Hiking down a goat's paradise

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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).

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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.

We left the shade of the trees behind and it grew hotter. We realized that the grass alongside the trail hid ancient terracing. The trail itself was set with stones like a little cobbled street. Then, on a ledge above the river, we saw the deserted village of Samaria, from which the gorge takes its name. A new wooden bridge led across to it.

I felt as though I had stumbled onto a Walt Disney set. The village square was colorful with hikers and backpackers, fillings cups and bottles of the old fountain, and eating at wooden picnic tables. The low peasant houses, which the Cretans share with their animals in winter, were beginning to tumble down. Many roofs and walls were gone. yet some of the outdoor beehive ovens looked as good as new, and figs and peaches were ripening on the trees that grew in once well- tended gardens.

Only one of the houses was still inhabited. Washing hung outside, and an old man dressed in traditional black baggy trousers sat in the doorway, apparently oblivious of the flow of foreigners past his home.

We climbed to one of the small fields behind the houses and rested in the shade on a low stone wall, eating the peaches we had brought. This romantically inaccessible little village was probably cut off every winter by snow and the swollen river. today it has gone the way of more and more Cretan villages, gradually abandoned as the young people leave the hardship of the mountains to work in the tourist industry along the coast.

We continued our descent. The landscape began to remind me of Zion Canyon. We saw cacti, lizards, and dusty bushes of pink flowers. the walls grew red and vertical and close together, casting long shadows.

At the narrowest part of the gorge there was no dry land, and we had to walk on stones in the riverbed. Then suddenly in the distance we saw the dark blue line of the Libyan Sea.

We realized with relief that it could not be far.

The gorge opened out into a wide plain, disappoingtly ugly and arid. Rock falls on the cliffs looked like slag heaps. We came to a second village called Ayai Roumeli, which was evidently inhabited. There were chickens and dogs, and the figs were being harvested: There were half-filled buckets under the trees. Two old women in black sat by the path, offering water and cans of fruit juice for sale.

We began to pick our way through waist-high bushes growing in sandy soil. A market informed us we had come 14 kilometers, and we were encouraged to meet people walking up from the beach. We passed a whitewashed Venetian church which , we heard later, contained fragments of pre-Christian mosaics. Rounding a final slope, we reached the sea, and a white pebbly beach framed by tall cliffs.

This once-perfect journey's end was marred by a handful of cheaplooking tavernas and modern houses offering "Rent Rooms." But it was hardly the time to be discriminating. We slumped at a table overlooking the sea and downed glasses of water and grapefruit juice, and a strangely un- Greek meal of chicken and patates (French fries). WE hadn't realized how hungry and thirsty we were. We had been walking for five hours.

Later we lazed in the shade and swam in water so clear you could pick out every pebble on the ocean floor. On the cliffs above were the remains of a Turkish fort, guarding the entrance to the gorge.

At five o'clock we caught the last boat out to the village of Chora Sfakion. All along the coast, the barren cliffs rose steeply from the water. There were deserted beaches and a small white village, quite inaccessible except by boat. We saw one or two tiny white churches lodged upon the cliffs, and picked out a stone peasant hut, miles from anywhere, scarcely distinguishable against the rock face.

At Chora Sfakion we bought some thick, creamy Greek yogurt and honey and boarded the waiting bus. The journey across the mountains passed in a peaceful, euphoric fatigue. Fifteen hours after we had set out, we arrived back at our hotel. We had seen a special side of Crete.

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