A TOUR OF THE OMALOS PLATEAU 
SAMARIA GORGE & NATIONAL PARK

 

This tour is meant as an alternative to actually walking the gorge or mountains and to give you some information on the famous Omalos Plateau, the beautiful National Park 'Fysikon Parko' of Crete and of course the renowned Samaria Gorge. All positioned on the western side of the island, escalating out of Cretans ancient and sun baked landscape, rise the limestone crags of the 'Lefka Ori' 'The White Mountains'. Standing tall and proud in the sun, set against a beautiful blue sky. The range presents a formidable barrier between the more developed north and the quieter southern coast. The national park is state owned but within the peripheral zone, locals continue to hold grazing rights. The National park is divided structurally into two parts. The north is drastically eroded to form a number of valleys whilst the south is characterised by deep gorges, probably resulting from tectonic movements and the effects of ancient glaciers. There are numerous unexplored caves and at least 22 springs. 

  

Within the park there are isolated strands of Mediterranean forest with pine 'Pinus brutia' funeral cypress 'Cupressus sempervirens horizontalis', Cretan maple 'Acer creticum', holm oak 'Quercus coccifera' and plane 'Platanus orientalis'. Maquis includes areas of myrtle 'Myrtus communis', heath 'Erica arborea', juniper 'Juniperus oxycedrus, J. macrocarpa, J. phoenicea,  Phamnus oleoides, Crateagus 'Pistacia lentiscus, monogyna', carob 'Ceratonia siliqua', wild olive 'Olea sativa', O. oleaster', Cretan dittany 'Origanum dictamus', O.microphyllum, peony 'Paeonia clusii'  Grecian sage 'Phlomis fruticosa' 'P. crtica', thyme 'Thymus capitatis', rock rose 'Cistus salvifolius' and C. cretius'. The 14 endemic species are 'Ebenus cretica', 'Petromarula pinnata', 'Celsia arcturus', 'Linum arboreum'. 'L. caespitosum', 'Asperula incana', 'A. idaea', 'Verbascum spinosum, ' Hypericum trichocaulon, 'Sanguisorba cretica',  Majorana dictamnos, 'Centaurea idaea', 'C. argrentea and 'Alyssum creticum'. The mountains are penetrated by a single official road, whilst holding several hugely satisfying walks. A network of traditional paths, some paved, others rough, that form a series of trails throughout the mountains. These exist alongside roads only recently developed, but are still in use today by the shepherds, goat herders and elderly peasants with their donkeys laden with foraged food and kindling for fuel.

 

There is only one main road from Hania's National road, which is clearly signposted to Omalos. After about 8 km you arrive at a junction with a number of road signs in blue and a large green sign. Follow the route to Fournes and Omalos. The road takes you through numerous orange groves to Fournes passing a large church on your left hand side prior to taking a sharp turn right signed to Lakki and Omalos.

 

The road leading to Omalos, especially after Lakki, is mountainous, rising high with many hairpin bends. So be careful, as from May to October you will meet a number of tour buses either taking tourist to the entrance of the gorge or returning from Samaria empty. In early spring, September and October on rainy days you will come across lots of fog and mist so be very careful as the roads are not at all well marked. With rain of course you encounter stones on the road just another hazard! 
 

 

Hopefully your trip will take place on a clear day when you will then have the most amazing view of the northern coastline. The village of Lakki is built on a hillside surrounded by chestnut and olive trees. This village has been a centre of resistance during and uprising against the Turks and also during World War ll. Here however, you will find no orange groves or much land to cultivate on. As from early Autumn until the end of spring the mountain peaks are covered with snow.

   

After Lakki you come across a modest memorial, a marble plaque on the side of the rocks, to 'Kapetan Vasilios'  Sergeant Dudley Perkins, a New Zealander who earned the nickname of 'The Lion of Crete' for his work with the resistance. He became a legend, gaining the respect of both the Cretan resistance fighters, and those Allied soldiers who helped the opposition on Crete. He was killed here in an ambush leading his band of resistance fighters against the Germans, he and others died brave men. Just another reminder of how the courageous Allies and the heroic Cretan's fought together, along with having to try to survive in these less than hospitable mountains during the war years.

 

During the spring the snow melts turning the plateau into a boggy marsh and lake. The array of wild spring flowers are abundant and the bird life is profuse in this area, where temperatures are cool even in the height of summer. The fresh herbs and weeds don't last long after the thaw as the goats eat them and the mountain residents collect the 'horta' for salads and pies! The plateau is flat and sits at an altitude of around 1,100m surrounded by the highest peaks of the 'Lefka Ori' White Mountains, there are routes leaving from three corners as the plateau is some what triangular in shape. 

 

The unsuccessful Cretan revolt against the Turks of 1866 began here, and the grave of one of Crete's great rebel leaders Hatzimihalis Yiannaris can be found next to his house, often known as the 'castle' and the chapel of Ayios Pandeleimon. He became president of the Cretan Assembly which won union with Greece in 1912 after nearly a century of bloody struggles. He had the chapel built and dedicated to the saint Ayios Pandeleimon to whom he had prayed while in a Turkish prison.

 

This fertile plateau used to grow copious quantities of vegetables, fruit, cereals and potatoes that didn't grow very well in the warm climate at sea level. Today the local still grow a bountiful supply of apples in this tepid climate with trees all around in abundance. The plateau is also important for transporting sheep the farmers bring them from lower winter pastures to the 'Madhares' the higher parts of the White Mountains in the spring, and return them prior to the winter months. 

 

Today's technology and 4x4 vehicles have enabled the roads to be cleared in the winter months more efficiently, moreover since electricity was brought to this mountainous region it has allowed a few families to live on the plateau all year round, running some small tourist businesses. A new tourist information centre and tourist accommodation has been built in the  time-honoured tradition using local stone with slate roofs. In the last 10 years an amount of local winter tourism has also developed making the plateau a very popular weekend destination, especially for those from the coastal towns and areas, who come for a walk or ski in the snow and have the ubiquitous lunchtime meal in a local taverna.

 

From here in the summer months, there are trails to the southeast, to Kalergis mountain refuge which is open from April-Oct and from there it is possible to venture to the peak of Pachnes the latter just a few metres lower than the peak of Psiloritis (the highest peak on Crete). The total time for this hike is about nine hours. But only for the experienced. Details can be found at the EOT office in Hania or through the Mountaineering Club of Hania. Rare Cretan plants can be found growing on the steep mountain slopes around this refuge.

 

If you have come this far then I suggest you at least take a look at the start of the Samaria Gorge, even if you have no intention of every walking it! The road from Omalos continues to rise south for another 4 km, ending at the entrance to the Gorge. This awe inspiring sight will just simply take your breath away a must for anyone to behold. 

 

Samaria Gorge National Park was established on 6th December 1962, it extends over an area of 5,100 hectares and is visited by some 300,000 people a year. With the aim of protecting the flora, the improvement and increase of the fauna, the conservation of geomorphologic formations and the protection of natural beauty and the development of tourism. 

 

As more and more people became aware over the years of how the natural environment was being used and abused with the landscape degraded and destroyed for many reasons, including the disappearance of native species of flora and fauna. The Greek government began taking note of their own natural heritage in 1937. By 1938 the first National Park was designated on Mount Olympus. Regrettably this was for mainland Greece only and not the islands. Even today after all these years this still has not been the major priority of the Greek Government.
 

This famous landmark is 13 kms long carved by the Tarraios River which flows through it to the sea. Often said to be 18 km long - this actually refers to the distance between the settlement of Omalos on the northern side of the plateau and the village of Ayia Roumeli (site of ancient Tarrha, Greco-Roman era) the actual gorge is only 13 kms long but you will have to walk the extra 3 km to the sea from the exit of the National Park making it 16 km.  It ranges from 3 metres in width at its narrowest point to 150 metres. The gorge cuts through the heart of the White Mountains to the clear blue Libyan Sea. To the east of the gorge there lies another gorge, the Elygia gorge, and to the west an even wilder gorge Tripiti. According to Greek mythology, one of the Titans cut the land with his knife to create the Samaria Gorge, whilst  Zeus is said to have placed his throne on the top of the mount Gygilos and raced his chariot on the nearby plain or Omalos, having a quirky moment when he got bored with the disputes and schemes of the other gods on Olympus.

  

It takes between five to seven hours to pass through on foot, depending on the individual, during the months of May to October only. In winter, high water makes the gorge dangerous and often than not impassable. It will also be closed on rainy days as it becomes too dangerous because of possible rock falls. The small trickling mountain stream of the Tarraios in summer becomes a torrent in winter and has greatly contributed to the verdant, alpine-like scenery for which Samaria is famous. The water often icy cold runs along its base, if you walked the ravines length you would have to cross this stream forty seven times in total. 

 

At certain points along the route its vertical walls reach a height of 500m and the mountain peaks of Volakias, Gingilos, which surround it Zaranokephala and Pachnes are over 2,000m high.  On the slopes of the ravine you can still find a Cretan cypress forests 'Cypressus sempervirens' in their true, wild form with horizontal branches. 

 

The Mediterranean cypress 'Cypressus sempervirens' has been distributed throughout the Mediterranean region since classical times. In its native soil it grows in a tapering column to a height of around 27 metres. Its branches are thickly covered with small, overlapping, shiny green leaves. Along side these are the pine trees of the 'Cretan Pinus brutia' variety. 

 

The species can survive up to 1,000 years of age, the cones are between 1 and 1˝ inches in diameter, generally in pairs, and are made up of large angular scales, slightly convex exteriorly, and with a sharp point at the centre, they begin to open in September. After shedding the seeds, the cone persists on the tree for several years. Due to the aromatic oils, the seeds are fragrant, especially when crushed. The timber is hard, close-grained, and of a fine reddish hue and very durable. Italian cypress has a gloomy and forbidding but wonderfully stately aspect. In antiquity this tall dark tree was associated with death, sorrow and eternity, when someone died a branch was hung on the doorway of the house. The cypress has long been connected with cemeteries. It is also known as the 'Finger of God' because standing like a sentinel it points the way to Heaven. This graceful tree is a principal feature of the gorges landscape. Cypress wood is very hard and long lasting and was used in the construction of ships and houses. Until recently, on some Greek islands, a cypress was planted when a daughter was born, it was part of her dowry and when she married it formed the mast for the couples' wedding boat. 

 

The Egyptians used the wood to make the sarcophagi for mummies because it was almost immune to rot. For the ancient Greeks and Romans this symbolic 'everlastingness' was carried on through the use of the word 'sempervirens' which means 'ever-living'. Funereal use of 'the Tree of Death' continued in southern Europe both for making coffins, as alluded to by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, and for making funeral garlands or for strewing sprigs and branches on funeral piers.The cypress tree derives its name from an ancient Greek myth. 'Cyparissos' was a young boy from Kea. The young boy accidentally slew Apollo’s beloved stag. His grief was so profound that he could not be consoled becoming so remorseful that he beseech the gods to punish him with everlasting gloom. In compliance they transformed him into a cypress tree so that his place would always be where others grieve.

 

A sturdy ecosystem of juniper, myrtle and thyme thrives in the White Mountains. You can also find plane trees synonymous with water at the bottom of the ravine. It is also full of rare Cretan wild flowers, white cyclamen, pink rock rose, wild, orchids, lilies and the healing herb 'Dictamo' and golden dandelions splash colour on the mountainsides whilst Oleander flowers burst bright pink along most of the trail. The slops are the last refuge of the Cretan wild goat the 'kri-kri' and riding the thermals along the gorge walls are great birds, including the hawk, golden eagle and the endangered bearded vulture all this is another reason as to why the region has been declared a National Forest, meaning that hunting, logging, the cutting of wild flowers and staying overnight in the ravine are prohibited. Ironical really when prior to 1962 the inhabitants of the gorge for thousands of years  were mainly loggers and still to be found are remains of a few sawmills in the gorge. 

 

SAMARIA GORGE

  

The area called 'Xyloskalo' meaning 'wooden staircase' (or ladder) is the entrance of the gorge and is very steep, for those who suffer from vertigo not a place to want to walk down, I can assure you, the dizzy height takes some getting used to!  The inhabitants of the area in the past had to build a makeshift staircase out of wood and the trunks of nearby trees. Thus enabling them to get in and out of the gorge in some form of safety, rather than scaling up and down the steep and dangerous decent. The gorge at this point plunges 1,000 metres in the first 2 km on today's pathway, which zig-zags downhill and takes its toil on of the best of us. Life must have been so much harder than we in today's society can ever imagine, yet how fit these inhabitants must have been. Not withstanding of course how imaginative they had to be, all in the aid of escaping from enemies and finding new ways of making a living just to feed themselves and their families.

  

To the right of the path looms Mount Gíngilos, a wall of scree and rock. 'Neroutsiko', is the first spring in the shade of large plane trees. Near the bottom is the small church of Ayios Nikolaos, set beside the river amongst chestnut and eucalyptus trees, it precedes the abandoned village of Samaria which marks the halfway stage of the walk, surrounded by cypresses trees said to be over 2,000 years old and the tallest in Crete. The church is built on the ruins of an ancient temple of Apollo. 
 

The deep shade of the trees and the cool water running by make this a perfect place to rest. The English scholar Pashley who travelled in Crete at the beginning of the 19th century argued that this was the site of the ancient city of 'Kaino' where the Cretan goddess Artemis or Britomartis was born. Some still believe this to be where the ancient city was situated.

 

Throughout the gorge there are resting spots and benches and an abundance of fresh water springs.  Walkers will cross the river bed about 3 times and pass 2 springs before arriving at the abandoned village of Samaria crossing its wooden bridge. The village is huddled beneath a spectacular protrusion of cliffs and lies a little under midway through the walk. One of the buildings there has been converted to accommodate the wardens' office, another has been pressed into inadequate service as a public toilet, but for the most part the remains of the village are quietly crumbling away. It's inhabitants, until they were relocated (some to Ayia Roumeli) to make way for the National Park in 1962, were predominantly members of the Viglis family, who claimed direct descent from one of twelve aristocratic clans established on the island from Byzantium. Without doubt this settlement, as isolated as any in Crete and cut off by floodwater for much of the year, is a very ancient one. First being inhabited during the Byzantine era.

 

In the 14th century members of the Skordilis family from Hora Sfakion were said to have moved to the village over a problem with the Venetians. A commander of the Venetian garrison stationed at Sfakia tried to take advantage of a beautiful girl named Chryssomaloussa, when she resisted him he sliced off one of her locks of hair with his sword. In revenge to such an insult, the men of the Skordilis family killed the entire Venetian garrison including their commander. 

 

More Venetians came trying to force their way into the gorge in an attempt  to punish the Skordilis' clan, but in vain. Eventually, the Venetians had to compromise with the family and the beautiful Chryssomaloussa became a nun in the convent of the Blessed Mary of Egypt 'Ossia Maria'. The Church of 'Ossia Maria' 'The Bones of Mary', built in 1379 by the Venetians, is found in the southern part of the village and has some interesting wall paintings 'frescos'. Samaria is a contraction of 'Ossia Maria'. With the passage of time, 'Ossia Maria' was shortened into Sia Maria, then Sa Maria, and finally pronounced as one word. As for Maria herself, she was known as Mary of Egypt and was an Egyptian courtesan who, repenting of her ways lived out her days in abstinence in the desert. The feast day of Saint Mary of Egypt is 1st April  however the Orthodox Church also commemorates the Saint on the Fifth Sunday of Lent. On the first weekend of April a two day festival takes place here where the liturgy is chanted, followed by the feast. This is the only time it is permitted to stop overnight in the gorge. But you must check out conditions etc. from the Mountain climbing club of Hania.

  

Throughout the period of Venetian rule the gorge was a haunt for freedom fighters. After the failure of a rising in 1570, Provedatore Marino Cavalli ordered the destruction of Sfakia. The gorge was also the scene of many a battle between the freedom loving Greeks and the Turks, who occupied Crete from 1669 to 1898 but were never able to subdue the fierce mountain people of Samaria. Freedom fighter Daskaloyannis of Anopolis, successfully defended the gorge during a 1770 rebellion, when 4,000 women and children were being pursued by the Turks. Some took refuge in the mountains but most entered the gorge. They were saved by a Giannis Bonatos with only 200 men, who successfully managed to hold on to the 'Gates' forcing the Turks into a retreat.  Daskaloyannis however, came to a horrific death when later the Turks skinned him alive in Heraklion. 

 

In the great revolt of 1866, Omalos, Samaria gorge and Ayia Roumeli were gathering points of the revolutionaries as well as places of refuge. Whilst waiting for supplies to come from mainland Greece in 1866 Mustafa Pasha sent three warships to overrun military supplies and the warehouses which stored the food. Unfortunately, many people had also congregated in the hope of gaining transit to the mainland. In the July  after several days fighting Omer Pasha landed 4,000 troops and the Cretans were forced to barricade themselves in the gorge, taking as many supplies and ammunitions as possible and destroying what was left. The Turks failed to gain entry to the gorge and raised Ayia Roumeli to the ground. Unbelievably, in 1869 all of Greece was again in Turkish hands with the exception of the Samaria gorge.

 

During World War ll Cretan guerrillas offered stiff resistance to the invading Germans. Samaria Gorge became one of the major escape routes to the south for retreating Allied troops. This must have been a tremendous struggle during the winter months with no access available through the gorge as the winter storms swept down, with the only route out, a difficult mountain path to the sea. Family feuds and vendettas, inevitably became enmeshed in politics, with even the Viglis family joining the ELAS (Greek Peoples Liberation Army) principally because their enemies the Sartzetakis, supported EOK (National Organisation of Greece) an organization established in Crete by British Intelligence during the occupation of Greece in World War ll. 

The question of why the vendetta culture existed and continues to this day in Crete attracts a range of speculation.Most theories point to the widespread devotion to firearms, which are purportedly strictly regulated in Greece. Nearly every rural household on Crete has at least one gun. A custom linked to the many battles of conquest and inter-communal rifts on the island.
 Dating from centuries of Ottoman rule which still seem to feed the vendetta culture.

   

For an island with such a history of occupation and revolt it was bound to have developed an instinctive belief in merciless treatment for traitors. Collaborators new they could expect no mercy if caught. One such incident was a German agent captured by the 'Goniani andartes' resistance fighters who begged to be allowed to commit suicide. They broke his legs with heavy stones away from the edge of a cliff so he had to crawl to the edge to be able to push himself over. The resistance fighters called 'andartes' were from the village of Gonies, Meleviziou (near Anoyia) numbering only 14-20 men but they played a significant role during the German occupation of Crete.

  

These fierce fighters would stop at nothing to protect their family, their land and their freedom. They fought against the Germans, assisted in the capture of General Kriepe and finally accepted the withdrawal of the Germans from Heraklion. Their keen knowledge of the terrain and willingness to never surrender made them one of the fiercest resistance groups in Crete. Their actions had a direct impact on the Battle of Crete.

  

At the end of the gorge lying deep beneath the soil are the silent remains of the ancient site of Tarra, (Tarrha,) frequently refer to by ancient sources. Tarra was located on the eastern side of the river at Ayia Roumeli, near the sea possibly set on the hill. It was probably established in around 5th century B.C. to the 5th century A.D. Classed as a very important religious centre the city it flourished in the Greco-Roman period. It had its own cult following of 'Apollo Tarraios'. There can still be found parts of his temple just to the east of the present village by the church of 'Panayia'. Foundations of a church and fragments of mosaic are all that remain after several excavations were made, these can be admire at the archaeological museum of Hania. Tarra was a small but strong, independent city forming alliances with some of the other ancient cities along the South coast, it was significant enough to mint its own money. The coins belong to the 3rd and 2nd century B.C. when 'Tarra' became a member of the Republic of Cretans. These coins had on one side the Cretan wild goat with an arrow and on the other side a bee. Tarra also established colonies in the South of Italy and in the Caucasus. 

   

Buondelmonti a famous Italian traveller of the fifteenth century from Florence, left in 1414 in order to travel, mainly around he Greek islands, became a pioneer in promoting first hand knowledge of Greece and its antiquities throughout the Western world. Spotted in the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, an inscription in Greek that said, 'Peel your shoes, cover your head and come in'. (A similar inscription was found at a Temple in Matala further down the coast). Illustrating that the custom of entering the temple without shoes was a very ancient one indeed. 

  

The myth and relation to Tarra is that, a Cretan of Tarra named Karmanor was the Cretan consort of the goddess Demeter.  She bore him a son Euboulos, god of ploughing, and Chrysothemis, goddess of the harvest. Another daughter was named 'Akakallis', 'the daffodil' or from the Greek 'akakalis', (the juice of the nut of the golden-flowered tamarisk tree). This juice was mixed with grain to make a honey-sweet cake, the confectionary which played an important part in the sacred rites of Demeter. 

   

According to Pausanias, another Greek traveller and geographer of the 2nd century A.D. Karmanor supposedly received and purified Apollo and Artemis, after they had slain the monster Python.  'Apollo in the house of Karmanor, made love with the nymph 'Akakallidi'. 

The nymph gave birth to twins, Phylakides, and Philanderos. A 'native' goat was said to have fed them. He goes on the say 'On the mountains of Krete there is still in my time a city called Elyros. Now the citizens sent to Delphi a bronze goat, which is suckling the babies, Phylakides and Philanderos. The Elyrians say that these were children of 'Apollon' by the nymph 'Akakallis'.

 

Tarra was well placed being on the highly used sea route from Rome to Egypt and beyond. This allowed the inhabitants of Tarra to prosper and the city became an important exporter of timber to Mycenae, Knossos,  Troy and Egypt, where it was used to build palaces and ships. Being so ideally located to the sea and entrance of the gorge, where wood was plentiful and readily available. Together with the river Tarraios providing the energy required for the sawmills, the city prospered. Albeit, it was also a contributing factor for the reason for its decline in the 6th century A.D. when the wheat trade between Egypt, Rome and Constantinople became less important. 

 

As with so many other areas in Greece some of these sea routes stopped altogether whilst others were re-routed. This then turned the inhabitants to a more lucrative occupation - piracy. As most were already ship owners having built their own vessels it was an easy turn of direction, until those activities came to an end in the 7th century possibly due to being outsmarted by the Arabs!In antiquity Ayia Roumeli had its own shipyard during the Venetian and Turkish period. There have been several theories regarding the name of the village. Most probably it is traceable to the Arabic words 'aia' which means water and 'rumeli' meaning Greek. The name then translated to Greek water.

 

Ayia Roumeli and the circumstances of its residents have changed incredibly quickly in the last 30 years with the influx of tourism, brought by the popularity of the Samaria gorge. Giving a long awaited and very important source of income for the locals. Yet if you stayed here for a little while you would soon come to realise that the past still lingers and history is nevertheless very close. Even today the lively hood of the locals imitates that of generations gone before in spite of everything, they still earn their living from goat and sheep farming, and also beekeeping.

  

Hopefully this information might inspire you to walk the gorge one day. However after gazing down into the mass of beauty, in reality you have to return back whence you came. For this you have to retrace your route for just over 1 km to the turn off to Sougia. The road follows the southern edge of the plateau of Omalos passing a few stone houses. Then divides, you can take either direction  but, it is best to keep to the left fork. After another km you arrive at the south-west perimeter of the plateau, rising slightly before descending and meandering through a forest to Petras Seli which is 10 km from the plateau of Omalos.

 

When you come across the wind-farm, built in 1997 with its 18 wind turbines you arrive at Petras Seli'  this is the dividing line between the North and the South of the island and as expected can be a breezy place to be. From here you have more excellent views of the North coast and Hania. With further views towards the valley of Ayia Irini, Sougia and the Lybian sea in the south.  From this point Hania is 38 km on a excellent road where you will wind your way back down through small chestnut forests and olive groves to Alikianos from here you will cross a narrow bridge then return back to the junction once again with the signposts. 'Kalo Taxithi'

 
 

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