Lotus Land – The Amari Valley
If you drive or take a bus from Rethymnon south through Spili to Agia Galini or the Messara Plain, you will completely miss the Amari Valley. Likewise if you travel south from Iraklion to Festos and to Matala, again you will miss one of the most special areas of Crete.
The Amari valley has always been one of my favourite places in Crete. It is five to six hundred metres above sea level (around 1,800 feet) and has the most perfect climate. Here there are olive trees to be sure, but also here grow the finest cherries you can find and in spring the cherry trees are full of blossom. A month later their branches are loaded with beautiful almost black-red cherries that just melt in the mouth. You can also buy some cherry glyko – jars of these lovely cherries preserved in syrup to last all year. A spoonful of glyko with some local yoghurt is like a dish from heaven.
As you walk through the small but ordered fields of the Amari you will see hundreds of apple trees. Some trained in cordons but so many just as trees that you can walk past and reach for, the taste of a fresh, slightly sweet apple is divine. There are fields of corn and cabbages, lettuces and almost everything that you can imagine that would grow in the garden of Eden.
To the east is the great mountain Psiloritis, Mount Ida. It acts like a wall holding the Amari Valley within its grasp. To the west are the Kedros mountains which acts in much the same way. The foothills of these mountains close the gap at both the south and the north extremes of the valley. The Amari is completely surrounded by mountains. Plus there is a mountain of its own right in the middle of the valley called Mount Samitos.
So where do the rivers go, and there are many rivers and streams in the Amari to water the fields? Well it is unique, each river feeds into another and grows. If you follow them you will eventually find a great hole or cave into which the rivers flow. Then the rivers flow underground through immense and ancient caverns and spring up outside the Amari on their way to the sea.
In the spring, the Amari is superb. Everywhere are wild flowers, and I mean everywhere. Almost every flower you can imagine grows here. The stunning anemone: deep dark blue with reds and pink. Imagine fields of them waving in the wind. The wild gladioli, narcissi and lupins. So many flowers that it takes your breath away. The most astonishing are the wild Cretan orchids that grow with such intricacy and delicate beauty that it is fitting that you will not see anything like them elsewhere in the world. Houses have pots full of geraniums and other flowers that they have planted which flow down the walls from their terraces in masses of bright red, pink and blue. It is a world of colour.
In summertime the spring flowers fade into the summer flowers. Wandering through the fields by a brook eating grapes from a nearby vine you are amazed by the silence, broken only by the sound of the many birds that flock here or maybe some distant bells announcing a wedding or a baptism. The grapes are delicious, sweet and firm. The olives are growing well and you can feel the richness of the land.
The villages of the Amari are mostly small and are gathered around the slopes of the hills. There is a road that runs through most of the villages and completely circumnavigates the valley. Very few tourists come here to the Amari so you will rarely see signs for rooms to rent or tavernas with menus in English, although there are a few rooms that can be rented in Gerakari or Thronos. In Thronos, in the north of the Amari, there is a very special taverna, Taverna Aravanes, with a few rooms to rent. The view from your table on the terrace commands most of the Amari valley. It is truly a wonderful place to sit and imagine the millennia that people have lived here since Minoan times five thousand years ago.
Thronos is the site of one of the many ancient Cretan cities that were built by the Dorians, or perhaps the Myceneans, no-one is sure. Wandering around the village you see architecture that is almost timeless. In the heart of the village is a tiny, locked Byzantine chapel called the church of the Panagia. The key is held by the people who own the taverna. Inside are the most astonishing wall paintings, frescos that date back to the eleventh century AD. They are so precious that you are asked not to photograph them, but for a few coins in the church box you can buy some lovely photographs taken by a professional photographer. Inside and outside the church is a mosaic floor of intricate design. The floor is more than twice the size of the church and is the site of a previous church that was bigger and perhaps even grander. The name ‘Thronos’ suggests that this was once the seat of a high bishop. The early church may have been built in the first Byzantine period in Crete and could well have been destroyed around 900 AD when the island was taken by Islamic Saracen pirates. The second church was built a few hundred years later during the second Byzantine period when Crete was finally rid of the invaders.
There are so many other villages that there is no space to speak of them now, but I do urge you to take the little roads that cross the Amari as well as the peripheral road. There is the beautiful village of Amari itself with a Venetian bell tower that you can climb and see far across the valley. Almost everywhere are incredible and ancient churches.
As you wander you might assume that the Kedros villages, those that line the western side of the Amari valley, are as ancient as the Amari itself. However this is not so. On the 22nd August 1944 the German forces of occupation burned every village and dynamited the houses. They shot almost everyone they could capture. This was part of the awful reprisals for the abduction of General Kreipe, the German commander kidnapped by partisans and the British SOE. George Psychoundakis in his book, the Cretan Runner tells that he watched the fires burn in the Kedros villages for a week from a cave high on Mount Ida. The villages have many memorials of this act but the most stunning is just outside Ano Meros. It is the huge statue of a woman chiseling the many names of the dead into stone. Lotus Land is a good description of the Amari and it was the codename for this area used by the SOE in the second world war.
But today it is hard to find any bitterness from this barbarity. The people of the Amari are the most friendly that you will find on the island and if you speak with them you will most often find yourself laden with fruit to carry home. The gift of a fine and noble people.
You can get to the Amari valley by taking the road from Spili up over the mountain to Gerakari. A stunning drive. Or you could drive south from the monastery of Arkadi or north from the junction on the road between Agia Galini to Tymbaki. One thing is sure, you will not forget your visit to this perfect place.