7.Travel Hazards

# 7 Travel hazards.

I have reason to believe that Cretans and Greeks in general are nervous travellers. I know this because I was once on an Olympic Airlines flight to Crete when the rather large steward strapped himself into the jump seat opposite me and began blessing himself, praying and kissing a gold cross around his neck, and all this as the plane taxied out to the runway for takeoff from Heathrow. On the same flight, on landing at Athens the Greek passengers spontaneously burst into applause…clearly they knew something I didn’t. I was reminded of this the other day when sat in the bus station waiting for the bus to take me back down south from the dreaded north of the island, I noticed a priest sat at a table with a lit candle and a crucifix (for the record, the crucifix wasn’t lit) and people coming up to him, kissing his hand and receiving what I assume was some kind of blessing before boarding their busses. Fortunately he didn’t get on my bus so I assume we were considered to be safe from whatever it was they were all worried about. 

Those of you who have been on holiday in Crete in the summer will be well aware of the hazards attendant on travelling around the island; narrow roads, goats, Cretan vehicles, goats, and Cretan drivers. Those who have driven at night will also be aware of the added complication of badgers, and more goats. However, if you’ve only been here in the summer you will have missed what is potentially the most dangerous hazard, dangerous both to health and pocket. I refer as you’ve no doubt already concluded, to olives.

Cretan olive oil is probably the best in the world, which is why they, allegedly, ship most of it to Italy where it is blended with inferior Italian oil and then sold as Italian oil, and it is produced by gathering olives in November to January; washing them and then crushing them to extract the oil: a simple enough process which, though physically demanding on those carrying it out, constitutes no obvious risk to travellers. However, nobody has yet managed to develop a way of informing the olive trees, of which there are more than a few on the island, that it is not a good idea to shed their olives on the road where, with the passing of every car or lorry, the olives get crushed and produce, you’ve guessed it, olive oil. Now it’s a long time since I did any physics but I can assure you that the coefficient of friction or whatever it is, of a tarmaced road surface is greatly increased (or is it reduced?) by the application of olive oil. The resulting loss of grip to the wheels of the car when travelling downhill can be quite alarming and there always seems to be another olive tree just in the place where you and your, now out of control, car, are heading. (There also appears to be some unwritten rule that on every tight bend you encounter when coming down a steep mountainside with a sheer drop on one side, there will sit the most productive olive tree in the municipality. Furthermore the same law apparently states that this particular tree will overhang the road to such an extent that there is no way to avoid the oil it’s so liberally producing.) While driving on an olive oil covered road is no great fun, it’s even less fun if it’s been sunny for a few days…have you any idea what rancid olive oil smells like? Not as bad as a rancid goat but not much better.

As if the threat to life and limb from the olive trees is not bad enough, there is the little problem of olive nets, an item I frequently encounter on the many narrow and winding roads I travel on up in the hills. Olives are collected from the trees in large, fine mesh, nylon nets which, to assist with efficient gathering of the olives, are kept off the ground by stakes; usually steel reinforcing bars about 1 metre long, driven into the ground at an angle. Olive trees grow over the roads (see above), to maximise the harvest, the nets come out into the road, and, as mentioned above, the nets are held up by 1 metre long steel reinforcing bars set at such an angle. The result of all this is that the reinforcing bars are projecting into the road; steel reinforcing bars and the side panels of hired cars do not go together that well . You have been warned.

The steel reinforcing bars previously mentioned and which are such a ubiquitous feature of the Cretan landscape, making everything for net supports to fences, gates and frames for goat shelters, are more often seen in the UK on construction sites where they are used to strengthen concrete. I suspect that their popularity, or at least availability, might however be on the decline here over the next few months. Many of the buildings in the village were put up in the 1960s and 1970s as the tourist boom started and most if not all featured balconies of some sort. These balconies were supposedly made of concrete reinforced with the above mentioned bars. I say supposedly because last month one of these balconies collapsed, writing off half a dozen hire bikes parked beneath it. On inspection it was apparent to all that the number of reinforcing bars used in the construction of the balcony was minimal and the few that were there were almost all rusted through. There has been a sudden demand for scaffolding as everybody with a balcony from that era suddenly realises that it could be their balcony next and that it may not just be pushbikes underneath if it falls. Romeo and Juliet would currently find it hard to locate a balcony from which to operate.

Still, as my friend Spiros said, for no apparent reason since we were discussing the Euro crisis at the time:

“Do you know Mick, hermits tend not to breed.”

That’s Crete for you.