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Crete, Greece

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Trip in July 2002. All "facts" are how things seemed to me at the time.

This holiday was a package trip to one of the Greek Islands, Crete. The flights were with some charter airline, JMC, who I had only previously heard of on a consumer affairs programme, "Watchdog". At check-in, they were weighing the hand luggage to make sure it weighed no more than 5 kilos. Sad. The couple checking in in front of us has to re-pack a load of their stuff just to comply. Not a good start to the package experience. The 'plane was pretty cramped, and I was glad I'd asked for an aisle seat. Drinks are not free, and neither are headphones, so I declined both. Food was below average, but edible.

The hotel/guest house was excellent however, in a little town on the north coast, called Almirida. Getting there was another story though. We got the saddest, tiniest car from Avis, a FIAT Seicento, a sort of go-cart with a metal box around it. At least it was easy to drive, apart from the awful gearbox. The roads are pretty terrible though, more like someone's driveway than a road, and the local's driving is worse than the roads. 5 minutes after leaving the airport, I'd already had two near misses, and I was glad I'd taken out the Super insurance. I nearly got side-swiped by a bus coming out of a right-hand junction, and then nearly hit a Toyota which was trying to overtake me whilst I was changing roads at a junction. The drive to the hotel was about 40 min, the longest 40 mins in the history of Crete, I think. I enquired later - many rental cars end their life in Crete at the end of a smash.

The most abundant form of life on Crete is the pickup truck. It is most commonly found parked in an inconvienient location, or puttering along a main road at 20mph. This is where they go to die. Datsun, Mazda, Toyota, the whole island is a living museum of 70's Japanese pickup trucks. There are many museum piece cars too. There are only two things that Cretans seem to like more than their pickups, and that is oil, (The Olive kind), and Concrete. Oil is a served in most meals, used to cook most meals, and as a condiment in case you'd figured you'd not got enough. Olive oil fried chips however, are much better than regular ones. It's good oil, but there's lots of it. If it could be used for building houses, I'm sure they would, but instead, they have concrete. If Crete's name wasn't older than conCrete, you'd think it'd been named for all the half built concrete structures lying around then island, where it looks like someone has decided to build a house, got up the frame, then though, "Oh, no, perhaps I'll leave it after all". It's pretty hot there, and it appears that the heat wins out over activity most of the time. It certainly did with us. We wanted to go walking and all that, but in the end, two activities dominated the whole trip, either floating in the sea to cool off, or sitting in the car trying not to get killed.

Near the hotel was a strech of coast with a small cliff and some flat rocks at the bottom ,which were perfect for setting off from on a short 10 metre swim to an area quite deep containing fish and sea urchins, which were easily viewed using our newly purchased goggles. The water is incredibly clear here and it's quite warm, when you get used to it. It's an ideal place to get sunburn too.

The main activity, driving, is at best OK and at worst Hell. We made the mistake of driving right into the middle of Chania, the second biggest town, of 60,000 people, which feels more like 6,000,000. I got into a car park right in the middle, and for once I was glad I'd got a Fiat Seicento, as most of the streets were no wider than, say, a Fiat Seicento. An interesting one-way system and half-blind junctions led us to walk the way out of the main part of town as a test before we drove it. Chania itself is quite nice, and it has a cool indoor market which is nice to explore out of the heat. If you want to buy a ugly fish to eat, you can find it here.

The rest of the driving involved the pink roads (on the AA map), or the yellow roads, or the "Motorway". The motorway is in fact, a wide road with a hard shoulder. The hard shoulder serves many purposes, providing both a place to drive, (If you're in a pickup), a place to park your pickup (So another pickup can crash into you), or just an unsafe place to stand whilst you're waiting to run hell-for-leather across the road to get to your pickup on the other side. Once you're on the Motorway, there are not many ways off either, thanks to a possible EU subsidy of "No left turn" and "No right turn" signs. There is no central reservation, but U-turns are not permitted. I bet we were not the only tourists to have driven all the way to Rethymon just to find a spot to turn around. The pink roads are not too great. They look OK on the map, but in actuality are not blessed with much in the way of markings, and nothing in the way of cats-eyes. only a few of the mountain roads have barriers on the outside corners, and all the road signs are used by the locals as shooting target practice.

The yellow roads vary from being like the pink but smaller, to being like an unpaved driveway. It's only a small island, but it takes an age to get anywhere, because the roads are winding and the speed ends up being slow. And that's if you don't get lost.

Crete looks the same all over. Imagine an area of very pale brown soil with a few rocks on it. Add a few bushes and an Olive tree. Multiply by a few hundred square kilometers. Raise the temperature to 35 Degrees C : You have Crete. It's a nice place for a holiday, but I wouldn't want to live there. Probably. If my main hobby becomes sitting at the side of the road watching nothing happen though, I might go for it.

Food in Crete

A quick word about the food. Most of the meals were excellent, costing about half of UK restaurant food, and being good quality. Seafood is abundant and in case you're bored of that, you can of course get a Kebab, Stifado, Moussaka etc. Chips and most other fried food such as calamari are done in olive oil and tastes like no other fried food, it is awesome. Olive oil is also there on he table as a condiment if your meal is not already oily enough. Most restaurant meals are followed by a complimentary glass of Raki, a local Schnapps/Brandy/Acid drink, guaranteed to neutralise all the oil in your stomach, if not your entire brain. They have Ouzo too, an aniseed brew which is like super-Pernod. Nasty if you don't like aniseed. Raki is good for preventing gippy stomach. I have since read that Cretans are amongst the healthiest in the world. There certainly seemed to be plenty of really old folks around. It must be something they're putting in the oil.

In hindsight, two weeks would probably have been better than 1. The first to get used to it, and the second for activity. It's really better to try to do thengs in the evening when things have cooled off a bit. The whole place was full of tourists, and that was in the start of July. Later, it's probably even fuller. I don't think the locals are to keen on this really, even though it provides a lot of income. Away from the sea though and into the villages, there are hardly any tourists at all, or anyone else for that matter.

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Copyright © M.F.Hughes 2002

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