It was a day of favourites, of soul-filling moments, of doing what I came here to find. I rode an early morning bus out of Chania, Crete into the countryside, passing quiet villages, some early risers enjoying a coffee at a roadside cafe. The road wound its way up into the mountains, olive groves and white-walled houses clinging to the slopes. At the end of the road, at the very top of the road, I took in the view of the pine-clad peaks and started walking.
Rocks worn smooth by years of hikers, the path into Samaria Gorge crept slowly down through shady pine forests and over rocky river beds, leafy trees waiting for the rush of winter water. Up and along. Through and over. The alpine pines gave way to stockier trees; the sun grew hotter, bleaching the day in a white-hot blaze.
And there, like a gigantic doorway into another realm, stood the steep red sides of the gorge. I trundled on, feeling the heat and my insignificance below these soaring rock faces. The burble of the stream provided respite, promising to lead me to its end in the sea.
And finally, as my feet ached and my brow glistened, my body alive to the weight of my pack, the cliffs stopped, falling away into the clear blue Libyan Sea.
I must have been a wandering nomad in some other time, a forager of food and lover of mountain escapes because this vagabond living comes easily to me.
From the harbour, past the tourist buses and a few families on the beach, and through the tiny town of Sougia there are some tents. More tents follow, along with a few camper vans. There are people on the beach too – families, couples, groups of friends – and they are all nude, and very, very tanned.
With the whole beach to choose from, Sougia is free camping bliss. And a great place to get an all-round tan. These campers seemed content to holiday naked, so I joined in and experienced what I came to Greece to find: to swim naked in the calm, warm water. I felt wonderfully liberated striding down the beach to the outdoor shower. And not a blush in sight as I rinsed off in plain view.
Salted and soaked, I lay stretched out on my sarong, burrowing a dent into the sand, and counted three shooting stars in the mass of twinkling lights. Waves lapping on the pebbled shore on a balmy night, I felt right at home settling down to sleep in the great outdoors, like a true wanderer.
Another blistering hot day. Another hike. Another nudist beach. Another night under the stars.
I awoke just as the horizon was turning pink. The beach was quiet still. I had slept well; the sand had kept me warm.
Just as some campers began their morning routines, I set off on another hike, this time alone on a coastal path from Sougia to Paleochora. My information was limited – a tourist map and some vague directions from a barman in town. Setting off I felt the weight of my decision to hike alone, and sent out a prayer to keep me safe and strong. In hindsight company would have been good, if only for the moral support.
In the cool morning the walking felt good. I clambered through a red-stone gorge, the tinkling of goats’ bells breaking the silence. I climbed up into a pine forest in which it sounded as though the trees were tearing themselves apart. And then the landscape opened, small prickly bushes covering the mountaintop, the path winding along towards the edge and down into the valley of Lissos, an ancient town. The olive trees here must be hundreds of years old; they stand gnarled and twisted.
The sea here was too inviting not to stop and rest, but I stayed too long and the climb out of the valley led me directly under the harsh midday sun. I scuttled from tree to tree, and finally took refuge in amongst the pokey branches of a carob tree. I stayed here for three hours, sweat dripping down from the creases in my skin, the wind blowing hot air across the glaring landscape.
At 4pm I roused myself and started walking again. The only faces I saw along the path were those of long-haired mountain goats. The trail wound back towards the sea, and now I was above the cliffs falling into the bluest water. I kept walking, beginning to feel a little panicked as my water – hot enough to make tea – began to run low. An hour later I stated to feel desperate – my mouth was dry, my mind consumed by thoughts of ice cold water. I could see Paleochora, still far in the distance.
I walked. And I walked. And at last I reached a beach – not Paleochora but, 11 hours since setting off, my final destination. I found a busy canteen, downed a bottle of deliciously icy water, ate a Greek salad doused in olive oil and took off my sneakers. What a day. What an adventure.
The reward: swimming naked in the sea and a hot shower on the beach, the sound of waves lapping at my bedside and a ceiling filled with stars.