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Designing a Cretan Journey

Several years ago, I suggested to Oli Broom that Crete would be an ideal destination for The Slow Cyclist. The combination of sea and mountains with ancient history, living culture, superb food, wine and hospitality cannot be found, I believe, anywhere else in the world. It is a place of great intensity and great contrasts.

What takes me back again and again is the music: a fascinating tradition of folk music that is more alive than anywhere else in Greece. So when Oli asked if I would explore the island, in November last year, with the aim of setting up a trip, I was practically on the boat before I’d given a firm “yes!”

Emily, my companion for the week, and I had little time for music on our recce. Instead, we drove the length and breadth of this deceptively vast island, trying to decide which of all its myriad landscapes would be easiest both on the eye and on Slow Cyclist legs. We settled for the centre, the ancient heartlands of the island, beginning near the charming town of Rethymno on the north coast, skirting Mount Ida (or Psiloritis: Crete’s highest mountain at 2456m) and finishing on the south coast.

Our route passes through the Amari Valley: a heroic landscape of old villages, ancient olive trees and dry-stone walls. Mount Ida towers above. The land feels fresh and fruitful, almost like the English countryside – if only Zeus were born in, say, the Lake District, and there were a lot more sun. Unusually for Greece, this valley stays green all year. Arriving at the Asterousia mountain range in the south, after a sea of olive trees in the Mesara plain, the contrast is striking: literally meaning ‘Essence of Stars’, these bare mountains tumble impressively down to the Libyan Sea, with remote monasteries and small coves dotted along the coast among palm trees.

Crete, of course, is not unknown to tourists – nor is it a virgin landscape. There is considerable agriculture. Its climate is so propitious, its land so rich, that most of the produce at my local market in Athens comes from Crete. The key, therefore, was to find paths that outflank the big hotels and skirt the polytunnels. Think of it like Patrick Leigh Fermor avoiding German bombers, evacuating Heinrich Kreipe from the south coast. We spent hours, occasionally desperate ones, driving up and down dirt tracks through olive groves. By the end, my car’s suspension was ruined. But the prize was when a view of Mount Ida or of the Libyan Sea would suddenly open and there was nothing but sheep and goats around, and a few vultures hanging on the thermals. Our trip will incorporate bicycle rides on the best of these hidden dirt roads, along with all the rest that this island has to offer. I am immensely excited to begin guiding here.

To enquire about cycling and walking in Crete with The Slow Cyclist please contact james@theslowcyclist.co.uk. Joshua Barley is an Athens-based musician, translator and Slow Cyclist guide. His latest book of translations, Greek Folk Songs, was published by Aiora Press in 2022. 

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