The largest of the Greek Islands is Crete and what a wonderful place it is. It’s got something for everyone, from the party town of Malia, the beaches, the mountains; to the historic and ancient Minoan cities of Chania and Knossos. It has a colourful and checkered history, occupied through the ages by the Byzantines, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, right up to the Germans in World War II, I could go on.
After a week indulging myself on the beaches and in the bars and restaurants I felt it was time for a little activity and what better way to blow away the cobwebs than to hike along the largest canyon in Europe. The Samaria Gorge in the South West of the island is arguably Crete’s number one tourist attraction.
The hike starts in the White Mountains and it’s a quite a journey just to get to the Northern entrance of this World Biosphere Reserve. As it’s a popular attraction on Crete, all resorts around the island offer day tours and I would recommend taking one, as its a better option than making your own arrangements. I had to pay cash, as is the way in Greece nowadays. A coach collected me early next morning and we were soon driving up the narrow mountain roads to that lead to the reserve’s northern entrance.
This trek is not to be treated lightly as many unprepared holidaymakers have found to their cost. A twisted ankle along the way and an emergency evacuation would be required. I had come well prepared, I was briefed by the tour company regarding what to take. Hiking boots, a small bottle of water and a couple of cereal bars, sunscreen and a hat. I carried all of this in a bum bag (fanny pack). There is plenty of fresh clean mountain water available to replenish your bottle, every few kilometres at rest stations.
It was cold when we arrived in the early morning at the Northern entrance at 1,250 metres above sea level, however, it gets hot very quickly and now was the time to start. The hike itself is 16km long and can take up to 5 hours. The first hour or so you descend down the mountain through pine forests to the bottom of the gorge. This was probably the most difficult part of the hike. The path is covered in loose rocks, I allowed myself the luxury of looking around at my surroundings, whilst walking on two occasions during the descent. On both occasions I lost my footing on the loose scree, losing concentration here is a sprained ankle waiting to happen.
The remainder of the hike follows a river that crisscrosses the gorge floor. On occasion, you have to scramble over boulders,but the hike itself is not too difficult once you are at the base. At the halfway stage lies the abandoned village of Samaria, it’s now used as a rest stop and you can use the bathrooms here and replenish your water bottle at the fountains.
The scenery is wonderful as the hike continues, the gorge becomes very narrow at one point known as the “iron gates” a gap only 4 metres wide as the sheer mountains soar to a height 300 metres above. If you get lucky you may see one of the rare wild goats that populate the gorge, the Kri-Kri. However, as you arrive at the end of the hike there are some kept in pens behind fences.
There is a small restaurant at the end of the hike too where I enjoyed a freshly squeezed orange juice. The 16km hike was over but the walk had not quite finished. There is a 2km walk along a road to the isolated village of Agia Roumeli where a boat takes you to the nearby village of Hora Sfakion. Your coach will be there waiting to take you back to your resort, all part of the package I purchased.
I managed to complete the walk in 4 hours. So, before I caught the boat, I had a swim in the sea to loosen up the legs and followed that with a lovely Greek salad in a beachfront restaurant.
It was a very long day and I finally made it back tom my resort very late in the evening. It had been a marvellous day and I’m grateful the Cretans eat late into the night as I finished the day with a well-deserved meal.