Samaria or the Samaria Gorge is one of the main sights of Crete. Every tourist who visits Crete will have heard of this beautiful gorge or soon will.
Samaria Gorge is found in the White Mountains of south-west Crete in the district of Chania. They are called the White Mountains because the sun shining on the limestone rock of their peaks make them appear that colour.
The capital of the district of Chania is the town of that name. It`s a very popular tourist destination on the north coast of the island. If you look at a map of Crete you will find the Samaria gorge directly south of the town but on the opposite coast.The White Mountains contain over forty gorges of various sizes. The best known are Imbros Gorge, The Gorge of Agia Irini and the Samaria Gorge which is definitely the most famous of them all. Even though these gorges are all to be found on the same part of the island of Crete, they all have different characteristics.Samaria Gorge is named after a village of that name which is found about halfway down the gorge. The village in turn gets its name from a small 14th century church sited close by. This is the church of the Holy Mary, in the Greek language, "Osia Maria." So it is easy to see where the name Samaria comes from!The village has been deserted since 1962. The last inhabitants had to leave when the whole area was designated as a National Park. Although many of the old houses still remain, they only act as accommodation for the Park wardens. The old church of Osia Maria is still there, a little way out of the village.All the gorges in the Crete Mountains in Chania were formed by the same geological process. Water ate away the soft limestone rocks over thousands of years after the land had been uplifted by seismic activity. This water erosion has also led to huge numbers of caves being formed. There are as many as 3,000 over the island. A lot of these caves are archaeologically and religiously significant. Over a 100 of the caves have churches in them.The Samaria Gorge starts near the small town of Xyloskalo on a level area in the White Mountains called the Omalos Plateau. The name Xyloskalo can be translated as "wooden stairway." This is because the locals had built just that thing to help them enter down the steep opening into the gorge.The Omalos Plateau is over 1,200 feet above sea level and the gorge runs in a southerly direction from there down to the south coast of Crete near the village of Agia Roumeli.Of all the things to do in Crete visiting the Gorge of Samaria is a must for many tourists, especially those on Crete walking holidays. Mnay Crete excursions are based around this great hike.Coaches will collect you early in the morning and take you to your starting point at Xyloskalo in the Crete mountains. Once you have completed the hike and reached Agia Roumeli on the coast, you catch a ferry boat to the nearby port of Hora Sfakion where your coach will collect you once more.The locals call the gorge "Farangas" which means "great gorge." They also like to claim that it is the longest gorge in Europe, but that is debatable.What is certain is that in some places it can definitely be counted amongst the narrowest!The most dramitic part is a a place known as "Sideroportes" or the "Iron Gates." Here the Samaria gorge is so narrow, being about four metres wide, that you feel as though you can reach out and touch both walls at the same time.If you look up at the cliffs, which rise almost vertically above you for 350 metres, you feel totally overawed!The journey down the gorge, from Xyloskalo to Agia Roumeli on the coast, is about 18 kilometres and although the hike is not an easy one, it is extremly beautiful. The path follows a clear stream which goes through heavily scented pine forests of tall Cypress trees. There are many olive trees and some small fields with low stone walls.The Samaria Gorge is only open to visitors between the beginning of May and the middle of October. There a charge for entering the gorge, at the moment it is 5 Euros. This goes towards the maintenance of the National Park. You must keep your ticket and hand it to the warden as you leave the park, this ensures that no-one is left in the gorge overnight.During the winter months you are unable to go down the gorge.This ban can even occur in the summer season if there has been rain. This is because the pretty stream you cross many times on your hike down the gorge can turn into a raging torrent. Rain or melting snow in the Crete mountains can raise the height of the water considerably.In fact the Village of Agia Roumeli, at the bottom of the gorge, was badly flooded in the 1950`s. There are still some ruined houses which are only now being rebuilt.High winds can also cause problems. Although you may not be aware of them when you are down in the gorge they have been known to cause stones to fall from the 350 metre high cliffs. In fact there are signs warning of this danger.Any walk down the gorge usually becomes a competition to spot the rare Kri-Kri.This is a Cretan Wild Ibex with distinctive curved horns. It was introduced into Samaria gorge as a refuge for it. In fact this is only one of two places it is to be found.If you are very lucky you may spot some rare birds such as the Griffon Vulture, Bonelli`s Eagle and the Golden Eagle.One thing about Samaria Gorge you should be aware of is its popularity. During the tourist season there will be lots of people hiking through it every day.The beauty and dramatic quality of Samaria Gorge make it one of the most popular gorges to visit in the world.