Neither of us had been to Crete before but Giles chose it for our honeymoon, partly because he wanted to see the famous wildflowers, partly for the purity, and partly for the multiplicity of difficult-to-find churches camouflaged in picturesque settings.
He hadn’t done his research, though, or he would have known that the scorching sun of Crete incinerates the last of the wildflowers in June. This was July. He also would have known that it would be too hot to sleep in the same bed. Air-conditioning was then a rarity and the puny fan in our rented apartment made no impact on its furnace-like interior. Nor could he have anticipated there would be so many fellow Britons on Crete. These people shamed us as they waddled drunkenly though the streets of Chania dressed in almost nothing while the modest Orthodox Cretans looked downwards in dismay. We were, inevitably, tarred with the same brush.
Haunting my imagination through the whole honeymoon was the spectacle of my then boss, the Tatler editor Mark Boxer, being turned away from our wedding dance the night before the honeymoon. In those days a wedding reception typically consisted of dinner for a select few with multiples joining afterwards for dancing. Mark and Anna Ford had arrived at the right time for the dancing, but it turned out to be too early, as one elderly ‘friend’ had arrived for the seated dinner with a gatecrasher, which threw everything out.
Giles had heroically organised the whole honey-moon and the highlight of the trip was supposed to be a walk through the ten-mile-long Samariá Gorge. You start at an altitude of 1,230 metres and walk all the way down to the shores of the Libyan Sea at Agia Roumeli. He found someone who spoke English and booked a taxi so we would get there before dawn broke and have the whole Garden of Eden to ourselves.
We arrived at the start to the hiss of air brakes as two giant coaches disgorged hundreds of gorge-runners and solitude-seekers who had had the same idea as us. As we made the perilous descent (you had to look down as you went so as not to twist your ankle), hundreds of fitter people ran past us like mountain goats, many of them whooping and some jostling us out of the way. There was no peace to be had, no communing with nature. Only the unpleasant sense of a stranger coming up behind you at speed, which, as Giles observed, ‘on a reptilian level makes you release cortisol as you half-expect them to molest or attack you’. The whole thing was like endlessly going down the escalator at Oxford Circus during rush hour. Nevertheless, there was no going back.
After walking about seven miles, we reached a finish line where there was a pop-up bar and a man selling certificates that said: ‘Congratulations! You’ve walked the Samariá Gorge.’ And so we collapsed, triumphant.
Now for the boat that would take us back as we had been promised. Oh no. It had been a fake finish line. The real finish line was another three miles away. But by then our muscles had seized up and we were loath to get going again. We nevertheless staggered on to the harbour, where we got a boat to Hóra Sfakíon and were effectively held prisoner for a further two hours so that the local mafia-run restaurant could force us to buy expensive drinks and food.
There was yet another ordeal to come as the coach that eventually took us back to our apartment had standing-room only and the driver veered sadistically over precipitous ledges and around hairpin bends.
Before going home we ached for two days afterwards in our oven of a room. This was in the days before email or cheap phone calls, so I was never able to reassure myself about Mark Boxer until I got back. Of course he was fine about it and I wasn’t sacked. He had waited round the corner and gone happily back.
A friend with a house on Crete assures me it is one of the loveliest places on earth — as long as you avoid other Britons and the Samariá Gorge. You need to go in March to see the wildflowers. And I must admit the tiny churches delivered on their promise, even when visited in a car without air-conditioning.