There are many ways to the Lassithi plateau at about 900 Meter altitude. The main routes start from the east at Napoli or from the north at Malia or Chersonisou via Potamies and Kera to Lassithi.
The more adventurous tracks lead on tarmac and tens of kilometres of washed out dirt road, on a forgotten Turkish military track through the canyons, via Lythos and Kastamonitsa to the Lassithi plateau and if you love your racing bike, you have to walk it for a while.
Or you climb via ancient Lato, through the unique village of Kritsa, up to Avdeliako and Katharo, crossing the Katharo Plateau from south to north and then entering the Lassithi Plateau at the village of Mesa Lassithi.
You ride through the clouds and over the pass at an altitude of 1.100m and if you are lucky enough to arrive in spring, you can smell the scent of blooms on fruit trees with every breath you take and marvel at it. The potato- and cornfields, bright rows of vegetables, and blooms on the apple and pear trees look as if they were painted on canvas.
The lofty Lassithi plateau is an impressive size, and the villages on its fringes, as well as the unrivalled haggardness of the surrounding mountains and valleys, make it my favourite garden.
But the today’s ride is an approach to Lassithi from the South, featuring asphalt all the way and if you go by racing bike, you are perfectly equipped. This climb is at least as adventurous as the above-mentioned tours. Short sections of the road can be eroded and there may be some parts of unpaved road.
69 km | 2.727 vertical meters | Hors catégorie
“I resolved to open a little – a very, very little crevice in the lantern – until, at length, a single dim ray, like the thread of the spider, shot from out of the crevice and fell upon the vulture eye. It was open – wide, wide open – and I grew furious as I gazed upon it. I saw it with perfect distinctness – all a dull blue, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones” [The Tell-Tale Heart, Edgar Allen Poe, 1843]
Mirtos: Where the southern foothills of the Dikti mountains slope towards the plain around Irapetra, lies the small village of Mirtos. Marked by prosperity and usually buzzing with agricultural activity, the road leading from Irapetra to the west loses its dusty and noisy character here where it turns off into the mountains and towards Ano Vianos. Away from the road, this peaceful place is an excellent base for exploring the beautiful mountain scenery to the north and east, as well as for tours to the west till the coast at Tsoutsouros. The alleys facing the sea are lined with white houses, a couple of restaurants and coffee bars, mini-markets as well as souvenir and arts and crafts shops. At lunchtime and in the evening, the beach promenade, where the powerful waves occasionally surge with a roar, is the most popular place for resting and enjoying a meal. The western outskirts of the village merge into the pebble beach and make this holiday resort a perfect spot for sailing (boat rental available) and bathing in the sea.
Accommodation: Big Blue Apartments, located up the hill at the western end of the beach promenade, offer functionally furnished rooms with a kitchenette, refrigerator, bathroom and balcony. The larger apartments, featuring up to two bedrooms and a large balcony or terrace, are lovingly decorated. With a unique view across the sea, you can imagine yourself standing on the bridge of an ocean liner (www.big-blue.gr). The tip for this tour came from the likeable owner, Pavlos Daskalakis: The shortest road connection from the south via Embaros and Katofigi to the Lassithi Plateau was developed into an asphalt road between 2007 and 2013, and was largely asphalted in 2012.
Ano Vianos: From Mirtos, take the well-developed road that goes steeply uphill to the west via Mournies, Pefkos and Amiras. After some 20 kilometres you will reach a plateau at 730 metres above sea level. Then dash down in a fast descent to the big village of Ano Vianos, beautifully situated on a steep slope. Be careful not to miss it, there is a new bypass! The Byzantine churches of Aghia Georgios and Aghia Pelagia are worth a visit and offer a wonderful view of the valley from the small cemetery. Aghia Pelagia (signposted on the main square) boasts impressive wall paintings dating from 1360. Also interesting is the folklore museum at the western end of the village where you can see a collection dealing with the daily life of the last 200 years. There are two ATMs in town.
Was it today that I had to atone for my sins? I must confess that the images of the „Punishment Of The Damned In Hell“, which I had studied in the church of Aghia Pelagia, were stuck in my head. As I drove through the olive groves, up and down through hills and valleys, I was haunted by the increasingly strong headwind. Sneaky as a snake, it came at me with enhanced force on the ascents, while the midday heat singed me on the descents. The poison of fatigue crept into my body and increasingly diminished the strength I would all too soon desperately need on the mountain.
Embaros: After 38 kilometres in total, turn right towards Embaros (spot the large sign saying „Lassithi“). At the crossroads in the town centre of Embaros, follow the street with the pharmacy, the church and the small, blue „Katofigi“ direction sign. The next village of Xeniakos has another big signpost directing you to Katofigi and Lassithi.
The climb: A big S-bend with an ascent of 8% at the village exit of Kaminaki marks the beginning of the actual climb. The road continues to rise steadily on a straight stretch and further on, on a steep ramp with a pitch of up to 16%, you leave the last houses of Xeniakos behind you. Then it becomes quiet and you are alone, surrounded by the breathtaking scenery of the Dikti mountain range.
Your senses sharpen in this barren mountain landscape. The scent of chamomile is overwhelming; it blends with smell of sun-dried thyme, wild sage and rosemary, and is overlaid by the stench of a decaying goat. The road goes uphill, first in steep curves, then in narrow hairpin bends cut deep into the limestone and marl layers of the Plattenkalk, sometimes featuring unimaginably steep passages with pitches of up to 20%.
The falcon‘s eye – In my silent struggle, accompanied only by the sound of my breathing, I suddenly heard a noise. It was a soft humming, then a buzz, clearly different from the surrounding sounds. Getting louder, it seemed to come from right above me. With a quiet „swish“, a shadow flashed over me and across the street in front of me.
I looked up into the sky in shivers and saw an eye gazing at me. Just like this eye stared straight at me, I only peered hard into this eye.
And from this big eye, surrounded by a bright red sclerotic ring, a beam hit me as if it came from a burning glass.
Directly above me, a huge falcon with a wingspan of almost three metres drew its course in circles. And not just him – ten giant birds of prey sailed higher and higher on the upwind, hovering weightlessly above a breathless human insect that crawled up the mountain at walking pace.
Six kilometres from Xenaikos, behind a first mountain pass at an altitude of 950 metres, the scenery changes. You enter a new world where steep ascents lead through picturesque valleys of the alpine mountains. Surrounded by the high peaks of Mounts Dikti (2.148m), Lazaro (2.085m) and Madara (1.783m), your route leads along eroded gullies, in which the road threatens to sink.
Then further on, an Alp embedded in a small valley with lush meadows. This is where they wave and shout „Ελάτε εδώ. Από πού είσαι; Γερμανικά … Έλα, πάρτε ένα ποτό νερό… – come and drink some water.“ There, the white pearl of the chapel of Ag. Manouil flashes up from its green surroundings. What a fantastic trip.
The next mountain pass at an altitude of 1.300 metres is the last one to master after a challenging 12 kilometre climb with an average gradient of 10%. And there they are again: The huge hawks of the Dikti Mountains now sail over the pass and sweep across the valley lined by sheer rock walls – farewell and have a good flight, you bearded vultures.
Accomodation Agios Georgios: Taverna Maria-Rea is located on the main street opposite the school and offers guest rooms with a small bathroom above the tavern as well as traditional Greek hospitality. Maria herself is the chef, don’t miss her moussaka.
The rooms facing the street provide a great view over the Lassithi plain and St. George’s Church. (Maria Spanaki, https://www.maria-rea.gr). For larger rooms and studios, visit her „Hotel Maria“, which is slightly hidden in a side street on the western outskirts of the village, 200 metres from the folklore museum.
87 km | 2.502 vertical meters | Hors catégorie
A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere. [Groucho Marx]
A black cat scurried across the way. I followed the broken path of concrete, asphalt and sand that led steeply down to the lonely bay. After an enduring tour, I planned to complete my daily training in the mountains from there for another week.
Perhaps the bay was a bit too lonely: At 5:00 p.m. the owner of the apartments sitting directly by the sea closed his small office and rushed away to a more urban realm. At 6 p.m. the few bathers left the beach. Spring had just begun, and the sun set at 8 p.m. At 9 p.m. it was dark, or rather pitch-black, because there was no further lighting in the bay. Only the windows of the small tavern, not much more than a snack bar, provided a bit of pale light until around 10 p.m. At incredible speed, and accompanied by the roar of engines, the last signs of life faded away.
I, the only guest, remained behind in the darkness. Like a remote little lighthouse, the lamps in my room sent out a beam of light to the sea and to the odd fishing boat, whose position lights slowly crept along the horizon.
On the second day, when I had just returned from training, I saw an unlikely couple sitting in the small tavern. They checked me out with piercing eyes that absorbed every detail – greedy glances from „killer eyes“ seemed to virtually undress me. I was worried because they were conspicuously prowling around my apartment.
On the first night in my lighthouse above the bay I had slept with the window and patio door open.
On the second day, however, I checked the lock of the entrance door, attached with just two tiny screws, as well as the locks of the window and the patio door. One kick, one push, even leaning against them was enough, and they flew open. That night, the window and doors remained completely closed.
On the third day the situation was unchanged, but that night I also pushed the bed in front of the room door to block it.
On the fourth day, the outrageous intentions of the killers and my own strategies mingled in my head. They had to be separated, disguised, and be kept secret from the other party, so that nothing became obvious to them. Obviously, I was going a little mental. The hundreds of kilometers and thousands of meters in altitude of the last week had left their mark.
On the fifth day I left the lonely bay where I was constantly in danger of mulling over such gloomy thoughts – thoughts that spun around in my head until they got out of control. I felt as if I was pulled into a maelstrom. It was like a mad ride on roaring merry-go-round, where faces are distorted to horrible masks, accompanied by increasingly shrill sounds.
I had to get out of this labyrinth and back to the starting point, preferably in a city. There I could drink my morning coffee in the hustle and bustle of a coffee house, and after the training I could choose one of the taverns lined up on the waterfront promenade. There would be a smell of roast kid, sage, thyme, garlic and wine – the glowing red wine of the Liatiko-Mandilaria, made from the grapes of the Ziros plain. In the evenings, I could enjoy the Vólta – a buzzing of engines, lyre sounds, shouts and chatter – and take in the yellow and white, red-roofed houses adorning the stairs and steep alleys crawling up the slope. The old fortress would tower above it all, and deep down in the harbor a ferry ship would elegantly detach itself from the quay. I needed a lively city whose pulse would take me back to normality – in one word: Sitia.
To Ierapetra: Built on the tertiary coastal terraces near the sea, the bustling main road heads east towards the plain around Ierapetra. On the left and right, tomatoes, cucumbers and bananas grow in the greenhouses scattered along the way.
Thanks to the prevailing tailwind from the northwest you will cover the 14 kilometers to sunny Ierapetra at a fast pace. Europe’s southernmost city, which enjoys the most hours of sunshine, is a lively coastal town and the commercial center of the area. Here you can buy everything from tools to agricultural machinery, including all supplies and spare parts. Even the small grocer, where I bought a rare dessert wine from the monastery of Toplou, offers great wines from the region around Lassithi and Sitia.
Follow the coastal road from Ierapetra for another ten kilometers further east, and then turn left at Koutsinari, where the route takes you into the mountains and to Agios Ioannis in the north.
Up to Aigos Ioannis: Now you’ll leave the Anthropocene behind and dive into the beautiful mountain world of the Thripti mountains. With gradients of 8%- 10%, the first three kilometers provide a challenging warm-up session, while the remaining five kilometers to Agios Ioannis feature moderate gradients. Leading through the conglomerates and marls of the Agia Fotia formation, the road passes olive groves, pine trees and a few oaks as it majestically winds its way up from a wide valley. At the roadside, hundreds of beautiful yellow-brown lucerne flowers (medicago sativa) are in bloom.
In wide curves, the road proceeds through the bright marls and thin-banked limestone of the Sitia formation, followed by more conglomerates. Going further uphill until you reach the level of the Tripolitzakalk at about the level of the church of St. Anthony, you’ll soon see Agios Ioannis, nestled on a hilltop of limestone high above you.
Through the clean, white alleys of the village, its houses crowned with bougainvillea and tendrils of vine, you can walk up to the hilltop at 500 meters, where you can look far down into the valley and to the south coast between Koutsonari and Ferma.
In the old, abandoned stone houses time has stood still. Providing insight to the simple and modest life of its former inhabitants who resided here until about 100 years ago, they comprise a kitchen and bedroom, brick cornice, cupboard and open fireplace, as well as a small crawling cellar that you can access through a hatch. The cellar is lined with pithoi for storing supplies as it has been done thousands of years ago.
Ride through the village and a short way up to the pass to enjoy the most beautiful and varied landscape on a 10-kilometre descend via Schinokapsala until you reach the ascent to Orino.
As if visiting a chamber of curiosities, you gaze in amazement at the glitter and sparkle, the ever-changing artistry of the alpine mountain world. The tops of the Tripolitzakalk are shaped like faces and seem to lean down to speak to you. Between them, the clouds move quickly across the sky, casting their shadows on me and the winding road.
Over here, the rocks feature a soaring shear plane, over there you can spot a spring, a derelict water mill or a place of worship that invits you to linger, such as the single-nave Venetian chapel of St. George dating from the 17th century, located at the foot of Mount Afendis, to which one ascends through an enchanted forest of pines, sycamores and oaks.
Orino: About 2.5 kilometers from Shinokapsala, turn left at the crossroads and cross the small hilltop to proceed uphill towards Orino. The increasingly steep mountain road now turns north and follows the western edge of the Orino Koutsouras Gorge (Koutsouras Communal Park).
The winding road to the pass above Orino does not allow for a breather. It is a mission for every climber on this grueling, steep ascent to climb the next slope, to climb the next bend, tirelessly keep your eyes fixed on the road immediately in front of you and start your powerful climb uphill – curve by curve, and from one ascent to the next, climbing uphill – feeling powerful, indefatigable, indestructible.
An average gradient of 8% and short, steep ramps of up to 18% make you feel as if you were fighting your way up a whitewater stream. Water rushes and gurgles downhill inside the large PE-HD water pipe laid on the side of the road. Make sure to fill your water bottles before you approach the ascent, otherwise you’ll constantly wish to drill this pipe to quench your terrible thirst.
Detour Butterfly Gorge: Two kilometers (1.2 miles) after you turn into the mountain road to Orino, there is a path branching off to the Butterfly Gorge. Why not make a slight detour of about one kilometer (0.6 miles) and descend to the gorge for a little excursion? Go downhill on the gravel road for 300 meters (0.2 miles), keep to the left at the Y-junction of the path and follow the narrowing trail up to the bend to the north.
Parallel to the gorge, the hiking trail now goes relatively steep uphill again. There are some short passages where you’ll have to climb over stone ribs. After about 600 meters (0.4 miles) a path branches off to the right and into the gorge. Follow it to see one of the picturesquely situated waterfalls around here.
Sadly, the eponymous butterflies (Red Admiral or Vanessa atalanta) have largely disappeared. This is where they could be admired in large numbers more than 20 years ago.
At the branch of the regional road (keep left here) our route proceeds steeply uphill in narrow curves until we reach the village.
After a short break at the highly recommendable Kafenion, we climb from the village exit up to the pass, now heading east for about two kilometers. Stop to take in sweeping views of the gorge, the steep mountain road and Mount Afendis Stavromenos. Its peak up in the clouds, the mountain towers above the village, which is beautifully situated on the hillside and surrounded by olive trees, oaks and plane trees.
Downhill to Stavrochori: Next are three kilometers on a curvy asphalt road and your bike will swing downhill like a pendulum. Rushing through the soft valley shapes of the Tripolitzakalk, past juniper and pines, it traces the artistic course of the road and scurries along the ribbon that is the street, like the needle of a barograph. The vegetation of thorn cushion plants around here includes colorful splashes of yellow spiny mullein (verbascum spinosum), tree spurge (euphorbia dendroides), wild carrots (daucus carota) with white blossoms, and flowering orchid. Some crocuses also greet you with their bright colors.
Leading down to Stavrochori, the asphalt road then turns into a gravel road for about three kilometers. This part of the gravel track from Orino to Stavrochori is certainly not suitable for racing tires, but you can easily ride on it when using Cyclecross tires. Their road bike version, up to a width of 31 mm (1.22 in), is the perfect tyre for this tough job. There are a few eroded stretches where you have to get off your bike and push it for a short while. I recommend you carry a pair of light sports shoes in your backpack, so that you can comfortably stretch your legs for a while. Long cycling shorts, a fleece shirt, a wind vest and rain jacket are also recommended for the weather conditions and low temperatures in the mountains.
Soon you will see Stavrochori in the valley below you, surrounded by olive groves, and its houses arranged around the large two-aisled church in the center. The alleys are adorned with white and purple bougainvilla, and the inviting tavern on the platia is shaded by plane trees. Step inside and take a break, while the hospitable landlady will look after you in the old Cretan tradition.
Sitia: We leave Stavrochori to the east and enjoy another 1-kilometer downhill ride before the varied ascent to the pass begins near of the village of Lapithos. The ascent actually features two passes. The first part of the route leads along the south-eastern slope of the Orno Oros mountain range with its Plattenkalk (platy limestone) rocks.
We proceed via Chrysopigi, which means we will cover 500 meters in altitude. At a moderate gradient, we will then ride uphill and downhill through the green valleys of marl and limestone with their shiny white, embedded gypsum cliffs. And yet, we are going constantly uphill on this 12-kilometer route, until we cross the pass at 640 meters in altitude.
The landscape between Sita, Chrysopigi, Stavrochori and the south coast as well as on the route back to Sitia via Makrigialos, Lithines, Epano Episkopi and Piskokefalo provides a perfect training environment for cyclists. You hardly encounter any cars in the mountains, the gradients are moderate, and the long, hilly passages are perfect for fast rides and sprints. So nowadays, you will meet other cyclists more often, mainly from Sitia and the tourist hotspots along the eastern south coast around Koutsouras and Makriguialos.
Sitia is a small, tranquil harbour town that has retained its Cretan character. Restaurants and cafes line the coastal promenade. Head to the south-eastern part of the harbour to find some excellent eateries. Cretan snails with rosemary in olive oil and wine as well as the fish specialities are highly recommended, along with wine from the monastery of Toplou. In the evening, when people stroll in to party and have dinner, the tranquility transforms into a lively buzz.
Accomodation: Itanos – Platia Iróon Polytehniou. Sober hotel atmosphere, centrally located on the main square, rooms predominantly featuring sea and city views.
93 km | 2.801 vertical meters | Hors catégorie
When shall we three meet again, In thunder, lightning, or in rain?
When the hurly-burly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won.
That will be ere the set of sun. Where the place?
Upon the heath. There to meet with Macbeth.
I come, Graymalkin! Paddock calls. Anon.
Fair is foul, and foul is fair.
Hover through the fog and filthy air.
(Macbeth; William Shakespeare)
The path is lost in the darkness, the pines veiled by the mist. The wind is like a whisper from the cobweb, that is the forest. The prophecy must be fulfilled, there’s no way back. Too steep the narrow ridge, so close to the abyss, and slippery the wet ground. You are trapped in Cobweb Castle.
Up to Thrypti: In a magnificent landscape, the rough concrete road coming from Kato Chorio winds upwards in narrow curves from the Ierapetra ditch into the Thrypti mountains in the north-east. As if the route wished to prevent your ascent, fissures, cracks and deep tracks pull at the wheel and handlebars. The ribbed concrete road seems to breast those who embark on the adventure.
Leaning closely towards the steep wall of Tripolitza limestone, the road climbs up the rock wall leading into the mountains with gradients of eight to ten percent. After six kilometres of exhausting climbing, the rough path turns into an asphalt road, which now swings eastwards for another four kilometres to the Thrypti alp at 850 metres in altitude. The pine forest is covered in fog, with young oaks glowing brightly in the green surrounds.
Nestled in lush gardens where fruit, vegetables, and, most importantly, wine grows, the houses of Thrypti pop up from the mist. Suddenly i had a taste impression of spice and fruit flavours next to alcohol, and I was close to ordering a glass of local Vilanawine in Thrypti’s only tavern to refresh my palate.
To Orino: From the car park with the water tap and the map, the E4 signs point the way through the village to Orino. For about one and a half kilometres, the concrete road still leads you through the village, then the gravel road begins, just ahead of a bend with a signpost to Mount Afendis. Proceed straight ahead on the dirt road with the power poles and do not follow the right-hand bend.
Through the slate of the phyllite- quartzite- unit, the route goes steadily uphill on the gravel road until, to the north, and through the deep, steep-edged Kavousi Gorge, the view opens up far down to the Ierapetra ditch and into the plain of the northern coast around Pachia- Amos.
After another one and a half kilometres you reach the pass at an altitude of about 1,000 metres where the gravel road branches off to Mount Afendis Stavromenos [1.476 metres]. A hike up there means an ascent of 500 metres in height, and you’ll have to manage about five kilometres in each direction.
The gravel road from Thrypti to Orino is certainly not suitable for racing tires, but you can easily ride on it when using Cyclecross tires. Their road bike version, up to a width of 31 mm, is the perfect tyre for this tough job. Uphill gradients and narrow bends are often concreted, but there are a few eroded stretches, especially on the descent to Orino, where you have to get off your bike and push it for a short while.
I recommend you carry a pair of light sports shoes in your backpack, so that you can comfortably stretch your legs for a while. Long cycling shorts, a fleece shirt, a wind vest and rain jacket are also recommended for the weather conditions and low temperatures in the mountains.
Orino: The fog rises, the sun bathes the beautiful landscape in a warm light, and after a four and a half kilometre descent from the windy pass, the first white houses of Orino stand out against the green surrounds.
Irises and violets bloom along the way, and there is a smells of sage, mint and thyme. From the slopes, you can hear shepherds shouting and sheep bells ringing all over the place as the sheep run down to the watering holes.
Make a short stop at the highly recommended Kafenion, then leave Orino at the northern end of the village and turn east.
Taking in the magnificent panorama of Mount Afendis Stavromenos and the mountain plateau around Orino, you will now climb some 100 metres in altitude in wide serpentines leading to the pass at 740 meters. The asphalt band bends down from the heights into the valley, and you rush through the fantastic alpine landscape of the Thrypti mountains, gently embedded in the soft shapes of Tripolitza limestone, past juniper, flowering orchid and crocuses.
It is like a dance with a recurring sequence of steps you have to take: Adjust the speed before you enter the bend, keep an eye on the inner curve, and, more inclined than actually steering, start at the very outer edge, then pull inwards towards the centre of the curve, firmly clamping your buzzing racing bike with your knees, and, gently held by the centripetal force, glide back to the outer edge and out of the curve with increasing speed.
Since you left Orino, you have covered five kilometres on asphalt. Next are another three kilometres of gravel road, largely easy to drive on when using cross tyres. Only in the steep hairpin bends with eroded draws and loose gravel it may be necessary to get off your bike briefly.
A short break at the little church of Panagia Kapari, shaded by oak- and cypress trees, situated only 100 meters off the path in the vineyards and olive groves. From here, you can look far down into the valley and to the south coast around Koutsounari and to the foothills of the Thrypti Mountains.
Stavrochori: Finally you will spot the village of Stavrochori in the valley below.
It’s very quiet, everything has calmed down. Then the sound of voices is carried up from underneath. A mother and her child playing, a dog, a motorcycle, a call, and the birds are singing again. Time stood still for a short while.
Chrysopigi – Bemponas: At the village entrance to Chrysopigi I had a short tête-à-tête with a ready-mix truck, which left me powdered with dust, as I was trapped between the truck and the garbage bin. The dust caused me to choke up while, when I was breathing again, I was next to the garbage bin and inhaled a full load of indescribable scents.
I was longing for some fresh air. Fresh and crisp as on a mountain alp. For those who started early in the morning and still have enough energy, the six kilometre drive and 400 metres of altitude difference up to the Bemponas Alp and the pass at 800 metres are worthwhile. On the outskirts of Chrysopigi the gravel road branches off to the west. The first serpentines are not passable, but then the path improves. Cross tyres are also required here.
From the western slope of Mount Askordlia [1.237m], passing juniper, olive, fig, and carob trees, the path leads up through the picturesque valley that rises up steeply to the west, enclosed by the surrounding mountain ranges.
The limestone flanks of the Thrypti mountains in the southwest and the Orno Oros mountain range in the northeast directly rise up to 1,200 metres. At the end of the valley you reach the village of Bemponas: a small church, a few houses with vegetable gardens, vineyards, and olive trees on the terraced slopes. Boasting wonderful views of the northern coast but also eroded stretches, the last 500 metres (0.3 miles) of the route from Bemponas up to the pass are a real challenge again. The view down into the Kavousi gorge and to the north coast is simply fantastic. Like in a big theatre, the gorge opens up to the Gulf of Mirambello, where the coastline from Pachia Amos via Kalo Chorio and Ammoudara to Agios Nikolaos is dotted with sparkling bays.
Over The Pass To Sitia: Leaving Stavrochori to the east, the route proceeds downhill for another kilometre. Next, along the south-eastern flank of the Orno Oros mountain range via Chrysopigi, is a 12 kilometre passage featuring moderate gradients.
You’ll ride up and down through green valleys, but always uphill until you cross the pass at 640 metres. Now you can look forward to a winding 18-kilometre descent. From the limestone mountain range, the road now leads through the soft landscape of the phyllite- quartzite- unit, then deeper down into marl and sand layers. For about 45 minutes, a fast descent takes you constantly downhill via Skordilo, Paraspori, Achladia, and Piskokefalo until you reach Sitia.
Sitia is a small, tranquil harbour town that has retained its Cretan character. Restaurants and cafes line the coastal promenade. Head to the south-eastern part of the harbour to find some excellent eateries. Cretan snails with rosemary in olive oil and wine as well as the fish specialities are highly recommended, along with wine from the monastery of Toplou. In the evening, when people stroll in to party and have dinner, the tranquility transforms into a lively buzz.
Accomodation: Itanos – Platia Iróon Polytehniou. Sober hotel atmosphere, centrally located on the main square, rooms predominantly featuring sea and city views.
75 km | 1.427 vertical meters | Category 3
Odysseus: … For seventeen days he sailed on over the sea, and on the eighteens there showed up the shadow mountains of the Phaiakian’s land, where it came closest to him, resembling a shield laid out on the misty sea.
But the mighty Earth-Shaker, coming back from the Aithiopians, saw him far off, from the Solymoi’s mountains, visible sailing over the deep, and waxed wrathful at the sight, and shook his head, and thus cummuned with himself: „Damn it, the gods have certainly changed their minds as regards Odysseus while I was away with the Aithiopians! Now he‘s near the Phaiakians‘ land, where it‘s his destiny to escape the great crisis of suffering that‘s come on him. Even so, I think I’ll yet give him his fill of trouble!“
[The Odyssey, Book 5, Homer – A New Translation by Peter Green; University Of California Press, 2018]
Poseidon: The relationship between godlike Odysseus and Poseidon, the mighty Earth- Shaker, can clearly be regarded as destroyed. Poseidon was angry with Odysseus, because he had blinded his son Polyphemos, the Cyclops. Polyphemos had captured and imprisoned Odysseus and his comrades-in-arms, and they were only able to save themselves thanks to Odysseus‘ cunning. After all, Polyphemus had been ignoring the laws of hospitality, and had already devoured six of Odysseus companions in a very unappetizing way, so Odysseus feared to meet the same fate.
And yet, the gods were angry with Odysseus, so Cyclops Polyphemus demanded of his father, Poseidon, that Odysseus was not to return home until after a long odyssey. Lonely and naked, having lost of all his companions and belongings, Odysseus survived his odyssey, but in the meantime, many suitors had blown away Odysseus‘ belongings, and courted his wife, the wise Penelope, to gain rule and kingship of Kephallenia. Had mermaid Leukothea, the goddess of the sea, not taken pity on him, Odysseus would have drowned off the coast of the Land of the Phaiakians and never returned to Kephallenia.
Stormy morning: Imagine waking up in the middle of the night, because the first gusts of an approaching storm rattle and shake the windows of your small apartment high above the sea. You completed a very exhausting tour the day before, and it’s much too early, so you doze off again and wake up late in the morning. You can’t immediately decide to get up and continue your tour to the east, so it’s almost noon when you eventually drink your first coffee on the small balcony. The wind is stormy, but the sun still warms you up.
Spring storms on Crete are of a special nature. The skies are blue, and the sun shines brightly while squalls fiercely whip across the sea, causing the waves to pile up high. No fishing boat, no ferry, and none of the small ships that supply the coast dares to go out to sea.
The wrath of the gods: Days like these require particular caution, for you have obviously directed the wrath of the gods upon you. Maybe your all too small and shabby offering was rejected. Or, in your rush of speed, you spurned Hermes, the messenger of the gods, as lazy and lame. As you know, the gods take the shape of humans or animals to mingle with us. And the little mangy cat that begged you for a bite yesterday at the restaurant, the cat that you scared away with a splash from your drinking bottle (although the other guests disapproved of your behavior), was perhaps Evadne, the daughter of Poseidon himself. The gods will send you a sign.
And that’s exactly what happens after Zeus sent thunder, lightning, wind and rain: Sticky from yesterday’s ride, the drinking bottles are still attached to the frame of your bike. You have to clean them and fill them with the important mixture of apple juice, soluble hemp flakes, water, and a teaspoon of salt.
The contents of the three little bags for household items, medicine and personal care products that you keep in your backpack and that are a must for a well-organized tour, are completely mixed up. Where did that damn razor go? Where are the sunscreen and the chamois cream?
Your one – and for space reasons only – cycling set is still damp from the rain at night, and now you have to put it on wet. Yuck!
To top it all off, you discover a nasty jag in the rear tire that went undetected during inspection the night before and now requires a tire change.
Departure: Your tour to Sitia in the east of the island eventually starts at late noon. There are three possible routes of up to 100 kilometers, thousands of meters in altitude and many kilometers of gravel road. Due to your late departure, your only option is the straight-forward route, a 75-kilometer distance featuring 1,400 meters in altitude. Asphalted throughout, it starts at the village of Mirtos and takes you eastwards along the coast to Koutsouras. Then it turns northwards and crosses the island, taking you all the way to Sitia via Stavorchori, Chrysopigi, and Skordilo.
But, if need be, Poseidon has a special ordeal in store for this mountainous section. Typical of the spring storms with a low pressure area around Crete and a high pressure area above the Middle East is a stormy wind with hurricane-like gusts from the northeast. The tour goes in the exact opposite direction, which means strong gusty headwind all the way. Constantly pulling at you, it will wear you out and can lead to total exhaustion, despair and agony.
Mirtos – Koutsouras: From Mirtos, we follow the coastal road in an easterly direction. Once we have climbed the small hill near Nea Mirtos, we can pick up speed and will soon reach Irapetra on our route via Amoudares, Stomio, and Gra Lygia. The plain stretching out to Irapetra, the largest city on the south coast of Crete, is characterized by the cultivation of grapes, olives and vegetables. Tomatoes, bananas and cucumbers grow in countless large greenhouses that dominate the landscape to the left and right of the road.
Fortunately, Irapetra has retained the charm of a lively Greek small town where agricultural trade is more important than tourism. You can explore the port with the Venetian fortress Kales, the narrow old town alleys, a house where Napoleon spent a night in 1798, the archaeological museum, the 14th century church of Afendis Christos, as well as a fountain and a mosque dating from the era of Ottoman rule. Several restaurants and bars along the coastal promenade invite you to linger.
Like a blue ribbon, the coastal road first leads straight out of Irapetra. Then, following the 40-meter contour line on the tertiary coastal terrace, it passes Koutsonari and leads to the east via Ferma, Agia Fotia, Mavros Kolimbos and Koutsouras, winding itself from bay to bay and from valley to valley. This is the only highway on the south coast leading to the east, and at times many trucks, coaches and cars are on the road. On this sparsely populated coastline there used to be just a few fishing huts with storage and accommodation. But today, the section between Koutsounari and Makrigialos is lined with hotels and apartment houses.
Head north and into the mountains: Just before you reach Koutsouras, don’t follow the expressway, but take the „Old Road“ to the center of the village, then turn sharp left to head north to Sitia, and use the underpass below the new expressway which runs further to the east and proceeds in the direction of Sitia. Leading through a narrow valley, past the abandoned houses of Tsiklalaria, the road gets steeper and turns off into the foothills of the Tripti Mountains. Exposed along the embankments are fluviatile sands, marl and fine limestone layers, soon to be followed by the mighty conglomerates of the Agia Fotia formation.
After 40 kilometers on flat to moderately hilly terrain along the coast and the easy ascent from Koutsouras to Tsikalaria, the actual mountain route begins: first along the eastern side of the slope, then crossing the valley at a small stream, it follows the wide, open mountain slopes in wide curves.
On these four kilometers to Stavrochori, featuring an average gradient of 7% and short ramps of up to 13%, the route now leads through a varied landscape, and we’ll climb 250 meters in altitude.
Leaving Stavrochori, we enjoy a short descent through the Tripolitzakalk and down into the valley. Next is an uphill section of six kilometers at 300 meters on the eastern flank of the Orno Mountains. Leading past banks of limestones, gypsum cliffs, slate, and marl, it takes us through the village of Chrysopigi and up to the first pass at 600 meters.
Perfect training terrain: At least the gods were merciful to me on this day. The headwind was not nearly as strong as expected, probably because the high passes provide an excellent wind shield. Riding this terrain is a pleasure for every racing cyclist. You’ll climb softly shaped mountain slopes featuring moderate gradients, and enjoy a 2.5-kilometre descend through beautiful, wide valleys on a road lined with brooms, olive trees and colorful spring flowers, before you ride uphill again for another 3.5 kilometers to reach the last pass ahead of Sitia at 650 meters.It is pure bliss to feel your own body take a powerful ascent, race through the curves while balancing like a cat, and then complete the mountain sprint up to the pass on the opposite slope. Downhill to Sitia: Once we have arrived on the pass, we can look forward to a winding 18-kilometer descent. From the limestone mountains, the road now leads through the soft landscapes of the phyllite-quartzite-unit, then deeper down into the marl and sand layers. Get ready for a gusty headwind in the curves, though.
Just outside Paraspori I experience a rare natural spectacle: A swarm of cicadas crosses the road like a dark cloud and disappears into a grove of kermes oaks near Ekklisia Agios Alexandros. A couple of misguided insects hit my helmet and neck. I follow their deafening song and climb up to the little church. They fall silent for seconds, only to sound again, almost simultaneously. You need to take a very close look to spot them, because their color is very similar to that of the tree trunks. Their grey to silvery-black bodies are three centimeters long. Hundreds of them are sitting on the bark of the trees.
Leaving the pass, the route proceeds constantly downhill. We enjoy our fast ride via Achladia and Piskokefalo, and reach Sitia in just under 45 minutes.
Sitia: To me, Sitia is a town of true beauty. It may lack the patina and baroque splendor that Chania exudes due to its several thousands of years of history, and it may also not be prettied up for the tourists and you won’t find there, the exaggerated makeup of the town as in Rethimno. But that’s exactly why the zest for life, the music of lyre and laouto (lute), the arts and crafts, and the objectivity of science add to the special grace of this truly authentic, charming town. If you, like most visitors, are looking for a pretty little harbor town featuring picturesque taverns, a lively promenade lined with cafés, and a one-kilometer sandy beach with perfect bathing spots, you will definitely fall in love with this typical cretan town. Enjoy the relaxed, hospitable atmosphere of a small world of its own.
Walk towards the big semicircle of houses that line the bay, and take a stroll uphill through the alleys. You will pass small shops, including old-fashioned general stores like the ones you can find in a Cretan mountain village. Walk past the workshop, the tool shop where you can find pumps, hoses and hydraulic equipment, and the little tavern. Even further uphill, leaving the Kafenion behind, you’ll reach the Venetian fortress, where you are rewarded with panoramic views across the bay and the mountains to the south.
Now you know why you were climbing these passes by bike today – to be right here, enjoying the view, invited to linger.
Kiriamadi Peninsula – Cap Sideros: Tomorrow we will be back on the race track of passion and contemplation. We’ll go up to the monastery of Toplou, up into the barren highlands of the eastern part of the island, where the beautiful winding ribbon of the road becomes blurred by the flickering heat, and seems to hover above the ground, as if you were riding the large training circuit in an airship.
Again and again, you’ll enjoy a new view of the landscape or the sea, while you race down to the valleys, from hill to hill, past the palm grove of Vai on the long straight passage to Itanos, and to the restricted military area of Cape Sideros, far out on the Kiriamadi peninsula. As you return through the steep hairpin bends leading up to the Greek naval helipad, you’ll head towards Sitia via Paleokastro, where the monastery of Toplou provides a new ascent, and invites you to go for another round through this unique landscape between the two oceans.
For a detailled Tourdiscription see 10.0 „Kato Zakros- Vai- Sitia„.
76 km | 2,6km dirt road | 2.041 vertical meters | Category 3
„I have wandered the world, climbed the most treacherous mountains, crossed deserts, sailed the vast ocean, and sweet sleep has rarely softened my face.
I have worn myself out through ceaseless striving. I have filled my muscles with pain and anguish.
I have killed bear, lion, hyena, leopard, tiger, deer, antelope, ibex, I have eaten their meat and have wrapped their rough skins around me. And what in the end I achieved?“ The Epic Of Gilgamesh 2750 BCE – Book X, A new English version by Stephen Mitchell, S176, 2004.
We cycled up to Omalos in stormy weather with rain and snow. There we stopped at the Taverna Gigilos to warm up our freezing limbs. A couple of racing bikes were parked in front of the inn, covered with the kind of rain capes that French postmen usually wear. Inside the inn sat their owners, five ravenous Italian randonneurs who invited us to their table.
When they asked about our tour, I unfolded the map and started my remarks by saying: “From here to …”. But at the very moment my index finger hovered over the city of Chania, the chief randonneur lost his temper, jumped up from his chair and snatched the map away from underneath my hand with a rapid movement, so that my index finger did not land on the map, but in a greasy spot on the wooden table. A dull gargling sound crawled up from his chest, then a scream, sharp as a shepherd’s knife, a cry that made the marrow freeze in our bones: “WE BIKED ALL OF THIS”! And in wide sweeping gestures he moved his hand back and forth across the entire map, making the breadcrumbs fly off the table in all directions.
We had to admit that the 700 kilometers we covered in one week were paltry compared to the 3,000 kms of the Italians. Aside from their little mental quirks, we admired them. In only three weeks they had completely circumnavigated the island on the Old Road, then crossed it several times and conquered all the plateaus. I can still hear them ranting about our bikes, outside in the drifting snow: “Hollow section rims, pha! That’s the youth of today – hollow section rims in the mountains”.
Well, not every cyclist shares the ambitious aims of a randonneur and ows a gladiatorial heart. So my description of this tour through the eastern part of the island goes out to the connoisseurs, to those who turn their faces towards the sun, enjoy the glittering of the big blue on a clear spring morning, spot the lone white sail on the horizon, and love a mild breeze. If you appreciate a hearty meal with the wine brought here from Touplo Monastery, when the evening air is filled with the buzz of laughter and voices, and the alleys of Mirtos are bathed in the golden light of the taverns and shops, this tour is for you.
If you approach Mirtos in spring via the coastal plain from the east, the first thing you’ll see is the peaks of the Dikti Mountains rising up above the horizon, and soon the whole mountain range seems to sway gently on the waves of the Aegean Sea. Like the banners of an army, the snow-capped peaks glow above the blue water and the valleys are filled with cold, fast-moving water. I wanted to see all this.
The first climb leads to the alp of Selakano, situated at 900 meters above sea level at the bottom of Mt Dikti. The main road towards Ano Vianos leaves the village in a northerly direction, parallel to the valley of the river Psoriaris which flows into the sea at Mirtos. After approx. 1,4 kms you turn right towards Mithi and Males. After another 3,5 kms you reach the village of Mithi on a steadily ascending road at 200 meters. For about 1.5 kms, the road now winds its way downhill through the Miocene marls, sands and conglomerates leading to the valley crossing of the Psoriaris.
Cut deep into the Pindos limestone, the Sarakino gorge follows to the west. Provided the water conditions in the gorge permit, this adventurous hike takes about 2,5 hours. In spring, sudden rainfalls can cause the water level to rise quickly and make climbing over the slippery rock blocks a dangerous challenge. For the complete ascent of the gorge, I recommend that you pack a pair of sturdy boots, a change of clothes, weather protection, a towel and a first aid kit. If need be, an alternative route back down to Mirtos is provided via the Males to Mithi road east of the gorge.
The beauty of the gorge with its steeply rising cliffs already unveils along the first 700 meters, which are easy to master. You can enter the gorge via the narrow path to the left of the Mirtos waterworks which is lined with reeds, olive, carob and fig trees.
After crossing the river, the route proceeds uphill on a winding road through the olive groves that features ramps with gradients of 8-12%. Just before you reach the crossroads towards Males and Christos there are some challenging hairpin bends to be mastered, which are best done on the outer line. At the crossroads, turn left towards Christos and after 1,5 kms turn right into the steep ascent leading to the alp of Selakano.
The climb continues, but the surrounding landscape appears to have changed as if by magic. Only minutes ago you cycled through olive groves, past hissing irrigation pipes and small fruit and vegetable fields in blurred clayey marls and sands, and now you enter the alpine mountain world of the Pindos limestone where the air is crisp and cold.
In a narrow, arched curve, the road quickly rises up high above Christos and sticks to the steep slopes for the next few kilometers. Then, featuring an average gradient of 8%, it heads northwest towards the foot of the Dikti massif and the alp. A few pines and fir trees line the route which runs partly on asphalt and partly on short gravel roads with eroded sections and small offsets. Olive trees, grasses, herbs, autumn squill, sand crocus (romulea bulbocodium) and goatbeard (tragopogon sinuatus) now adorn the path.
Then the view opens up and in the circle of the snow-capped mountains you can see the scattered houses of the alp of Selakano. Proceed until you get close to the houses, then turn left and go past the small tavern “Stella” until you reach the fork in the village.
The alp itself is quite unspectacular. The true charm of the magnificent mountain scenery can only be discovered on a hike through the remaining pine forests above the village or on wanderings in the direction of Mt Afendis Christos (2.141 m), Mt Dikti (2.148m) and Mt Lazaro (2.085m). A connection to the Katharo plateau can be found at Males.
On the way back down to the road to Males and Christos and especially for the passage above Christos, mountain bike riding skills are required on the steep ramps. For racing bikes, it has proven useful to adjust the saddle height in such a way that you can also shift the center of gravity behind the saddle to maintain control when standing in the pedals.
Driving on a narrow ramp with a gradient of up to 20%, I tumbled into a sudden turn, just to encounter a huge truck driving uphill, loaded with precast concrete components. I have encountered such monsters carrying large chunks of lime or building supplies – including a road tanker – on several occasions and jumped off my bike or even off the road with my bike to avoid a crash. Once I fell on a scrub on a scarp, another time I was lucky to land among a group of goats at a watering hole three meters below the road. The truck tires grind on the side of the road and send behind some gravel and dust. And the truck engine roars: “There’s no room for a little worm like you!”
After reaching the road from Christos I proceed to Males. The large mountain village is beautifully situated on the north-eastern slope of the mountain range at approx. 600 meters above sea level. Greek tranquility and serenity characterize the atmosphere, and this attitude to life is best experienced when you stroll uphill and downhill through the narrow lanes and pay a visit to the Kafenion. At the church of Panajia Messochoritissa in the center of town you can admire some frescoes dating from 1413 which have faded somewhat over the years.
Connection to the Katharo plateau: Just before you reach the village of Males, a steep, ribbed concrete road on your left leads to the village of Katharo or the Katharo plateau respectively. It first takes you in a westerly direction and then towards the north. On this eight kilometer route to Katharo you have to master about 1.000 meters of altitude. After approximately three kilometers, the paved road turns into a gravel road.
If you look out to the east and to the southern coast from Males, the grand “teatro spettacolo grandioso”, which our Italian colleagues had been raving about, will unveil. And it is truly spectacular! For the next 15 kilometers to Kalamafka, you will ride on the contour lines of 600 meters and 500 meters and discover one of the most varied and scenic training routes I have ever encountered. Featuring an average ascent of 3%, the first seven kilometers leading up to the pass at 700 meters take you steadily uphill. But the changing theater scenes are the ones that enchant you, while you master the uphill and downhill stretches.
Sometimes the impressive Lassithiotika mountains tower above you during an exhausting ascent, then the view opens up again, and you can look far across the coast and the sea while you rush along a curvy road at high speed, past the Miocene conglomerates and clayey marl.
From the pass, the panoramic road runs downhill on a nine kilometer stretch via Anatoli to Kalamafka. Irapetra is located in the southeast and Crete’s largest reservoir is halfway up. The Bramiana dam was built in 1970 as a water reservoir for agriculture. Today it is an important biotope and wetland for plants and waterfowl.
Once you leave Kalamafka, a steep 10% slope will challenge you for about one kilometer. The marl, sandstone and limestone layers reveal themselves. Crossing the hilltop, you’ll rush down at high speed to the village of Prina and down to the T-junction at the well-developed road that leads from the north and from Istro to Meseleroi and Irapetra in the south. Turn right here and follow the wide curve to a 1,5 kilometer ramp that has a gradient of up to 10% in store for you. Knowing that this will be the last serious climb, a mountain sprint is now the order of the day.
The route proceeds quite unspectacularly via Meseleri and Makrilia, through olive groves and vegetable gardens, past old windmills, and down to the small town of Irapetra, which is surrounded by tomato and banana greenhouses.
Our big play has only one more scene to go, and it’s good that the curtain will come down soon because it unfortunately has an ugly modern ending. We immerse ourselves in the “Anthropocene”, whereas I prefer the geological synonym “Psychozoicum”. To be honest, it is more in keeping with my experiences in dealing with my fellow human beings.
The coastal road leading to Mirtos via Gra Ligia, Stomio, Nea Anatoli, and Ammodoures is the traffic artery of this agricultural area. It makes even an experienced bike messenger break out in sweat. The region’s prosperity is based on the agricultural trade; there are countless greenhouses, factories of fruit and vegetable merchants as well as car dealerships, workshops, furniture and electronics retailers. Large trucks line up at the warehouses – and unfortunately they also drive around like busy bees, searching for the next beehive, always wrapped in heavy, greasy clouds of exhaust fumes.
Ahead of me and behind me, engines roar and drivers honk their horn. Directly in front of me, cars turn into the street from the left and right – just like bumper cars at the fun fair.
To top it all off, a GIANT shepherd dog barked straight into my ear. His drooling mouth wide open, he stood on the loading area of a pickup truck and his sticky mucus hit my face and helmet when the driver made a reckless overtaking maneuver; exactly what I need to fit in with this new stage aesthetics. It’s a good thing that all of this happened inside a big cloud of dust that somehow calmed the chaos, otherwise I might simply have freaked out or something may have exploded inside of me. In a nutshell, the last 10 kilometers from Irapetra to the final 50 meter ascent just outside Mirtos are sheer hell, at least in the evening rush hour. But this last short elevation separates the chaos in the east from the tranquility in the west. So I cleaned up my face as well as I could and happily entered Mirtos.
102 km | 2.471 vertical meters | Hors catégorie
“The Truck was no closer, but it hadn’t lost ground, either. Mann’s eyes shifted. Up ahead were hills and mountains. He tried to reassure himself that upgrades were on his side, that he could climb them at the same speed he was going now. Yet all he could imagine were the downgrades, the immense truck close behind him, slamming violently into his car and knocking it across some cliff edge. He had a horrifying vision of dozens of broken, rusted cars, lying unseen in the canyons ahead, corpses in every one of them, all flung to shattering death … “ [Duell, Richard Matheson, Playboy 1971]
The Truck- And Tanker Drivers Go On Strike: In May 2008, lorry and fuel tanker drivers in Greece went on strike for higher transport tariffs. There were long queues at the petrol stations in Athens and Thessaloniki. The nerves of motorists were raw, and you could see fights over gasoline at Athenian gas stations on Greek national television.
The rental car I picked up at the airport in Heraklion to drive across the island to the southern coast still had a ¼ tank filling. Enough to reach the south coast at Ierapetra, as the friendly employee of the car rental company reassured me. She must have known that this information was only half the battle, but she told me that the strike would certainly be over by the time I got back, so I wouldn’t have to worry. But I was worried!
Considering my German origin – a person known to be worried about everything – she advised me to drive around Heraklion to find a gas station that still sells gasoline. Now, there’s nothing I “love” more than „driving around“ in Heraklion. Once – on foot, I went on a kind of scout mission and tried to figure out the route from the „Central Parking“ car park to the hotel in the center of Heraklion that I would have to take by car the next day, carefully taking into account all the one-way streets. It took all the tricks of my mnemotechnic verse to remember the mad two-kilometer route through Heraklion and I was on the road for almost half an hour. The linear distance between hotel and car park is just 100 meters, and it takes three minutes to get there directly.
The Big Void: Finally I found a petrol station, whose owner gave me another 20 liters of petrol, so that my expedition could begin.
The streets were swept clean. Crete is undoubtedly the only independent Mediterranean island in terms of its supply of drinking water and agricultural products – but no oil has yet been found there!
The Tanker Truck: Unfortunately I got used to this heavenly situation too quickly. Throughout that week I only encountered a couple of cars on my bike tours, until that memorable, stormy day when I saw a big tanker truck standing at the gas station by the crossroads just ahead of the village of Arvi.
I was on my way back from Tsoutsouros via Keratokambos to Mirtos, and had just embarked on the eleven-kilometre stretch, leading 700 meters in altitude, steeply uphill to Amiras. The strike was over, and soon I heard the heavy engine of the truck roaring behind me. Now, these narrow mountain roads feature a rising road embankment on the one side, and grasp at virtually nothing on the other side – there is no space for an evasive move! I had to try to lose the truck.
Duell: In Steven Spielberg’s film Duell, based on a short story by Richard Matheson, travelling salesman Mr. Mann (Dennis Weaver) is chased and almost killed by a 40-ton monster of a fuel truck in a lethal cat-and-mouse game along a desert highway in California.The truck driver tries to push him into a passing train at a closed level crossing, to force him off the road during an overtaking maneuver, and a telephone booth from which Mr. Mann wants to call the police is flattened by the truck. Mr. Mann can outpace the truck on an ascent towards the mountain pass, but then his car’s radiator hose bursts, the engine boils, and the truck approaches again.
Just in time, Mr. Mann manages to cross the pass, and the opponents chase down the mountains in close succession until the duel reaches its climax at the end of a dead end street in front of a gorge. The truck hits the car that Mr. Mann has just dropped out of, and, accompanied by a long, loud honk, the truck crashes into the abyss. The story is based on an incident that the author, Matheson, experienced himself. He was chased by a fuel truck on his way home through the desert.
The surviving „Duel“ (1971) Peterbilt Conventional 281 truck, restored, at the 2010 Virginia-Carolina Truck Show.
The Uphill Battle: Now I felt hunted, too. For six kilometers, the road keeps winding up to the first ridge with gradients of 7-12%, through sparse scrub, juniper, olive groves and past greenhouses. I felt the heat from the greenhouses scorching my skin, but reaching for the water bottle took time, and in every bend I heard the sound of the truck engine attack and ebb away as the driver shifted gears. Pure adrenaline flooded my body, because I had already covered 75 kilometers and approx. 2,000 meters in altitude, and I could feel them in my legs. I was clearly cycling at my limit, but another relentless ascent of 500 meters in altitude lay ahead of me, and the truck was on my tail.
You may wonder why I did not stop somewhere at the narrow side of the road. I SIMPLY COULDN’T STOP! I saw myself trapped in a film sequence where the plot is not yet complete and the story is not yet told to the end. The actor cannot leave the band of the street, the big stage that moves along, until the narrative takes a satisfying dramatic turn to reveal an exit strategy. Would I win this man against machine contest, or end up beaten, in the dust, a scorn to my fellow men, like Don Quijote?
The Bells Were Ringing For The Last Act: Fearful and horrified, I took a careful look at this howling, even roaring monster behind me. Just when I thought I had gained a lead, I could feel the truck’s soaring radiator front right behind me and heard its strained engine howling at high revs in every turn. This truck wanted to push me off the road, and – I still shudder today – I heard bells ringing. Somewhere in the distance, bells rang in the last act of this drama.
On the ridge I managed to gain some strength, so after about one kilometer I increased my speed on a stretch with a lower gradient in order to conquer the next ascent towards Amiras with gradients of up to 15%. But it was just a pie in the sky. The truck had obviously slowed down deliberately to start another overtaking maneuver at this ascent. Honking his horn, he was directly behind me and tried to get next to me.
Just ahead of Amiras, on a path branching off downhill, I rescued myself by jumping into the dust and the fuel truck passed by. Spontaneous applause went up, but as it turned out, not I was meant, nor it had anything to do with my landing in the dust – in my opinion an absolutely worth performance. A little further down, people were playing basketball, and the crowd cheered for their teams. In Greece, basketball is at least as popular as football.
Like Don Quixote – Battered In The Dust: After a few minutes of catching my breath I picked myself up again and brushed off the dirt. I looked up to the village of Amiras with the turnoff to the main road to Mirtos. And unlike in the film, the truck didn’t wait for me behind the next hilltop to continue the merciless hunt.
Early in the morning I left the lovely village of Mirtos and rode uphill into the mountains on a well-maintained, winding road – first in a northerly direction to Mournies, then to the west, where increasing, strong headwinds and gradients of 5- 7% provided a challenge while I went further uphill. After 14 kilometers I reached a plateau near the village of Pefkos at 680 meters in altitude.
The dense greenery by the roadside and on the slopes, including pines, zithers, ashes, oaks and olive trees, is dotted with the yellow blossoms of huge broom bushes. In a slight ascent, the road now climbs above Amiras and towards the pass at 730 meters. Next is a fast downhill ride on the picturesque mountain route along the southern foothills of the Dikti Mountains to Ano Viannos.
Ano Viannos: Surrounded by olive groves and beautifully situated on the slope, the white houses soon come into sight.
Enjoy a break here or take a short trip to the monastery of Agia Moni. Shaded by cypresses, you’ll find it just below the village. The abbot’s English is perfect, and you can beautifully argue Greeconomics with him.
From Ano Viannos you will now ride another 20 kilometers, first on a wide road leading downhill into the valley at Kato Vianos, then over a hilltop featuring a 100-metre ascent.
The route proceeds constantly downhill via the villages of Martha (turn left here) and Skinias, through the Messara plain, and towards the steeply rising Asterousia Mountains, until you reach the river crossing of the Anapodáris in the valley near Demati.
The Climb: Here begins the 6.5-kilometre ascent to cross the pass at 450 meters. Afterwards, we’ll go downhill towards the sea.
The route gets really steep after you turn south in Kato Kastelliana towards the coast and in the direction of Tsoutsouros.
At an average gradient of 9%, and in breathtaking scenery, you climb the winding road in narrow hairpin bends, and its very steep ramps with gradients of up to 15% towards the pass. The slopes are covered in maquis and lavishly adorned with the yellow blossoms of flowering spiny mullein (verbascum spinosum), a plant the goats avoid because of its hairy leaves.
Once you have crossed the pass, you reach the barren landscape of the southern slopes that descend steeply towards the sea. There are a few olive trees, a bit of juniper and holly, but the real gem adorning the mountains is the road that goes downhill in wide bends for six kilometers.
Tsoutsouros – Keratokambos: Above the coastal village of Tsoutsouros, the road turns back eastwards, and for 18 kilometers your route proceeds along the asphalted coastal road. You will cross the Anapodáris river valley again and climb another 300 meters in altitude while you ride over three peaks. Proceed via Ag. Ioannis, Kastri, and Keratokambos until you reach the intersection just ahead of the village of Arvi.
Accomodation: If you love to stay at this lovely spot Keratokambos for a while, I can recommend PAN APARTMENTS owned by Georgios Papadimitrakis and Charlotte Philipp. Wonderfully located on the hillside with a wide view over the sea. Lovingly designed studios and apartments with genuine Greek hospitality. Georgios lived in Munich in the 1990s and works as an innovative physiotherapist for the Bundesliga Football Club 1860 Munich. Treat yourself to a massage of the master!
The Coastal Road: This is certainly one of the most remote and most beautiful coastal roads in Europe. With every bend, and every height, a new, elaborately decorated landscape opens up. The panorama is dominated by the turquoise sea, set against the background of the steep, towering mountain range, and everything is immersed in the soft light of the clouds drifting before the sun.
Once you complete the last ascent of 200 meters and go downhill through a narrow valley towards the coast and Arvi, you will enter an unreal, tropical world. The spray of the stormy sea runs through the valley like a veil of mist, and rises up at the slopes of the mountain. It gets much warmer, and thousands of sweet-smelling bananas and large tomatoes ripen in the greenhouses. This is a lonely, quiet place – there is no hint to the creator of this tropical marvel, only the sea keeps on raging.
From here, you have to master another 500 meters on a gravel and sand road leading through the banana plantations down to the sea, and after you turn onto the coastal road towards Arvi, the circle is completed at the following crossing. Turn left to the north, and after eleven kilometers of exhausting climbing at Amiras and Kefalovrisi, you will be back on the Viannos-Mirtos-Ierapetra mountain road. Following a 17-kilometre descent in breathtaking scenery, you will reach the coastal town of Mirtos at the southern slopes of Mount Dikti.
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.
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.
60 km – 75km | 1.428 – 1.672 vertical meters | Category 3
“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”– Elon Musk, SpaceX
Skywards: A loud rattling sound, as if the chain hoist of a roller coaster pulls the car skywards up the ramp of the steel colossus. Then there is a bright glow. Accompanied by a hissing sound, a gigantic welding torch is ignited at night and bathes the entire surroundings in glistening light. There is an indescribable roar, the deep, muffled rattle – rising to a thunder of a heavily loaded freight train which races past you for minutes, a pulsating pounding, a quietening noise, until this dies down, as well. With a speed of more than 11.2 kilometers (6.95 miles) per second, the spaceship leaves the gravity field of the earth after its launch and sets off on a new journey into our solar system.
The dark shadowed moon: Just a moment ago the full moon shone brightly above the Cretan sea, and now it wanders off into the darkness of the earth’s shadow reaching into space. For three hours there was a total lunar eclipse, and the stars in the sky appear to shine thousands of times more intensely. At the same time, shining brightly, a distinctly red colored celestial body rises above the horizon in the southeast and moves upward to the west, only to go down again in the morning in the east – planet Mars.
At the end of July 2018, Earth approached Mars at the shortest distance of 57.6 million kilometers (35.79 million miles). The next encounter will take place on October 6, 2020 (opposition date: October 13, 2020).
Cycling on Mars: Well, how about a bicycle tour on Mars? After a flight time of three quarters of a year, which is best spent on the bicycle ergometer, the treadmill and with strength training, you reach the red planet. After the safe landing, the construction of the modules of the space station which are stowed in the hold, the connection of the nuclear reactors for energy supply, the water and oxygen generators, the greenhouses and the exploration on water ice for water production begins.
The deep Ocean: There is a planet with a huge ocean, 160 kilometers (99.41 miles) deep, filled with heavy gas from the bottom to the border of space. Various creatures live at its bottom. And this gas exerts the considerable pressure of approx. 1 kg/cm². For the chest of a human being, with an area of about 1,000 cm², this would mean that the load of one ton of weight would be effective. The bodies of these ocean-diving planet inhabitants withstand the pressure.
On Mars, on the other hand, the pressure is only 0.6% of it, about 6 g/cm². After a few steps on Mars, the brave earthlings would collapse with bloated arms, legs, and bellies, their blood boiling. A pressure suit must prevent this. Not those puffed-up, white NASA things from the age of moon exploration, but carbon-fiber-reinforced, tight-fitting, elastic and motion-optimized Mars clothing. Furthermore, humans would have to protect themselves against the extreme cold and cosmic radiation and ensure a supply of breathing air. The average temperature ranges from -23°C at the equator to -140°C towards the polar caps. With temperatures around 20°C in summer, on the other hand, it can be comfortably warm at the equator on Mars.
SpaceX: So, I guess you have paid the $450,000 for a one-way ticket to Mars on board the BFR spaceship of SpaceX, bid farewell to all the trifles of your life so far, and now, like the legendary heroes of the North and South Polar expeditions, will begin your journey. But maybe after reading Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, you’ve got a few concerns, and it’s all just a bad dream that you wake up from early in the morning, bathed in sweat in a rainy city in northern Europe.
You can also go cycling in Mars-like scenery on Earth. The Atacama Desert, which accompanies the Pacific coast in the west of Chile for 1,200 kilometers, looks like a landscape on Mars, and apart from the polar regions, is one of the most arid regions on Earth. The 19-hour flight from Europe to Chile costs around €1,000. Spain is closer and features the Tabernas Desert, the semi-desert of Cabo de Gata in the province of Almería, and the semi-desert Bardenas Reales in the northern Spanish province of Navarre, for which organized mountain bike tours are offered.
The whispered message: And then there is the Kiriamadi peninsula on Crete with Cap Sideros, an arid and barren natural beauty with an average annual precipitation of only 300 mm. I had asked my landlord Georgio if it was possible to explore the peninsula up to its furthest eastern tip, Cape Sideros, and the 15 m high lighthouse at the Cape dating from 1880 (The lighthouse was newly built in 1951, the lighthouse building 1963-64).
He doubtfully shook his head, knowing full well that this area, being a military restricted area with a naval base of the Greek army, is not accessible. „Listen Nick,“ he said, „on the 4th of February each year, in celebration of Saint Isidore, the gates of the naval base are opened so that people can visit the chapel at the small bay below the lighthouse. A shipwrecked monk, who had already spent several days in the sea, deprived of any hope of salvation, was washed ashore there and later built the small chapel as a gesture of appreciation for his salvation.
And now …“ – he bowed his head close to me to continue in a hoarse whisper: „I know a fisherman from the area who goes fishing there at night. Maybe he would take you with him. You’d only have to swim for a while because there’s a dangerous reef just off the coast.“ Now, I had actually packed a neoprene shorty for swimming and a neoprene balaclava to protect myself against the cold while cycling in the mountains. So I would have been well equipped for this purpose, had it not been for his hint: „They have dogs there“.
The danish Mastiffs: Ever since I freely interpreted the right of public access in Sweden and crossed the Bälteberga manor several times on my way to the Kågeröd formation, until the day I met the owner’s two Great Danes, I have developed a strong aversion to this breed of dog and I don’t like to talk about this incident. My escape from them to the bull pasture was not unproblematic, either. Yes, I think I saw a certain malicious joy in their eyes. These animals are lacking in behavior and the simplest principles of courtesy are foreign to them.
The transfer stage from Kato Zakros to Sitia crosses the vast highlands of the Kiriamadi Peninsula in the very northeast of Crete, a barren, hilly landscape sparsely dotted with low Phrygana. With its red shades shimmering in the heat, it resembles a Martian landscape. From the ever narrowing band of the island, which carries the small road far to the northeast into the sea, you dive into the earth ages of the Upper Permian (260 million years ago), the Triassic and the Jurassic. The outcrops are marvelous, featuring the overthrust of the uniform limestones and dolomites of the tectonic structure of the Tripolitsa-nape over the slates and metamorphites of the phyllite-quartzite-unit at Erimoupolis, and the marbles of the Plattenkalk-nape as deepest tectonic unit in eastern Crete, with bright silicate bands and large fossil sponges at Plakoures.
Kato Zakros- Vai- Sitia: Leaving Kato Zakros, you quickly climb a winding road for eight kilometers and 300 meters in altitude, all the way up into the tranquil town of Zakros. Fill your water bottles at the spring in the center, and then proceed on the route which ascends for two and a half kilometers and another 100 meters in altitude, up to the summit of the tour at the mountain village of Adravasti.
In the varied, hilly terrain you now ride for 16 kilometers, passing the small villages of Azokeramos, Chochlakies, Kamara and Langada, going downhill for 450 meters, until you reach Paleokastro. The route runs largely through the valleys towards NNE, which are shielded from the wind. But for the last three kilometers, riding out of the windshield of the mountains towards Paleokastro, you’ll feel the gusty wind from the northwest. Intensified like in a wind tunnel, it constantly blows across this part of the island at speeds of 6 Bft in spring and summer.
Grand Circuit Kiriamadi: Turning north in the center of Paleokastro, you embark on a triangular course of a total length of approx. 44 km per round trip. It features the starting point of >Paleokastro< in the southeastern part of the peninsula, the ascent to the >Helipad of the Greek Navy< in the north, proceeds further northeast towards >Cape Sideros< and takes you back to the >Monastery of Toplou< in the north-west of Kiriamadi.
Vai: The eight kilometers to the north lead past the turnoff for Vai. Riding for one kilometer on a cul-de-sac leading through an extensive palm grove, you’ll get to the palm-covered bay of Vai, type locality of the Cretan date palm, Phoenix theophrasti. And if this is the turning point to Sitia for you, then you will reach the town after a total distance of 60 kilometers.
Straight on, you’ll reach ancient Itanos after another kilometer. Just ahead of Itanos, the turnoff to the left and towards the west leads to the Greek Navy helipad (military restricted area at the end of the road) and provides a steep 2 Kilometer/ 200-metre climb through a fantastic landscape. From here you have a breathtaking view across the sea to the offshore islands of Gianisada and Dragonadie and across the entire peninsula up to Cape Sideros.
Between the two seas: Going back to the junction, you’ll ride for approximately five kilometer further northeast on the narrowing headland, uphill past the outcrop of the Erimoupolis overthrust, on a narrow ridge between the two seas of Crete and Libya, up to the next ascent, which is already located in the military restricted area, and then on to the outcrop of the deepest tectonic unit of Eastern Crete, the Plattenkalk near Plakoures. Another 500 meters further on, the fence of the military restricted area is already reached.
Moni Toplou: On your return journey to the monastery of Toplou, you first turn west after eight kilometers, and then head in a south-westerly direction a little later to follow the road leading to the monastery for five kilometers. In the shimmering heat, you climb up into the northern foothills at Sitia and through the barren highlands of Toplou with their deep valleys, until the first vines of Toplou and soon also the impressive monastery itself appear.
Not only is the impressive monastery worth a visit, but also the winery. Available are the red Liatiko Mandilari, the Toplou Merlot-Syrah, the red Liathiko dessert wine, and the excellent 2011 Toplou Syrah, matured in barrique barrels for 12 months.
Leaving the monastery of Toplou, you can enjoy a spectacular descend taking you 100 meters in altitude downhill in wide serpentines and leading to the crossroads at the main road from Paleokastro to Sitia. Here, you can turn into a new round of the „Grand Circuit Kiriamadi“, or continue in the direction of Sitia, which you will reach via two hilltops after 15 kilometers of speedy riding.
Accomodation: Sitia Bay Hotel – The Sitia Bay Hotel is conveniently located in the low-traffic eastern part of Sitia, directly on the bay with crystal clear waters and the excellent sandy beach. Great location for biking the whole eastern part of crete, to explore the Kiriamadi Peninsula or climbing in the mountains.
The family run hotel offers guests the highest level of hospitality. All apartments have a magnificent view of the sea and are equipped with air-conditioning, double or single beds, a fully equipped kitchen, WIFI access, satellite TV, telephone, very well maintained and clean bathrooms and nice balconies. Top Pool (appr. 10*7m). Room cleaning service every day. Even now I miss the delicious Cretan almond cake, the pasta dumplings filled with feta cheese or spinach and other delicacies, which the room service left for me in my kitchen every day. Ask for Eric if you have any question concerning the surroundig area, the excursions you‘ ve planed, to visit nearby attactions or the ancient places.
Sitia Bay Hotel – Patriarhou Vartholomaiou 27 / Tritis Septemvriou 8 – 723 00, Sitia – Crete. http://www.sitiabay.com
44 km | 910 vertical meters | Category 3
The Racetrack: Whether you drive here from Kato Zakros, Paleokastro or Sitia doesn’t matter. However, due to the jet effect of the terrain’s morphology, the prevailing wind from the northwest unfolds a distinct power, which means you’ll have most fun when completing the triangular course of roundabout 44 Kilometers counterclockwise, i.e. >Paleokastro -> Itanos-> Greek Navy Helipad -> Cap Sideros (Retour) -> Itanos -> Moni Toplou -> Paleokastro<. Otherwise you’ll have to fight against a strong headwind on the straight and rather monotonous 6-kilometer stretch from Paleokastro to the monastery of Toplou – a passage that you will usually cover at high speed when coming from the west and with the wind behind you.
92km – 106km | 5km Dirt Road | 1.859 – 2.204 vertical meters | Category 1
A dark, black cloud appeares above the church, a touch of a breeze then a treacherous push from a gust, wild and wilder, whirling up the red dust. Then worst, spreads to a red veil, embraces the lonely wanderer. He has to keep his balance, leaned into the wind, has to breath in this suffocating gloom, he must. The storm moves on as a whirlwind, slides faster and faster, keeps him trapped in an impenetrable cloud, bewitched by Prospero the Master.
The cliff of the Zakros Mountains towers imposingly above the east coast at Kato Zakros. Only a few gorges break up the harsh rocks such as those at Agia Irini, Xerokambos and Kato Zakros and further north at Hohlakies. Going through steep bends you ride from Kato Zakros into the mountains, climb up to the pass at 620 meters in altitude and to the plateau at Karidi. Here a wide, dry plain follows to the north, extending relatively evenly on approx. 600 meters in altitude from Karidi up to the small villages of Mitato, Krioneri and Chonos.
Karidi Plain: Gorges and large cave systems characterize this landscape of limestone and violet slate, a largely treeless plateau overgrown with round thorny shrubs of garrigue, the phrygana of Greece. In the dry summer climate of eastern Crete, with high temperatures and low precipitation, you can find the typical range of plants of the eastern Mediterranean around here – it’s a climate with predominant rainfall during the growing season of the plants in winter.
In spring, the prevalent yellow flower cushions of the round Greek spiny spurge (Euphorbia acanthothamnos) and the green thorny burnet (Sacropoterium spinosum) light up the landscape. Already flowering in autumn, the delicate and yet brilliant blue, towards the edge white blossom of Crown Friar (Globularia alypum) and the yellow flowers of Dwarf Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis lanata pygmi) can be admired.
Shrubby herbs such as red flowering Autumn Heather (Erica manipuliflora), the thorny, widely branched, and strongly aromatic Conehead Thyme (Corydothymus capitatus), Silvery Spurge Flax (Thymeleae tartonraira) with its silky hair, Greek Sage (Salvia fruticosa), Cretan Oregano (Origanum onites), St. John’s Wort (Hypericum empetrifolium) which looks like dry heather around here, and the delicate touch of pink of the small-flowered Rockrose (Cistus parviflorus) turn the plain into a landscape of simple, devout beauty in spring.
The Old Villages: If you stroll through the alleys of the picturesque mountain villages such as Karidi, Magkasa (Vrisidi), Mitato, Krioneri, Chonos or Xirolimni and let your hand rest on the old stone walls of the abandoned houses entirely build in rough stone, take a look at the frame of stonework around the arched doors and windows, and the heavy woods and beams supporting the ceilings and the roof. These beautiful and architecturally well-designed natural stone houses kept their warm brown tint and probably date back to the 16th and 17th century, the time of the Venetian and Turkish occupation.
The same is true of the paths from the Venetian period, which still connect the villages. You can admire them just outside Karidi, in the direction of Agios Antonios and Chonos, on Georoute 5 of the Sitia Nature Park and between Mitato and Magasas. Figuratively speaking, you can go back in time for five centuries while you walk on their pavement, absorbed in dreams and thoughts of the past.
High above these places, Bearded Vultures (Gypaetus barbatus) circle around like harpies, transforming the wide plateau, where sunlight is so pale today, into an enraptured, fabulous dreamlike backdrop. Dark clouds advance from the north, and suddenly there is a heavy downpour. In an instant, tiny rivulets turn into small streams that rush down from the flanks of the purple slate.
The Secret Machinery: Just outside Karidi, on the way towards Mitato, when my foot touched the dark red surface of the Violet Slate for the first time at the end of the concrete road, marking the entrance to the Karidi gorge, the landscape started to vibrate. It seemed as if my step had triggered off a hidden mechanism. Deep below me, hidden in the caverns of the earth, an apparatus had been set in motion which, like stage machinery, would determine the further events in a predetermined sequence. There was a dull rumbling that sounded like a train making its way on iron rails, followed by a rolling sound like that of rope pulls and drums, and a grinding of hooks which elevated pieces of the landscape, if not a complete gloomy horizon, from its subsidence, while at the same time high above the scene, shreds of clouds swept away in a ghost-like dance.
Emerging from the shadow of Mount Prassokefalo, I was now fully exposed to the stormy wind. I shivered. From here I overlooked the whole plateau. Immersed in the grey pale light of the approaching storm, a completely new, threatening scenery unveiled.
Storm: On the horizon, nothing but the little white church of Mitato and the whirling windmills stood out against the dark, ink- colored sky. Everything in this stage set appeared to be tense. It looked as if sky was about to be torn asunder like a worn out piece of canvas, and turn everything – the dark red ground, the grey limestones, the columns of this world – into a stagger, an unstoppable gliding and whirling, which would inevitably have dragged me along into the abyss.
The vibration was a result of the wind, which had steadily increased shortly after the rain had stopped. Every thorn bush, every karst cavity whistling like an organ pipe in the rock, every fence post, every harp of wire mesh seemed to vibrate and filled the air with a singing sound that accompanied the storm orchestrally in addition to my rattling windbreaker jacket. Blowing constantly from May to autumn, there is a strong northwesterly wind from the Aegean around here, anyway – the Meltemi. But this was a storm.
For minutes on end the gusts pulled at me so fiercely that, despite my greatest efforts, it was impossible to brace myself against the wind, in order to get away and keep my bike, my backpack and myself in balance. The air seemed to have turned into a flowing liquid which makes a swimmer, who desperately tries to reach the shore against the back-flooding waters of the heavy surf at the coast, pitifully fail over and over again with every wave. Even the ground seemed to lose its firm consistency. My feet, supposed to prevent me from flying away like a shred of cloth, were my only connection to the surface of the Earth – but as I looked down on them, I realized how ridiculously small they were.
Mitato: The next place to provide shelter was the quarry ahead of the village Mitato, and I tried to get to it. When I arrived there after an exhausting hike – it was all over.
In the village itself, I spotted a pair of bright canvas shoes in the courtyard in front of a house. Immaculate, tidy and clean, they had been put there by their owner. Standing there in the sunlight, faithfully side by side, they were such a peaceful and tranquil sight, as if to deny the chaos that had just raged.
A whirlwind that had formed between the Ionian Sea and the Aegean Sea had swept across Crete, its ridges reaching wind speeds of 90- 100km/h.
The Citadel: The wind was still stormy, but the sunbeams warmed me up. I embarked on the short struggle to climb the 3.5 kilometers and 200 meters in altitude from Mitato up to the „Citadel“, the ruins of the former radar station of the Greek Air Force on the summit of Mount Armi. Here the whole panorama of the plateau unveils its dreamlike beauty. The view stretches as far as Sitia and Mochlos in the west, the Kiriamadi peninsula in the north, the expanse of the sea in the east and the Ziros plain in the south.
Downhill To The North Coast: On the following 10.5 kilometers from the summit at 750 meters down to the coast, you pass by the village of Krioneri and ride through the grandiose mountain landscape. For 1.5 kilometers you face the stormy northwesterly wind. Then the road swings north for 5.5 kilometers, leading into the slipstream of the mountains and along the eastern slope of Mount Vothoni, then through the wind-protected valley. Just ahead of Roussa Ekklisia, you ride out onto the crest of the hill again and will have to keep your balance in the wind as the road winds down into the plain for another four kilometers until you reach the main road from Sitia to Paleokastro on the north coast.
Along The Coast To The Northeast: Turning right to the east and with the northwesterly wind at your back, you’ll virtually fly along for 8.5 kilometers. Riding parallel to the coast, the sprint takes you across two smaller hills each of which features a 50-meter climb (at Aghia Fotia and at the abandoned quarry in the big bend), then past the thrust fault of the Tripolitzakalk above the Violet Slate, and then east towards Paleokastro until you reach the branch to Toplou Monastery and the Kiriamadi peninsula.
Up To Moni Toplou: In eight wide bends, the road ascends for 3.5 kilometers from the late Miocene sands, marls and clays to the monastery of Toplou in the dry, barren and stony landscape of the Kiriamadi peninsula. The annual average rainfall here is less than 300 mm, and the vegetation is sparse, featuring the odd round and spiny shrub. The ascending road bypasses the Toplou Gorge eastwards and leads from the soft Miocene strata hundreds of millions of years back into the rocky desert of the Triassic and Permian slates, marbles, and limestones.
[Crete forms a horst (ridge) within a fore- arc- region of the northward subduction zone of the African Plate. In the Oligocene to Miocene, different layer complexes were pushed over each other as tectonic structures contrary to their time of origin, so that older layers came to lie above younger ones. There is a lower and a higher pile of thrust sheets. Parts of the lower pile, the Plattenkalk layers, the Phyllite-Quartzite-Unit and the Tripolitza layer, were deformed in the course of the alpine mountain formation and exposed to strong pressure which metamorphically altered the rock. In Eastern Crete, the Tripolitza thrust lies above the Phyllite-Quartzite-Unit and the latter above the Plattenkalk as the lowest tectonic unit].
Kiriamadi Peninsula: Opposite the lush green idyll of the Toplou Gorge with its spring, brooks and water puddles, an unadorned stone desert opens up to the north. In this magnificent solitude, you’ll virtually glide through a rocky desert between the sea and the sky at fast speed, while the narrow asphalted crest you ride on reaches far out to the border of the continent in the northeast, surrounded by the salty haze of the sea.
And if you then look back across the narrow connection of the islands to the south and all the way up to the Zakro Mountains rising up at the horizon, inhalating the shimmering air, then you will perceive scents of dried grass, limestone and marl, exotic woods, fruits, thyme, sage, and rosemary – that’s the scent of the Kiriamadi peninsula.
Coming from Toplou Monastery, you’ll reach the turn-off to Vai after seven kilometers (The total distance of the tour from the turning point Vai is 92 kilometers). The ancient city of Itanos follows in the direction of Cape Sideros. Shortly afterwards, you’ll reach the geological outcrop at Ermoupolis with the overthrust of the Tripolitza layer above the Phyllite-Quartzite-Unit, and, closer to Plakoures, the outcrop of Plattenkalk, the deepest tectonic unit of eastern Crete (The total distance of the tour from the turning point Plakoures is 106 km). On your way back through hilly terrain, you’ll arrive in Paleokastro after some 14 kilometers of speedy cycling.
Back To The Starting Point At Kato Zakros: From Paleokastro to Adravasti your route follows the fault zone of the Zakros Basin from north to south. Riding over a first hill and a small plateau you’ll proceed uphill through extensive olive groves inside the valley for about four kilometers and 150 meters in altitude. Winding its way through slate and limestone layers, the road passes small vegetable gardens, where fruit and almond trees line the path. The next stage takes you downhill again. Via Lagkada, you’ll get to the small village of Hohlakies. To the east, the impressive Hohlakies gorge is located behind the village of Kamara. You can take a three-kilometer (1.86-mile) hike/ climb through the gorge, all the way to the beach of Karoumes.
The route now takes a wide sweep to the west and proceeds uphill and downhill through the Violet Slate via Azkeramos, providing a steady ascent to Kellaria. In the west and south, the impressive Zakros Mountains with the Karidi plateau tower up. Their peaks are up to 700 meters high. On the steep flanks of the mountains, the road leads to the pass at the beautiful village of Adravasti. You will reach the pass after about eight kilometers and 250 meters in altitude. For another eleven kilometers you’ll go southeast past Klisidi and down to the coast at Kato Zakros via Epano Zakros.
A giant has come above the seas and moored his ship on the northwestern shore, he quickly approaches over the hills and the plateau with terrible wrath. Then he sees this crawling insect, nothing more than a fluttering ghost, drags and pushes him more and more, grabs him and kicks him down to the bloody floor. Ariel, windy spirit and lord of the storm, out of the inky sky, you sent pouring rain and thundering roar, as I fought my way up to the ruins high above the plain, the landscape was torn apart, by a Skylla hidden in swirling clouds, fortunately, I remained unscathed.
70 km | 1.522 vertical meters | Category 3
In a wind tunnel: The sun rises above Kato Zakros bay. While the valley is quiet, the wind blows strongly from the northwest across the crests and the passes. The first eight kilometres in western direction to Ano Zakros and the downhill to Xerokambos are easy going. But the climb up the wide sweeping bends to the Ziros Plateau became more strenuous than expected.
The headwind increases to six Beaufort. The guy on his bike pushes himself upward with his heart beating like mad. He travels light while he faces the breathtaking ascents up to the Plateau. Then he dashes downward into the next valley again and is but a small creature rushing along, tumbling into a sudden turn, just to encounter the next steep ascent. The climbing velocity is now on walking speed. Strong gusts drag at his body, trying to overwhelm him, then pushing him towards the abyss. It is sheer agony to climb against this strong and gusty headwind. The life has switched to slow motion. The bees take cover in the shelter from the wind provided by the climber and struggle their way over the pass to the next valley just like him.
So Harry from Nostros Restaurant at Kato Zakros, an ambitious climber himself, was right. “You put the cart before the horses – you have to ride the tour the other way round”
From Kato Zakros to Sitanos, Voila and Xerokambos: Two sweeping curves carry you high above the sea at Kato Zakros. A stop in the centre of the next village, Ano Zakros, to fill up the water bottles at the well. The actual karstic spring is located northwest of the village.
Leaving Adravasti behind, you follow the turnoff to the nine kilometre-long ascent to Karidi and the plateau of Ziros. In narrow hairpin bends with ascents of up to 12%, the road winds its way up towards the pass at 700m above sea level. The path is lined with limestone, marl, some violet slate, and the sparse vegetation of maccia.
Curve after curve, I climbed the steep ascent at high velocity. Then, loud and clear, a bicycle bell suddenly rings behind me. According to its sound, it belongs to an ancient Dutch ladies‘ bike. My only conclusion was: A woman on a Holland bike had caught up with me on a steep mountain road with a 10% ascent, and now she was about to overtake me. I’ve been humiliated many times in sports. Among other things, I was once overtaken by a young mother with a jogger stroller while I was running uphill. With tears in my eyes, I can still see her rocking ponytail disappearing ahead of me.
Nothing was lost, yet. Rising from the saddle and increasing the pace was one thing. I was now clearly spinning in the red zone. But the ringing continued, sometimes more to the left, then more to the right. Without a doubt, Jeannie Longo was at my rear wheel. Then it happened. I had briefly looked away, then the ringing suddenly came from the front. She had passed me. With a mild smile on her face – she stood at the roadside. A Cretan goat. Her bell rang merrily, and not just hers. There were bells ringing all around me, and the goats ran away as I stormed towards Karidi. I must have been a little out of my mind.
Passing through the village of Karidi which is embedded in purple slate, you climb the last 100 meters of altitude leading up to the pass. Then proceed further via the remote and abandoned elevated karstic landscape before the route takes you downhill to Sitanos, a farmer’s village in the fertile valley. Olives, wine, honey, vegetables and cereals have always been the riches of this area. In the centre of the village, turn left and head southwest following the road towards Voila and Chandras for five kilometres.
Voila: Just before you reach an S-curve, the sandy path on the left leads to the ruins of the medieval village of Voila, a mystical place with two refreshing fountains. A fountain with decorations from the Ottoman period and delicious, cold water is located right on the path. Shaded by almond, fig trees, oleander and a big cactus, the other one is situated above the private garden at the southeast end of the village.
The village is dominated by the massive residential tower of „Tzen Ali“. Probably of Venetian origin and dating from the 16th century, it was repaired and decorated during the Ottoman period in 1740-41. The archway shows decorations from this period. The tower served as a country estate for the utilisation of the fertile valley (Plateau of Armenochantradon) and as a base for the leaders of the Janissaries.
It ows its name to one of the most famous of them, Tzen Ali. In the surrounding village east of the path you can see residential houses, stables and storehouses, as well as the ruins of two churches. The well preserved two-nave church of Saint George situated on the eastern slope houses a 16th century gravestone fresco. To the west of the path, a protective wall, irrigation systems, and remains of buildings can be seen in the fields.
Follow the sandy path to the northwest and you will soon reach the peaceful farming village of Chandras. There is a small playground on the right side of the village entrance. Turn left here at the crossroads, pass by the highly recommendable village restaurant Taverna Katerina, then enjoy the descend and continue eastwards on the plateau towards Ziros, the administrative centre of the region. Because there was something to celebrate that day, someone fired a gun right over my head. The reader will understand that this incident had given me the necessary (adrenalin-based) acceleration I needed for the way south and up the pass (685m above sea level).
The descent to the Libyan Sea is one of the most beautiful in Europe. Featuring wide curves for 16 kms, the well-developed road takes you towards the glittering sea that displays its bright blue to turquoise shades along the way. The road is like an elaborate ribbon, like an ornamentation of the mountain rising up from the limestone and marl that is sparsely covered with maccia. It’s a party, a rush of speed on a technically challenging descent. Watch out in those hairpin bends, they can be very narrow and tricky in oncoming traffic. Xerokambos is a small and quiet coastal village. The houses are lined up along the coastal road, there are two mini-markets, a few taverns, and you can rent rooms or apartments. Special features include the fantastic white sandy beaches, the crystal clear water, and the small secluded coves where no other guests can be seen all day long.
From Xerokambos, the journey continues to Zakros. Following the fantastic descent down to the coast, the last 250 meters of altitude uphill to Zakros are easy to master before the last eight kilometres downhill to Kato Zakros close the circle.
Accomodation: Stella`s Traditional Apartements. About 700m from the beach. Well equipt ensuit Studios and apartements, run by the friendly Ailamaki family. Stella and her husband are globetrotters, mountaineers and himalayan hot shots who (not really) came to rest at this peaceful spot – Kato Zakros. For you it is a lay-back-atmosphere here in this paradisiacal resort with the shady garden and the genuine Greek hospitality. https://www.stelapts.com
Eating: Nostros Restaurant – Terrace at the waterfront. Very professionell and friendly run. Great eating. Fresh fish and grills. My favorite. <email@example.com>