Behind the tavernas and the sandy beaches is another Greece, one that few people know, where few people go. It’s the Greece of high mountains and rugged trails . . . one of the best-kept secrets in Europe.
Crete, one of Europe’s southernmost islands, is a good place to make your acquaintance with this wild and beautiful Greece.
Happily for the hiker, Crete’s rugged White Mountains, which for centuries helped the Cretans repel invaders, have been preserved and protected from resort development.
Today, Crete boasts some of the most striking wilderness areas in Greece, or for that matter in all of the Mediterranean.
A fine--one might say awesome--introduction to the beauties of the Cretan countryside is the trek through Samaria Gorge. It’s a hike that will satisfy the beginner and whet the appetite of the experienced mountaineer.
The entire trail through the gorge is well maintained and clearly marked--a rarity in Greece.
Samaria Gorge, Europe’s deepest and longest gorge, is a great gash in the White Mountains.
The rim of the gorge, where you begin your hike, is 4,OOO feet above the village of Ayia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea, where you end your hike.
The gorge is protected by Samaria National Park, established by the Greek government in 1962.
The massive walls of the gorge, and the towering pines and bold cypresses, are the most dramatic features of the park, but there are other, more subtle beauties.
A sturdy, chaparral-like ecosystem of juniper, myrtle and thyme thrives in the White Mountains. White cyclamen, pink rock rose and golden dandelions splash color on the mountainsides.
Riding the thermals along the gorge walls are great birds, including the hawk, golden eagle and the endangered bearded vulture.
Lucky hikers might catch a glimpse of the elusive agrimi , the Cretan ibex--an agile, goat-like creature with large, bow-like horns. The agrimi is a wild, proud, defiant symbol of Crete.
Samaria Gorge was the scene of many a battle between the freedom-loving Greeks and the Turks, who occupied Crete from 1669 to 1898 but were never able to subdue the fierce mountain people of Samaria.
Freedom fighter Yannis Daskaloyannis successfully defended the gorge during a 1770 rebellion, but later lost his life when the Turks skinned him alive in Heraklion, the island’s capital.
During World War II, Cretan guerrillas offered stiff resistance to the invading Germans. Samaria Gorge became one of the major escape routes to the south for retreating Allied troops.
Logistics for the Samaria Gorge trek are both complex and easy--complex because arrangements involve two bus rides and one boat ride, easy because tour operators offer package deals.
These mini-tours, sometimes guided and sometimes not, include all the transportation arrangements. They depart from the island’s two largest cities, Heraklion and Hania.
You could save some drachmas by mastering Crete’s bus and ferry schedules and making separate arrangements for each, but the savings probably isn’t worth the trouble. Besides, Greek buses run on Greek time; that is to say, don’t set your watch by them.
If it’s solitude you’re after, visit Samaria Gorge on a day when the tour buses don’t run. If you want to meet visitors from all over the world (but not many Americans), sign up for a tour.
You can hike Samaria Gorge from April to October. The exact dates for hiking depend on the winter rains, which fill the gorge at its narrowest parts and make it impassable.
Currently, Greece, like Southern California, is suffering from a drought. Dependable bus and ferry service is only possible when the gorge is open.
Most Samaria-bound buses leave from Hania on the northwest coast of the island. The buses leave early, 5 to 6 a.m., head south across the Omalos Plain and make a breakfast stop.
Sleepy hikers can wake up with a Cretan breakfast that includes strong Greek coffee, fresh orange juice and some thick, creamy yogurt topped with Cretan honey.
The hike begins at an overlook in the shadow of 6,450-foot Mt. Gingilos. It’s a precipitous descent down wooden staircases and a steep trail, dropping 3,250 feet in less than two miles.
Once down in the bottom of Samaria Gorge, it’s easy walking. The pine- and cypress-shaded path meanders to the small chapel of Agios Nikolaos.
Springs bubble up in convenient spots--welcome refreshment on what can be in summertime a very hot hike.
About halfway along, you enter the old hamlet of Samaria (abandoned when the national park was formed).
Say hello to the park ranger on duty there. Shady Samaria is a popular picnic and rest stop.
The trail continues descending to the Church of Ossia Maria (The Bones of Mary), built in 1379 by the Venetians. Samaria is a contraction of Ossia Maria.
With the passage of time, Ossia Maria was shortened into Sia Maria, then Sa Maria, and finally pronounced as one word.
As for Maria herself, she was an Egyptian courtesan who, repenting of her ways, lived out her days as an ascetic in the desert. Maria has been beatified but not granted sainthood.
Descending further, the trail reaches the famous Sideroportes, “Iron Gates,” where the gorge is at its narrowest (about nine feet across).
This narrow passage, where the Tarraios River becomes a raging torrent in winter, is the main reason why Samaria Gorge is closed during the rainy season.
The path emerges on a sandy plain at the mouth of the gorge. Here you’ll find food and refreshment at the village of Ayia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea.
While waiting for the ferry, you can take a dip at the nice beach there.
The scenic, one-hour ferry ride along the spectacular south shore of Crete brings you to the port of Hora Sfakion.
Here you’ll board a bus and cross the island back to the population centers on the north coast of the island.
Hiking the Samaria Gorge takes a very long day, but one you’re likely never to forget.
Hiking / Crete Samaria Gorge Trail Where: Samaria National Park Length: 11 miles one way, 4,000-foot elevation loss. Terrain: Pine /cypress forest; longest, deepest gorge in Europe. Highlights: Greek history, flora, wildlife. Degree of Diffculty: Strenuous for the ill-prepared, out-of-shape vacationer, otherwise not difficult because it’s all downhill. Precautions: Good footwear, protection from the sun, stay on the trail. For more information: Contact the Greek National Tourist Organization, 611 West 6th St., Suite 2198, Los Angeles 90017, (213) 626-6696