These rather harsh words were uttered by The Brave Man* as we collected the tiniest hire car from Heraklion airport and joined the madness that is the Crete road system. The two children sardined into the backseat quickly realised that their usually mild-mannered father was definitely NOT joking and decided that in the interests of personal longevity they should do exactly as they were told.
The Crete Adventure had begun.
2003 was a year of momentous change – the year The Brave Man* decided it would be a good experience for us all to move to England for his 12-month teaching stint. While this probably deserves its own detailed blog post, it certainly was the year we ‘seized the day’ and gorged ourselves on European history and culture. Naturally, this was only possible with meticulous planning, plentiful cheap and cheerful budget airlines, and much scrimping and saving.
I remember studying Crete in Ancient History at high school, and with a cheap package deal booked, a week in Crete was just the ticket (so to speak) to escape a gloomy British Spring. Maybe it’s an Australian thing but, even before leaving our home in Mudgee, we had decided to fill every waking moment of the year (much to the kids’ disgust at times) with different food, art, history, culture, history, monuments, galleries, history and, oh yes, a small amount of beach time.
In May 2003, Crete had the highest number of road fatalities per capita and per annum of any European country. We were not aware of this statistic as we joined the throng in our matchbox car, on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the vehicle – but it soon became self-evident. Clearly, this was way before the time of GPS systems, so navigating a road network with the locals overtaking on blind corners in the rain was not the most relaxing way to start a holiday.
Despite a few close calls and a potential divorce, we arrived at our accommodation undamaged and the kids immediately abandoned us for the pool. As is their way, they quickly made friends with other children poolside. Sadly, in our opinion anyway, one English boy spent the entire time at the pool as his father drank beer and played with his mobile phone. Every day we would be out exploring the island’s rich history while Diego (yes, not quite the English name we were expecting either) did not leave the grounds of the resort. What a loss – but each to his own.
Crete is a compact island just dripping with history – both ancient and modern. Our little buzz box hire car gave us the flexibility to dig deep into historic sights – and sites – such as Knossos, or to simply enjoy the rugged countryside and isolated beaches.
Struggling to remember my Year 12 Ancient History, I was awe-struck as I stood in the grounds of Knossos. Knossos was the capital of Minoan Crete and its first palace was built around a mind-boggling 1900BC. That palace had a series of iterations over the centuries as it was repeatedly destroyed by earthquake and then rebuilt with increasing complexity and sophistication. The palace ruins, home of the legend of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, were uncovered in 1900 and we spent the best part of a day there – exploring the rooms, corridors and grounds. It was also well worth adding on the visit to the Archaeological Museum in nearby Heraklion, which houses many of the treasures excavated from the Palace.
In a short reprieve from all that history, we escaped to the Crete countryside and the beach at Elafonissi. This is the Crete you may see in all the tourist brochures – clear, azure water and long, white sandy beaches. Needless to say we visited historic sites on the way to and from the beach, including some Roman ruins high on a hilltop in the village of Polyrinia. The village provided some interesting history and spectacular views but was dominated by a few nervous moments. Driving blithely into the village we realised – too late – the narrowness of the streets. Lucky me, it was my turn to drive that day, and we all held our breath and sucked in our stomachs as we edged back down the hill with only millimetres between the car’s side mirrors and someone’s beautiful whitewashed home. My imagination was running wild as I pictured the explanation to the hire company that the car could not be returned as it was firmly wedged in a tiny side street of a tiny village in Western Crete!
A Crete adventure would not be complete without an intensive introduction to Greek food – olives, Greek salad, souvlaki and dolmades. The kids quickly learned that in restaurants, a strategically placed ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in Greek would be rewarded with free ice cream. No flies on them! At other times we self-catered and I became firm friends with a young Crete woman who was the check-out chick at the neighbourhood supermarket. She grew up in Melbourne and was desperate to chat and hear an Australian accent, regardless of the long, disgruntled queue growing behind me.
Australia has strong links with Crete outside of immigration, with Australians taking an active role in WWII on Crete. Preveli Monastery, on the southern edge of Crete and overlooking the Libyan Sea, was used an evacuation base for Allied soldiers to escape the advancing Germans. Not all history has a happy ending though and there is an extensive war cemetery at Souda Bay which contains the remains of far too many Australian soldiers who fell during the Battle of Crete.
It is safe to say that Australians are still held in high regard by the local people and we received a warm welcome wherever we went. Perhaps it was the Greek-speaking children in our party, our passion to learn or our willingness to absorb as much of Crete as we could in a short period of time that won them over, but efcharisto Crete for the beauty and insight into your country…and for delivering us safely back to the airport!!
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!