Katholiko Gorge

This hike, which led us to discover the convent of Saint John the Hermit (Xeno), known as “Katholiko” and the gorge of “ the Saint”, is a tangible example of the sublime as applied to places that can spark strong emotions. In this romantic ruins of an ancient monastery suspended over a cliff and the formidable view of the canyon which leads to the sea. The beginning of this new excursion also offers a highly valid side trip because to reach our departure point you must cross the promontory of Akrotiri, north of Chania. There are three monasteries worth visiting along the way: the 16th century Saint John Eleimon (the Charitable), the architectural pearl Agia Triada Zangarol and austere Gouverneto. Driving down the road that leads to the airport you first come upon the small convent-for-tress of Saint John Eleimon, Which has been beautifully restored and conserved, leaving the pinkish rocks of the external wall visible. The ochre silhouette of Agia Triada Zangarol can be seen in the distance to the north. An avenue five kilometers long and lined with cypress and pine trees leads to this imposing monastery complex, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture. You admire the elegance of its façade and the stairway framing a sumptuous entrance with double Corinthian columns topped by a tympanum. Peak tourist season is over, you enter the empty courtyard dominated by the Renaissance church at its center. Arches and porticos with the monk’s cells line the perimeter of the courtyard.

You leave Agia Triada immersed in its early - morning splendor on our right you pass some stone farm buildings in which autumn agricultural activity is in a ferment and along a narrow road that climbs among rocky hillsides dotted with carob trees and thorny bushes. You cross a small gully invaded by goats and their cute kids and two kilometers later you reach the saddleback where Gouverneto is located. This rectangular monastery - fortress has square towers defending its corners and, although less elegant than the preceding monastery, it has its own rugged allure, with its parched earth, bleak hillsides and horizontal seascape in the distance. You leave your car in the large parking lot in front of the convent and begin our excursion in silence along an irregularly paved road. A vigorous sun and light breeze are our companions as you walk among spiny spurge, asphodels and large bulbs of common Dragon arum – dracunculus vulgaris Schott, a plant with black markings on its stem that flowers in the springtime with amazing purplish bracts. Fifteen minutes later you make your first stop, a visit to the small rocky of the Madonna of the Bear (Panagia Arkoudiotissa), nestled at the opening of a tall, broad circular grotto.

The chapel’s entrance is divided into two rooms the central room has an enormous stalagmite that recalls the shape of a bear. Legend has it that this vast kastic grotto was the home of a ferocious beast that used to drink the water from a well in front of the chapel, thus depriving the monks of the precious fluid. One day the monks decided to lay in wait for the bear suddenly its large silhouette invaded the entire grotto, blocking the light completely. The frightened monks began to pray to the Virgin Mary, invoking her help, and the power of their prayers turned the bear into stone. But local tradition also has basis of truth because the surrounding mountains are called Arcoudovouna – the mountains of the bear – and archeologists have fount artifacts in this area pertaining to the worship of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, which have to do with the figure of a bear, an animal that was sacred to her.

The trail becomes steeper and proceeds along tight turns. In front of us the view opens out toward the final offshoots of the promontory, while to the east it reveals the sides of a narrow gorge leading down to the sea. After twenty minutes the path comes to an end and turns into a long series of 120 wide steps. It passes the grotto with the venerated tomb of the convent’s founder, John Xeno, and leads to the monastery of Katholiko, which is precariously perched over a gully. You are greeted by a lovely portal with capitals leading into a small courtyard in front of the rocky church, which has a beautiful bell tower supported by an ogive arch. The monastery dates back to 900 A.D. and daringly straddles the two sides of the gorge, which are connected by a wide, single-span bridge that creates a vast embankment where the buildings for the prior and the monks were located. The monastery has been abandoned for centuries now but it has always struck the imagination of visitors for its air of abandonment, its incredible position on the precipice and its unforgettable, romantic aura. At the far right of the bridge you start down a faint, boulder - strewn trail and carefully hike down to the rocky bed of a stream that is now dry. For about half an hour you walk between the high, reddish walls of the gorge, that is dotted with the dark caverns that were once the hermitages of anchorites. You are careful not to tarry too long below the friable rocks. You would like to stress that excursions into gorges call for a certain amount of prudence and, above all, a careful evaluation of the weather conditions before beginning, since rain and bad weather can create dangerous situations. The vegetation of the gorge of “the Saint” is full of wild olive and carob trees. The cracks in the rocky pinnacles are home to delicate cliff-growing plants that have adapted themselves to living among the rocks. Their roots need no earth and they have tiny, delicate and colorful flowers. You gradually leave the steep cliffs of the canyon behind as the stream flows on to the sea, channeled between two narrow banks that for a hundred meters create a bizarre fjord. Our hike ends spectacularly near made of large, redstreaked marble slabs leading down to the light blue water of the sea. Along the left-hand bank, where the earth is pleated by bands of blackish - gray rock, you discover a small natural wet dock dug into the limestone and surmounted by an overhanging, manmade rock roof. The monks created this anchorage to ensure a haven for small boats they would pull their boats out of the water and then climb onto dry land by means of a small ladder. Without a doubt this mooring was soon discovered and used by pirates as well, and their frequent, predatory raids on the monastery eventually forced the monks to abandon it. You find this thought disturbing, but are reassured by the presence of someone gathering aromatic herbs and wandering among the rocky offshoots of the gorge. The person approaches us and offers us a tender green shoot with an incomprehensible name.

Our excursion is over you retrace our steps all the way back to the northern span of the bridge of Katholiko, where you think you noticed a path leading upward that is less steep. However, it proves to be just as tricky as the original one. Before you return to Gouverneto you take a last look at the view behind us and are reminded it “to those who want to spend time far from man and in the company of God”. The feeling of profound solitude is interrupted by a happy group of young Americans who cross our path as they head off to repeat our experience.