Sfakia - land of gorges, rebels & hospitality
Sfakia, Crete is a beautiful, traditional, mountainous area in the southwest part of Crete, in the Chania prefecture. It is considered one of the few places in Greece to never have been fully occupied by foreign powers.
The road from Chania to Sfakia crosses the island from North to South, through the village of Vrisses. From this village the route crosses the White Mountains to Chora Sfakion by the Libyan Sea.
Halfway from Vrisses to Chora Sfakion is the fertile plateau of Askifou, surrounded by high mountain peaks. From here to Chora Sfakion the road is particularly spectacular. The road hugs the western slope of the Imbros Gorge with breathtaking views.
There are many beaches in Sfakia which do not see the numbers of tourists of the northern coast. More adventurous visitors can follow the European hiking footpath E4 which crosses Crete through the Sfakia Mountains.
The coastal villages are not connected by a coastal road, and can be reached only by ferry boats.
Not far and east of Chora Sfakion is Frangokastello, literally "Frankish castle". The Venetian fortress was built in 1371 to deter pirates and unsuccessfully, to control Sfakia. It is largely ruined but is picturesquely set on a wide sandy beach with the towering White Mountains in the background.
One of the most celebrated Cretan revolutionaries, Daskalogiannis, was captured here in 1771. It is also the home of the legendary Drosoulites.
Accessible only by boat from Sfakia is Loutro, a small seaside village with some archaeological ruins, a few houses, small hotels and tavernas. Loutro is car-free so you have to park your car in Chora Sfakion or Paleochora.
The Sfakia region is crossed by many gorges which run from North to South and all end up in the sea. Many of them can be walked, and several even by inexperienced walkers. The region is still inhabited by rare animals, like vultures and eagles, and the Agrimi, the wild Cretan goat. Sfakia borders to the Libyan Sea, which is inhabited by a diminishing fish population, but occasionally shows dolphins, and even whales.
The local specialty, Sfakian Pie, is thin pancakes filled with cream cheese and served drizzled with honey.
Chora Sfakion is famous as one of the centers of the resistance against the occupying forces of both the Venetians and the Turks. The impenetrable White Mountains to the north combined with the rocky beaches on the south helped the locals fight off all invaders.
Anopolis, a village near Chora Sfakion, is the birthplace of Daskalogiannis.
Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote about the tall proud Sfakians and their resistance to occupation. Many tales of revolts and uprisings in Crete start in the mountains of western Crete - mountain guerrillas, pallikari fighters and rebel assemblies.
After the Battle of Crete during World War II, the locals helped many New Zealand and Australian soldiers escape from here on the night of May 31, 1941, suffering great reprisals. King George II of Greece had already escaped this way when the Germans invaded.
Near the village of Komitades is the Church of Panagia Thymiani where the revolution of 1821 began. At the village of Loutro is the ruined "chancellery" where the first revolutionary government of 1821 met.
Sfakia is notorious for the harshness of the environment and the warlike people. Sfakians themselves are still considered somewhat beyond the reach of the lawmakers and tax collectors of Athens, with vendettas over stolen sheep and women's honor still fought late into the 20th century, with a whole village abandoned.
Stealing and banditry had been considered a way of life in the mountains, even appearing in a Creation story, which made God Himself a Sfakiot, as recounted by Adam Hopkins:
...with an account of all the gifts God had given to other parts of Crete - olives to Ierapetra, Agios Vasilios and Selinou; wine to Malevisi and Kissamou;
cherries to Mylapotamos and Amari.
But when God got to Sfakia, only rocks were left.
So the Sfakiots appeared before Him armed to the teeth. "And us Lord, how are we going to live on these rocks?" and the Almighty, looking at them with sympathy, replied in their own dialect (naturally): "Haven't you got a scrap of brains in your head? Don't you see that the lowlanders are cultivating all these riches for you?"
The Sfakians are also famous for their hospitality and generosity towards guests, resulting in a shift from traditional labor towards tourism, with now many families running their own small hotel or restaurant.