It’s bumper sticker read “luv + IQ = Skoda”.
As I arm wrestled it into reverse for the first time I could glimpse the ancient paving beneath us through a non factory fitted observation hole in the floor beside the gear stick. Skoda squeaked and stopped. “If you’re so smart and caring you’d know I want to go backwards….. and you’d do it now.”
And so began my day with Skoda, driving on the wrong side of donkey and mountain goat tracks around the ancient Ionian Island of Kythira where most of the population has escaped to Australia; the great south land where the Skoda is all but extinct.
I don’t know if it was a simple change of heart or the anticipation of being sent back to the rent a car man, but just when I thought that I would have to get out a kick something Skoda yawned, gasped and exhaled as one does first thing in the morning. Sensing a new eagerness I slipped Skoda into first gear, flattened the accelerator, hauled the steering wheel hard left and lunged onto the roadway which is shared by half the tables and chairs of an adjacent cafe. Not a patron spilled a drop as I found second gear.
Our destination was the Hora, the capital of Kythira, which is also called Kythira when it’s not called Hora. I suppose that it can get confusing when the name of the capital is the same as the island: imagine how perplexing it would be if Canberra was called Australia. Besides everybody knows that it’s the real name for Sydney.
Anyway, Skoda seemed delighted to be heading for the big smoke. We cleared the Karpousi (watermelon) truck which was doing brisk sales in the middle of the road and took on a modest incline with a real sense of purpose. But a 1/3 of a tonne of near 6ft Aussies had its effect and 3rd gear was out of the question. Instead we ground our way past the olive groves at maximum revs with Skoda internally hemorrhaging in 2nd.
From the top of hill number 1 we could see the beautiful, narrow stone bridge ahead of us. It was downhill all the way and completely clear except for an approaching psychedelic, gypsy truck, overloaded with rugs, urns and plastic chairs. It seemed committed to a mid bridge sales demonstration. I booted Skoda in the guts, girded her 1100 cc’s into automotive frenzy and although she squealed like a lamb heading for souvlaki, we fairly flashed passed the ancient stones and front number plate of the heavily breaking truck. The gypsies seemed to be cheering us on as we passed bridge number 1 and headed for our first hairpin bend. This was Skoda’s own country: not bad for a little Czech assembled in the ’80’s.
Skoda had adapted wonderfully to the Greek Med. Its white duco, brilliant at a distance was in constant need of a touch up and as we were about to find out, Skoda was to be at its best in the early morning or evening. It would do everything possible to avoid moving in the heat of the day.
The 3kms uphill to the Hora were tense but uneventful. We parked Skoda in the designated parking area; a dusty patch of gravel where gigantic tourist busses turn during summer and the locals play soccer in the winter. I didn’t lock Skoda: there was no need and no key. I left the windows down an inch or so to let the rapidly heating north wind relieve Skoda’s cracked and peeling internal black vinyl.
Atop the Hora is an overwhelming and crumbling Venetian fortress and the route to the top is stepped through whitewashed lanes and houses with blue doors. Horrible skinny cats watched us as we struggled to get our legs out of 1st gear, loaded down with water bottles, maps and cameras. Poor bloody Skoda. “katelaveno” (Greek for I understand) The fort never seemed to get closer, always high above us in the eye of the charring sun. I imagined the ancient Kythirians hurling rocks at the strange invaders. I’d have welcomed anything that would have brought this climb to an end.
But at last we passed through the silent walls of the great fortification to see and breathe in the timeless panorama. To my right and south was the Aegean way to Crete and Africa, to my left and north lay Skoda, hot, white and alone in the dust bowl.
We didn’t keep Skoda waiting long: just a few quick pics, vastly inferior to the printed post cards available everywhere on the island and we were off. Next stop Fifi Ammos, the most beautiful and remote beach on the Island. Go Skoda!
I must say that Skoda didn’t sound great the first time I turned the ignition key, but when commencing our second leg, I thought I had induced the death rattle. As the starter motor cranked every engine part and body panel seemed to be separating itself from the whole. Skoda seemed to be colliding with itself without moving an inch. It was 11 am and the temperature had hit 35°. My fellow travellers were moaning for a cafe when Skoda began to respond, cylinder by cylinder. In no time we were at full power again doing 50kms/hr in 3rd gear on a flat made road winding through olive grove after olive grove. The front wheel drive dragged us through countless corners and the front end squeaked like buggery but managed to keep going in the same direction as the rest of the car. A quick braking maneuver to avoid a motor bike that had been converted into a small truck caused a remarkable high pitched shriek. Mmmm, handy I thought, they’ve connected the horn to where the brake pads used to be.
My confidence was sky high after my first successful attempt at overtaking. The road was clear ahead and there was nothing in the rear vision mirror, not even my passengers. For some reason they had all decided to practice one of those exercises they show you on planes where you put your head between your legs after the oxygen masks have descended.
The pursuit of the ultimate Grecian beach had now taken us off the bitumen and down a donkey track with an incline ratio more severe than a space shot reentry. Huge runnels soon appeared across the road and Skoda began to lurch and bottom as if it was about to pull out of a Sydney to Hobart. To my left, not more than a meter away was a bottomless ravine. To my right a sheer rock wall. Somewhere ahead was the perfect beach and behind were the lazy delights of a thousand tavernas.
I didn’t hesitate. I stood on the anchors and prayed. Skoda responded, bonnet dipping and suspension exhausted and near collapse.
Thirty minutes later we hobbled into the beautiful tiny fishing village of Avlemenos. Who needs the perfect beach when you can have the perfect taverna?
Skoda’s doors squeaked painfully as we unpeeled from the vinyl into the midday heat. There is something scary about this time of day in a treeless village. The rocks have the power and nothing moves, nothing makes a sound, no person or animal can be seen. The silence is thick and heavy. Breathing seems harder and the sun simply forces the eyes to narrow and eventually close. Neither man nor machine should move until the sun storm disappears into the west.
The owner of the taverna looked as though he had been shot. He slept face down on a table, slumped in a chair, one arm hanging, its fingers just touching the stone floor.
“I’d kill for a beer” I thought as I prepared to exhume our host.
His daughter saved me from the scary job. She looked as though she’d been asleep under the stove when she appeared from the kitchen but remarkably she still had some sense of hospitality, or a terribly strong need for a drachma or two.
Whatever her motivation, she will be remembered forever as our Greek Florence Nightingale, carrying her trays of beer, bread, tomatoes, cucumber, olives, sardines, feta, yogurt, calamari, mackerel, okra and more. Perfection beneath the Bougainvillea….and not a sandy beach in sight!
In Aussie pub style we downed the tucker like a mixed grill counterie, scoffed two more beers and decided to get on the road again.
But we had forgotten about Skoda, left alone under the slimmest shade of a scrawny Mediterranean pine. He had gone to sleep and could not be woken. No amount of encouragement worked. And then we saw the remains of a puddle beside the driver’s front wheel. Skoda had boiled and there was nothing to do but return to the taverna, sit in the shade and wait for the cool of the evening before attempting the trip home.
After knocking back about 10 litres of water at eight that night Skoda revived. Its cross eyed headlights guided us back along the narrow roads, through the old Hora, down the mountain, over our ancient bridge and back to the rent-a-car shop/bakery/cafe/travel agency.
“You had good day?” said Spiros, rent-a-car tycoon/baker/waiter and travel agent.
“Kala, poli kala” (good, very good) I responded in near perfect Greek.
As I closed the hatch back after a fruitless search for a lost thong I saw for the first time Skoda’s full name; “Skoda 1100 Favourit.”
Mmmmm… maybe next time I’ll get a Lada.