Friday, September 25, 2009


Dear Friends,

I have decided to include some information/facts about the Samaria Gorge as a follow-up to the previous post about my hike through the Samaria Gorge:

In order to avoid the logistics of planning and executing the transportation connections, possible lodging, acquiring ferry tickets, etc., I took the American way out – I booked my Samaria Gorge excursion through a local travel agency in Amoudara. The cost of the tour (including bus transportation and a guide) was 41 Euros ($60.55), the ferry fare was 7.50 Euros ($11.08), the entrance fee to the gorge was 5 Euros ($7.38), and a broken toe - PRICELESS in any currency!!! So, excluding the costs of a sandwich prior to entering the gorge, refreshments at the end of the gorge, and a broken toe, the total cost, based on today’s exchange rate was $79.01. Remember, this was for a full day, beginning shortly after 6 A.M. and ending at just after 10 P.M.

The hike through the Samaria Gorge is said to be the most hiked trail in all of Greece. The second most hiked trail is the Mount Olympus path, home of the Greek gods, located on the Greek mainland. The name of the Samaria Gorge is most likely from the ancient, probably Minoan, word Samarah, meaning "torrent", but the usual explanation offered is that it is from the Church of St. Mary the Egyptian, located near the village of Samaria. I have been told the correct pronunciation for “Samaria” is: sa-mar-ya' ; NOT: sa-mar-ee'-a ; and NOT: sa-mar'ee-a.

Many have claimed the Samaria Gorge is the longest gorge in all of Europe, with a distance of 18 kilometers; others claim the distance is 16 kilometers. Our guide told us the distance is 17 kilometers. Some say the actual length of the gorge itself is 14 kilometers, but with an additional 3 kilometer walk to the village of Agia Roumeli at the end of the gorge, makes the actual hike a total distance of 17 kilometers. Whether it is actually the longest gorge in all of Europe is questionable; there is one gorge in southern France that is reputedly 20 kilometers long. When I was stationed on Crete in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I recall having been told the Samaria Gorge was the DEEPEST gorge in all of Europe, dropping to a depth of 600 feet below sea level. I have searched on the internet to either verify or dismiss this claim, but I can find neither. Perhaps one of you might be better able to uncover the truth regarding this assertion.

The beginning of the Samaria Gorge is known as Xyloskalo, which, I was told, means, “wooden stairs”, and refers to the steps which descend into the gorge. But the steps are not made of wood; they are stone and there really aren’t that many “steps”. Perhaps it refers to the occasional wooden railing that is alongside parts of the descending path. The entrance of the gorge is at an altitude of 1250 meters (4,100 feet). The Samaria Gorge has an area of 12,125 acres and its width varies from 150 meters to a mere 3 or 4 meters (at the so-called "Gates"). The sheer rock walls vary in height from 300 to 600 meters.

Immediately, in front of the entranceway rises the majestic Mount Gingilos. Legend has it that Mount Gingilos is the site of the Demon’s Cave (Daimonospilios) which is thought to be the location of an oracle and a grotto of nymphs. Ancient tradition says that music and the dancing of the nymphs can be heard from this cave. Naturally, I looked for this cave, but was unable to find it. However, if I ever hike the gorge again…

At about 4.5 kilometers from the Xyloskalo (the entrance of the gorge) is the little stone Church of Agios Nikolaos (St. Nicolas). This Church is said to have been built near the ruins of an ancient temple of Apollo. However, the English scholar Robert Pashley, who traveled Crete at the beginning of the 19th century, argued that this was the site of the ancient city of Kaino where the Cretan goddess Artemis or Britomartis was born. At any rate, the shade of the towering cypress trees and cool spring water make this an ideal place to stop for a few minutes and rest.

The numerous paths through the gorge and at the top of the surrounding gorge walls were used by the Cretan resistance forces to evade capture during the German occupation of World War Two. Many of the now-abandoned stone settlements and stone structures located throughout the gorge were also used by those same resistance forces for shelter and refuge.

One of the more impressive parts of the gorge is that stretch known as “The Iron Doors” or “The Iron Gates” located toward the southern end of the gorge. The locals have simply always referred to them as the “portes”, which means doors. Here the sides of the gorge close in to a width of about 3 or 4 meters and rise to a height of 500 meters!

Even though the Samaria Gorge is open only from May 1st through October 15th, tens of thousands make the hike during the open season. However, the hike through the gorge is not without its risks. There are on average one or two fatalities each year. Even our guide advised us NOT to make loud noises or attempt to make an echo in the gorge, as this could frighten the rare “kri-kri” goats that live in the gorge. He further explained that when the goats are suddenly startled, they can kick down rocks which could create a rock slide.

On a more personal observation, I would strongly advise wearing a good pair of hiking boots to protect the feet and ankles and to provide adequate traction, especially during the decent into the gorge. However, I did see some hikers wearing tennis shoes, sandals, and one with just a pair of “flip-flops” on. The strangest sight I saw was a young lady wearing something that looked very closely akin to ballerina shoes – I never saw her again! While hiking the gorge I also noticed some people who carried very large containers of water. This was completely unnecessary. A small bottle of water, 10 or 12 ounces, is more than sufficient, as there are numerous springs of cold water every one or two kilometers, where the bottle can be refilled time and again. Also, the small bottle of water can easily be fitted into the pocket, thereby keeping the hands free.

I realize that much of what I have just written has been assembled in somewhat of a random manner, but I thought that you might find some of the aforementioned information and facts interesting.

As always, take care, stay well, and let me hear from you.

Your Friend and Fellow “Silent Warrior”,

Bob Armistead

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Dear Friends,

Well, yesterday, Tuesday, September 22nd., I did it - I hiked the Samaria Gorge! I decided to book on a tour after some friends of mine attempted to make all arrangements on their own last year, only to fail twice in making the necessary connections to enter the gorge before the cut-off time. On their third attempt, they traveled first to the city of Chania the preceding day and spent the night there. The next morning, they left Chania and were able to successfully enter the gorge prior to the cutoff, and with plenty of time to complete their hike.

My day began rather early, getting up at 4:45 A.M., showering and dressing in a pair of hiking shorts, short-sleeved shirt and hiking boots. I gathered my necessary gear which consisted of my Nikon D200 camera and a small bottle of water, left my apartment and made my way to the Roxani Hotel to await the tour bus. I arrived there at about 5:55 A.M., in plenty of time for the scheduled departure time of 6:10 A.M. By 6:20 A.M. I had started to get a little concerned, when up the road came a nice, shiny, sleek bus. It stopped in front of the Roxani Hotel, the door swung open and I asked, “Samaria Gorge?” “Yes, of course”, the driver answered. The bus was completely filled except for one vacant seat next to a young girl from Latvia (is that a suburb of Philadelphia?). I sat down next to her and we pulled away from Amoudara and headed west. After about an hour or so, we pulled into the little village of Scaleta for a ten minute rest break. Then, just past Chania, we turned south and began our ascent into the mountains. The bus made countless switchbacks as it made its way up and through the mountains. It was a beautiful sight seeing the early morning sun over the Aegean Sea, casting its rays of red and pink on the blue waters! At something past 9 A.M. we made a twenty minute stop in the small village of Omalos to get something to eat or drink, and to use their restroom facilities before making the five minute drive to the entrance of the Samaria Gorge. Just before arriving at the gorge, the tour guide informed us NOT to remove our boots or shoes during the hike for any reason, because the feet would swell, making it impossible to get the boots or shoes back on. I couldn’t help but look upon this as a bad omen! Once at the gorge, each person had to pay a 5 Euro entrance fee. I put my ticket into my billfold, because at the end of the gorge there would be a checkpoint through which I would have to pass and produce my ticket as proof that I had indeed paid. Otherwise, I would be required to pay again.

Now, this is where the fun begins. Roughly the first 2.5 hours of the 17 kilometer trek (about 10.5 miles) is spent descending 1,300 feet from the mountain down into the belly of the gorge. The downward grade can be rather steep, and much care must be given to prevent rocks from turning beneath your feet and thereby causing one to stumble out of control like a cartwheel. As a result, the knees are relentlessly used as shock absorbers and the feet are constantly used as brakes. Along the way down, I think that I probably stubbed my right toe at least 5 or 6 times. I believe it was probably the 2nd or 3rd time that I stubbed the big toe on my right foot causing the most damage and probably breaking it. Each subsequent time that I stubbed it simply added to the damage already done, and, subsequently caused the most unbearable pain. Unfortunately, there is no way for medical evacuation out of the gorge except by primitive Greek ambulance – a donkey. Not wanting to suffer the humiliation of being the only person to be evacuated from the gorge by donkey, I decided to try to “tough” it out and walk the remainder of the gorge, which I did. Approximately 5.5 hours after entering the gorge, I stumbled out of that geological Hell and hobbled to the nearby little village of Agia Roumeli to rendezvous with the fifty or so others in my tour group at a small taverna. I immediately consumed a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and then some lemonade in an effort to replace some of the potassium and bodily fluids that I had lost during the hike. My legs had already begun to cramp, and I was afraid if they continued to do so, they would curl up like the coiled springs in a cheap mattress! When others in the group approached me and asked how I liked hiking the Gorge, the intense pain in my right toe, the cramps in my feet and legs, complete exhaustion, and the total depletion of testosterone prevented me from saying something like, “Oh yeah! I’m ready to hike that sucker again!”, or, “Hey, that hike was nothing more that a walk in the park!” What I really said was, “Are you insane? That gorge is a killer! I am walking like someone who has just had a double hip replacement! The bottoms of my feet feel like I have been walking barefoot on hot coals all day! My knees feel like all of the cartilage has been squeezed out of them! I'm suffering from delirium and I think my kidneys are shutting down! And you ask me if I liked it? Are you into pain or something?" Wide-eyed, they backed away from me, and began to whisper things into the ear of the tour guide, who then watched me suspiciously the rest of the trip. I sat back down in my chair, ordered another glass of orange juice, gazed at a distant mountain peak and thought to myself, "Hell, it couldn't get any gooder than this, unless I was up on top of that mountain over yonder in the dead of winter, laying in three feet of snow with my back broke, completely nekked, wearing nothing but a necktie!” I smiled to myself.

We left the port of Agia Roumeli by ferry boat at about 6 P.M. and arrived at the village port of Chora Sfakion about an hour later. We all immediately boarded our tour bus for the ride back to our respective points where we had originally boarded the bus. I disembarked the tour bus shortly after 10 P.M. in Amoudara in front of the Roxani Hotel. I hobbled down the main street, walking like a man who had just had a vasectomy performed on him earlier in the day, and headed for my apartment on Naxou Street. Upon arrival in my apartment, I sat down and removed the hiking boot and sock on my left foot and examined it. It was sore and red, and there were places where it appeared blisters had started to form. Then I unlaced the boot on my right foot. Just the act of unlacing the boot hurt; removing the boot hurt; removing the sock hurt; looking at my foot hurt even more. The bottom of my right foot was red and swollen; my big toe was red and swollen, as were the other remaining toes on my right foot. There were places where the skin had begun to bubble. But what concerned me most was that the toenail on my big toe had turned a shade of blue and grey, and it was very painful to bend my big toe. I took a good hot shower, limped into bed at something before 11 P.M., and didn’t get out of bed until about 9:45 A.M. this morning! Today, I have nothing on my agenda, except to stay off of my right foot, and write this post for my blog. I have just looked on the internet at the web site, WebMD, to see how best to treat a broken toe! Among other things, it advises to keep the foot elevated as much as possible. I think I will limp down the street to the booking agency for the Samaria Gorge tour and elevate my foot by placing it into the backside of the man who sold me on taking the tour to the Samaria Gorge! As I hope you can see, I AM trying to keep a humorous outlook on what transpired yesterday! And, while I don’t intend to ever hike the Samaria Gorge again (never say “never”), I am glad that I did it and successfully completed the hike! And lastly, I MUST confess that I stand in complete awe and amazement of a God who can create such a magnificent and rugged beauty using nothing more than the slightest stroke of His Will!!!

Take care, stay well, and let me hear from you.

Your Friend and Fellow “Silent Warrior”,

Bob Armistead

UPPER LEFT PHOTO: The entrance to the Samaria Gorge.
UPPER RIGHT PHOTO: The Samaria Gorge

UPPER LEFT PHOTO: Hikers have arranged stacks of stones like these throughout the entire Samaria Gorge.
UPPER RIGHT PHOTO: The only means of evacuation of the ill or injured from the Samaria Gorge - the Greek ambulance!

UPPER LEFT PHOTO: The ancient Church of Agios Nikolaos. Near this site there were ancient archeological ruins discovered revealing animal sacrifices.
UPPER RIGHT PHOTO: This small chapel is from more recent times. In front is a single grave.

UPPER LEFT PHOTO: There were numerous ancient settlements like this one which were used by the Cretan resistance during both the Turkish occupation as well as the German occupation during WWII.
UPPER RIGHT PHOTO: This view reveals the magnitude and the magnificence of the Samaria Gorge. The tiny specks in the center of the photo are hikers.

UPPER LEFT PHOTO: Rushing flood waters have carved interesting features on the rock walls of the Gorge.
UPPER RIGHT PHOTO: More interesting patterns on the Gorge walls created by rushing flood waters.

UPPER LEFT PHOTO: The "Iron Doors" or the "Iron Gates" located not far from the southern end of the Samaria Gorge.
UPPER RIGHT PHOTO: An ancient Church at the edge of the little village of Agia Roumeli.

UPPER RIGHT PHOTO: This fortress-like structure overlooks the small village of Agia Roumeli.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Dear Friends,

I left on a quest of sorts yesterday morning (September 13th). Ever since having read ZORBA THE GREEK, and after my arrival on Crete last year for my three month vacation, I had intended to visit the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis, but it seemed as if every time I started out, my intentions became diverted, either by accident or by design! I was determined on this three month trip to Crete, not to allow ANYTHING to interfere with this quest! At any rate, yesterday morning I arose early, and after showering and getting dressed, boarded the bus into downtown Iraklion. I specifically chose a Sunday because of the absence of traffic, noise and people. After disembarking the bus just a little beyond St. Minas Church and not far from the southwestern end of Market Street, I pulled my tourist map from my back pocket and tried to get my bearings. Now, by my own admission, I am probably the worlds worst at following directions, either verbally or from a map, but after studying the map for a few moments, I decided to venture down an unmarked street which appeared would take me in the general direction of Nikos Kazantzakis’ grave. I did know that his grave was atop the Martinengo bastion, which was part of the old Venetian fortifications that surrounded the old city of Heraklion. As I proceeded down this street, I noticed part of the old wall ahead and thought that I might be nearing his grave. My instincts were rewarded when I came across a sign indicating the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis was down a street to the right. After walking several hundred yards, I came across a narrow street which forked to the left and seemed to climb upwards toward the top of the Venetian wall. As soon as I began to ascend the left fork there was another sign stating the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis was ahead. Near the top of the little fork, I was directed to follow a paved footpath to the right and continued upward. Then, the footpath broadened, turned to the left and a wide stone stairway led me the final few steps to the summit of the Venetian fortification. There, at the top of the stone stairway, a flat expanse lay before me. There were neatly manicured shrubs, flowering bushes, trees, and a pathway that followed the perimeter of the summit, and there, in the middle was the final resting place of Nikos Kazantzakis. I paused. I felt as if I were approaching literary royalty! Suddenly, passages from ZORBA THE GREEK raced through my head, and scenes from the movie played out in my mind. I stood before his grave in complete awe of a writer who could so fluently and simply explain philosophy in everyday dialogue and description. But, perhaps that is what separates just a writer from a great writer. If a writer is able to explain the most complex of philosophical issues through a simple peasant like Zorba and in such a way that most every reader is able to fully grasp and understand what is being said (or taught), then he has achieved that measure of greatness...such was Nikos Kazantzakis! There were flowers placed on his grave which had obviously been picked by caring admirers from the surrounding flowering bushes. And someone had also tied a blossom to the cross-member of the simple wooden cross that stood at the head of his stone. I spent several minutes just standing there; I seemed to lose track of time. Then, I extracted my Nikon D200 camera from its case and began to photograph his grave and the surrounding area. What follows is a pictorial tribute to one of the greatest writers of our time. I hope it is fitting.

Your Friend and Fellow “Silent Warrior”,

Bob Armistead

UPPER LEFT PHOTO: The tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, looking northwest.
UPPER RIGHT PHOTO: Tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, looking west.

UPPER LEFT PHOTO: Tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, looking north.
UPPER RIGHT PHOTO: Small plaque imbedded in Nikos Kazantzakis' headstone. It reads, "Peace", in several different languages. To get a larger image, pass your cursor over the photo and "click".

UPPER LEFT PHOTO: The grave of Eleni Kazantzaki, wife of Nikos Kazantzakis. It is located about 20 yards to the left of Nikos Kazantzakis' grave - almost obscured by bushes and hedges.
UPPER RIGHT PHOTO: Heraklion as seen from atop the Venetian fortifications where the tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis is located.

CENTER PHOTO: The backside of Nikos Kazantzakis' tomb with the morning sun overhead.

Saturday, September 5, 2009


Dear Friends,

As stated in an earlier post concerning my apartment, I had said the rent for my little apartment in Amoudara was 350 Euros per month and the water was 20 Euros per month, but that I would not know what the electricity bill was until the end of the month. Well, when I paid my rent on September 1st., my landlady, Stella, came to inspect my electric meter which is located on the wall of the kitchen-dining-living area of my little apartment. She brought her calculator with her (which frightened me a little at first). She subtracted the number of kilowatt hours that was on the electric meter when I first moved in from the number of kilowatt hours that was now on the meter. Stella then multiplied that number by .25. I just kept wondering to myself, “Perhaps I should not have turned on the air-conditioner as often as I had...maybe I should not have turned the air-conditioner on when I did my workout...perhaps I shouldn’t have used my computer as much...maybe I could have done without lights...perhaps...”. My thoughts were interrupted by Stella, “Hmmm, Mr. Armistead, I have multiplied the number of kilowatt hours used by you during the month of August, by .25 Euros...according to my figures you owe 25 Euros for the electricity.” I thought to myself, “Twenty-five Euros! That’s all?” “O.K., Stella,” I replied, “that sounds fair enough to me.” I was expecting the bill for electricity to be much, much more! So, what does this mean? If I add the 350 Euros for rent to the 20 Euros for water and the 25 Euros for electricity, it cost me a total of 395 Euros to live in the La Stella Apartments for the month of August! Now, based on today’s exchange rate for the Euro against the U.S. Dollar, that 395 Euros translates into $563.35. I don’t think that is too terribly bad for a small furnished studio apartment and all utilities that is just about half a block from the beach! I wonder just how much a comparable apartment just half a block from the beach in the United States would cost me? Anyone care to guess?

Your Friend and Fellow “Silent Warrior”,

Bob Armistead