Agiofarango Gorge

You start from the village of Siva, where you must spent the night. You drive down a white road in the direction of Kali Limenes and the coast of the Libyan sea. After two and a half kilometers, on the right a sign indicates “Agiofarango” – the gorge of the Saints. This unpaved road leads down to a hollow with drab constructions made of cement and tin sheeting that are used as sheep pens. You drive on for another kilometer, passing by chained dogs with imploring gazes, until you reach the spur of the gorge, where you leave our car in a parking lot.

As you read the information on a signboard, you discover that not only is Agiofarango an excursion through rocky crags that leads to the sea, the gorge also has mystical powers because over the centuries it has been chosen by hermits as their spiritual headquarters.

A half-hour hike takes us to our departure point, which is marked by an iron gate that is meant to keep intrusive sheep and goats out. You open the gate and reverently enter the small ravine, anxious to experience the mystical aura. Throughout the forty-five minutes of the hike, a trickle of water continues to cross the trail and mingle with the stream. Lush, pink oleanders patrol the riverbanks and only abandon us we near the beach.

The first part of the trail leads between the narrow, wavy walls of red, stratified rock, which slowly widen out and reveal an abundance of deep caves on both sides of the ravine. Hermits used to retire to these grottos to pray and meditate in solitude, a mute, uninterrupted presence from the dawn of the second millennium to the twentieth century – a practice encouraged by the climate of this canyon, a year –round haven for birds. Even today, Agiofarango is filled with birdsong as birds incessantly glide from one perch to another. Legend has it that these birds are the incarnation of the souls of hermits wandering through the gorge. The ravine is decorated with bouquets of flowers blooming in the cracks in the rocks, Cretan Ebony – ebenus cretica, endemic to the island, with its pink inflorescence and violet stars of petromarula pinnata, the yellow flowers of linum arboretum. Between the banks of the stream, precious silt nourishes the longevity of enormous olive and carob trees with their tangles of roots. Arum creticum white arums with elegant, cone-shaped corollas – poke out from the vegetation. You walk along time riverbed, a wide, arid path strewn with large rocks. Every now and then you make a detour to follow a faint track that wanders among the bushes on the eastern bank. To our left, the craggy rocks reveal broad slabs of gray limestone, which some young people are using for rock-climbing practice. You pause to watch one of them, the prudent placement of the rock climbing bolts, the practiced gesture of passing as the double rope through the carabiners and the uneven ascent as the climber’s companions on the ground carefully look on and give advice. You pass a clearing full of oleanders and reach the sacred fulcrum of the gorge, a broad open space with the beautiful church of St. Anthony, the patron saint of hermits. This is no votive chapel hidden among the grottos, this is a majestic construction surmounted by a cupola dating back to the 14th – 15th century. Its longitudinal nave is nestled between two transversal naves and the intersections contain two small cupolas that central dome. You enter the church through the portal, which is surmounted by an ogive arch inside, an altar has been dug into the rock, the original nucleus of the ancient construction. Outside, a short distance from the southern wall, several colorful tents are lined up and a few scouts are getting water from a well with a bucket tied to a long cord, while their lunch is being set up a bit further back. To the north, another rock climber is at work among the high, furrowed peaks that cast their shadows on the church. His hands are white with the climbing chalk he is using to ensure a better grip and more daring than the previous climbers, he is about to undertake a solitary climb. He ascends for a dozen meters, swings around a stalactite hanging down from the cliff and the continues climbing until he reaches the upper edge of the rock face, roughly sixty meters higher up. You are enchanted by the ability of this bearded climber and apprehensively watch him because he strikes us as being just a tad reckless. But who knows, maybe hie is under the protection of the local saint.

The gorge has come to an end its cliff sides are just half as tall now, leaving only rocky outcroppings. The streambed has widened out enormously it has reached the sea and turned into a beach. Near the sandy shore, the landscape is dotted with other grottos that are ample and accessible enough to shelter human beings. A few grottos are market with large black crosses, one even features a hieratic image drawn in charcoal. The wide pebbly beach is protected by two high barriers along the coastline. On the western side, a pinnacle rises to the sky and the daring overhang of another pinnacle leans out over the sea, forming an unusual arch. The emerald water tempts us into an early, salty baptism of the season. First you dip one foot in, then the other but the piercingly cold water quickly sends us back to shore. We remain a bit longer on the beach the return trip will be short, another forty- five minutes hiking under the implacable midday sun. the walls of the canyon are still festooned with ropes and echo with the voices of the rock climbers. The priestly solitude we had thought we would find has been vivaciously swept away by the vital energy of the young people. We drive back to the fortified convent of Odigitria and enter the deserted, silent courtyard. The church’s portal is framed by two palm branches, the solid, ancient tower made of dark stone has large embrasure through which the monks, in a last, defensive maneuver, threw boiling oil down onto the heads of the Turkish invaders who had arrived by sea.