Most people who visit the Greek island of Crete who are able to do it, make a traverse of the Samaria Gorge. This is the longest canyon in Europe, and the walk is about 18 km. of fairly strenuous going.
Many gorge-walkers, though, do suffer for a couple of days afterwards, for the walk starts with a descent down the side of the gorge for about 2 km. along a stony stepped path called the ksiloscala (wooden steps) from the hill village of Omalos. Most people do the walk from here to the sea, for to arrive at the foot of the ‘wooden steps’ after a day’s walking is just plain soul-destroying.
But, if you don’t want all those aches and pains, or the gorge is closed during the off-season, or times of adverse weather, there are over a hundred other gorges you can explore, and, on my last visit to Crete, I walked two of them.
The Irini Gorge starts at the village of Ayia Irini or St. Irene. I’m not sure which St. Irene; there are several saints of that name in the Greek Orthodox hagiography. But, the villagers of Ayia Irini make an annual pilgrimage down the gorge to her shrine on her name day.
At a ranger station near the entrance, they relieved me of €1.50 entrance fee. All the major gorges have them; I remembered Samaria two years before, where they told me the tickets were a way of ensuring everyone was out of the gorge by nightfall.
People used to live down here! A fading sign marked the place where there was once a settlement, abandoned two hundred years ago. There’s little sign of it now, and if it wasn’t for the notice, it wouldn’t be obvious that it was there.
By a rock on the wayside, there’s a little altar, on which are holy pictures and a little bowl containing one or two euro-cents. There’s a signboard close by, saying treat this as a holy place but it’s so weather-beaten, it’s almost indecipherable. This, I assumed, was St. Irene’s shrine.
Many wild flowers grew on the floor of the gorge… the gorges create a ‘micro-climate’ and some species can thrive nowhere else. Occasionally, a lizard scurried across the path … and goats were often seen, probably to the detriment of a lot of the flora.
The going became rougher and stonier, but the path was still easily followed. At one point, a house-sized boulder diverted the waters through a gap only three feet wide. And, although there was no water in the river, the large, bone-white, rounded boulders gave a good idea of what it could be like in spate.
‘At the end’ says the guidebook, ‘there is a beautiful traditional tourist kiosk. There’s still a sign indicating the way there, but it was abandoned, dilapidated, and firmly locked! For good, or because the season hadn’t started yet, I don’t know.
All there was at the end was a car park, and a notice giving a telephone number from which a taxi might be summoned. And, guess who left his mobile phone in the car, back at Ayia Irini?
I was lucky enough to get a lift into Souyia, from where it might be possible to find a taxi to take me back to Ayia Irini, when a nice Cretan couple stopped and saved me a long, hot walk.
And, in Souyia, they told me that the only bus to Ayia Irini that day was leaving in an hour’s time! Talk about luck! I wonder if the few coins I put into St. Irene’s bowl on the way past had anything to do with it?
It would be tempting to dismiss the Imbros Gorge as ‘the same as Irini’. True, there are the same wildflowers, the same sheer cliffs and the same narrow ‘gates’ … even the lengths, about 8 km, are about the same. But, there’s history here. For a long time, the Imbros Gorge was the only way to the south-coast port of Hora Sfakion by land, hence the cobbled and stepped lengths of path that appear in some places.
At the mouth, Turkish invaders were held off, and, in more recent years, it was used by Commonwealth soldiers during WWII during the battle of Crete, on their way to Hora Sfakion and evacuation.
You can access both ends by public transport, but your timing has to be spot on. However, if you leave a car at Imbros village, you will find taxi-drivers at the other end almost fighting for your custom! I was offered a ride back to Imbros for €20 …
‘ … if we go now! If you don’t mind waiting for other walkers to fill my cab, it’ll only cost you €5’
The first thing you notice is there’s no surface water, although there are more watering points. And, there are more people. That could be because the walk is less strenuous; at Irini, the path climbs the hill for a considerable distance to avoid an impassable choke point.
Where Imbros scores for me is the ‘gates’; narrow passages flanked on each side by towering cliffs, almost like entering a tunnel! The thing it reminded me of most was pictures I’ve seen of the ‘slot canyons’ in Arizona.
I’d read of the narrowest passage of all, and thought ‘This must be it’ at least three times. But, a little further on, I came upon one even narrower.
Near the end, there’s a feature probably unique in Crete. A rock arch, about eight metres high, in the cliff face. At this point, there’s a definite touch of red in the cliff face … probably the same strata as the Iron Gates in Samaria.
Another big difference … at the end, the café was open, and doing a roaring trade! And, there were more cafés only a little further on.