A friend in Greece told me she’d heard of the building of a ‘tramway’ in Iraklion, on the island of Crete. At that time, I thought they would have to knock down a lot of houses in order to build an effective one, for it was some time since I’d last visited the town, and I remembered narrow streets and close-packed houses.
But, the mystery was solved when I revisited recently. These trams, or rather, trains, don’t run on tracks. They’re road trains. They’re not just novelty trains for children that ply along the sea-front. You can take a tour on them, for an afternoon or a whole day.
If you ever take a coach tour, have you noticed there’s always someone who, as soon as the bus has come to a halt, gets up and starts fiddling with his belongings, blocking the aisle so that nobody can get off for five minutes! The extra door in the middle of the coach is useful on such occasions, but, even then, sometimes, you might wish for extra doors, like there used to be on older trains.
The trains not only operate out of Iraklion, but from the several holiday resorts along the northern coast. If you like ‘night life’ and ‘action’, you should stay somewhere at the eastern end of the island. As you move westward, the quieter the resorts become. We were staying at Ayia Marina, near Xania, which lies on the west side of the island.
One day, I walked the Samaria Gorge. That’s the longest gorge in Europe; 18 kilometres of rather rocky going. There’s no way out, either, except on your own two feet or, in extreme emergency, on the back of the ranger’s donkey.
My wife took one look at the pictures of the gorge, and decided it was too difficult for her, and chose an easier option. She would take the road train on a tour to another gorge, the Therissos Gorge. Afterwards, she reported that, while the gorge wasn’t quite as spectacular as Samaria, it was still quite an experience … and could be viewed from the comfort of the train, which, unlike Samaria, was able to drive all the way. And, she came back clutching a large bag of oranges she’d bought at a stall along the way for the price of a couple of oranges in the UK.
I didn’t feel much like walking the following day, so we took a train ride instead. We chose the Galatas Country Tour on the ‘Little Red Train’ from Platanias, near our hotel outside Xania. Its owner claimed it was the first ever of the trains, and that his trains, of Italian manufacture, were superior to the French-built ones of his competitors
.They are much more convenient, we were told, because, unlike coaches, the operator doesn’t have to keep a fleet of different-sized buses. He just hitches on an extra ‘carriage’ or trailer, when times are busy, or takes one off when demand is light. And, it’s easy to get on and off; there is a door for each row of seats! The open-sided carriages are a big plus for photographers; they make the train an ideal ‘camera platform’
The route took us through the orange groves in the valleys to the south of the main road, which runs along the northern coast of the island. They missed a trick, I thought .. why didn’t he call this tour ‘The Orange Blossom Special’? Of course, we took the tour in Spring, when the blossom was out. It isn’t always. We stopped at Ayia Lake; snow on mountains reflected in a beautiful artificial lake made us think we were anywhere but Greece! And, on the way out, we halted at a roadside stall for fresh orange juice, and to buy more oranges.
Then, the route took us to the Allied War Memorial, on top of a hill. This commemorated the soldiers from Britain, Australia and New Zealand who unsuccessfully defended the island against a German parachute invasion in the Second World War. Being situated on a hill, the views of the groves of olive and orange, and the vineyards are magnificent.
Our last stop was at a village called Galatas, where we parked in front of the church, which those who wished to could visit. Most passengers, however, made their way to a small museum, mainly of artefacts from the War. It’s rather a slight affair, which might not be worth making a special trip to see, but it is important to the villagers
At the end of the tour, we found another advantage to the train having no tracks. It can go almost anywhere, and, if your hotel is nearby, it will pick you up or drop you there, if you ask nicely!