From Cape Krios to Elafonissi

This portion of the European long-distance trail, from Cape Krios to Elafonissi, is a fairly long excursion, roughly five hours, and it could ideally be divided into three parts thanks to the variety of promontory of Krios, stretches out along the shore with exceptional views of the sea, and ends one and a half hours later at the small church of Agios Ioannis. The second part, which is longer and more monotonous, leads from the church along a dry riverbed , crosses the rocky flanks of the coast a trail halfway up the mountain and takes roughly one a half hours. The third segment, wich is the loveliest, leads to the bay of Vroulias and ends in glory at Elafonissi, a two-hour hike in part along the seaside among sandy dunes and I part through a forest of cedars.

You start off in Paleochora, a small seaside town with the ruins of an ancient fortress on a hilltop. Eight kilometers later we reach the protected, sandy beach of Cape Krios, the last offshoot of the south-western coast. You park our car at the edge of a small forest of maritime juniper and walk along the deserted beach that is divided in two by a smooth boulder with the first signpost featuring the yellow and black logo of the E4 European trail. It is early November, the Libyan Sea is rather choppy, fast-moving clouds continuously block the sun. Your hiking boots sinks into the light gray stones of the beach until a bright blue arrow invites us up a path along a short gully among rock rose bushes, low, cuspidate shrubs of Phoenician juniper and the umbrella- shaped flowers of dendroid Euphorbia. You quickly reach the saddleback of the promontory in the distance we can see the silhouette of Elafonissi (Deer Island), hidden I a pale blue haze. Now the trail merges with a broad, white track that is occupied by a flock of sheep which indifferently ignore our presence. Fifteen minutes later we have left the road behind and diligently follow the blue signs as we climb up a hillside and the maquis is gradually substituted by gariga, irregular vegetation that alternates with open areas and rocky outcroppings. The trail has frequent red markings and after crossing a gully full of Phoenician juniper you begin to descend, making our way through a labyrinth of sharp pinnacles toward the promontory’s first bay. Which is dotted with myriads of dark concretions emerging from the surface of the water. The water’s edge, which is occupied by a troop of black goats obstinately searching for tufts of grass, also features large, inanimate marble cylinders that have been devoured by the salt air, the ruins of columns with light green and pink veining. You are perplexed because although our map indicates an archeological site, the Hellenisticroman basilica of Viennos, no signs confirm its presence. You decide against going for a swim in the because the hike will be a long one and you make do with dipping our fingers into the tepid water as though is were a holy water font. The trail leads upward once again, with a view of the sharp rocks below. One of these rocks has a blue and white votive edifice on it, an act of propitiation to the gods of the sea or a compassionate gesture in memory of a sad event?

After crossing another small forest of Phoenician junipers with their dark red, cone-shaped fruit, you carefully round the mountainside, one step at a time, well aware that we are dangerously exposed to the overhanging cliff. A few difficult meters and the trail becomes safe once again. You near our first destination, that is heralded by a clearing of pink oleanders. In a leafy hollow we see the white silhouette of the church of Agios Ioannis. The chapel was constructed on a low slope, its whitewashed facade looks very old, with a hint of small, carved columns and a Gothic ogive lunette decorating the small entrance door. Agios Ioannis is locked you vainly search for the key in the fissures of the architrave and then peer through the small window of the apse to get a glimpse of the interior of the chapel. In the shade of a carob tree in the little courtyard in front of the church, you enjoy the fantastic panorama below us of the wide expanse of bright green that ends in the pinkish sand of a cove with turquoise water. You are ready to take on the second portion of the hike, another hour and a half along the crest of the mountain. You avoid the impassible rocky stretches of the coast until the red trail markings take us along a sandy, semicircular hollow to a long tongue of land, rocky and white, that runs parallel to the sea. You soon regain altitude, following a precarious pathway that leads among the boulders of the disturbing mountain rifts above us. The trail is softened by sporadic bushes of pink heather with small, bell-shaped flowers. The trail markers are everywhere and very welcome. An E4 sign hangs despondently from the blackened branches of a leafless carob tree we fear that furious thunderstorms are a regular occurrence in this area. You are surrounded by a landscape of arid frigana, a further degradation of the gariga, and round bushes that are thorny and aromatic. The use of these two terms, gariga and frigana, isn’t meant to flaunt difficult words but rather, we believe, is a helpful way to gain more specific knowledge of the natural characteristics of the island. The third phase of the excursion begins when we sight another small oasis of oleanders growing along a dry riverbed with large, marble-veined limestone outcroppings. Nature has been generous in this mini-canyon, offering small, wild olive trees, fragrant sage, myrtle shrubs and bushes of ballotta acetabulosa with their round, fuzzy leaves. The descent ends at the small beach of a lagoon located just before the gulf of Vroulias. From this point on we will be active spectators of a show of extraordinary beauty, a long series of rocky coves which an imaginative mind has drawn in the most diverse forms, the coriaceous tail of a prehistoric animal, the most diverse forms, the coriaceous tail of a prehistoric animal, the curved claws of a gigantic shrimp, a titanic hook. As seductive as sirens, these coves invite us into their bright wavelets. Bewitched, we advance slowly over the fine sand, uncertain as to which cove to elect as our ideal stop. Our perseverance is soon rewarded, the archetype of the ideal bay appears alongside a magnificent forest of cedar trees almost touch the sea. A place like this could easily tempt hikers to forget everything else and content themselves with so much beauty, to stop and not continue further on. You have been hiking for hours now and are beginning to feel tired. The clouds, which had scattered a few drops of rain at the beginning of the excursion, have been dissolved by a strong sun, all the more reason to abandon ourselves to a restorative swim. The first few meters of the transparent water reveal white slabs of underwater rock, a regal, mother – of - pearl coating that welcomes us in the fresh water that enchants and invigorates. Refreshed, we emerge from the water and seek shade under a cedar tree. Your attention is captured by the unusual morphology of this tree, whose trunk is grooved by thin vertical filaments and whose woody roots, even though they emerge from the ground and are suspended in the air, are nonetheless alive because they are nourished by the earth below. It is a prickly juniper tree – juniperus oxycedrus maxicarpa this tree prefers steep shores and sandy beaches and is protected by the European Community. In Crete it can only be found here and on the small island of Chrissi and Gavdos.

Among the dunes interspersed with pungent, horizontal tufts of ammophila arenaria, there are two sun-loving nudists, a few tents, and an inviting hammock suspended between two large cedar branches. At the edge of the forest a hand-written sign informs passersby that cedar trees are very delicate they can be damaged by any kind of encroachment and their roots take one hundred years to grow. The sign ends with a heartfelt entreaty to respect this protected species.

A few more kilometers to Elafonissi you slowly continue on as we savor the views of this stupendous landscape. Other trail markers appear among the black rocks near the sea but it is wiser to continue on as you savor the views of this stupendous landscape. Other trail markers appear among the black rocks near the sea but it is wiser to continue along the path marked by the tiny pyramids of stones. You come upon a sign announcing when the boat between Elafonissi and Paleochora passes in high season a man and a woman are intently fishing with long fishing poles. After another hour you sight a group of run - down campers, an unsightly summer campsite that is now abandoned and guides us to the famous beach.

Your destination, can be reached by wading through a stretch of lagoon whose water occasionally re aches hip - deep. A sign lists the rules for enjoying this subtropical paradise in full respect of its fragile habitat. On a sandy hillside we admire two late flowerings of sea daffodils – pancratium maritimum white and slender these flowers bloom at the end of August. With its small, solitary coves, Elafonissi is enchanting at this time of year. The summer amusement park with its music, refreshment stands, beach umbrellas and paddleboats that spring up on the vast beach in front of us has disappeared with the first autumn rainfalls and we enjoy the beauty in total silence until sunset.