Greece: Hiking the Samaria Gorge

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The Samaria gorge, located in west Crete in the White Mountains, is the second most visited tourist attraction on Crete (following the Minoan palace of Knossos) and it’s definitely the most popular hike. The locals call it the “Farangas” or “Great Gorge,” in admiration of its beauty and to differentiate it from the other smaller gorges of Crete.

The Samaria gorge was continuously inhabited since antiquity. Due to the good quality of its wood and the greatness of the landscape, Samaria became a center of economic activity. Its timber was exported to Egypt and other countries and it is believed that pillars in the palaces of Knossos and Mycenae were made of cypress trees from Samaria. Ancient temples were found not only in the ancient city at the exit of the gorge, but in many places within the gorge itself. The village of Samaria, located midway down the gorge, was inhabited until 1962 when the area was declared a national park.

During the many struggles of Cretans for their freedom, the gorge was a secure hide-out and the base of operations for the freedom fighters. Stories and legends link those difficult times to Samaria.

The gorge is touted to be the longest gorge in Europe–18 km in length. The path starts from Xyloskalo in the White Mountains and comes to an end at the village of Agia Roumeli at the Libyan sea.

An area of stunning natural beauty, the gorge’s climate ranges from alpine to subtropical. Rare flora and fauna have survived in this supportive environment. There are more than 450 plant species, including century old trees, wildflowers and herbs, some of which are very rare, as well as forests of huge cypress and pine trees. Rare species of birds like vultures and eagles, and mammals like the Cretan ibex, (the feral goat of Crete) known as the Kri-Kri, live here and are protected.

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The mountains that formed the gorge are wild, high and steep. Hikers pass through forests and descend between vertical cliffs. The River Tarraios runs the whole length of the gorge. During our hike, the river went from non-existent to calm, but in the winter, it can be raging.

More than a quarter of a million people hike the gorge every year from the time the season opens on May 1st until October when the season ends. During the winter, the gorge is closed to visitors because of danger posed by water and falling stones.

The best time to walk the gorge is May, early June and late September, October. At these times, there are less hikers, the weather is mild and the nature is at its best. We hiked it on May 24th, a warm day with a breeze, the air perfectly comfortable for hiking all day. The wildflowers were at the peak of their bloom. We shared the gorge with half the number of hikers than the summer hordes–who often face unbearable heat and crowded conditions.

Weren’t we lucky?

Eight members of our group opted to go on this adventure. The rest of our group went on a less taxing village tour and several took off to find a beach.

For the gorge, I’d been instructed to bring an empty water bottle, an extra pair of socks, a sun hat, sunscreen, and a pair of sandals to change into at the bottom. I showed up, along with my seven fellow hikers, in our hotel lobby with the requisite gear at 6 AM in order to catch our bus and arrive at the entrance of the gorge before the bulk of the tourists arrived.

All during the hike and throughout the whole rest of the day, I’d decided to turn on my “storytelling brain” because I knew I wanted to write about this adventure. On a physical level, that meant putting my small notebook, a pen and my phone (for taking pictures) in the front pocket of my fanny pack so I could access my blogging tools in a moment. Mentally, having my storytelling brain on meant opening my mind to story: jotting down details, listening for lines of dialogue, taking note of what I smelled, heard, felt, how the air felt on my skin. Looking for quirky or unusual details. All day, I kept a little part of me in reserve, thinking about how I might shape this day into a story.

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Boarding the bus, I was immediately rewarded with a character right out of central casting: our guide through the gorge: Thomas. Thomas, an Austrian who lives in Greece, takes visitors through the gorge every day of every tourist season. He has long blond hair, wears tight hiking shorts and has beautifully sculpted well muscled calves. As one of our hikers commented, “He looks like he’s out right off the cover of a hot romance novel.”

As we passed orange groves ripe with fruit, Thomas launched into a well- practiced spiel in English, spoken with a rolling singsong accent. “I hope you have good shoes,” he began. “We have 29 people on the bus and hopefully we’ll have 29 people at the end of the day.”

And later, “This is a very windy road as you can see. We have clean plastic bags up front, free of charge. Just let me know if you need one a minute before you do.”

Thomas described the trail in detail. He told us there were three major checkpoints and what time we should arrive at each one: 9:30 for the first one, 11:30 the second, and 1:30 the third. It takes about six hours to hike the whole thing. “There’s only one way out and it’s down. If you find yourself heading up, you’re going the wrong way.”

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Entrance ticket to Samaria gorge. They check these at the entrance and at the exit to make sure everyone who goes on comes out again.

Thomas told us we’d be starting at Silos Kalos, the wooden staircase, at 1230 meters and hike all the way down to the Libyan Sea. (When we looked it up later, we discovered it was a descent of 4000 feet). Thomas assured us there would be many WCs–toilets–along the way, and fresh spring water to refill our bottles. “But there are no stores and there is no turning back.”

These red first aid boxes were everywhere.

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This spring-fed spouts were frequent–for refilling our water bottles.

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We were grateful to see these signs.

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Thomas instructed us to look at our feet all the way down. “It’s very easy to twist your ankle or fall over. This is very, very hard on your knees. Tell me if you’re having trouble at the beginning. It will be easier to walk back up to the top than it will be to make it all the way down to the bottom. It’s a very long distance. Even if you have blisters, are exhausted, or have sore knees, you will have to walk all the way down to the bottom on your own. If you’ve heard about being carried down on a donkey, forget about it. That’s only for an extreme condition like a broken leg.” Thomas basically did everything he could to discourage anyone on the bus who didn’t belong in the gorge from attempting the hike. After a half hour of warnings, he asked cheerily, “Everyone still okay?”

The whole bus answered with a resounding yes.

Thomas definitely made it clear that the gorge was a serious hike, not an easy carefree stroll. And he was right. The path was 16km long, well maintained, well-marked, in good condition, and very clean–I saw no trash on the path at all–but it was rough and stony, full of big boulders, steep steps that required careful footing, and lots of loose rocks. I hiked in a pair of good tennis shoes; others wore light hiking boots, but I hadn’t wanted to carry the weight.

Our progress was clearly marked all the way down. Here we are after the first kilometer.

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Cairns marked our way all the way down.

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These were my favorites.

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At times the pathway was steep, and 95% was all in the same direction–down. The occasional uphills were an unexpected relief from all the downhill. The Samaria gorge is definitely not for anyone who isn’t sure-footed or doesn’t have good knees. As Thomas warned us, we really did have to watch our feet at all times, staying mindful of every step. “When you want to take in the gorgeous scenery,” Thomas told us, “stop in order to look around.”

Someone asked Thomas, who hikes the gorge every day during tourist season–and has hiked it 2000 times, “Don’t your knees hurt?”

“Not if I use hiking sticks.”

Thomas then rented us hiking sticks at a cost of 3 euros per stick–a bargain for the benefit–we were all so grateful we had them to take the shock off our knees and to help with river crossings.

The top of the trail was very steep and could easily discourage someone who wasn’t fully committed. But as I continued to go down, the landscapes and vistas continually changed. It was one of the most beautiful, diverse hikes I’ve ever taken. I was awash in beauty. The walls of the gorge were a riot of colors and tints and textures, full of shadow and light. The weather was perfect. I relaxed into the colors, the changing light, the steep walls of the gorge, the trees, the endless flowers. The wild delphiniums at their peak, blooming and beaming their beauty into the world everywhere we walked.

Beautiful light on a stony trail.

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Spring flowers everywhere. The oleander were everywhere.

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Striations in the rock wall.

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Pretty.

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Sometimes I hiked alone. Sometimes I hiked with Karyn. Sometimes I met up with others in our group, but mostly I moved at my own pace, always heading down.

As I walked, I played the game, “I’m hiking in Europe. I wonder what language is being spoken by the people coming up behind me. French and German, Spanish and Greek were easily recognizable. But were the folks behind me speaking Russian? Danish? Swedish? Italian? Polish? Some other Slavic language I couldn’t identify? I loved the wash of unfamiliar voices pouring over me. I savored the sound of words without being able to identify the mundane details of the conversations. Only intonations, body language, gestures, speed of delivery. I grieved that I was monolingual.

At the rest stops, I filled my water bottles (I had two), used the WC and mostly just kept on. I stopped longer at the former settlement of Samaria, halfway down the gorge. I ate some of the almonds Karyn had brought along and half a sesame-honey bar–a Greek specialty that really hit the spot. I changed into my clean dry pair of socks because I was feeling the start of a hot spot underneath my big toe. But there was no blister. I peeled off one pair of sweaty socks and put on a clean pair.

Ah, relief….

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At least these toilets were clean, but squatting after all that downhill wasn’t easy.

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While I was relaxing on the bench, Wendy from our group, sitting nearby, told me she had a serious problem. The soles of her hiking boots had detached on both of her shoes, so she’d been slap-flopping down the rocky trail, almost all the way from the top. A young French woman nearby noticed her predicament and came over with some duct tape and Wendy reattached her soles, winding the tape round and round the bottom of her shoes. This solution lasted for a few more kilometers, but the next time I saw her, the tape had worn away and her shoes were in pieces again. Luckily, I had brought a pair of hiking sandals to change into, and Wendy has feet that are almost as big as mine, so she was able to hike out wearing my shoes.

Uh-oh! Whatever happened to quality workmanship?

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The first solution.

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The second solution.

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When I made it all the way down and turned in the ticket that proved I wasn’t lost somewhere in the gorge, I came upon the most blissful mirage–but wait–it was real–a beautiful little open air restaurant that sold huge glasses of ice cold fresh-squeezed orange juice for just four euros (a little under five bucks).

I was the first one in our group down to the bottom. I bought my juice, edited my gorge photos on my i-phone and stared out at the view. I felt so grateful that I was healthy and fit enough to do this hike, to be filled with such beauty. At that moment, I knew I could go home tomorrow and be perfectly happy.

Pretty soon, the other hikers started trickling in. Everyone bought a big glass of juice. Wendy said, “That was like nectar. Divine. Orange juice will never taste so good again.”

At the end of the park, this lovely cafe appeared.

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And for a mere 4 euros, bliss was mine!

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Someone asked Pam, a member of our group, who likes to hike, “Was this your personal best?”

“No,” she replied, “but it’s my personal best looking at my feet for so long.”

Referring to the beauty of the hike, Wendy said, “I’ve run out of adjectives. I need more. Laura, you need to come up with some more.”

But I didn’t have any either.

Leaving the orange juice stand, we still had a few flat kilometers to go to reach the town and the beach–and the Libyan Sea.

All day, I’d had the promise of diving into the Libyan Sea in the back of my mind. After we reached the little town and had some lunch, I changed into my bathing suit, which I’d been carrying all day and walked a block to the black sand beach and the water. It was a bit windy and the water was cold, but I didn’t let that stop me. I trucked right over the black sand beach, made of tiny pebbles, and into the water. It was cold, well, maybe more than cold, but I gradually adjusted and kept going further in.

Finally, imagining my kids egging me on, I dove in, and discovered there were large boulders just under the surface, right past the shoreline. It was bit tricky managing the boulders and the waves pushing me back toward shore, but once I got past the small breakers, I floated, marveling, “I’m in the Libyan Sea! I’m in the Libyan Sea!” The other side of this body of water I was floating in was Libya, the closest I’ve come so far to Africa.

The Libyan Sea.

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Laura’s tired knees in black sand.

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Ten minutes after I got in the water, I was out, lying on the warm black stone pebbles. But then the wind came up and I got chilled, so I wandered back up to our meeting place: the KriKri restaurant. We had coffee and ice cream while we waited for the big ferry that would take us back to our bus.

We saw gorgeous Thomas relaxing at a cafe, smoking a cigarette. And he hikes the gorge every day?

It had been a perfect day. But then there was a little glitch. The sea grew choppy and the wind came up. Our ferry was delayed. And delayed.

Not that it mattered. We had nowhere to go.

The eight of us headed to the beach where we milled around along with the other 1000 people who’d hiked the Gorge that day: people of all ages and nationalities. Looking at all of us, I remembered a disheartening statistic I’d read once: that the average length of a visit to a US National Park is twenty minutes. Most people drive through and maybe visit the gift shop. That’s it. But everyone on this beach had walked down the Samarian Gorge. Knowing that made me feel connected to everyone. We’d all put out tremendous effort. We’d all shared incredible beauty.

Now we were all waiting for a ferry to take us back to our hostels, guest houses and hotels. There were two ferries slowly making their way toward the dock. One was much larger than the other and appeared to be far steadier in the water, too. The smaller ferry looked like a cork bobbing haplessly in the Libyan Sea. “It looks like it’s awfully low in the water,” one of us said.

This was the BIG ship.

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This was our littler ship, The Samaria.

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“I hope the big one is our boat,” another member of our group said, “not the one that’s listing.”

Thomas had told us we’d be boarding the Samaria, but none of us could read the tiny letters on the little boat so far out to sea. Someone asked, “Laura, can you read it?”

I strained my eyes, but no way. “It looks like the seventh line on the eye chart to me.”

Someone chimed in. “We need to find a young person with good eyes who speaks English.” We all laughed.

Five minutes later, through whitecaps and tossing waves, we could finally make out the names of the two ships. Unfortunately, the large steady-looking ship was not ours.

Someone said hopefully, “Maybe it will sink before we have to get on it and we can get on the bigger boat instead.”

The big boat pulled up at the dock and three-quarters of the people on the beach were swallowed up inside it. We watched, laughing nervously. When our smaller ferry finally docked and let down its blue metal loading door with a clang, we all pressed forward. I felt a bit like I was walking onto the Titanic. I took my i-phone and wrapped it tightly in the zip lock bag I always carry in my fanny pack. If the ship went down, at least my phone might survive.

Our laughter and jokes belied our nervousness:

“Doesn’t it feel like we’re being fed to the lions?”

“Maybe they just staged it to make it look exciting.”

We had our doubts but we all made our way onto the boat.

The funny thing is once we got on board, the ferry was huge (it’s just that the other one was HUGER) and felt perfectly stable. The eight of us scattered among the masses, some opting for the safety of the inside room; others trekked up the top deck to watch the dramatic cliffs and turquoise water as we steamed by.

Our steadfast captain navigating choppy seas.

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View from the boat.

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It was a beautiful boat ride. I spent much of it crouched near the captain’s cabin, trying to get out of the wind.

By the time we got back to Chania and walked back to our hotel it was after 9 PM. But I felt happy and triumphant. Most everyone in our company was ready to collapse in bed, but I was exhilarated and went out to dinner–and to hear some live Greek music.

That’s one gorge I definitely plan to hike again.

Here are some more photos from the trip:

One of several bridges.

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Tiny hikers in a big vast gorge.

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One of many river crossings made much easier with hiking sticks.

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Easy does it.

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Compare this sign with the next one. What differences do you see?

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This cracked me up. And at kilometer 10, I needed some humor.

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When Karyn and I stopped to rest by the river and wait for our fellow hikers, this donkey showed up pulling a giant plastic pipe.

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This can’t possibly do it justice.

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Our hikers.

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Happy trip leaders.

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Another stream crossing.

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Ruins along the way.

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Our meeting place.

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