Samaria Gorge : Whether or not you are interested in the gorge’s history, you are an avid hiker, nature lover, or travel aficionado; the Samaria Gorge is full of rich history and possesses natural environs that never cease to fascinate and command discovery. It is one of the tourist gems on the island of Crete in Greece. The Samariá Gorge starts at Xyloskalo which is on the Omalos Plateau and is approximately 1 250 m (4 100 feet) above sea level. Interestingly, Xyloskalo is the name given to the log ladders/stairs that the Samariá villagers used to easily climb and descend a particular area in the gorge. The Samaria Gorge is a World's Biosphere Reserve in an effort to protect its delicate ecosystem. The gorge is situated in the White Mountains in the Hania regional unit which is in the southwestern part of the island. It was formed by a river that runs between the White Mountains and Mount Volakas. The gorge is 16 km (9.94 miles) long which is the entire distance from its northern entrance to Agia Roumeli which is on the banks of the Libyan Sea. However, the walk through the Samariá Gorge National Park itself is only 13 km (8.1 miles). The gorge, being a protected area; has flora and fauna that are endemic to the gorge, the region, the island of Crete, as well as neighboring islands. Some of these species include: Kri-kri or agrimi, Cretan Ibex (Capra aegagrus creticus): This is a special breed of wild goats that is only found in the Samariá Gorge National Park or on a neighboring island close to Agia Marina. Cretan shrew (Crocidura zimmermanni): This animal is only found on the island of Crete and its habitat is the highlands of the mountains. Cretan wildcat (Felis silvestris cretensis): This animal was once thought to be extinct until one was captured by an expedition team in 1996 and another found dead in 1997. Bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus): This is probably the species that was said to have killed Aeschylus, the Greek playwright, around 456 or 455 BC by dropping a tortoise on his bald head because it mistook his head for a stone. Macrothele cretica: A species of spider that is found exclusively in Greece and is listed as a threatened species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (I.U.C.N.). Approximately 450 species of plants that are only found in the Samariá Gorge National Park. These include tulip of Crete (tulipa Cretica), berberis of Crete (berberis Cretica), sainfoins of Sfakia (onobrychis sphaciotica), anchusa caespitosa, zelkova abelicea, et cetera. Pine (Pinus brutia) and cypress trees (cupressus sempervirens var. horizontalis): These are what remain of the vast forests of the past for which Crete was famous. The timber from these massive trees was used in shipbuilding. Other trees: Within the gorge you will find kermes oak, Cretan maple, carob, lentisk, and myrtle. Aromatic plants: The gorge offers ladania or angisaros, marjoram, thyme, malotera or mountain tea, and sage. Medicinal plants (used by Dioscurides): In addition to carob and lentisk there is agarathus (Phlomis triloba), chaste tree (Vitex agnus castus), oleander (Nerium oleander), centaurea (Centaurea redempta), and dittany or erontas (Origanum dictamnus). Samaria Gorge is open for trail hikes from April to October each year. However, depending on rainfall, high temperature, and winds; it might not be opened on certain days or for certain times during the day. There are also guided tours available. The total time to hike the 13 km (8.1 miles) distance is anywhere from 4 hours to double the time depending on length of breaks and walking pace. In addition to the main path, there are other trails within the gorge that can be explored but special permits are required before one can venture on them. Also, no overnight camping or campfires are allowed inside the gorge. Additionally, smoking is permitted only at the designated rest areas. Also, there are other rules that are printed on each ticket. A few things to consider before taking the trek is hydration, comfortable clothing and shoes, and temperature change as the gorge descends. Even though there are springs in the gorge, it is a good idea to carry enough water to sip for a few hours to keep you hydrated in-between fills. Also, cotton or other breathable fabric would be best for the journey. Shoes need to be ultra comfortable with good shock resistance to handle the rough terrain. Quality insoles might not be a bad idea to help enhance comfort. Bring along some adhesive bandages as well. Also, pace yourself so that you do not expend all your energy too quickly. The initial portion of the hike is at high elevations so the air is cool and balmy. However, as the sunshine gets fiercer the air thins. Therefore, it is a good idea to dress in layers to accommodate the temperate change. A walking stick can be very beneficial and so is something nourishing to eat should you feel hungry. Most of all remain alert and aware of your surroundings and be a good neighbor by offering to help someone who is showing signs of distress. Although April to October is when visitors are allowed to hike the gorge; the winter months add their own adventure, sounds, and beauty to this unique area. However, one of the reasons visitors are not allowed to hike during the winter months is because of torrential activity of the two springs that are located below Xyloskalo. The two springs, Neroutsiko and Riza Sikias, can sometimes make crossing impossible when they are raging with high volumes of water. Nonetheless; a spring, summer, fall, and winter hike through the gorge would indeed be a great comparative trip. About one quarter of the way into the gorge is “the cave of the Devil” or Demonospilios. The roaring sounds within the cave are most likely the echoing of underwater activity. However, the locals have their own interpretation which is that the cave was once Apollo’s oracle. They also believe that the sounds coming from the cave are the sounds of fairies dancing to the evil lyre music being played by a shepherd. Beyond the Demonospilios and about 4 km into the hike is the church of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicholas). It is a small stone church which many believe to be Apollo’s temple. This particular area is also said to be the location of what once was the town called Kaino. Interestingly, 1st century BC historian Diodoros Siculus said that the goddess Diana Vritomartis was born here. Also, in this area towering and majestic cypress are all around. Next door to Agios Nikolaos are the remains of a cheese dairy that is constructed of stone. The dairy was once owned by the Viglides (Viglis) family but now it serves as a guardhouse. The Viglis family was one of the last five families to leave the gorge. Vangelis Inglis spent his entire life in the gorge. After his family relocated he worked as a guard in the gorge until his death. Proceeding onwards from Agio Nikolas will eventually lead to the once thriving village of Samariá. The old village and its buildings are now the operations center for the guards of the National Park who monitor the gorge. There is a first aid station there as well as bathrooms. Further on from the village of Samariá is the church of Hosia Maria. This Byzantine church was built on top of what used to be an old basilica that was dated somewhere in the 1300s or 1400s. The gorge was named after the church and Samariá is an adulterated form of the name Hosia Maria. Hosia Maria is actually a reference to Hosia, Maria of Egypt (St. Mary of Egypt). In this very area, a lush and fragrant pine forest is present. As one can imagine, the aromatic air is absolutely pleasant. The next point of interest is another church. Both the church and the area are called Afendis Christos (Our Lord Christ). It is located at the 7th kilometer mark. Moments after walking past the church, the gorge narrows. The wide and open space is now reduced to about 4 m (13.1 feet) width and reaches a height of about 300 m (984.3 feet). The narrowed gorge is called Sideroportes (Iron Gates). It is pluralized because there are three of them in succession. Once the last of the three narrows are exited, Old Aghia Roumeli (Tarra) will be the next historic site. Old Aghia Roumeli was built on the site of the former state called Tarra. Tarra existed during the Hellenistic period which was between 323 BC and 31 BC. Old Aghia Roumeli was evacuated in 1962. This evacuation was not forced; it was the villagers’ decision to move closer to the sea. The relocated Aghia Roumeli (New Aghia Roumeli) is the final point and exit from the gorge. The pebble beach with its white sand against the blue of the Libyan Sea is like a reward for having completed the long trek through the gorge.