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Where the gods live

If you end up on the largest Greek island, you have many options: experience sun and sea, soak up culture or enjoy gravel. On countless slopes.

Gerhard Eisenschink


Over the Ambelos Pass up on the Lassithi plateau the wind howls like ever. And the ancient windmills have always seemed to be there. The buildings huddle against the rock, defying the storm, and the wooden wheels, emaciated by the sun and wind, soar bizarre into the blue sky. On Crete, the 4000 year old cradle of European high culture, the legacies of the people, their houses, temples, statues and palaces seem to be timeless. Walter and I park the motorcycles in the slipstream of the old walls. An old man sits in an open door, his skin wrinkled like the stones around him. He waves me over, hands me a dried up plant and signals to me to smell it. It is sage, the spicy smell of the south, which he sells to tourists for a small fee. In addition, he has built up a collection of old, yellowed postcards, to which he refers with a silent gesture. The tourists up here don’t understand his language anyway. Walter, who shows me the island on a small enduro bike, has lived in Crete for a year and speaks to him in Greek. Suddenly life comes into the eyes of the old man. He answers Walter’s questions in a hoarse voice, clears his throat, seems to have to get used to talking to people again. Zacharias, his name is, doesn’t know his age exactly. It will be 70 or 80 years. But what is the time. As a child he was sent up here by his parents to have grain ground. He lives in a small village five kilometers away. His children have left the island and live on the mainland, in Sparta and Athens. Since his wife died, the windmill has become his second home, he says. He likes life up here, between the wind turbines and the incessant howl of the wind. We’ll probably stay in his field of vision for a long time as we roll our motorcycles out into the wide plateau of Lassithi. There were hundreds of windmills here, whole areas of rotating, white sails between brown fields and green trees. Today there are only a few left. But the wind is still there. It is the Meltemi, the north wind known to surfers and sailors, which sweeps across the island in the summer months. With a wind force of up to eight, it hits us in sudden gusts as we drive down the small, winding road from the plateau to the north-east to the coast. Often enough, it is not the curve radius, but the Meltemi that determines our lean angle, the light enduros have to be held firmly on the road. From our base in Irakleion we set off the next day in the opposite direction, into the inaccessible mountains on the western half of the island. The winding mountains and gorges were once popular retreats for partisans. For thousands of years it was a curse on Crete to be in a strategically important position and to be dragged to and fro in the intrigues of the great and naval powers. Regardless of whether Roman, Arab, Venetian or Turkish occupation – the Cretans withdrew into their impassable mountains and offered bitter resistance. The last time in 1941 when German troops occupied the island in World War II. In keeping with the cruel occupation tradition, the Germans mercilessly slaughtered entire villages that had given partisans shelter. Anyone who drives through the colorful and fragrant Cretan landscape today can hardly imagine that in the millennia-old history almost every stone here has been splattered with blood. The Preveli Monastery, which we reach at the end of the road between the island’s two great mountain ranges, the Psiloritis Mountains and the Levka Ori, is no exception. Again and again the monks gave the partisans shelter in the fight against the Turks and had to pay bitterly for it. The monastery was burned down and devastated several times. Today many of the buildings are still well preserved, overgrown with wild vines and idyllically surrounded by cypress and olive trees. We leave the motorcycles on the road and enjoy the quiet place. Down by the brook a wren sings his song, a falcon calls high up in the sky, and the air is filled with the concert of the cicadas. It is the music of this landscape, timeless, like the island itself. It goes well with the heat, the shimmering light and the scent of thyme and sage. The famous Palace of Knossós on the north coast may represent thousands of years more history than this small, almost forgotten monastery. But it reaches me deeper than the ancient world, suffocating in its crowds. We continue to the west. The winding road between Sellia and Chóra Sfakíon is pure driving pleasure, even if the smooth asphalt, reflecting in the sun, occasionally causes heavy slides in the curves. And the gusts of wind from the Meltemi as it sweeps down from the mountains do the rest to prevent the light machines from being rushed to speed. Frango Kastello appears, a Venetian castle from the 14th century, inviting and almost Caribbean surrounded by a turquoise-green sea. But tragedies have played out in and around the walls made of rough stone blocks that do not match the bathing joys of today’s visitors. It is said that the ghosts of almost 400 Cretans slaughtered by the Turks in 1828 appear every May at dawn and wail along the quarry stone walls. A few kilometers behind the gruesome fort we reach Chóra Sfakíon, one of the few larger towns here on the south coast . Yet it is only a handful of white houses that are clustered around a small harbor basin in the shelter of a bay. In the port tavern, bouzouki rhythms play on the radio and there is Greek salad, souvlaki and calamari. The fishermen chat out on the pier. Tomorrow is another day and it will be seen whether a good catch can be made. Worrying and excessive business acumen do not seem popular in Crete. Over a never-ending series of hairpin bends, we screw our way west again up into the mountains. There we get to know Georgios, a shepherd who is out and about with his flock. Georgio’s purpose in life seems simple ?? without interesting challenges one would say in Germany. But German ideas of professional realization lose all meaning when I hear Georgios talk about his life, which revolves only around his four-legged proteges. And when he sits down with some cheese and a glass of wine in the evening, he’s just happy, he laughs. He gives us his address because he’d like the picture I’m taking of him. But when we ask him to write them down, he becomes embarrassed. He doesn’t put more than his initials on paper; then Walter has to help him. A shepherd in the mountains need not be able to read or write. It is more important to be able to tear a sheep or a goat off their feet and catch them with the Cretan shepherd’s staff. And that, Georgios smiles mischievously, he can still do that as fast as he was in his youth. We drive a few kilometers further through the deserted village of Arádena to the end of the road to Agios Ioánnis. The bridge over the Arádena Gorge, which spans 30 meters over the abyss, marks one last breathtaking event before the route finally ends. If you wanted to go to Agios Ioannis earlier, you had to cross the gorge on a steep mule track for hours. A Greek who emigrated and got rich overseas once made this bridge a gift to the people of his homeland. As I drive over the loose wooden planks of the dizzying construction, the echo rattles far below in the abyss. In the depths lies the carcass of a fallen goat. I’m getting a little queasy. Apparently it is a number too dangerous here, even for the experienced climbing animals. The road ends in Agios Ioannis, the Lefka Ori mountains, which are over 2000 meters high, block the continuation of the journey along the south coast. from here only a few goat paths lead down to the sea, there are no passable paths. The Levka Ori, the “White Mountains”, as the bright, bare limestone ridges are called, which still wear a snow cap well into spring, belong to the shepherds who cross the barren wasteland with their goats and sheep on small mule tracks. Except for a few die-hard hikers, hardly any tourists are interested in it. One day and many winding kilometers later we are on the other side of the mountain range at an altitude of 1680 meters at the Kallergi Hut. The hiking trail to the famous Samariá Gorge, the Grand Canyon of Crete, lies deep below us between mighty limestone ridges. Crowds of travelers make a pilgrimage there every day to be embraced by the grandiose spectacle of the up to 500 meters high and vertically rising rock gorge. From the Kallergi hut we start over the Omalós plateau to the last stage of our island crossing. We wind our way through the quiet mountains on lonely slopes through purple blooming wild thyme. Tourists or motorbikes rarely appear in the small villages, Walter provides information on interested questions about where we are from and where we are going. His concern for the local language opens the hearts of the people and the raki bottles alike. Because it is a natural gesture of Cretan hospitality to offer the stranger a sip of the Treber schnapps, which is often made by himself. The west coast is almost reached, when suddenly a piece of the South Pacific reveals itself around a bend. Shimmering in a palette of colors from blue to turquoise, the beach of Elafonisi lies far below us. I can’t drive a meter further, just want to look, soak up this almost kitschy beautiful picture. As a reminder for cold autumn days at home, save for later daydreams of sun, sand and sea. When I am back in my senses, we roll down, park the motorbikes on the beach and let ourselves fall blissfully into the waves. “With a lot of garlic, goat cheese and plenty of olive oil you can get fat, but also old,” laughing Sofia reveals the secret for their youthfulness. In fact, you don’t look at her 87 years of age when she is crocheting in the shade with her friend Irini. We have just driven through the small village of Stavrós on the Akrotíri Peninsula, exploring the nooks and crannies between the flower-filled white houses on foot. Of course, Walter can’t help but hang out a little chat, because that belongs to Greece like Zeus and Zaziki. And in fact, he conquered the hearts of the two ladies by storm. They tell us half their lives, and we even have to look at the geraniums in the garden. Stavrós is not just any Cretan village, after all, various scenes from the film »Alexis Zorbas« were filmed here. And Walter would have better not mentioned that. Because now Sofia and Irini are only really getting going, as they both played as extras in the film. It goes without saying that this event has to be doused with an inevitable sip of raki even decades later. And who knows, maybe it is also because of the raki that the people here are getting so old and have such an enviable attitude towards life.

Info – Crete

The largest of the Greek islands offers a huge network of winding mountain roads and remote slopes over a maximum of 260 kilometers from west to east and 60 kilometers from north to south. The ideal mix of tours awaits both road and enduro riders between over 2000 meter high mountains and deep gorges, between white villages and blue sea, between 4000 year old ruins and a modern tourism infrastructure.

Arrival: You should plan some time for a stay in Crete, because the relatively long journey takes at least four days to get there and back, despite good ferry connections from Ancona and Venice. Some ferry lines with a direct connection to Crete offer the most beautiful and relaxing option. Otherwise, you have to change in Athens / Piraeus. A single trip costs from 160/220 marks for the driver on deck or in the cabin, for the motorcycle from 90 marks. If you don’t have that much time, you should consider a charter flight (around four hours of flight time), which costs around 600 marks on average for the return trip. For motorcycle rental you have to calculate from 350 Marks per week (see box “Rental motorcycles”). Travel time: From the end of April to mid-October the weather is great, with extreme heat in July and August. Even in March and November / December Crete is still suitable for motorcycle tours. With 300 statistical days of sunshine, the island ranks at the top of the European fair weather. Enduro: Even after two weeks of tours through Crete, you will still not have explored all corners of the spacious island, the network of trails is so large. Almost all of the slopes mentioned can also be used with road machines. Since the map material for Greek islands is often not very exact (see literature), the off-road search can often enough be an arduous trial and error undertaking that always ends in dead ends or on small feeder roads. So bring some patience and the right attitude. Organized tours: If you don’t feel like exposing yourself to the stress of looking for your own path, you can get to know Crete on guided tours. The »Minotaur Motorbike Tours« is nothing short of luxurious. One-week guided tours on BMW F 650 with an escort vehicle (also for non-motorcyclists), full board à la carte and accommodation in four-star hotels are offered. The price of 1900 marks includes motorcycle rental, fuel and insurance. Telephone / fax in Crete 0030/81/761835 (German). A four-day program is also possible as a short trip. Motorbike fun tours in Frankfurt / M, phone 069/593316, also offers one-week tours across the island from around 1400 marks. Rental motorcycles: A simple and reasonably suitable 125 or 250 enduro can be rented in all tourist centers on the island for around 50 marks per day. If you are looking for a well-maintained and more powerful motorcycle, you can contact the following rental company. The Suzuki DR 350 used is available for 60 or 320 marks per day and week. A comfortable BMW F 650 is available for around 90 or 500 marks. At: Motor Club, phone 0030/81/222862, handover in Irakleion at the airport or in the city at the old port, reservations from Germany in English and German possible. Similar models, options and prices are also offered by Olympia-Reisen in Bielefeld, phone 0521/139260, which work with the Cretan rental company auto moto sport in Rethimno, phone 0030/831/24858, as well as GS-Sportreisen in Munich, phone 089/27818484. Overnight: The touristic developed zone with the best hotels is on the north coast. If you want to stay here, you usually book a much better package in Germany than in the country itself. In the interior of the country, a double room in a middle class guesthouse is available for the equivalent of around 30 Marks, although the prices are mostly in the high season from mid-July to mid-September about 30 percent higher. Information: Greek Tourist Office, Neue Mainzer Strabe 22, 60311 Frankfurt, phone 069/236576. There are further offices in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. Literature: Almost every travel book publisher has a Kreta volume in its range. The selection can simply be based on personal preferences. The most comprehensive travel guide about the island with many hikes and interesting information for motorcyclists on remote regions has been published by Michael Muller Verlag (660 pages, 39.80 marks). Recently there is even a motorcycle travel guide for 39.80 marks with “Unexplained Crete” from the Greek publisher “Road Edition” (presented in MOTORRAD 11/98, page 8). Good information is provided by the “General Map of Crete” on a scale of 1: 150,000, Nelles “Crete” in 1: 200,000 and the topographical “Crete Tourist Map” with two sheets in 1: 100,000. Worth seeing: The palace of Knossós represents 4,000 years ago European culture and is one of the most important archaeological sites. There are cave dwellings dating back to the Neolithic Age in the coastal village of Matala. If you are looking for a Minoan palace near a dream bay, you will find it on the east coast in Kato Zakros. Those who want to swap motorcycle boots for hiking boots will find the appropriate challenge in the ascent of the Psiloritis (2456 meters), the Pachnes (2453 meters or the Gingilos (2080 meters). In addition to the very popular hike through the Samariá Gorge, there is the much less traveled Tour through the Imbros Gorge. If you just want to sit in the harbor and dream, you shouldn’t miss Chaniá and Rethymnon. Although the cities have a lot of tourist hype, there are still many idyllic corners. Distance covered: around 450 kilometers Time required: five days

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