Of the thousands of walkers who gaze across at the north face of Gingilos from Xyloscala, before setting off down the Samaria Gorge, few would imagine that the summit of this magnificent mountain can be reached in less than three hours. If you don’t drive, the early morning bus (6.15am) from Paleochora arrives at Xyloscala around 8am, but there’s a problem here – the only means of getting back is by a pre-arranged taxi, or a long bus journey via Chania.
The solution is to stay overnight at Omalos village, and walk down Samaria Gorge next day, setting off early morning before the crowds arrive, then taking the ferry from Agia Roumeli.
The climb begins from the terrace overlooking Samaria. Pass right of the alpine-style Restaurant Xyloscala, where you can enjoy a well-earned drink or meal later, and head upward on the first of many zig-zags the path will take as it gains height. After 45 mins there is some respite, and a resting place looking down to the Omalos Plateau, already 400m below. Rising above Samaria Gorge are the high peaks of the White Mountains – Melindaou (2133m), Pachnes (2453m) and Zaranokefala (2140m).
Now the path levels, then descends slightly to pass through a rock arch, and traverses below towering limestone pinnacles to climb to the Linoseli spring, where cold refreshing water flows throughout the year, even in high summer.
The route to the Linoseli col, left of the vast scree slope, looks more daunting than it proves. As you gain height, look for griffon vultures which nest on Gingilos, lammergeiers with their enormous wingspan and conspicuous diamond-shaped tails, eagles, ravens, and the more common alpine choughs. At the col you can take a rest, look down the Tripiti Gorge, and decide whether or not to continue to the summit. At almost 1700m it can be cold and windy here, even in summer, and if it is, will be even more so higher up.
The path stops at the col, but the route ahead is clearly marked with yellow paint and stone cairns. This is now more than a walk, with a “head for heights” and the occasional use of hands necessary as you scramble over the rocks, always following the waymarking. Towards the summit the angle eases, and soon a huge cairn marking the top is reached, at 1964m. On a clear day the view is superb, to both north and south coasts, with Chania town far below, Gavdos island out to sea, and of course many peaks of the Levka Ori, with Pachnes superior to all. Paleochora is visible to the south-west, 24km distant, and nearly 2000m below you.
To the NE is a subsidiary summit with the remains of a metal cross, which looks higher but isn’t. The traverse across to it is over difficult rocky terrain, and the views not appreciably different.
Return with caution to the Linoseli col, and from there by the same route as ascent back to Xyloscala. Omalos is 3km away, but if you’ve arranged to stay with the Drakoulakis family at the Hotel Neos Omalos (www.neos-omalos.gr) a quick phone call can result in a five-minute transfer there by mini-bus.
I’d not climbed Gingilos for several years, Laura never, so a warm clear day in mid-April provided the perfect opportunity for an ascent. Driving the 55km from Paleochora, we were ready to set off at 10am. Samaria was closed, and only a couple of cars were at Xyloscala ; in May and June it will be much different. Across the gorge, Pachnes was still snow-covered, but only a few patches remained on Gingilos after a mild winter, with none on the route to Linoseli. Our time to the summit, as described above, was a little under three hours, with frequent stops for photographs and to enjoy the views. En route, as we rested and re-filled water at Linoseli spring, two young men joined us, from – of all places – Romania, Laura’s home country. “We have some traditional food to share with you on the summit,” they said, pushing ahead.
Low clouds drifted around the Linoseli col, obscuring views to the south, and similarly at the summit, giving us just occasional glimpses of nearby Volakias, 2118m, to Pachnes and beyond. But an unplanned snack of sliced onions, bread and ‘szalona’, a smoked pork/bacon, complemented our rather mundane cheese & egg sandwiches. Only four persons on the summit, three conversing in Hungarian and Romanian, occasionally switching to English for my benefit.
Only the top 100m were cloudy, and we soon descended into the sunshine, reaching the Xyloscala restaurant, with its spectacular balcony overlooking Samaria, in a little under two hours. And there we enjoyed cups of ‘tsai vouno’ (mountain tea) before the journey home.
A final highlight was pausing on the Omalos plateau to see and photograph the fields of tulips – ‘tulipa bakeri’ – another beautiful species endemic to Crete.
Bob has revised and reprinted his first book “10 Walks Around Paleochora”. It is on sale exclusively at the Delphini Bookstore in Paleochora. It contains 7 walks not included in the “Explore” ebook available online.