The appointment was in the courtyard of the Paliani monastery, near the village of Venerato. As you move away from Heraklion, the landscape slowly changes. Olive trees, green fields, with a wonderful alternation of colors from nature's palette. As the car goes up, the change takes you like a cool mountain breeze and washes away the city.
The countryside of Heraklion, Crete.
The Italian mountain guide Luca Gianotti carries an image with him every time he travels to and from Crete. A relationship he describes as "love", which began 20 years ago. And it turns out ... in practice, with the writing of the hiking guide "The Cretan Way" (ed. Anavasi).
What is the Cretan way? "When I first arrived, Western Crete was better organized and tourists walked only on its paths, from Sfakia to Elafonissi," it says. "In the rest of the island, however, the paths were abandoned. That's how the idea came to me: to walk all over Crete from east to west, to create a path for everyone. The area is very beautiful, you need a long distance path ".
The "Cretan way" is a 28-day trek, starting from Kato Zakro to Lassithi and reaching Chrysoskalitissa in Chania. This is a variant of the Cretan section of the European path "E4" (which starts in Spain and ends in our country), which avoids the very difficult mountain sections, but also the parts of E4 that have now been turned into asphalt roads. "The Cretan way has a different philosophy. To be a path that enters the [mountainous] villages, that is easy for everyone ", explains Mr. Gianotti.
The Italian mountain guide L. Gianotti.
So, back to our appointment. Last week, the author of the book was again in his favorite Cretan hinterland and, accompanied by volunteers, proceeded to clean and mark parts of the "Cretan way". Among them are Lithuanian Audrius Morcunas and Belgian Alice Jacquet, both permanent residents of the island and escort groups of tourists.
Step by step cleaning and marking the path.
"Tourists used to think that Crete is just beaches and sun," says Mr Morcunas. "Now they know that Crete has a very rich history, a very nice nature, that they can get to know it by walking."
"For me, the people who visit the villages are not tourists, but travelers, looking for a special experience," says Ms. Jacquet. "If it makes you happy to go to an all-inclusive hotel and spend the whole day by the pool, then that's what you need to do. But that's not the way to find out about more Crete. "
The "Cretan way" is one of the many efforts of individuals to bring the world back to the neglected but beautiful interior of the island. As Fontas Spinthakis, a travel agent based in Heraklion, explains, the change observed in recent years concerns the dynamic "entry" into the island of a new model: hiking tourism and mountain sports.
"Of course, we can't compare it to mass tourism that is the 'great economic industry', as for foreigners Crete is a classic 'sea and sun' destination," he explains.
"We have noticed that there is also the hinterland, the paths, the mountains, the gorges. Mountains worth a visit, beautiful nature and a well-organized network of trails. That is what everyone in Crete is talking now. People come and go mountain skiing in Psiloritis, who would have imagined that? The Central Europeans consider it exotic, to leave the Alps and come to Crete for skiing ". These visitors are different: "More educated, people who read more and really want to really get to know the culture, customs and traditions of the place and not just sit in a hotel."
The Cretans "smell" change and so the first efforts are well received in mountainous societies.
Mr. Gianotti's meeting with a local.
"Kazantzakis said that the Cretans are the perfect blend of Eastern and Western culture. They want to live at their own pace, without worrying, but they can get organized when needed, ”says Luca Gianotti.
On the same day, a few tens of kilometers northwest, some twenty high school children from four mountain villages in Rethymno enthusiastically climbed Lakos Mygerou, on the snowy north side of Psiloritis. What changed the daily lives of students from Anogia, Zoniana, Livadia and Krana was the organization for the third time of Pierra Creta, a mountain ski race. But how did these children, coming from rural and livestock families in the area, find themselves interested in skiing?
"Pierra Creta is the idea of a group of friends that happened to be a reality," explains Nikiforos Steiakakis, one of its organizers. "Immediately after the first event in 2014, beyond the fun, we saw the potential of such an event, as a tool for promoting the region and its people. We were looking for action in this direction and we automatically thought that the children, the generation that will take over the reins tomorrow, should become "addicted" to ski", love the mountain to protect it ".
Mountaineering clubs from Chania and Heraklion undertook to teach free mountain skiing lessons to boys and girls from the High Schools of the 4 villages. The residents of the villages were asked to get to know ... their mountain - which they avoid when it snows - and to see the possibilities it offers. The students, however, seemed excited.
"The best thing is to go up the slope and go down, no matter where you fall 1-2 times," says 13-year-old George Kokkinos, from Livadia. Next to them are watching - drinking tsikoudies - their fathers, who brought them to the snow-capped mountain with their large pick-ups.
Like the creation of hiking trails, Pierra Creta is part of the effort to bring people into the interior of Crete and stimulate the mountain villages with a mild tourism.
"We have another model in mind," explains Mr. Steiakakis. "The numbers speak for themselves: in Greece no ski resort is sustainable, not even the big ones. What we envision is different, it does not require large investments. A model of slow development, that takes time, where you would not do something here that you wouldn't do in your backyard. "
Environmental organizations are also working with this approach. "The coastal area in Crete is more or less damaged, especially the northern axis," said Thanos Giannakakis, head of the WWF's Crete office. "Development should be based on environmental protection, respect for the character and culture of the people."
And something is changing. The new regional spatial framework of Crete proposes a different axis of development for the island: the E4 path, the one from which our history began. The coordinator of the scientific team that studied the new framework is the urban planner Rania Kloutsinioti.
"In Crete we have an economical model based mainly on tourism and secondarily on agriculture. However, this type of tourism emptied the interior of the island and people were "crowded" on the north coast. With the new spatial plan, it is proposed to stimulate the E4 path. To become an axis for productive reconstruction of the island, not just ... to build small rooms for tourists. To finance actions that will make the younger residents return, having some significant income ".
Among these actions, the strengthening of small urban centers of the hiking trail, the restoration of abandoned villages, the promotion of all its monuments.