Kalderimi

an ancient road in Crete

10 km running trail around Aradena Gorge

JUNE 12, 2023 | ANAPOLI, CRETE | 11 MIN

N 35°13'05.7"
E 24°05'07.5"

In Crete there were many thousands of kilometers of stone roads. Across Greece, even more: in the Pindos Mountains, on the Pelion Peninsula, in the Peloponnese. They were widely used in the 1960s and 1970s. They are still used in some regions, although usually in a slightly different way. I have cross them many times myself, whether during running competitions or hiking in the mountains. I used them but I wasn’t fully aware of the scale of the phenomenon. As is often the case, if something is not properly named, it does not exist for us. These traditional stone roads are called in Greece “kalderimi”.

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Kalderimi (Greek: καλντεριμι or καλντιριμι) is a word derived from Turkish language and means cobbled or paved mule track or trail. In Turkey, every paved road was called kaldirim – and this word in Turkish means “to raise”, “erect”. Like in many similar situation there is also popular etymology, which explain the meaning of kalderimi from purely Greek expression “kalos dromos” – good road.
The term kalderimi dates back to the period of the Turkish occupation of Greece, but the roads themselves are in many cases much older. They sometimes run along Roman or Venetian road lines. It should also be remembered that, by definition, kalderimi is a road, not a path. These routes were usually about 2 m wide – although there are cases of roads as wide as 4.5 m – and they were built in such a way that two fully laden mules could easily pass each other.
In Crete, the queen of the kalderimi  network is, of course, Vasiliki Strada, once crossing the island from north to south from Chania to Sugia, and recently beautifully renovated and adapted to tourist traffic on a 5-kilometer stretch from the village of Chosti to the asphalt road to the Omalos plateau. A large kalderimi network is also located in Zagori, and the famous stone bridges for which this region is famous are only small fragments of it. The Taygetos Challenge running competition in the Peloponnese runs largely on kalderimia (plural form), and on the Pelion peninsula, just in the area of the narrow-gauge railway from Ano Lechonia to Miles, the length of the network of these roads is tens of kilometers.
Once we are aware of the scale of the kalderimi phenomenon and look carefully around, the lines of these ancient roads are easily visible in the landscape. Especially in Crete, where due to the rocky ground and residual vegetation, a large part of these trails has stone walls on both sides. Easy to see, much harder to walk. Harder because on the one hand, they are full of new, uneven stones, and even huge boulders (I don’t understand where they come from), on the other hand, unused roads quickly become overgrown with impassable thickets.

Crete

South End Gallery
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All the photos below were taken on the E4 path on the south coast of Crete. This trail leads almost all the time by the sea, although not always by the very shore. On November 1-5, 2021, I ran the entire route from Chora Sfakion to Elafonisi Beach and back. Total is about 170 km.

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kalderimi - the best trail for runners

From the point of view of runners or tourists, however, the most interesting is the structure of the kalderimi network. Well, modern asphalt roads are by definition long-distance and connect individual towns and villages, running – if possible – along the line of contour lines, i.e. in possibly flat terrain. Kalderimia are primarily local roads, connecting the center of the village with various places scattered around, i.e. with chapels, water sources, agricultural fields or shepherd’s huts (mitata). That is why kalderimia very often lead into the mountains, they are full of steep sections, ascents and descents. When the terrain becomes too steep, the kalderimi take the form of stairs, with steps of varying sizes, and the most famous surviving fragments have this form (Vradeto Stairs, Monodendri Steps or the section across the Aradena Gorge. No wheeled vehicles were intended to move on them, and for mules and people steps are no obstacle. Due to its structure, the kalderimi network is ideal for runners and hikers, and thus for all explorers – by definition, these roads lead into the wilderness.

Aradena Trail - kalderimi in Sfakia region

A few days ago, after a night run through Lefka Ori, I rested a few days in Anopoli on the southern side of the White Mountains massif. Anthony suggested a short 10km route around the area that seemed perfect for recovery runs. I took his suggestion and ran this loop twice, day after day. The entire essay below is inspired by experiences on this amazing road.
It is worth mentioning at the beginning that the village of Anopoli is part of the very mountainous region of Sfakia – considered one of the most traditional and once the most inaccessible areas of Crete. Suffice it to say that the famous Samaria Gorge is also part of the municipality of Sfakia. Nevertheless, the village of Anopoli along with two others – Aradena and Agios Ioanis – are located on a vast plateau, or rather a flat valley, hanging about 600-800 m above sea level. The southern exposure and the mountains protecting the area from the north make it extremely dry there. The views are actually quite limited: the Libyan Sea is  not visible (unless you climb the small southern hills), the White Mountains rise in a mighty ridge to the north, but only a few of the nearest peaks are visible, the rest are hidden somewhere over the horizon.
Since a plateau or a gentle valley, on the 10 km that I was supposed to run, I did not expect any major difficulties. And indeed, the numbers do not indicate problems. Even after some modifications that I made to the original route on the second day, it was difficult to accumulate 10 km (9.8 km to be exact) and about 450 m of elevation gain. There are no long ascents on the route, and there are few steep sections. Nevertheless, the described route makes an amazing impression. As a recovery run, it’s great, although it’s best to be rested when facing it.
First of all, it turned out that it mostly leads along the former kalderimi. It is therefore a great opportunity to get acquainted with a piece of Crete’s communication heritage in practice. It’s just that practice differs quite significantly from the theoretical descriptions that I presented above.

starting from Anopoli

We start from the main square of Anopoli, exactly from the place where the finish line of the most famous running competition in Crete, Sfakia Sky Marathon, is usually located. 500 meters along the asphalt road and we run into Paleo Anopoli – an abandoned part of the village, full of reddish ruins of old buildings. The path here is narrow and meanders between former sattelments. Moments later, the first kalderimi begins. It is comfortable, has protective walls on the outside of the slope and leads to the seaside village of Livaniana. This time, however, we are not running to the sea. On one of the first bends, we choose another kalderimi, which turns slightly to the right and runs parallel to the modern road from Anopoli to Aradena. And immediately we get a revelation of what is most characteristic of modern kalderimia in the Sfakia area. The road is well visible, has stone walls on both sides, but it is impossible to run on it. The number of boulders of various sizes that are found in this road canyon is beyond imagination. If you wanted to move on it, reaching a speed of 1 km/h would be a great achievement. Fortunately, however, there is an alternative path along this ancient thoroughfare. Full of turns and not avoiding stones, but actually with soft ground. You can run pretty smoothly on that. Thus, we have the impression of communing with a real kalderimi – it can be seen a few meters away on the left – but we are moving much faster than the technical condition of this ancient trail allows. The same thing is repeated after the next intersection, except that the stone road is now on the right. Since we have run only 2 km from the beginning of the route, we also realize how many old roads there are in this area: 2 km and 3 intersections with side kalderimi crossing our route! The antiquity of the trail may also be indicated by a huge olive tree, growing right next to the road, and judging by the size of its trunks, it is about 500 years old.

Kalderimi from Aradena to the mountains

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first crossing of Aradena Gorge

We cross the asphalt road and the kalderimi is finally easy to traverse, we no longer need to look for any alternative trail, we run on the same stones as dozens of generations of shepherds before us. We are approaching the biggest attraction on the route – the beautiful and huge Aradena Gorge. A few hundred meters to the left you can see a bridge suspended over 80 meters above the bottom of the gorge – the only car connection to several villages to the west. Our kalderimi, however, does without any bridge, it simply descends to the bottom of the gorge in many twists and turns along an almost vertical wall, and in a moment rises to the other side along an equally vertical wall, with no less number of bends. The impression is amazing, the road is wide, renovated and properly strengthened at the edges, but caution is advised when cornering, because the retaining walls are sometimes several meters high, and there are no safety railings. The idea of “pampers society” is not very popular in Greece yet.

Aradena village
Aradena - an abandoned village, from which the name of the famous gorge comes

not only kalderimi

Although once so widespread, not all trails in use today are former kalderimia. First of all, the E-4 international long-distance route described on this website, along the south-western edge of Crete, is not a kalderimi. Also, most of the paths leading to individual peaks of the White Mountains are not kalderimia. Although what leads to the tops of the White Mountains can hardly even be called a path. After all, today when walking through the Greek mountains, we have not only kalderimi, but also paths and dirt roads. The latter may even follow the line of the former kalderima, but since they are not paved and there are virtually no written sources about them, it is impossible to conclude it for sure.

Just beyond the gorge we run through the village of Aradena, almost completely abandoned, attracting tourists with romantic ruins in deep ocher color, although if these tourists knew the real reason for leaving Aradena, they might be a little scared. We are on our kalderimi all the time, navigation is even easier, we don’t have to turn anywhere, we go straight north, slightly uphill, but now we have not only stone streets, but also walls of (ruined) houses.
A few hundred meters further, still very clearly visible kalderimi meets an unpleasant adventure. Here is the current owner of the area, he separated the road with a wire mesh, in such a way that without special acrobatics it is impossible to go further. Fortunately, there is again a bypass next to it, so it is not a special problem for the runner. Nevertheless, some problem really exist. I admit that I am not aware of the legal status of calderimia in Greece. I suppose most of these roads are on private land. However, in Greece the vast majority of paths are on private land and in practice the “right of way rule” works quite well here. There are thousands of fences protecting against goats and sheep, but almost always there is a gate on the path that you can pass through, and the owner only asks you to close the gate behind you. In this case, when the road is completely blocked off, bushes are already growing on the other side of the fance, destroying this fragment very effectively. The kalderimi is the most widespread part of Greek cultural heritage. In addition, mostly created very locally, by generations of shepherds. Could this landowner close to Aradena not care about preserving the heritage his ancestors had built over the decades?

kalderimi suddenly disappearing

A little higher (about 5 km of the route) our kalderimi is getting a bit blurred. It becomes narrower and narrower, and the structure of the stones on our increasingly disappearing path becomes indistinguishable from the structure of the stones all around. Maybe because the trail is getting steeper and steeper, the real kalderimi turns to the right and meanders back to the main trail? I don’t think it’s possible to decide, especially since the forest begins, and trees with their roots are much more destructive than low undergrowth. The trail is now marked with small stone mounds, which in Greece are called “kukos” but with increased attention you can still navigate, although this is certainly the most difficult section of the entire loop. Not very long though. It’s a kilometer at most. Reaching the highest point (about 900 m above sea level), the route flattens out, the ground changes from rocky to soft, and on the right side there is something like a stone little wall. If I can imagine the destruction of an old stone road through a mountain pine forest, I want to believe that this rachitic wall is a measly remnant of our kalderimi. The more so that we are now moving through the most beautiful part of the entire route – the path along the edge of the Aradena Gorge, in a part not usually visited by tourists. (Aradena is almost three times longer than the part frequented by tourists).

second crossing of Aradena Gorge

Finally, the kalderimi returns. After about a kilometer run along the edge of the gorge, we run down to its bottom. This time we cross the gorge from west to east, which is the opposite of the beginning of the route, we must finally close the loop. The walls of the Araden Gorge are again almost vertical, without a solidly built path, with a lot of bends, it would be impossible to cross it. This time, however, the kalderimi is much more narrow and wild. I don’t know if it used to be wider and time has eroded its metropolitan character, or rather it has always been a more local connection, slightly off the beaten path of the main route in the area. Anyway, for the runner, this part is more exciting. More difficult for sure but providing more emotions.

Vasiliki Strada - the queen of kalderimia in Crete, located near to Chosti village in the South-West part of the island

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On the other side of the gorge we meet a slightly inclined plateau, where our kalderimi gets lost again. Or rather, it blurs in a huge number of paths-possibility, none of which is really a path, and all of them are decidedly technically difficult. A piece of typical Cretan trails with razor-sharp stones. After less than a kilometer, however, we encounter a real mountain highway – a dirt road several meters wide, very modern, which is also the final part of the Sfakia Sky Marathon route. In this way we close the loops in the main square of Anapoli.

We have 10 km of routes for a quick mountain training, or if you prefer, for a leisurely knowledge of the figures of Hellas road heritage. We run through the Aradana Gorge twice, for some time we also run along its edge. Therefore, the name Aradena Trail seems to be justified. If the rumor that the route is to be cleared by the local authorities is confirmed, we will get a beautiful and much easier cross-country trail than today. But it’s worth running under any circumstances.
I would highly recommend.

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