The high desert of Crete’s iconic Lefka Ori (White Mountains) is a place of other-worldly beauty.
Here, more than thirty summits, each over two thousand meters high, create a wild and pristine landscape, unique in Europe. And those who come to hike these treacherous ravines and scree-filled slopes need to be made of strong stuff. For this is not a place for the faint-hearted.
Ask the shepherds. Today a handful of them still eke out a livelihood, as their ancestors did, in the thin air of the mountains’ highest reaches. With their katsouna – the Cretan shepherd’s crook – in hand, they lead their flocks across the terrain, sometimes for days at a time.
Some still use their mitata, the stone-built shelters that dot the mountain passes, for refuge overnight and to make cheese (the cold climate is ideal for the making of graviera).
Traditions and the old ways resonate here like nowhere else. For beyond the area’s natural majesty and rugged beauty, the stories of the people that came this way before, whose lives were lived in these, the wildest mountains of Crete, are carried on the wind.
Few of Crete’s mountain guides – male or female – know the Lefka Ori landscape as well as Paraskevi “Pari” Vigli; she’s been walking these ancient trails since childhood.
With her mother’s family from the village of Anopolis in Sfakia, and her father’s clan from Samaria (the ancient now abandoned hamlet in the Samaria Gorge), as a guide, no one has Pari’s pedigree. Her’s is a passion created by a deep personal connection to this place, where every path is infused by memory and legend.
A member of the Greek Mountaineering Club of Hania, Pari grew up in Aghia Roumeli, the isolated coastal village at the southern exit of the Samaria Gorge.
“The Sfakians’ way of life is completely ruled by the mountains,” she says. “I started hiking at the age of five, and while I hike for my own pleasure, I’ve taken up guiding in recent years. I feel the need to explain this place, this landscape to people – its nature and its history.”
There’s also an element of psychotherapy to her hiking. “In the mountains you forget every problem,” she says wistfully, acknowledging that her hikes helped her through a painful divorce a decade ago.
With two (now grown-up) daughters, for a time she combined work as a park ranger in the Samaria National Park with the duties of motherhood. Today, her favored hikes are the longest ones, at the highest elevations, across the moonscape of the Lefka Ori’s upper reaches.
“Hiking here for me is of course wrapped up with with my family’s history, so it’s a spiritual thing, with every route full of stories, memories and emotions.”
Crete’s White Mountains are, of course, famous as a place of rebellion against, and refuge from, the island’s many invaders.
For hundreds of years, the Lefka Ori were a virtually impenetrable bastion against the Romans, Andalusian Arabs, Venetians, and perhaps most vividly, against Crete’s Ottoman rulers and the occupying forces of Nazi Germany.
Pari’s ancestors were, like most mountain people, involved in the resistance, and it’s a history of which she’s proud.
“During the German occupation my family had a mitato at a place called Poria, north of Xyloskala, the northern entrance to the Samaria Gorge. It’s still there, at an elevation of more than fourteen hundred meters. The resistance fighters used it as a refuge. It was a place of safety, a place where they could find something to eat and spend the night. I go there often.”
“One time after the Battle of Crete, my aunt helped two Allied soldiers who were on the run. After escaping through the mountains she took them through the German lines at Aghia Roumeli disguised as women.”
It’s such stories that inspire Pari, whose treks follow in her ancestors’ footsteps and today are recorded online for the world to see, using Facebook and the Relive mobile app which tracks the length, elevation and duration of a user’s journey, plots it on a three-dimensional map and creates a video of the route taken. For hikers and guides like Pari it’s a useful technology.
“Guiding is something that you can do well, only if you have a passion for it, and even better, if it is ‘your place’ – a place you know intimately,” says Pari.
“There are only a few Sfakians doing this in the Lefka Ori today, most [guides] are not local. There are so many routes that don’t exist on maps, and only local people know where they are, and how to go.”
For hikers coming to Crete who want to explore the highest and wildest areas, Pari’s advice is to always hire a guide, not only for safety, but to realise the fullest experience. “There are hardly any signs on the routes and the landscape is complex, extremely wild and remote.
“There are some basics any hiker needs – proper boots of course, and also to carry enough water, and wear the right clothing to manage the extreme changes in temperature on the mountain.”
The snows came late to Crete this winter. In December the Lefka Ori are snowbound, and the majestic mountains that inspire Paraskevi Vigli will stay cloaked in white until May, but don’t believe that will stop her highland adventures.
“Hiking is my life. Whatever the season, my passion is to be up high in these mountains of my ancestors, to share with those who want to join me, this mystical, beautiful landscape.”