Take a flower-scented walk along the paths of legends

Crete is best known for its sun-kissed beaches, but it has plenty, too, for the adventurous explorer, says Cathy Dean

Legs scratched, knees battered, we consulted our pamphlet, "Seven more - and more challenging - walks in the Plakias area" by Lance Chilton. Plakias is a small but growing resort on the south coast of Crete, roughly halfway between the better-known beach destination of Ayia Galina, and the port of Hora Sfakion. A range of Munro-sized hills encircles Plakias, with roads cutting down to it through the spectacular Kourtaliotis and Kotsifos Gorges. As we were staying in Mirthios, set on the hillside above Plakiashe, the walks described in Chilton's booklet seemed ideal.

So on day one we set off from the neighbouring village of Sellia. The path twisted and looped, giving wonderful views down into the Kotsifos Gorge, over cultivated meadows to our starting point now far below us, and out over the Libyan Sea.

The near hillside was a wonderful sight too, thick with flowers such as red corn poppies, dustily sweet-smelling cistus with egg-yolk centres and tissue-paper pink petals, blue-violet eryngiums and purple thistles as showy and spectacular as sunflowers. We also spotted yellow broom and flowering Jerusalem sage, pink and white oleanders, spiky grey agaves and the grotesque chocolate-coloured dragon arums.

After 20 minutes of steady climbing, the track faded into a well-used sheep path. This seemed to be heading in the general direction of the summit, but then we ran out of waymarks. We did not find the "black gnarled tree above the jagged rock", we missed the "huge pothole partly concealed by rocks", and we failed to spot the "solid-topped outcrop". (Ventris and Chadwick, the chaps who eventually cracked Linear B, the Cretan script dating back to the Bronze Age, could have warmed up on these labyrinthine instructions.)

After another half-hour of scrambling through the aptly named thorny burnet so characteristic of the Cretan landscape, we conceded that we were not on any known path. We paused to consult the guidebook and take stock of our position.

Mr Chilton warned that the way up to and down from the ridge required concentration as the paths were stony and not always obvious. Further, he had highlighted passages describing the obscure sections of the walk with a triple exclamation mark. Ours was a 21-exclamation mark route: a path worthy indeed of the land of the Minotaur.

King Minos of Crete, so legend tells, had ordered the craftsman Daedalus to construct a labyrinth in which to imprison the Minotaur, a half-man, half-beast borne by Minos's wife Pasiphae after a curse-induced liaison with a prize bull. Minos demanded an annual gift from Athens of seven youths and seven maidens. The unfortunate people were to be shut up in the labyrinth for the amusement and appetite of the Minotaur.

Theseus, son of King Aegeus of Athens, determined to end the killings and volunteered to join the third consignment of sacrificial victims. On arriving in Crete, Theseus quickly won the affections of one of Minos's daughters, Ariadne, who vowed to help him. Ariadne sought Daedalus's help, who suggested she give Theseus a ball of string.

Minotaur slayed and mission accomplished, he found his way out of the labyrinth by following the unravelled thread.

Not having a ball of string, an Ariadne or a Daedalus, we were none the less feeling pretty bullish and decided to head straight uphill. Two false peaks later, we finally stood on the summit of Xylis Korfis (829m) where, amazingly, there was a large concrete trig point. We knew we were on the right path just twice: once when we left the main road at Sellia; and the second time when we perched on the plinth and ate our picnic of bread, olives, tomatoes and graviera, the delicious hard cheese made from sheep's milk. I was reminded of those brainteasers about how stopped watches are correct twice a day.

A similarly prickly and vertiginous descent brought us into the other valley and the tiny village of Kanevos. Unable to decide what we wanted most, we had beer and ice-cream before striding down the road through the Kotsifos Gorge. Shorter than the more famous Samaria and Imbros Gorges, it is still dramatic, with high cliffs on either side streaked and gouged by former torrents. At the entrance to the ravine we had passed a road sign with a windsock and wondered where the airstrip was: we soon realised that the gorge acted as a gigantic funnel for the strong breeze coming off the sea and rising over the hills.

Some six hours after setting off, we arrived back at our apartment, where we plunged into the thankfully icy pool and then collapsed on the terrace.

Undeterred, we ventured on three more long walks, relying on a combination of Mr Chilton, the Sunflower guide to Western Crete, and our now-tattered map, which tantalisingly marked the E4, the cross-European footpath. We picked up the trail, which is identified by a small yellow and black diamond-shaped sign, just outside Spili, but this, too, rapidly disappeared into barbed-wire fences and olive groves.

On the last day we drove to Yerakari, a village famous for its role in the Battle of Crete in 1941 and for its cherries. We sat at a pavement café where the owner tempted us with bottles of pickled cherries and homemade cherry brandy, and thanked the gods we hadn't attempted to walk there. This is not to say that walking in Crete is not enjoyable: the landscape and the flora is staggering. But Crete has a long way to go if it is to attract the kind of tourists who go to France, for example, for the sentiers de grande randonnée (long-distance footpaths). Better signposting, detailed maps and annual maintenance of the paths would all help.

We had fondly imagined that we would walk down to Plakias for dinner in the evenings but, unable to face the possibility of taking yet another wrong turning in the dark on the way back, we decided that Mirthios's three tavernas would do just fine.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there: The easiest approach to Plakias is to fly to Heraklion on a non-stop charter flight from one of several British airports. These can be booked on a seat-only basis for around £200 in August from travel agents, tour operators or internet suppliers such as www.britanniadirect.co.uk. Over the next couple of weeks, it has flights to Heraklion for around £275 return.

Staying there: The writer stayed at Stefanos Apartments in Mirthios, booked through Cachet Travel (020-8847 3847). A studio for two, including charter flights and a Group A hire car, costs £465-£565 per person for one week or £595-£695 for two weeks, depending upon the season.

"Ten walks in the Plakias area" and "Seven more - and more challenging - walks in the Plakias area" by Lance Chilton are published by Marengo Publications. They are available from supermarkets in Plakias or from 17 Bernard Crescent, Hunstanton, PE36 6ER. Landscapes of Western Crete: A countryside edition by Jonnie Godfrey and Elizabeth Karslake is published by Sunflower.

More information: National Tourism Organisation of Greece, 4 Conduit Street, London W1S 2DJ (020-7495 9300, www.gnto.gr).

Comments