Ayiofarango, the Ηoly gorge in Crete

A boat trip to Ayiofarango

It was the 1st of May, a warm but cloudy day. The boat trip was arranged several days ago, after an invitation by my friend Nikos Tsagarakis. By 8:30 everybody was on the dock of Kokkinos Pyrgos fishing harbour waiting for the signal of the captain.

boat trip in Crete

The captain and the crew were taking care of the last details when someone remembered that there was no ice in the boat, nor the necessary amount of beer. A volunteer was found and he rushed to buy all that was needed. Soon he was back with a big bag full of ice and a dozen beers and other refreshments.

The captain decided that everything was ready and we should board the boat and sail. Five minutes later we watched the little harbour getting smaller and smaller. The trip to Ayiofarango had just started.

Kokkinos Pyrgos is a small hamlet 2 km (1,2 miles) west of Tymbaki in Messara plain, south of Iraklion. Our boat “Kapetan Manolis” is a 45 feet wooden Mediterranean fishing boat owned by Nikos Tsagarakis, owner of the “Little Inn” Hotel in Kokkinos Pyrgos.

It is not a tourist area but there are some taverns and a few small hotels. The beach of Kokkinos Pyrgos is a long sand one and extends all the way to Kalamaki and Kommos. It is a nesting beach of the Caretta -Caretta sea turtle and a place that many migrating birds use to rest on their joureys between Africa and Europe. The tourist towns of Agia Galini to the west and Matala to the south are close by as well as the archaeological site of the Festos Minoan Palace and the Ethnological Museum of Voroi.

Ayiofarango is a short gorge south of Matala and west of Kaloi Limenes town. The name comes from Ayio (meaning Holy) and Farangi ( meaning Gorge). It was so named because many hermits used to live here in previous centuries. During the Turkish occupation period Ayiofarango was a remote place ideally suited to people who wanted to worship God undisturbed. It is said that 300 hermits used to live here under strict rules (strict diet and lack of social life). The legend says that, but for one occasion each year when they met together in a big cave (the “abbot’s cave”), these hermits lived alone and isolated from one another. This annual meeting was their only opportunity to socialize and find out who had died the previous year.

boat trip in Crete

There are several ways to get there either by boat or by car. You may take a boat from Kaloi Limenes, Kokkinos Pyrgos or Agia Galini or drive to the traditional village of Sivas, close to Matala and Festos and then follow the road signs to Moni Odigitrias (Holy Monastery of Odigitria). It is a several Km dirt road but easy to drive. You have to keep driving past Odigitria Monastery and follow the road signs to Kaloi Limenes or Ayiofarango (whichever you may find). A few km past Odigitria you will have to leave your car and continue by foot for about 1 hour. If you trust your car or you do not care about it, then you may drive along the dirt track that enters the gorge. If you go this way then you won’t have to walk more than 15 minutes.

boat trip in Crete

Let’s return to our trip. The sea was calm and the journey was great. Soon we could see the town of Matala to our east and the Paximadia Isles to our west. The coast all the way to kommos beach is sandy, but right before Matala, it changes to rocky walls interrupted by the sandy beaches of Matala and Kokkini Ammos (Red Sand), south of Matala. It is a naturist’s beach and people who want to spend some time there will have to walk the 30 minutes trail from Matala town.

There is a further, more southerly, beach at Vathi. It is a remote bay with an entrance so narrow that it has the appearance of a lake. The road to Vathi is a dirt track, not easy to drive on and it is several km past Odigitria Monastery. It is a little adventure to get there and there are no facilities for tourists, just a small cafe.

the south coast of Iraklion, Crete

Some twenty minutes past Matala we approach Cape Lithino with the yellow lighthouse.

The view and the sensation of being in the most southern point in Crete are impressive and we look at the steep south shore in awe.

the south coast of Iraklion, Crete

Lithino means “made of stone” and it sure is like this; no more rocky shores that slope into the sea.

From now on the landscape turns to huge rock walls rising from the depth of the dark blue sea up to 1000-1200 feet above sea level.

the south coast of Iraklion, Crete

The highest point in the Cape Lithino area is Mt Kefali.

It is 1200 ft high and its south side is a huge cliff with an almost vertical drop down to sea level. It’s a bit scary being up there carefully approaching the edge to glance over it while big vultures are fly in circles above your head…

Remnants of the German Army World War II defences can still be seen.

The view is unbelievable: it extends at an angle of 270 degrees from Lentas to Agia Galini. There have been many times that I have felt jealous of the soldiers waking up to face a view like this first thing in the morning…

Ayiofarango gorge in Crete

The boat keeps sailing to the east and we see the beach of the Martsalo gorge followed by Ayiofarango beach.

Some of the people in the group have never been here before and they look around admiring the crystal clear water and the rock walls that surround the pebble beach.

Ayiofarango gorge in Crete

A ladder is used to get off the boat. Some attention is necessary as it doesn’t look so stable but soon we are safely on the beach looking for a nice shady place to spend the day. We move to the west side of the beach right under a huge rock that looks frightening as it stands out above our heads. Some jokes are being said about it falling on us but soon we decide that as future is unpredictable we might as well stop worrying about the rock and start a nice fire for our barbeque.

The charcoal we have with us proves damp enough so we have to collect some dry branches. We do that and after a while the fire is ready and the steaks are being slowly grilled. Some decide to take a swim but a friend and I think that the sea is probably not warm enough for us and we decide to go for a short walk in the gorge.

We head to the church of Agios Antonios, an old chapel 5 minutes from the beach. It is always nice to be in the chuch and watch the sunlight enter through the small windows in the roof.

Ayiofarango gorge in Crete
Ayiofarango gorge in Crete

Curiosity may have killed the cat but it also prompted us to walk around and discover new sites to photograph. … Thinking that we had enough time before the lunch would be ready, we went further and climbed the barely visible path on the east side of the gorge. 15 minutes later we were standing on a rock admiring the view of the beach and the gorge beneath us. The result is these 2 fine photos.

Ayiofarango gorge in Crete

We set off back and as soon as we were down at the beach the smell of the grilled steaks was strong enough to guide our steps and make us move faster. Mmm…the chef receives our warm congratulations and we enjoy every bite of the tasty pork meat together with a cold beer. After lunch the whole group is lying on the beach doing nothing but enjoying the peace of the place and the relaxing sound of the sea waves.

After 1 hour in this “nirvana” state the captain gives the signal for our departure. There are some noisy complaints but soon we collect all the waste and head to the white boat. Ninety minutes later we enter the Kokkinos Pyrgos harbour and thank the captain for the great trip. Do I have to say that we have already started planning the next trip?

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