Saturday, 9 November 2013

end of season

The clocks change just before we leave Paleohora.  We have passed the Autumnal Equinox and the days are shorter.  But the clock change is the tricky thing for us - now the sunrises just before seven, which is fine, and it is setting just before six, which is lousy. If we want to camp wild then we have to start looking usually an hour before sun down just to be sure we have enough light to pitch.  It's always been a bit of a game this.  If you don't want to be seen camping, and we don't, then the dark can be good.  But then we need to cook and need light.  So the dark nights will mean longer nights in the tent and using up the torch batteries.  There's a new moon too, which seems to bring a change in weather - or is that an old wives' tale?


We take a new road that climbs out of Paleohora up to a high point and then turn back down towards the sea on a dusty dirt road to take us to Elafonissi beach.  The beach is in the south west corner of Crete and has developed a certain amount of fame.  We know we're on the right track because there's a steady trickle of very slow rental cars coming the other way - this is a shortcut.  We descend down to the beach hoping to find water.  Behind it the land is covered in poly-farms - large structures full of plants and roofed in polythene.  It's a big operation here.  We ask a young man for water and he takes us back to his pre-fab room and gives us a bottle.  He's from Morocco, working on a farm.  Down at the beach there are plenty of rental cars - there must be more tourists here than anywhere else on Crete.  It's the end of October.  We spot a Swiss camper van.  Despite the "no camping" signs they've stayed three nights and not been troubled, so we pitch discreetly along the beach.

The beach is lovely but we are on the move. We're taking the coastal road along the west coast and back to Hania.  The route takes us into a gorge before climbing out and onto a high road that skirts the hills on the western coast.  The views are dramatic, the road is empty, the cycling is great.  Some of the houses in the villages look like they've been left untouched from the war.  It's unusual to see old houses here - most villages seem to have new(ish) houses built with brick or breezeblock, not so pretty but usually bigger.  We camp in an olive grove - a nice spot just below a chapel.  Only in the wee small hours I hear someone walking on the track by the chapel.  Their torch light hits the tent and returns for a full sweep.  They say nothing.  I nudge Gayle awake in case they approach, but we hear nothing.  Weird?  An hour later we hear two gun shots down the hillside - hunters.  

Down at the north coast in Kissamos the campsite has closed and the sea is foaming and crashing on the beach.  A strong wind blows. Here we find a place to camp in an olive grove behind a wall of bamboo - perfect shelter from the wind.  Further along the coast the tourist strip is now deserted.  Shops, bars, tavernas all closed.  There are a few locals around, but these villages that merge into one long development seem empty.  Even Hania looks quiet.  How things change in just a few weeks. The campsite here is still open, just.  Everything is closed up bar the toilet block and the kitchen.  We stop a couple of nights and on the second night are joined by a French couple just arrived in a hire car and Tomas, a young stray from Stockholm, who is trying to hitchhike around Europe.  He is 20, worryingly skinny and not dressed for life on the road but for a night on the town.  We hope he goes home before Christmas but his plans are vague.

Our ride continues along the north coast to Rethymno, with a detour to the Commonwealth War Cemetery at Souda.  The graves are mostly of British, Australians and New Zealanders.  A Polish airman.  An Indian sailor.  About 2000 died defending the island when the Germans invaded by air in 1941. 
We pass through some old villages off the main road. The central mountains loom before us and a thunderstorm crashes through the valley below.  We find another olive grove to camp in down at sea level - everything is soggy and wet after the storm.  In the morning the weather is dry but there are plenty of clouds around.  We have a wander around Rethymno's old town and seek shelter in a cafe when the rain starts.  Lunch is eaten on the promenade in the sunshine.  It's that kind of mixed weather.  Along the sea front is another strip of empty tourist hotels, shops and bars and fur shops. Fur shops? For the Russian tourists? 
anti-fascist stencil

We turn south inland and start climbing sharply into the mountains.  After a tough climb we then drop down to a big reservoir which isn't on our map.  It's getting on, so we camp by a chapel built above the reservoir by the water company.  It's in a grand spot and we pitch in the lee of the church as the winds are coming off the mountains behind.  The ground's a bit soft and it proves our undoing.  In the night the wind gets up and starts gusting, slamming the tent and rattling it from both ends.  Some pegs come out of the ground.  We tie the tent to the bikes but the buffeting is rocking it too much.  Fortunately the church door is unlocked and there's enough floor space for us to lie down and sleep, so we pack up, bring our mats and sleeping bags in and take the tent down.

a church, typically in the middle of nowhere

The morning brings rain and wind - not a favourite combination.  Our plan is to cycle around the south side of Crete's biggest mountain and then cut north to Iraklion, but the cloud is down and the way looks grim.  We take our time over breakfast but nothing changes, so eventually we decide to return the way we came to the north coast and take the old road along the north side of the massif.  The route turns out to be lovely - through old villages, climbing slowly and then into a verdant gorge.  One night we camp in an olive grove that has had the ground turned over.  At sunrise there's a thunderstorm and the ground turns to mud.  We spend a bit of time afterwards cleaning up and having breakfast at a nearby chapel.  This one has a cemetery so there's a handy tap.  We see small churches everywhere in Greece, dotted across the landscape.  Some are locked but many are left open.  We always keep an eye out for them at lunchtimes and evenings.  

The road to Iraklion culminates in a climb to a pass through a lovely valley and then a big downhill.  This was the old main road on the island but a new one has been built right on the coast and so the villages we pass through seem all but forgotten.  It's good farmland with plenty of vineyards and lemon groves as well as the ubiquitous olive.  Tall trees stand dramatically out above the land.  The autumn colours are vibrant when the sun is out. The men in these parts all look swarthy and tough, have curly hair and drive pickup trucks.  The old women are uniformly in black.  

I am looking forward to Iraklion as we have decided to look for a room for a couple of nights.  About four weeks ago I clumsily raked my shin down a pedal which left me with two nasty looking scabs.  They seemed to be healing okay but in the past few days an infection has started and my leg has swollen.  I want a bed with clean sheets, I want antibiotics, I want a rest!  Happily, Gayle is in agreement and we find a good cheap room in the old town.

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