I've stayed in thousands of places in more than 100 countries around the world but Villa Dimitra is unique -- for its charm, and the exceptional warmth and extraordinarily generosity of its hosts. I've truly never stayed anywhere like it, and plan to return often.
The house is an old family home in the medieval village of Amnatos, owned by Vangelis and Joanna Stefanakis, and their son Petros and his wife Maria, and (now) baby Joanna. Amnatos is small -- a cluster of stone houses with walled stepped gardens on a sharp rise, like an Italian hill town -- with one basic shop and one rather fantastic taverna whose dining room, brilliantly, is the street. Villa Dimitra is on the southern edge of Amnatos, up a tiny, steep lane next to the church, with a clear view of the mountains and, from its upper terrace, the sea.
Vangelis, Joanna and Petros were on hand to greet us with a glass of raki when we arrived (more than two hours late). They'd also bought a giant supper for us from the taverna. Once they showed us around, it was clear that they'd stocked the two fridges and food cupboards and wine rack with enough food and drink (including homemade raki, jam, wine, and some very fine parmesan-like cheese and so on) to keep us going for days. Then Vangelis told us we should help ourselves to the tomatoes, aubergines, courgettes, grapes, chillis and herbs growing in the garden. (We did -- that didn't stop Vangelis occasionally turning up and picking some more for us, or dropping off a tray of Joanna's stuffed and baked peppers and courgettes flowers; or a box of Rethymnon honey cakes; or, when we left, Vangelis giving us a set of 10 prints of 17th century paintings and draftsmen drawings of the town and Joanna adding another box of wicked chocolates. Like I say, their generosity was quite stunning.)
The house is a restored cottage of several hundred years old, with three large bedrooms -- all with double beds -- plus some day-beds, sofas and large dining tables scattered around what are four living rooms. There's a small garden, a courtyard with an outside kitchen, wood-fired oven, bbq and large table under the vines, where we did most of our eating and playing backgammon etc. Two of the bedrooms have large and private terraces. And there's a round and reasonably sized pool -- more a splash tank than for serious swimming, but beautifully tucked into the garden.
Inside, the house is stuffed with a collection of very personal and rather precious antiques and family memorabilia which give a real sense of being part of the community. That's an impression only confirmed when you step outside the door and take a walk around Amnatos, which turns out to one of those places that most of us have only experienced in novels, where everyone knows everyone's name, everyone is a friend and, when you are in the company of any of the Stefanakises, you will find it impossible to pay for anything at all, even a dinner at taverna.
Despite all the attention, the family take care never to be intrusive. On the other hand, they're only a phone call away for advice on the best fish restaurant in Rethymnon (Zephyos, by the way), the best beaches in the north and south, a good local store, a good butcher etc. Our stay ended up becoming one of those rare experiences where what begins as tourism and a summer holiday transitions into true travel. Very, very special indeed, and a week in Crete that none of us will ever forget.
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