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Wild Sfakia: adventures on the south coast

It’s the bullet holes in the road signs that tell you much about this special part of Crete. The people are tough around here, and they’ve always been that way.

The region known as Sfakia in Chania province is a wild and rugged place, dotted with mountain villages famous for their rebelliousness to foreign invaders. And Sfakians still have a reputation for being fiercely independent, strong willed, and prepared to fight to the death if they have to.

But don’t worry, on a visit today to the cheerful coastal hamlet of Chora Sfakion, the area’s largest village and defacto capital, (‘Sfakia’ as it’s widely known) is a friendly spot that looks after its guests with as much filoxenia (love of strangers) as anywhere in Greece

Many visitors in the late afternoons of spring and summer are hikers who have completed the Samaria Gorge and trudged wearily off the Agia Roumeli ferry. But a day trip here, with an hour or two to visit nearby places of interest (perhaps the mountain village of Anopolis or Loutro – a 10-minute boat trip away), is best done by getting here mid-morning and allowing enough time to work up an appetite for a leisurely lunch.

The lazy pace of Sfakia is part of its charm – with its taverna-lined seafront a picture-perfect location for lunch or dinner. And what better place than the foreshore to sample some of the great traditional food of Sfakia – food as bold, and as Sfakian culture itself.

One of the most famous delicacies from these parts is sfakianopita – sfakian honey pie, a cross between a crepe and a pancake, usually filled with soft mizithra cheese. Fried in olive oil then drizzled with honey, the secret’s in the dough, which along with flour and water, has the added ingredient of a shot of raki.

Another dish, served throughout Crete and Greece, that takes its lineage to this region is lamb tsigariasto – tender pieces of lamb slowly cooked in in a clay pot, the succulent juices mingling with mountain herbs.

On any visit to Sfakia it’s sobering to reflect on the extraordinary history of this unassuming seaside village. Courageous events have taken place here – great revolts started, against Crete’s Turkish occupiers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in the Second World War, thousands of British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers were evacuated from Sfakia’s tiny harbour after their defeat in the Battle of Crete.

The timeless tinkling of goat bells on the mountainside resonates here like nowhere else. For a taste of the real Crete on the road less travelled, a journey here is a must.

Foodie tips – Chora Sfakion: The Lefka Ori Taverna on the front is Sfakia’s oldest and serves great traditional dishes created by its founding owner Andreas Fasoulakis. The Anopoli Taverna up the mountain is also worth a detour try their delicious rabbit casserole and home-made wine. At the Cretan Divine Family Bakery friendly Angeliki serves up cookies, kalitsounia (Cretan cheese pies), and homemade ice cream in summer.

Chora Sfakion is an easy 1 hour 20 minute drive from Rethymno, passing through Vrysses and the Askyfou plateau.

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