Walking Crete's Samaria Gorge
'dramatic gorge trail the longest in Europe'.
Few holiday visitors on a walking holiday in Crete will be able to resist tackling the Samaria Gorge — one of the longest gorges in the whole of Europe with a particularly fine hiking trail snaking through it. The 16 kilometre path drops down from the White Mountains (Lefka Ori) of central Crete to the shingle shore on the south coast near Agia Roumelli.
The Samaria Gorge of Crete is now a national park and it is not the wild and rugged gorge it once was, much tamed today with picnic tables and level pathways, but this is still one of the most dramatic walks to be found in the whole of Greece, if not Europe.
There are two advertised ways to walk the Samaria Gorge. Most will head to the mountainous north and walk the whole full length of the glorious gorge but others prefer the shorter trek from the south coast resort of Agia Roumelli to the southern end of the gorge.
The north — south trek starts 1,250 metres up in the Lefka Ori mountains near the hillside hamlet of Omalos. Visitors can buy a one-day ticket at the large tourist pavilion at the entrance then step onto the 'xyloskilo' or 'wooden staircase' that plunges down into the gorge along a wooden-railed zigzag path .
The walk, although almost invariably downhill, is not an easy one. It can take from four to eight hours to complete the trail and many of rock-strewn sections are not easy to negotiate.
Despite appeals to dress for a proper walk, visitors will still turn up in beach shoes and holiday sandals instead of stout shoes or walking boots. In the high summer seasons, coaches and buses drop up to 3,000 walkers every day at the head of the gorge.
Walkers find the cliff walls narrowing above them as they drop into the canyon. Few stop until they reach the reach the abandoned village of Samaria which lies well inside the gorge.
It was abandoned in 1952 but some of the ruins date from as early as the 4th century. Today it provides a welcome resting place for weary hikers and has some basic picnic facilities to encourage a rest.
As walkers head south they will notice the steep canyon walls towering above them until they become quite claustrophobically narrow. indeed, they almost meet at the notorious 'sidero portes' or 'iron gates' where there 1,000 foot vertical sides of the gorge are a mere four metres apart.
After the gates, the gorge suddenly ends and walks find themselves on the shingle and stone beach at Agia Roumelli. Here they can enjoy a drink and a rest before the ferry arrives to take them to Hora Sfakia where homeward coaches await.
Samaria Gorge does not open all year round. The danger of flash floods from the winter rains makes it far too dangerous and the path is closed to the public from October to May.
The National Park is now run by the Department of Forestry and rangers will close the gorge on rainy days to avoid the danger to walkers from falling rocks and stones. Walking at night is also forbidden.
To make sure no-one gets lost en-route, walkers can only enter the gorge with a date-stamped ticket so visitors can all be accounted for. The trail is very well maintained and there are water springs along the route, several litter bins and even toilets.
Park rangers patrol the walking route and doctors are on call in case of accidents. There is even a helicopter pad half way down to carry out anyone badly hurt in the Samaria Gorge.
Serious walkers will want to avoid the crowds that queue up along the trail in the high summer. The best way to get the gorge to yourself is to find some cheap local accommodation and get up early.
There is good, cheap accommodation to be found in Omalos and some will even make it for sunrise when the gorge gates open. Alternatively you can start late but you then there is always a chance of missing the last ferry from Agia Roumelli.