The Prases/Askidia Gorge

If I live to be a hundred (and I fully intend to, at least …) there will always be places to discover and ‘Explore’ in Western Crete. It’s far easier these days, with several informative websites about Crete, the excellent large-scale Anavasi maps, and of course Google Earth. And that’s how we came to “discover” the Prases, or Askidia gorge. The excellent www.cretanbeaches.com website (look under ‘Nature’) lists no less than 46 gorges in the ‘Chania’ area, with far more under the Rethymnon, Heraklion and Lassithi regions.

Some are well known, eg. Samaria, Agia Irini, Imbros, and others – Maganistra, Chosti, Boriana and Kydoni – I had never heard of. Several, eg. Laggos, Tromarissa and Pigaidakia, are “canyons” requiring abseiling expertise and equipment, and interestingly three – Prines, Kambanos and Kamariano, described and descended in “Explore”, are not mentioned at all (ref Archives – Sept. ’12, March ’13 and May ’14.)

Park & Start here

So, in mid-July, we left the heat of Paleochora far below and drove up into the mountains, taking the route to Omalos through Rodovani and Agia Irini, turning right at Petra Seli, and parking 3km further on, where a rough track leads north, downhill, towards the Prases gorge. It’s high here, at 1,098m, and was cool, and so, with several (‘just in case’) contingency items and several litres of water, we set off down to Platanos, at the head of the gorge – “an enchanting area with ferns and plane trees with water springs” informs the website.

Gorge start

On the way, to our right and slightly above us, we identified a ‘kalderimi’ path contouring around the hillside. It’s clearly marked on the current Anavasi Topo 25 (Crete 11.13) map, and would, if it continued to the north-east, enable us to make a ’round-trip’ walk (as so it later proved.)

Access to the head of the gorge was easy, the little water flowing in the riverbed disappearing almost immediately. Then all was straightforward ; I’ve used this before, so – as the King advised Alice (in Wonderland), “begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end, then stop.” The end, in our case, was a bridge on the minor road from Askidia to Prases, which we reached in 1.5 hours.

Mid-gorge

No real difficulties en route, although the gorge drops 323m (over 1000 English ft) in only 2 km, and in several places “scrambling” – the use of hands and feet to climb down – was necessary. More from the website : “the deciduous trees of the riverbed (maples and sycamore), form wonderful scenery, especially in autumn.” A huge boulder, left balanced by rockfall and not glacial, was of special interest – “une roche perche” insisted Michelle.

Roche perche

On the bridge, decision time, with four options ; we could return up the gorge, reach the car by possible tracks to the west, walk into Prases and hope for a taxi or hitch a lift, or try to locate the ‘kalderimi’ high above Askidia. And of course we chose the latter. Regaining lost height, we walked up into Askidia, refilled water bottles from a tap near the church, then more steeply up the track above. And from it, through binoculars, we picked out the ‘kalderimi’, crossing open ground before entering the forest, and heading exactly where we hoped it would.

This was confirmed by a shepherd, milking his goats in a pen at the track’s end, and who was totally astonished to see two strangers appearing in the early evening, calling to him in less than perfect Greek with English and French accents. I know places (in the UK especially) where farmers and landowners would be far less receptive to walkers, but he indicated where to find “gates” in the fence, pointed out a ‘goat path’ upwards, and waved us on our way.

Kalderimi

We reached the ‘kalderimi’ 100m higher – a stone-built, paved, mule trail, still in excellent
condition, built centuries ago presumably to link villages to the north of Omalos with those to the west. It’s an absolute gem, and deserves to be better known and more frequently walked – I suspect we were the first in years, apart from shepherds. Holding close to the 850m contour, with just a few dips and rises, we followed the trail easily for 2km, high above the gorge we had walked through earlier.

Kalderimi

Only in the final 200m does the path become less discernible, by which time the end – the road and our car – was in sight above. A short drive later we were “checking in” at the Exari Hotel in Omalos, where – in mid-July – it was too cold to have dinner outdoors, and blankets were needed overnight.

Gorge end

Next morning we drove the short distance to Lakkoi, where we hoped to locate the Vrissi and Melisitis gorges. And we found both, but that’s another story, and you’ll have to wait until next year for more details ……

Exari Hotel

For fit, experienced, and adventurous “off the beaten track” walkers, the circular route described above, taking around five hours, is highly recommended. Rain and snow-melt in winter and spring would preclude access, so choose (as we did) a cooling afternoon and summer’s evening, or a mellow day in autumn, and enjoy …..

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Visitors here could be excused for assuming that the Paleochora Gorge begins somewhere above our small town, and ends some distance later at the Libyan Sea. But wrong – it’s on the island of Kythira, some 80 km NW of Crete, and a short distance from the Greek mainland (Peloponnese). An enjoyable week on Kythira last autumn easily tempted us to return in late May this year to explore further, and include a descent of the Paleochora, or more accurately the Kakia Lagada Gorge.



Reading of its difficulty, with climbing equipment required and several abseils or rope-lowers necessary, we thought it advisable to use a guide to take us down, and found Nikos through www.pyrgoshouse.com “Meet Nikos outside the bakery in Potamos,” we were informed, “he will have all the equipment, you drive to the start with him, descend the gorge, and the mini-bus will meet you at the end, by the sea ; bring water and swimming things, have a great day.”

Guide Nikos


Meeting at 3pm, Nikos (the town’s baker, it transpired) drove us the short distance to Paleochora, once the island’s capital, and now in ruins. Some history : built in the 12thC by Monemvassians from the Peloponnese, and then known as Agios Dimitrios, the fortress stood above two precipitous ravines, invisible from both the sea and inland, was home to some 800 inhabitants during Byzantine times, and was totally secure. Until 1537, when the Turkish pirateer Barbarossa (who destroyed our own Castelli Selino in 1539) ransacked the city and massacred most of the male population. It was never again occupied.

If you come here at dusk, as the sun sets, as we did last year, there’s an almost tangible sombre and melancholy atmosphere. It’s said that as night falls, you can hear the cries and wailing of women and children (hiding in caves) as they lament the loss of their men-folk, or maybe it’s just the wind soughing through the rocks and walls of this long-abandoned city …..

Paleochora Gorge


Back to our expedition. Fitted with climbing harnesses (helmets optional), Nikos led us past Agia Barbara church, one of fifteen which once stood here, and on a steep path down into the gorge. For some twenty minutes we followed the boulder-strewn riverbed, past the junction of the two canyons, until Nikos stopped on a ledge above a vertical wall of c.5 metres and began to unpack the rope.

The easy bit ..


In excellent English, he explained how he would lower us down one at a time, that anyone with experience could abseil, and to have total confidence in him. So down we all went, the first I think of ten or more such drops, the longest maybe 10m. Above each were ‘abseil rings’ bolted into the rock, and I noted that Nikos tied into minimum of two on each occasion, before finally, when we were all safely below, looping a doubled rope through and abseiling down himself.

Who next …


With so many twists and turns, it’s hard to guess the length of the gorge; Nikos estimated it as around 4km, and it was certainly no longer, probably less. Inevitably our progress was slow, with time to encourage and take photos of friends as they disappeared over the edge, whilst nervously waiting for our own turn, to replenish our water intake, then repeat the process a few minutes later. Time too, to appreciate the sheer-sided walls of the gorge, and try to imagine horrific events here almost five hundred years ago.

Down there …

 

Lindsey …

 

… Michelle …..

 

…And Bob


It took nearly four hours to reach the sea, having descended some 200m height from Paleochora, though it seemed far more. A “sting in the tail” was a small “limni” or sea-lake, requiring delicate footwork on rocks above it, to avoid a fall into it …



In the cool of a May evening the sea looked less than inviting, so with our transport waiting, we took a unanimous (and much better) decision to drive up the coast to Agia Pelagia, where we celebrated our successful descent of the Paleochora Gorge with ice-creams all round.

Footnote: Kythira is usually accessible by ferry from Kastelli-Kissamos, a 4-hour voyage with Lane-Sea Ferries, but major problems this summer resulted in the schedule being cancelled for long periods. Aegean Air and Sky Express operate daily (seasonal) flights from Athens, but there is no direct service from Crete.

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