Whilst some tourists visit Crete primarily to experience its unrivalled historical and architectural wonders, and many flock immediately to its numerous unspoilt beaches, the more adventurous visitor will have the Samaria Gorge National Park firmly on the top of their list of things to do. A World’s Biosphere reserve, the Samaria National Park was established in 1962, both to protect its unrivalled natural beauty and to assist in the conservation of the endangered Cretan goat, or ‘kri kri’. Located in southwest Crete, in the region of Chania, it is widely considered to be one of the wonders of the Mediterranean.
Carved by a small river running through the White Mountains, the Samarian Gorge is 13 kilometres in length, and cuts a path through some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Crete. At its narrowest point, known commonly as the ‘Gates’ or the ‘Iron Gates’, it is only 4 metres wide. Despite this, it soars to almost 300 metres in height at the same point, creating an awe-inspiring and almost terrifying sense of being enclosed and shut away from the modern world. Most tourists will experience the Gates as part of a longer trek, which begins at Xyloskalo on the Omalos plateau and continues all the way to the village of Agia Roumeli, which rests on the shore of the Libyan sea.
At 16 kilometres in length, there is no doubt that this is a walk only for healthy and fit tourists, particularly when one considers the physical exertion caused by the constant downhill motion of the gorge, and the heat of the Cretan sun at certain times of year. Indeed, the Gorge is generally open to visitors only during the hotter months, with tours being conducted between May 1st and October 15th. Even during that period, visitors are only allowed to be within the heart of the park itself between 7 am and 3 pm. Before or after these hours, access is restricted to the first 2 kilometres at the beginnings of the trail on other side.
For those who have planned properly, however, the walk is truly spectacular. Both Xyloskalo and Agia Roumeli have ample facilities for refreshments, as well as road access and car parking, and the abandoned village of Samaria can also be found about halfway through the gorge for those wanting to take the weight off of their feet. Whilst it has not been occupied since 1962, it is nevertheless a picturesque spot, and an ideal place for a picnic. After filling up water bottles at the freshwater spring nearby, a quick visit to the Byzantine church of Ossia Maria may also be in order. After all, the church gave its name to the entire Samaria National Park!
After reaching the Libyan Sea, many tourists take the option of sailing to Hora Sfakion and then catching a bush back to Chania. Still others will have a coach waiting for them as part of a package tour, or will have opted to take advantage of the wild camping facilities available near to Agia Roumeli. In such remote countryside, however, it is obvious that having access to one’s own private transport is a significant advantage. This is particularly the case if one member of a group doesn’t feel up to walking the entire gorge. They will simply be able to drive around to a convenient spot and pick up their footsore but excited compatriots – and perhaps sample just a few kilometres of the National Park themselves. Car rental provides great help in exploring Crete and proves to be an extremely popular method of getting around, it is easy to find outlets of all the major operators in towns across the island.