17 June 2018

A journey across
the White Mountains
to Hora Sfakíon

Hóra Sfakíon, a small coastal village and harbour on the south coast of Crete, depends on tourism, fishing and the production of olive-oil herding (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

It was raining for much of the day yesterday [16 June 2018], but two of us joined a small party from Georgioupoli and spent much of Saturday visiting Hóra Sfakíon and Frangokastello on the south coast of Crete.

From Georgioupoli, we took the turn off the National Road at Vrysses and travelled through mountain villages that led up to the Askifou Plateau and the tiny village of Askifou, where we had our first coffee break.

We drove on to Imbros, and then for a time alongside the deep Imbros Gorge for a while. The journey brought us on across the rugged White Mountains (Lefka Ori), with breath-taking views, pretty villages and along a constantly twisting and winding road that has been dubbed the grand corniche of Crete.

But the clouds were so thick and heavy, and the rain fell so much that we never caught the expected glimpse of the islands of Gavdos and Gavdopoula, the southernmost islands of Europe.

One travel writer says that the more bullet holes you see in the passing road signs, the closer you are getting to Hóra Sfakíon.

Walking through the narrow streets of Hóra Sfakíon in the rain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Hóra Sfakíon (Χώρα Σφακίων), sometimes known simply as Sfakiá (Σφακιά), is the capital of the remote and mountainous region of Sfakiá, and is a small town of just 265 inhabitants. The local economy depends on tourism, fishing, the production of olive-oil, and sheep and goat herding.

There are three different explanations for the name Sfakiá. One says Sfakia means ‘land of the gorges,’ from the word sfax, meaning a chasm. A second says it is named after the oleander tree, known as sfaka in the Cretan dialect. A third version says Hóra Sfakion was originally called Sfikia but the name was later corrupted to Sfakiá.

The harbour and its small beach in Hóra Sfakíon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Hóra Sfakíon has two small harbours, where the ferry boats from Agia Roumeli dock. In the summer months, these ferries bringing hikers from the Samaria Gorge to their buses back to their hotels across Crete. Ferries also leave Hóra Sfakíon for nearby Loutro, which can only be reached by boat, and the island Gavdos.

Hóra Sfakíon prospered during the Venetian and Turkish occupations and up to the 18th century carried on a flourishing trade with its own small fleet. But Hóra Sfakíon was also a centre of resistance to both the Venetians and the Turks, and the combination of the impenetrable White Mountains to the north and the rocky beaches on the south coast helped local people fight off all invaders.

The small beach known as Vrissi, immediately west of the village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

It was said to have had a hundred churches and chapels, but few of them survived suffered the bombardment during the Battle of Crete in World War II and the Allied evacuation that followed. A plaque on the waterfront commemorates the Dunkirk-style wartime evacuation when 10,000 men were taken off the island.

After strolling through the streets, by the restaurants and tavernas, and through the steps and the white-washed houses, we found ourselves at a quiet local beach, known as Vrissi, immediately west of the village.

A church built into a cave behind the harbour and the beach of Vrissi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

We went in search of some of the survivors from among the 100 pre-war churches and chapels, and found two tiny chapels at each end of the village.

One was a tiny chapel built into a rocky cave above the beach at Vrissi. The back of the church and the churchyard outside are built into the recess of the cave, and the church bell is perched above the cave.

The second chapel stands on its own on a traffic island by the bus stop.

From Hóra Sfakíon, we continued on our journey along the south coast to Frangokastello (Φραγκοκάστελλο) and its Venetian castle. But that’s a story for later in the day.

A tiny chapel in a traffic island behind the bus station (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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