Dreaming of a late summer escape to the turquoise waters and white sandy beach on a Greek Island? Then consider Balos Lagoon a short 60 km drive north west of the Venetian Harbour city of Chania.
Having meet with numerous locals during my first four month stay, in Winter on Crete, Greece’s largest island, I learnt about the many local places that were well worth a visit in the western region of Crete. It wasn’t until I returned for what turned out to be a more permanent stay that I had the opportunity to visit the stunning and picturesque Balos Lagoon.
It was early November and the hordes of summer tourists that mostly arrive by boat between May and October had gone. Yet even in early November the days are warm and the idea of a picnic on a white sandy beach was appealing.
There are three ways to visit Balos Lagoon – boat, car and by foot.
I’d been advised that the road to Balos wasn’t the best to drive a standard small car past the village of Kaliviani as the road between Kaliviani and Balos was a rough dirt road. The village of Kaliviani is a short drive from the coastal township of Kissamos, and the port of Kavonisi where boats depart.
Arrival by boat had stopped the weekend before.
So, having met with a friend in Chania we drove the approx. 45 minutes to the traditional village of Kaliviani and leaving my car at the point where the sealed road changed to dirt, parked my car and walked.
During the summer season, there is a small fee payable at the starting point in the village of Kaliviani that contributes to the preservation of the Gramvousa Reserve.
It’s approx. a 10 km walk (one way, give or take) on the dirt road that runs along the edge of the Gramvousa Peninsula and is generally flat. However, there are a couple of sections that have a slight elevation, before the dirt road stops and reaches the rocky car park area.
An open an expansive sea and rugged coastline provides for a relaxing and scenic walk, with the odd car gratefully driving at a slower pace going to or coming from Balos Lagoon.
Along the way, we passed the small isolated chapel of Agia Irini, built close to the cliff edge and looks out towards the bay of Kissamos and the Rodopos Peninsular.
A fresh water fountain provides a place to stop and rest whilst the odd goat or two are inquisitive company as the look up from grazing on the steep cliff side to check out who’s passing by, as we admire the picturesque backdrop views of the bay of Kissamos.
A few more twists and turns and we’ve reached the rocky car park area, with very few cars and the end of the dirt road.
My first view of the Balos Lagoon nestled between Cape Gramvousa and the small Cape Tigani nestled below the Platiskinos Bay – breathtaking! It’s easy to see why Balos Lagoon, Balos Beach is one of the most photographed beaches on the island of Crete.
A truly heavenly location that remains imprinted in my memory forever.
Descending the rocky and uneven one km, and approx. 850 steps downhill path, one can’t help but stop every few steps to truly admire and appreciate the panoramic view.
An appreciation and admiration of the natural beauty, including the lagoon and the wider area that stays with you forever and one that can only be experienced by those who walk, or drive will understand.
The area of and around the Balos Lagoon is protected under the Natura 2000 program and is home to various rare species of flora and fauna. Including, various birds, like the elenora falcons, cormorants and shags that have created their homes in many of the surrounding caves. The area is also a shelter for protected monk seal and loggerhead sea turtle.
Note to self: remember…you need to ascend the same rocky and uneven stair path to return to the parking area.
Descending further and looking at to the right the lagoon opens to the small uninhabited island of Imeri Gramvousa, known for its long abandoned historical Venetian Fortress built on the highest point on the island.
Nearing the end of the trek down from the car park area, the crystal clear turquoise and vivid blue waters are beckoning.
Only to find at sections of the water’s edge its quiet muddy, so we made our way to cross the white sandy strip of beach to enjoy our picnic lunch.
It’s a warm sunny day and very few people are around, making my first trip to Balos Lagoon even more special. However, for me the water temperature wasn’t warm enough for a swim.
What’s more, despite being a protected area it was interesting to see the odd canteen located on a sandy section of the beach, that was closed. I later learnt that during the height of the summer months, boat day trippers can buy a bottle of water at the canteen, in addition to being able to buy water onboard the ferries.
I, on this occasion happily found myself walking along the water’s edge on white sand, with no umbrellas and enjoying the experience of a little piece of heaven, not too far from home. Followed by an hour or two just lazing on the beach soaking up the early afternoon sun, and having a bite to eat before heading back up the rocky, steep and uneven step path back to the car park area and the onward 10 km walk back to my car.
As the day was turning to early evening and the light of the Moon rising became visible, we shared time connecting with some heavenly energy of the Moon, before returning to my car and the drive home…a truly magical and memorable day!
However, as the title of this blog post is called ‘By Foot or By Boat to Balos’, when the opportunity presented sometime after my first visit, I took a day trip by boat with some friends. The day trip leaves from the Kavonisi Kissamos Port, a short drive from the coastal township of Kissamos and includes a stop at Balos Lagoon and a stop at the island of Imeri Gramvousa.
If time permits it’s worth a short stop at the church of Agios Ioannis Damialis, also known as Saint John Damialis Cave just before reaching the right turn to the Kavonisi Kissamos Port.
The church built into the rock has a tunnel from the church that passes under the road to the beach of the same name.
Leaving the Saint John Damialis church, it’s a very short drive to the Kavonisi Kissamos Port turning right at the boat docked on land. Passing by the St. Nicholas Holy Orthodox Church located at the port.
It’s a popular port on a sunny Sunday in late August and day tripper boats are full. Our boat for the day is the Gramvousa.
Once onboard it was clear to see that many others are out for the day.
As the boat departs the port, we’ve settled in for what is approx. an hour journey to the picturesque water of Balos Lagoon.
Cruising alongside the roughed and wild coastline of the Gramvousa peninsula at a leisurely pace, catching the sight of the 6-9 meter markings above the water line that was made by a strong earthquake in 365AD. Admiring and appreciating the remoteness of the scenery around us.
Note: look closely at the photo and you’ll see a car travelling along the rough dirt road.
Nearing the edge and end of the Gramvousa peninsula, as you approach the island of Imeri Gramvousa we get a glimpse of the imposing outer walls of the Venetian Fortress. The fortress was built between 1579 – 1584, a period when Crete was under Venetian rule and served as a defense against the Ottoman Turks. With the fall of the prolonged Cretan War a treaty was signed on 16 September, 1669 handing Crete to the Ottomans. However, the Venetians retained their hold of the Gramvousa Fortress together with the Souda Fortress and the Spinalonga Fortress in defending their trade and as strategic locations in the event of any further Venetian-Ottoman battle for the island of Crete.
In December, 1691 during a subsequent war between the Venetians and Ottomans, the Venetian captain at the Fortress of Gramvousa betrayed his countryman by accepting a handsome bribe, and surrender the Fortress of Gramvousa. However, not long after the Fortress of Gramvousa was handed to the Ottomans, Cretan insurgents began gathering at all three coastal fortresses.
Ottoman ruled continued until the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in mid 1825, when three to four hundred Cretan and mainland Greek fighters from the Peloponnese, disguised as Ottoman soldiers recaptured the Fortress of Gramvousa and made the island fortress their base. Their actions reignited the Cretan insurgency movement and the Ottomans were unable to recapture the Fortress of Gramvousa. The Ottomans however were successful in preventing any further Cretan and others Greek insurgents arriving on the island. This then lead to the insurgents resorting to acts of piracy that greatly affected the Turkish-Egyptian and other European shipping in this region of the Mediterranean.
It was also during this period that the Cretan/Greek insurgent population of ‘klephts’; a name meaning thieves/pirates and known as an anti Ottoman insurgent located on Gramvousa had set up a community and built a school and the chapel of Panagia I Klefrina, dedicated to their wives.
Therefore, the tale that the Fortress of Gramvousa was once inhabited by pirates is true and legend has it, that a bounty of treasure remains buried on the island.
Rounding the headland of Imeri Gramvousa we see more of the ruined fortress as we continue to Balos Lagoon.
It’s time for a swim – for those who felt like a swim. A vastly different sight from my first visit when arriving to Balos on foot. Remember, it’s August and today the summer crowds are out in force.
Whilst many disembarked and took the opportunity to cool off in the clear waters of the Balos Lagoon, I and another friend choose to stay onboard and enjoy an early lunch available from the boats café before the masses returned.
Leaving Balos, the boat makes its way approx. 2 miles, 15 minutes from Balos to the island of Imeri Gramvousa, docking at a small jetty connecting with the white sandy shore and a very inviting place for a swim.
Whilst the water looked inviting, I along with many others choose to ascend the rocky and unstable path that takes you to the ruined Fortress of Gramvousa. The view a short way up the grueling hike of uneven rocky stairs; made more challenging on a seriously hot late summer’s day, was stunning. The turquoise waters with a backdrop of the Platiskinos mountain range and the shipwreck of the Motorship Dimirios P, hugging the edge of the sandy Mpalos beach.
In late December, 1967 the ship was travelling from central Greece enroute towards Northern Africa with 440 tons of cement when it struck bad weather and anchored in Diakofti Bay on the island of Kythira.
Departing some days later, the ship again struck bad weather and was forced to change course and made its way onwards to the northwest coast of Crete, anchoring at Imeri Gramvousa, a short 200 meters from the shoreline. As the weather eased the chain of one of the two anchors had cut leaving the ship stranded and its engine room filling with water. The crew abandoned ship under the captain’s orders and were forced to remain on the island again due to continuing bad weather, until the coastguard come to the rescue them.
Having ascended to the top of the hillside an open arched portico and steel gate greets you at the entrance of the Venetian Fortress.
An uninviting welcome given the major effort for those of us who walked the 137 meters to the top, however once you step inside the ruined fortress walls, spectacular views reward you for your efforts.
For those visiting Balos with a car, or by foot; it’s worth taking a day trip by boat that includes a two hour stop at Gramvousa.
Little remains of the once mighty stronghold with impressive long external walls. And…yes, the views are impressive.
There are a series of underground tanks that once served to store rain water that are today covered with sheets of steel, preventing access to any inquisitive folk.
A ruined watchtower where a guard once stood observing the surrounding area across the open seas against enemy attacks.
The chapel of Panagia i Klefrina, dedicated to the wives of ‘klephts’ is basically the only ruined building left.
The thick stone walls of the small chapel still standing having stood the test of time over the centuries.
The walk up in the heat of summer takes approx. 25/30 minutes with crowds of people ascending and descending.
Descending the steep and rocky path is just as challenging as ascending, with many people passing in both directions.
As we near the end of the descent, we see the boat docked and waiting for passengers to re-embark.
There are still many people descending the rocky slope, whilst others are enjoying time under the shade of trees as we pass by the small chapel of Agioi Apostoloi – The Holy Apostles. Then make out way back to the boat, passing the memorial plaque, translated in English – “On August 2, 1825 the undefeatable defenders of Cretan Freedom captured the castle of Gramvousa”.
Before departing the island we were able to get a better view of the shipwreck as it lay in the sandy shoreline.
For the next hour or so, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the relaxing journey back to Kissamos Port.
Then head home.
Happy I made the journey by boat to experience another side to Balos and take in the sights of Imeri Gramvousa island and the ruined Venetian Fortress.
This blog is one of many of the experiences I have shared with friends as a day trip in the picturesque Greek Island of Crete.
Audio recording available below.
I hope you enjoy reading, or listening and that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and magical part of the world.
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