Italy: Sardinia and the grand canyons of Europe

Article by John Willmott first appeared in The Telegraph –Travel Destinations- on 2nd January 2015.

There’s plenty of tourist information in Sardinia that tells you the Gola su Gorropu is the deepest gorge in Europe. It’s not (see below).

Su Gorropu Gorge photo by The Telegraph.

But that doesn’t really matter when you’re standing at the bottom of an almighty vertical wall of rock and there’s a climber dangling from a precarious handhold high above your head.
Did I say vertical? At this point, the wall – all 1,300ft of it – leans oppressively inwards. Just a few yards away, the opposite cliff soars skywards and in between is a traffic jam of car-sized boulders, as white and smooth as pebbles.
Looking up, the cobalt sky is a narrow ribbon between the rims.
Folklore says that you can see stars during the daytime. Unlikely, but not as fanciful as the legend that tells of evil creatures creeping out of the gorge at night to steal away men and animals.

Monte Novo San Giovanni Orgosolo II
Orgosolo Mount S.Giovanni view over Su Gorropu Gorge photo by F.F. Sakanatravel 2008-2018

I love these tales; they sit nicely with my own vivid impressions of Sardinia’s natural poster boy. Viewed from both the other side of the valley and down in the gorge’s dungeons, Gorropu looks like it was cut with a broken hacksaw blade. It splits apart the formidable Supramonte limestone massif that dominates the east of this great oblong of an island.
Actually, it was the Flumineddu river that did the damage. Fortunately for hikers such as myself, the river runs underground through the ravine unless there has been heavy rainfall, after which a mass of water rages through the slot before it soaks away.
That’s what the lady at the gorge’s mouth explained to me when she took my €5 (£4) entrance fee and gave me a detailed briefing on what lay ahead. But the story starts before here, because getting to Gorropu is very much part of the adventure.


Monte Novo San Giovanni Orgosolo X
Orgosolo view over the plain and Supramonte photo by F.F. Sakanatravel 2008-2018

A half-hour drive from the sweet little seaside resort of Cala Gonone, through the small farms of the lower Flumineddu valley, brought me to the rough car park. From here it was boots on, stick in hand and a two-hour yomp to reach Gorropu, which remains deliciously hidden until the last steps.
A Jeep service from a different access point cuts the trek down to 40 minutes, but I’d recommend the whole walk. On the right is the gigantic grey wall of the Supramonte – up there somewhere, in a concealed cave, is one of the most intriguing of Sardinia’s nuraghic settlements, the 2,500-year-old Tiscali. On the left is the valley, smothered with dense Mediterranean macchia – a jumble of mastic trees, oleander and myrtle.


Strawberry tree -Mediterranean Macchia photo by F.F. Sakanatravel 2008-2018

The route roughly parallels the river, which is littered with boulders and green pools. Sometimes the path rises to give glimpses of the ever-narrowing valley ahead, then dips down to the water’s edge.
Just a few minutes after I spied the top of the gorge through the trees, I was scrambling down to the entrance. It’s not an easy excursion inside; painted spots mark the best way through the maze of rocks but I still found myself using hands as much as feet.
For all its spectacle, Gorropu is a baby in terms of length – barely three miles – and unless you have a guide and rope skills, only about a third can be penetrated. I scrambled as far as possible, mindful of spraining an ankle with a four-mile walk back to come, looking up to search for the wild goats and golden eagles that call this wilderness their home and feeling the silence close in on me.


Cork tree detail – photo by F.F. Sakanatravel 2008-2018

Getting the measure of a gorge

So why do I refute claims that Gorropu is the deepest canyon in Europe? Because it’s a measurement that’s almost impossible to define. Gola su Gorropu in Sardinia could, at one precise point, be the deepest gorge in Europe in relation to its width. The problem is, the height of the wall on one side is greater than that on the other, so the measurement doesn’t quite stand scrutiny. That’s the conundrum with measuring gorges.
Another problem is defining the top of a gorge, because it may not have a clearly defined rim. Taken from the summit of an adjacent mountain, the depth of Tara in Montenegro, for example, could exceed 5,000ft.
Almost always, a gorge will be narrower at the bottom than at the rim, so it’s difficult to estimate its width. The narrowest point will probably not be in the deepest section. Length, too, is hard to gauge because many canyons peter out into a wide valley at the downstream end.
Vikos in Greece is deeper than it is wide for a good stretch and, being fairly straight, affords possibly the greatest visual impression of any gorge in Europe.

As for the difference between a gorge and a canyon, National Geographic defines a canyon as a deep valley and a gorge (or ravine) as smaller and more narrow, but the two are generally interchangeable.
But enough of the facts and figures. Get out there, or preferably in there, and explore these extraordinary slices of nature.

Article by John Willmott first appeared in The Telegraph -Travel Destinations- on 2nd January 2015.



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