Zakros Gorge or death Gorge

The canyon, which is traversed by the Zakros river, is located at the eastern - most edge of the island, in the district of Sitia, a remote area full of Minoan artifacts. The gorge holds many surprises and the excursion can be divided into three parts that are interconnected by the purplish path leading through the canyon. This sumptuous mineral carpet is made of cuprite which has emerged from the rocky depths and unfolds beneath your feet, accompanying you to the Minoan palace of Kato Zakros.

The first part of the excursion is the beginning of the hike just outside the village of Zakros, among hillsides that are completely covered with vineyards. The peaks of the gorge are barely visible you come upon the first trail sign, the symbolic iron gate to be opened and shut, the European trail logo. After ten minutes of walking downhill you find ourselves immersed in a wild yet pleasant landscape. You are in a clearing, deafened by the noise of a stream that rushes in, widens out into a lively pool and then continues on its way as it surges among a gallery of noble trees. An air of holiness wafts among these trees, with their palm - shaped leaves and bark that scales off in large patches. Ancient plane trees were venerated as a generous gift of the gods they were the favorite trees of Jove, who lay with the nymph Europa under their foliage. In the midst of this grandiosity, you mortals find a “mauve” path leading past small rocky concretions. For about twenty minutes you repeatedly have to wade through the river and hop from one flat rock to another as you cross and re - cross the water. You pass by a leafy oasis full of gigantic oleanders enclosed by walls of schistose rock with deep grooves.

You climb a hillside for a meditative rest under the shade of enormous, wild olive trees. A family with two children merrily come in your direction from the lower part of the gorge their presence is proof that there will be few challenging passages and that the constant, precise, almost imperious trail signs rule out any risk of losing your way.

The gleaming water enlivens the riverbanks with a myriad of oregano bushes; some of the clusters of capsules are still green, others have already opened, disclosing the white inflorescence with its penetrating fragrance. The further you descend, the more the water is harnessed by large, black tubes; the trail disappears and you are obliged to teeter along the narrow wall of the waterworks and squeeze past an enormous plane tree imprisoned between two blocks of stone. You stop for a drink of water at a fountain in the first picnic area. Two wooden arrows indicate the opposite directions of the excursion, while a third, which says “Azokeramos”, marks a destination along the European trail. After an hour of hiking, you enter the ercheological phase of the itinerary, in which the Minoan influence is tangible. The millenary walls of Lenika, an ancient and mysterious manmade relic, can clearly be seen halfway up the archeological area, surrounded by rocky hills. The vegetation has settled at the bottom while the gorge rises up and towers above it.

On the western side, above, there is an arch - shaped grotto. All of a sudden the stream hides and turns into a simple flow of water that is channeled into a cement collecting pool. You continue on in single file for a quarter of an hour, then the trail reappears along the eastern side of the ravine. When you reach the valley bottom, a sign that says Parking indicates a trail that winds up along the hillside in front of you. Another arrow pointing in the other direction simply indicates Kato Zakros Beach. You know that the first trail leads to another entrance of the gorge, a short road halfway between Zakro and Kato Zakro which would have deprived you of the profound allure of the first two phases of the hike. The excursion continues along easily in an open landscape; the crags of the ravine, which are still quite high, are separated by the vast riverbed, which is obstructed with boulders and is barely fed small streamlets. The underbrush is the realm of chastertrees, bushes of thyme and oregano, the wilted and blackish spathes of dragon arum – dracunculus vulgaris, and small populations of cuckoopint, another type of arum whose calyxes have folded over onto themselves, an indication that springtime turned into summer too quickly. Another sign informs you that the ruins of Kastelas, a Minoan sanctuary on the hilltop, await you among the rocky peaks of a 20-minute trail for experts only. You decide to forgo the hike because the trail rises up dangerously and perpendicularly along the eastern rock face. The reddish rock is very stratified and feels as though it could be riffled like the pages of a stratified and feels as though it could be riffled like the pages of a book. If only the rocks could “talk” maybe they could tell you about the people who, three or four thousand years ago, used to gather flowers for cosmetic unguents and herbs for therapeutic infusions, who kept bees, who propitiated their gods by electing the mountain peaks as sanctuaries for their rites. A plateau hides the sea from your view, but there are cavernous grottos along the ridges, in which the Eteocretans, the first inhabitants of this part of the island, buried their dead. Numerous objects have been fount in the area, the most interesting of which is a magnificent cylindrical pyx with triangular decorations on its cover and a handle in the stylized shape of a crouching dog. You are at the end of the canyon; an immense line of oleanders marks the trail, which is now level. Fine sand invades the stream; to the left, behind the hill, the cyclopean walls of the Minoan palace await you, stretched out like an amphitheater over a vast area. This immense site was untouched for thousands of years, until two Cretans who were fascinated with antiquity, a rope maker from Sitia and a fisherman/innkeeper from Kato Zakros, guessed the location of the fourth and perhaps most complete of the island’s palace-sanctuaries that have been discovered to date.

Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to enter the site after three in the afternoon, so you must forgo the visit and make your way among the vegetable patches to the seashore. The bay is tranquil and you stop and enjoy the simplicity of the fare in one of the taverns lined up under the shade of the tamarisk trees.