Ruined Venetian castles, left from when the Italian republic ruled Crete, are a fixture even in tiny villages, standing on oceanside mountaintops with no fences or locks, amid grazing goats. The ancient and modern are often one and the same. Tiny chapels stand far away from any road, large enough for three or four people, containing traditional icons and lamps (plus the occasional discarded condom). Roadsides are dotted with dollhouse chapels containing icons and an oil lamp in memory of a car-accident victim.
All of that lay ahead of me. I was on my first full hiking day, and decided on a "practice gorge" leading from Andrei to the sea. On this sun-bleached section of southwestern Crete, trails are often graded by the availability of shade. Plenty of that in a gorge. The air had that distinctive Crete smell: A mixture of sage, sea air, and dried pine. On the trail marked "shortcut to the beach," I imagined bikini-clad locals making their way down to the blue water in jewel-studded sandals.
Yet nobody was on this trail. A third of the way down, I realized that perhaps recent geological disturbances (Crete has many) had created hiking conditions not noted in the trail guides. At one point, the only way down a 10-foot drop was to jump. Not a big deal, normally. But the hiking boots that had gotten me through the Alps, Andes, and Rockies had started coming apart at the heels. So when I took the leap to the rocks below, lack of any ankle support left me falling to my side with a yelp.
Checking my vital signs, I felt the chill of aloneness - in a country I'd never previously visited, still jet-lagged, with unraveling boots on a trail far too rough to be hiked in stocking feet. Forget about cellphone coverage in a gorge. Who would I call anyway? And at this late-afternoon hour, no other hikers were likely. The light was fading early. How much farther to the beach? No way to tell.
Uh-oh. How did I get here?
Hiking in Crete had been on my mind for years. As a widower of a certain age, I gave up on my contemporaries coming along on trips like this. Travel agencies that organize hiking groups had spiraled out of my price range. A more minimalist organization in England was happy to set up lodging and hiking maps. But those prices were based on couples. By the time all of the surcharges and single supplements were added for cabs and hotel, I was paying for a vacation and a half.
Crete isn't easy for Americans. European bargain jets go there, but not from major international airports. My $1,300 airfare out of Philadelphia was considered good. That, plus my latest property-tax bill, persuaded me to book the trip on my own. No taxis for me. And lots of research with the help of friends who had been there. Flying into Chania (an old, quaint Cretan capital) is charming, but the resorts outside of it resemble Florida.
Taking a bus to the less-populated south side of the island, I was forfeiting certainty. Nobody meets you - anywhere. Maps may not be up to date. And - even in a practice gorge - you watch helplessly as your boots come apart.
Proceeding slowly and carefully took nearly twice the estimated hiking time. By the end, a few shreds of boot dangled from my feet and Paleochora was still two hours away. I stuck out my thumb, showed my pathetic footwear to the German tourist behind the wheel, and jumped into the backseat, feeling slightly pathetic.
These tourists, though, were living by a GPS telling them where to go but not why. Paleochora is one of the most charming towns I've ever visited. But their GPS hadn't mentioned it; they didn't know it existed.
My less-certain trip had a great payoff, the sort that changes your inner life, since discovering a world for yourself becomes a much more personal experience. Saint Paul (the person, not the city) dismissed Crete's inhabitants as "liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons." Asking for help (as one must do when alone), I discovered they're quite the opposite - fun, direct, intense and svelte. Back in Paleochora, a hole-in-the-wall T-shirt shop promised to have boots in the back room. The proprietess, with an air of gleeful ceremony, dropped my old boots into the trash.
Virtually all businesses in Paleochora seemed to be self-owned, and at least half of them to be run by women. No corporations lording over them. And no credit cards are taken in the southwest end of the island. When I first arrived and was unable to find my lodgings - Apartments Elizabeth, which had no street address - the owner of the vegetarian Third Eye Restaurant put me on the back of his motor scooter and drove from cafe to cafe, often right into the seating areas, asking where the place was.
Finally, a proprietress spoke to the scooter driver in Greek, smiled broadly at me, and said (in English), "I've been waiting for you!"
Later, in the seaside town of Loutro, I checked into the three-star Ibis Hotel - a homey place with a Marilyn Monroe shrine in the sitting room. Proprietress Christina Kantounatakis studied my printout from Hotels.com like a battle plan.
"I don't like this," she said, as if quoting a line from Greek tragedy. "These are not my prices. Too much money." Suddenly, my 60-euro room was 40.
She looked at me gravely: "I want you to be happy." My room had a balcony overlooking the water.
At the low-key fishing village of Chora Sfakion, I had phoned to Hotel Stavris to make a reservation. Nobody there spoke much English and, again, wanted nothing to do with my credit card. When I got there, they showed me a room and asked for 30 euros, the receipt scrawled on a page torn from a spiral notebook. All was well.
The more I got to know the locals, the more extroverted and sassy they were. By frequenting the same restaurant, I became a temporary fixture. People wondered who I was and stopped by to chat. One guy couldn't understand how I could leave Paleochora, where the main streets are blocked off at night to accommodate outdoor cafés, for much-quieter Loutro. But Loutro - accessible only by boat and built along such a narrow cove that you have to walk through one hotel to get to another - has something Paleochora lacks: A Venetian fortress.
There are a few essential tourist sites in southwestern Crete, such as the Samaria Gorge, which has special buses to take you there at daybreak, giving you the entire day to enjoy the odd vegetation and often-towering geology as you descend. But no person, no book, told me about the Venetian fortress that overlooked Loutro, next door to an "energy spiral," circles of rocks built by modern-day mystics.
Nobody seems to know much about the fortress; it had to have been built between the 13th and 17th centuries. The town's history includes ancient Roman settlements, later taken over by Saracen pirates, who were vanquished by the Venetians, who ruled Crete from 1205 to 1669. From there, the history is full of crusaders, saints, offshore leper colonies, and Knights of Malta - all easy to believe while cruising past the seaside cliffs, resembling gods turned to stone. I was almost happier without concrete information; my imagination was more fun.
The most frequently asked question: Is it OK to tear off your clothes and jump in the ocean?
Cretans are fairly casual about nudity. Women routinely drop their tops - after 4 p.m. But at the more rustic beaches you stumble across while hiking, the sand is black and becomes so hot your bare feet can't tolerate more than a few steps. So you wade out to a rock, pile your water bottle, boots and clothes there hoping that a wave doesn't wash them away. Returning from swimming, you'll inevitably have sand in your socks - which is deeply unpleasant with hours of walking ahead.
But the sea still beckons. The ultra-clear water is like nothing else. You have to do it once.