At 1,080 metres in altitude, the plateau of Omalos is one of the three highest large plateaus of Crete.
The plateau of Omalos borders the three provinces of Kydonia, Selino, and Sfakia. The plateau has three exits. The first one is the road from Chania. The entrance to the plateau (1,087 m) on this road is called the Neratzoporta --The Orange Door.
The second exit is the Samaria Gorge, which ends at Agia Roumeli. The third exit is in the southwest corner of the plateau. The road from here reaches Sougia through wild and captivating scenery. The plateau is surrounded by the peaks of the Lefka Ori: Volakias (2,116m); Gigilos, in front of Xiloskalo (2,081m); Samberos (2,005m), on the west side of the Samaria Gorge; and Psilafi (1,984m). The plateau is roughly triangular in shape and each side is about an hour's walk.
During the winter months, snow may cover Omalos and the road may be closed for several days. The Omalos Plateau is green except in midsummer and is covered by wild flowers in the spring. The physical beauty of the area is as exhilarating as the mountain air and the plateau is a marvellous area for mountain hiking or walks. On the plateau there are tavernas and hotels, some of which are equipped for winter stays.
The mountains are wild and rocky, steep and difficult for hiking. Walking here is for experienced hikers only, tough Cretan shepherds and goats. In the highest parts of the White Mountains it is known as 'high desert' due to the lack of vegetation. This means there is no cover, no shade and no water. Hikers must be well prepared for long walks.
In the Omalos Region you also find many traditional, old and small mountain villages with precious views over the Plateau, for example Laki that you find 24km southwest of Chania on the Chania - Fournes - Laki - Omalos road.
The view of the mountains and valleys are breathtaking. The road starts the serious ascent to Omalos after Fournes. The scene of many rebellions and battles against the Turks, the historic village of Laki, at 500 metres above sea level, is worth a stop.
Any one of the coffee shops or tavernas gives the visitor a magnificent view of the valley below and the Lefka Ori.
Laki is a historic village where many rebellions and battles against the Turks took place. Further on the road to Omalos is a memorial plaque to World War II resistant fighters killed by the Germans. The New Zealander Dudley Perkins (Kiwi or Vasili) and his Cretan companion were ambushed near here on 28/2/1944.
Kournas Lake is the only natural (not artificial) freshwater lake in Crete. Lake Kournas was known as Lake Koressia in antiquity but later took its current name from the Arabic word for lake.
The lake is in a beautiful landscape, lying in a valley among the hills, about 4 km from Georgioupolis in Chania Prefecture.
Lake Kournas is relatively small, with a maximum length of 1,087 m and a maximum breadth of 880 m. It covers an area of 579,000 sq. m. and is generally shallow, 22.5 m at its deepest point, while it lies approximately 20 m above sea level.
Kournas Lake is the ideal place for an afternoon walk or a daytrip nearby. Many people like to have an afternoon picnic there. The landscape is lovely and relaxing, whether you want to go for a walk in the countryside, swim or ride a pedalo on the lake.
There are two springs on the southeast bank, one of which, the Mati or Amati ("eye") as the locals call it, is visible in late summer. The lake is fed by streams from the nearby mountains and hills, whose underground courses are interrupted by the local bedrock on the way to the sea.
Lake Kournas and its environs are protected under Natura 2000.
The lake, an important wetland, is home to ducks and eels, water snakes and a rare species of bicoloured terrapin with a patterned shell, the Diamondback Terrapin (Malaclemysterrapin).
Herons and cormorants also sometimes appear on the lake.
Recently there have been reports of large goldfish appearing in Lake Kournas, as somebody dumped them there without considering the results of introducing a new species to a closed ecosystem.
What to do at Lake Kournas
- Walk around the lake, whose colours change according to the time of day. The sun plays creative games with the hills and trees around the lake, lighting first one and then the other side and giving the water an aquamarine tint. The lake also changes size, as the locals say, as the level drops in late summer, revealing a thick layer of white sand which forms temporary beaches. In these months you can walk along the bank all the way round the lake. The full circuit takes no more than an hour.
- Swim or ride a pedalo on the waters of the lake. There are little beaches on the banks of Lake Kournas just under the main road and in front of the tavernas. There you will find sun loungers and umbrellas in the summer months, while you can also rent pedalos (7 euros / hour) if you want to enjoy a ride on the lake - this is a particularly fun and romantic option in the afternoon.
- Watch the ducks and feed them. There are many ducks with their ducklings on Lake Kournas, and when they all start quacking together it can be deafening. If the noise or the droppings decorating the beach irritate you, remember that you are just visiting, while they live here.
- Enjoy a meal in one of the many tavernas and cafeterias at Kournas Lake, where you can eat beside the lake and enjoy the lovely view. The tavernas offer traditional Cretan dishes and it's worth trying the "apaki" (smoked pork) or the kid, a local specialty. Don't be surprised that all the signs are in English and Russian, as more and more Russian tourists have been visiting Georgioupoli and Chania Prefecture in recent years.
- Buy souvenirs from the pottery workshops, which sell their own handicrafts along with other tourist items.
- If you visit Lake Kournas in winter or spring, remember that the lake rises as far as the steps down from the road, so the beaches disappear. Most of the tavernas, however, stay open in winter, though some of them may be shut on December and January weekdays.
- If you have time, visit the picturesque village of Kournas, just 10 minutes' drive south of the lake.
Myths and Legends about Lake Kournas
Like any self-respecting lake, Kournas has its own legends. The simplest one tells of its bottomless waters, which, as we know today, is not true. There are also theories about strange electromagnetic fields near the lake, making some people uneasy while others feel a very good energy.
Of course the lake has its own water nymph who appears on moonlit nights, combing her hair. There are two different legends concerning the nymph of Lake Kournas:
The water nymph was the daughter of a villager who sat down with her father on the spot where the lake is today. Her father, bewitched by her beauty, was tempted and approached her with wicked intentions. The girl, terrified, cried out "Sink and Sinklake and I a spirit in the lake!" The spirits of the lake heard her cry, took pity on her and made her wish come true. The ground shook and sank with a terrible noise, leaving a lake where the valley had been, and the unfortunate maiden took refuge in its dark waters.
The second legend about the creation of the lake and its nymph relates that the inhabitants of the area lived and acted in an ungodly manner. God was angry and decided to punish them, as he had done with the sinful Sodom and Gomorrah. So he caused it to rain for many days, drowning both village and villagers and forming a lake. The only person to survive was the priest's daughter, who can still be seen combing her hair on a rock in the lake. This water nymph takes care of the ducks and other small creatures living in the area.
When driving in western Crete's Kisamos County, on the road heading to Elafonissi (Deer Island) just after the village Topolia, you will go through a small tunnel. Exactly at the tunnel's exit, high up on your right, you will see the opening of a cave and an unusual metallic star reflecting the sun's rays.
This is the entrance to an interesting cave named Agia Sofia.
From the street level you have to climb quite a few steps, then continue walking through a small path. As you get closer to the cave, you realize the opening is actually quite big, and little by little the roof of a quaint church begins to appear on the left. Actually, the church is situated inside the cave itself, which is why they both bear the same name.
Upon entering the cave of Agia Sofia, you suddenly realize that it is in fact quite large (almost the size of a cathedral). According to official findings the cave of Agia Sofia is at an elevation of 285 meters, and includes a cupola 20 meters high and 70 meters in diameter with variform stalactites (deposits which hang down from the ceiling of the cave) and stalagmites (deposits that project upward from the ground of the cave). Many ancient objects were discovered at this location, including shells from the Neolithic period.
After taking a few hesitant steps until the eyes adjust to the dim light, continue towards the little church, which is in the front on the left side of the cave, and actually forms one of the church's walls. The church is small and quite ordinary, without any architectural or hagiographical features. What makes it unique is the sense of space once you are inside.
Returning to the outside cave again, with eyes that are now hopefully accustomed to the darkness of the area, we begin our exploration.
The size of the stalagmites is truly unbelievable, with some of them measuring a staggering five to six meters. The stalactites are approximately the same dimensions. But they are still a long way from joining in the middle - in fact they are still about four to five meters apart - which will give you some idea of the size of this cave (think of a five story building and you'll get the picture).
In several locations of the cave wild fig trees have grown, and there are many pigeons throughout the area. Walking deeper into the cavern the humidity becomes very pronounced - the ground soaked with water, but not particularly slippery.
In several spots alga has completely covered the rocks, providing them with a dark-green velvet- like coating. The stalagmites offer a never-ending variety of shapes, ranging from extremely tall conical formations to very short forms which somewhat resemble to top of a bald head. Particularly impressive is a combo rock and stalagmite formation which is a close replica of the mythical unicorn.
It is quite impossible to observe the stalactites in detail without a torchlight because of their forbidding height and the darkness insde the cave.
As you can imagine, the Cave of Agia Sofia is used for worshipping purposes, and is connected with various legends. One of the most popular is the one regarding St. George (the dragon slayer). It is believed that the hoof of St. George's horse left an imprint on one of the rocks inside the cave. Indeed, there does exist a large stone with an indentation in the shape of a horseshoe.
It is said that the cave is still not entirely explored, and it is believed it still extends to other halls and small cavern-like apertures. The usual stories are heard about putting an animal through some narrow opening and having it reappear several kilometers away.
Actually, you can spend quite a long time exploring this impressive cave and trying to satisfy your appetites of its magical splendor. It isn't just the awesome sizes of the many features that stole the show. Mainly, it is the spectrum of colours and all those odd and interesting stalactites and stalagmites that created pictures of another world, offering food to imagination, and taking you on to encounters of the third kind.