White Mountains in Crete
Samaria Gorge & other hiking havens
This is just one of many exquisitely elevated tavernas, this one is owned by Dimitri and Evgenia who, as well as creating delicious food and ambience, have created one of the most welcoming places to hear traditional Cretan and Greek music in the region. Catch Dimitri at the right time, and there is never really a wrong time for him and his musician friends to bring out an accordion or a lyra, and he will beguile you with Cretan sounds that echo across the valleys and vertiginous gorges stretching out for miles in every direction. Even the birds of prey gliding through the thermals up above look as if they are dancing along.
It is not just Dimitri’s music that will move you up in Vamos, however, but the fact that he and so many other mountain taverna owners here capture the very essence of Cretan mountain life. Because to Cretans, the mountains are much more important than the sea. They are the heart, lungs and indeed soul of Crete really and, with five mountain ranges on this one island, they certainly have the most exquisite breathing spaces here.
The mountain ranges from west to east are the White Mountains, the Idi Range, Mount Kedros, the Dikti Range and Mount Thripti. For hiking and tourism infrastructure, it is the White Mountains that are best known, although the island’s highest peak, Mount Ida (also known as Psiloritis) is the crowning glory of its eponymous range at a height of 2,456m. Just short of that is Pachnes at 2,453m, the highest peak of the White Mountains where there are, in fact, 30 peaks topping 2,000m.
But you really don’t need to take on a summit to savour the White wonders, with villages and small locally owned guesthouses dotting the foothills and flower filled fields, all boasting unique Cretan views of peaks and plateaus, coast and fertile plains. And although they are perfect bases to explore the mountain paths, they also invite good old fashioned stillness in the reassuring presence of the peaks. Hiking all day may suit some people, but for others, simply recharging, relaxing and respiring is what spending time in these mountains is all about.
In Greek, the White Mountains are known as Lefka Ori, and although they do get snow between the months of November and May, they are actually called ‘white’ because their water laden limestone terrain gleams almost silvery white in the bright sunshine that Crete is so famous for. It is this limestone make up that has created a world of gorges and caves over the millennia, as well as a striking moon like terrain called the Madares High Desert at a height of 1,800m. The most famous trekking trail is to be found in Samaria Gorge, the longest in Europe at 16km. It takes all day to hike, starting at Xyloskalo trailhead and, just to make it even more gorgeous, it leads you down to the Mediterranean after a hot and hefty hike through narrow passages, rock arches and rocky terrain.
There are many other gorges in the White Mountains, however, and indeed Samaria is only open to trekkers between 1 May and mid October. Out of season you can also hike gems such as Imbros Gorge, which may only be 8km long but you still experience the greatness of walking between narrow cliffs, sometimes with only 2m-wide gaps at points, rock arches, wild flowers, cypress and Cretan Maple Acer and myriad birdlife. Resident species, as with all the gorges include griffon vulture, Bonelli's eagle, Eleonora's falcon and blue rock thrush, with perfect nooks and crannies for feeding and nesting. Hike here in season too, of course, to avoid the crowds intent on descending the more famous Samaria.
Local experts will be able to guide you to other favourite hiking haunts here, and your mountain accommodation owners will be able to introduce you to some of the best walking guides, but one more that rarely appears in the guidebooks is the Kallikratis Gorge which, at 6km, takes about three to four hours to walk. Although do plan to take it slow, not just to be careful underfoot but because these really are special places. Keep an eye out, for example, for the Cretan wild goat, or ‘kri kri’ that hops over the rocky terrain with enviable confidence. And, like so many of the White Mountains’ 50 gorges, it opens out onto Crete’s fertile plains at the village of Kapsodasos where you are not only rewarded with olive and carob trees but also a welcoming taverna. Just further south awaits another treat at Frangokastello, a stunning Venetian castle that flanks the shores of a tranquil lagoon.
You will not be short of libations to toast your odysseys through the White Mountains either, with grape growing a tradition that stretches back to ancient times in Crete. Indeed, the Greek God of the grape harvest and wine, Dionysus, was worshipped here as much as any Greek islands, with some of the island’s ancient Minoan sites showing signs of an almost cult-like following of the deity that must have been fond of a drink or two. There are now over 30 wineries in Crete, many of them in this western part of the island, and if you are staying in the White Mountains regions, do visit Dourakis or Manousakis Wineries both of which offer tours through vineyards and tantalising terroirs. Or you can just head back to Taverna Xasomeri, sit back and relax and raise a glass of Dimitri’s homemade raki to toast Cretan mountain life with him, his family and friends. Because this, along with some traditional tunes, is by far the best way to imbibe the true White Mountain Spirit.