Our enjoyment of Crete really took off when we drove up into the Psoliritis mountain range and down, way, way down to the far more attractive south coast. We were both glad to leave the north coast behind, it just wasn’t our cup of tea (or glass of Ouzo).But the beautiful Amari Valley was all we hoped Crete would be and more.
I thought I’d landed in Greek heaven finding Kapsaliana , a restored old village which is now a small boutique hotel with self catering apartments. It was just beautiful and I realised we’d made a mistake in staying on the overdeveloped north coast. The sea is always a draw for us both but this place was the business. The sun shone, birds were singing, the honey coloured ancient stone of this historic hotel was a balm to the eyes. Peace and silence reigned, broken only by the tinkling of the bells of sheep. There were urns filled with bright red geraniums. Even a tiny stone chapel. Yet we were only 10 miles or so from the coast.It was another world.
We stopped off for coffee and excellent home – made cake, even as casual guests , warmly welcomed by the staff. Next time – we stay here! Mind you, it cost three or four times as much per night. Well worth it as a special treat though.
MONI ARKADHI (16th century)
Beautiful interesting monastery very close to Kapsaliana and also the site of one of the island’s finest Venetian churches. A tragic and important history too. Here, many hundreds of Cretans – including freedom fighters – were killed or executed as they defended the monastery against the Turks who tried to destroy it. It is a national symbol of Crete’s struggle for independence.
A short drive from the monastery took us to the parking area for the short walk to the remains of this once thriving village of ancient times. The 9th BC city is of course ruins now. We didn’t really do them justice, simply walking over to see the entrance to the city and the water trough used by horses. The Museum across the ravine is now open but we were conscious of having a fair old drive to do today with a lot of mileage ahead and didn’t detour to go in.A mistake I think.
An exquisite small Byzantine church high in the valley, beside a little fresh water stream and shaded by cypresses. Utterly deserted except for us. It was closed however so we couldn’t see its ancient frescoes. But a delightful place all round. There, peace came dropping slow……
THE AMARI VALLEY
I was looking forward to this drive and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, it was superb. Snow capped mountains, apple and cherry blossom in the valleys, lovely old traditional stone villages. Crete in spring as I imagined it would be!
There was just so much to stop and stare at and drink in. Wonderful mountain views at every turn; tiny churches; orchards. Stopped at Amari village itself and climbed the Venetian clock tower for a stunning panorama. Silence reigned. Not a soul stirred.
MERONAS and a wonderful old taverna
We had lunch in the tiny and beautiful village of Meronas , in a recommended local tavern – Moskhovolis – its exterior bedecked with with beautiful flowers. No menu, just what they had on offer that day. All excellent, from the local olives and dip (free) to the good bread and then a tasty grilled pork and chips. Dead simple but better than many a fine dining experience! Incredibly cheap too. Delightful, the kind of place you hope you’ll find but rarely do. Very atmospheric inside too, simply but beautifully done.
MEETING A PRIEST AND HIS FLOCK
We still had a bit of mileage to do to reach Frangokastello, but it was just so lovely up there, we kept stopping.
We got out at a particularly scenic spot , way up in the mountains, in the middle of not a lot, where a herd of sheep were grazing, evocative bells tinkling. An elderly man appeared, clearly the shepherd and I smiled and waved a hello. His stern faced relaxed and he smiled back, making his way over to where we stood. After asking where we were from, he explained that he was a retired local priest who had – of all places – worked in Leeds for many years. Now, he said, he was tending the flock he loved the best – not the locals but his sheep! His wife lived where we were headed , on the coast at – he said it the proper way – FrangoKASTello. Much nicer than our harsh pronunciation of KastELLO. I really like knowing how names should be pronounced. He preferred his house up in the mountains and pointed out a very smart villa close by which we hadn’t noticed, with smoke billowing gently from the chimney. We wished each other ‘Kalispera’ – good afternoon – and headed off on our travels. What a delightful meeting with a happy man.
It continued to be a really superb drive, down, down through the mountains and then we found ourselves in the stunning Kourtaliotiko Gorge as we headed for Plakias.
We stopped at a layby, admiring the impressive 600m mountain walls on each side. The gorge takes its name from ‘kourtala’ which means ‘clap’, a sound you can sometimes hear when the wind is funnelled through the mountain caves high above, breaking the sound barrier.We didn’t hear it, unfortunately though you certainly had to hang on to your hat standing there taking it all in.It was blowing a hoolie.
Immediately we reached nearer the coast we just knew this was a part of Crete we would enjoy. It was totally different in character to the north, far lovelier and very dramatic. There was an imposing mountain backdrop, the villages and resorts were much smaller and a bit older though not ancient as such. It all had a more rural feel, less developed. We both took immediately to Plakias. The beach was long and sweeping and it just felt more of a real wee place. It wasn’t wildly pretty but had a pleasant feel, the front lined with some nice cafes and shops.Lots of life about it.
Had a stroll along the beach and relaxed with a coffee in a very comfortable café, quite busy and with an outdoor terrace beside the sea. This was more like it!
The road onwards to Frangokastello and our apartment for the next two nights, was a rollercoaster of a drive. The views along the coast and out to the Libyan Sea were wonderful. I was also quite thrilled to see this body of water for the very first time; it sounded very exotic, a whisper of Africa.
We passed through some tiny villages – Sellia and Rodhakino – perched above deep ravines on steep slopes, then our road swept downhill towards the coast and the mini hamlet of Skalotis, where we were staying.
Our ground floor apartment was very clean, huge inside with a sunny balcony overlooking a small garden and beach. There only were three properties in total. Charming inside, we liked it immediately. No one else was staying in the other apartments so it was only us. Skalotis itself was just a couple of small bays, a few bobbing boats, a lovely white chapel and a scattering of villas on the high road above the beach. Got our stuff unloaded from the car then sat out in the warm sunshine, enjoying a few glasses of wine as the sun went down. We had time for a stroll along the beach, itself backed by a couple of small tavernas though they were well and truly shut. Peace reigned, utter peace, just the surf pounding gently on the shore a few metres from our little abode. Spicy chicken and rice for dinner then we sat out again and watched a full moon rise, lighting up the tiny bay in front of the balcony. Not a street light in sight, just the moonlight. Perfect.
NEXT DAY:WESTERN CRETE(PALM BEACH)