Discovering Crete: Exploring Greece’s largest island on foot
There are small islands which capture the peculiarities of island life—and bigger islands where insular qualities are less evident. Crete is most certainly in the latter category. It is the largest of the Greek islands, and indeed one of the largest islands in the entire Mediterranean. Only Sicily, Sardinia, Cyprus and Corsica are larger. From the promontory at Sideros at the far north-east of Crete to the ancient Monastery of Panagia Chrisoskalitissa in south-west Crete, it is about 250 miles by road.
East to west across Crete
But distances say little about driving times in Crete. This is truly one of Europe’s great drives, a feast of serpentines and mountain passes. Along the way there are magnificent views. The terrain is so fearsome that you’d be hard pushed to do the drive in a day. And in truth only the most foolish of travelers would even consider trying to rush the journey. The drive across Crete deserves at least a week.
The Golden Step
Or you could follow Christopher Somerville’s example and walk across Crete. Chris set off from the east coast of Greece at Easter, taking 50 days for the hike to Panagia Chrisoskalitissa, where he arrived just in time for Pentecost. His experience is recalled in a very fine book entitled The Golden Step: A Walk through the Heart of Greece (first published as a hardback by Haus in 2007 and now available as a paperback). The book’s title alludes to the monastery at the western end of the trail: Panagia Chrisoskalitissa, in English the Monastery of Our Lady of the Golden Step.
“Blessed is the man that walketh,” was the phrase that Christopher Somerville had in mind as he set out from the east coast early on the morning of Easter Monday. He may not have felt quite so blessed as, over the following weeks, he hiked through fierce mountain gorges and over arid plateaus. Yet only slow travelers encounter the rural Crete that Christopher discovered on his walk.
Make time for the trail
Crete is—by virtue of its size—well suited to taking time out, Somerville-style. If you are tempted, do as Christopher Somerville did, and leave every distracting piece of technology at home. No GPS, no smart phone. Take a few maps and don’t forget The Golden Step. It is a pocket-sized gem. And don’t live just for the moment of arrival. Slow travelers take life one step at a time, savoring each moment of the journey. And there is a glint of gold in each footfall on the pilgrim trail across Crete.