Solitude in Crete

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov


As a traveler and photographer, I don’t especially like crowds, so if you are like me, you’ll be thrilled with what the island of Crete, Greece has to offer. It is, after all, well known that much of the eastern island cashed in on tourism and is overbuilt with generic resorts to which Europeans flock, but, on the western side you’ll find miles and miles of unpopulated beaches, back roads, hiking trails and an abundance of photographic opportunities.

A good time to go is early June, when the weather is mild and extended hiking is feasible. I would recommend a mixture of car touring and hikes as the best way to get to know the land of Zeus. So, bring sturdy hiking sandals, walking poles, water, and your camera gear.

Paleohóra is a good base for your stay in western Crete, as the town is also the base for a ferry that travels daily to Soúgia, Agia Rouméli, Loutró and Hóra Sfakion. A very decent hotel in which to stay is the Sandy Beach Hotel.

Paleohóra is a slow paced small village where kids play outside until late on summer evenings and families and friends stroll along the sea or sit to watch televised soccer games in outdoor cafes. Even over a short stay, you too will blend into the social fabric.

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov

Table for four? Palehóra

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov


Crete is steeped in history where your imagination can take flight in ancient legends and I would suggest starting with a drive up to the Omalós region of the White Mountains and hiking one of the many trails there. I would particularly recommend a mildly strenuous one to the peak of Gíngilos. It is said that the infant Zeus was hidden from his cannibalistic father on Crete and you’ll hear this tale up in the White Mountains from gnarly cedars–storytellers whispering in the breeze. Here, in solitude, you’ll know how short is the distance from you to an ancient Minoan who wondered these same trails and like you, watched the giant lammergeier, the bearded vulture, glide through swirling fog.

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov

Samarian Gorge

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov

Lammergeier gliding
by Gínglios

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov

Agia Rouméli

Don’t rush back from your hike to your hotel. Take a back road and wonder through small mountain villages. I would recommend taking the road southward toward Paleohóra through Azogires and stopping for a bite at Alpha Kafenion, the only café in Azogires. Your host returned to his home village after a few years in the States. Have a glass of wine and his reason for returning will become crystal clear!

After lunch, head to the Cave of the Holy Fathers above the village, named after 99 monks–98 whom simultaneously died in the cave on the same day as their spiritual leader, John (the 99th monk), died, only he was many miles away on the Akrotiri Peninsula. This was in the 12th century–text messaging is not a likely explanation to this mystery. Be warned! The dirt road up to the cave is not for the faint of heart. From the end of the road it’s a short 15 minute walk and then a steep decent on an old metal ladder into the cave. Bring a headlamp, tripod and flash for photography. Inside you’ll find a shrine and more importantly your chance to be a hermit. You are in Crete–hermits and the gods are still mumbling in a half crazed delirium. 

Your next day trip can take advantage of the ferries. Start by taking the ferry to Agia Rouméli in the morning (there are no roads leading
here) and hiking up the gorgeous and famous Samarian Gorge, the longest gorge in Europe. Most start their treks in the White Mountains and hike down the 11 mile length toward the sea, so you’ll be bucking convention and hiking up the Gorge. By walking from the village part way up and then returning, you’ll avoid some of the congestion and catch much of the beauty of the landscape.

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov

Church in olive grove

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov

Blooming oleander

For a much less traveled hike, take the ferry to Soúgia and hike the 11 miles back to Paleohóra, where you’ll pass through the roman ruin of Lisos. This is a much more strenuous hike than the Samarian Gorge, but you’ll not find more than a dozen folks along the way. Wandering through the old ruins unattended and unfettered by endless restriction typical of any archeological site in the States is an unmatched treat that honors history for what it is: just plain folks that lived and died as we do. The trail ends at a swimming beach with public showers– you’ll undoubtedly look forward to both a refreshing swim and a good rinse. From here it’s a long dirt road back to Paleohóra, or if you are so inclined, a short ride hitched with a friendly stranger.

Another ferry destination worth a day’s trip is Hóra Sfakion. For this trip take your car onboard. From Hóra Sfakion I would recommend driving to Frangokástello, a fort initially built by the Venetians in 1371, and then further to Moní Préveli, an isolated and beautiful monastery that played a significant role in the evacuation of the retreating allied forces during WWII. If you are staying in Paleohóra, your ride back is long but beautiful if you stay to the back roads before joining the highway near Georgioúpoli.

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov

Soulful goats

The most remarkable drive though, is one directly out of Paleohóra. There is a back road, partially unpaved, that takes one from there to the famous Elafonisi beach. Good chances you won’t see a soul along the way, unless you credit goats and sheep with having souls. You’ll find poppies, oleander, beehives, rocks, shrines, sheep, and, yes, goats and goats and more goats. Once on the other side you have your choice of beaches–a family friendly magnificent beach or one that is more nude-tolerant (all beaches on the island are top optional, and many are nude-tolerant).

There are other windblown solitary places to find in western Crete. But perhaps by now you are aching for a bit of human contact. Well a good place for it is Haniá, a good size town in northwest Crete. The old quarters are magnificent and should not be missed. While it has been photographed endlessly, who can resist photographing the harbor in the early morning light? If your time alone has left you with voices from history, you’ll be able to put some names to them with a visit to the archeological museum. Note that photography is permissible in the museum with the exception of artifacts that have yet to be described in the scholarly literature (they are appropriately signed).

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov


Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov

Reading the death notices– Réthimnon

When photography plays a major role on your trips, then undoubtedly you’ll fret, as I did, far too much about the gear choice prior to your trip. While gear selection is very much an individualized decision, I can tell you about what was in my bag and what worked and what didn’t. I am a Canon shooter. I currently use a full frame DSLR (1Ds Mark II). With this body I brought a 24-105 f/4 IS, 70-200 f/4 IS, 300 f/4 IS, 50mm f/1.4, 1.4X TC, extension tubes, flash, a Gitzo 1540 with Acratech Ultimate Ballhead, and two Sanho portable drives. For the most part this worked well. However, I did miss having more effective macro capabilities than the 300 with extension tubes. There were only a few occasions where wider lens would have been handy and I am glad not to have carried one. As I often rediscover, the 50 mm was superfluous. The 1.4x was required only on one instance. I would have found use for TSE lenses, particularly the 24 and 90mm, but correctly opted not to burden myself with the extra weight.

Copyright © Jonathan Nissanov


I used the reconfigurable Kinesis system to carry the equipment. Where appropriate I used their full backpack while other times the harness system with their water hydration case was sufficient. This is a good system except in urban shooting situation where it is too cumbersome.

Images are one thing and you are likely to capture many however you choose to outfit your photography kit. But, no matter what equipment you select, the whispering voices will elude recording and you’ll have to be satisfied with their imprints on your memory. I assure you those will not fade quickly.

by Jonathan (Yoni) Nissanov

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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