Over a period of twenty or more years, I’ve now driven hire cars round quite a few holiday – mainly Mediterranean – Islands.
Corfu, Rhodes, Kos, Zante, Majorca, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Cyprus.
But the first one ever was Crete.
Money must have been tighter then, because it was the tiniest, cheapest, worst type of vehicle possible. A little white box on wheels – basic, uncomfortable, unfamiliar.
We had it for one day only and so, looking at a map and identifying the most obvious route around the Eastern and Southern parts of the island, we set off on a trip which was to teach us a lesson about scale and distance.
Kos you can just about drive round comfortably in a day. Gran Canaria is trying but do-able. In subsequent years we’ve planned our hire car days better – had a car for a few days, done gentle excursions in different directions on different days.
Crete is too big to drive all the way round from Heraklion, too big even to drive around the half of it we attempted – a big loop towards the East, through the rugged interior, all the way across to Matala Beach on the south coast and then back again.
Well, I suppose it’s not too big, because we did it – but I don’t recommend it, it’s too much.
It’s the roads, you see – they were pretty basic. It was on Crete that I’ve had the experience – more than once, if I remember – of being on a tarmacked road which just suddenly ends in front of you. A big jolt as you drop off the end of the tarmac onto a rutted and potholed dirt track. You’re in the middle of nowhere – fields of sweetcorn all around you and not a person or dwelling in sight – and suddenly you are rumbling over a dreadful road in a primitive car, worried stiff you’ll get a puncture and get stranded. And this was in the days before mobile phones! Well, I certainly didn’t have one. Looking back, I’m so glad I’ve never had the experience of having to walk miles across baking hot, unfamiliar countryside, trying to find someone to help who probably wouldn’t have spoken English and might or might not have had a phone to call the hire car company, who presumably would eventually have sent help, but after who knows how many hours!
On this type of adventure, one has to balance the pleasure and excitement of experiencing a different country and culture, with the tension and worry of driving an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar place – and suddenly realising that the distances involved were much further than imagined and that the available time was passing quicker than expected.
Driving on the wrong side of the road from what you’re used to isn’t too bad on a Greek island without much traffic and only small towns – it’s in cities and on big junctions that it becomes difficult. I think it was the first time I’d had the experience of a left hand drive car – looking the wrong way for the mirror, reaching constantly for the gear leaver with the wrong hand, but then discovering how quickly the brain adapts. The gear leaver just isn’t where it’s always been, so you have no choice but to quickly think, ‘oh, of course it’s on the other side’ – you just have to find it when you need it. Once this has happened a few times, it’s surprising how you readjust and remember to use the other hand. These days I don’t have any problem with left hand drive – it’s like the brain has two different pathways, or develops two different sets of experience, regarding which hand you should use and which way you should look for the mirror, and it just accesses the relevant one when you’re abroad, however long it’s been since you’ve last used it.
So what do I remember about driving across Crete?
Heat, insects, donkeys, windmills, olive trees, churches and shrines, lots of little old ladies dressed in black, villages of old men sitting talking and playing board games.
The occasional bar or café in little towns, where the people regard you curiously and the proprietor brings you whatever food he’s got – managing to communicate without a word of language in common.
Stopping to pee by the roadside – not even having to hide, it’s so remote and deserted.
We stop at the Dikteon caves in the morning, riding mules to the top, only to discover there is no choice but to walk down (a very stony path in the wrong shoes!) and panicking when the hire car gets parked in by a tourist coach, the driver of which has to be argued with to let us out.
We pass by another cave and stop to look at fossilised animal bones.
We explore a tiny church, complete with painted religious icons. A mangy dog regards us and we’re torn between wanting to befriend it and fear of rabies.
We traverse a huge flat central plain – cultivated, beautiful, probably unchanged for centuries.
Some of the little old ladies with gnarled faces raise a hand in salute as we pass.
I wonder if they wonder about our lives, and where we’ve come from.
I wonder about their problems and if they’re happy.
As the day wears on and as we wind our way through remote villages, getting lost occasionally on roads which tend to disappear or split unhelpfully into two, we aim for a place called Matala, which has featured in the guidebooks as a place worth seeing.
It is located on a west-facing stretch of the coast, so as we approach it in the evening, we are driving into the sunset.
The road seems endless and panic mounts. We can see that the day is ending and we still have a huge drive to undertake back to our starting point – yet here we are, motoring away as fast as we can in the wrong direction, still getting further and further away from our resort and hotel.
This feeling, of heading in the wrong direction in order to see or do something, when time is short and there is a huge imperative to start turning back, is something which gets remembered and referred to in future years and in many different situations.
It’s the ‘Matala Beach experience’.
Maybe you know the feeling I mean.
Walking across rain-swept moors, perhaps, having decided to take the long, scenic (rather than the short, sensible) route, and knowing and regretting the fact you still seem to be headed further and further away from where you started, with the weather getting worse and worse.
Being talked into going to just one more bar on a pub crawl (only three tube stops away!), though something in the back of your mind is telling you you’ve had quite enough and would much rather be getting on the train in the other direction.
There’s a metaphor in there also which I can’t quite put my finger on. Knowing when you’re doing something stupid with your life and heading in the wrong direction, but doing it anyway. Rushing to fit something in which there really isn’t time for, but is a temptation that can’t be resisted. Doing something that’s an ‘ought to’, because it looked like something you should have done, though you’d have been better off considering the implications more carefully.
Rushing to pack as much as possible into life, perhaps, though the sunset is approaching and it’s time to sit back and wait for the end – but no, that’s too sad a thought.
So eventually we get there, to Matala in the south of Crete, and it is beautiful, and the sunset is spectacular, and we just have enough time – and light – to walk around the little bay and clamber around the strange red caves by the shore.
Probably we had something to eat there.
Probably squid and salad with feta cheese and souvlaki (kebabs).
But then at last, you know you have reached the furthest point of your trip and can now turn round and head home.
Most of the return trip takes place in the dark, thankfully on a slightly better road than those we’d been on earlier in the day.
We stop in the dark countryside once or twice to experience the lack of streetlamps and amazing vista of stars.
I’m overwhelmed with relief to be going in the right direction, anxiety about getting back and rueful astonishment at how stupid we have been to undertake such a long journey in one day – probably around 150 miles (of bad roads!) in total.
There was nothing all that special about those Matala Beach caves.
But there was something very special about the Matala Beach experience.