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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 14 February 2015
20 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2015 Dispatches Cretan Journeys The Amari valley has a proud history and unique natural environment, and a new generation of Amariots are intent on protecting this enchanting place and their precious heritage WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY MICHAEL SWEET With the mighty Psiloritis mountain to the east and the Kedros range to the west, the Amari valley 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 ever-changing 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 had left its mark: soil baked orange by the sun, oleanders in the hedgerows splashing pink as the road snakes south. Walnuts were 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 blessed 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 three years ago - a loving restoration of his grandparents' former home in the village of Amari, perched on the slopes of Samitos mountain. 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 longawaited project that will see collaborations between the various elements that make up the Amari's economy (farming, DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM Manolis Papadakis, owner of Amari Villas. Off the beaten track: The Amari - one of Crete’s last hidden delights.
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