I don’t know where the original desire came from, but I knew that I wanted to go to Crete. I had read a book or two about Crete and the invasion and there was a guide book about Greece as I remember it. Crete, it said, is Greece’s largest island. The main town is Iraklion and the island is agricultural. There was some more about four Nomos districts and a bit about the mountains. That was all there was. All I could recall anyway. But it was the very farthest south you could go and still be in Europe. That was where I wanted to be.
Getting to Crete in 1966 was not straightforward. I had some money in travelers cheques from Thomas Cook and Sons, but not a lot. My rucksack was quite large and I had a sleeping bag, a map of Europe, an International Youth Hostels membership and a load of faith in myself. But I was nineteen years old and anything was possible.
I took the Dover Ferry and landed at Calais. I spoke some French, so that decided me to go to Greece via France and Italy. I knew of the other route, overland through Yugoslavia, but I really didn’t want to push my luck. I hitch-hiked through France – it took four days to get to Nice. It wasn’t easy. France was the most difficult country to hitch-hike in Europe. I learned it was something to do with their motor insurance. I even had to take the train at one stage of that journey. I crossed into Italy at Ventimiglia and got a ride fairly easily with a young man in an Alfa Romeo heading for Rome. Four days crossing France, I thought, and now this. Fantastic.
After about twenty or thirty miles I could take no more. This man drove like a suicidal maniac. I had never seen anything like this. It wasn’t only the awful driving, which you can survive, but the speed. Maybe it was the green colour of my face that made him stop and ask if I was alright, but stop he did. I was about to throw up. I got out of the car with my stuff and thanked him and headed for the toilet.
Luckily he had stopped at a truck stop and I managed to get a ride to Rome. Everybody was going to Rome, it seemed. Finally I arrived in Brindisi and got a ticket to Patras. Strangely enough, I felt relaxed on the boat. I hadn’t slept for ages so I nodded off on the deck. Perhaps it is a Greek thing. Every time since then when I arrive in Greece I feel the weight come off my shoulders.
Arrival at Patras was chaos. It didn’t bother me too much though, I just followed the other people off of the boat, through the customs where they stamped my passport, took up a whole page almost, and into the city. I found a money exchange at the port so I cashed a travelers cheque and got what seemed to be a large wad of Drachmaes. I have to say though, that the signs daunted me. They made no sense at all. I am not bad with languages but I had no experience of this. I wandered around dazed. I sat at a cafe and asked for a coffee/cafe. It came, a really small coffee with what appeared to be a huge glass of water and a biscuit like thing in the saucer.
Time for the phrasebook. I rooted about in my rucksack to find the Greek phrasebook I had bought in England. I found it. I rarely use phrasebooks but Greece was different. The language seemed incomprehensible and the signposts unreadable. Even the word Athens was different in Greek, and that is where I had to go to get to Piraeus for the ferry to Crete. I found the bus station and I bought a ticket to Athens. It was difficult but I was learning. My rucksack went on the roof and I, along with a very small lady with a very small lamb in a box, went inside.
When the bus started off, it was not full, but it soon got to be as the driver picked up people all the way out of Patras. Here I was hurtling across the Peloponnese at around twenty five miles per hour with people all around me singing and smiling and enjoying life. At one stage a man got up, sang on his own and even started to dance in an albeit restricted way, of course. The countryside was beautiful, the Gulf of Corinth seemed vast and still and then people started falling asleep. Me too.
I was tempted to dawdle in Athens, but I was not sure, yet anyway, whether I could cope with Greece’s capital city. Anyhow, I was going to Crete and so I found a bus to Piraeus. And then I found Piraeus. What a place this was. I had never seen so many big ships in one place. All along the quay. Thirty, forty of them? There were people everywhere and cars and lorries getting onto or off huge ferryboats. Also along the quay were discounting ticket sellers. I found what I considered to be the cheapest one selling a ticket for the King Minos going to Iraklion that very evening. So I bought my ticket. My ticket to Crete. But where among all these boats was the King Minos? ‘Poo’ I asked. The ticket seller called out to a young boy to show me the boat. Which he did for a small tip. I can’t speak the language or read the signs but I had got this far. Pretty good and it was the everyday Greeks that I had to thank for that. A gratitude that I still have today.
I boarded the ferry as it was beginning to get dark. I climbed up many steps to get into the big cabin where everyone was sitting on cafe type tables and chairs. Young people, old people, happy people and sleeping people, in spite of the noise which I assume were the ships engines. But above the noise was the Greek language – everywhere. And the gesticulating – Greeks it seems have to gesticulate to converse – and I watched, listened and tried to learn. But boy did I have a long way to go.
That huge communal cabin was a first time for me. I just loved it. There were all sorts of people in there, and all seemed to be Greek. Priests, children, old women and young men as well as a few pieces of livestock I have to say. Finally the ferry cast off and we were at sea. You could feel the heavy roll of the vessel as it set sail for Crete, and before I knew it, I was asleep.
I awoke stiff, I felt horrible which is what sleeping on a cafe bench does to me. I went to the toilet to at least wash my face, but no luck. People were moving about. Dragging boxes and packages up on deck. I went outside and it was still dark. I walked to the front of the ship and there it was, Crete. All I could see was the twinkling lights of Iraklion and the dim outline of the face of Zeus on the mountains above the town. Slowly the ferry arrived at Iraklion. As it drew up to the quay, the sun was rising in the east. From almost black the sky became redder and redder. Everything became a bright red colour. I have come to a red island, I thought.
As the sun rose from the sea I followed the other people down the gangway to the quay. I walked south up into Iraklion centre and found myself at the beautiful Morosini fountain where I washed my hands and face in the cold spring water. All around the fountain were cafes and hotels. I sat in one cafe and had a coffee. Again I got the coffee plus a glass of water and today, a tiny plate of olives. They tasted very good indeed. Looking around the square, I found Iraklion truly beautiful. The Venetian, the Turkish and the modern all came together into the picture of Crete that I had stored in my mind these last few years. I sat at the cafe for a while and then walked past the bottom of the market east to Freedom Square. Here there were more cafes, but with many more tables and chairs outside. I should go to Knossos, I thought, but not now. I wanted to keep on going. I wanted to go to the very south, or pretty well the very south of Europe.
The first bus I found leaving Iraklion and stopping at Eleftheriou Square was going to Agious Nicholas. That will do. I thought, and jumped on. We weaved along busy streets leaving Iraklion by the eastern side. A few miles and we were passing what I later discovered was the American Listening Air Base. The bus kept on going and I just gazed out of the window. We stopped in every village. People got on and off. The bus driver screamed and laughed but kept on going. The roads were amazing. This was nearly a four hour ride to Agious Nicholas and we climbed up hills and then drove by the sea. A little while before we reached Agious Nicholas we stopped at a shrine. I think it was to St George. Everybody including the driver got out and I followed. We crossed the road and walked up to a small chapel where everyone, including me, made a little prayer. My prayer may not have been for the right thing but I made it anyway. I knew that it was important to the Greeks so it was important to me. It was the first participation I had made in Greek life. That mattered. I have made so many more since then. So many that they have become a part of my life too.
Prayers were answered and within the hour we came down upon Agious Nicholas. It was a stunning place. From above I could see the lagoon and the tiny bridge into the harbour. The little town. The Cretan sea stretched out beyond to the horizon, past the islands almost to infinity. My prayer had also been answered. I was beginning to love this strange island. And I had seen so little of it.