Greece: Samaria Gorge in Crete

The grueling six-hour, 16.7-kilometer hike across Crete’s Samaria Gorge is an experience filled with fresh air, stunning scenery, dramatic history, and the enticing legends of folklore.

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Every year between May 1st and October 31st, thousands of people undertake a grueling six-hour, 16.7-kilometer hike across Crete’s Samaria Gorge. Most would just like to see one of Europe’s most incredible natural wonders first hand, testing their strength and challenging their endurance. Others seek out the secrets of the gorge: the eerie ruins of the Samaria village, the snow that melts down the cliffside, the playful wild goats, the unforgettable scent of dittany, and then finally, the crystal clear waters of the Libyan Sea.

"There’s only one Gorge.." say the Cretan mountain people known as the Sphakians, "the others are just gorges." In the prefecture of Hania alone, there are fifty gorges, all of which are stunning, yet unique in their own way. Samaria Gorge, however, is simply incomparable. It is internationally renowned for its beauty and grace. The area was declared a National Park in 1962 due to the fact that it has been so well-run and well-organized for so many years.

“Samaria”- the name not only of the gorge, but also of the tiny town that lays right at its onset- was labeled as such in remembrance of a saintly Egyptian maiden. Village folklore asserts that the settlement replaced a tumbledown chapel that had stood upon the spot for centuries, overlooking the gorge. Day in and day out, the maiden, named “Ossia Maria,” had piously tended the chapel. As centuries came and went, her name gradually morphed into Sia Maria, and then finally Samaria.

According to mythological tradition, the gorge was created when a Cretan Titan slashed a deep wound into the belly of Mother Earth. Similarly, it was within this gorge, specifically within the ancient city of Kaino, that a beautiful girl named Vritomatis was born. Once she had grown up, she revealed herself to be none other than the Cretan goddess Artemis. Her profound devotion to wild beasts developed as a result of her upbringing in the forest.

Cretan history is replete with invasions and occupations, as the Venetians, Ottomans, and then finally the Germans took control of the island. Yet regardless of the historical context, the gorge remained inaccessible, unconquerable, and autonomous. The Sphankians, for example, roamed the mountains as free men for millennia on end.

Though the easiest way to visit the gorge is to join a tour group for a full-day excursion, it is certainly possible to locate and traverse the gorge on your own. A distance of 42 km separates Hania from Xyloskalo, and from Hora in Sphakia back to Hania via the Imbrou Gorge is a distance of 72 km. There are many who simply go to Sphakia, take the ferry to Aghia Roumeli, traverse the first few kilometers of the gorge (as far as the impressive Portes) and return.

Make sure you wear proper shoes for hiking (light mountain boots are better than athletic shoes). Use sunblock and wear a hat to protect you against the sun. Don’t forget to bring along at least one bottle of water. The path is so well-worn that sign posting is not necessary, and you will see park rangers much more frequently than you’d expect. Smoking is prohibited apart from at rest stops and, of course, littering is forbidden (litter bins line the route).

For those who have a keen sense of smell, springtime at the gorge is a revelation. Of the 450 different plant species that exist here, 70 are endemic to the area and most of those are aromatic herbs.

Camping at the gorge is forbidden. If you decide to stay the night, look for lodgings at Aghia Roumeli. Alternatively, you can find accommodation at Hora in Sphakia or at the idyllic little harbor of the village of Loutrou, which is on the way to Hora, but has no road.

Aghia Roumeli 28250-91214
Porto Loutrou 28250-91433
Vritomartis (Sphakia) 28250-91112

Whether you’re at Xyloskalo or at Aghia Roumeli, you will be able to dine on whatever you like. You should take along a sandwich or some fruit and plenty of water for the six-hour trek through the gorge. Keep it light, however; that trek on an overly full stomach would not be fun!

Helpful Information:
Guard House, Xyloskalo 28210-671179
Guard House, Aghia Roumeli 28250-51254
Medical Centre, Hora, Sphakia 28250-91214
Police, Hora, Sphakia 28250-91205
Port Authority, Hora, Sphakia 28250-91292
Town Hall, Hora, Sphakia 28250-91131

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