Those who pass through the wild and beautiful Samaria Gorge in Crete are rewarded with a sense of achievement and, according to legend, eternal youth
‘Wild goat, up there - do you see it?’ All heads turn as the guide points to a boulder overhanging the cliff face. Startled, the lone male stares for an instant then leaps out of sight, his long curving horns flashing like gold through the screes.
Kri-kri have been a symbol of Crete since antiquity and local folklore praises their swiftness and strength. Protected by law, they roam the rugged slopes and ravines of the White Mountains in western Crete. The Samaria Gorge may be their favourite haunt but we were lucky. The goats are rarely seen by trekkers who come throughout the season, lured by 18 kms of stunning scenery.
We started our walk at Xyloskalo where, on the edge of the Omalos plateau, a wooden stairway drops down 1000 metres, in the shadow of Gigilos peak, a massive mound of rocks bleached by the sun. Far below, the gorge snakes towards a distant sea, a long ribbon of holm oaks and feathery pines, scented juniper, tall cypresses and plane trees mirrored in the streams.
Once you reach the bottom of the steps, there is no easy escape. Behind you, a strenuous climb back to the plateau; ahead of you, a five-to-seven-hour trek on a never-ending trail, clearly marked but strewn with stones and boulders. As the heat grows heavy, you may be tempted to linger, take an afternoon nap perhaps, but when you finally reach the Libyan Sea, you may find the last boat has gone and with it, your only link to the roadhead. We kept a keen eye on the slates marking every kilometre along the way.
According to Cretan legend, this great north-south gash was created by a Titan splitting the earth with his sword. Meanwhile, Zeus, father of all gods, sat on his throne on Gigilos, coming down from time to time to bathe in the springs.
Today, in Samaria’s lush oasis, springs still gurgle out of the rock, tumbling over the stones to feed the cool Tarraios, an impassable torrent in winter but in summer, a playful crystalline stream that hikers cross 47 times on log bridges or stepping stones. Yellow butterflies flutter among wild orchids and irises, anemones and the elegant star-shaped Urginea. Aromatic and medicinal plants grow in abundance - rosemary, sage, thyme, marjoram, the highly-prized dictamon clinging to precipitous crags - and as the breeze sweeps along the cliffs, the air is filled with fragrance. Of the 160 species endemic to Crete, many are found in Samaria.
That sunny September morning, the usual crowds poured into the gorge, eager to enjoy the peace, and only the sound of birds and rushing water echoed through the wilderness. All you need is sturdy footwear, enough food for the day and a water bottle to replenish at the springs. There are muleteers to come to your rescue, should you need them, and tickets are checked at the exit to ensure no one remains stranded after dark.
Slowly descending towards the sea, the trail skirts the awesome Kalokambos ravine and the landslide of Halasé. Caves dot the limestone cliffs, haunted, say the locals, by demons and goats. Now and then a golden eagle soars high above the chasm.
Before it became a National Park, Samaria had been inhabited since ancient times. Archaeologists have uncovered Roman and Byzantine ruins and the site of the ancient city of Kaino. Nearer our time, woodcutters lived in Samaria village where, among the old olive groves, abandoned houses still stand, honey-coloured in the sun. Here trekkers quench their thirst at the fountain or rest in the shade while the more energetic venture to the tiny church of Hosa Maria.
Beyond the spring of the partridge, the gorge starts to narrow, forcing the path into the rough river bed. Here, even at the height of summer, the sun shines only four hours a day. As you approach the exit at Sideroportes, you have to squeeze through the ‘Iron Gates’, sheer red cliffs barely three metres apart, but towering 700 metres above your head. Gazing at this mere crack through the rock, you understand why, in times of war, men, women and children sought refuge in this place and the gorge became a symbol of Cretan freedom.
As you pass through the third gate, the breeze greets you with a sense of achievement and the refreshing smell of the sea. At last it appears like a mirage beyond a ruined water mill. Another world awaits, the tavernas serving long cool drinks in Aghia Roumeli and the scenic, crowded boat ride to Hora Sfakion.
But Samaria stays with you long after you leave, for those who pass successfully through the gorge, they say, will be forever young. We may not be as nimble as goats but what more could we want?
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