Introduction to Crete
Introduction to Crete Walk and Cycle in Crete
Crete is a large island 257 kilometres long and 58 kilometres wide. It is the southernmost part of Europe and sits in the eastern Mediterranean between the coast of North Africa and mainland Greece. It is a province of Greece and therefore part of the European Community. Crete's complex history is summarised in appendix D.
Crete and Europe.
Most of Crete is mountainous, rising in the west to the peaks of the Lefka Ori at 2454 metres. In the centre the Ida mountains climb to 2458 metres and in the east the Dicti reach 2149 metres.
These large mountain massifs are linked by a series of ridges and peaks that rise to between 900 and 1300 metres. The main rock of the mountains is a hard limestone with some schist but with sandstones and gravels in the foothills.
The four regions of Crete with the main mountain ranges and some important towns.
Much of the drainage from the limestone areas is through underground watercourses which often resurface in the gorges that split the landscape. Heavy snow and rain in the winter can produce violent floods that surge down through these gorges. The same effect can result from a rapid thaw of snow in the spring and flash floods from summer thunderstorms. We got caught in one of these in May 1993. Water, brown with mud, boiled down every little crevice. All you can do is climb into a rock shelter and sit them out. For much of the year these gorges have a mere trickle of water or are completely dry. Samaria is the longest and deepest gorge but not the narrowest. It is a major tourist attraction which means it is no longer a peaceful walk and there is no need for directions, simply follow the person in front of you. Other gorges such as the Aradena and Imbros offer much greater solitude and are even more spectacular.
The narrow coastal plains along the north of Crete support many market gardens. These have often been developed to produce sub-tropical crops protected by polythene sheeting. Concrete framed rooms-to-let also sprout from these fields, often finished and to let at one end but still under construction at the other. This collection of greenhouses, workshops and rooms-to-let produces a very untidy landscape. The Messara plain, south of the Idha mountains, is also a rich agricultural area with a profusion of polythene reflecting the sunlight.
Circular areas of richer soil are a feature of the mountain landscape. These range in size from pockets of deep soil a few metres across to the Lasithi plateau which is eight kilometres from east to west and six kilometres from north to south. The Lasithi plateau has lost its water pumping windmills and much of its charm. Rusting metal pylons that used to support the sails litter the landscape.
The mountain villages are much more compact and often built on a steep hillside with narrow passageways threading between the houses and animal shelters. Cultivated terraces still worked by hand provide vegetables and salad crops for the tourist in local tavernas. Old terraces no longer in cultivation climb many of the mountain sides to 1000 metres or more. Some are now being ploughed by bulldozer to provide better grazing for the sheep and goats.
Flocks of sheep and goats, often kept in the village in the shed beneath the family house overnight, provide milk and cheese such as Graviera, Mizithra and Anthotirio.
Many farmers still go out with their flocks to watch over them while they graze but increasingly fences allow the flocks to graze unsupervised.
These new fences are often constructed from sections of steel reinforcement mesh tied to metal rods driven into the ground. They are effective but unsightly and they do not always include gates where they cross old paths.
A Cretan gate - gates are often indistinguishable from the general run of the fence but the wire that ties the mesh in place allows the end of one panel to be lifted to one side.