8.5 Mirtos- Koutsouras- Chrysopigi-Sitia
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„.