Two weeks in Crete on a last-minute deal: from Chania and Rethymon to Iraklio, Chersonisos and Siteia, we packed it all in those 14 days!

Day 5 : 17 July 2003 : Agios Nikolaos

To Agios Nikolaos and back by Moped

"You can hire a car or, if you're feeling adventurous, hire one of these mopeds. Word of warning though, they can be dangerous and I've seen a lot of accidents on these things, know a few people who've gone to the hospital after coming off these, so if you're not sure about it I'd advise you to stay clear of these." - Aaron, Olympic Tour Rep, initial briefing.

So, today we hired a moped.

We'd had the warnings, we'd seen what people could be like on these machines, but damn they were convenient. It appeared, from our visits to Chersonisos, that people on mopeds almost always had right of way (it was more the case that people gave them space to do whatever because of the unpredictability of the riders), and the parking spaces were always easier to find. Having been confined to our apartments unless we wanted to take a long walk or pay for a taxi for each journey, today seemed like as good a day as any to try out a moped.

"You have ridden one of these before, no?" asked the man at the hire shop.

"No," I replied honestly. I didn't want to say "Oh yeah, expert mate, no worries there" when in all honesty I didn't know how to change gears - if indeed there were any.

"I'm sorry, I cannot rent this to you sir - my insurance cannot cover this".

Damn. In my strive to be open and honest I'd scuppered my chances. I thought quickly and pointed to the quad bike. "I've ridden one of these before," I said. "Many times," I added for effect (many meaning on three separate occasions). He then realised that I could at least be trusted with a smaller CC engine, and I was given a lift down the road to the other shop where I tried out a 50cc Piaggio.

Freedom at last! OK, so I'd only ridden up and down the road for a test-ride, but already I got the feeling of freedom.

Once I'd signed the contract I was off, but not back to the apartments - I needed to get in some practice, get acquainted with this little beastie before I felt comfortable carrying Manda on the back. I rode to the petrol station to fill it up - €2.97 and the tank overflowed! - and then nearly became a casualty early on. As I came up a main road, a Greek man stepped out into the road to pick something up, causing me to brake. I used the left lever (the back brake) but because I still had some revs on, the back wheel started fish-tailing. I managed to keep the bike under control, but it made me understand how easy these things can get people into trouble, particularly people like me who were moped virgins.

Once I felt happy with the handling of the moped and the bumps/potholes in the roads, I came back to the apartment and picked Manda up. The plan was to head for Chersonisos, pass through to Malia and then take it from there.

Our first stop was Malia. I had been told before that this was where all the Club 18-30 places were, where all the Brits were - all of them - and a scoot through the main roads testified to this. Anyone we didn't see topless and sporting a tan or burn was wearing an England football shirt (or bikini) and Burberry cap. You could tell them a mile off, but given that they were all strolling right past us as we sat down to eat we didn't have to look that far. The scooters here were also a more dangerous breed - again, look to the drivers/riders, none of whom wore helmets and with the bare legs and tops would get shredded if they had an accident. I know that it was a holiday, and I could understand why not wearing a helmet was appealing, but looking at the way people were screaming up and down the road, an accident always looked moments away.

We put our helmets on - so what if we looked like the odd ones out? - and headed off up to Sisi. Well, that was the plan.

You see, the thing about Crete is that the road signs are ... how should I say it ... unpredictable? First of all they seem pretty good - two sets for each turning (one in Greek characters, one in the Roman characters), and most of the exits are covered; bendy roads (of which there are many) are clearly indicated and so is the likelihood that if you're unlucky a deer might jump out in front of you. But then when you get on the main roads - and there are very few main roads on the island - it can get confusing. Once you get off an exit, often you'll find yourself on a road that's not that far off being called a dusty track and the road signs get fewer and far between. And then there are the numerous different spellings of place names ...

I spotted a sign for Sisi that read 3km. Far more than 3km down the road later I wondered what I'd got wrong. About another 8km down the main road, by which time we'd headed quite far inland, I pulled over at a junction to another place called Napolea. A glance at the map revealed that we'd gone almost half the distance to Agios Nikolaos in Eastern Crete. A glance at my hands revealed that they had been facing up at the sun in the exact same position for too long and they were turning a nasty-looking shade of red/purple. I slapped on some cream then pointed the moped in the direction of Agios Nikolaos (or 'Saint Nicholas' in English).

Traditional windmills in Lasithi, en route to Agios Nikolaos.
Traditional windmills in Lasithi, en route to Agios Nikolaos.

As we came down the road into Nikolaos we stopped off at a restaurant and got our first glance of the pretty coastal town - the view from the balcony was across Lake Voulismeni (according to Greek mythology, the goddess Athena came to wash in here) and beyond to the harbour. It was a nice way to spend 20 minutes with a bottle of coke each, although the restaurater probably hoped for a slightly larger order for the privilege.

The view over Lake Voulesmeni, Agios Nikolaos
The view over Lake Voulesmeni, Agios Nikolaos.

We didn't spend a great deal of time in the town, even though it was a very picturesque town. We took a look around the harbour, stopped for ice creams, browsed through the local tourist shops (which were no different from any that we'd already seen in Chersonisos), then headed back 'home' on the moped.

On our way to Nikolaos we must have had the wind behind us, because we sure had it against us on the way back! Given that this was the first time I'd ridden a moped - or any kind of motorbike for that matter - I have nothing to compare it with, but the wind was something else! I was struggling to get over 40kmh out of it and I must have looked strange to oncoming traffic with my head down and my face locked in a grimace. We could both feel the side winds pushing against the side of the bike, particularly on some of the more exposed bridge crossings. I wondered if it was always like this riding a motorbike.

We stopped off briefly at Chersonisos so that I could book a dive in for next week - I had to get at least one in before we left the island - then headed back to the apartments. With a little time to spend before handing the bike back to the rental place we took it for one last spin along the coast. That was fun - we'd have to do it again!

Ian on the moped.
Me on the moped.

Early start tomorrow - it's a long way to the Greek island of Santorini, so best set the alam for 4:20am.