Imbros Gorge

Our first trekking experience was our exploration of the “farangi Imbrou” – the Imbros gorge. It was once the only pathway through the harsh, impassable mountains of the Sfakia region. This vital path allowed the area’s inhabitants to remain in contact with the rest of the island in times of peace and to defend themselves by isolating themselves in times of war. You can well imagine how difficult it must have been to traverse this canyon, on foot or on muleback. Although the path starts out fairly easy, it soon increases in difficulty, disappearing and hiding among the rocks. Only at the end of the two-hour hike does the trail level out and become paved once again.

Sfakia is a land of proud and courageous people, brusque - mannered inhabitants of few words. They might be impatient with tourism but at the same time they depend on it for their own survival. The many travelers who have ventured into this region over the centuries tell of tall, blond men with blue eyes. According to local folklore they might be the descendents of people who migrated from the north and have lived in isolation ever since, cut off by the natural barrier created by the mountains and ready to defend themselves from the sea. This land is made of sheer cliffs that loom over the shore and is furrowed by ravines of karst formations. It has many caves but few forests and can only serve as pastureland. Today, meager stands of cypress trees and sessile oak survive exclusively in the gorges.

After the large village of Ammoudari, that spreads out like an amphitheatre in the green, fertile plain of Askifou and is safeguarded by an imposing Turkish fortress on the hilltop, the road narrows and begins to skirt the rocks, leveling out at town of Imbros, the departure point of our excursion. This village, located 700 meters above sea level, has many taverns that offer light meals, tempt visitors to purchase honey and local herbs, and supply information about the gorge. After leaving your car in the parking lot of one of these taverns you begin walking along a wide, downward - sloping path to the left of the main road, preceded by the cheerful voices of a group of excursionists wearing simple summer sandals. You’re rather sorry that we can’t enjoy the meditative silence offered by excursions undertaken in solitude, but you know that the shade and fresh air of the canyon are a valid enticement for so many hikers. After a hundred meters of easy descent, the real trail into the gorge begins, marked by a sign that announces “Imbros Gorge” and a stone construction that sells entrance tickets for two euros.

For the first half hour you follow a broad, monotonous path along the gray gravel of a dry riverbed, skirting large boulders and sparse vegetation composed of low, thorny bushes. Then the landscape slowly begins to change and turn woody, and the first majestic pine trees appear.

As you descend the path, the slopes of the gorge, which are made of yellowish - gray lime - stone streaked with broad, horizontal, black veins, rise up powerfully around you. The ravine is studded with small oak trees that are amazingly rooted in the fissures of the rock face. There are numerous natural caves along the rocky flanks of the gorge which once served as ideal hiding places for ambushes and offered refuge for women and children fleeing from enemy attacks, Venetian or Turkish alike.

After an hour you reach the heart of the canyon and our gaze rises awestruck to the pinnacles of red rock. From this point on we will be at the mercy of the whims of the gorge, which first magnanimously offers us broad expanses dotted with maritime pines plane trees and oak. Then suddenly the canyon turns malicious and creates obstacles, forcing us into obscure, narrow passages between its walls, from which you emerge into dazzling sunlight. It spitefully puts us to the ordeal of the “yoke” – in this case an enormous, horizontal tree trunk, whose naked roots are upturned to the sky and force us into contortions in order to get by. A bit further on is another astounding passage, a double tunnel of polished stone, a rocky “S” that is shiny and smooth. Only one person can pass at a time because it is only 1.60 meters at its widest. After overcoming this - labyrinth, there are more natural wonders to come: a daring example of nature’s architecture appears before us, a double, rocky arch ten meters high, the mighty ogive of a mineral cathedral.

This first hike of ours has taught us that the dramatic intensity of each gorge possesses a tangible supernaturalism. Their mystery seems to be easily accessible but, in fact, taking them on generates a realization of just how inadequate our human resources are.

Slowly but surely, the gorge begins to lose its ruggedness it levels out among grassy verges, olive trees with vast trunks and fig trees laden with shriveled fruit. The path turns into an ancient mule track paved with large, regular stones, a prelude to our arrival in the town of komitades. The savage enchantment is brusquely interrupted by a return to “civilization”, a second checkpoint for tickets, followed by a kiosk selling drinks and snacks. You are offered the possibility of returning to our departure point by taxi. Our hike has lasted two hours, you have walked six kilometers and are a bit tired. You let ourselves be tempted by the proposal. Your trip back to Imbros is highly singular; you are loaded into a pick-up truck whose cab is reserved for the women while the men sit in the uncomfortable, open - air truck bed. For those who decide to proceed by foot, the paved road continues for another half a kilometer to the town of Komitades, where recommend an interesting side trip to the small church of Agios Georgios. The chapel is situated in the lower part of the village and can be reached by following a path for about one hundred meters that leads to it. Agios Georgios dates to the second Byzantine period; it is located on a rocky outcrop and over the centuries it has literally sunk into the earth. On the outside, traces of half bowls in the form of a cross adorn the façade, while inside it is decorated with frescos attributed to Giovanni Pagomeno, a 14th - century artist who was very active in the area.