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Oot an aboot!

Crete has a dramatic landscape with the close proximity of the sea and the huge mountains.  The weather, too, affects the colours and the movement in the sky and in the sea.  We have experienced torrential rain, high winds and sleet as well as sunshine and showers.  The countryside and the landscape are always looking different and at present there is a lot of snow on the hills.  However if the sun is shining, the sea is a wonderful acquamarine colour and contrasts starkly with the white on the hills.

So it has been a treat to take off in the car and look at the landscape and the historical sites. Last week we went to a small village called Xerokambos on the east coast of Crete.  We had been there 20 years ago as a trip from Makrigialos but my only memories were of a beautiful beach where I got nipped by a crab which was very painful.  John remembered that the roads weren’t very good so we were a bit unsure as to whether our car would cope with them.   But the road there was new and while it was very twisty and hilly, it was spectacular in itself.  It was like scalextric.  

I think the road must have been built to support a military base because there were certainly few signs of human habitation.  We passed a deserted village and it was beautiful, yet sad.  The light on the village was lovely but there was no-one living there. 

The beach at Xerokambos was as beautiful as I remembered it but I didn’t try the sea this time.  Just a bit cold and that crab might still be there waiting for me!

On Sunday our friends Hans and Haneke took us into the mountains for Sunday lunch.  As we passed through Ierepatra it was a wonderful sight to see the snow on the Dikti mountains and the turquoise Libyan sea sparkling in the sun on our left.  Such a contrast in the same picture postcard. 

We drove first to Mirthos, a village about 10 miles away on the coast.  I liked it a lot.  I love our house here and the beach and our view but the village where we live is spread out and there is no real centre to it.  This small village was more compact and prettier.  It had felt the wind the night before because some of the beach had deposited itself on the walkway.  We then drove onto Ano Simi, a beautiful, tiny, inhabited village with two small churches and walked to a waterfall which showed that there has been quite a lot of rain in 2012.  

Kato Simi was bigger and there we had Sunday lunch in the middle of the afternoon.  There were huge numbers of people including ourselves enjoying the food.  The goat and the beans were ‘nostimos’ (tasty).

On Tuesday we drove to Heraklion to organise our return ferry tickets.  Then we went to Malia, one of the very busy summer tourist resorts on the north coast where there is also a Minoan Palace.  It cost us 4 Euros to enter the palace and we were surprised when the man who took the money got out some keys and we followed him to the entrance gate.  Apparently we were the first people that day (it was 1pm) to go in and we were lucky it was open.  There was again a fine mountain and sea background.  It was very atmospheric, peaceful and moving. There was a model of what the Palace had looked like, some information and photos of the excavation but the ruins were left much as they were, unlike Knossos. 

We left the sea and travelled up into the mountains to the Lassithi Plateau.  In fact we drove up around 900 metres on a good but windy road. 

The temperature plummeted and on came the drizzle.  John had wanted to see Lassithi for a long time and he was not disappointed.  The flat plain, surrounded by small villages and then mountains, was remarkable.  We drove right round the plain, through the villages and then back down another twisty but fairly new road. You can see that Crete in the winter is not all about warmth and sunshine.

We also had a look at Plaka and Spinalonga and we hope to make the boat journey to Spinalonga soon as it can only be made at weekends in the winter.



A walk in the hills


Earlier in the week, we went up to Ayios Ioannis, which is the largely deserted village above Ferma and had a walk in the hills. It was a sunny afternoon but quite cold and we walked a path leading westwards out of the village up to a church on the watershed where you can look down into the valley which runs north from Ierapetra  to the North Coast.

Hope you like the pictures:





Yesterday, after some days of hesitation, John and I went to the hairdresser.  It is some three months since either of us have had a haircut and it was beginning to be pretty obvious.  We had been recommended a hairdresser; we knew where it was and the hairdresser spoke English.  However we were both a bit nervous.  This was a little outside our comfort zone.  We are used to walking into Salon 40 in Kirkcudbright, two doors from where we live and the hairdressers all know us.  We like the gossip and I know I won’t have to make any decisions as Pat just cuts the hair and makes it tidier.  John likes his hair to look the same when he leaves the hairdresser as when he goes in.  Pauline can deal with this.  This all might be a bit more difficult in a Cretan salon!

We had a joint appointment for 11 o’clock and there was no-one else there except Gregory, the owner of the salon, a dog and a woman who washed our hair.  We were asked whether we minded the dog being there.  So a conversation about dogs followed and it was clear that communication would be easy.  I was first.  Goodness knows what he was thinking about the state of my hair but he retained a professional manner throughout.  We agreed I wanted the same style but shorter and tidier.  John sat and watched.

The conversation was lively and interesting.  Gregory’s  family are from Ierapetra but he himself was born in Canada.  His grandfather and father were hairdressers and his father moved to Toronto but his wife did not like the winters and they returned to have more family in Crete.  It seemed that Gregory could have moved to London to work but he likes the warmth, the good food and the lifestyle here. That I could understand.

Gregory had a lot to say about the Greek ‘crisis’.  He started by asking if the ‘crisis’ was bad in the UK and then talked about the effect in Greece.  He said the public services workers were particularly affected with huge pay cuts.  His sister, a teacher, has had her salary reduced from 1,200Euros to 800Euros a month which appears to reflect a general 30% pay cut amongst many of the public sectors workers.  There has been huge anger about the pay cuts throughout Greece. His father, who was self employed and had been compulsorily paying into a state pension for years, is now receiving 500Euros less a month for that pension. It is all very bad according to Gregory.

He was more ambivalent about the tax situation.  In the past, the collection of tax was carried out locally by named individuals.  If a person did not pay their tax bill, the individual would offer a bribe to the tax collector and then would be charged a fine which was a lot less than the actual tax bill.  So the tax was never paid. That has now changed and an offficial from Athens is responsible for the collection of the tax and bribery is not an option.  Gregory thought this was good but I think was a little unsure as to whether the new system would work.

He is self employed and says he pays a lot of tax.  He said though that if you followed all the rules and were ‘good’ you would be out of business as you would be paying for all the people who were not paying tax!  He was aggrieved at the farmers who he said led a charmed life.  While he paid VAT, the farmers got their VAT back.

I asked about the unfinished roads.  The new bits of roads which we have seen have all apparently been paid for by the European Union.  Corruption was inherent in the system as the contractors  put in the cheapest asphalt and then got the contract to repair the road.  Now the roads are not being built as the EU money has stopped.

Gregory asked where we were from and said we had good ‘nature’ in Scotland.  He was referring not the national character but the great scenery we have.  I had to agree.  By this time my hair was cut and looked a lot better.  He had said that business was quieter in the ‘crisis’, not that there were less people having their hair cut but people were saving money by cutting back on having their hair styled or coloured.  I didn’t want mine styled or coloured but he didn’t take offence by my mean-ness! 

By this time there were more people in the salon.  It was John’s turn.  He too was asked what he wanted and again Gregory did exactly what he was asked to do.  However, the difference was that, in time honoured fashion John being male, in a hushed voice was told a dirty joke about viagra, breast implants and dementia.!

We then escaped feeling that we had learnt quite a lot and for 35 Euros, had tidier hair.  It was good value but twice as expensive as Kirkcudbright! Good to know that anywhere in the world the hairdressers is a good place for gossip, views and information (and dirty jokes!).

Don’t we look good after the haircuts!!!


The great irrelevance

The other evening, we re-watched a DVD of ‘The English Patient’  – not only a great film but one which vividly portrays the horrors of war. Reflecting on it afterwards, it brought to mind a number of memories from our trip which are, in an odd way, all linked.

Avid readers of our blog (and there are many!) may recall that our very first side trip in continental Europe was a visit to the Dunkirk beaches and the First World War battlefield at Passchendaele, which I described as a sobering experience.

Sometimes, I think it is worth remembering just what these wars meant in terms of ordinary lives cut short or damaged and what how in turn this affected Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century. The subject came up in a roundabout way last week, when Nick and Jude were here and we were having lunch with Hans and Hanneke. All of us were born within ten years of the end of the Second World War and agreed that as ‘the blessed generation’ we have a lot to be grateful for, in that there have been no major wars within our lifetime which have impacted on our wellbeing and we have been able to enjoy the benefits of material and economic wealth which have produced a lifestyle beyond the wildest dreams of our grandparents’ generation. Indeed, the six of us eating pleasant food in a restaurant in Crete overlooking the Libyan Sea, on a beautiful day in the middle of winter was testament to the fact!

The conversation reminded me of something we saw on a visit to to Agios Nikolaos on the previous day. In an upstairs window in the Main Street was a poster (unfortunately I did not take a picture). One half was a picture of German troops in Greece with the dates 1941-45 below and the other was a picture of the EU flag. Both halves had a red cross through them. Not only was it the first indication that there may be a body of opinion in Greece which supports an exit from the EU but if I am interpreting the meaning correctly, it may be also be reflecting an underlying and smouldering resentment against German hegemony in Europe.

Since we have been here, I recall reading a passing comment in the British press in the context of Angela Merkel wielding her handbag at Brussels to the effect that what seemed to be happening was that after failing militarily to dominate Europe in two world wars, Germany was achieiving her objective economically through the mechanism of the EU. Now I don’t necessarily agree with this view but what is clear from opinions expressed to us since we have been away, is that there is a generally held acceptance that Britain seems to be giving up on Europe, just at a time when many Europeans would like us to be more closely involved.

David Cameron’s histrionics prior to Christmas have done nothing to reduce this perception. Indeed, the current preoccupation on the part of the political class in both England and Scotland, with a referendum relating to Scottish independence seems to reflect an increasing engrossment with national self-interest both at home and perhaps if my interpretation of the poster in Ag. Nick is correct, in other parts of Europe too. In my view, those who dabble in these dark areas would do well to remember the lessons of two world wars and the associated curse of nationalism. Like it or not, Britain is part of Europe and right now, Europe needs Britain to be playing a full and active role, not distracted by the great irrelevance of a Scottish Referendum. 


It’s all Greek to me

We had another Greek class last night.  Nicos, our tutor, has a lot going on in his life (he is studying at the university on Rethymno, sings in a band, writes poetry etc) and had postponed the lesson from the previous day.  He is always late.  For a while he agreed to come at 4.30 but would inevitably arrive nearer 5.  When we agreed 5 was a better time  he came at 5.30.  Given that John and I don’t exactly have any appointments in our diary other that Nicos, it is hardly a problem other than that I was brought up on strict punctuality!

We have got a text book, which is all in Greek and a bit daunting.  It had been recommended by Inge who had arranged the tutoring in the first place.  But Nicos has not used this book.  For the first few lessons he has come here with a notebook and  a pen. So we have a notebook and pen too.

In our first lesson he asked us what we wanted to learn and why.   There was no sign of any fixed lesson plan.  He started with letter sounds.   To do this he used specific words which used sounds which are very difficult. They are ghama, chi and thelta.  Chi is like ‘ch’ in ‘loch’ so maybe a bit easier for me but to get the ‘gh’ sound, you have to pretend you are gargling (John has referred to this earlier).  Anyway he deliberately chose words like ‘ghala’ (milk) and ‘ghata’ (cat) and has kept using these words so that we have constantly to repeat this sound when we would really like to avoid it!

Nicos has kept the initial vocabulary very small. He has clearly recognised how bad my memory is and my need for constant repetition!  This has led to us to speaking and writing sentences such as ‘The cat drinks fizzy orange and he drinks milk’ or ‘We are at Sheila and John’s house and we are drinking orange juice’. (Below is an example of John’s notebook).


Not sentences we will probably need in everyday life but it uses vocabulary that involves troublesome sounds and it involves gender, case and singular/plural.  He has always stated that you need to understand how sentences are constructed and learn the rules (this message is said very nicely but firmly, giving no option but to believe this is how it should be done!).  So it is probably best to keep the vocabulary small while you get to grips with all of the above.  Nicos just laughs at the complaints (particularly by John) about the number of ways the Greeks say ‘the’ and all the endings of the nowns which change depending on the case or whether it is plural. 

We have also learnt the importance of the accent and how different a word can sound if the syllable is in a different place.  Nicos has made us aware of the melody of the language and tells us that people will understand the word if you get the accent in the wrong place but you have no doubt that he believes that it is just as important to achieve the correct pronunciation as it is to get the grammar correct.  So while he seems on the surface to be easy going and casual, in fact he is very proud of his language and insists on it being treated with respect. You can’t argue with that, although you might like to.

While John and I have the same lesson, Nicos treats us as individuals.  He identifies specific mistakes or problems you have.  That is a lot easier to do with two people than if he were with a whole class.  It is very nice though. He never puts you down but does insist that you get it right.  He has encouraged us to ask each other simple questions and that is helpful.  We can practice a  few sentences at the house before going public with it in the village! Yesterday I asked the butcher confidently for 4 sausages and I got the accent correct on sausage and the right case.  That felt good.  (I know the picture has 6 sausages but it was taken a couple of weeks ago!)

It also means we can identify grammar problems and ask for clarification at the next lesson.

So while there was no evidence of a lesson plan, Nicos has focussed on the nuts and bolts that you as an English speaker need to progress with the Greek language. The lessons have been fun.  Nicos uses his own personality to make the lessons interesting and lively but he is also quite strict about what is good practice –  all in my view good adult learning practice.  How nice to be the learner!

Yesterday he produced the text book.  Apparently we have learnt enough to move onto the book.  I think that is progress.  John and I have also bought the childrens’ books ‘Jack in the Beanstalk’ and ‘Puss in Boots’.  They are in Greek, in case you think we have really flipped. We have learnt the words ‘Once upon a time’ so far. 


High days, holidays and the onset of the Cretan winter


Last week we drove into Heraklion before dawn to pick up Nick & Jude from the ferry. The traffic seemed to be lighter than usual but we thought nothing of it until they arrived from Piraeus and told us that it was the Feast of the Epiphany and a Greek National Holiday.

Back at Ferma, Hans called to say that there would be a ceremony at the harbour in Ierapetra later in the morning at which a priest would bless a cross which would then be thrown into the sea, whereupon young men would jump in to retrieve it. He who is first to the cross is apparently blessed with good luck at his fishing for the forthcoming year. Believe it if you will but unfortunately for us, although we went, we were too late to see it happen for no one knew the time! However, we did have a pleasant if blustery walk around the harbour.

What all this has to do with the supposed arrival of the three wise men at Bethlehem or the celebration of the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ is beyond me but I suppose serves to differentiate Greek culture from our own which is part of the enjoyment of being here and clearly for the Greeks, is a good excuse for a party, so it must be good (according to Sheila!).

The next day (being January 7) turned out to be my ‘name day’. Apparently, anyone called John (Iannis) and various feminine equivalents are supposed to be treated with special consideration on this day. As both Hans and Hanneke (Joanna) fall into the same category as me, we had something to celebrate and fancy cakes were produced at morning coffee at Symbols Coffee House on the front in Ierapetra (which has become something of a Saturday morning habit) and later in Ferma, chocolates were handed out by Fufu at her Supermarket!

On Nick and Jude’s last full day with us, Hans and Hanneke took us to the Cave of the Dragons taverna which is a few miles along the coast. Goat had been ordered specially the day before and what a meal we had! The goat was wonderful – the best I have ever tasted and the starters, particularly the aubergine and feta baked in a clay ‘boat’, mouthwatering just to recall.

Yesterday we took Nick and Jude back to Heraklion to catch the ferry to Athens and visited the Minoan site at Knossos en route.

It is spectacular, although there was a very cold wind howling in from the sea that eventually drove us into a nearby taverna for a warming lunch! Winter has arrived here with a vengeance – driving rain, cold winds and even snow on the hills.

Still, my resident meteorologist tells me it is to improve by the weekend and that she will be swimming in the sea again soon! Amazing that it was only four days ago that we were all (well all except for Nick) swimming at Vai.


Guest Blog part 2

Our visit to Crete has been greatly enhanced by Christopher Thorne’s book ‘Between the Seas – A quiet walk through Crete’ in which he recounts a remarkable journey he undertook on foot travelling across the island taking in all the highest peaks – over 400 miles in 14 days. We have not done anything as extraordinary but have had a wonderful time visiting Minoan sites and exploring the wild and blustery countryside.  The range of flora and fauna is remarkable – see below for a small selection:

There doesn’t seem to be a growing season with lemons, pomegranates and oranges in abundance in January:

We have had a wonderful time staying with John and Sheila – the blog can only begin to describe the fun, interest and stimulation that they are having spending the winter in Crete.  We think they have taken on some of the characteristics of Cretans – in terms of their warm welcome to travellers and fantastic hospitality. 

But perhaps it is just as well they are planning on coming back to Scotland as there is some evidence to suggest that too long a stay in this idyll could have harmful effects as shown in this photo of a couple which hangs on the kitchen wall of the cottage….