Driving out of Chania, the first thing we noticed was the endless array of holiday apartments and hotels. Line after line of resorts, with all the attached services – mini markets, shops selling beach gear, souvenir shops and touristy tavernas and cafes. Most were closed at this time of the year, and it was one long tasteless line of shuttered concrete blocks. As an aside, one advantage of such abundance of accommodation is the fierce competition, and while searching for somewhere to stay, we found many options at under 20 euro a night. One 3-roomed apartment where we spent several nights, cost 12 euros per night, including hot water, heating, a kitchenette, a swimming pool, and a large private terrace with a sea view.
Underwhelmed by such a highly developed coastline, we turned inland, where the rows of olive trees, vines and surrounding snow-capped peaks were a joy to behold. Possibly the most beautiful scenery we have seen in our Greek travels to date. We spent most of our time here, crossing from one valley to another, taking small winding roads and enjoying the ever changing patterns created by the vines and olive trees.
We gradually made our way along the length of Crete, moving from Chania in the west, past Heraklion in the centre, to Agios Nikolaos in the east. While the coastline varied a little from sandy to stony to cliffs, the line of resorts continued for much of it.
Driving in Crete was an experience to remember. Firstly the roads are excellent – a step above the rest of Greece – and often have a wide hard shoulder. This hard shoulder, far from being a place for emergency stopping, is actually the preferred lane for driving. Even when there is no-one else on the road, cars drive there, and on a dual carriageway there can be the bizarre situation of 2 empty lanes and a line of cars in the hard shoulder.
Given the frequency with which on-coming cars sped around a corner in our lane while overtaking, I quickly adopted the policy of driving on the extreme right. In other driving news, Crete has the highest density of speed cameras I have ever seen. Driving to the airport on our last morning, we counted 18 cameras in about 240 kms of road, many of them in reduced speed zones. Encouraged by the speed cameras, I, seemingly uniquely among the drivers in Crete, adhered to all speed limits, and found myself the slowest on the road. Another reason to position myself in the hard shoulder. But occasionally we did find a driver that I outpaced …
Crossing to the south coast where there is less space between the mountains and the sea, we found a wilder coast. An exception is the town of Ierapetra – one of Europe’s most southerly towns – where the plains around are a sea of greenhouses. These produce fruit and vegetables year-round, and contribute significantly to the wealth of Crete.
It is the only island in Greece that does not rely on tourism to survive, and adding the clearly enormous tourism industry to a strong agricultural economy, ensures an overall prosperity on the island. This is evident not just in the number of Mercedes, BMWs and Audis on the roads – unlike the rest of Greece where we often see ancient Ladas and models long discontinued overseas – but in the unemployment rate which sits at a mere 4%. A huge contrast to the 25% in Greece as a whole.
As it happens, on the island that least needs tourists, they have the longest tourist season! The season kicks off in a big way at the end of March, and the 7 months from April 1st to November 1st are chock-a-block. While we were there in the middle of March, the island was in a frenzy of preparation, with hotels being painted, trees being pruned, and trailer loads of sun loungers and deck chairs being shuttled to their summer base.
We were happy to escape before the crowds arrived, as even in the quiet season, we were not won over by the charmless coastal towns. But then we found the beautiful town of Agios Nikolaus on the east side of the island. A charming town with beautiful buildings and a lovely harbour front, attractive cafes and restaurants, and pretty coves with traditional villages nearby. Finally a place we would be happy to spend time in. But, as luck would have it, we were booked on a flight leaving the next day from the other side of the island!
Before we leave, a last word on the Cretan character. We found their somewhat dour countenance prevailed throughout the island, but learned a lesson one day. We arrived to check-in to our accommodation, only to find no-one at reception or anywhere around the block of holiday apartments. Thinking a neighbouring house may belong to the owners, I walked up the drive and knocked on the door. An old man answered, and in faltering Greek, I asked if he knew anything about the place, maybe knew the owner etc. He didn’t, but indicated that the owner was around, as the car next to ours in the car park belonged to her. Although helpful, he never smiled at me, nor acknowledged my apologies for disturbing him or my thanks for his assistance. 20 minutes later, when we were sitting in the car, having failed again to find the owner, he shuffled out of his house and tapped on the car window. He had come to invite us into his house, concerned that we might be cold. I couldn’t believe the kindness of the gesture, especially from an old man likely often disturbed by noisy bothersome tourists next door. And we realised that while the Cretans might lack the superficial smiliness and friendliness of some cultures, we have probably misjudged them, and a warm heart beats beneath that tough exterior.