Thursday, 16 June 2016

Samaria Gorge (Φαράγγι της Σαμαριάς)

Last weekend, I went on a trek through the Samaria Gorge with the students from my workplace at MAICh. The Samaria Gorge, which is extremely well documented in the web, is a 13km ravine created from the path of a river between a mountain plateau and the sea. This is my second time walking down the gorge - the last time I went through it was about 22 years ago with a cousin. The Samaria Gorge is often regarded as a nature reserve, but it should be pointed out that it has been subject to human intervention since ancient times. So what is really being protected here is the essence of this interaction. It only became a tourist site about 50 years ago, but people have been walking through the gorge for many centuries before that. In ancient times, the wood from the cypress trees in the gorge was exported to Egypt, along with a small but thriving industry making wooden columns for the Minoan palaces on the island. During times of war, people hid in the gorge away from the enemies of the time. The Samaria Gorge remained inhabited until 1962, which is not all that long ago, hence there are clear signs of human intervention all over the gorge, its most important characteristic:

"The most important characteristic of the landscape of Samaria is the intense interaction between humans and nature. The relationship exists both in today's presence of humans as observers/walkers and in the historical imprint that the inhabitants of Samaria have left on this space. The traditional habitations of village, oil press, vines, and preserved chapels declare the powerful relationship that the inhabitants of Samaria had with this place." (Samaria National Park information leaflet, which you get on entry to the gorge)

Since the area was transformed into a nature reserve, the aspect of human intervention has taken different forms. Where once the inhabitants of the gorge were building churches and houses, the local administrative unit now in charge of the nature reserve is ensuring that there are fire protection units and toilets at regular intervals. Fresh water sources are also located in the many rest stations along the way, and the buildings erected by former inhabitants are preserved for historical reasons. Another important aspect of the modern administration of the gorge is that it acts as a refuge for endangered species, such as the agrimi, known as the Cretan ibex, Capra aegagrus cretica, which is normally very shy and keeps away form humans. But some of those found in the gorge have become familiar with the presence of human beings and the students in my group did actually see them up close - one person even fed them from their hands. (I was unlucky, in that I did not see any agrimi - next time, maybe.)

Work in the gorge is ongoing. The pathways that have been created are not all natural - specific work has been conducted on the gorge to make it both accessible and safe. As recently as 1991, the well-preserved Byzantine church of St Nikolas was discovered just 3km from the entrance of the gorge at the Omalos plateau. It had been hiding amidst a part of the forest which was cleared to make way for a path and rest stop.

The largest rest area and the best organised is found in the middle of the gorge in the former village of Samaria (7km in the gorge, its mid-point) where the gorge gets its name from. Here, you will see how man interacted with nature to make nature work for him, despite the difficulties of the terrain. The original residents' olive groves and vineyards are retained here. Some of the houses have been repurposed as medical centres and other administration units.

The most famous picture in the gorge is the 'sideroportes', the iron gates, so called because of their hardiness to the gushing water of the wintertime that passes through them. The narrowest point of the path is found here: the mountain sides are just 3m in width, just enough for two people to spread out their hands between them. This part of the gorge is found close to the exit near the south coast.

During my walk through the gorge, I rested at all the stops and it took me 6 hours. But the gorge can be walked downhill in anything as little as 4 hours. Walking it so quickly means that you will probably not stop to take in the sights along the way. One of the most important aspects of the walk is to spend time on observation. There were a fair number of walkers doing the sprint version on the day I walked through it (it was a busy day at the gorge). When they asked me to move over so they could zip by me like a streak of lightning, I didn't do so because I would have fallen into a ditch. (Since I was wider than them, they were obliged to wait). I also met up with some walkers doing the uphill version, which is said to be better on your feet. The path is nearly all filled with rocks and stones, so good walking shoes are a must (NOT open toed sandals). Climbers' sticks are really really helpful - three-four legs are really much better than two! The gorge is safe enough for children to walk through it, but take note: it's an easy but strenuous walk in hot conditions. (Be prepared for whinges and whines.)

The gorge can be walked down or walked up. It's up to the walker which route s/he chooses to do. At the end of the downhill walk, you get to the coastal isolated village of Agia Roumeli where you have a swim in the sea on the (almost) black pebble sand, whereas the other end of the gorge is found in a mountain plateau and is therefore not as enticing as being on the coast. Whatever you choose, you need to be aware that this is not a round trip - you arrive at/depart from the plateau by car/bus, and you depart from/arrive at Agia Roumeli by ferry boat, where you must take another bus to get to the town centre of Hania (or wherever else you may be staying in the region). Some people overnight at the plateau on Omalos and/or the vibrant coastal village of Agia Roumeli which does not have wheeled-vehicle access to other parts of the island. It should also be noted that the Samaria Gorge is not the only gorge in the area - the south coast of Crete has many ravines, which have all been created in the same way as Samaria, which is the deepest and longest. The Samaria gorge is in fact the longest gorge in the whole of Europe (not even the Swiss Alps beat us on this one).

The gorge is the second place in Greece that I have been to which does not seem to show any signs of commercial activity for a long stretch (the other place was Lake Kremaston, a very spooky nature paradise on the central mainland). When you come out of the gorge on the downhill walk, a warden will take your ticket (to ensure that no one stays in the gorge overnight, as camping is not allowed), and at this point, the commercial activity will strike you in the face, as if you woke up form a dream. in the form of cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. The walk to the beach takes you along the river delta, past the former old town of Agia Roumeli where people lived in the past until the gorge area became a nature reserve (it was possibly the location of the ancient city of Tarra, mentioned in Homer's works), through a paved road (suitable for cars) lined with the houses of residents, which eventually leads you to the very touristy but oh so enticing and highly picturesque village of the new Agia Roumeli. (You don't have to walk that bit if you don't want to - for just €1.50, a mini-bus takes you from close to the exit of the gorge to the sea. This facility didn't exist when I first walked through the gorge.)

Since the walk is not a round trip, you need to be well prepared. Hotels and tour companies organise the whole trip for you. If you prefer to do it on an individual basis, it will cost you as follows:
- €7.50 for the bus to Omalos from the town centre of Hania
- €6.00 for the entry ticket to the gorge
- €1.50 for the bus ride from the exit to the gorge to the seaside (optional)
- €12 for the ferry boat ride from Agia Roumeli to Souyia or Sfakia (depending on which village you prefer to visit) - the last ones leave daily from the coast at 5:30pm; if you take the boat for Sfakia, you may wish to stop off and stay overnight at the village of Loutro, another inaccessible-by-road- gem on the south coast of Crete
- €8-9 for the bus from Souyia or Sfakia to the town centre of Hania (the buses leave once the ferries arrive at the port).
You don't need to carry much with you: a small backpack with a water bottle, some food, sunscreen and bathing clothes (including jandals as I would call them in New Zealand, aka flip-flops) is all you need, plus some money (or credit card - I saw bog large new colourful signs denoting that CCs are now accepted!) for a delicious relaxing meal when you exit the gorge. Phone and wifi are not available in the gorge, only out of it. And everyone working in the gorge area, without exception, has an adequate level English. Listen out for the switch from the Cretan dialect as spoken by a moustachioed black-shirt local to English - Cretans' evolution really shows in this aspect alone!.

My full photo set, with more information contained in some of the captions, can be viewed here:

If you have origins from Crete, then you really should walk through the Samaria gorge at one point in your life at least, so I can say that I have fulfilled this vow.

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