the weaving and dyeing of fabrics. Kritsa has four Byzantine churches with frescoes, the most famous of which is the fully decorated church of „I Panajia I Kerá“ with its magnificent Cretan-Byzantine paintings from the early 13th century. (It is situated just outside of the village on the road to Agios Nikolaos.)
The route proceeds steeply uphill through the picturesque village. On a ramp with a gradient of up to 15% you leave the last houses behind you and turn right at the crossroads towards Avdeliakos and the Katharo plateau. There is a short straight passage, then several brutally steep bends with gradients of up to 20%, followed by another 8-10% gradient from terrace to terrace on the slopes of the Katharos Tsivi and Platia Korfi mountains build here from Tripolitza limestone. Pine trees, holm oaks and chestnuts line the path, white and purple crocuses (romulea bulbocodium) flash up at the roadside, and then there is a yellow glow again from the shrubs of spiny starwort. This scenery forms the backdrop for the gulf of Mirabello which you can see glittering in the distance.
After 13 kilometres of exhausting climbing you will be happy to reach the pass at an altitude of 1.230 metres. Now you can really enjoy the descent to the plateau and the village of Avdeliakos. There, I was finally able to hand over my oranges to Katherina at the tavern and to take three new ones back to Lassithi as a gift for Maria. Courier driving has rarely been so much fun.
Katharo Plateau: Overlooked by Mount Dikti (2.148 metres) in the west, the alpine pasture of Kritsa and Kroustas is situated at an altitude of about 1,100 meters. In the Pleistocene a large lake with pygmy hippopotamuses, elephants and big turtles on its shores. The dirt road leading through the Plateau towards Lassithi is only partly practicable for a racing bike.
Leaving the small village Avdeliako, the road towards the Lassithi Plateau soon turns into an accessible dirt road. But once you reach the first ascents, this path becomes so stony and washed-out that you have to walk your racing bike for a while, so you may wish to take a pair of light sports shoes with you. In any case, it is advisable to adjust the rear derailleur at the end of the tour before you can ride on asphalt again.
Passing small fields with potatoes, vineyards, apple and almond trees, you look at the plains and envy the sheep, goats and the friendly donkeys that enjoy their pastures in the colorfully sprinkled green spring landscape. Pale flax, purple wild mallow, bladder campion, mandrake and Cretan dittany are in bloom by the roadside. This place is a perfect blend of wilderness, orderly cultural landscape and enchanting Cretan nature surrounded by the Tripolitza limestone.
The road to Lassithi follows the eastern edge of the plateau, and then turns right towards the slope facing north. Running parallel to the western gorge, it climbs to a height of 1.230 metres. Taking a wide sweep to the northeast and back to the west you descend again and can already see a few white houses of the Lassithi Plateau flashing up in the distance.
Right above Mesa Lassithi the circle is complete. There is asphalt under your wheels again, and you will reach the plateau after riding downhill for another three kilometres.