Kritsa Gorge

From Aghios Nikolaos, the road leads into the hills, bordering a green sea of olive trees all the way to the first houses of Kritsa, which rests gently on a hillside in a favorable position that offers a glimpse of the gulf of Mirabello. Kritsa is an ancient town under Venetian domination it had five thousand inhabitants, an important mansion - fortress or archontika and numerous churches. One church in particular, Panagia Kera, has precious frescos that are considered some of the most beautiful in all of Crete. Today, in the small square which is the heart of the town, there are kafenion under the plane trees which provide shade and respite from Crete’s hot summer. There are also pleasant shops selling local products like thyme honey, mountain herbs, artwork carved out of olive wood, mast woven in red, yellow, green and black and leather goods like the typical, “minimalist” summer sandals and the traditional black boots which are still worn by local farmers during the winter months.

Just before the village, to the north a large rift in the mountain marks the “farangi Kritsas”. The road curves to the right in the direction of the Lato archeological site, which a road sign indicates in very large lettering, while smaller lettering on another sign points toward the gorge. Half a kilometer further on, another sign puts us on a sheep track that leads to your departure point. No sign indicates the trail into the gorge but intuition leads you is the direction, as you descend among vegetable gardens and vineyards to a dry riverbed. A few rough meters clambering among the rocks and then, almost as though to dissuade you from continuing on, you come upon the excursion’s one obstacle, a massive boulder. But it is easily overcome after a brief and simple climb. You step over a downtrodden wire fence and disappear into the scrub that conceals the entrance of the actual ravine. Once again, you have sensation of magical anticipation that overcomes you every time you start on a new hike, a powerful alchemy that feeds your desire to learn and discover. The first rains of November seem to have revitalized the green leaves of the oleanders and chastetree shrubs that invate the stony trail the first white crocuses – crocus boryi peek out from the cracks in the rocks.

The trail climbs gently between low plane trees and carob trees, then leads into thick underbrush that is alive with the twittering and rustling of birds. But step by step, as you progress nature falls silent. The gorge makes its appearance as its rocky walls rise up and narrow, forcefully emphasizing their primordial material, compact, smooth rock faces that fold over on themselves in sinuous forms. You spend an intense half hour of absolute enchantment as you advance through this archetype of all gorges in miniature, as it cradles you in a pearly, limestone embrace. For roughly fifteen meters your hands are busy and your legs are tense as you cross a slippery rock face, but the incline isn’t steep and the risks are minimal. Further on, the canyon’s smooth walls of white limestone almost touch, welcoming ramparts similar to opaque marble, molded by a myriad of tiny rivulets that fall from above, insistently dripping and forming pools of water. The absolute solitude amplifies the magic of the surroundings and you feel like the sole privileged witnesses of such beauty.

After ten minutes, the gorge widens out just as quickly as it had narrowed. The path returns, gradually leading upward along the gravel. You are surmounted by high rocky pinnacles and you make a game of truing to interpret their strange shapes. Soon the ravine becomes less deep; it flattens out and its ridges become rounder, transforming themselves into high embankments crowned with thick stands of oak trees with narrow leaves, while below, the first autumn mushrooms hide among the tangled brambles. A good hour has passed since you began your hike. A tall pine tree blocks your way and then, further ahead, another, even taller pine tree leads you into a vast olive orchard. From here on Kritsa gorge has no further significant elements, but you continue along the riverbed until you reach the offshoots of Mount Kataro Tsivi. You make your way among olive trees along an easy incline, keeping to the right, until you come to an unpaved cart road. After about twenty minutes the track intersects the paved road that leads upward in the direction of Tapies and downward takes you back to where you left your car. Even though the hike was full of emotions, it was an easy and unchallenging excursion. Thus, it seems proper that you complete it with a visit to Lato, an ancient Dorian town located in the saddleback of the high hillside in front of you. We had explored the site during your first years in Crete. Back then it could still be visited all year long since there were no barriers or entrance tickets to be bought and all one had to do was open a rudimental gate and walk upward along its cyclopean walls to the agora. This small square, whose northern side is embellished with a series of amphitheater - like steps, was the heart of the city, which dominated the entire surrounding valley, all the way to Aghios Nikolaos – Lato Pros Kamara, and beyond the sea toward to Apollo is located on a terrace supported by a wall. One spring, as you were sitting near the altar under the almond trees, you met a middle-aged woman who looked like farmer. She was accompanied by two foreign workers whose job it was to gather the fruit from the trees. Whit a confident manner, your interlocutor made a sweeping gesture with her hand, indicating the entire archeological area and the surrounding land. Noting with satisfaction your admiration for the loveliness of the area, she laid claim to the archeological site!