Crete's The Samaria Gorge

the entranceThis truly remarkable gorge drops sheerly from the Lefka Ori (White Mountains), with almost vertical limestone cliffs that almost touch at its narrowest point. Different plants grow in the pine woods high up, than lower down, where ancient Oriental planes fringe the river. A rare white peony grows near the remains of the village of Samaria, a subspecies that grows only in Crete and Karpathos, and in the same area are orchids and a Cretan cyclamen, among other endemic flowers found there in spring, such as the endemic Cretan sainfoin, which are large silvery bushes with drooping flowers.

Large raptors can be seen here, which include the griffon vulture, golden and Bonelli's eagles, lammergeiers, as well as alpine choughs and ravens; yet other birds are found in the woods here. Mammals in the gorge include a Cretan variety of beech marten, badgers, doormouse, the rare Cretan wild goat called 'kri-kri', best spotted in late afternoon with binoculars or telescope on the mountains slopes near the top of the gorge, and especially in autumn. There's a good range of butterflies in the gorge, some dragonflies including the emporer dragonfly, some amphibians and reptiles, including several kinds of lizards.

the plateau of omalosAt the center of a National Park, the Samaria Gorge is usually not open until May and closes in November, with some flexibility for very dry years. There is very strict policy against entry before or after the gorge is deemed safe against flash floods by park officials, due to a fatal accident some years ago when some tourists drowned. Though most spend only a day negotiating the hike, which begins at the end of the Omalos road at Xyloskalos (which means 'wooden stairway') and comes out at Aghia Roumeli, more time is recommended for those interested in observing the rich flora of the area, with accommodations available on either end of the gorge (Omalos Plateau)