I am not sure why I was headed for Agia Galini. I had it marked on my map, that was certainly true and I had read somewhere that it was a place to visit. But I would soon find out. I got a ride directly to Timbaki and then another almost straight away to Agia Galini. We wound down through the houses to the harbour and there my ride stopped. “Yassou” he said, “but I have to get to Amari.” Off he went up out of Galini and onto this place I had begun to hear about – Amari.
But here I was in Galini, and it was truly a nice place to be. Maybe it had a special history, I am sure that it must. It certainly had some fishermen fishing from the fairly windy harbour and other fishermen tending their nets and their boats. It had a very sweet bar and I have to say, not a lot else.
There were hardly any houses here and, apart from the harbour and a beach to the east of the harbour that was it. It was a pretty rocky place with the village coming down through the hill – oh and a church up on the rocks. I had this feeling that I should be somewhere else, which seems a bit unfair to pretty Agia Galini, but what the heck? Someday this village will be famous as a sweet pretty place, but not just yet.
I went back to the bar and asked the guy in there about Amari. I had heard the name a few times as I traveled around and I had the feeling it was nearby. “Ah the Amari valley” he said “it is beautiful, a wonderful place.” OK, there was a half decent road through Spili to Rethimnon and it was the way I was going to go. But Amari was calling me. I had to go and see.
It wasn’t that easy finding a lift up to Ag Ioannis at the southern end of the Amari valley, but I managed it in the end. Again it was the usual pick-up truck, fairly beaten up but at least it had a seat in the front for me. We wound through some of the worst roads I have ever seen, up a mountain – at least that was what it looked like – and on and on with dusty dirt roads weaving left and right. We stopped at some fairly deserted looking place called Agia Paraskevi and then on again and up and over into Agios Ioannos, Saint John. I was in the Amari valley.
Almost at once I felt good here. I had heard that this was where the cherries came from, but I couldn’t see any now. The air seemed sweeter. It was hot here, but not like Galini. A breeze blew and it felt refreshing. Amari was higher than some parts of Crete and that was probably why, but I had to face a decision. Which way to go? The Amari valley was wide and a mostly dirt road encircled it. I was at the southern end of this loop and for no good reason at all decided to go anticlockwise. Ag Ioannis was a beautiful village in itself. I wandered around for a while until an old lady came up to me and asked, in Greek, who I was. So I answered in Greek. I told her my name and that I was English. “Good” she said, “come and stay with me for a couple of days”. So I did.
She lived in a block stone house in the village with a nice terrace covered with a grapevine. She showed me her whole house and pointed me to a bedroom that had a window overlooking the Amari valley to the north. “This is your room, may God go with you.” I thanked her and tried the bed. It was hard but it was comfortable. Outside the room there were ten or more chickens clucking around and at the back of the house she had a garden with everything you could need from vegetables to lemon trees. She had a kitchen with the ubiquitous two burner stove and large bottles of oil and wine.
She had been gone for a few minutes while I tested the bed, making coffee. It came with water and a large plate of food. Stuffed vine leaves, meatballs, walnuts and more. She gave me all this on the terrace and sat down with me. She wanted to talk. I prayed that my Greek was up to it.
“Why did you come to Ag Ioannis” she asked. There was no real answer.
“I came because I wanted to see the Amari valley” I replied. “I was told it was a good place to come to. It feels good to be here, and you are very kind. Thank you for the coffee and the food.”
“Ach the food and coffee, that is nothing” she said, “it is the friendship that matters. I am happy that you love our valley. It is a place of hard times before, in the occupation, but now, thank God, it is good here. As it always was. But you have come from England, what like is that?”
I told her that England, at least in 1965 was a good place. It was cold there with winds and rain and snow in the winter, but warm in the summer. Not warm as here, but not so bad. She asked me why I came to Crete and the best I could do was to say that it was an island in the sunshine that I had always wanted to visit. It was a good place and that I liked it very much.
“Many people come to this island” she said “but they go to Iraklion and Knossos and then they go home, they never come to the Amari as you have done.” I wasn’t sure this true, but I accepted what she said and I smiled and said “perhaps I am the first of many.”
“Not to the Amari” she said. “You are a nice young man and it is kind of you to come here and meet us, but you are unusual. Nobody comes to this valley.”
With that she left. Disappeared down into the village. I ate the rest of my food and sat for a long while on the terrace staring north across the Amari wondering why no one would come here. I felt welcomed here. It was a good place.
I sat there a while dozing off in the evening when she returned. “I have spoken to the village and you must come with me, they want to meet you too.” I got up and followed her down to the village square and into the taverna there. It was completely full of people staring at me. “Sherete” I said. It means hello. Everybody was sitting at tables with one table at the head of the room populated just by men. I was asked to sit at that table, in the middle of the men. So I did. What else could I do?
Drinks were brought of raki and I was asked to tell them why I came to the Amari valley. I explained that I was English and that I wanted to come to Crete. When I got here I heard people talk of the Amari valley and I decided to come here. I was feeling a bit guilty actually. I felt almost that I had done something wrong. Anyway they talked for a little while among themselves, the men, and then turned to me and thanked me for coming to the Amari and to Ag Ioannis in particular. I was very welcome and was probably their first tourist. Actually maybe I was to Ag Ioannis. But I thanked them back and said that I may stay here for a couple of days and be very grateful for their hospitality.
At this they shouted “oopah” or something very similar and the music started. There was a bouzoukia player, a Cretan lyre player and a good old guitarist. Food was served to the table and everybody ate and drank lots of wine. Then they drank some raki and some more wine. It was like a festival celebrating my arrival in the village. I went along with it, what could I do? In fact I enjoyed it and the mild celebrity very much. Then the dancing started, and it was pretty impressive. Only men danced, but they were very good indeed. People came up to talk to me and the night was enjoyed by one and all. I was very grateful for this unusual and stunning welcome to this village. I will never forget it. And it went on until around three o’clock in the morning. Amazing.