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Gorge-ous Crete

The gorge of Agia Irini in southern Crete must surely have an inferiority complex. Standing in the shadow of nearby Samaria, the longest gorge in Europe, Agia Irini may be a 12km trek, but tour agents market it as the “mini gorge walk”. While it may fall short of Samaria by 6kms, this is enough for most people to turn their backs on it.

The daily 6.15am bus from Paleohora to Samaria stops at Agia Irini en route and the number of people that get off can be counted on one hand.

Despite gut-wrenching twists and turns up precipitous mountain roads, the majority stay on the bus for Samaria, a sea of sickly faces, ready to throw up. But are those extra 6kms of walking worth it?

The morning air is refreshing at 700 metres, a rare, cool moment of the day before the sun starts biting. We stand at the top of Agia Irini Gorge and exchange greetings, a little disorientated after the bus journey.

It’s a far cry from the morning rush hour at Samaria, where bus loads of tourists converge, a mixed bag of people not knowing what they have let themselves in for, as the 2,000 metre granite peaks tower all around them.

Expecting scenery much inferior to Samaria, Agia Irini takes me by surprise. The mountain peaks may not scale the same heights as Samaria but they still make me feel like an ant, as their craggy boulders soar in every direction. This is more “Alpine Switzerland” than “southern Greece”. Fragrant pines mingle with Plane, Cypress and Maple trees, their startling greens contrasting with the bright pink Oleander bushes. A light wind laces the air with the aroma of thyme and oregano. Somewhere up above, goats are exploring the vertical precipices, the faint tinkling of their bells carrying in the wind.

I know I am dawdling, this is supposed to be a walk after all, but the views are exhilarating and there is no need to keep up the pace, because there is nobody here to keep up the pace with. There are no wannabes to contend with like at Samaria, clicking their titanium walking poles into the rocks as they barged past, decked from head to toe in the latest hiking gear.

While the path is rockier and much less marked at Agia Irini, it is hard to accidentally stray off it. There is still the feeling of being immersed in the wilderness. In fact, the most action this gorge has seen was in 1866 when 1,000 women and children fled from the Turks through it. Remnants of history scatter the way, including two Byzantine churches with frescoes dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries, a rock shaped as a church used as a holy site and a cave in which two shepherds perished in 1822.

“Hello,” comes a voice, as I round a bend in the track. Joachim, the German who got off the same bus, rests and munches on his sandwiches. “I like this place,” he says. “Finally I can take pictures without lots of people in them like at Samaria.”

Ironically, the most picturesque part of Samaria, “The Iron Gates”, where, at 3 metres, the gorge is at its narrowest, is also the most congested. Just 3kms from the end at Agia Roumeli, an even larger number of people walk this part of the gorge, dubbed “Samaria, the lazy way,” making it impossible to proceed without forming a continuous, single file. “I saw one woman walking to ‘The Iron Gates’ in high heels,” I tell Joachim. “How crazy is that?”

The sun is already beginning to light up the peaks of the mountains, the heat slowly rising, so I decide to press on. After a total of three hours walking, and only passing two people on the way, I reach the exit of the gorge. An empty cafe greets me, the owner, hosing the path down, smiles and teasingly squirts water in my direction. “Feels good, eh?” I sit and enjoy a thirst quenching fruit salad, knowing that the journey is not over. A further 5kms have yet to be traversed over a tarmac road that leads to the small coastal town of Sougia.

Unwillingly, I continue along the road, the fierce midday sun burning on my skin. I dart between the few bits of shade cast down from the trees. The road is empty, but up ahead I see commotion. Cars parked, people on the road and lots of voices. What an unusual place to stop. As I get closer I notice a priest. An old man suddenly grabs my arm and beckons me towards a large wicker basket. “Take,” he says in Greek. I peer into the basket, full of chunks of roast lamb. I don’t eat meat, but I know he would be offended if I didn’t take some. He ushers me over to another basket full of fresh bread and wills me to dig in. I thank him in Greek and shyly walk on. I wonder what they are doing. Perhaps a friend or relative died there and they are erecting a roadside icon, so common throughout Greece. I will never know. This “Filoxenia”, the true spirit of Greek hospitality really touches me, and I know that if they had been at Samaria exit that day this would never have happened.

I expect the road to continue straight to Sougia, but it doesn’t. It abruptly forks off to the left and the right, and there are no signs to tell me which way to go. With no fellow walkers to follow, there is only a vast, mountainous landscape in sight. A wrong turn would be disastrous in the glaring heat of the day.

As I board the 5.30pm boat back to Paleohora, I reflect that luck was on my side that day and I chose the right way to Sougia. Both spectacularly scenic, Samaria and Agia Irini Gorges make for a challenging and memorable hike. Unfair though it may be that Agia Irini Gorge is overshadowed by its big sister Samaria, I am secretly rather glad.

Fact File

When to visit – Agia Irini Gorge, or any other gorge in Crete, is best visited between May and October. Most gorges are impassable during winter months due to adverse weather conditions.

How to get there – Agia Irini Gorge is 43kms south west of Chania. International charter flights fly to Chania during the summer season. Travelling as part of a tour operator package can often work out cheaper.

Where to stay – Paleohora, on the south west coast, makes for an excellent base for exploring the gorges of the White Mountains in southern Crete. There are plenty of rooms for rent and the town is a thoroughly nice, laid back place to stay. There are 4 buses a day to/from Chania in the summer, which takes 2 hours.

Requirements – Most gorge walks start early to avoid the heat of the day, but there will be a time during the day when you are walking in the sun. The usual – water, sunscreen and hat – are necessary. A reasonable level of fitness is essential for gorge walking. While not exceptionally difficult, it is imperative to have stout walking shoes as Agia Irini is rocky in places and Samaria has many ‘slippery’ stones.

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