The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir.*
The Eden in Skordalou is one of the miracles of Greece’s largest island. On maps and in travel guides you will find it as the Botanical Park & Gardens of Crete, but, as you will soon discover, this plot on the slopes of Lefka Ori has a powerful energy, reminiscent of what ancient clerics and scholars described as Paradise. As you stroll about, you’ll notice blackened tree trunks, or what’s left of them – mere charcoaled bark – standing like macabre sentinels to remind of a tragedy which claimed sixty thousand olive trees that endured winds and tempests here for more than 400 years before the fire of October 2004.
The fire took its toll ruining many family businesses in this part of Crete. Among them, the Marinakis family who had olive and orange groves on the very slopes you’ll explore here. After the fire, Petros and his three brothers decided to populate the land with exotic and endemic plants to create “a botanical park for trekking, education, and recreation.” And there’s magic in their vision: after five years of work, the gardens opened their gates for the first time in April 2009, and today they rank among the world’s best botanical destinations.
Brace yourself for a power-hike.
The Marinakis gave Crete a treasure that inspires and challenges the status quo. Here and there around the gardens you’ll find thought-provoking statements like:
Flora hides the secrets for the most radiant health and beauty.
We are once again rediscovering nature, its beauty, calmness, the wisdom in its simplicity and we are starting to learn again how to discern its hidden secrets; secrets that – though forgotten as time went by – have been well preserved by all great civilizations.
The garden is one-of-a-kind in Europe. Nothing quite compares to its winding paths descending from a mountain top down to an artificial lake that reflects the azure like an enchanted mirror.
The garden is a verdant nirvana. Winding paths take you down through a Mediterranean herbs garden to the cherry section, then down to the tropical plants, and, as you stroll at ease, you will also discover the Mediterranean fruits and the citrus. There’s also a section of vines overlooking the valley. You can rest here to take in the spectacular views.
Peacocks roam freely about the gardens, but there’s also a small animal farm by the lake. There’s nothing spectacular about this place but the little ones will enjoy it. There’s no feeding or petting the animals though, so, if you are not into long walks, take the short route back to the restaurant of the Botanical Park & Gardens of Crete.
But it is well worth it to explore the Botanical Park & Gardens of Crete in their entirety. The unexpected mix of endemic and exotic plants creates an unusual ambiance full of surprising colors and fragrances. Here a pineapple shows its shy little head at the shade of a banana plant, there a crabapple carries a heavy load on fragile branches. And, as you walk you learn about the birds that live in the garden, the reptiles that hide between the leafy shrubs, and the farm animals that are cared for by the lake. Bring your binoculars to spot the birds: hawks, crows, goldfinches, orioles, ravens, linnets, blackbirds, and robins. This is a great habitat for feathery friends.
It’s a colorful world for butterflies and insects too: the common brimstone, swallowtails, cicadas, and bees buzz and flutter around making your journey along the park’s paths even more captivating. And you know to watch your step: the European rattlesnake lives here in good company. The Balkan whip snake can rest somewhere on a rock in the sun, or you can spot an Ocellated Skink if you pay attention. There are also lizards, tree frogs, and toads. It’s quite impressive how quickly the Botanical Park & Gardens of Crete rebuilt this stretch of land in the Lefka Ori into the perfect natural environment for so many species.
After the walk around the gardens, you can rest and grab a refreshing all-natural orange juice pressed cold, on the spot, right in front of you. Or sit, watch the sunset, and eat. They serve delicious fare inspired by the Cretan land and seasoned with herbs from the gardens.
There’s also a market selling botany books and Cretan or Greek cookbooks, as well as olive oil, wines, raki, ouzo, and all kinds of marmalades, jams, and preserves with the Botanical Park & Gardens of Crete label. You will want to buy their out-of-this-world Lemon Sweet.
- The gardens are not wheelchair accessible and not recommended for toddlers.
- Seniors and people who suffer from illnesses that affect physical endurance should pace themselves – the paths are quite steep in many places and the ascend can be difficult.
- Wear proper shoes: although I did the walk in flip-flops (so it is possible), a good walking shoe would be better.
- Have water or purchase an additional bottle of water with your ticket. Although a bottle of water is included in the price (6€ for adults) it is only 500 ml. It goes fast.
- The hike around the gardens takes about two hours. It can be less or more depending on your pace.
- Please observe the rules of the garden before starting your journey. “Take only photos… Leave only footprints.”
*Act 5, Scene 5 – Henry VIII by Shakespeare