When I was still married to my first wife, her job in education tied us to taking holidays during the long summer break. This was far from ideal, because not only did it mean that we always had to pay a peak-season surcharge, we also had to go abroad when it was generally very hot. In an effort to save some money, we decided to book a self-catering holiday, renting an apartment where we would look after ourselves, and hire a car to use to see the sights. As we had previously been to mainland Greece, so had already seen Athens, we settled on Crete, the large Mediterranean island to the south-east of that country. Without the benefit of the Internet back then, we chose an apartment from a small photo in a brochure, and arranged car hire through the same travel agent in England. As August arrived, we set off to the airport, for the charter flight to Heraklion, the largest city in Crete.
The flight was uneventful, and we arrived in the city to find it in the middle of a heatwave. Although I like nice weather, it was far too hot for me as soon as I got off the aircraft, and the forecast was for it to get hotter still. A group of us found the courier for the rental company, and he led us off to a coach. Each group was to be dropped off at assorted destinations on the way to our apartment, close to the harbour town of Aghios Nikolaos, in the east of the island. We soon left the bustling city of Heraklion behind, and headed off on the main road. The journey should have taken around an hour, but we were constantly stopping to drop fellow passengers off at places along the route. By the time they found their luggage, and were given their keys and instructions, it took more like three hours.
The coach pulled up on a dusty coast road, about three miles from the town of Agios Nikolaos. It was too large to get up the stony drive to the building beyond, so the guide took us, together with another English couple, up the slope to the places we had rented. In the fading light of that evening, we arrived at a small house, which was divided into two very small apartments. We were given the ground floor, and the others went up the outside staircase to the one above. The company rep told us that our car would arrive the next morning, before 10am. He gave us our keys and a printed leaflet, then left. It would have been understandable to be disappointed that night. The so-called apartment was a tiny studio, with a double bed under the window, and a small table and two chairs in front of what could only loosely be described as a kitchen. Beyond that was a toilet and shower, in the open-plan style of a wet-room. If we had both laid on the floor, end-to-end, the chances are that we would have touched each wall. It was stifling inside, so we opened both windows, and the top half of the divided door. There were very few utensils inside the small cupboards, and what passed for a cooker was a two-ring electric hob. But there was a kettle, and some cups and plates, as well as a small fridge, and on the plus side, the place was very clean.
We had an immediate dilemma though. After travelling all day, and with it now almost dark outside, we had no supplies to make anything to eat, and nothing to drink except water. We were hungry, tired, and thirsty, stuck in this small studio that was as hot as the oven that it didn’t have. Walking outside, we could see the lights of the town in the distance. Apparently so close, but impossible to get to along dark and dangerous roads. There was no breeze at all. It was just as hot outdoors, as inside the apartment. To our right, we could see some lights around what looked like a taverna, about half a mile away, so we decided to walk there, and see what it could offer. Luckily, traffic was sparse, and we only had to get off the road a couple of times, to avoid occasional trucks. The taverna was pleasant, and we were delighted to see that there was also a small shop next to it. We were able to buy milk and coffee, as well as some bread, jam, and cheese. With breakfast sorted, we sat outside the restaurant, and enjoyed a good meal. Prices in Greece in those days were very low, and the meal was exceptionally cheap, considering the quality and freshness of the ingredients.
It wasn’t very easy to sleep that night. It seemed to just stay as hot as the daytime temperature, and I tossed and turned. I was almost glad to get up the next morning, and after breakfast and shower, I sat outside, to await the arrival of the hire car. The stony driveway was what served as the ‘private garden’ described in the brochure, but no furniture was supplied to sit on out there. I settled for perching on a rock, watching some huge black ants go about their business. The car arrived, followed by a second vehicle, to return the driver. The small hatchback was as ordered, and I had no complaints, as it was quite new. The young man from the car company was dressed in a suit and tie, and showed no effects of the heat, despite temperatures already in the mid 30s. He went over the basic operation of the car, and wrote down the details from my driving licence. He then asked for the equivalent of £50 in cash, as a non-returnable insurance payment. This started a debate, when I told him we had already paid in the UK. He would not be shaken on it, and eventually declared that he would just take the car away, and I could argue about it back in England. My wife and I had a chat, and decided that we could not afford to be stranded in this place without a car. So we reluctantly paid up, receiving a receipt in Greek, that could have been for anything. To this day, I am sure that he just pocketed the cash.
I had brought a map of the island with me. This translated the Greek names into English as well, and was very detailed. I had borrowed it from a friend at work, and he had marked off some places on it, for us to look at if we wanted to. We headed straight off to check out Aghios Nikolaos. The main road took us straight into town, and most of the traffic accompanying us seemed to be either motor scooters, or huge trucks. Despite the peak season, we managed to park easily in a side street, and had a wander around this pleasant town. At the time, the few clubs and noisier bars were at the other end of town, and we gave this area a miss, in favour of the main shopping centre, and the pleasant promenade around the harbour. There were a lot of fishing boats in already, off-loading their catches to be purchased by the many waterside restaurants. I also spotted a ferry further out, and a few pleasure cruisers and yachts. After a nice lunch of Greek salad, we decided to come back later that night, and eat in the same place. With the tables next to the water, it seemed like it might be a lovely spot. We had spotted a beach on the way in, and on the return journey we pulled off the road, and sat for a while, watching the sea. I was hoping that I would soon get used to the heat, which was beginning to make me feel quite uncomfortable.
Back in the apartment, we had a rest for a while, leaving it as long as possible to shower and change for the evening. Once the sun was beginning to set, we headed back to the town, and to the same restaurant. The owner was happy to see us again. Even with the town full of tourists, most of whom seemed to be German, there were so many restaurants to choose from, none of them were full. He told us about a private parking spot behind his restaurant, and said we could use it anytime we ate there. Like most people we met in Greece, he knew people in England, and mentioned them, as if we would have bumped into them at some time. I think he had little idea just how big London is. We took our time, and had a leisurely and excellent meal, watching the comings and goings around the harbour, which was beautifully illuminated by all the lights of the many shops, tavernas, and eating establishments. I rounded off the meal with some very good Greek brandy, Metaxa Seven Star, and we strolled through the town at night, before driving back to the rental property. As I undressed for bed, I noticed that I had many mosquito bites on my legs. I hadn’t felt them at the restaurant, and by then, they were swelling up, and glowing red. My wife counted a dozen on one leg, and almost as many on the other. I had been wearing shorts, but it was far too hot to even contemplate long trousers.
I got little sleep once the bites started to itch. I was up and down from the bed, scratching madly, and applying creams we had brought from London. Nothing touched them though, and the heat and itchiness raged until dawn. I finally slept from exhaustion, and felt quite ill when I woke at about 9am the next morning. We decided to go into town again, to see what the chemist could supply to counter these bites. It was day three already, and I was wondering how much we would see, if I kept on like this. The chemist sold me some ‘bite pens’. These were like a lipstick, and contained something soaked in ammonia. It hurt like hell when applied to the bite, but it did stop the worst effects for a while. They also supplied anti-histamine tablets, some cream to apply before going out, and a plug-in device to use in the room, to kill any insects that had got in when we were out. The chemist looked at my legs. He shook his head, and said, “looks bad”. It was. We wrote off the day, and headed back to the beach. The sea water made my legs feel better, and also cooled me down, as it got near to 40 degrees. That evening, we went to a different restaurant, away from the water.