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Asterousia: Indulge in a Cretan pleasure
The Asterousia mountain range and its highest peak, Kofinas (1,280 meters), little known even to Cretans themselves, rise like a natural barrier between the Messara Plain and the Libyan Sea in the southern part of the Iraklio district, on Crete.

Overgrazing has left the once tree-covered massif virtually bare, leaving a rough landscape marked with plateaus, gorges that end at the coast and dozens of caves, all dotted with small settlements and monasteries.

Nevertheless, the area has a history that goes back to prehistoric times, with places of interest just waiting to be discovered. On Mount Kofinas, which was the highest location to host a sanctuary from Minoan-era Crete, religious rituals remain strong to this day. The roads wind through the breathtaking landscape, along amazing gorges such as Aghiofarago, Martsalo and Tripiti, and continue beneath summits with unlimited views of the sea.

A road leads to the entrance of the Aghiofarago Gorge, near Odigitria Monastery, an important and historic center of monastic life in the area since the 14th century. The sound of the stream (depending on rainfall) and the bells of the animals grazing in the area accompany visitors on the 20-minute trek toward the sea. Full of caves, the steep banks of the gorge have formed in amazing shapes and colors. The area has been considered a holy site since AD 61, when the ship taking Saint Paul to Rome ran aground close to nearby Kali Limenes. There is in fact a small cave named after him, where he is said to have taught.

Enduring dire privation, ascetics have followed in the apostle’s footsteps in the region since the 7th century, living in the caves along the gorge. In one cave, located just a 10-minute walk from the entrance to the gorge, is the wonderful 14th-century Chapel of Aghios Antonios, the altar of which is next to the cells of the last occupants.

The gorge ends at a wonderful beach with fine sand, small pebbles and crystal-clear waters, seemingly protected by the circle of rocks that rises around it. The rocks bear testimony to the sculpting talent of past visitors or occupants but today are also climbed by sporting enthusiasts. If you are not skilled at either, just lie in the middle of the beach and let yourself be enchanted by Aghiofarago’s magical embrace. The time to do so is before midsummer, when it gets crowded.

Near Aghiofarago lies Vathi, one of the most beautiful beaches in the district, reached via a 9-kilometer dirt road that starts next to the Odigitria Monastery. You can also get there by boat from Aghia Galini, Kokkinos Pyrgos and Matala.

Kommos is another alluring long beach with sand dunes lined by juniper trees, and one of the places where loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) lay their eggs. It was also an early Minoan settlement, to which the archaeological site near the parking lot bears testimony. More public buildings from that period lie next to the beach. There are tavernas above the southern side – with German World War II bunkers below them – from which you can watch the sunset. Again, it gets crowded in the summer months.

Matala, a well-known spot popular among the hippy scene of the 1960s and 70s, continues to draw visitors in the summer. It was also an ancient and medieval port. The caves above, which before the hippy set arrived had been used as houses or for burials during antiquity, are now a fenced-off archaeological site.

To be sure, the coast also features spots whose aesthetics leave something to be desired, such as the beach at the end of the Tripiti Gorge, which some consider an appropriate place to park their camper vans throughout the year. However, the route from the village of Kapetaniana to the gorge must be one of the most beautiful in Greece. Kapetaniana has several guesthouses and an excellent climbing face.

Some kilometers west of Tripiti lie the settlement and gorge of Lentas and the archaeological site of Levin, which has the remains of a temple to Asclepius, the ancient god of healing, and of a therapeutic spa.

Across from the Odigitria Monastery is a dirt road that leads toward the Martsalo Gorge. A steep, five-minute descent from the parking area will bring you to the small chapel inside a cave dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Panaghia), which celebrates with a feast day on August 15. The shaded courtyard of the church offers an excellent view of the gorge below.

Source: ekathimerini [December 22, 2010]

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