The Good Samarian

We like to mix up the days with sightseeing, relaxation and exercise, as the destination allows. After two days of hanging out on the beach at Mátala, it was time for some exertion, lest we turn into beach bums.

One of the things that we had on our “to do” list for this trip was to hike the Samariá Gorge, a 16 kilometer (about 10 miles) hike from the top of the mountains to the southern coast of Crete.

So, yesterday we started early with a walk to the bus station where we caught the public bus up through the mountains to the gorge.

At the top, just past the village of Omalós, we reached the summit: 4,000 feet above sea level.

The mountain was very intimidating, but the air was crisp and cool and we were invigorated and ready to hike, planning on about 5 to 6 hours to get back down to sea level.

And off we go!

For the first 1,000 foot elevation drop, the trail was improved with steps and railings where necessary. Here at the top, it was mostly towering pines, oleanders and rocky slopes.

But further down, we came to the stream bed and the path became more basic, with the occasional water crossing.

In places, the trail flattened out and crossed pretty meadows full of oleanders in bloom.

And we also passed a number of ruins, though I’m not sure of their vintage. We do know that there was an active settlement here until the 1960s when the population was moved off so that the gorge could become a national park, dedicated to preserving the habitat of the kri-kri, the Cretan wild ibex. We saw a kri-kri at a distance in the ruins; it looked like a mountain goat.

Further down, the stream bed became a river bed. It was pretty eerie. We were told that the park service closes the trail in October during the wet season because of the rush of water coming down the gorge.

The sides of the gorge are very steep and covered with loose rock. The park service has put up a bunch of these scary signs:

Along with about 15 other people, we thought this would make a nice place to stop for a snack, protected by the “Great Danger” sign. You know, trouble never comes where you look for it.

Not much later, the walls of the gorge seemed to shoot up to the sky.

The loose rock was a little difficult to walk on, but we were equipped with hiking shoes, unlike some of the people we saw on the trail. One woman and her son were hiking in Crocs and on the bus there was a young couple with sandals (her) and flip-flops (him)! I thought that we would see them sitting along the side of the trail at some point, but I guess they made it all the way down.

There were trees growing directly out of the rock in places.

Towards the bottom, the gorge narrowed to about 10 feet in a place they called the iron gates. The walls of the gorge rise to 1,000 feet at this point.

Like at the Saklikent gorge in Turkey, there was a boardwalk along the cliff face above the water so that hikers could get through the narrows. But, here the water wasn’t very deep nor was it moving very fast, so they just laid hand-made wooden ladders down for hikers to walk on.

By the way, those pipes you see in the bottom lefthand side of the photo, below, were water pipes that ran the entire length of the gorge. They were certainly used for fire fighting and may also have transported water to the little village of Ayía Rouméli at the bottom of the gorge.

After the iron gates, we were almost to the end of the park, having hiked 13 kilometers in the park, but the elevation was still about 1,000 feet above sea level. We found out why: there’s still a 3 kilometer (about 2 miles) walk to Ayía Rouméli after you leave the gorge.

We got to Ayía Rouméli around 3:30 p.m., having started our hike at 9:00 a.m. So, we covered 10 miles in 6 1/2 hours, along with a 4,000 foot vertical descent. Not bad.

From Ayía Rouméli, we had to take the 5:30 ferry to Hóra Sfakíon.

But since we had two hours to kill, we went for a dip in the Mediterranean…

…and had an early dinner.

We got to Hóra Sfakíon around 7:00 p.m. and caught the bus back to Hania. I’m pretty sure that everybody that had hiked the gorge that day was on the ferry with us because there’s no road to Ayía Rouméli. It looked like there were about 300 people on the boat. In the summer, there are lots more on the trail.

At any rate, there were about 10 buses waiting for us at Hóra Sfakíon and after everybody had boarded, off we went in single file, up the switchbacks, to Hania.

Back in Hania, we showered and went to bed. It was our last night in Crete. Outside of the cities of Heraklion and Hania, we found Crete to be a beautiful island.

Next stop: Athens.

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