As the unseasonably late summer weather of 2019 ran out (these photos were taken Dec. 20; the next day the rain began to pour), my wife Oksana and I headed out to Balos Beach. You may know Balos because it routinely is included in lists of the world’s Top Ten beaches. What you don’t know – if you haven’t been there yourself – is the spectacular journey to get there. First there is the 50 minute drive from Chania to the road leading out toward Balos. Then we get down to brass tacks with the eight kilometer unpaved road on the east side of the Gramvousa Peninsula that takes about 50 minutes to negotiate (allowing for time to stop and take pictures). Following that is the two-kilometer descent, on foot, back down the mountain on the western side to get to the beach itself. All of this is way too much to cover in a single posting of photos, so I chose to break it down into three instalments – The Road, The Footpath, and The Beach. Which of the three elements of the trip impresses you most will depend on who you are. I won’t pick; I can’t imagine any without the others.
There’s just a tiny sign on the road from Kissamos to Falassarna that indicates you need to turn right if you want to go to Balos. You follow that winding little road through olive groves and the last outpost, a small village called Kaliviani (KaleeveeanEE) until the pavement runs out. This is where the journey begins. It’s a pretty darn good rock road, but make no mistake, it is a road of rocks. Some rocks stick up higher than others, and some are sharper than others. You want to check your spare tire before leaving home. (Technically speaking, you’re not supposed to take rental cars out here, but I’ve never heard of a soul ratting on those who do.) The day we travelled out was way past the end of the tourist season, so we had the entire road to ourselves. (The place can get brutally packed in the summer.) If I remember correctly, we passed one vehicle going up, and another going down. That allowed us to make use of the whole road, picking and choosing the best and safest of each millimetre along the way. Only once did things get a bit dicey when, on the way up, we came upon a place where rainwater had dug a ditch so deep that there was a real chance of getting stuck if a wheel found its way into that little gulley. It cut across the road from left to right, so there was no opportunity to skirt it or slip around it. I rode the topsides of the gulley holding my breath, as my wife called out to the gods, and we got through. We were looking for this spot on our way back down and I took a slightly better approach – punching the gas to build up speed that might get us through if we slipped into the gulley. It didn’t happen. We cleared the test descending as well as we had ascending. If I remember correctly, we only bottomed out once on the whole trip. Not bad at all.
The views from the road are about as stunning as you can get. On your way up, you look across the huge Kissamos Bay at the mountainous Rodopos Peninsula that runs parallel to you. The water below you is deep, deep blue. The sky above you (on a cloudy day like ours was) is all shades of blue mixed with everything from fluffy white to menacing black. The landscape is simple but filled with grandiose, sweeping inclines, sheer cliffs, rolling meadows and the occasional Cretan cave winding back into the mountain rock. Trees are relatively sparse, but they pop up from time to time to dot the broad swaths of earth and rock.
A visitor shares these climes with the legendary Kri-kri goats, the symbols of Crete. You see them coming and going, and they are the kings of this hill. If they want the road, you cede it to them. It’s not that they are aggressive, because they are not at all – you’ll see below that a mother calmly let me photograph her as she nursed her kid. No, it’s that you are overcome by an instinctive understanding that you are here for a moment, and the goats are here forever… You’ll come and you’ll go, no matter how much you fall in love with this place, but the Kri-kri, who have populated these lands for thousands of years, will just go on about their business with or without you.
Next up: the Pathway that takes us back down the other side of the mountain.
Text and photos © John Freedman, 2020.