Rouvas Gorge

The “ fanangi Rouvas” or “Saint Nicholas” gorge is a unique hike that in three hours offers excursionists the pleasure of experiencing moments which many gorges have in common, a light - hearted ascent, the challenge of complicated passages, the pure enjoyment of pristine nature, the welcome arrival, the perfect circle of the completed hike, Votomos, a few kilometers from the village of Zaros. The destination is the charming forest of Rouvas, with its rushing streams and birdsong, high pastures, a small church made of white stones and the crown of severe mountain peaks of the Psiloriti Mountains in the background.

On the northern side of the sweet water lake, you carefully study the map indicating the specifics of the trail, which after a brief ascent leads you to a wire fence delimitating the lake area. You take a rocky path to the left that follows the western ridge of the mountain for a quarter of an hour. After crossing a dry riverbed you reach your first objective, the monastery of Agios Nikolaos, which is hidden by a large, recently - built church. The monastery is modest in size and inhabited by elderly nuns who are decorating the ancient, frescoed church for the Easter ceremonies of the upcoming Holy Week.

You resume your hike, which leads you between the slopes of two mountains, Abelakia to your right and to your left, Samari. Both mountainsides bear the scars of a forest fire that denuded the landscape of its natural foliage, leaving only thorny bushes and rockroses with their characteristic “rosebuds”. You pass through a small gate and enter the true gorge the trail’s broad, easy steps are reassuring and you see the first pine tree, a sign that nature hasn’t given up. The foot of the pine tree is home to sweet white cyclamens belonging to a species endemic to the island, the cyclamen creticum, which flowers in springtime. The mountain countryside seems anxious to free itself of the dead trees by pushing the carcasses down toward the valley, while higher up, pine trees and kermes oak trees their tiny leaves multiply on the slopes. The trail leads from rock to rock, grazing the ravine’s walls that sometimes are of smooth, gray limestone and sometimes are ochre and black through metamorphism. You come to a path dug into the mountain that is protected by guardrails and marked with red trail markers. After an hour, your progress among the canyon’s crags is halted by an immense concave cavity, a grotto whose welcoming recesses seem to invite you in to explore them. Without hesitation, you follow the flight of a bird and enter the grotto to make a brief reconnaissance. You climb over the junction of two cumbersome boulders but are forced to give up and retrace your steps when you are confronted with a second obstacle, an insurmountable wall over three meters tall rising up before you. Distracted by the imposing cave, an integral part of the gorge, you hadn’t noticed that the trail makes a U - turn and protectively heads upward along the mountain ridge. Our final destination is clearly indicated on a carved wooden sign: the church of AH IANNIS – Agios Ioannis. Another sign offers you a last chance to return to your starting point, passing by way of the monastery of Agios Nikolaos. Certain that the most thrilling part of the hike is still to come, you continue on along a steep path that dominates the valley that hugs the curving slopes, and widens out to a belvedere with a circular bench near a stream. Another hour has passed and, tempted by signs promising water and a picnic area 300 meters ahead, you only cast a quick glance at the panorama below you. You enter the ravine once again and finally find some respite from the strong sun. You cross a challenging portion of the trail among the craggy rocks and a bridge made of wide horizontal tree trunks reinforced by vertical trunks ferries you over an impassible boulder.

You are reassured the continuous crossing over from one rocky cliff side to the other with frequent and solid bridges. You soon reach a second picnic area, a circular crown of that serves as a shady seat underneath a large oak tree. Rouvas is full of presences and sounds, a continuous trilling of birds around the necks of a large herd of contented, impetuous goats, an excursionist heading back down toward Votomos who can’t help but tell you enthusiastically about the beautiful panoramas awaiting you. Slowly but surely you discover that the idyll is for real, Rouvas forest is pristine and dense. It’s generous and abundant streams soak the earth as they make their way among the stony ledges, creating small waterfalls and tiny mountain lakes that feed the Kermes oaks and their tiny acorns, the Holm oaks, the large leaves of the arum creticum, with their yellow spathes and dark spadixes, the frequent outcroppings of white cyclamens. You wish this portion of your hike could last forever, you stride along easily as the ravine levels out and makes room for the mountain forest. Now the trail’s illustrated maps show you the fauna populating the gorge, wild cats (felix silvestris agrius), partridges, hares and barn owls. You hope to see at least one of these creatures. One more kilometer to the church the double Minoan horns of the gray Psiloriti Mountains rise up behind the tops of the trees. The last part of the trail leads alongside a rushing stream, then descends among the conifers and oaks. A wild pear tree curves its white flowers over the water like magic you emerge onto a vast, grassy slope, a mountain pasture guarded by the white chapel of Agios Ioannis and a rectangular building with yellow walls that serves as shelter. In the pasture, a group of excursionists who were ahead of you have stretched out on the grass in total relaxation, even though the benches and rustic wooden tables dotting the area invite hikers to set up a welldeserved picnic.

The trail continues on over a dirt road, that is practicable with four - wheel drive vehicles, to the village of Gergeri. But you prefer to go back the way you came.