Hiking the Samarian Gorge
One of the many reasons people come to Chania and Western Crete is to hike down the Samarian Gorge, an 18 kilometer crack that cuts through the white mountains and ends at the Libyan Sea. The number of people who do this trek is getting close to 200,000 a year which is even more amazing when
you consider that it is closed from November to May to limit the number of people washed away by the torrent which rages through it during those months. When I hiked the gorge in 1978 there were no tour buses, just the public bus from Chania that came several times a day and dropped people off in groups of tens and twenties, enough to fill the two or three tavernas at the bottom in the isolated village of Agia Roumeli where they would wait for one of the two boats that would ferry us to Hora Sfakion or Paliohora
for the bus back to Chania. In those days if you kept moving it was possible to go through the entire Samarian Gorge and not see another soul until you reached the bottom. Now its hard to imagine there not being bottlenecks in the more difficult spots, as professional hikers are slowed down by grandmothers, families and husbands, who would be happier on a golf cart in Hersonisos but were forced into this walk by their wives with promises of special treats at the journey's end or back in the
hotel when the kids have gone to bed. That being said its like going to New York and taking the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center, whoops, make that the Empire State Building. Despite the crowds you gotta do it. It will be one of the major experiences of your life and if your kids are with you they will never forget it either. It doesn't take an athlete or an experienced hiker to walk down a mountainside and then follow a path for a dozen or so kilometers and if a couple hundred thousand people
a year are doing it then chances are you are in good enough shape to hike the Samarian Gorge yourself.
The Samarian Gorge itself begins high in the Lefka Ori (White Mountains), also called the Madares, which means bare, and in the winter and spring their peaks are covered in snow. It is the melting snow which makes the gorge dangerous in the non-summer months. My best friend, Dino Nichols came to
Crete to walk the gorge in 1989 and found the entrance closed and decided to climb a nearby mountain instead, and suffered a massive heart attack and died. His last words were "Oh Wow!" which I hope will be my last words as well. In winter and early spring it is worth the trip to Omalos to see the entrance. You are close to the snow line and you can hear and see the water rushing down the mountain. The high plane of Omalos is fertile and green with flocks of sheep and goats and there is a
small lake on the plateau filled with frogs who poke their heads out of the water to see who you are. The drive up is beautiful and you pass through green valleys of citrus trees, rivers and streams before climbing through the less friendly terrain of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains).
A nice detour is the village of Zourva where there is a traditional Cretan taverna called Emilia's with wonderful home cooked food by Emilia herself and a view of the green valley and tree covered mountains. Nearby is the village of Therissos, known for being the hometown of Elefterios Venizelos and
the place where the 1905 revolt against Prince George began, which led to the union of Crete with the rest of Greece. The road runs through the 6 kilometer Therisian Gorge which is an ideal walk for those who visit Crete in the non-Samarian Gorge month or want to try something easier. There are two museums in the small village, one the Eleftherios Venizelos Museum which focuses on the revolution against Prince George and the Great Powers and the other the Museum of National Resistance which focuses
on the Cretan resistance to the Nazi Occupation of World War Two. Both museums are open daily except Monday. There are also several tavernas in the village serving traditional Cretan food. The village of Meskla has a very ornate church built behind the small original church(photo), across from a taverna surrounded by fast moving streams in a valley filled with orange trees. In the winter and spring the smell of citrus fills the air. There are dirt roads through the orchards, some ending at seasonal rivers
where they begin again on the opposite side. Just because there is a road that goes through a river does not mean that you are able to cross it, regardless of what kind of vehicle you have. The river levels rise and fall and sometimes its safe to cross and sometimes it isn't. The general rule to follow in this situation is unless you have a jeep or a high 4WD vehicle it is probably not safe unless you can walk across it without getting your feet wet.
For those who are walking down the Samarian Gorge who have been patiently waiting for me to continue with that part of the journey, wear comfortable walking shoes. Ladies, that means no high heels. The trip down into the gorge is steep and a long fall, though dangerous
areas are softened by guard rails and steps. Unless you are a complete idiot it is unlikely that any harm will befall you in the gorge. Along the way there are areas which are only a few meters wide and other areas wide enough to fit an entire village, the abandoned town of Samaria, which was inhabited until 1965. There is a Byzantine Church to Agia Maria (Saint Mary) of Egypt, which is where the name of Samaria comes from. Finally you exit the gorge at the sea near the small town of Agia Roumeli
which has no roads to it but several tavernas and small hotels. In 1978 I was able to camp out here where the river from the gorge meets the sea, as it turned out a great place for spear-fishing, and I stayed several days, entertaining the thought of never leaving. For those with hotels and luggage waiting for you in Chania or elsewhere, staying forever is probably not an option so take the boats to Hora Sfakion or Sougia and Paleohora where either someone is wating for you or you can take the bus.
Advice from just about every Cretan guidebook is to start your journey early and avoid the crowds. Having to stand on a bus from southern Crete to Chania will enable you to make lots of friends but may not be the experience you want after walking for six hours. Again, for those who did not take the hint before, if you are a group or family of three or four arrange for Lefteris the Cretan Taxi Driver to drop you off at the entrance of the Samarian Gorge and pick you up in Hora Sfakion. You will be happy you did it this way. If you miss the last bus at 7pm you can take a local taxi or find a hotel. In the summer there are also buses to Rethymnon from Hora Sfakion. For those who are intriqued by the sound of Agia Roumeli there is a walking path to the village and the boats that go to pick up the gorge trekkers can take you there as well. It may be a good idea to buy a round trip ticket if you
can. You can also do the Samarian Gorge Trip through City Discovery and they take care of all the details.
Hora Safkion is covered in its own section. The town of Paliohora was a former fishing village turned into hippy paradise and is currently a reasonably low impact summer resort town of small hotels and the kind of tourists who fell in love with the place in the last 40 years and have come back every summer since. There is a 13th Century Venetian Castle, a scuba-diving center, a long sandy beach, a small pebble beach and in the summer a beachfront road of tavernas and
cafes that they close to automobile traffic. There are nice walking paths, all the way to Elafonissi in the west and past the ancient city of Lissos to Sougia in the East. In fact you can walk as far as Hora Sfakion if you want to spend a few days doing it. The Hellenistic town of Lissos which is about an hour walk from Sougia was known for its healing springs and its Temple to Asklepios. The Romans were here as well, as were the Byzantines who left behind two basilicas with mosaic floors which
are now the churches of the Panagia and Agios Kyriakos. Sougia flourished during Roman and Byzantine times and was destroyed by the Saracens. There are a couple Byzantine churches and beautiful beaches and is a good choice for escaping the large summer resort crowds, with a few smaller hotels and a handful of tavernas and some decent nightlife. Its also close to both the Tripiti Gorge and the Agia Irini Gorge, both lesser known by the general public, though popular with those who
live to walk gorges. Agia Irini gorge is one of the most impressive in Crete and its entrance is 12 kilometers north of Sougia.
The island of Gavdos is the southernmost island in Europe and a place for those who really want to escape. With forests of pine and cedar and a climate so mild that you can swim in the winter (sometimes) there are several settlements and villages, all reachable on foot and spectacular beaches some of which you can walk to and others reachable only by sea. The port of Karave is reachable by boat from Hora Sfakion and Paliohora with few in the off-season and several a
week in the summer. You can take your car on some of the boats but there are bikes to rent on the island too so you may want to leave it on the main island. The capital of Gavdos is Kastri which is inland but the primary beach town is Sarakiniko which has small hotels and tavernas as do Korfos and Ag Ioannis beaches. Nudity is common and it is one of the few places where free camping is tolerated.
You can click on the above photos to see them larger. Sorry I don't have more for this section. It was closed when I went there.