Crete is the largest of the Greek Islands and a well known tourist destination. The North side of the island is famous for its sandy beaches covered with sweaty, tanning tourists. The mass tourists don’t often reach the South side of the island which lacks big cities, party villages and tourist beaches, but is home to a rough rocky coast where mountains, canyons and rocky beaches prevail.
After spending some days on the North side of the Island in the beautiful yet overcrowded city Chania (Greek: Χανιά) it was high time to head on down to the South of Crete. We chose to go for a 13 km (over 8 miles) hike through the famous Samaria Gorge (Φαράγγι Σαμαριάς). We barely made the early morning bus at 6h15 in Chania and started our drive on an empty stomach with a loaf of bread and a package of cheese in our bags. Everyone in the bus was quiet while the engine roared to take us up into the mountains. When we left the temperature was already up to 28°C (over 80°F) in the city although the sun had only just woken up, but the mountains where covered by a blanket of clouds. We reached the Omalos plateau at 7h30 where our sandals, shorts and tank tops were proven to be insufficient to protect us against the cold and wind at the 1250m high starting point of the trail.
We payed the €5 entrance to the National Park of Samaria, rolled ourselves in all the clothes we had brought and off we went, some in hiking or sport shoes, others like me were trying it on our hiking sandals. The beginning of the path was steep and lots of loose rocks were causing us to slide down once in a while, so sandals didn’t seem to be the proper footwear after all. The first thing we noticed was how a train of people formed along the path. I wondered if pushing one person would cause a domino effect of falling people through the whole canyon. Another thing I quickly notices was the bright red fire extinguisers that were abundant along the trail and even some fire escape routes were planned out for evacuating the hikers if a fire were to occur, this was a must here with the canyon receiving up to 3000 visitors every day in the high season. The first part of the hiking trail was covered with trees, I could imagine this was most welcome on a sunny day, but we were also more than happy to have a cloudy morning that day, because even without sun, the temperature soon rose to a comfortable warmth.
Once we got further into the canyon, the sun started coming through the clouds and the train of people collectively stopped their journey for a moment to add sunglasses and hats to their outfits and to apply sun lotion. The sun brought along with it some unexpected presents. The pine trees released a warm, sweet scent and the cicadas welcomed us with a symphony of chirping. The forest path turned into a wider valley that was comfortable to walk in, as the last hours were only downhill, this sudden change of landscape and slope was more than welcome. In contrast to the abandoned sources of potable water we past earlier, the upcoming sources became gathering and resting points where one could escape the scorching heat under a tree and enjoy a fresh sip of water. One of the most famous sights in the gorge are ‘The Iron Gates’, here the gorge narrows to a 3m (10 feet) width while the 30m (100 feet) high walls tower over you. The Tarraios river that runs through, leaves no room for hikers here and a wooden path ensures a dry passing through the gates.
The canyon seemed to go on endlessly and the 13km looked more like 31km to us, but after nearly 7 hours of walking, the end of the canyon was in sight, a rock painted with a “12” on it gave a us the courage to carry on and at the end of the trail everyone had to show their ticket to ensure that everyone that entered the canyon also got out the same day (overnight stays are not allowed). With our untrained legs cramping up we now notices that the coast was still one more kilometer up ahead, so we put in a last effort to get to the small village Agia Roumeli (Greek: Αγιά Ρουμέλη) to reach.. the Libyan sea! We threw our bags and shoes on the pebble beach – with the black stones burning our dirty feet – and plunged into the sea enjoying the cristal clear water like it was heaven. The beach was full of Samaria-hikers cooling off from a long, hot day and waiting for the ferry to carry them back to civilization. We’d planned to stay in one of the few hotels in the village for the night and after the last ferry left, the village turned into an oasis of peace and quietness. We arrived at the hotel Samaria where we seemed to be the only guests. The woman greeting us was sincerely welcoming and offered us a nice room with a balcony looking out over the sea. After a shower we decided to see the village which was only a few streets, with a few hotels, a few restaurants and a little shop. There was no one to be seen or heard anywhere and we choose to sit down for a bite in the restaurant belonging to the hotel, it was empty just like all the other restaurants were. The woman from the hotel came to greet us with menus and we ordered the biggest and most amazing gyros with tzatziki on the planet. The sun set and tired of the hike we went into a peacefull sleep only to wake up with terribly sore muscles and unable to walk the next morning. The pain was soon forgotten when our butts hit the chairs at breakfast and freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and toast with honey was brought our way. An old man greeting us with ‘good morning flowers’ made us feel like princesses. It’s impossible to describe the feeling I had in Agia Roumeli, it was simply put ‘heaven on earth’.
But soon the ferry had to take us away from paradise to Hora Sfakion (Χώρα Σφακίων) where the bus was waiting to bring us back to the big city and back to reality.