Thursday, 18 October 2012 11:55 AM
Faith Warn hikes through the Imbros Gorge in the White Mountains of western Crete and is rewarded with spectacular views along the way
“Ah, I see you have strong shoes. Wise woman,” declared the village taverna owner as she served my freshly squeezed orange juice. “Last week a Russian girl walked the gorge wearing heels as high as your glass. It took seven hours and her feet were bleeding. Crazy. ” As she raised her eyes to heaven, I looked down at my own feet and realised that the embarrassment of emerging from a plane into the baking Greek sun of Chania airport clad in stout leather walking boots had been worthwhile after all.
From Chania we had driven 30km along the north coast of western Crete to our base in Almyrida. The backdrop to this understated beach resort is the White Mountain range – peaks of brooding beauty that draw you in deeper to explore and discover. Now we were 1,230 metres up in those mountains, preparing to walk the Imbros Gorge, an 8km trek that would take us almost down to sea level near Hora Sfakion on the southern coast.
Imbros Gorge is equally beautiful as the famous Samaria Gorge but less well known – this is what attracted me to the hike. The two gorges run parallel, about 25km apart, between the White Mountains but Imbros is about half the distance to walk and you can easily arrive and depart by car.
As we took the stony path to the gorge entrance a flotilla of butterflies danced around us, their wings delicate flashes of red and brown. Even after we paid our two euro entrance fee and started carefully descending down the track of round, loose pebbles, the butterflies still seemed to lead us on.
This is like going into nature’s cathedral, I thought to myself. The rock cliffs towered some 300 metres above us, of Gothic proportions, and the roof of bright blue sky felt peaceful and uplifting. Occasional rocks and trees had the form and texture of sacred sculptures and the atmosphere was hushed, with only occasional fellow worshippers sharing our path.
Suddenly, this sense of communal appreciation was enhanced as we came across hundreds of small cairns – conical piles of rounded stones clearly created and added to by walkers. They were perched everywhere on rocks beside the path and even along a tree branch, tiny altars to the spirit of place. Naturally, we each added our own stone with due reverence.
After a while, the track narrowed to less than two metres with sheer, high rocks on either side, but they didn’t feel scary or claustrophobic, perhaps because I could still glimpse that azure sky. Then came two animal attractions, the first a donkey tethered to a tree. Normally unremarkable in Greece – but this donkey is the official gorge rescue service (why the Russian girl didn’t use him, I don’t know!). Second was a handsome dark green lizard basking happily on a sun-drenched stone.
Wooden signs mark the distance left to walk at every kilometre – and when the last one appeared after three hours I was surprised at how short the journey seemed. We had kept a steady pace, stopping only for photos and a picnic brunch, yet my calves hardly ached. With plenty of shade, Imbros can be walked at any time of day and is open all year round – but bottles of water and those walking shoes are necessities.
Close to the end we saw fellow hikers trekking their way back up the gorge, but we plumped for a cold beer and transport back to our hire car parked in Imbros. Our ‘taxi’ turned out to be a pickup truck. I sat in the open back with my hand clenched tight on the side bar as we swung round 18km of steep hairpin bends. A panoramic view of the sea widened below as we climbed ever higher, the wind was in my hair and a smile was spread wide across my face.
Finally we retrieved our car and within an hour were back in Almyrida (pictured right) and floating in the sea, looking fondly back up at the White Mountains. The combination of a sandy bay with shallow water, good food shops and a cluster of beachside bars and traditional Cretan tavernas make Almyrida a relaxing base that’s ideal for combining beach days with excursions.
Later in the week we drove east along Crete’s National Highway and climbed a lesser distance to Argyropouli (pictured below), a mountain village where avocados grow in abundance and buzzards fly overhead. This place was a Roman settlement and you can walk a circuit of the upper village taking in an ancient cistern, tiny Orthodox churches that incorporate Roman columns, an elaborate mosaic pavement and a gateway lintel with the inscription, ‘All in this world is smoke and shadow’. Apparently a cautionary note to self by the remnant of a medieval army that was deceived and slaughtered here.
The lower part of the village is a celebration of water – silver springs that flow in eternal abundance from the mountain slopes and nurture enormous trees, creating cool shade. The springs are channelled into waterfalls, waterwheels and ponds of trout and sturgeon that dominate the fancier end of the menu at the many local tavernas. We opted for more modest mezze and found the fresh local produce delicious.
Water featured again at Lake Kournas, the largest freshwater lake on Crete whose centre, over an ancient volcanic site, is so deep that it cannot be measured. The atmosphere here is blissfully calm and the pleasures range from spotting frogs, tiny turtles and water fowl to swimming in a turquoise shimmer, from relaxing on a lakeside sun bed to propelling a colourful pedalo to the opposite shore just because you can.
By Faith Warn
Faith Warn's hire car in Crete was from Holiday Autos, who are offering an exclusive discount to Travelbite readers.
Get 15% off worldwide car hire at www.holidayautos.co.uk using code CARHIRE15. Book before the 31st October 2012 for pick up until 31st December 2012. (Current site pricing for Peugeot 107 (or similar) Mini size 4dr based on a 7 day rental from Chania Airport = £89).