Around fifteen years ago, Lynne and I found a way from Topolia village down to the River Tiflos, and followed the valley south through the narrow gorge to Katsomatados. It was awful, trying to work our way through debris discarded from the road above, including rusting machinery, plastic sheeting and rotting animal carcasses. We never returned.
Then last winter, I heard that a path has been waymarked through the gorge, starting from the Panorama taverna a little further through Katsomatados on the main road towards Topolia. And so there is. And whilst not entirely pristine, the walk through the gorge of around 2km each way, or a longer route described below, added to the scenic drive there and back from Paleochora, makes for an enjoyable day’s exploring.
It’s just 30km, around a 45 minute journey to the start of the walk, first north to Plemeniana then through Dris, Aligi and Strovles, and down the valley to Katsomatados to park at the Panorama taverna. Coffee or cold drinks first, and a chance for the owner, Manolis Motakis or his wife to tell you more about the walk or others in the area, for they know every footpath. Then down the steps below the cafe, through a small gate, and follow the arrows between olive trees to meet a wide path leading into the gorge.
Threading a way below and between boulders, the path winds gradually downhill. Any water in the higher reaches usually disappears underground later, where the path crosses to the east side of the river. Some rusting debris still remains, including, rather incongruously, a roadsign to the monastery at Chrisoskalitisa, but this does not detract from the beauty of the gorge, which, on a recent descent, was full of serenity, bright oleanders and early-morning birdsong.
Occasional cairns are largely unnecessary except towards the end, where the path has become overgrown in parts.
After an hour or so the gorge widens, with shady plane trees providing ideal picnic spots. In the searing heat of summer, it’s advisable to rest here awhile then walk back up the gorge. For the longer walk (a further 5 km), cross to the W bank, climbing out of the riverbed to a concrete water tank and goats’ feeding area.
Pass through a wire gate, and head uphill on a rough track, keeping left at the first main junction, and right at the second. This should bring you to a concrete-surfaced road leading up to the cemetery and church of Agia Evangelistra with its imposing bell-tower.
Walk on up into Topolia, meeting the main road opposite the village bakery. Although not a cafe, you can sit outside with cold drinks and some of the cheese & spinach ‘kalitsounia’ for which the bakery is famous. Situated 275m above sea-level, Topolia is a typically charming Cretan village, full of flowers and white houses tumbling down from the hillsides above. Walk south, passing a small cafenion, and leaving the village, below the large church of Agii Pantes.
Soon the Topolia Gorge is far below you, with steep hillsides falling around 600m from Leventies summit, and viewing areas allowing a closer look down to where you walked through earlier. This area has happily recovered from a fierce fire which caused much destruction in 2002. Soon you reach the tunnel, completed in 1926 after ten years of hard, mainly manual labour. Although only 100m long, now with lights, it’s narrow and busy in summer and some may find it disconcerting. Take a torch to warn oncoming traffic, or hitch a lift through with a car waiting at the traffic lights.
Some 400m from the tunnel exit, steps lead up to the deep cave which holds the tiny church of Agia Sofia. Inhabited in Neolithic times, around 6000BC, and with many legends, the cave has impressive stalagmites and stalactites, the climb is well worthwhile, and the view from the entrance is stunning. Remember to take a torch to explore the darker recesses.
Descend a little from the cave and look to the right for a footpath, not too obvious, but marked with blue paint, and right of a new, wider track. This leads easily around the hillside, taking you back to the road at the Panorama taverna. A superb walk for only 7 km. Enjoy!