TRAVEL: Biking the Minoan trail

When David Clement-Davies hired a Honda to escape the resorts of Crete, he took the rough with the smooth
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The Independent Culture
EVER since Sir Arthur Evans restored the Minoan palace at Knossos in concrete, the Cretans have covered much of their coastline with the dull stuff. In Plakias, though - on the south coast of the island - I glimpsed the prospect of escape: rows of shiny bikes for hire.

Climbing on to a Honda semi-automatic, I grumbled up the slopes, past rock scree the colour of honey, dotted with bright blue beehives, and buzzed down into pools of dry heat stretched taut by trilling cicadas. Along the way, I met other speed freaks. Couples swooped by on Vespas, sportifs swanked past in fluorescent colours, and now and then came the real Minotaurs of the road: heavy-duty bikers slung back on easy-riders, handlebars round their ears.

I stopped for a beer in Lefkogia, in a taverna perched among pink wild flowers, and spread out the map. Nearby was the Preveli monastery, a good introduction to the drama of these hills. After the battle for Crete in 1941 British, New Zealand and Australian troops found sanctuary here. Helped by the monks and local villagers, they were spirited off the island by submarine.

At Preveli, the wind moaned round the courtyard and peeling outbuildings, rustling the big plane trees where coins left in the bough spoke of older gods. There were candles burning in the church and on the wall outside a plaque recalled the war. It was a thoughtful place - until a coachload of trippers came barrelling noisily past the fig tree. Germans, as it happens.

Any thought that I'd be more welcome was soon squashed by a monk at the little museum: "Cretans feel strange about the British," he said as he offered me a raki and talked about the painful politics of the war years and the church's attempts to outflank Cretan communists. His voice rose hotly through his beard: "Why do your journalists say Cretans are the sperm of the Turks?" Time to hit the road again.

Next day was full of the detours you can exploit on a moped. The Cretan roads were good, even in the mountains, but you have to keep an eye on them. Potholes that are pimples to a Jeep become gaping ravines to two wheels. The tarmac has that irritating habit of suddenly running out. In the burning, airless sun the sea was soon too delicious to resist and I turned off, down towards the tiny village of Saktouria. A day's swimming, and on to Melambes and the hilltop army installations where the mountains suddenly open out over the fertile Megara plain and its scrubby polythene greenhouses.

At last I saw the sign for Sakros and the mountain lake. The mountains were growing grandly around me again. Hours later, after the tarmac had turned into stone tank traps and I had eyed a donkey enviously, only the thought of the lake kept me going; here, at last, was the town. And the lake? "Yes, yes," an old man in black said, waving me on, "higher up". Higher up? The generous waters of Sakros, flocking with Cretan wild fowl - surely not. And there it was. It wasn't a lake. It was a pond. It wasn't a pond, it was a puddle. A single rowing boat drifted limply through the floating fag butts.

Next morning my faith was restored by Festos, a princess among Minoan ruins - no hustling tavernas and, at 8.30am, no people. The stones glowed in the singeing heat, yet there were determined strips of snow on Mount Psiloritis. A sunstruck imagination transformed the cows on the plain into Minoan bulls and the breeze murmured through the cypresses of 4,000 years.

By the time I got to Kamilari, I had turned my arms upwards to stop primary sunburn and was trying to drive, palms up, wobbling dangerously along. It was probably no way to enter Matala, the Sixties mecca for hippies coming to commune in its sea-cliff caves. The caves are fenced off in the evenings now, and Matala has long grown into expensive respectability. "LIFE IS TODAY," shouts the graffiti on the harbour wall, but the second part - "TOMORROW NEVER COMES"- is obscured, along with the story of the hippie who wrote it, climbed to the top of the cliff and threw himself off.

But I liked Matala, with its bruising purple sunsets and friendly ghosts - enough to hang up the moped key for two days. In the Lions bar I made some German friends and met Scottie, Matala's last hippie, who after 25 years away from Germany had definitely lost the plot.

The wind started on my second day in Matala, a breath of the blast that licks off Africa, sending the Cretans into scowling, sullen moods. It screeched across the bay, bending back the palm trees, scouring salty legs, lashing the deep blue to cool white and sending people scurrying for cover from the stinging sandblast. It was still blowing when I set off to return my wheels, so strong on the mountain that I came to a standstill at full throttle.

At last I returned to Plakias and its supine bodies. I don't know if I'd seen the "real" Crete, but I'd got a taste of travelling through an island that is still its own country. Even an 80cc moped was good enough to get me a long way, and in all I had spent about pounds 6 on petrol. If lying on that beach gets too much like hard work, you can always get on your bike. !

HIRING A BIKE: There are any number of hire shops on Crete offering a wide range of bikes and mopeds; anything under 50cc may give you problems. Most bike shops will agree to pick you up if you have a flat tyre. With some you can arrange to leave your bike on other parts of the island. Haggle. Hiring a bike over a longer period is cheaper. Petrol stations are plentiful. In Plakias try Odyssia Rentals (0832 31596); in Heraklion, Ariadne Motors (0812 50468). Prices range from 2,500 drachma (pounds 7) per day for a Honda 50cc, to 5,600 (pounds 15) for a Kawasaki 250cc.

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