Cretan Journeys: Return to the village

Mike Sweet reports from Vamos in western Crete, where a community has been revitalised by the vision of a generation who turned their grandparents’ homes into delightful refuges for discerning visitors.

Nestled between the coast and the national highway connecting Chania with Rethymno, the Apokoronas is a region often overlooked by the scores of tourist buses and hire cars running the gauntlet of the E75 national road, the frantic highway connecting west and eastern Crete. Apokoronas is a wide fertile plain extending from the foothills of the Lefka Ori, north to the coast,  with rolling hills where Cypress trees, olive groves, vineyards and orchards thrive. This is the Crete of a simpler age. A place where Arab pirates dwelt, where the Venetians ruled for more than three hundred years, where Ottoman forts still survey a land fought over for centuries.

The ancient indigenous economy of Crete, based on agriculture, only began to change significantly as recently as the 1970s. Mass tourism, like an irreversible chemical reaction, transformed the island physically and culturally forever. Today around fifteen per cent of all arrivals in Greece come through Heraklion and more than two million tourists visit Crete annually. But despite the adverse effects of this invasion, those who seek a quieter and more authentic experience in Crete can still find it, in a place like Apokoronas.

At the heart of the Apokoronas district is the village of Vamos. With a history reaching back into pre-history, it would be the mid 20th Century that saw Vamos, like so many villages in Greece, face a challenge for its very survival. Decimated by the exodus of a generation, which began in the 1950s, Vamos was in total neglect by the seventies. Many of its houses had become ruins and half the resident population, which had dwindled to 650, were elderly.

Vamos’ saving grace was that it was the administrative heart of the region, and its public services kept it from extinction. As the age of Cretan mass tourism dawned, Vamos went into a kind of quiet hibernation, waiting for a new age; a time when it’s simple, traditional ways would be sustainable once more. The catalyst for the butterfly to emerge would be artistic expression and particularly music.
Between 1982 and 1988, the children of the generation who had left Vamos returned, creating a series of summer music festivals that brought Greece’s most prominent contemporary musical performers to the village. George Dalaras came to Vamos, along with Maria Farandouri, Yannis Markopoulos, Haris Alexiou, Dimos Moutsis and a host of other leading Greek artists; it was a commercial venture but also a celebration of the village’s culture and very being.

Later, it would be a group of like-minded friends who had been involved in organising the festivals, who would go on in the 1990s to practice a kind of alchemy that reversed the downturn in the village’s fortunes, turning ruins back into simple, authentic Cretan residences for travellers who share a concept of ‘soft’ tourism.

George Hadjidakis was one of those friends, and a founding member of Vamos Traditional Village established as a co-operative in 1995. Brought up in Athens, George recollects childhood holidays at his grandparents’ home. “We were here every summer and what I remember most is the feeling of freedom I had, and the chance to explore nature.” Hadjidakis went on to study mathematics in the University of Athens, but the pull of Vamos was always there. “We thought the cultural events held in the summertime were not enough. We wanted to do something to expand the whole thing, to give a financial perspective to the area the whole year round.” The co-operative began by renovating the ancient homes of their grandparents; buildings originally constructed between the 18th and early 20th century were turned into guesthouses; an art café, performance space, a crafts shop and a taverna.

Today Vamos Traditional Village comprises twenty-five cottages and another ten in outlying villages. Some of the more luxurious villas sleep up to eight people and come with outdoor pools. All have been re-built in traditional Cretan style using local materials. Accommodation can be booked by the night, though most visitors book weekly blocks.

Part of the co-operative’s vision was to help revitalise the village’s economy by creating other businesses beside the accommodation. The traditional taverna I Sterna tou Bloumosifis run by Spiros Frantzeskatis serves some of the best value cuisine in western Crete using local ingredients. Their mouthwatering menu features mezedes like stuffed zuchinni flowers, freshly made taramosalata, and creamy fava. From the wood-fired oven, treat yourself to lamb with artichokes, slow roasted pork, or rooster with red wine and pasta. Topped off with a drop of Tsikoudia (the fiery Cretan Raki) on the house, every meal here is one to remember.

To Liakoto, the art café nearby puts on regular exhibitions and live music featuring an eclectic mix of contemporary styles from Rembetika to modern jazz. Beyond the enterprises set up by the co-operative itself, the village’s other businesses have benefited greatly from increased visitors; the grocer, the baker, the single supermarket, and the traditional cafés in the sleepy main square. It’s that sense of a real, living, breathing community, which you become part of when staying in Vamos that lies at the heart of this venture’s success.

The co-operative’s plans for the future are modest; an organic market garden to supply the guests and a hostel-style villa suited for the budgets of young people. The early summer of 2011 sees Vamos Traditional Village host hands-on classes on cooking Cretan cuisine, and in a return to its roots, a series of week long celebrations of drama, poetry and visual arts.

Although George Hadjidakis wouldn’t say no to more properties, the co-founder of this Cretan experiment in soft tourism is happy to keep things on a modest scale, avoiding over-commercialisation of the concept. “I don’t want to make it that big. There’s a danger in that. We don’t want to be Coca Cola!”

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