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Postscript

A number of people have enquired whether we made it back safely and/or how the journey went, so I have been tempted out of ‘retirement’ in order to respond. Or could it be that blogging is now in my blood? What a thought!

Well as you can gather we are back and arrived relatively unscathed to find house and dog in good shape last Thursday. The drive back from Crete was somewhat tedious, a little frightening at times in Italy (given the poor quality of driving) but otherwise uneventful. We clocked up over 7,000 miles since we left home at the start of November and door to door, the journey back was more or less exactly 2,000 miles. The car behaved beautifully with nothing more than a one blown brake light bulb to mar an otherwise flawless Skoda reliability performance.

In addition to two nights on Greek ferries we stayed one night in Italy and two nights in France en route for the UK. Our thanks go to Kathy & David in Rochester, Richard & Jilly in Horsham (again), Liz T in Marlborough and Liz B in the Lakes for accommodation and TLC on the way home. Thanks also go to Derek for entertainment in Horsham and yes - you are very welcome to visit us in Kirkcudbright any time but hopefully we will be back in Greece by the time you arrive! 

So it’s now back to the old routines here in Galloway but on the positive side, we have started at a conversational Greek class here in Kirkcudbright to continue our studies; are making plans to return to Crete in May/June for a holiday in the sun and thinking about a repeat visit next winter for a longer period. This time however, we would take the dog but that presents a number of difficulties. Is there anyone out there who has flown with a pet? If so, how did it go?

The summer trip is timed to avoid the nonsense over the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. We returned to find that the good citizens of Kirkcudbright are planning a street party right outside our house to ‘celebrate’ (????) the event. This was too much for us republicans to take. Would we be arrested (or stoned) if we had hung anti-monarchist slogans in our front window and is it really only fifteen years since the New Labour PR machine ‘rescued’ the monarchy from the trough of unpopularity following the death of Princess Di? All water under the bridge so to speak, but we don’t want any part of it. We’ll be lying in the sun, so good luck to the street revellers!

Our friends in Crete have sent us some pictures which they took during our stay, so I’ll end with a few of these. Thanks again for reading the blog and we look forward to catching up with friends and family in the near future.

 

 

John

A literary demise

 

Bad news, folks! We’re being closed down.

Some of the more knowledgable among you, may have heard of the body which regulates the French language, L’Académie française. Well it seems that there is a similar, yet somewhat more clandestine organisation operating in the UK which, to use a Minoan connotation (after all, we are in Crete), operates as a linguistic lustral basin to ensure the ritual purity of the English language!

It is rumoured to be fronted by Prince Charles and to consist mainly of retired gentlemen of a similar lugubrious disposition, strategically placed throughout the Realm from Dover Harbour to Dalgety Bay, who probably have too much time on their hands.

Well, it appears that this Opus Dei of the literati world, having exhausted the English classics has turned its attention to our humble blog and we have been found wanting!

What, you may ask, have we done to incur the wrath of such a distinguished readership? Have we been caught cheating at our Sudoku puzzles or perhaps overtaking on a blind bend in our canal boat or did someone spot us scrumping oranges in Crete?

All of these, we would of course deny, even if guilty, pleading the Fifth Amendment (assuming we were American of course, which we are not!). None of these heinous crimes however, fit the bill. Our single error, it would appear, is to have fallen into the trap posed by a misrelated subordinate clause! For that, we must pay the ultimate penalty – closure.

So all you would-be bloggers out there, beware. Your Big Brother really might be watching you!

Seriously, this will be our last blog. We leave for home on Tuesday and all being well, will arrive home in Kirkcudbright on March 1st. Thanks for reading the blog and for all your comments. We hope you enjoyed reading it as much as we enjoyed the experiences which led to it being written. We’ll be back, though – so watch this space!

Today was a beautiful Cretan spring day and we went walking in the mountains in the sunshine with Hans & Hanneke and afterwards to Malles for our usual late Sunday lunch.

A truly brilliant day to end our trip!

And one final word on the Greek Crisis. An interesting perspective can be found in the attached article:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/go/em/fr/-/news/business-17067104

John & Sheila

Tourism and Crisis

This week we have had Sandy and Winnie (Sheila’s brother and sister-in-law) to stay, which has meant that we could be tourists again. Tuesday, as well as being Valentine’s Day was also Sandy’s birthday so we all went out for lunch at the Cave of the Dragons with Hans and Hanneke and had goat.

On Wednesday there was a major power cut in Ferma, which meant no showers and more important, no breakfast coffee so before visiting the Minoan site at Zakros, we stopped off at a taverna for morning coffee.

Mine host was in talkative mood and so we were treated to a discourse on the economic crisis and whilst it was clear that he, like many Greeks, want to stay in the euro and not default (which is obviously seen as somewhat of a national disgrace), he was angry with the politicians for getting them into the mess and siphering off billions of euros to some place no one knows where. Most of all though, the anger is being directed towards the EU itself and particularly against Germany. We have read about boycotts of German goods and businesses being organised but had not heard anyone speak with such force on the subject before. On the other hand, not once have we heard anyone admitting that Greece has been living beyond its means and/or that they personally had not paid the tax that they, as individuals, should have done - not surprising perhaps!

I was reminded of an earlier blog when I referred to this subject and regretted not having taken a picture of a poster in a window in Agios Nikolaos. Yesterday we were there again and as the poster was still in the window, this time I got the picture.

Interestingly, there was also a stall in the main square staffed by young people, which  seemed to be dealing with issues to do with the crisis, so Sheila enquired what they were doing. It transpired they were providing advice to people who were unable to meet the additional taxes imposed as a result of the crisis and on other related issues, so even in prosperous Ag. Nik. the real problems are beginning to hit ordinary folk. 

The stats are appalling – unemployment at 20%, youth unemployment hitting 48% and the economy shrinking by the year. When this happened a decade ago with various so-called third world countries mainly in Africa, it was decided to wipe off the debt entirely, as being the only way in which their economies could grow and yet no one is suggesting it here! I wonder why but not being an economist, have no answers?

However, what is obvious even to the most casual observer is that the Greek economy will never recover whilst the debt remains and is being strangled under the iron boot of EU and IMF dogma. Meanwhile, young people lose hope and the Greeks generally lose faith in both the EU and democratic politics. All this brings back historical memories of Germany under the Weimar Republic. Don’t be surprised if the far right win a lot more seats in April’s elections.

Anyway, back to the tourism! After our lecture on Greek policitics and economics from the taverna owner, we went to the palace at Kato Zakros and then on to Vai Beach which was again deserted and beautiful. Winnie then showed us all how to skim flat stones on a very placid sea before finding treasure trove in the sand – over six euros! Being a generous soul, most of it was subsequently donated to a church in Ag. Nik. As the Greek Orthodox Church is apparently extremely rich and pays no tax on its substantial land holdings, the need here was probably not matched by the generous intent! On the other hand, the Church is apparently looking after a fair number of kids in Athens, abandoned by their parents who cannot feed them.

Yesterday, we went to the Minoan town of Gournia. There was much discussion on the importance of “lustral baths’ to the Minoans. We never did get to the bottom of this but here is Winnie with bottom in bath!

The next stops in this cultural odyssey were a Byzantine church at Kritsa and then the ruins of the Dorian town of Lato, which was new to us. It had a very impressive position overlooking Ag. Nik. and some very imposing blocks of stone – as someone remarked they must have had lots of slaves!

It was then off to Plaka to view Spinolonga from afar (no boats on Thursdays) and home via Ag. Nik. In the evening we went back to the authentic Cretan restaurant at Monasteraki which we have been too twice before, where interestingly the bill is always the same per head, irrespective it would seem, of what is ordered and how much wine is drunk! There could be a message here for Greek economists, perhaps?

Today, winter returned. We went to Agios Iannis (the abandoned village behind Ferma) and the temperature got down to 1.0 C and there was some sleet. 

However, there was still an opportunity for the Woods to go scrumping for oranges …..

But even though there was snow in the hills, the spring flowers were begininng to come out in our garden…….

 

 

And just in case you get the impression that there is no sun and/or that we have given up on the Greek, here is Sheila hard at both when it was a little warmer earlier in the week.

 

John

Beachcombing

Summer arrived in Crete this week – well maybe it’s a false dawn but at least the sun has been shining and it’s a lot warmer. This (hopefully) is good news for Sheila’s brother and sister-in-law, who arrive for a few days’ stay early next week!

We’ve been beavering on with the Greek, despite not having had a lesson for a week or too but it’s hard to concentrate when the sun is shining.

All this sun has made us think about returning in the summer, so today we decided to do some beachcombing – not the ususal sort, we’ve done enough of that but rather try to find some lovely beaches where we might wish to return to in June!

The nearest great beach to us is of course at Ferma where we stay and Agia Fotia is just down the road. You’ve seen pictures of these in earlier posts. Yesterday, we went westwards beyond Ierapatra and made our way along the coast. The first place we came to was a very wee village called Tertsa, which is not much more than two streets and a few tavernas:

with a beautiful beach …..

and lots more beyond the rocks (above) …..

 and of course, I felt duty bound to try out the sunbathing!

But it wasn’t long before we had to be on the move again …..

The next stop was Sidonia, which was somewhat larger than Tertsa and very much alive as a local centre. Sheila was amused to note that the bus shelter seems to double up as the local drop in centre for the elderly!

It too had a great beach…..

and some pretty streets.

Our final stop was at Arvi. This is really a small town with a new harbour constructed largely with cash from the EU (the second of such that we have seen on this trip).

It also has other attractive beaches.

Then, after a hard morning sightseeing, it was time to get back to Kato Spiti and the sun lounger and a well-earned beer:

It’s a hard life. Cheers!

John

 

Mountains, Memories and an elderly Greek Hitch-hiker

Last Sunday, Hans and Hanneke took us to a restaurant in the Katharo Plain for lunch. Katharo is basically an upland valley very similar to Lassithi but some 200 metres higher ie well over 1000 metres above sea level. The previous day there had been rain at sea level and snow on the hills and come Sunday morning, we set out in somewhat inauspicious weather with low cloud obscuring the tops. Virtually as soon as we started climbing we were in mist and cloud but they have a 4X4 and had been on this road many times before, so we were not too concerned. However, as time wore on so we began to see more and more snow around us and noticed that the small water storage ponds were frozen.

 

Onwards and upwards we went as the snow got thicker. At one point a boulder partially blocked the road and we all got out as Hans inched the car around it with the nearside wheels right on the edge over a 50ft drop! No going back we thought but within minutes we were faced with a sustantial snowdrift. Someone had been through before but they must have had a higher clearance because we were soon well and truly stuck.

It took quite some time to get through and an expedition then set off to check out the road ahead. Eventually, common sense determined that we turn around, get back through the drift, circumvent the boulder and retrace our route. We both thought that this meant a different restaurant than the one planned but H2 are a determined couple and no, off we set to reach Katharo by a different road. An hour later we sat down for a later lunch than planned in a very Greek ie non-tourist orientated, taverna where the only choice was lamb or chicken. I had the lamb and brilliant it was too! 

We then had a short walk and the views which were better than we might have expected given the weather.

It was however absolutely perishing – not really surprising though, given we were roughly at the same height as the top of Ben Nevis!

On Tuesday we set out for a trip down memory lane to visit the small south coast resort of Plakias (south of Rethimnon) where we stayed on our first trip to Crete back in 1983, nearly 30 years ago! En route we stopped off at the Greco-Roman site of Gortys where the Odeon is particularly well preserved:

It was then on to Phaistos to see a Minoan palace in a stunning setting on a hilltop overlooking a fertile plain:

After a quick stop at the summer palace of Agia Triada, it was off to Plakias and what we hoped would be a warm hotel for although the day was beautifully sunny, a cold wind from the mountains had thoroughly chilled us. Unfortunately, the hotel had no proper heating! Like most Cretan establishments, heating is not usually required so not therefore provided. We were, however, given plenty of blankets and an electric fire and that was us for the night.

The next day was sunny too but still cold but you can’t complain when you have a view like this from your hotel balcony:

We were pleased to find that whilst there has been significant development, Plakias is still as beautiful as we remembered it:

We also ‘found’ our favourite beach from long ago:

but we couldn’t find the rather ramshackle room that we rented back then.

Then, after a somewhat hair-raising drive, we visited the Venetian castle at Frangocastelli – still in remarkable condition:

Yesterday, on our way home, we visited the monastery at Preveli which we had walked to back in the 80′s. Those of you not too well versed on the debacle which was the Battle of Crete in 1941, may not know that the monks of Preveli very bravely hid thousands of retreating British and ANZAC troops before they could be evacuated at night by the Royal Navy. Since our last trip, a rather poignant memorial has been established on the cliff side just up the road from the monastery. 

Then it was off to the Amari Valley, high in the mountains under Crete’s highest mountain, Ida. On the way, we were flagged down by an elderly Greek woman looking for a lift to the valley. Her presence was a bit of a mixed blessing because she clearly thought we had no idea where we were going, which was not strictly true, so insisted on drawing us a map and phoning a friend who met us on the road and explained in great detail where we needed to go! It was very kind and typical of the generosity shown all the time by ordinary folk. She even gave us two oranges for her lift!

In the spring, the Amari Valley is renowned for its flowers, particularly wild orchids. Yesterday, however, it was not looking at its best in the rain and low cloud but was still striking.

It is also renowned as being one of the major centres of Cretan resistance in WWII and where some of the worst excesses perpetrated by the occupying German forces were carried out, including the burning of whole villages and the killing of their inhabitants. It was clear that some of the villages still bore the scars of war but most have been rebuilt and the area now appears to be very prosperous.

So twice more on this trip to Crete, I have been reminded of legacies of the major European wars fought in the twentieth century. We started out at Dunkirk and Passchendaele and even in this semi-paradise cannot escape the events which happened before we were born. A few readers took issue with my earlier comments on the relative importance of saving the EU as compared with the holding of a Scottish Referendum. To them, I dedicate the words inscribed on the monument at Preveli:

  

So, at the risk of being accused of preaching, perhaps it is time to show a little gratitude and help out the Greeks (and in the wider perspective the EU) in their time of need. 

John

‘The Island’

Like many others, I read Victoria Hyslop’s book ‘The Island’ when it came out in 2006. It is an easy read but a book which informs as well as entertains.  The island in question is Spinalonga, a very small island off the north east coast of Crete. 

It is very close to Plaka, a small village on the mainland.

During Venetian rule Spinalonga was developed as a fortress for military purposes and then, after 1715, it was an Ottoman settlement with a population of over 200.  In 1903 the Cretan government established a leper colony which remained in operation until 1957. 

 

‘The Island’ is a story about a family from Plaka.  Two members of the family develop leprosy and are sent to live on Spinalonga (at different times). We learn about life on Spinalonga and the traumas caused by the physical aspects of the illness and by their separation forever from most of the rest of the world. It also focuses on the positive aspects of what can be achieved in a small community which has good leadership and additionally we find out how a cure for leprosy was found. 

Both John and I were keen to visit Spinalonga.  In the summer there are regular boats to take you there but in the winter there appears only to be a boat at the weekend and it goes from Plaka.  We arrived before 10 am on a rainy Saturday.  There was a boat there but no other passengers except us. We had to wait a little while before the Captain arrived and then we set off on the short journey, accompanied also by a Guide who would unlock the gates on Spinalonga. She, as you can see below, is well wrapped up as it was chilly!

I asked the guide about how the book ‘The Island’ was regarded here.  She was non-commital, saying that some liked it and some didn’t.  But she was very positive about Victoria Hyslop herself who, she said, was a very nice person, had a house locally and always visited Spinalonga. A TV series (26 episodes) of the book was shown on Greek TV last year.  Apparently the author had been approached by Hollywood but in fact worked with a Greek production company to produce it.  I expect the BBC don’t want to show something in Greek with English subtitles but given the success of the book it might be popular. You can see a few excerpts on YouTube but I think we will have to wait a bit for the DVD.

The guide told us that on some summer days 3000 people visited Spinalonga.  That sounded scary!  On the other hand this may be positive for the local economy.  But we felt very lucky that it was just us who could wander at will, listen to the silence and think about what it was like to live on Spinalonga.

We set off from the jetty.  I had read that newcomers, diagnosed with leprosy, would go through a tunnel after arriving on the island.  They would experience the darkness of the tunnel and then the lightness of a narrow street where there was lots of people walking around doing ordinary things like shopping.  For people with no prospect of ever leaving the island this might have given only small comfort! John and I walked though the tunnel and into the street and while there was none of the activity it was as had been described. 

We walked on and found some of the dormitories, the houses and the hospital. These, as well as the church and the shops etc were all on the side of the island that overlooked Plaka.  It must have been tough for people to look out on the mainland which was so close and to which they would never return.

On the other side of the island was the graveyard.  It was in a beautiful setting but very poignant as so many people had died extremely painful deaths, some so far from their homes.

Because I thought of Spinalonga as a leper colony I had not grasped the Venetian and the Ottoman influence and there is a lot of fortification and housing which is from an earlier era.  There was information about this in the leaflet we were given and we walked right round the island, looking at the impressive fortification, massive stone walls and the many churches and other buildings.

But my mind and emotions would always return to the leper colony.  I found it difficult to look at Spinolonga without thinking about ‘The Island’ which is fiction, although based clearly on some facts.  So there were many questions unanswered.  Why was the leper colony in Crete?  Was there a higher incidence of the disease here?  Were there public health reasons for such a policy of isolation or was it an ignorant response to public prejudice?  How did the cure come about?   Did the improvements in conditions happen and were there real people amongst the fictional characters.  And more?  So I think I need to look for some of the research that Victoria Hyslop must have used to find some of the answers. 

What a place though Spinalonga is!  Good to go in the winter though.

Sheila

A Burns Supper Cretan Style

 

When we realised a week or so ago that Burns Night was coming up fast we decided to repay Hans and Hanneke’s (H2) many kindnesses by inviting them to our version of a Burn’s Supper!

A somewhat two-edged sword, do I hear some of you muttering? Well, perhaps but we accepted early on that we were unlikely to find a genuine haggis or indeed neeps, anywhere in this part of Crete so the best we could do was to buy a tin of haggis from the English Supermarket in Makrigialos just along the coast and just to prove it , here’s a photo of the tin!

This was to be a starter, with the main course being a Steak Pie – easy because I had done it before on New Year’s Day (see earlier blog) and knew I could get all the ingredients. To follow, Sheila decided to make a trifle. Getting these, proved a little more difficult but again the English Supermarket came up trumps with the sponge, custard powder, a can of fruit and jelly. Sherry proved impossible to track down, so local sweet wine was used as a substitute and then what to do about the cream? Our experience in this area has not been good and the Greeks do not appear to differentiate too well between single and whipping cream and the universal but disgusting UHT! Well, Megamarket in Ierapetra happened to have what we thought we needed ie a carton with a picture of a whisk on the side and indeed, this turned out to be the case.

As the day approached, Sheila searched the internet for video clips of a suitable ‘Address tae the haggis’ so that H2 could be initiated into the mysteries of a ‘real’ Scottish Burns Night. This what we came up with:

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In addition, she felt it necessary to show them what a Scottish ceilidh band is all about, so we came up with a clip of our friends in ‘Clachan Yell’ (the premier ceilidh band in the north-east, if not the whole of Scotland!):

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 (Thanks to YouTube for both of these)

Sheila was also keen that we get them on their feet and dance ‘The Gay Gordons’ and had also thoughtfully brought her wee book of Burns’ poems!  So we were all set.

The day duly arrived. The house was scrubbed, the food prepared, the table set and we were wearing whatever tartan we could find, which was not much beyond our shirts!  H2 arrived complete with dancing shoes as instructed and the whisky (from Lidl’s but a Highland Malt nonetheless) opened and a toast to Scotland’s Bard duly drunk. Unfortunately there are no pictures of the evening which followed, for the simple reason that we were soon too well oiled to remember to take them! However, I do recall that the video clips were watched and one or two poems read. The food was also excellent and appeared to go down well, including the haggis, which was surprisingly good considering its origins. 

We also danced ‘The Gay Gordons’ after a fashion – Hanneke being more up for it than Hans, which was rather a pity as it is more Sheila’s bag than mine but never mind! Sometime after midnight, the party broke up and was declared a success by one and all. In this context, I will not dwell on Sheila’s hangover the next day except to say that normally she does not drink whisky other than on the top of Scottish mountains. In my humble view, she needs more practice!

It might not have been a traditional Burns Supper but it was great fun.

 

John 

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