The one trip that every visitor to Crete-even those eminently unsuited to it- feels compelled to make is the hike down the Samaria gorge which, at 16k, is claimed to be the longest in Europe. Protected a National Park since 1962, this natural wonder was formed by a river flowing between mount Volakias to the west and the towering bulk of the heart of the Lefka Ori to the east. In summer the violent winter torrent reduces to a meek trickle and this is when the multitudes descent. If you’re expecting a wilderness experience, think again;
Bear in mind that this is not a gentle stroll to be lightly undertaken; especially in spring when the river is roaring, or on a hot midsummer day, it can be a thoroughly grueling test of fitness and stamina. The mules and helicopter standing by to rescue the injured are not mere show: anyone who regularly leads tours through the gorge has a stack of horror stories to regale you with- broken legs and heart attacks feature most frequently. To undertake the walk you need to be reasonably fit and/or used to lengthy walks, and should have comfortable, sturdy shoes that will stand up to hot, sharp rocks.
The gorge hike itself is some 18km long (the final 2 km to reach the sea from the mouth of the gorge) and the walk down takes between 4 and 6 hours, depending on your level of fitness, and how often you stop to admire the scenery, bathe your feet and take refreshment. Be wary of the km markers-these mark only distances within the park, not the full extent of the walk.
THE HIKE IN SAMARIA
The gorge begins, with startling suddenness, on the far side of the plateau. After the dull tranquility of the plain you are faced with this great cleft opening beneath your feet and, across it-close enough to bounce stones off, it seems- the gaunt limestone face of the giant Mount Gingilos. The descent starts on the Xyloskalon (wooden Stairway) a stepped path cut from the rock and augmented by log stairs and wooden handrails, which zigzags rapidly down to the base of the gorge, plunging 350m in the first 2km or so of the walk. Near the bottom the chapel of Ayios Nikolaos stands on a little terrace of coniferous trees where there are benches from which to enjoy the view, and fresh water. Beyond, the path begins gradually to level out following the stream bed amid softer vegetation which reflects the milder climate down here. In late spring it’s magnificent, but at any time of year there should be wildflowers and rare plants (no picking allowed) including the endangered large white peony, Paeonia clusii. The stream itself is less reliable: there are places where you can be sure of icy fresh water and pools to bathe sore feet.
The abandoned village of Samaria lies a little under midway through the walk, shortly before the 7km marker. One of the buildings here has been converted to house the wardens office, another has been pressed into (inadequate) service a public toilet, but for the most part the remains of the village are quietly crumbling away. Its inhabitants, until they were relocated to make way for the park in 1962, were predominantly members of the Viglis family, who claimed direct descent from one of the twelve aristocratic clans implanted from Byzantium. Certainly this settlement, as isolated as any in Crete and cut off by floodwater for much of the year, is a very ancient one- the church of Osia Maria, from which both gorge and village take their name, was founded in the early fourteenth century.
After the village the path is more level, the walls of the gorge begin to close in and the path is often forced to cross from one side of the stream to the other, on stepping stones which at times may be submerged and slippery. Beside you, the contorted striations of the cliffs are increasingly spectacular, but the highlight comes shortly after the Christos resting point with the Sidheroportes (Iron Gates) where two rock walls rise sheer to within a whisker of a thousand feet: standing at the bottom, one can almost touch both at once. For this short stretch, there’s a wooden walkway raised above the stream, shoes swirling waters fill the whole of the narrow passage. Almost as suddenly as you entered this mighty crack in the mountain you leave it again, the valley broadens, its sides fall away, and you are in a parched wilderness of rubble deposited here by the spring thaw.
Before long- 8km beyond Samaria- you reach the fringes of Ayia Roumeli, where there’s a gate by which you leave the park and a couple of stalls selling cool drinks. This is not the end of the walk: old Ayia Roumeli has been all but deserted in favor of the new beachside community, a further dull 20min away. The arrival of a shuttle bus service means that you can now avoid this final rather tedious stretch; the bus drops you in the coastal settlement.
AGIA ROUMELI Arriving finally you face the choice between plunging into the sea or diving into a tavern for an iced drink. Once your senses adjust, you’ll find that the village isn’t all that appealing-but that drink and the first plunge in the sea are likely to live in the memory as the most refreshing ever. Once you’ve drunk and eaten your fill (a couple of the taverns have showers which they’ll let you use if you eat there) lain on the beach for a while and rested, Ayia Roumeli attractions soon begin to pall. There was an ancient settlement here- Tarra- inhabited probably from the fifth century BC through t the fifth AD- and more of less constant later habitation, very little remains to be seen. Tarra straddled the stream where it ran into the sea, just to the east of the present village- the only obvious remains are the foundations of an early Christian basilica by the present church of Panaya, around which you may also spot a few tiny fragments of mosaic. This supposedly, was the site of a much earlier temple of Apollo.
FLORA & FAUNA OF THE GORGE
Gorge wildlife means most famously the Kri-Kri (variously the agrimi, Capra aegagrus, the Cretan wild goat or ibex) for whose protection the park was primarily created. You are unlikely to see one of these large, nimble animals with their long backswept horns, though you may well see ordinary mountain goats defying death on the cliff faces. In addition, almost four hundred varieties of birds are claimed to have been seen here, including owls, eagles, falcons and vultures; birdwatchers after a coup should look out for the endangered lammergeyer (or bearded vulture).On the ground lizards abound, there’s also the odd snake and you may just spot a beech marten, spiny mouse or weasel.
The multifarious trees- Cretan maple pine and cypress- provide the backdrop to an often dazzling array of wildflowers; the purple Tulipa saxatilis and rock plants such as aubrietias, saxifrages and anemones stand out, and there are wild irises and orchids too. Herbs are also in abundance; besides the aromatic thyme and rosemary, common sage and oregano, there are half a dozen species that exist exclusively here. Also to be found- and usually growing in the most inaccessible places- Cretan Dittany, a celebrated medicinal herb referred to by Aristotle and Hippocrates.