In Greece it’s called ‘Apokries’ and it’s the 3 week period before Lent, with many different customary events taking place. It culminates in a carnival of street parades on the Sunday before ‘Clean Monday’, the start of Lent. We have heard that the best Carnival in Crete will be in the old Venetian port town of Rethymnon, about an hours drive away from Chania. Apparently, the only Carnival bigger than this in Greece, is the one held in the city of Patras in the Peloponnese.
As we don’t have a car, we decide our best bet is to take the bus, so at 10am on Sunday morning we set out to walk the 15 minutes to the bus station. Leaving our house in Palios Poli (Old Town), and armed with a map, we negotiate the narrow lanes, like a maze really, and then cross the causeway over the ancient Venetian Moat, into the New Town, and find our way, without getting lost once, to the corner of Kydonias and Kelaidi streets, and the KTEL bus depot. This is a long weekend,….. tomorrow, Clean Monday is a public holiday…… so the bus station is quite crowded, mostly with young people, students by the look, and as is it’s customary to get dressed up in some sort of ‘fancy dress’ or wear a mask, it’s a quite colourful scene. Our scheduled bus is due to leave in 15 minutes, and I worry that we wont get on, as all these people also seem to be heading for Rethymnon. At the ticket counter, I ask for a specific seat, at the front of the bus of course, but get told not today, just get on the the first bus that arrives in Bay 11, and sit where you can…… and don’t worry, we are putting on extra coaches to cope with the crowd, (at least I think that’s what she said, my language skills aren’t yet good enough to cope with rapid-fire Greek). The weirdly dressed crowd thronging around ‘Bay 11’, waiting for the next coach to pull in, is certainly many more than any KTEL bus can cope with. YM’s plan to get the front seats doesn’t look so likely now, we’ll be lucky if we can even get onboard.
Here comes the bus, and as it pulls in to the bay, the mob dash for the front door, not yet open as the bus is still moving! In a brilliant countermove , YM outflanks the mob, sells them a dummy pass, and heads for the aft door, which she noticed had started to open. Using classic ‘hip and shoulder’ tactics, ( yes, I’m aware I’m mixing up metaphors with two different football codes!) she elbows aside a few opponents on the way and makes it to the door. The bus driver checks her ticket and allows her onto the bus, ahead of everyone else. The front seats are still vacant, due to that the front doors are only just being opened….. YM assesses the situation, sees her opportunity and sprints down the aisle, staking her claim just in the knick of time. I’m impressed, and only wish I’d thought to video the moment…… I’d have Vengalis’s ‘Chariots of Fire’ theme as background music. Some of you reading this ( AJ?) would be aware that YM prefers to sit in the front seat whenever she gets on a bus….. which is not that frequent actually….so she is very happy with herself…. a good start to the day eh.
The bus fills up very quickly, and as soon as it does, the driver pulls out and the bus-full of revellers head for Rethymnon. No sooner are we on the road, than our driver begins talking to himself, not usually a good sign. No worry’s though, I quickly realise that he is actually on the phone using an earpiece/mic. I listen, best I can, to the one-sided conversation taking place…. actually,it’s YM who is interested in his conversation, but not being able to understand Greek as well as me, she asks/tells me to interpret. The gist of it is, it’s his girlfriend on the line, and she misses him badly, even though they had a wonderful time together last night and he’s only just left her to start work…… yes, I still love you… of course I do…. no, I wont….yes, we’ll do it again tonight…. when I finish work….blah blah blah…..I’ll call you later….I love you…..Agapaw, agapaw, agapaw…. I presume it’s this same girlfriend who has given him the cute little fluffy toys which adorn the driving space at the front of the bus, as I can not imagine a grown man collecting them himself. I count about ten of these fluffy little creatures that obviously keep him company and his mind on thinking of his gomina, rather than on the road. After 20 minutes or so he runs out of conversation, hangs up ( how do you hang-up a mobile?) and concentrates on driving.
To give him his credit though, he’s a good driver, and very confident. So confident that as soon as we left the depot he had unfastened his seat belt, only to put it back on when we stopped briefly to pick-up a ticket inspector. After the inspector has checked that everyone onboard actually has a ticket, ( is this doubling-up? we’ve already had to show our ticket before we were allowed to board…. don’t they trust the driver?) he gets dropped off further along the road, and Driver-Dimitri takes off his seatbelt again. Us passengers don’t get a choice with this, as there is a large sign which advises all passengers to wear a seat belt. It’s reassuring to know that Ktel care about the safety and comfort of their passengers, yes? Well no, not quite, as the seat-belts don’t function. They do have seat belts, of course they do, but the buckle gizmo you put the clasp into is missing.
An hour later we arrive safely ( who needs seat-belts anyways) at our destination and follow the throng walking along the road in what we presume will lead us into the centre of town. All along the road, flags and bunting are flying and music is blaring out from speakers attached to the light poles. We pass a store selling fancy dress gear and stop to take a look, as a costume unlike any we’ve seen before catches our eye. The sales lady, spotting a potential customer, asks if I want to try it on, and I politely refuse (do I look like a pervert?). Forgoing this ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity to strut my stuff, so to speak, we continue on into town.
At another fancy-dress store we stop and decide to get into the swing of things, as we seem to be the only people in town not wearing something ridiculous. YM tries on a couple of outrageous wigs, as well as a pair of fake boobs (do these make my breasts look bigger? Definitely!) but I talk her out of buying them, and so she settles for something simpler….. a pair of bunny-ears/devil ears sort of thing ( see photograph). I spot the perfect thing for me, a police cap. Not your London ‘bobbies helmet’ either, but a cool LAPD or NYPD type of cap! Three reasons why it’s perfect for me…. firstly, it’s comparatively cheap, secondly, it’ll keep my head warm and thirdly, and most importantly, I’ve always wanted one! And when the sales lady points out that I should also buy a police whistle to go with it…yes!
We leave the store wearing our new purchases, and feeling slightly embarrassed and a bit stupid, we take a look around the town of Rethymnon. Nobody even gives us a second look, as the streets are full of other weirdo’s, or rather, people in weird costumes, and so soon feel more at ease with our own ‘get-up’. I pass a few others wearing Police outfits, and, like cops everywhere, we acknowledge fellow officers with a nod of the head…. it’s police camaraderie. The atmosphere in the town is great, with the streets full of happy young, and not so young, people out to have some fun. Even the staff in the bars and cafes are, for the most part, dressed up for the occasion. We spend an hour eating and drinking at the Ovelisterio O Paulus, enjoying the atmosphere and the people watching, before deciding it’s time to get to the Parade Route and claim a good possie to watch the show. On the way, we get frequently accosted, in a friendly way, by other costumed merry-makers, and YM revels in the attention. By now, lots of the locals are all heading the same way as us, with the same objective in mind… to get to the Parade…..let’s hope it doesnt rain ( is there a song coming on?)
After a brief stop on the way at another cafe-neon for refreshments…. it’s thirsty work, this law-enforcment stuff… we find a good spot close to the ‘4 Martyrs Church’ on Gerakari Square. I’m pleased to see that reinforcements have arrived to back me up, I just hope they are not imposters.
Music is blaring from the loudspeakers all around the square…… and not Greek Music either, but DISCO! While everyone waits in anticipation, the music reaches a crescendo, as the first of the floats arrive, escorted by lots and lots of dancers. Rio it aint, but it’s still pretty impressive (OK, I’ll admit that I am easily impressed) and a lot of fun. Not even some drizzling rain can dampen the atmoshere here. And here they come…. wow….
We notice that nearly every float has a huge cask of Chateau Carboard onboard, from which the dancers fill up their plastic bottles….. so fueled by copious amounts of ‘Krassi’, the participants seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely…… though it does play havoc with the choreographed dance routines. A couple of times I had to assert my authority in order to put a stop to some blatant underage drinking amongst the dancers….. A quick blast on my whistle was all it took for the culprits to stop for a moment and in true Cretan style, offer me a bribe …. not too bad vino either! The floats kept coming….and coming….. and coming…. and I’m not sure if it was the incessant Disco music that did it….( although when they played YMCA I came to life!) or the fact that the drizzle had by now turned to rain …. but after about two hours of this we’d had enough and decided to pull the plug and return to the warmth of the cafe we’d been in earlier.
Back at the Bus Station later in the evening, and in what passes in Greece for a system, but elsewhere would be called chaos, we wait with hundreds of other ‘tired and somewhat emotional’ revellers for the KTEL bus back home to Xania. Buses are pulling in and leaving constantly, all the while with people wandering, staggering more like it, among them, it’s an OH&S nightmare. Still in uniform, I try without success to bring some order to the situation, but with little success. YM though, has better luck….. maybe it’s the ‘bunny-ears’ that does the trick….because as the bus pulls into the bay, she’s first in line to get onboard and stake her claim to the front seat once again. The bus quickly fills up, and two pretty young girls find themselves without a seat, and are about to be put off, to catch the next one. The driver however, has other ideas, and offers them the small pull-down jump-seat, usually reserved for the ticket inspector, next to the driver. What a nice gesture! The sign above the driver says, in both English and Greek, ‘ Passengers are warned NOT to speak to the driver while bus is in motion’ What it doesn’t say is that the driver must not speak to passengers, because that’s exactly what our driver does for the whole of the trip back….. talk to the two pretty young girls sharing the inspectors seat. He’s one of those people who finds it neccessary to look you in the eye while driving too, which was a little bit worrying…. it was raining, the road was wet… and narrow….( it’s a Venetian thing again) and it was dark outside. When he wasn’t talking to the girls, he was constantly casting glances in their direction….. or more precisley, in the direction of their legs … well they were wearing rather short skirts! I estimate that Driver Damianos must only have spent about 25% of the time actually looking at the road on the trip back. No worry’s we had our seat belts on….. are you kidding…. this bus also had had the buckle gismos removed…or possibly vandalised. Anyway, you are reading this, so it means we are still alive….. not only alive, but really well too, so you’ll be hearing about our next adventure soon….