In 1982 I took a hike in western Crete that I’ve come to think of as a quintessential ramble with regard to the themes of this blog. Several years ago I finally wrote of my hike through the Canyon of Samaria, and I’m hoping that some of you might be interested in revisiting that walk with me. Unfortunately the photos that accompany the narrative leave something to be desired, for I was still fairly young at the time and the Japanese camera that I toted was less than ideal for capturing the ethereal but rugged atmosphere of the place. Hopefully, though, the narrative will carry you along with interest. The essay, then, will appear in its entirety through several postings. It was first published in my book Sand & Sage, The Trails Beyond (2010) and also in The Wildness Beyond, A Wood Thrush Books Anthology of Nature Writing, (2011).
“Nowhere else does there exist a more magnificent wilderness canyon.”– Pliny (1st century B.C.)
The bus took a full two hours to traverse the 25 miles from Chania to the Omalos Plateau. Our sinuous climb through the fog and rock formations was a bit faster than a hike by foot. Finally, surrounded by the snowy peaks of Lefka Ori, the White Mountains on the Greek island of Crete, I began my late morning descent.
On May 15th the clouds at the trailhead obscured perception of the giants– Mount Gigolos and Pachnes. Before me lay the Canyon of Samaria. It was possibly the longest and most spectacular gorge in all of Europe. The trail, a popular footpath in this national park, would drop 6000 feet over the next 10 miles to the tropical waters off Aghia Roumeli, a small fishing village on the island’s southern coast. The village is a roadless port where hikers can hop a boat and reconnect to the outside world.
The thick clouds of the high country would occasionally part for a moment and provide a glimpse of the vertical peaks. This terrain, the “Cradle of Zeus,” was virtually impenetrable except at the start and finish of the hiking trail. For much of my initial descent through the pine and cedar forest I could barely see 50 feet ahead. When the towers of rock were unveiled, the flash of wilderness was humbling and I felt the same kind of euphoria produced by my introduction to Greece, two years earlier.
The Cradle of Zeus was also known as the Pharanga, or Great Canyon. It collected headwaters from numerous caves and springs to form the cold, clear Tarro River. It collected my emotions, too, and when I thought about the old naturalist, Pliny, and his words about the canyon, I knew that what he said about the place remains true. It was hard to imagine a more magnificent wilderness canyon.
Each passing kilometer along the trail is marked on a wooden post. The first few kilometers of descent are steep and heady. I had waited to begin the six-hour hike by allowing as many of my fellow travelers as possible to walk ahead of me. I wanted a casual, solitary study.
The Lefka Ori in southwestern Crete is rippled with remarkable canyons. The upper Canyon of Samaria, supervised by the Chania Forest Service, is cloaked with a dense forest of oak, cedar, pine, and cypress. Some of the trees, six centuries old, are simply huge.
At the five kilometer mark I came upon Samaria, the site of an abandoned village nestled under cave-riddled cliffs. Samaria was abandoned when the gorge was annexed for a national park in the 1960s. Human history is shouldered on the site, and the stone ruins of the houses and church elicit a mysterious grandeur harmonious with the canyon ambience.
The still air and the silence of the Pharanga seemed to vibrate with a passage of ghosts along the old stone fences of the eastern slope. Calla lilies bloomed by the gushing springs and crumbled foundations. Rough terrain had sheltered families during the Byzantine logging era. Through the centuries it had fortified the Greeks against invaders. The Pharanga had been a refuge from the raids of Venetians and Turks, as well as from the German Army during World War Two. Today it felt like a refuge for me, the last traveler passing through the mountain ruins.
A Lilliputian structure stood a stone’s throw from the trail and mountain torrent. This rectangular church was named Christos, a 10 foot by 30 foot building made of rock. It had two diminutive holes in its sides to serve as windows. A marble cross and bouquet of wilted flowers stood by the door. Painted icons met the view inside. Centuries before, this simple site of worship and refuge had been a seat for an oracle of Apollo. I reflected for a moment on the interplay of Christianity and pagan spirits then allowed myself the luxury of looking at the wilderness surrounding it. Here lived cypress trees measuring nearly seven meters in circumference. Somewhere above me were the caves and crevices that ostensibly emitted alternating drafts of cold and warm air. If the ultimate spirit of life could be found anywhere at all, I reasoned, then surely this universal force was vibrantly alive in the little Tarro cascading by me with timeless enchantment.
[ to be continued ]