Driving Tour: Amari Valley

  • Start Rethymno
  • Finish Rethymno
  • Length 150km; one day

The Amari Valley is a quilt of unspoilt villages punctuated by Byzantine churches and framed by olive groves and orchards. Mt Psiloritis looms grandly above the landscape. You'll need a good map to navigate around here; a map app on your phone or GPS will do the trick. Given that the villages here have tight, narrow, one-way lanes, hiring a small to medium-sized car will generally make life easier.

Begin with a visit to the ever-impressive Moni Arkadiou. To reach it, head east from Rethymno, take the turn for Adele and follow the signs. Continue south to Thronos, whose Agia Panagia has extraordinary, if faded, 14th-century frescoes (the key is available at the cafe next door, whose owner will give you a quick rundown). The mosaics on its floor are even older, remnants of the 4th-century basilica that Agia Panagia was built upon. Drop by nearby Taverna Aravanes for wonderful valley views, good local info and traditional Cretan food that's cooked in a wood-fired oven; cooking classes (€6 per person) can also be arranged. From here, head downhill and turn left for Fourfouras.

Follow the signs to Amari, an enchanting medley of Venetian buildings and a square filled with cafes and overflowing flowerpots. Climb the 19th-century bell tower to share beautiful views with the pigeons. Continue on to Monastiraki, home to a Minoan site. It's badly signposted, so ask locally for directions, and keys if it's locked. Carry on through Lamiotes, turning east after Petrochori. Pass through olive groves, stopping at the remains of the 7th-century Bizari Basilica, destroyed in 824 by the Arabs.

In Vizari, visit olive-woodworking shops, then head east to pretty Fourfouras, where trails climb up Mt Psiloritis and you can refuel at the gas station and bakery. Head south to Apodoulou, for the ruins of the manor of Kalitsa Psaraki, named for a girl abducted by Turks and rescued by an English traveller (who then married her). Also here are more stone remains, of a Minoan settlement. Follow a dirt track west of town to Agios Georgios, with its still-colourful 17th-century frescoes.

Return north, taking the turn for Agios Ioannis, through the western valley. Turn north for Anomeros and on to Gerakari, which was totally destroyed during WWII by the Germans. Today it's a modern, colourful market town famous for its cherries and wild tulips and its nicely frescoed 13th-century Church of Agios Ioannis. Its main strip has a string of tavernas if you're feeling peckish.

Complete the loop in Meronas, where the 14th-century Church of Maria and its frescoes are a highlight of the trip. Carry on to Agia Fontini, from where you can continue north to Rethymno.