The young man standing in front of me, showing off for his friends, was so ugly and repulsive that I couldn’t take my eyes off of him. He had a long, broken nose, thick, dark eyebrows, a cold, vacant stare and a long, skinny, sinister looking face that was covered in Maori tattoos. He might have simply been an unattractive young man if it weren’t for a prominent swastika tattooed across his chest.
I hated being in his vicinity. Even sharing the same beach with him made me feel tainted in some way but at the same time I couldn’t stop looking at him. He was surrounded by friends, a couple had the same working class British accent as him, but others sounded as though they were from Scandinavia. None appeared to be neo-Nazi skinheads, so how could they be on friendly terms with this thoroughly repellant individual?
The Nazi thug, who appeared to be about 30, also had a Scandinavian girlfriend, about 20 years old or so, and cute. Was dating this reprehensible human being a little rebellion or did she somehow find him attractive?One never expects to spend a summer holiday in the company of neo-Nazi thugs, but that’s exactly what happened one day two weeks ago, when I found myself on Platanias Beach, a horribly tacky, crowded resort in Crete that’s filled with working class package tourists from Northern Europe.
We met a very nice student named George on a bus who recommended we take our children to the beach at Platanias, but as we passed row after row of cheesy tourist traps and seedy looking motels driving towards the town from Chania, I couldn’t help but wonder if the beach itself would redeem the dismal main drag.
We weren’t clear on where to park as we entered Platanias town, so my wife stopped in a café to make an inquiry and a young Norwegian girl named Helena said she wanted a ride to the beach anyways, so she hopped in the front seat with me, as my wife retreated to the back with my sons, ages 2 and 4.
Helena said that she’d been coming to Platanias for years and loved the place, though she hadn’t been anywhere else in Crete, so she had no real basis of comparison. She worked each summer at a beach bar and I asked her how this was possible since Norway isn’t a member of the European Union.
“We’re not members?” she asked, surprised by my query.
“No,” I said. “I think there was a referendum a few years back and Norwegians decided not to join.”
“I don’t remember that,” she said. “I thought we were in the E.U.”
As soon as I saw the beach, I felt a crushing sense of disappointment. It was our last day in Greece, and over the preceding six weeks, we’d been privileged to see so many beautiful beaches, but this place was a mess. First, it was extremely crowded, so much so that one could barely see the sand. Second, there was a red flag up on the beach, indicating that the water quality was dangerously bad, and third, there were all kinds of tough looking punks, like the neo Nazi, getting hammered, even though it was only 11 A.M.
But the beach bar where Helena worked had a playground and before my wife and I could get back in the car and go elsewhere, our kids were already hooked, so we resolved to stay for a bit. She got a lounge chair and I settled in at a table at the beach bar to get a little work done.
I ordered a bottle of water but the waiter brought me a draft beer to go with it.
“First one’s on us,” he explained.
“But I don’t want a beer,” I said, defensively. “It’s not even Noon.”
“You don’t want a free beer?” he asked, clearly confused by my abstinence.
“Well, I don’t drink,” I lied, just to bring the conversation to a close.
“You don’t drink but you came for vacation in Platanias?” he asked, before breaking out in laughter.
Shortly thereafter, the Nazi settled in 10 yards in front of me, and two British women who might have been a member of a rugby team if they were 30 years younger, engaged in a spirited conversation within my earshot about the prices various beach bars charged for a pint. The search for a cheap pint seemed to be the most important component of their holiday.
Helena told me we should stick around for a “Zorba Dance Party” at the bar that would feature plate throwing and other nonsense, but as soon as we could pry our kids out of the playground, we got back in the car and headed east to Kalathas, a beautiful, unspoiled beach just east of Chania that we’d been to the previous day. After a great final afternoon at the beach there, we wondered why anyone in their right mind would go to Platanias.
“It’s because they have no clue,” said another George, who managed the hotel we stayed at in Chania and was less a fan of Platanias than the younger George we me on the bus.
“They come here on a package tour, the bus picks them up right at the airport and brings them straight to the hotel in Platanias. They have all their meals right there and they don’t even come here to Chania, even though it’s only a half hour away.”
The next day at the airport, I saw hundreds of pale-faced package tourists being herded like cattle onto buses and I felt terribly sorry for them. They were headed for Crete’s horrid north shore beach ghettos that have all the charm of an American strip mall. I wanted to stop them and shout, “No! Don’t let them take you to Platanias! The water is dirty, the beach is crowded and there’s even a Nazi!”
But there is no point in projecting your tastes upon others. Most of the people getting on those buses might actually like it there- the weather is hot, the beer is cold, and many who go there are in the mood to hook up while on holiday. And if all the crowds went to Kalathas then it wouldn’t be as nice as it is. So long live Platanias and all the other dreadful package tourist ghettos in Crete, sadly enough they help preserve the character of the rest of the island.
(Image via Neatjunk on Flickr, note that the author did not meet or photograph the individuals in the photo)