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October 01, 1995|LINDA L. LISCOM | Liscom is a free-lance writer who lives in Nut Tree, Calif.

LOUTRO, Greece — Despoina sits on the waterfront. Every day, in the same spot, perched on the same unpainted wooden chair, she savors the tranquillity of the natural harbor and silently welcomes each passenger who steps from the toe of the Pandoflia (slipper) ferry, onto the narrow, rocky beach.

She gazes at the Anopoli trail high above, dangling like paper, serpentine from the mountain crest to the sea. Sixty years ago, walking this trail, she was abducted by a fisherman she knew only by sight. Andreas, in pursuit of a "stolen bride," with the aid of his cronies, carried her off to a mountain cave and hid her out for 66 days until she finally agreed to marry him. Despoina, now a widow, says after she got to know him, she'd have married no one else. She's been here ever since, and I can see why.

For people who love to walk in foreign lands, Loutro, a couple hours' walk or a 40-minute ferry ride west of Chora Sfakion--on the rugged, south coast of Crete--is a spectacular headquarters for inveterate hikers as well as beachcombers and nature lovers. White-washed houses and seaside tavernas tucked around a natural crescent harbor, nestle against a nearly vertical mountain backdrop. Remnants of walls and ramparts framed by ancient stone doorways of several periods--Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Venetian--are strewn about a promontory that protects the village from the west winds. And best of all, the community, with one small hotel (the Porto Loutro), has preserved its rural character with access exclusively by foot and boat. There are no plans for a road.

Throughout town there's a sense of peace drawn from life in sync with the rhythms of the sea and the sun. Pre-dawn stillness is broken only by sounds of mountain-goat bells; and, when I was there, the roosters didn't even crow until after 8 a.m. The sea breeze whispers throughout the night, and it's safe to sleep with doors and windows open. Dramatic sunrises backlight distant peninsulas that fan to the west. Moonlight turns the mountains to burnished ivory. And in the night sky, the Milky Way flies overhead like a sequined banner.

Loutro is the ideal base for day hikes on the south coast or for exploring the Lefka Ori (White Mountains). Here, a network of trails connects traditional mountain villages, pristine coves, nearby gorges and beyond to Samaria National Park, with the grandest gorge of all.

Step out of town and choices present themselves. Share steep, rocky trails with goats and shepherds, climb in solitude where it's possible to pass a day without meeting a soul, or ramble coastal paths overlooking craggy inlets with crashing surf. If that's not enough, for farther flung excursions, depart on the morning boat to Chora Sfakion--a tiny port with a few inns and tavernas, but too little activity to coax me into a stay. There you can hop a bus or taxi to a variety of trail heads and return on the evening ferry.

It is possible to stay in Loutro on a surprisingly limited budget, in a private home or above a taverna, for as little as $10 a day. For $35, I checked into the Hotel Porto Loutro's honeymoon suite, which offered simple luxury with its marble bath, pine floors and furniture and terrace overlooking the harbor speckled with colorful boats.

However, there's scant information for hikers, so it's best to come prepared. I brought an excellent book ("Trekking in Greece: A Walking Guide" by Marc Dubin, Lonely Planet, $15.95) and maps from home, and anticipated few or no trail markers. (I was correct in that assumption.) I also came well supplied with hiking amenities: a couple of plastic water bottles, a good day pack and boots, sunscreen and a flashlight.

To get started last September, I walked the mountainous inland loop, first north, then west and finally south again to the coast, from Loutro via Anopoli, Araden, Agios Ioannis and Agios Pavlos to Agia Roumeli, where the spectacular Samaria Gorge opens its mouth to the sea. I returned to Loutro by ferry. (This was a strenuous one-day expedition, but could be several leisurely excursions.)

On the first leg of the loop, well before dawn, I hit the Anopoli trail with its lily-bordered switchbacks that climb the bare-rock face above town and disappear over a 2,000-foot summit. (There was no sign, but it was the only trail apparent.) Spectacular vistas unfolded with each step while far below, rays of sunlight, like a fan of magic wands, brought first light to Loutro. (Any level of the Anopoli trail makes an ideal early morning pilgrimage with a return to town for a seaside taverna breakfast of fresh orange juice and pastry, warm from the oven.)

Beyond Araden, I climbed to Agios Ioannis, an ancient mountain village of rustic stone houses connected by twisted paths and nearly camouflaged by trees. Goat skins were drying on the clotheslines and men just in from the hunt had freshly killed game on their backs.

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