- Let’s set off from the northern entrance to the gorge at Xylóskalo and follow the path as far as the old settlement of Samariá. The route continues parallel with the river which flows through the gorge among dense forests, cutting across it in places. The name of the gorge is generally thought to be a corruption of the name of the little Osia Maria church, which is on the way to the old settlement: Osia Maria/Sia Maria/Sia Maria/Samaria (the letter which is bold and underlined is the syllable that was stressed as the name developed).
- The most striking section of the route is the part after the abandoned village where a pass leads through the towering rocks. The place is called “Pórtes” (Doors) or “Sideróportes” (Iron Doors). The width here does not exceed three metres, making it the narrowest point, while the rock face here reaches up to an altitude of 200 metres. Here, in March 1770, during the rebellion of Daskaloyannis, Yannis Bonatos and 200 others from the Sfakia region managed to hold off a large Turkish force and eventually forced it into a hasty retreat. The same thing happened at the other end of the gorge in the north at Xyloskalo, where in the darkness and mist the renowned “Nyktopolemistés” (Night-time Warriors) of Sfakia attacked the “Seytan Takimi” (Demons) soldiers in order to save the women and children who had sought refuge in the gorge after the failure of the 1770 rebellion. The gorge, which is, essentially, a natural fortress, was often used by the indomitable Cretans as a refuge and base during their rebellions against the Ottoman authorities. But humans have been present in the gorge since as early as the Neolithic Age and their activities have not only been military. There are many other indications of human activity in the gorge. There were prehistoric settlements and a shrine to Apollo. The gorge was also the site of the ancient towns of Tarra and Kaino, where the Cretan goddess Britomartis was born. Britomartis later went on to be revered on the island of Aigina under the name “Aphaia” (from the Greek afanis thea – invisible goddess). In addition, the gorge also has the remains of a number of Byzantine temples.
- Exiting the gorge through the “Doors” is a dramatic experience. It is as if you are leaving some dream world which fires the imagination but abolishes the logic of reality. As George Stafilakis said (in the magazine “Gaiorama” July-August 2002, page 52) “… all those who cannot come to terms with the modern world flow into the gorge, sometimes like brooks and sometimes like quiet streams, great dreams, primeval fears, the most deeply held wishes …”
The going is easier along the rest of the route, and the walk is a great build up for tired travellers planning on a refreshing dip in the deep blue waters of Ayia Roumeli, or those about to wait patiently for the boat to Loutro and Chora Sfakion. Could there be a more fitting end to such a spiritual route than the life-giving embrace of the Libyan Sea?!
For more info see the Samaria National Park website.