The Unique Geography of Crete

One of the best things about Greece is its diverse landscapes and islands. Being the biggest island in Greece, Crete can often seem like a country of its own. As the fifth largest island in the entire Mediterranean Sea, Crete’s landscape includes cascading mountains, valleys, beach paradises, and everything in between.

Millions of years of geologic evolution shaped the island and influenced how civilizations thrived on the land. The Minoans, one of the most renowned civilizations of the ancient world, originated from Crete.

The island is over 250 kilometers long from its most eastern to western points. It is a long narrow island and it takes about five and a half hours to drive the whole length. The ecosystems of Crete are influenced by its location in the Mediterranean and its proximity to the African continent. Sands from the Sahara Desert are carried by the wind across the sea and mix with the local soil, which affects the plant life that grows on the island. The plant life of Crete includes two-thousand species of wild flowers, shrubs, and trees. Many of these plants are unique to the island and can only be found in this corner of the world.

Samaria gorge. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

As Climate Change continues to create more severe weather events like droughts and wildfires, these plants have become recognized as endangered. One of these rare plants is the Aristolochia cretica, also known as the Cretan birthwort. The flower has a bizarre look to it, with a circular shape and white hair-like fibers stemming from the center of the deep maroon-colored base. The Cretan birthwort flower and others like various species of orchids grow and flourish in the untouched valleys and crevices that lay between Crete’s mountains, like the White Mountains also called the ‘Lefka Ori’.

The formation of Crete and other Greek islands is a result of the geologic process of tectonic plate movement. As the supercontinent Pangea broke apart about 175 million years ago, the Mediterranean Sea began to take shape. As the tectonic plates under the Eurasian and African continents continued to move below the Earth’s crust, their friction against each other pushed rock and magma up from the sea, shaping the land and the mountains of Crete. Because the tectonic plate boundaries in the Mediterranean are so volatile even in the modern day, the region is prone to earthquakes that continue to alter the landscape.

The White Mountains are the most famous mountain range in Crete, located south of the capital city Chania. They are the most western mountains on the island and within them they conceal a famous geologic treasure, the Samaria Gorge. Found on the southern end of the White Mountains and leading to the sea, the gorge stretches sixteen kilometers. The gorge, set between tall and steep cliffs, took shape as a result of both tectonic plate movements and erosion from sea water and river flow over the last five million years. Shallow water still flows through the most southern and low-lying portion of Samaria, and eventually empties out into the nearby sea. The Samaria Gorge is frequented by adventurous travelers who seek an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Along the narrow passages and worn out paths winding up and down,  the hike through the gorge can take up to six hours. Through this journey hikers pass the different rock types and ecosystems that thrive in this secluded space. Marble, limestone, and even iron deposits characterize the rock types and sediment that exist in the gorge. Geologic time can be seen in the layers and lines of the rocks that form its walls. Some passages become notably narrow as one travels south through the national park, like one spot that is coined the ‘Iron Gates’. A hike through Samaria is a journey through time and an experience that connects us to nature by exposing all of its intricacies and evolution.

Samaria gorge iron gates. (Photo by Stamatina Mylonas)

Although the Samaria Gorge is the most famous, there are countless gorges and valleys hidden amongst the mountains of Crete. As in almost every other part of Greece, the environment often intersects with mythological tales and history. Crete is believed to be the birthplace of Zeus, the king of the Gods. The exact location is contested but legends point to a cave system located in the Mount Ida or Psiloritis region of the island, just southwest of the main port city Heraklion. This is the tallest mountain on the island and thus serves as symbol of the King of the gods. The cave system named Idaion is most notable and has been lightly developed, with some paved paths for those wishing to visit this mythologically significant place.

The sharp mountains are complemented by the exotic shoreline that makes Crete such a beautiful island. On the northern side where all the major cities are located, the shore is a low-lying valley, now filled with bustling beach towns. The southern coast of Crete is more wild and far less developed. It is on the southern coast that you will find lush palm forests and freshwater rivers that flow down the mountains to meet the sea, like at Preveli beach. As most of the mountain ranges on the island lay closer to the south, this side of Crete has steep seaside cliffs, which create secluded recesses and small beaches.

The geologic processes that shaped Crete have allowed for each region of the island to feel like its own world. To the west there are long or circular peninsulas that prominently distinguish themselves from the rest of the ‘mainland’ and are home to some of the most unique beaches, like Balos, Seitan Limani. The eastern side of Crete is also the narrowest and the most continuously mountainous region of the island. This is where one can find the most seclusion, although small coastal towns like Agios Nikolaos or Ierapetra are not far from reach. Whether it is the sea and sand or mountain peaks that you seek, you will find it in Crete. The landscape and geography along with the rare and exotic ecosystems make Crete an environmental marvel.


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