Amazingly, in 14 years of Explore ! we’ve never been down the Samaria Gorge. So let’s put that
straight, with an afternoon descent in early May, very few walkers on the path, and an overnight
stay in Agia Roumeli.
First some facts. The National Park of Samaria was established in 1962, covering an area of 4,850
hectares. The trail down the gorge begins from Xyloscala, on the Omalos plateau, and descends
from 1,230m (4,035ft) to sea level and the Libyan Sea. From entrance to exit measures 13.3 km,
with a further 3km into Agia Roumeli. An average time for the walk is between 5 and 7 hrs, with a
Degree of Difficulty 3/5. The Gorge is open from May 1st until late October depending on weather conditions, and from 7am. An entry fee (currently 5 euro) is payable.
An item of interest. In the corner of the car park, opposite the entrance, is a memorial to eleven
members of the KKE …” and dozens more fighters whose identities are unknown,” killed in the
Battle of Samaria in June 1948. More of which later.
After a taxi from Paleochora, we were the last to set off down the gorge, at exactly 1pm, with
warnings that the last boat left at 5.30pm, and the exit gate would close at 6.pm, neither of which
caused us concern. The massive north face of Gingilos dominates the initial descent, which drops
almost 1000m in the first 2km. On Gingilos are several precarious looking rock climbing routes,
none of which I would contemplate, even in my youth. The summit, at 2,080m is attained by an
easier path (ref. Explore ! April 2014) far less hazardous, and the summit views extensive.
Michelle was slightly ahead, and apart from several, for reasons best known to themselves, walking
UP to Omalos, I was alone in the gorge, with just birdsong, the scent of the pine trees and later
the rippling stream for company. Near the end of the steep section is Ag. Nikolaus church, a place
of worship since Ancient Greek and Roman times.
Here there is spring water, toilets, and horses to rescue the lame and limping, and with often over 1000 visitors daily, these are frequent …..
Not always is the gorge as peaceful and placid. Xan Fielding, returning to Crete ten years after his
wartime exploits with the SOE, and visiting partisan friends in Samaria village, wrote : “
Winter had broken the path in a small number of places ; we had to negotiate gaps and screes
which beforehand had never existed. Damage by rain and floods was evident, too, when we reached
the bottom. The stream was swollen into a vicious torrent.” ‘The Stronghold’ – 1953
Conditions were similarly hazardous when on the 22nd May 1941, after the German invasion, King
George of Greece, son Prince Peter and Prime Minister Tsouderos were guided down the gorge to
Agia Roumeli, and evacuated to Alexandria on the British destroyer HMS Decoy.
The settlement of Samaria – the name derives from the church of Santa Maria of Egypt, b.1379 –
was populated until 1962, when residents were moved to old Agia Roumeli as the National Park was
developed. Now there is a Warden Centre, First Aid post, picnic tables, water and toilets. In the
early morning, or late afternoon, here are possible glimpses of the endangered Cretan wild goat, or
“kri-kri” whose main residence is in the National Park.
In the summer of 1948, at the height of the Greek Civil War, around a thousand Government
forces trapped and heavily outnumbered several hundred KKE fighters who had sought refuge in
Samaria village. All the exits were sealed, and troops moved down the gorge. Between 2nd/8th
June, fierce fighting resulted in many fatalities and casualties on both sides. But under cover of
darkness, the majority of the guerrillas escaped the confines of the gorge by a little-known path
from Prinias over Volakias mountain, and fled. Incredibly, two of these, who later became known as
the “Eagles of Crete”, remained ‘Wanted’ and on the run from authorities until they surrendered
under an Amnesty in February 1975. *
A concerned Ranger asked us if all was well, pointed out that we were only half-way, and that it was
now four o’clock. At a slightly raised pace, and on easier terrain, the gorge widened, then narrowed
to reach ‘Portes’, or Iron Gates, where just 3m separates cliffs rising sheer to 300m.
Despite the dry winter, and below average snowfall, the Tarraios river flowed, and was crossed
several times by wooden footbridges.
A further 1.5km took us to the Exit, the last of c.800 to arrive, although we had seen only a few.
We declined the temptation of the “shuttle bus”, and walked the final kilometre into Agia Roumeli
and the hospitality of old friends at the Calypso hotel.
In the early years of the Samaria Gorge, walkers travelled to Paleochora in an open boat, which
towed two similar craft, probably an unnerving and uncomfortable two-hour voyage. After a day’s
rest and relaxation, we returned home in comparative luxury on board the Good Ship Samaria.
‘The Eagles of Crete’ : An Untold Story of the Civil War. Colin Janes 2013