Pefki Gorge

From a geological point of view, Pefki gorge is not considered one of the thirty - four “official” gorges on the island of Crete. The chasm king of this area is without a doubt the dramatic “Ha canyon” in the nearby Tripti mountain range. But you aren’t mountain climbers and thus conquering that dangerous, perpendicular cleft is an impossible undertaking for you. It’s better to make do with hiking through this natural hollow, whose special charm is offered by the constant presence of pine trees that inebriate you with their perfume and accompany you on this short hike that isn’t without surprises. You are on the south - eastern coast at Makrighialos, roughly thirty kilometers from Ierapetra and turning your backs on its beautiful beach you head inland toward the mountain. After seven kilometers you see the village of Pefki stretching out along the slopes of a vast plateau which juts up naked and cone-shaped to the south, surmounted by the white chapel of Stavromenos – the Holy Cross. In the village, you stop your car next to an elderly farmer intent on loading bundles of wood into his decrepit pickup truck and ask him how to reach the entrance to the gorge. The farmer sizes you up with an eloquent glance and observes that the gorge is for young people, ironically expressing his doubts as to your ability to survive the hike. Our pride is piqued and you insist after being given the directions, you drive to the edge of the village, where you find a board with a detailed map of the area and hiking time.

Our hike starts along a wide and very clear, unpaved road that leads between vegetable patches and massive olive trees and brings you to a fork in the trail. Another sign and red trail markers direct you to the right, along a path lined with bushes of rock roses, chastetrees and myrtle until you reach four majestic, soaring pines. You continue on for another three hundred meters to the substantial ruins of ancient windmills that are suffocated by a tangle of vegetation. From this height you enjoy a magnificent view of the spurs of the ravine, whose high, smooth walls of stratified rock nestle in the valley bottom in a think forest of pine trees. The infinite horizon of the Libyan Sea and the hazy outlines of the villages of Makrighialos and Analipsi can be seen in the distance. You keep to the western edge of hillside, facing out over the deep valley on the hillside in front of you, to the east there are many traces of a recent forest fire. You come upon another fork in the trail, a dry well, a map and three wooden arrows, one of which indicates “Piso Kamino” – high road – to the left, while the other two indicate “farangi” and “gorge”, respectively.

The path, which is marked by the globular stalks of sea - onions, a herald of the imminent autumn, plunges into the gorge in a steep and rapid descent, escorting you down to its nucleus, which is traversed by a small stream struggling its way among the rocks. Initially, you must squeeze between the slightly creased walls of metamorphic rock, in which the pressure of thousand of years has opened high fissures of schistose stone. You come upon light green stands of majestic pine trees, the absolute and ubiquitous protagonists of your excursion. Botanically, the Greek word “pefko” corresponds to the Latin word pinus brutia or more commonly, maritime pine, a tree with a straight trunk, aciform leaves and curved pine cones. A generous plant, in ancient times it was consecrated to Poseidon, the god of the sea, because it furnished the best wood for building the hulls of ships. Today, its sap produces retsina, a dry white wine with a characteristically sharp and aromatic flavor.

This forest of conifers doesn’t leave much room for a wide variety of flowers but in the springtime it isn’t unusual to find surprising and multicolored orchids, ophrys lutea or episcopalism, tiny and sumptuous in the contrast of their yellow labellum speckled with brown and purple and red orchis quadripunctata, up to thirty centimeters tall and suffused with pink inflorescence. The trail follows the sinuous outline of the ravine, descending to its floor among large rocks that group together and create small sandy oases invaded by oleanders and chastertree bushes and then leading upward again, protected by wooden guardrails overlooking the precipice, as forests of plane trees and small oak trees make their appearance. After three quarters of an hour of hiking your physical condition is put to the test as you come upon an insidious barrier of conglomerate boulders that challenge your ability to find the best way out with sure hands and steady feet you search for the best hand – and footholds. After overcoming this obstacle you set off once again along the trail that leads up along the western side of the gorge, protected from the chasm below by guardrails. Suddenly the trail ends, it no longer exists, only a small ledge sticking out horizontally from the rocky wall protects you from a drop of several meters. You must climb down an iron ladder with seventeen rungs, the last two of which are rickety and shaky. The feeling of precariousness is so strong, the chasm below is so strong, the chasm below is so unwelcoming, that you decide to turn your backs to it and descend the ladder facing the rocky wall. You reach the bottom safe and sound, but a few meters later you find ourselves in the same situation as before. Another series of ladders that are less hazardous and in better condition than the first one takes you to the final portion of the canyon, with blackberry bushes, ferns and maidenhair ferns in a mossy, green pond. You soon come upon a paved road that leads in the direction of Makrighialos. Since you are stubborn and not yet satisfied by the brief journey, you are tempted to follow a path on the left-hand side of the road that is marked by vegetation and that seems to be an appendix of the gorge. For a quarter of an hour you try to descend, guided by the black rubber tubes of the waterworks. Soon, further ahead, you hear an agitated voice, then you see people who appear to be in difficulty and seem unable to find their way out of the tangle of trees and rocks. You prudently wait for them to reach you and discover that they are a group of Poles who have clearly taken a wrong turn. One of them has large gash on his leg. They are distressed and almost implore you not to continue along the same trail they took. For once you are judicious and return to the gorge, retracing your steps to Pefki, which takes a good hour. In town, a fresh breeze mitigates the strong, early September sun you are ravenous and look for a traditional tavern where you can have a bite to eat. A delightful restaurant called “piperi” with a wide terrace facing the sea is a pleasant discovery. You eat under the broad, drooping branches of a tree with rounded leaves and small, bright red berries. You are intrigued by the exotic aspect of the unfamiliar tree and the friendly young owner of the restaurant informs you that it is a Schinus molle or false pepper tree. A highly aromatic essential oil that smells like pepper is extracted from the tree and is used in herbal medicine. You share this moment of relaxation with other foreign hikers who, like you, appreciate more than just the magnificent beaches of this islands and love to penetrate its rocky backbone made of mountains, valleys and rifts and hike along the European long - distance hiking trail, the E4, that traverses the islands from east to west.