C. From Mountain to the Plain
Transitional zones are everywhere the same as or indeed even more impressive than the areas that they actually separate. The same also happens with the foothills of Psiloritis mountains which have their own magic and their own distinct features that enchant the visitors. These are the boundary between the highlands and lowlands, it is the transition zone of the mountainous and lowland ecosystems.
More specifically, in Psiloritis Natural Park, these areas present another peculiarity. They are the places that conceal the secret story of the mountains, the processes and the way in which these have been formed and separated from the adjacent basins. At the eastern and southern parts of Psiloritis, this zone is very steep as a result of the big faults, which millions of years ago sank down the present basins, simultaneously raising the mountains. Additionally, as a result of these faults many gorges have been formed digging still deeper until the very “heart” of the mountains, thus also creating the gates to the
Furthermore, this is the place where the two traditional human activities, livestock raising and agriculture meet. Thus, many villages are located at the foothills of the mountains in order to take advantage of both the mountain and the basin. Many of these villages are impressively beautiful as they are perched on the steep cliffs.
Almyros spring can probably most satisfactory explain the term paradox. This spring is located at the northeastern side of Psiloritis, a few hundred meters far from the sea and the city of Heraklion, and it runs off the highest water quantity in Crete directly into the sea! The water of the spring is brackish because somewhere quite deep it is mixed with seawater.
Water resources come from two areas. The Psiloritis mountains and the surrounding plateaus from where winter rainfall can reach the spring in 9 hours (!), and also the hills which are nearby. However, the largest amount of water comes from Psiloritis sinkholes and the underground rivers (caves) and after a deep route arrives at the spring. A big fault located at the mountain side traps the already brackish water forcing it to come out from the spring.
The water supply ranges from 3 till 40 cubic meters per second (meaning several hundreds of million cubic meters per year!). A small artificial lake is formed around the spring from where a small stream ends up in the sea. It is however, remarkable that at the beginning of spring when the supply is the maximum, water is almost potable!
At the wetland of Almyros many birds can be observed all year round, as well as the Theophrastus’ palm tree (Phoenix theophrasti) which only exists in Crete and in an area in the southeast Turkey.
Voulisma in Crete means a depression and Voulismeno Aloni means a threshing floor in a depression. In this case it is not actually a threshing floor but a circular doline, like a crater near the old national road Heraklion – Rethimnon.
The doline is several dozens of meters deep, with vertical sides or even in some places with a negative inclination, which has been formed by the collapse of a former cave ceiling. The access to the interior is very easy through a small trail which someone has to take in order to admire this unique phenomenon.
The Voulismeni Aloni is often used by the Hellenic Speleological Society in order to train people in the techniques of descending by rope.
Gonies’ gorge serves, as do many other gorges, in Crete as a gate to the mainland of Psiloritis Mountains from the northeast. The main road to the Mylopotamos villages passes through the gorge with the breathtaking steep sides and cliffs.
The gorge has been formed on the “Tripolitsa” limestone, starting from the “Tylissos – Kroussonas” fault and ending at the Sklavokampos valley, where the ruins of a Minoan rural villa exist.
Kroussonas is one of the largest villages of the Psiloritis foothills, built in between several old faults. In addition to the impressive “Tylissos – Kroussonas” fault that delimits the mountain from the basin and some others which are parallel to that, there also exists the Cretan Detachment fault which is located over the settlement.
A characteristic horizontal line on the slope traced by the vegetation and relief difference separates the “Plattenkalk” rocks from the covering rocks of the “Tripolitsa”. In between the two, small lenses of “Phyllite – Quartzite” rocks occur in places.
The “Tylissos- Kroussonas” fault is of great hydro-geological importance for the broader area. The fault and those parallel to it, act as dams to the underground water which comes from the mountain, thus forming underground water tanks. Through water drillings Heraklion and many other villages fulfill their water needs.
The most peculiar geotope of Psiloritis Natural Park are “Grandma’s Pies” in the area of Prinias village. In a valley are to be found big circular and flat rocks with a characteristic groove along their perimeter. The locals call these rocks “Grandma’s pies” or “loaves”.
The white neogene limestone (6 – 7 mil. years old) with abundant sea urchin and bivalve fossils has been detached and has slipped down from the adjacent Patela hill. There also exist the ruins of the Minoan town of Rizhinia. The large limestone blocks are dissolved by rain water thus taking a circular shape.
Also, because these limestone blocks have two layers the water dissolves them more along the line of contact thus forming the perimetrical groove.
The access to the site is through the Heraklion – Mires road and through many secondary dirt roads which pass through beautiful landscapes leading to the “Pies” or to the nearby Charakas, the vertical limestone rock that dominates in the middle of the valley. (see the hiking trail)
The evaporites are usually rocks which have recorded critical periods of the Earth’s history. They are formed by the precipitation of the sea and comprise gypsum, mineral salt and anhydrite.
The evaporites located around Agia Varvara village were formed about 5 million years ago during a period named Messinian. It is a period during which the Mediterranean was repeatedly precipitated as a result of geological, astronomical and other environmental reasons. The climate became dramatically very dry, affecting life in the surrounding areas. The precipitation of the sea created huge amounts of evaporates found all around the Mediterranean.
These rocks occur in Agia Varvara at a height of about 500 meters, while 5 million years ago they were the sea bottom, giving thus the rate of the rapid rising of some parts of Crete.
Gergeri is a large village on the southern slopes of Psiloritis mountain. Over the village are to be found big and impressive cliffs which delimit the Psiloritis mountain from the Messara basin. Again the reason is a big fault which sank down the Gergeri area and rose up the mountains. Along the road which drives up to the Rouvas forest are to be found fascinating screes with reddish breccias and sand that cover the slopes.
In the same way that the Tyllisos - Kroussonas fault traps the underground water before it reaches the sea, so does the Gergeri fault forcing it, here too, because of the presence of many impermeable sediments, to come to the surface and to form large springs.
In the village of Gergeri but also in the nearby settlements many fountains and watermills existed in the past, which have now been renovated and which participate in a trail called “water routes”. Furthermore, in Gergeri, a small, but very informative local Natural History Museum, is to be found at the local high school
At the same Gergeri – Kamares fault zone also appear some of the biggest springs of Crete, the Zaros springs. In the area of Votomos some of the springs form a small artificial lake perfectly adapted to the environment and the rough limestone landscape, which is used for recreation activities. A small hiking trail (E4) starts from the lake, and through the Agios Nikolaos gorge, leads to Rouvas forest.
It is because of these springs that one of the nicest and most fertile areas of Crete has developed. Water from the springs fills the newly constructed Phaneromeni dam.
Rouvas forest develops in a small –depression – plateau at the southern part of Psiloritis mountain. One can approach the forest either from Gergeri village through the forest road, or from the Skinakas area again through a forest road or even from the Votomos lake and the Agios Nikolaos gorge through the hiking trail E4.
The forest is important for many reasons. It is a place where large concentrations of Kermes Oak trees (Quercus coccifera) are to be found. At the northern side of the plateau grow some of the few trees of the Cretan Zelkova (Zelkova abelicea), a very rare tree which lives only in Crete. In the forest also exists a rare orchid the Cretan Cephalanthera (Cephalanthera cuculata) and also the Cretan Wild cat (Felis silvestris creticus).
One the other hand, Rouvas forest is one of the most beautiful and picturesque places of Crete, with the scenic chapel of Agios Ioannis and the small springs. It is again the presence of the “Plattenkalk” metaflysch under the “Tripolitsa” rocks, which forms most of these springs.
At the southern end of the forest the E4 hiking trail begins for the small but impressive Agios Nikolaos gorge. The trail wanders through the tree covered valley, the narrow gorge and the steep cliffs to end at the Votomos lake in Zaros.
During the last years, within the Miocene period (9 – 5 mil. years ago) sediments of the Gergeri and Panassos area, the Natural History Museum of Crete has been excavating fossils (teeth, vertebra and ribs) of a very strange sea – mammal. These belong to the Sirenia, the sea cows which lived in the warm sea waters of the area 6 – 7 million years ago.
Before the discovery in the western Mediterranean of the full skeleton and the skull of the animal, many were attributing the upper part of the skeleton to the human body and the lower part to fish, giving rise to the myth of the sirens…
A very impressive and imposing gorge starts near Vorizia village on the southern flanks of Psiloritis mountain. The entrance of the gorge is on the large
Gergeri – Kamares fault zone which has fragmented the rocks of the “Tripolitsa” group at a great depth.
The gorge is very steep at the beginning with small waterfalls coming from the brecciated steep limestone cliffs, but it soon sufficiently widens into a nice valley with Kermes Oaks and rich flora with many endemic plants of Crete like the Cretan Dittany or “erontas” (Origanum dictamnus), or the Rock Lettuce (Petromarula pinnata). Continuing up the valley an experienced traveler can reach the Nida plateau up on the mountains.
Like the nearby Vorizia gorge, the Kamares gorge develops within rocks of the “Tripolitsa” group a little west of the village of Kamares. The gorge leads after some climbing to the famous Kamares cave.
Αt its entrance the gorge is almost inaccessible and very rough so that the trail running through the gorge is for a large part following the rocky stairs made for that reason. From a distance the gorge appears like a crack in the limestone wall and is larger than three others which also exist in the nearby area.