Cretan Journeys: Dispatches from the Amari

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The Amari Valley in central Crete has a proud history and unique natural environment. Here a new generation of Amariots are intent on protecting this enchanting place and their precious heritage.

With the mighty Psiloritis mountain to the east and the Kedros range to the west, the Amari lies cradled 500 metres above sea level: a labyrinth of country lanes which connect tiny hamlets largely untouched by tourism. Between the villages – shaded by cypresses, plane trees, oaks and pines – lies a patchwork of fields of corn and cabbages, figs and apples, grapes and quinces, all nestling up to some of the oldest olive groves in Europe.

Set against the everchanging colours of the mountains, this shangri-la, just 45 minutes south-east of Rethymno, is Crete off the beaten track. I took the road to the Amari in November. Summer had long passed but it had left its mark: soil baked orange by the sun, oleanders in the hedgerows, splashing pink as the road snakes south.

Walnuts are in season, and the black-red cherries that arrived in summer’s blaze were now preserved for cooler days. Amid this glorious nature are some of Crete’s most precious Minoan and Byzantine churches, places of worship that convey the ancient spirituality of this place. Beside them, Amariots today eke out livelihoods in much the same way as their ancestors, with a reliance on agriculture – largely immune from the impact and economic benefits of tourism.

Like many isolated rural areas, depopulation and lack of infrastructure has seen the 30 or so villages that make up the Amari, struggle to maintain themselves and offer livelihoods to its younger generation. The valley’s population has been in decline for decades. Reversing the trend is the challenge for newly installed Amari mayor Adam Paradisanos.

“The valley’s population is about 6,000 today,” says Paradisanos in his office at the dimarxio in Agia Fotini, who has seen his own village Agios Ioannis shrink from 200 residents to just 50.

“Forty years ago it was very different. It was three or four times this number. The young have left and the people who stayed are old,” laments the former teacher.

But with the municipality’s resources limited, the valley’s future growth ultimately lies in the hands of Amariots with the imagination and courage to invest in their homeland.One such pioneer is Manolis Papadakis. Manolis opened Amari Villas four years ago – a loving restoration of his grandparents’ former home in the village of Amari, perched on the slopes of Samitos mountain.

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Manolis Papadakis

At Amari Villas, the 50-year-old entrepreneur has created the valley’s most stunning accommodation to date: two large and luxurious interconnecting villas with elegant traditional furnishings and views to die for. The villas may have a swimming pool with one of the most glorious vistas in Crete, but this is no soulless five-star experience. Rather, Papadakis’ project is something truly authentic: a reflection of the historic culture it sits within. Papadakis says that changing the Amari’s economic fortunes is about improving its most basic infrastructure.

“This is a poor area, and what we need is, for instance, help to clean and mark the paths between the churches, gorges, and historical sites,” says the electrical engineer, who accessed EU funds to help convert his property.

“We need government at all levels to get together, to improve things like refuse collection, sewerage, and water supply.”

The creation of the Amari Network, a long-awaited project that will see collaborations between the sectors that make up the Amari’s economy (farming, accommodation, restaurants, and handicrafts), says Papadakis, is key to moving forward.

“We don’t need huge projects that would distort Amari’s unique character. We must remain humble and at the same time, proud of our heritage, paying respect to the glorious environment and our history, that has been delivered to us, intact, by our ancestors”. Papadakis’ vision is not only about developing tourism in the valley, but encouraging its diaspora to return.

“We want people to come back to their homeland, to live and work here. We want Amari to flourish again and tourism could be the best way to move things forward”.

The Amari, with its stunning natural environment and historical sites, is an extraordinary place to visit – one of Crete’s most inspiring and enchanting landscapes and cultures. Just as the plough churns its rich soil in winter for next year’s crop, the valley prepares itself for a new season and regeneration. That’s the Amari way. For a glimpse of Crete at its richest, full of natural wonders and history, take the road to the Amari, a place that beckons like no other.

Heroism and sacrifice – WWII and the Amari

The Amari played a key role in resistance activity during the Nazi German occupation of Crete between 1941 and 1945.It was used by Allied secret agents like Tom Dunbabin, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Xan Fielding throughout the occupation (as a place to meet in relative safety, and as a route through which escaped Allied soldiers were taken to evacuation beaches on the south coast.

The Kedros villages on the Amari Valley’s western edge have been rebuilt virtually from scratch after their destruction in WWII. On 22 August 1944, German forces destroyed the villages that line the eastern slopes of the Kedros mountain after murdering 164 civilians, ostensibly as an act of reprisal for the abduction (by British secret agents) of the island’s garrison commander, General Heinrich Kreipe.

Most historians today concur that the massacre (carried out three months after the abduction and just weeks before the Germans withdrew their forces to Chania), was ordered to deter local partisans from attacking the occupation forces as they retreated, and to punish the communities who from the start of the occupation had consistently supported the resistance.

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Today a line of memorials, one in each village along the road that runs south-east from Gerakari, tells the tale of that terrible day. Those killed included 49 people from Gerakari – nine from the Kokkonas family alone, more than 40 from the tiny hamlets of Vryses and Kardaki, and 40 from Ano Meros. The Ano Meros monument is the most remarkable: a larger than life sculpture of a Cretan woman, stout and strong in traditional costume, wielding a hammer and chisel, carving the names of the dead into the stone monolith she faces: Mother Crete forever marking her childrens’ sacrifice.

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The Last Supper: 14th century frescoe at the abandoned Church of Panagia, Smiles

Another memorial has fewer visitors. Tucked into the fields in the valley below is the abandoned village of Smiles (pronounced smee-les). Set ablaze by the Nazis that August day, it was never rebuilt, and what remains of its wrecked, overgrown dwellings stand in silent testament to that awful terror.Smiles is not to be found on any commercially available map, but ask the locals. They know.

Places to stay and eat in the Amari

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Amari Villas
The valley’s most luxurious accommodation on the eastern slopes of Samitos mountain comprises two interconnecting villas (with pool) that can sleep up to 16. Open all year round, the villas make the perfect summer or winter retreat.   Click here for bookings Tel. (+30) 283 1051003 and 697 3557081

Meronas Eco House
Manolis Moschonas has transformed his old family home in the village of Meronas into a cosy interpretation of a traditional Amari residence, and one with a jacuzzi. Click here for bookings  Tel. (+30) 6985 120285

Moschovolies Traditional Taverna, Meronas
One of the valley’s best kept secrets, this delightful taverna run by the Moschonas family offers the freshest local produce and some of the best food in the Amari. Moshovolies on Facebook  Tel. (+30) 283 3022526 and 6956 657882

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Cretan Journeys: The Doma

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The remarkable story of the Doma Hotel in Chania

There aren’t many hotels in the world like the Doma, the century-old establishment perched on the waterfront just east of Chania town centre. To ascend its curved steps and pass across its threshold is to enter a portal to the past, and if you are looking for a spot to reflect on Crete’s rich, turbulent history – or just a perfect place to unwind – look no further.

Decorated with exquisite antique furnishings – the walls adorned with fading framed photographs, documents and objets d’art – this former diplomatic consulate is the family home of its present owners – sisters Irini ‘Rena’ Valyraki and Ioanna Koutsoudaki, and their story is inextricably linked to this special place.

Built in the late 19th century as the consulate of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it was like all consulates in Chania, located in the affluent seaside suburb of Halepa. As WWI redrew the map of Europe and the old dynasties fell, by 1918 Crete had been unified with Greece, and the building went into private hands. In 1933 the consulate and its extensive grounds was purchased by Ioanna and Rena’s grandmother. Irini was born there the same year, but as war approached, the sisters’ time in their childhood home was to be shortlived.

In 1940, with Hitler’s armies on the march across Europe, the British Consul in Chania persuaded their father Kyriakos Koutsoudakis (a former employee of the company that operated the telegraph line from Crete to Alexandria connecting England with India) to lease the house to the British government.

For a year the family lived with the consul and his staff, before – on the eve of the invasion of Crete in May 1941 – they moved out, leaving their furniture and most of their precious heirlooms behind. Ioanna still remembers vividly the day the soldiers came from the sky.

Fate decided that she and her family would be at the centre of the storm. “My father had arranged for us to be taken to a village near Maleme,” says Ioanna, as we sit in the Doma’s fourth-floor dining room, with its sweeping panorama looking out over the bay.

“I remember the first night of the invasion. I was very afraid, my father took me in his arms, and the next day he took us in his car to the village of Elos, south of Kissamos, in the mountains.”

When Chania fell on 27 May the victorious German paratroops took over the British Consulate to use as their command centre. Ioanna and Rena’s home would host the uninvited guests for four long years. “We came back soon after the invasion,” says Ioanna. “I remember saying ‘who are all these strange people?’ and my mother telling me ‘it’s not our house anymore’.”

For most of the occupation the Koutsoudakis family lived not far from their requisitioned home. Like so many displaced in a town that was decimated by war, they made the best of it. “There were ten of us in my aunt’s house. Once a German soldier gave me some chocolate, and my father told me ‘you must not take anything from those people because they are not our friends’.”

Athens saw the Germans leave in October 1944, but ‘Fortress Chania’ would remain under Nazi control until 9 May 1945. The German surrender of the town would be the final act of World War II in Europe, but not even Chania’s liberation meant the sisters could return to their home.

“The British came to my father and they said they wanted to operate the house again as their consulate,” says Ioanna. “They stayed for ten years and I hated this situation.”

It would be 1955 before the house was finally restored to its rightful owners. Ioanna went on to study in Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts. Fluent in French and Italian, in the 1960s she began travelling – first hitch-hiking her way across Europe and then venturing to Asia. It was a road less-travelled for a young Greek woman of the time.

She was married briefly – a life in the United States beckoned – but it wasn’t to be. Rena wed a dentist. Hers was a long and happy marriage lasting 45 years.

Then in the late 1960s, Ioanna, who by now was living in Athens and running a fabric design and dressmaking business in the fashionable suburb of Kolonaki, suggested they turn the old family home into a guesthouse. The idea sprang from her time in Italy when she had seen similar family homes open their doors to paying guests.

The Doma Hotel opened in December 1971, and within months word had spread of its unique charm. Soon artists, celebrities, politicians and poets were staying, drawn to the building’s story and its graceful hosts. Its reputation as one of the most elegant and distinguished hotels in Greece grew steadily.

Some guests would return each year. Many still do. One of Ioanna and Irene’s favourites was the celebrated Italian writer and poet Antonio Tabucchi, who became a lifelong friend. British military types with clipped English accents (who served in wartime Crete as secret agents) stayed too, along with their former adversaries.

Once in the 1980s, a German war veteran – a Herr Voutkas (with only one hand, remembers Rena) who had lived in the house during the occupation, returned. It was only while checking-out that he summoned the courage to admit the circumstances of his previous residence.

The Doma still carries the echoes of all its histories. This is a place where the presence of its former incarnations – and those who spent time here – is everywhere.

Beyond its powerful history, perhaps it’s the glorious dining room overlooking the bay that is the most memorable experience, its walls adorned with family portraits and fading framed documents; or precious time spent in the dappled light of the serene walled garden; perhaps it’s the peaceful lounge, decked in antique rugs beside the exotic headdresses Ioanna created inspired by her travels, that stays with you. It’s all these things and more.

Until the late 1980s the Doma was open all year round. Today it reveals its delights only between April and November. On my last visit to Chania a sturdy lock and chain were wrapped tightly around the hotel’s elegant wrought-iron gate.

Ioanna and Rena were preparing to travel to Athens, as they have done for forty years, to spend winter in their Kolonaki apartment. Like the swifts that return to their nests nearby each year, they will be back when the buds of spring arrive.

As the waves break on the pebbled shore below, the Doma will wait for its genteel owners to return, to bring back their gracious hospitality and the manners of a bygone era.

Michael Sweet traveled to Crete with the assistance of Aegean Airlines.