Aradena Gorge

The trial forcefully makes its way into the canyon between two narrow vertical walls which offer some respite from the burning, late-autumn sun only in the early stages of our hike. The path leads along a dry riverbed as it winds its way between large boulders, stops in front of the most cumbersome and then widens out into a clearing of crushed stone below the craggy peaks. Along our way, you are struck by the majesty of the pines – pinus Brutia or Alepensis. Imperius and solitary, they flank the pathway and then cluster together in large numbers where the sides of the gorge widen out, shading the ground with their verdant branches.

During the first hour of the hike, the pathway is not well marked. You know that there are seven challenging points during the five and a half kilometers to come, rocky obstacles that must be climbed bare - handed, and you willingly take on the challenge. After arriving at the rocky hilltop, the broader view shows you that our true path was close by, along a riverbed invaded by numerous tufts of tall grass. The simplest rule in these situations is, perhaps, to also trust in the rudimental markers made of small pyramids of stones that excursionists always leave behind as proof of their passage and to reassure those who follow that they are on the right path.. You stop frequently to rest along the tiring and impervious trail, to restore your energy with food and water, and to enjoy the majestic setting dominated by the towering red rocks. You are surrounded by a potpourri of fragrant herbs like thyme, winter savory, lavender and wild oregano. The 700 meters of vertical drop of the trail leading from the sea to Aradena are often invaded by oleander bushes and chastetree shrubs, and strong oak trees are infallible sentinels marking underground sources of water. After roughly two hours of hiking, the path forks and two gaudy blue arrows indicate two alternative itineraries: to the right, Livaniana, and to the left, Aghios Ioanni. You ignore both arrows and continue on straight ahead. After ten minutes the path widens out to a large clearing, the last picnic area in the shade of the towering walls, where a merry, noisy group of French people are eating. This was once the crucial point of the excursion because there was only one way to continue, by climbing an enormous boulder with only the help of a simple rope. This rudimental solution was later substituted by an iron ladder about ten meters tall. You opt for a third alternative that was recently created: a pathway dug into the rock face and equipped with a tortuous, wooden guardrail that follows along the mountain ridge and looks out over the void.

After carefully completing this portion of the trail, in the distance we can hear a strange noise that is amplified by the rocky mountainsides, a rattling sound we can’t identify at first. The mystery is resolved a hundred meters further on, when we raise our eyes and see above us the powerful pylons of an iron Bailey bridge. The deafening metallic noise is caused by the infrequent cars crossing the bridge. You feel dwarfed by this gigantic viaduct, which we must somehow reach. The sides of the canyon that the bridge spans are scored by two wide, paved paths that zigzag up the gorge, creating a spectacular stone embroidery on the red mountainside. For centuries local inhabitants have crossed these two tracks on foot or on muleback, for these paths were once the only connection between Anopoli and the villages of Aradena and Agios Ioannis. Then in 1986, a wealthy Athenian family, that was originally from Aghios Ioannis, had the daring bridge built.

You walk along the mule path on the left side of the mountain, dragging ourselves in exhaustion for the last twenty minutes, until we reach the first abandoned houses of Aradena. Constructed on the site of the ancient city-state of Aradin, this town ia an interesting example of Crete’s traditional architecture, a ghost village that houses an extraordinary gem, the church delicated to Saint Michael the Archangel. The church, which was built on the ruins of a Paleochristian basilica, is in the form of a Byzantine cross and inside has precious frescos dating back to the fourteenth century.

After crossing the Bailey bridge and admiring the fearsome void below, you feel proud of our accomplishment and finaly catch our breath, sitting on the edge of the road and enjoying the view of the peaks of the Lefka Ori range, clear and white - capped, with their dark hem of pine forests.