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September 02

'Books and Bookends' Cruising to Crete
James Skinner finally comes ashore

Santorini is paradisiacal - a gorgeous town


‘As I complete my geriatric cruise series I cannot help but write my final chapter with the weird feeling of a lump in my throat. The bomb blast caused by inhuman terrorists in a nightclub on the far away island of Bali, causing umpteen dead and wounded does not induce one’s mind to gear up for a pleasant journey of creative writing. Ironically, as I sat in the lounge of the Apollo deck, the evening before our return and disembarkation at Piraeus, my inner senses still savouring the ending of a fantastic ‘Round-the-world’ final cabaret show, I was suddenly brought back to reality.
Willy, one of my American fellow tourists next to me said, ‘you know, my friend didn’t want to come.’ He paused and added, ‘he’s a New Yorker!’ I looked at him and smiled, ‘Europe is OK, a bit old and fuddy duddy, but OK.’ He looked straight ahead, ‘yes, I guess you’re right.’ After a few minutes he turned around and faced me. With a solemn look he uttered a single phrase, ‘books and bookends!’ He went back to his double something with ice.

‘Books? Bookends? What’s he talking about. What have books and bookends to do with all this?’ I was puzzled. He saw my facial reaction, smiled again and went into his discourse. ‘All these journeys, tours, cruises even life itself are all like books and bookends. You have the hard bits at the beginning and end with all the juicy stuff in the middle.’ He said no more. Got up and left. It took me a while for it to sink in. When you start your vacation, you spend the first day buggering about with documents, luggage, boarding aircraft, fighting with flight attendants, fellow passengers and even your own companion. And yet you’re eager to get on with what depleted your bank balance and put you at the mercy of Visa and MasterCard. Once all this claptrap is over and you’re on your way, all is forgotten and you greet your unknown future destiny with a smile on your face and a pulse rate of over 100.
At the end, the reverse takes place, a hard drop back to routine business, whatever it was. Solemn speeches from your cruise director on disembarking procedures ‘hope you had a nice time but don’t forget your passports!’ packing, arguing again with your companion, fasten seatbelts and… Hey, what happened to the holiday?

I closed my eyes and revelled in our last day’s outing.
Crete and Santorini.
Sorry, but my first impression of Herakleion, the capital of Crete was that of a horrible, stinking, filthy place. We arrived very early in the morning and had about two hours to check the joint out. Florencia had already given us our ‘A’ level history lecture ranging from Vathypetro, a famous old farmhouse dating back to the 16th century BC to the island’s famous olive groves and vineyards and of course, the Palace of Knossos. Not having much time to spare and agreed to avoid the noise, dirt and other signs of human decay we hopped into the nearest waiting taxi. ‘Take us to the Palace’, says Facundo. ‘Ah, yes. The usual,’ replies the splitting image of Burt Reynolds as the smoke infested diesel kicks into life. We’re no sooner three blocks down the road, his mobile rings. We’re entering a treeless park when ‘Burt’ stops at a newsstand, hops out, disappears and another geyser jumps into the drivers seat. He turns around, smiles and says, ‘my cousin, he’s a new father. I’ll take you now.’ You guessed. Silence reigned as we sped into the countryside.

Apart from Florencia and Facundo laughing their heads off, the Palace of Knosses belonging to a king called Mimos, was a jigsaw of bits and pieces of ancient architecture and decorations put together over time thanks to the excavations of one Sir Arthur Evans in 1900. Half-baked fakes of course! If you can picture all sorts of ‘had been’ decorations by the likes of Dali and Picasso’s tutors, reconstructed, and somehow put together again, so that mutts like us could visualize what the place was like thousands of years ago, well, there you have it. Take the King’s chamber and the Queen’s apartment all adorned with beautiful paintings of griffins and lilies, you could still smell the fresh paint as if you’d just walked out of a car repair shop. On the other hand the palace itself was a complete and utter labyrinth of passages and rooms. Similar to the servants that obviously kept losing their way in days of old, the various groups of tourists led by their guides kept bumping into each not knowing north from south or in from out in this monumental cock-up of a ruin. Check out the Keraklion Museum for the looted originals! Thanking the dear Lord, we were away by 11:30. Next and last stop, the island of donkeys.

Santorini is paradisiacal. It is a gorgeous town built on the cliff top of yet another Greek island. The peculiarity of this ship-stop is that there are only two ways of reaching the heart of the hustle and bustle. You could take the funicular railway, pretty standard construction in other parts of the world, or, wait for it, hire a donkey! You could, of course, walk up the incredibly steep steps and, almost certain to cause some internal injury. Take it or leave, there was no other way. I couldn’t believe it, for the way up, Florencia, Fulgencia and my wife opted to walk the steps. However, once up top the view was breathtaking. We sat at the table of a cliff-hanging cafeteria and as we sipped our beers we literally inhaled the scenery. Even Florencia was speechless for a change. There were three cruise ships in the harbour and the sight of their miniaturisation took me back to my baby days when I played with little boats in my bathtub. The surroundings were different. The green and rugged cliffs replaced the mid-forties brass plumbing. Oh well! Time to pay the barman and return to the ‘Renaissance’. Panic sets in. My wife decides she wants to walk down… the donkey route!

Once again, I am about to use my favourite phrase that I have throughout my geriatric cruise essays. I’m not kidding when I describe our descent down a route of shit! Donkey shit!
‘Are you crazy’, I said to my wife. ‘Do you really want to slush slosh down this stinking dung alley?’ I implored. Sidetracking slightly, many of you may think that I married a madwomen. No way, she is Galician, northwestern Spain, and the people of this land are all adventurers and daredevils but above all, inquisitive. ‘I want to see what it’s like going down this way’ she answered calmly. She won out. Florencia and Fulgencio went by funicular.

The trouble was not only sidestepping the tonnes and tonnes of cannon ball droppings along the way. We had to run in front of at least 40 donkeys, all transporting part of the remainder of our fellow passengers. They were charging down on us like the Light Brigade. Somehow we made it back to the ship. Don’t ask me how. I can’t remember.

I’m wiping my eyes as I complete this paper. Although I’m at Athens airport I’m also at the PC and still thinking of Bali. Millions and millions of tourists are either coming or going. I’m handing in my airline ticket. Is it today or yesterday? Would I be here if it was today? Who knows and yet who cares. Mine is over and I’m safely home again. In today’s new world, would I take the trip again? Willy’s answer is the right one. Life is made up of books and bookends, including terrorist infested holidays. Take it or leave it.’
© James Skinner 2002.

More Travel Journeys in hacktreks

The Case of the Hit and Run Donkey

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