Samaria Gorge in Crete

During our three-year tour in Budapest we visited Greece three times, our last trip was in Crete, its biggest island. The major natural beauty of Crete is the Samaria gorge, one of the longest gorges of Europe (the longest is the gorge du Verdon in France). It is a mostly easy hike, especially going down, and can be achieved by anyone who can walk from 5 to 95 years old! Let me walk you through it.

On a week day early in June we enjoyed Samaria almost alone. It was definitely not one of these days of the summer which will see up to 2,000 visitors trampling through. We arrived just after 8 a.m. in a bus of about 20 passengers from Paleochora.

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Taking her goat to be milked, on the road to Xyloskalo

There were four options. Rush to the entrance of the park and get started immediately or before that take a photo on the rim, have a coffee or even breakfast, and/or go to the bathroom. The Swiss group rushed. We took our time. Officially it takes less than five hours to walk the gorge going down and we could not leave before 5:30 p.m., the departure time of the ferry back to Paleochora from the village at the end of the gorge, Agia Roumeli. We didn’t want to be stranded on the beach for four hours with 32-36 degrees Celsius (90F+).

The beginning of the hike features stairs of stone and wood for about five minutes, then it descends sharply with switchbacks among pine trees. We passed a few slow people and were alone on the trail. Then, an hour later, we rejoined the Swiss group and had to be careful avoiding their ski poles when passing them.

Ski poles, in my books, are meant for skiing or any winter sport involving snow. They have been designed to be planted in the snow. They cannot be planted in stones or hard rocks. Somebody must have missed playing the game stone-scissor-paper when they were young! Ski poles really don’t help when they slip on the hard surface of the rock. Quite the contrary, especially when suddenly they slip over a foot or two from the person they are supposed to help and are becoming a dangerous obstacle for other walkers. Some clever folks have equipped the end of their metallic ski poles with rubber. Some. Not the majority.

After a crowded 20 minutes of descent, as by enchantment, there was again not a soul in sight. The enchantment being partly explained by the fact that this park is very well maintained with many rest areas proposing natural fountains.

The entrance at Xyloskalo is marked number one and the exit is marked number 10. In between, the rest areas are almost every kilometer (900 to 1200 meters to be exact) except from one to two (1700m), eight to nine (3100m) and nine to 10 (1800m). This means that you may take two bottles of 500ml to start and refill every half hour or so. No need to load your backpack too much. Rest area number four is Agios Nikolai’s, Saint Nicolas, and this tiny church is actually open and not completely empty. It possesses a few religious images.

Rest area number seven is the most interesting since it is the old village of Samaria. The stone fountain has two spouts and there are many picnic tables in the shade of large trees. It is also slightly over the halfway point of the gorge, 7km out of 13. Most rest areas have toilets or WC. I don’t know if it is the same in summertime but they all had plenty of quality toilet paper inside. They are “Turk” toilets so be prepared to squat. In areas of intense passage I find this kind much more hygienic – the only problem here is that you need to throw your soiled paper in a bin (there is no flushing mechanism) and the rim of this bin is just about at nose level when you squat! Men will never realize this.

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Stone bridge leading to Samaria

Rest area number eight, Perdika, was soon passed and then started my favorite part. The 3,100 meters between Perdika and Christos are magical. You start walking in the gorge, there is water finally in the river bed, dirt changes to sand, high cliffs are getting narrower, and pink oleanders, already ubiquitous during this hike, become even more numerous. Feet never get wet thanks to many cleverly arranged flat rocks, a few rickety wooden planks and real wooden bridges at the end. 500 meters past Christos you reach the “iron gates” which is where the cliffs are only three meters apart.

After exiting from the national park there are three more kilometers to reach the village on the beach and the ferry. There are many restaurants in the village serving real food like rabbit stew, as opposed to “non-real” food like nuggets – they are also on the menu. On the beach between Gigilos, Kyma, and the Agia Roumeli restaurant, there are plenty of long chairs to help wait for the ferry.

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Choose it, weight it, eat it.

Back in Paleochora there are three good restaurants: Caravella, all about fish – you get to visit the kitchen to choose your own, Cape Crocodile, next to Caravella, looks fancier but not more expensive and very good, and finally for vegetarians, a restaurant which does not feel vegetarian, The Third Eye. It serves Greek, Indian, Asian, Mexican, and Arabic cuisine.

Enjoy!

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Climbing the highest mountain of Slovenia – Day 2

Comfort stops at our cozy bedroom. For 100 people, there are only three Turkish toilets in outdoor sheds and one of them is out of service. When it comes to running water, there is a really tiny sink with a stream of water so thin it takes more than a minute to fill a small glass. It is therefore hard to brush your teeth let alone wash anything else.

Some people have left before dawn to be able to see the sunrise from the summit. The plan of the day is to climb to the top then back down to Planika and continue on all the way down to the base. Depending on strength and people it takes one to two hours from Planika to the summit. In many places of the ascent there is only space for one person either going down or up.

Until Planika there are flowers of all sorts: ‘hairy’ cottony flowers, flowers in shades of intense purple or vibrant pink, simple daisies. Today the landscape is more lunar and arid.

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We meet all sorts of characters along our ascent. The mountain tribe with solid shoes, thick wool socks, pants with pockets, Gore-Tex parka and their accessories: walkie-talkie, carabiners and rope. The urban tribe with glossy black skinny pants like cyclist, fluo tops, walking shoes with neon stripes and their accessories: bandanna and golden tan. The ‘hotel rat’ tribe dressed all in black from cap to slim shoes, more ready for stealth theft than rugged mountains. The hip hop style tribe with tight pants covered with floral underwear and plaid shirts. We even cross path with a crazy guy who is actually texting, nose on his cell phone while going down on slippery downhill gravel. Our son is part of a non-tribe. He does not walk any more slowly because he wears regular jeans and a normal tee shirt!

The climb is steep at over 35% and there are many via ferrata cables to help ascend. We do not have the equipment with carabiners and harnesses but they are not necessary. We can just grab the cable with a gloved hand and make sure our grip is tight.

The first step is to reach the Mali Triglav – Mali means small. We reach baby Triglav in an hour, then we walk for about 20 minutes on the crest of the mountain and finally during the last ten minutes we have to climb a pure vertical 90-degree slope.

We finally reach the summit of Mount Triglav where a fantastic weather welcomes us and we can see very far. The plateau at the top is very narrow which makes it quickly crowded. All sorts of people have made it all the way up: from 6 to 80 years old! Hundreds of photos per minute are shot here and then it is time to go back to our base.

Our return is slowed by a large group of young children. The queue piles up behind us but we cannot pass since the ridge is too narrow. People are starting to growl and finally the chaperons push the children safely aside to let adults pass them.

Back at Planika we nibble and continue our descent to the Vodnikova cabin where we have a late lunch. The menu could not be simpler: cabbage soup with or without sausage. No more pancakes for dessert. After the meal, the descent becomes more difficult because it is sometimes quite steep which taxes the knees and toes a lot but also the thighs. We are trying to avoid slipping on the gravel. Walking eight hours in extreme conditions is tiring but to do so after a six-hour day of walking and climbing is another matter.

Our electronic apps tell us that our average speed ranged from 2 to 9km/h. My Withings pedometer showed 24,000 steps the first day and although we added almost three hours of climbing today, it shows only 23,000 steps! It apparently does not record climbing softly nor slow descent because it is not a steady pace. We finally arrive at our apartment in Bled where a hot shower is all we need.

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The next day a massive snow storm engulfed Mount Triglav!

Climbing the highest mountain of Slovenia – Day 1

Where is Slovenia? Between Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia and the Adriatic Sea. It is a very small and extremely beautiful country having it all: sea, mountains, sunshine, lakes, forests … Triglav National Park covers 84,000 hectares or just over 4% of Slovenia. The jewel is Mount Triglav, which at 2 864 meters (9,400 feet) is the highest point of the country. Reaching Mount Triglav is our primary purpose this weekend although we will also discover Bled and Ljubljana later, to rest!

Via friends known in Islamabad now posted in Sarajevo but previously in Slovenia we have a contact. Their former neighbor and friend Janez not only has proposed to brief us about the hike but to also accompany us. It is said that a Slovenian can only become a real Slovenian after he has climbed Triglav once in his life. At this rate Janez is at least 30 times a proven Slovenian!

Janez will be our guide in our reckless journey. I say reckless because we are not exactly sports fanatics, we do not exercise regularly and besides climbing easy hills in Pakistan for 2 hours every week we have no training for the mountains. Until 48 hours prior to the trip we did not even know if we could do it since the weather is a huge factor and changes fast all the time in these mountains.

We meet Janez near Lake Bled, one of the major tourist attractions of the country about three quarter of an hour from the capital, deposit our luggage in the rented apartment we will go back to the next day and follow Janez by car for about half an hour. We reach our base, leave the cars, gear up and off we go.

The base is at 1 360 meters, so there is 1 500 meters (5,000 feet) to climb under the sun with an ideal temperature of about twenty degrees (70F). We will actually not go all the way to the top today. It is possible for well trained and resistant people but it still would take them a good 10 to 12 hours.

The path starts in the forest and since it has rained yesterday the path is rather muddy and slippery. We also need to be careful about the slippery roots and branches. Eventually we emerge from the forest and discover Mount Tosc, the mountain we have to skirt around to see Mount Triglav.

So far the path climbs gently, sometimes a bit steeper but nothing too strenuous. The muddy path was soft for our soles but after two hours of walking the path becomes paved with sharp uncomfortable stones. When we finally see Mount Triglav, a cloud hides it partially. We pass a grassy plateau where friendly cows pasture peacefully. As we continue, the landscape becomes bare and rocky and some cables attached to the rocks help us get a better sense of security.

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In six hours, including a picnic stop and drink breaks we reach the Planika rest cabin at 2 408 meters. Sheep and goats welcome us. Planika is one of the closest mountain cabins to the summit. It is also the most comfortable and caters for ‘only’ 100 people, the nearby cabin welcomes 300 people.

After a few minutes of rest, the boys go for a beer while I use tiger balm to massage my thighs in a vain attempt to prevent cramps.Then I join Janez, my husband and our son for dinner. Our dinner is fast because the choice is excessively simple: goulash with pasta or polenta or only goulash or only pasta or only polenta! You may buy bread by slices if you wish to complement this.

By eight o’clock we are all in bed!