On board the Sfákia bus
The ladies informed us when our bus was announced, and we went outside to put our bags in its luggage compartment. Like the buses that travel long-distance routes elsewhere in Europe as well as the US, it had a place to store luggage beneath the level where the seats were, and was altogether a cushy ride in comparison to the Greyhound buses I remember from my youth. The seats were comfortably upholstered, and everything was neat and clean. A large TV (the boxy kind with a big cathode ray tube) was suspended where just about all passengers could see it if it was turned on, but—probably for the best—it wasn't.

Outdated accounts of travel in Greece had prepared us for the possibility of having to compete for space with goats and chickens, but this bus was clearly no place for livestock. It’s true that we were on our way from the city to the country rather than the reverse, but it was impossible to imagine anyone bringing poultry or animals aboard this luxurious vehicle. The farmers of western Crete must all own trucks, or at least have access to them. Nary a cluck nor a baa disturbed our journey.

Crete’s White Mountains (Léfka Óra) are impressive scenery through which to travel, and we were glad that the TV wasn't on. The mountains aren’t wooded like New Hampshire’s White Mountains; Crete’s part of the world doesn’t get enough rainfall for that. (As in other parts of the Mediterranean area, the island may once have had forests, but if so they were long ago cut down to provide wood for building things—mostly ships.) We saw a lot of bare rock, usually gray, tan, or pinkish, and low scrubby vegetation. People were visible only when we passed through a village; goats seemed to have the cliffs and slopes in between to themselves. We never saw more than a dozen of them together. We assumed that these were domestic animals, and goatherds may have been somewhere nearby. The White Mountains are home to a wild species of goat that Cretans call kri-kri, but they’re quite rare and avoid human company, preferring to roam about at night.
When the road got near Chóra Sfakíon on the southern coast, it was still high in the mountains, and descended to the town by a series of switchbacks that took it down a steep slope that came close to resembling the wall of a canyon. The town is squeezed into a narrow space between this sheer wall and the Libyan Sea, which this part of the Mediterranean south of Crete (and of course north of Libya) is called.

Sfakiá, full of bare mountains, is a land endowed with far more rocks than dirt. I guess that goes along with the Sfakiots‘ fierce reputation, though much more of Crete could be described the same way. A tendency toward feuding and fighting is attributed to mountain populations in many parts of the world, though in most cases this reputation has been conferred, and generally believed in, by residents of lower-lying areas. Today’s flatlanders tend to think of mountain violence as past history—but possibly still lurking beneath the civilized surface. (One never knows....)

As the bus wound its way around one hairpin turn after another, we were glad that neither of us was driving. A low stone wall guarded the downhill side of the road, but we passed a spot where it looked as though someone had apparently driven through it and gone over the side.

At about 4:00pm we pulled into the town parking lot that serves as a bus depot. It’s perhaps 20 or 25 feet higher than the bottom of the road, where the hotels and tavernas are, and the entrance to the lot is some 60 yards short of that desirable spot, but there’s no good place to turn a bus around down there. The 60 yards from the parking lot entrance down to the bottom are steep ones, and we had to restrain our roller bags lest they get away from us and plunge into the Libyan Sea (or more likely collide with a table in a seaside eatery). At the bottom, vehicles smaller than buses could turn left and continue a couple of hundred yards farther to a dead end at the ferry landing, but only pedestrians could turn right onto the covered, marble-tiled walkway that led between a row of tavernas, hotels and shops on the landward side, and on the other the roofed, but otherwise outdoor, seaside dining areas of the tavernas.
Pedestrians only
This promenade had a pleasant and very civilized ambience. Marble paving gives many Greek sidewalks and town squares an elegant air that can strike Americans as luxurious, but one has to remember that marble is as plentiful in Greece as slate is in New England—I have no cash figures to compare, but marble is clearly less of a luxury there than it would be here. Unfortunately, we never thought to take a picture inside the “tunnel” of the walkway. It led us ultimately to the Xenía Hotel, where we had reservations, and this photo, taken from a point near the hotel, looks back toward it.

Xenía means ‘hospitality’ and is a popular name for hotels in Greece. It’s based on xénos, a word that means ‘foreigner,’ not always in a good sense (as our borrowing xenophobia illustrates). But xénos can also mean things like ‘wayfaring stranger’ or ‘guest.’ It makes an appearance in the common Greek word for hotel, xenodochío, a compound that means ‘guest chamber.’
The Xenía Hotel
The Xenía Hotel in Chóra Sfakíon sits in splendid separation at one end of the town’s short harborside; it’s the largest and newest of local hotels, built at some time in the comparatively recent past as part of a government program to develop increased tourism in the area. But (as conservative readers will be pleased to learn) after a few years the government stopped operating the hotel and sold it to members of the private sector. Although the weather during our stay was as warm and pleasant as we could have wished, neither the hotel nor the town was crowded this late in September. The Xenía had other guests besides us, but we never got in each others’ way.
Daskaloyiánnis in port
Although Chóra Sfakíon is not and probably never will be a high-volume tourist magnet (and I don’t say that with any regret), a large number of tourists do pass through the town every afternoon and evening. I mean “pass through” literally. One of Crete’s biggest attractions for hikers (a group that seemed to include most of the young tourists we saw) is the Samaria Gorge, in a national park not far west of the town. Hikers start at the high end, in a mountain village named Xylóskalo that is served (during the months of May through October, when the park is open) by buses from Chaniá. After a 13 km hike down the gorge, plus another 3 km after getting to the bottom—about 10 miles altogether—they reach the coastal village of Agía Rouméli, from which the only practical exit is by ferry to Chóra Sfakíon. Hikers who bought round-trip tickets for the gorge in Chaniá can use them in Chóra Sfakíon to get on the Chaniá bus. Some spend a while in the town, but most go straight to the bus, and even though it was now late September, we could see buses waiting in the hillside parking lot each evening for the ferries to arrive. Once when out walking we met a group of debarked passengers en route from the ferry landing to the bus stop. The big ferry named Daskaloyiánnis (after a legendary Sfakían patriot) runs to Agía Rouméli and the beach town of Loutró during the high tourist season, but we didn't see it go in or out. I think smaller boats were up to the job this late in the year.

Ferries also run east from Chóra Sfakíon to other beachy places along the coast, and there’s even one running twice a week to carry adventurous vacationers 50 km (30 miles) south, towards Africa, to the small and sparsely inhabited island of Gávdos—the southernmost scrap of European territory, shaped like a porkchop and only 10 km long. It’s said to be so unspoiled that most visitors camp on the beach, although the island also has some lodging places. Winds often make the voyage rough—enough so that ferries can’t always meet their schedules, and visitors can’t be certain they won’t have to stay a bit longer than they’ve planned. Food and other supplies are comparatively expensive, since most have be shipped in—but the island has no bank or currency exchange, so one has to bring plenty of cash—are you beginning to understand why I used the word adventurous to describe travelers who go there?

All the same, although conveniences may be few, so are the less attractive aspects of tourism, and there are many who find Gávdos irresistible. The Rough Guide reports that “There’s a semi-permanent community of campers and would-be ‘Robinson Crusoes’ resident on the island year-round, swelling to thousands in August—but just six indigenous families.”
Balcony greenery
Our room at the Xenía, one floor above ground level, was airy and spacious, with a balcony—wider than the Palazzo’s, since it didn’t overhang a street. The view of the harbor and beach was obstructed, however, by a big palm tree planted one story down and a few feet away, plus some other flora growing on our level. The palm tree proved to be a blessing, because it protected our east-facing room from the intense morning sunlight. At other times, when it was cool enough to sit out there, the greenery made it a kind of bower that was very pleasant to relax in. And besides, there were places all around from which we could see everything that lay on the other side of it.

We had arrived in midafternoon, and having eaten a good breakfast at the Palazzo that morning, didn’t feel the need of a substantial lunch. On the street that ran along the hillside behind the waterfront row, we found a small bakery where we spent a few minutes talking with the owner. He told us he had worked in American restaurants for 20 years, in various places that included Boston and Cape Cod. While in the US, he had married a woman who came from his home town, Chóra Sfakíon, and after they had a daughter, they decided to go home and bring her up there.

We bought ourselves a snack consisting of a milópita (small turnover filled with apples and raisins),a few koulourákia (little cookies flavored with mastic, like the Easter bread called kouloúri), and a couple of kourambiédes (intense little cookies smothered in confectioner’s sugar—an big favorite at home, which Dorothea bakes on rare and special occasions). This little meal (which would obviously have no place on a non-vacation menu) easily carried us through to dinner.
Balcony door from our room
We rested for a couple of hours, then went downstairs at about 8:00. First we sat for a short while on the roofed terrace outside the kitchen, where the hotel’s WiFi connection is available, to check email, weather predictions, and news on my iPad and Dorothea’s iPod Touch. After that we descended the few steps to the Xenía’s waterside tables. We took one in the roofed area, where we had a pleasant view of the harbor, attended by potted geraniums blooming atop a wall next to our table.

When we checked in, we had met George, who manages the hotel and does the cooking in its restaurant. His wife, Vana, waited on us at dinner. George is Greek and Vana is Bulgarian. They’re both pleasant and friendly, and like most Europeans in the hospitality business, they speak English, although Dorothea enjoyed talking with them in Greek. Vana is thoroughly at home in that language, and Dorothea appreciated her patience with an Éllina-Amerikanída’s halting attempts to keep up her end of the conversation. George and Vana run the place almost alone, at least when the season is waning, as it was during our visit, and the guests are few. In the evening a teenaged lad named Yiánni helped with the table service, and George had a helper in the kitchen. At least one housekeeper tended to the rooms, but we didn’t see any other staff.

For dinner I ordered grilled octopus, and got two big tentacles, sizzling and slightly flavored with oregano—a hearty dish. Dorothea ordered keftédes (Greek meatballs, if you forgot), and to complete the main course we both had artichoke hearts cooked with onions and lemon as well as French fries. Afterwards, we shared a big Greek salad, made (as usual on this trip) with wonderful tomatoes and cucumbers. A bottle of non-resinated Cretan white wine, from Boutári, one of Greece’s largest wine producers, made a very nice companion to all of this.

After a leisurely and delightful meal—finished, as was becoming usual, by a complimentary dessert (which we didn’t record the nature of) and a little carafe of rakí, we retired. We had done very little since arriving in Chóra Sfakíon, but that was pretty much the purpose of our visit. I had hoped that this small seaside town would be a pleasant place to do nothing in particular, and so it proved.