Greece, Symi:  …… and now for something a little different

I don’t often go on the ‘Round-the-island’ boat trip but occasionally I do when I have visitors staying. Like recently.  There are a number of excellent reasons for doing it:

1  It’s a good way to see the island

2  It’s relaxing for tired muscles after trailing around the mountains for a week

3  It’s a very good way to keep cool, not only because of the breeze on the boat but because it stops  at five points for a swim

4  There is a very good barbeque on the beach at the tiny Sesklia Island to the south

The reason I don’t do it more often is that I prefer to be walking through the world rather than watching it pass by me with limited opportunity to side-track to look at things.  I prefer more activity, more interaction with my environment. Sitting on a boat watching the shoreline pass by is a bit like watching TV.

The best compromise is to choose the day when the boat’s first stop is at the island monastery of Agios Emilianos.  Described on the ‘Greek Island Walks’ page of this blog it’s a walk of between 2 and 3 hours across the island to the west coast (see).  Having checked the evening before and arranged with the captain to be picked up at Emilianos, we knew we needed to be there by 11.30 when it left for the second swimming stop.  We allowed 3 hours and took 2½.

With the prospect of an hour to kill on the beach at Sesklia while the barbeque was being prepared, I decided to use it to walk into the interior and visit the castle there.

‘The Interior’ sounds very grand for such a small island but it is surprising how different it is from what you see sailing around the coast.   I last went to Sesklia more than 10 years ago and had no idea how much it had changed.  The short stretch of concrete road from the jetty to St Paul’s church had been extended.  What I remembered as a dirt track running westwards from there is now good quality concrete.

At the point where it turned sharply north to go around the back of the hill up to the large farm buildings on the top, I turned off and walked up through old stone terraces to the castle.  The walk along the road was quick and easy but once onto the terraces it was a matter of following sheep tracks winding through aggressive vegetation, much of it long-dead from drought.

There is more left of the walls of the castle than most of the others on Symi, with one corner nearly 3 metres high.  There seemed to be few large ‘ashlar’ blocks lying around so either they have been cannibalised and used in the construction of the nearby farm buildings or, like in other old castles, large blocks were used for the base of the fortification topped by smaller stones.

Only half a mile from the jetty in the bay, it’s an interesting alternative to sitting under the tamarisks at the top of the beach.  A comfortable stroll back in time to join the queue for the barbeque.

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Looking up to the vestiges of the castle walls

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Getting closer and the size of dressed stones as an outer defence become clear.

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This style of construction, with smaller stones and terracotta levelling out large blocks, is more common elsewhere than on Symi

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As in other ancient constructions on Symi, there seems to be one large, carefully cut block with a channel in it

 

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Looking along the wall facing the farm building below.

  

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The central plain on Sesklia island probably has more flat, carefully farmed land than the whole of Symi

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Greece, Symi:  The smell of herbs and The Flood

OK, so I’m posting a lot fewer blogs these days.  Cynics are probably sniggering that old-age is catching up on me and I’m spending the days ‘reminiscing’ in tavernas.  Nowhere near the mark.

True, I have less energy and take longer to recover but in six weeks the least walking I have done in a day is 12 kms and that includes two days hopping between islands and waiting around for ferries.  The least height ascended in a day has been 450 feet on the days waiting for ferries.  A couple of days have been more than 25 kms and 2,500 feet.  This is seven days a week for six weeks. Mostly it has been in temperatures ranging between 30 and 35 degrees Celsius in the shade but towards the end of the period it was pushing 40.

So, not guilty of idling my time away.  Just not getting down to writing much.  I’ll be on Symi for much of the summer though with trips back home to see family and friends and sort my vegetable garden. There will also be another visit to Nisyros and hopefully to see friends on Kalymnos.

This is always, of course, God permitting.  The last decade and a half I have been more and more aware that, in the words of the book of Proverbs, “ A man’s mind plans hi s way but the Lord directs his steps”.  I make plans and then completely unexpectedly, left-field, something happens which takes me in another direction

What finally triggered me to post another blog was walking to the mountain-top monastery of Stavros Polemou on Symi (see Walk 1 and Walk 4) and the next day to Agios Vasilios, a monastery teetering on the top of cliffs above the sea, and to Lapathos, a secluded beach on the west side of the island (Walk 1 and Walk 2).   Great walks and great places.

What struck me both days was the strong, almost overpowering, smell of herbs.  On Symi whole mountainsides are covered in oregano or sage or thyme, often though not always only one of the three depending on geology/soil-type.  Most of the flowering plants in my last couple of blog posts are now dry and shrivelled up, crisped brown leaves.  Thistles are coming into their own but the dominant impact is the herbs.

My favourite herb, oregano has now finishing flowering, the massed heads of white flowers turned to seeds, the swarms of bees having done their job.  The plants are looking drab and tired rather than fresh-green but are beginning to show signs of new growth so will soon be ready to pick and dry again for flavouring my meals.

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Massed white flowers turned to seed heads

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…. with new growth sprouting on some plants

The bees have moved on to the thyme, lower-growing with vivid purple cushions.  Walking along the narrow paths through the plants is a bit nerve racking with bees constantly buzzing around your ankles which brush the flowers at every step.  Mostly they just get on with the job and only regard you as a threat if you get too close to the hives.  One day I did and was stung for my lack of attention.

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In places the thyme is dense and close-packed, crowding the path.  Too risky to stop in such places because of the zillions of bees.  Here they are further apart.

In contrast to the dark-green foliage of thyme, in the heat of day the silver/green leaves of sage are curled up tight to reduce the surface area presented to the scorching sun, showing the silvery underside, a typical way plants adapt to extreme heat and aridity.  Not yet in flower, sage is the dominant smell at the moment, perfect for picking and drying.  Because of the heat-stress, the flavour is much more intense than the sage I grow in my garden in the UK.

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Sage, curling leaves combat the heat and aridity and intensify the flavour.

The ever-present, almost overpowering, smell of herbs on Symi mountainsides has to be experienced to be appreciated.

 

If you are coming to Symi or Nisyros, don’t forget to check out the walking guides on the ‘Greek Island Walks’ page of this blog. I must admit to not having updated them as intended but even had I done so, the amendments could not have taken account of the dramatic changes which have happened on Symi.  The exceptionally severe storm of November 2017 led to the Greek Government declaring a state of emergency on the island.  The army was sent in to help sort out the devastation and the damage in the harbour area has now been largely cleared.  Most visitors will see no sign of what happened.

In the mountains it’s a different story.  Footpaths and kalderimia have been damaged, especially where they cross gullys.   However, don’t believe what some travel reps are telling clients – all the paths I have checked out have been passable.  More care is needed but none has been blocked.  Perhaps the one which will impact most is the paved kalderimi past Ag Paraskevi  ( Walk 2 and Walk 4 ).  The church courtyard is filled with mud (now dried), rubble and a broken-down digger sent to clear it.  The path for 100 metres after that is badly damaged.  But it’s perfectly passable.  I walk that way three or four times a week.

Don’t forget, especially if you are an ‘independent traveller’ to take a look at my book now in Amazon’s Kindle Store.  ‘Greece unpackaged: Travels in a foreign language’.

 

Front Coverx

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Greece:  Nisyros spring

As intended, after my earlier-than-planned visit to Symi I returned home to resume sorting out my vegetable and fruit garden ready to leave for the summer, a task helped by four days of unusually warm and sunny weather.  Having planted cabbages and sprouts, sown parsnips, pruned apple trees (an autumn task), tied in raspberry canes (another autumn task), and countless other garden-based activities, I headed back to Greece, glad to escape the return to the all-pervading grey and wet which had descended on the UK again.

I arrived on the volcano island that is Nisyros for late spring.

In the distant past it was one of the most fertile and productive agricultural centres in the Mediterranean/Aegean, with massive harvests of grain grown on highly fertile volcanic soil.  Narrow terraced fields climbing up steep mountainsides didn’t lend themselves to industrial scale farming.  Coupled with reduced rainfall consequent on climate change the population moved out leaving much of the land to become feral.

Early spring and fields are blazing white and yellow with crown daisies but now they are golden brown. Eye-catching crimson of poppies have mostly finished flowering.  Purple spathes of Dragon Arum are now confined to a few tiny specimens behind shady walls

By contrast late spring is characterised by a canvas of ripe wild-cereals, golden coloured and sweet smelling of hay, dotted with a huge variety of colours of smaller flowering plants.

Starting to make an appearance are the many thistles, the last of the plants to flower.

Soon all will be withered and dried up.  But at the moment it’s eye-catching.

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Greece:  Symi spring

Having made the most of the snow in the unusually prolonged winter (the last blog post) my intended trip to Greece and Spring was brought forward by a few weeks. The sudden and unexpected death of a very good friend on Symi meant that I returned to the island weeks earlier than planned in order to attend the funeral. The transition between winter and spring was therefore very rapid.  Snow drifts to spring flowers in a few days.

Sandwiched as it was between UK Easter and Greek Easter meant that in order to get to Symi in time I had no choice but to settle for air fares significantly higher than I usually pay.  The plus side was that I stayed until fares dropped again which gave a week of trekking in mountains unusually green and colourful compared to the parched deserts of high summer.

The colour was both at the micro and macro levels.  Flowers ranged from tiny clusters a few millimeters across to the deep, opulent purple spathes of Dragon Arums two feet long.  If you know where to look there are shy orchids hidden in the other vegetation.

Wildlife was also much in evidence with many lizards and tortoises taking advantage of the cooler temperatures of spring to be out and about during more than the early morning and late evening.

These are just a few images, a montage, of Spring on Symi.  If you only visit the island in the heat of summer, you miss all this.

 

I had to return home to resume sorting out my vegetable and fruit garden ready to leave for the summer, a task helped by four days of unusually warm and sunny weather.  But I’m heading back to Greece very soon and will be glad to escape the return to the all-pervading grey and wet which has descended on the UK again.

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Wales, Brecon Beacons National Park: spring into winter

I promised more images of winter before spring eventually arrives and I headed for Greece.  My intention had been to post more photos of snow in the Canadian Rockies but once again plans were changed by events.

The real effect of global warming is climate change and climate scientists confirm that what we will increasingly see is more frequent and more extreme ‘extreme weather events’.  In the northern latitudes we are also likely to see more grey skies and greater precipitation.

This is the context in which to view what has been happening in the UK recently. It seems bizarre that tabloid mentality has come to regard 1 March as the start of Spring.  Spring is a meteorological not a calendar concept.  The first month of this mistakenly notional ‘Spring’ saw more winter weather than during winter, certainly in my neck of the UK woods.

Following the heavy snowfall which I wrote about in my last-but-one blog post we had another significant snowfall in the middle of March when Easter bunnies and spring flowers were gracing supermarket shelves.

Once again, after clearing a path up the drive, on a couple of days I took my camera for a walk up the mountain.  This time I walked further up the ridge before dropping down to the Goose and Cuckoo, a log fire and warm welcome.  It seemed right to make the most of the snow before heading for Greece and Spring.

 

Talking of Greece don’t forget to take a look at my book now in Amazon’s Kindle Store.  ‘Greece unpackaged: Travels in a foreign language’, available for the world to read.  x

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Greece unpackaged: Travels in a foreign language

My plans for the next post on Barry’s Ramblings have been postponed yet again.

The reason?  I’ve finally got around to sorting out the technology and published my book in Amazon’s Kindle Store.  ‘Greece unpackaged: Travels in a foreign language’ is now available for the world to read.  If it wants to.  Take a look.

Front Cover

More images of winter before  spring eventually arrives and I head for Greece again will follow shortly

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Pontypool, South Wales:  ‘The Beast from the East’ meets Storm Emma

It doesn’t often happen but when it does it’s dramatic.  And fun.

In winter, cold weather comes to the UK from the continental land mass.  It’s a cliché but nonetheless has an element of truth, that the Welsh Mountains are the first high ground west of Siberia.  Dry, cold air builds over Europe and as it crosses the North Sea picks up moisture which falls as snow over Eastern England.  By the time it reaches South East Wales most of the snow has already dropped out and we get a few flakes, rarely amounting to much.  The xenophobia embeded in Brexit this year led to this airmass being dubbed by the mindless media ‘The Beast from the East’.

By contrast, weather coming from the West and South West over the Atlantic is wetter, warmer and often more vigorous.  With the increased influence of climate change and the more frequent and more extreme ‘weather events’ consequent upon it, the Met Office decided to name the increasingly frequently storms in the same way that hurricanes are named in the USA. The reasoning is that giving names somehow makes it more personal, encouraging us to take storms more seriously.  Like hurricanes they are named alphabetically, hence ‘Storm Emma’.

It’s all certainly the stuff of headlines. This was flagged to be the Clash of the Titans, the Beast and Emma.

When occasionally the cold continental airmass pushes west and meets the relatively warm, moist air coming in from the Atlantic the consequence is heavy snowfall where the two collide.

The most notable that I remember in Wales was in 1982 when two days of blizzards brought up to 20 feet of snow and everywhere to a standstill.   Cars were buried in our street.  At the top of the valley, houses were buried and people had to tunnel out of upstairs windows.  Unusually the continental high pressure stood its ground, became a ‘blocking high’.  There was no more snowfall as Atlantic air retreated but temperatures over Wales dropped to minus 20 and below for a week afterwards.

This time, after a brief skirmish The Beast retreated, leaving warm, moist Atlantic air in charge.  Before it did, a couple of feet of snow had fallen, drifting deeper in the strong winds. Panic-stricken shoppers cleared the supermarket shelves of bread. Householders desperately shovelled snow off their drives and onto pavements, blocking footways and even main roads.  Sadly, water mains froze and then burst leaving many homes without water.

It happens so rarely at home that I became excited and went out to play.  Not quite the Rockies but it had to be done.

Having washed but not yet put away winter thermal clothing after the trip to the Canadian Rockies, on three days I togged up and went up the mountain.  Living at the southern tip of the Brecon Beacons National Park means the ridge-top is normally only half an hour away on foot, another hour back home via the supermarket.  This time, in strong wind and drifting snow, it took over four hours each day.  But it was spectacular.

The path along the ridge from The Folly Tower to the Shell Grotto (two eighteenth Century follies) is flanked on both sides by fences and hedges.  It was blocked by drifted snow, in places over 8 feet deep.  At times I had no choice but to leave the path and go into fields on the downwind side.  On two days it snowed heavily the whole time I was out, the drifts continually sculpted into ever larger and stranger shapes.

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Before I could get anywhere near the mountain, I had to negotiate the drifts outside the house.

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At the top of the drive, a small cornice had formed.

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Having negotiated a Range Rover (a toy Land Rover for rich people) stuck in a snow drift and blocking the farm track, I had to negotiate a small drift burying a plank bridge over a ditch and small stream.

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Part way up the flank of the hill and looking back at the blizzard.

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A little further on and disoriented sheep follow each other from nowhere to nowhere.

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Reaching the ridge top and the path between hedges connecting the two follies is blocked by drifts, swirled and rippled by the wind.  The shallowest part of the drift was half way up my thighs.

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Every step now became a struggle but a short distance and venturing into the deep part of the drifts, the Folly Tower comes into view, the gate to the top field almost out of sight under snow.

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Struggling up the drift for a better shot

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Passing the gate and I sink down into the drift to frame the next shot.

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Looking North from the Folly Tower and the field is stripped nearly bare by the strong wind, snow collecting in deep drifts behind the stone wall until it is buried.

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Heading back along the ridge path and the problem of negotiating the gate becomes obvious.

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Then relief, the drifts become shallower at one side of the path.

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…. but not for long.  These hedges are over 6 feet high and the path between them is blocked completely.

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I force a way through a drift into a field on the west side of the hedge-lined path, the drifts still being sculpted by the horizontal snow in the blizzard.

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On the down-wind side, the snow in the field is shallow, the drifts on the left 8 feet high, in places completely burying the hedge.

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… topped by weird sculptured shapes.

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Back on the path, drifts  form  canopies

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…. and cave-like structures.

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Then the path is completely blocked again.  This time there is no choice, it’s the beginning of a ‘sunken-way’, a 5-foot earth bank with 5-foot hedge on top – all buried.

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I take to the field again by climbing up the snow-filled hedge and dropping down the other side., When I eventually slide down the bank and look back up the path, the footprints are in 4 feet of snow.

Wonderful!  Shame that this time the thaw set in on day four as the Beast from the East retreated back into the continent.

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