Outdorsy PathwayOnce upon a time, when Lynne and I were exploring that area, we came across a sign for an “Outdorsy Pathway” between Sassalos, Malathiros and Makronas.  But although we found and enjoyed the route from Makronas to Malathiros, we never located a path through the  Halasses gorge to Sassalos.  And I know why now  –  there isn’t one.  Further research and local enquiries over the years gave more information.  The cafe owner in Sassalos told me the gorge was “oxi diskolo, alla oxi efkolo”  – not difficult, but not easy, and it would take around three hours, but that the gorge is only possible during the dry months of summer.  From the Internet, webcrete.net  suggested the gorge was  “Medium, 3-4 hrs, not clearly marked in some parts.”  Not at all, as it turned out!

So Colin and I set out to explore, taking climbing gear for possible abseils or lowers.  Sassalos is a pleasant 30km drive from Paleochora, through Plemeniana to Aligi, then over to Milones and down the chestnut tree lined valley, around 45 mins.  Not indicated in any way, access to the gorge is north past the turning to Floria, then left through houses to reach a ford, dry in summer, and the riverbed.  This we entered too soon, emerging scratched from brambles to walk easier on a track alongside to reach a concrete water cistern, then left below walnut trees and through a wire gate into the gorge proper, wide at this point.

Gorge from above

Gorge from above

Easily at first, and after passing an inexplicable picnic site, the gorge soon becomes boulder-filled and route-finding serious.  In 4km it will fall 200m, much of it inside the first kilometre.
Although we never used the rope, our old climbing skills were necessary to drop down short walls, occasionally under enormous boulders, and sometimes briefly out of the ravine before
re-entering.  An opening in a fence was marked by a plastic container (as was another lower down), and then came some respite at a small plateau, with a threshing circle and evidence of crop growing on terraces above.

Deep in Sassalos Gorge

Deep in Sassalos Gorge

The lower section is less difficult, though still requiring concentration, especially when descending to a rock “tunnel”, which proved easier than it looked from above.  After a similar one, and the second fence, the gradient eases ; we climbed left out of the streambed to meet a track through olive trees taking us to a fence and a three-way junction.  We saw no path or waymarking in two hours from Sassalos, and any stone cairns would be washed away during the winter, when the water surging through the gorge must be spectacular.

Rock tunnel from above

Rock tunnel from above

The 'tunnel'

The ‘tunnel’

From the foot of the gorge, the track ahead leads to Makronas and on to Voulgaro. We took a less obvious route up to Malathiros – on a narrow path once carefully maintained but now in some disrepair. No longer marked, it begins above a stream, keeping initially parallel with it before rising out of the valley, always climbing, then heading east, below cliffs, to a small cave/grotto with a tiny waterfall.  Continuing above here, it will eventually turn right (ahead is impassable) to lead, through a series of gates, to reach a rough track.  Go right, rising to wooden fencing, and then up left into the village of Malathiros, the main road, Agios Giorgos church, and in front of it a little square shaded by plane trees  – ‘Platea 28 August 1944’.

This is a lovely peaceful spot, but also one of the saddest places I know.  It was on that day that German soldiers came to Malathiros and nearby villages, took 61 of the men and executed them. The youngest was just thirteen years old, and the oldest sixty-six ; a marble memorial lists their names, as many as seven from the same family.

Malathiros church

Malathiros church

From Malathiros it’s an hour’s walk, 5km, back along the road to Sassalos, passing en route a shrine and rocky outcrop with a superb birds-eye view into the gorge.  It was late afternoon as we reached the village outskirts, having left around midday.  Then, Sassalos was totally empty, and we had seen no-one.  Now, as we turned the final bend, there were cars parked everywhere, and Greek music was drifting down from above the village.

Curious, we followed the music up to the former village school, long since closed, but now with several hundred people seated at long tables, music playing, and dancing in full swing, like a scene from the musical “Brigadoon.”  “Elate!” people called to us, “come and sit down, join us!”  It was the annual Sassalos Chestnut Festival, tables laden with roast chestnuts, local wine, inevitably “raki”, and “souvlaki” grilling on barbecues.  We stayed for over an hour, and had we not arranged to meet Colin’s wife Jill for dinner, would have been there long into the night …

Footnote:   Colin and I first enjoyed this route in Oct 2013.  This year, having ascertained that the Chestnut Festival began at 4pm on the 12th October, several friends and I repeated the walk through the gorge, up to Malathiros, and back along the road into Sassalos to find it  ……. completely deserted.   Maybe it was all just a dream ……

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Gingilos from the Omalos Plateau

Gingilos from the Omalos Plateau

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).

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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.

Through the rock arch

Through the rock arch

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.

Linoseli in winter

Linoseli in winter

Linoseli in summer

Linoseli in summer

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.

Lunch at the summit

Lunch at the summit

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.

The view from the terrace

The view from the terrace

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.

Cretan Tulips

Cretan Tulips

 

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.

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