The journey by bus from Iráklion east along Crete’s northern coast road is a world away from the Crete of the imagination. Try it, and you might experience a nasty dose of culture shock. There are no donkeys, no swarthy men in leather boots, no old women in black carrying pails of water - all that went years ago. Instead, the view from the window will reveal pink flesh and tattoos, skimpy skirts and baseball caps. Ride the route after dark and you will surely see a lurching drunk or two.
Alight from the bus in any of the dreary resorts that line the coast, enter a café or bar and your nose will be assaulted by an olfactory stew of sun cream, stale beer and dubious pheromones. The clear blue sky and oleander may give coastal Crete a surreal gloss, but the reality is that this is bandit country: territory held by young holidaying Brits… or perhaps Dutch or Germans. The evening buzz is just like Friday night in a provincial British town transposed to the eastern Mediterranean.
Áyios Nikólaos, further on around the bend of the coast, is more subdued, even a little staid, in comparison with the Sodom and Gomorrah that are Mália and Hersónisos. But it is still an unabashed tourist town, albeit rather a nice one, with seafront restaurants and a blue inner har bour. It is a laid back, middle-aged and m iddle-class sort of place, calm and relatively quiet, but it could be almost anywhere in the Mediterranean. But something is missing. Where is the Crete of old? All those sun-crinkled leathery faces and dark clothes. I am haunted by images of Crete that stay in my mind from a formative youthful trip way back in the nineteen seventies.
Yet there is another world close enough; catching the Crete of yesteryear is just a matter of topography. Head inland from almost anywhere in this northeast corner of the island and you find yourself climbing steeply up to an altogether different terrain, where life is far less frenetic and more connected with the soil.