With a few idle days on the beach under my belt, it was refreshing to be on a tight schedule again. The first bus for the Samaria Gorge leaves before dawn and I was the first passenger to arrive at the central bus depot in Chania to start the journey. Just me, some staff and a friendly stray dog that sleepily stumbled from place to place as she was gently prodded by a sweeper preparing the station for the day’s coming crowds.
I have visited Crete several times and completing the Samaria Gorge hike has always been on my list to things to do. This time though the Samaria Gorge, it was September. Why is that important? Well, September is off-season and the Samaria Gorge is such a fantastic trip that in high season it can sometimes feel like a 16 kilometer queue. Doing it slightly off season means you have some room to breathe in this, one of the world’s great natural landscapes.
The hike offers a range of varied experiences all rolled into one. There’s nature: etched over time by a small river between the White Mountains and Mt. Volakias, the Samaria Gorge is a national park formed in 1962 in part to create protected habitat for the local species of mountain goat, the kiri-kiri. There’s history: the gorge has been occupied since ancient Greek times. You can visit the remnants of an ancient temple on which is built the more recent church of St. Nikolas. And the area was so inaccessible in the past that it occasionally was used as a retreat and hiding place for those defending Crete from invaders. And there’s exercise: the walk is exhilarating and a pretty good challenge, as is swimming in the Libyan Sea.
The bus quietly winds through country roads, along mountain passes and through herds of goats, reaching the settlement of Omalos in about an hour. The sun breaks the horizon just after we arrive and I am ready to start the day’s descent.