Steep Stone Walls and the Ancient God Zeus in Crete's Samaria Gorge

Daniela David, DPA, October 11, 2011

"What the Grand Canyon means to America, Samaria Gorge is to Europe," says Giannis Giannakondaki, a hostel manager in Rethymnon in northern Crete. For Giannakondaki the gorge is something that must be seen to be fully appreciated, even if it's no easy walk, as any guide book will mention.

With this in mind a group of hikers set off in a bus in the early hours of the morning and drive through the landscape of Crete's Lefka Ori, the White Mountain. The road twists and turns its way up to Omalos Plateau and its information centre that explains to visitors Samaria National Park's diverse flora and fauna.

"Many rare plants grow in the region," says Elpida Peroulaki from the park's management team. "We also have Agrimi wild goats, which are threatened by extinction due to over-hunting." In mythology an Agrimi goat served as wet-nurse for the Cretan god Zeus and today it's the island's symbol.

Only a few visitors take time out to visit the information centre and most are anxious to get going. Their way leads from the plateau and rises over 1,200 metres along a 12.8 kilometre path through the gorge. After another 3.2 kilometres the hikers will reach the fishing village of Agia Roumeli where a ferry will be waiting to take them back.

The adventure begins near Xyloskalo, the northerly entry point to the gorge. The first seven kilometres are downhill: the walk descends 900 metres to the mountain's interior.

The walk's first section is through a unique eco-system of pine and cypress trees, the reason why the area was declared a national park in 1962. It covers 4,850 hectares with the gorge at its heart. The air smells of pine and is full of bird song. "We have counted 199 different bird species," says Elpida. Many migrating birds stop off here and with a little luck you may see a Golden Eagle or Bearded Vulture.

The abandoned village of Samaria is located 7.5 kilometres into the gorge. Today, it serves as a station for the park's rangers but in the past it was home to families who lived in its stone houses. In 1965 its population was moved away.

"My mother grew up here," says park ranger Eftichis Marakakis. "She would never have guessed that over 1,500 people a day would make their way through the gorge." Last year 130,000 visitors completed the trek.

After the village the most spectacular part of the walk begins: the narrow, deep gorge itself. The gorge's walls can rise up to 100 metres above its floor on both sides of the path. The stone glows an orange colour in the sunshine with tiger-like patterns and black stripping.

The path continues along a dried-out river bed. There are enormous boulders to climb over that have been polished smooth by millions of litres of water. Then the gorge's Iron Gates appear, the most famous part of the walk. At three metres it's the narrowest section, with sides so tall they appear to touch the sky.

Part of the river bed along the last section does contain water. There are simple wooden ladders that help you cross the Tarraios river several times. At the end walkers are surprised by a view of the Libyan Sea before dropping in, tired but satisfied, to the tavern in the village of Agia Roumeli on the Mediterranean coast.