Agia Roumeli is on the south coast of Chania Prefecture, between Hora Sfakion and Paleochora. Agia Roumeli has become well-known because it lies at the end of the path from the Samaria Gorge. The thousands of visitors who come down the gorge each year end up here to take the ferry to Loutro and Hora Sfakion (to the east) or Sougia and Paleochora (to the west).
The White Mountains with their high peaks and deep gorges keep Agia Roumeli isolated in their embrace. The village is small, there is no road to it and all access is by the small ANENDYK vessels.
It is worth mentioning that the first solar power station in Greece operated from 1982 to 1989 in Agia Roumeli.
How to get to Agia Roumeli
the ferry arrives to Agia Roumeli
- On foot through the Samaria Gorge. It you have the leisure to stay in Agia Roumeli, enter the gorge at midday and you will have it almost entirely to yourself, as all the tour groups go early in the morning. You will get to Agia Roumeli in about six hours, just as the last walkers are leaving the village.
- By boat from Hora Sfakion. There are several trips a day in the summer.
- By boat from Paleochora and Sougia. The little ferry arrives in the morning and leaves in the afternoon, giving you the chance to enjoy a day trip to Agia Roumeli and the lower part of the Samaria Gorge.
You should know that Agia Roumeli does not have a safe harbour, only a small jetty, making it hard for ferries to dock. This means that there are no trips when the weather is bad, so you may be cut off in Agia Roumeli for one or two days.
The name Agia Roumeli
The name Agia Roumeli may be reminiscent of Roumeli, as central Greece used to be called, but there has no historical connection between the two.
It is thought that many centuries ago there was a temple here dedicated to the Roman goddess Rumilia or Rumina. According to Plutarch, Rumilia was the protectress of flocks, of which there must certainly have been many in mountainous Agia Roumeli.
It is possible that after the establishment of Christianity in Crete, the Roman temple was converted into a Christian church called Agia Roumilia, later corrupted into the unusual place-name of Agia Roumeli.
According to a different theory, the name Agia Roumeli is derived from the Arabic words “aia” (water) and “rumeli” (Greek), i.e. “Greek water”.
Agia Roumeli, history
Until 1954 Agia Roumeli was higher up, about a kilometre from the shore, near the mouth of the Samaria Gorge. Heavy rainfall made the Samaria river flood and cause great damage to the village, which was moved to its present location on the coast.
East of the spot where Agia Roumeli is today, was the site of the ancient city of Tara or Tarra, probably founded in Classical times. Tarra was in important religious centre of the Dorians and flourished mainly during the Greco-Roman period. Tarra established a colony of the same name in the Caucasus, while Tarras in Southern Italy is believed to be another of its colonies.
Excavations on the site of the modern village have brought to light the cemetery of ancient Tarra, while the bay of Agia Roumeli was probably used as a harbour. We must take into account, however, that the coastline has changed, as a major earthquake in 365 AD raised the western end of Crete by about four metres.
Tarra was a member of the League of the Oreioi, together with the neighbouring ancient cities of Elyros (near Rodovani village), Hyrtakina (near Temenia village), Lissos (west of Sougia) and Poikilassos (the harbour of Elyros, west of Agia Roumeli).
Coins have been found in the area bearing the head of a Cretan wild goat on one side and a bee on the other, images directly connected to the local wildlife and local occupations (herding and bee-keeping) still alive today.
A stone stele with a double axe carved in relief was also found in the Agia Roumeli area, demonstrating the survival of Minoan religion into historical times. It is now housed in the Archaeological Museum of Chania.
Apollo and Acacallis
Apollo Tarraeus was worshiped in Tarra. According to myth, Apollo and Artemis sought sanctuary in Tarra after the murder of Python at Delphi. The priest-seer Karmanor performed purifying rites for their expiation.
At Karmanor’s house, Apollo fell in love with Acacallis or Acale, the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae. They had two children, the twins Phylacides and Philander. Legend has it that the embrace of Acacallis was so sweet that Apollo forgot to raise the sun into the sky, making the earth shiver and the rivers and lakes freeze over. This myth may be a folk way of describing how the sun takes several hours to reach the deepest parts of the Samaria Gorge.
The sons of Acacallis and Apollo were abandoned in the mountains and suckled by a wild goat. The twins survived and when they came of age they founded the neighbouring city of Elyros, which had Tarra as its harbour.
Agia Roumeli during the Venetian and Turkish periods
There was a large shipyard in Agia Roumeli during the Venetian and Turkish periods. With its abundant timber and river to power sawmills, it was the ideal spot for ship-building.
Agia Roumeli in the Second World War
Finally, it was from the shore of Agia Roumeli that the Greek Government with King George left for Egypt in May 1941, after the fall of Crete to the Germans.
Agia Roumeli today
Agia Roumeli today lives from tourism, specifically the 350,000 visitors a year who walk down the Samaria Gorge.
After a few hours’ walk down the Samaria Gorge, it’s a great relief when you come to the last two kilometres after the mouth of the gorge and see the first houses of Agia Roumeli. A few yards further on are several tavernas trumpeting their tasty food, their “Greek salad” and chilled orange juice. Agia Roumeli loses all its charm at times like this. Everyone’s in a hurry to catch the boat and go home or to their hotel.
The first stop, then, is at the ANENDYK ticket office, where you can buy a ticket to Loutro and Hora Sfakion to the east or Sougia and Paleochora to the west.
Here we would like to repeat that the most convenient way of crossing the Samaria Gorge is to stay in Sougia, take the morning bus to the Omalos Plateau, walk down the gorge and take the afternoon ferry to Sougia, minimising any hardship.
Once you’ve secured your return ticket, you can pass the time until the boat arrives by enjoying lunch at one of the many tavernas, cooling off with a drink of juice, a coffee, a soft drink or a chilled beer, or diving into the crystal-clear waters of Agia Roumeli beach.
Staying in Agia Roumeli
However, if you’re not in a hurry to get back home or to your hotel, it’s a good idea to stay at least one night in Agia Roumeli and enjoy the beautiful scenery, when the clamour of the tourist crowds has disappeared with the last ferry. It will be late afternoon, the sunset colouring the sky, and you can enjoy the peace and beauty of the large pebble beach.
Later, when it gets dark, you will enjoy delicious Sfakian recipes, good wine and, of you’re lucky, the company of the Sfakian taverna owner, dressed all in black, whose tales will introduce you to the secrets of his homeland. The people of Agia Roumeli are proud and taciturn, but their love of their home, its gorges and its mountains, the Madares as they call the White Mountains, makes their eyes shine when they speak of it.
If you’re not too tired after supper, go for a stroll on the jetty or the beach and turn your eyes heavenwards. If the night is moonless, thousands of stars will be sparkling in the firmament and the galaxy will look like a bright cloud, a glowing highway streaming across the black void. You’ll read this on other pages, but the magic of the night sky on the south coast of Crete is something you must experience for yourself.
What to do in Agia Roumeli
the fortress on the hill above Agia Roumeli
The next morning, Agia Roumeli unfolds even more choices before you, like a Circe trying to bewitch you with her beauty and keep you with her.
- Enjoy a large breakfast with Sfakian cheese and thyme honey from the White Mountains.
- Luxuriate in the azure water. The beach will be almost empty until midday, when the first hikers start to arrive from the Samaria Gorge.
- Climb the hill above Agia Roumeli to the ruined Turkish fortress and see from on high the mouth of the gorge, the houses of Agia Roumeli, the beaches to east and west and, of course, the vast blue Libyan Sea, interrupted only by the islands of Gavdos and Gavdopoula, the southernmost frontier of Europe. The walk takes half an hour to an hour and the path does not pose any particular difficulties.
- One-and-a-half hours’ walk past the Turkish fortress are the ruins of a second fortress. The path is all uphill and the fortress is in a poor state of preservation.
Walk east to the beach with the pine trees and the little Byzantine church of Agios Pavlos (video), named in remembrance of St Paul’s visit. The walk is 3.5 kilometres. There is no water on the way, so take what you need with you. The beach will probably be empty, and early in the morning the scent of pine fills the air.
If you continue along the coastal path, three kilometres further on is Marmara beach, which has a taverna. Another three kilometres on is the uniquely beautiful Loutro. The path continues for another six kilometres to Glyka Nera beach and Hora Sfakion.
To get an idea of how long you’ll need, allow 4 hours to Marmara, 5 hours to Loutro and 7 hours to Hora Sfakion, from Agia Roumeli in each case.
- For experienced hikers who are not afraid of heights and have tested their mettle over long distances, there is the coastal path from Agia Roumeli to Sougia. The hike takes 10 hours, maybe more, and the path is often damaged by the winter rains, making it tricky for most people.
- Ask the locals about other walks in the area.
Agia Roumeli beaches
the beach of Agia Roumeli is full of hikers waiting for
the ferry that will take them to Chora Sfakion
- The pebble beach west of Agia Roumeli.
- The beach of Agios Pavlos east of Agia Roumeli.
- For those with a boat, there are far more choices and you can enjoy beaches both east of Agia Roumeli (Marmara, Loutro, Glyka Nera) and west of it (Trypiti, Domata and other, smaller ones).
Agia Roumeli sights
- At the mouth of the Samaria Gorge you can see the ruins of the temple of Apollo Tarraeus.
- The church of Panagia (the Virgin) with its beautiful 16th-century mosaics is at the east end of the village of Agia Roumeli, built on the ruins of the temple of Apollo and Artemis.
- The Byzantine church of Agios Pavlos on the beach of the same name, where according to tradition St Paul baptised Christians.
- The two Turkish fortresses above Agia Roumeli. The first, especially, is not particularly hard to reach for most people and it offers a great view of Agia Roumeli from above.