walking samaria // europe’s longest gorge

The Samariá Gorge, or as it is known in Greek, Φαράγγι Σαμαριάς, is a national park in the Greek island of Crete. Depending on the source, Samaria is often said to be the longest gorge in Europe. I am proud to say that I conquered it this June.

When I was planning my trip to Crete back in the depths of winter last year, I confess that I didn’t know much about the island I was going to visit. When I came across the Samaria Gorge hike, it ticked all of my boxes. Doable on a day trip by public transport? Check! Cheap? Check! Gorgeous view? Check! I immediately resolved myself to do this hike.

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I grew up doing Scouts back in New Zealand, so I was well used to tramping, as we call it. However, since moving to a largely flat city where I have to rely on public transport, I will confess that I haven’t really done any hiking. Don’t get me wrong, London has some great parks and forests, but it’s not the same as a fully fledged wilderness!

From my research though, Samaria seemed to be essentially downhill the whole way, and doable for someone who definitely hadn’t done anything strenuous in a while. There were a few scary reviews online about difficulty, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t find it that difficult. The heat was the worst part! But we arrived early, so we missed the hottest part of the day.

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I don’t usually do tours when I travel, but I’m glad I treated myself to this one. It was only €5 more than if I had made my own way up with public transport, plus our guide was pretty good, so it was well worth it. After arriving at the entrance, we split up to do the walk at our own pace, and only rejoined the main group when we left for the ferry at the end of the day.

I’m lucky in that my life doesn’t involve early starts very often, but that backfired against me in this case, because I spent the entire night terrified that I would sleep in. I set five alarms, and went to bed as early as possible. Of course, most of that fear turned out to be irrational, because I woke up before my first alarm even went off, and spent half an hour sitting in the lobby contemplating my existence while waiting for the bus.

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Even the drive there was gorgeous. We left the busy streets of Chania behind very quickly, and the suburbs changed to vineyards and fields. We passed through narrow, winding roads, and through villages that didn’t look like they had changed in centuries. The villages got smaller and smaller, until we were only seeing the occasional farmhouse. Having spent the majority of my trip close to the sea, it was fascinating seeing another side of Crete. The sun was up by the time I had left, but as we gained altitude it disappeared as the mountains obscured our view of the sky. I got to enjoy my second sunrise of the day, as the sun made it’s way over the White Mountains.

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We were one of the first tour groups to arrive, which was nice because it meant that it started off very peacefully. The first two kilometres of the walk was strictly downhill, on some rocky staircases, if you could call them that. The only thing protecting you from the edge was a wooden fence precariously clinging to the dusty rocks, which wasn’t particularly reassuring. Five minutes in, I seemed to be getting the hang of the steep, crumbling stairs. It was a good call bringing my hiking boots; they made me feel much more stable on the slippery rocks. Shortly after I thought this, I slipped over and got a killer scrape on my knee. I bounced back up, with renewed caution. Thankfully, I had learnt my lesson, and didn’t slip over again.

There was this American family from Washington who were walking at the same pace as me, and we eventually got talking. There were two cousins there who were the same age as me, but their lives couldn’t be more different to mine. We spent the whole trip swapping stories about our home lives. I don’t really know that many Americans in real life, so most of what I know is from TV. It was really fascinating hearing about it first hand! Halfway down we also met some more Americans – a retired couple, with the strongest Texan accent. I had never heard one in real life before, so that was weirdly one of the highlights of the trek.

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Hikers of all shapes and sizes joined us!

And as for the scenery? It was almost ridiculously beautiful. And saying that, I come from New Zealand, so I’m no stranger to natural beauty. But many walks in New Zealand are covered by bush, so you don’t necessarily see the view for most of the walk. However, the Samaria Gorge was fully exposed to the beauty of nature, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. It was extremely hot. Even as we were heading down the initial steps at 8am, it was already starting to heat up. Greece was providing us with another 33º day. Or as my weather app said, ‘feels like 36º’. Thankfully, the perk of walking down a gorge is that we always had access to fresh river water to refill our bottles.

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Before modern times, the canyon was extremely difficult to access. Even nowadays, you can only reach the village at the foot of the canyon by boat, or by hiking down the gorge. You can still see the reminders of how the trail was once used for more practical purposes, by looking at the several small churches dotted along the path. Up until the mid 20th century, there was actually another village halfway down the trail as well. It was only abandoned when the area was official made a national park. Some of it was re-purposed for hiking facilities.

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At the end of the gorge you’ll find the tiny village of Agia Roumeli. There wasn’t much to it, aside from a couple of restaurants, souvenir shops and a few hotels. Because of its isolation, most of the population is someone who probably just completed the Samaria hike. There’s two ferries a day to the neighbouring towns, and I imagine the majority of the town disappears after these ferries leave!

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Despite the cavernous cliffs looming behind it, the relative normality of village felt like a totally different world to that wild world of the canyon. I’m glad I brought my togs, because I managed to squeeze in a quick swim before heading back.

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Although I initally had my doubts about doing the walk, I’m glad I did it in the end. It certainly lived up to it’s reputation as one of the most impressive walks in Europe. If not for that, it was a good excuse to dust off my walking boots.

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