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Hiking down a goat's paradise

By Carolyn HallSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 3, 1980

Chania, Crete

We sat down to rest on the bleached stones, unlaced our sneakers, and cooled our feet in the ice-blue water that trickled along the center of the riverbed. On both sides, scarcely ten feet apart, rose the sheer red walls of the canyon.

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It was not a landscape I had expected to find on a little island in the Mediterranean. But Crete boasts what is billed as the longest gorge in Europe -- the Gorge of Samaria.

Carved by water over thousands of years, the gorge slices through the Lefka Ori, or White Mountains, in the west of the island, down to the remote southern coast. It is one of the few remaining habitats of the agrimi (meaning literally , the wild one), the wild goat unique to Crete and famed for its agility in this mountain terrain. If you're very lucky, you may catch a glimpse of it. (We weren't).

Today, many people of all shapes and sized give up lolling on the beach to hike the 11-mile trail. In summer a few buses run from the inhabited north coast to the trail head, almost 4,000 feet up. At the other end of the gorge, the only way out -- unless you feel like climbing up the way you came -- is by boat to a village further down the coast, from where a winding mountain road leads back to the north.

It was one of the longest day I can remember. We watched the sun rise over the Venetian harbor of Chania -- once the capital of the island -- as we began the journey to the trail head. There were several other sleepy gorge-explorers on the bus. A few wore city sandals and cannot have enjoyed the walk very much.

We passed through lowland villages, through orange groves, vineyards, and olive fields. Olive trees are to be seen all over Crete -- there are said to be 18 million of them.

Then the road started to climb steeply, twisting sharply, through rocky gray terrain dotted with windblown scrub. We clung to our seats as the driver laconically negotiated the herds of goats.

Suddenly, spread out before us, was the vast upland Plateau of Omalos, planted with fields of wheat and potatoes. We stopped at a solitary cafe for breakfast. At 8 a.M. the plain was still in shadow, and we shivered in our shorts and T-shirts. There was good thick-textured bread and marmelade, and graviera, a Cretan mountain cheese resembling Gruyere.

One more mile, and the road ended abruptly at the Zyloskalon (wooden staircase), the beginning of the trail. We looked out across a valley filled with pine trees. The mountain opposite was bare and white above the tree line, and off in the distance -- the direction we would be taking -- the early sunlight was striking red hillsides.

The trail, reinforced with struts and a handrail of branches, descened steeply for a half mile or so. Soon we were walking in the shade of the pines. It was pleasant and mild. Pine needles and knobbly gray rocks carpeted the ground. Clumps of flowers, mostly dry and dead in September, grew by the path. they must have made a fine display in spring.

At the bottom we reached the riverbed, lined with plane trees. In winter torrents of water make the gorge impassable, but in early September it was almost dry. In places it disappeared underground, but for the most part the trail ran alongside it, sometimes crossing it by a path of white stones.

The trail was carefully marked. There were wastebaskets, unobtrusive water fountains and stone shelters, and markers every two kilometers. A notice at the trailhead stated that camping was not permitted, but we saw several groups of backpackers who had claimed idyllic wooded spots beside the stream.

We passed a tiny church dedicated to Saint Nicholas. Crete is full of pilgrimage churches, often only large enough to hold half a dozen people, set in the most isolated places. This one was bare as a cell, containing nothing but a few pictures of the saint, the Virgin Mary, and Christ, and some brass candlesticks -- and some empty bottles.