Escaping winter to Crete – Spinalonga and Elounda

Escaping winter to Crete – Spinalonga and Elounda

Elounda fishing harbour is full of colourful boats.

Aina sailed peacefully, following her favourite compass heading, 180°. We saw Mykonos behind us, and soon also Naxos and Paros, as we continued further south. It was the last day of October, and the sun would set early. There would be no moon to guide us on this night passage. The cloudy sky soon turned pitch black. But the wind wasn’t bad, the sea not too bumpy, so we both slept well in turns. As I climbed into the cockpit for my shift around midnight, I saw the beautiful glittering lights of Santorini on our starboard side. Perhaps we would sail there one day, but not tonight – our destination was Crete.

Sailing into the night, clouds are beginning to gather.

The forecast had promised a moderate breeze that would calm down the next afternoon. That sounded good. It’s always nice to approach unknown shores in benign weather. The next morning and noon we enjoyed a relaxed beam reach – a pretty nice last leg of this year’s travels, despite the chill that seemed to find its way to our bones. In the afternoon, we knew Crete wasn’t far, but it was so overcast that the mountainous island stayed in hiding until the last minute. When we finally caught our first glimpse of the Cretan coast, we were close to the cape of Agios Ioannis. Behind the spit was our destination, Spinalonga Bay.

And then the wind rose. I guess it didn’t have much regard for the weather forecast. And we had quite a bit of canvas out, perhaps a little too much for my taste. But for Aina’s taste – for once! – we had just the right amount. She was thrilled. She heeled a few more degrees and then she began to sail! Six knots, then seven, soon eight. We were flying towards Crete! As we passed the lighthouse of Agios Ioannis, the gusts got violent. We had to beat upwind in the strongest wind we had encountered all year. Between the vicious gusts, we managed to roll in the sails little by little, as we had no idea how narrow the passage to the anchorage was, and whether there would be enough braking distance if we sailed in full speed.

Cretan gusts finished our weary ensign. Spinalonga fortress in the background.

The Spinalonga fortress guards the narrow channel into the bay. The shallowest point is about 3.5 metres. As soon as we were through, the wind calmed down. The water was flat. Our anchor down, our engine off, in front of the small town of Elounda, we were suddenly surrounded by a silence so deep it hurt the ears. This 140-nautical mile passage had been the longest of our whole sailing season. A lot of variety packed into 30 hours – and some excitement, too! We had earned our sundowners, a wholesome dinner, and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, we would go and find out what this place was about.

Gin & Tonic

On the 2nd of November, we woke up to a lovely summer morning. The bay was like a mirror, it was already warm. The great hills around us were still asleep, smoke lingered in the valleys. We launched our dinghy from the foredeck and were ready to hit the town.

Elounda turned out to be a charming little place – the right size, the right feel. A few minimarkets, a couple of bakeries and butchers, a greengrocer. Fishermen sell their catch in the harbour some mornings, and there’s a weekly market. What’s not to like? There are plenty of cafes and restaurants since it’s a popular tourist area, but only a few of them were open this late in the season. We prefer places like this in the off-season, with only the locals living their everyday lives – and possibly a few year-round transplants from some northern European country. We felt right at home in Elounda after a day or two.

We explored our new surroundings by walking and driving around in the dinghy. There are a couple of smaller villages on the hillsides right behind Elounda, aptly named Lower and Upper Elounda. They have a nice mountain village feel to them, even though they’re just a few hundred metres from town.

Kato Elounda (Lower Elounda) – click the image to see bigger pictures!

Epano Elounda (Upper Elounda)

I climbed higher along the mountainside to get some panorama views of Spinalonga Bay. The roads were very rough, with a lot of loose gravel, and a bit too steep for my unaccustomed legs. Without a proper picnic lunch, anyway. If you look closely, you can spot Aina anchored in front of Elounda – click the photo to see it in a bigger window!

The view was great, though, and I saw a lot of sheep, goats, ducks and chickens, pretty little farms and endless olive groves.

At the southern end of the bay, near Elounda, a narrow strip of land connects the Spinalonga or Kalydon peninsula to the Cretan mainland. This is the site of an ancient city named Olous. It was abandoned during the 8th century when Muslim pirates began to terrorise the Mediterranean Sea. The locals fled inland, to the mountains. Emirate of Crete, an Islamic state, existed on the island from the 820s until the Byzantine empire’s reconquest in 961. In 1204 the Venetians took over the island.

Clear turquoise water, stone walls and a bridge over the Elounda channel. Old windmills ashore.
Elounda channel and the old saltpans where the Ancient Olous once was

The Venetians appreciated the safe natural harbour of Spinalonga, and large saltpans were built in the bay. Seawater pools surrounded by stone walls were closed in the spring, and in the summer heat, the water would evaporate. In the autumn, salt was gathered and transported all over the Mediterranean. Salt was valuable merchandise, accounting for 15% of Venice’s income.

Salt production continued until 1972. Salt harvesting in the 1950s.

To protect the harbour and the salt production, the Venetians built a powerful bastion fortress during the 16th century as part of a line of fortifications in Crete. The history of Spinalonga fortress is long and varied, and worth a blog post of its own. Next time!

Ruins of an early Christian basilica near Elounda. The mosaic floor is covered.

A narrow channel connects Spinalonga and Mirabello bays. It’s navigable for a small boat. We dinghied through and tried to see ruins of ancient Olous underwater. There wasn’t much, even with a bit of imagination. In Olous, there was a famous statue of the goddess Britomartis, and possibly even a temple dedicated to this Cretan forest nymph. On the island of Aegina, she’s known as Aphaia. We saw Aphaia’s handsome temple earlier in the autumn, more about it in this post. Two months later, we had arrived in her home town – small world!

Winter had been at our heels in the Aegean. We had managed to escape – for now. But it would catch us eventually, even in Crete. It was time to start preparing for cooler weather, and likely some storms. One of us would be flying back to the homeland for a while – would it be safer in a marina for the one left behind? So much to think about…

Cloud that looks like a UFO
Mystery hovers over Crete

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