Say it with flowers

Sadly, I have been revisited by the misfiring which struck at Easter 2016 (see).  It has now been sorted and I’m firing on all cylinders again.  But it prevented my return to Greece for Easter this year ….. and then prevented my return early May.  All being well, I hope to get back to Symi early June.  But who knows?  As I have so often quoted from the Book of Proverbs: “A man’s’ mind plans his way but the Lord directs his steps”.

In the meantime, rather than simply sitting on my London Derrière (well, South Wales derrière, I have no connexion whatever with London), I have been keeping as active as possible, albeit struggling to get up and down the garden.

The result is that I have been around for more of the Spring in the UK than usual.  And how bizarre it has been.

Go back to last Autumn and the fabulous colours in the garden.  The ground in my ‘Acer Glade’, planted ready for my decrepit old age, was a mass of colour.

18Autumn12w0211In response to record breaking high temperatures for winter months (peaking in Mid Wales at over 20 degrees for the first time ever in February), daffodils and crocuses put on an early display, overlaying autumn leaves now a uniform, crisp brown.

19UK014w0509Then on 4 April, the morning I was due to drive 200 miles north to see my daughter, I opened the bedroom curtains to the completely unexpected sight of snow.  A few inches and still falling heavily.  Not a huge amount like 1 March last year when The Beast from the East met Storm Emma, depositing 8-foot drifts on the ridge behind the house, or again two weeks later when Spring turned into Winter.  But enough to delay my departure. The irony was that a few days earlier I had taken tender plants over-wintered in the Blue House and conservatory and set them in their summer positions outside.  Pelargoniums and prickly pear cactus covered snow look all wrong.

Tulips, which had made an early start, were capped with snow.

A week later they were basking in warm sunshine.

There was no more snow after that but temperatures fluctuated every few days from shorts-and-sandals weather to back to winter-wear as chill winds caused havoc.  Nevertheless, spring had arrived and plants and wildlife put up with the vagaries.  A collar dove persisted in sitting on her nest while the male brought the occasional twig for the ramshackle construction.  Dutch iris, rescued from my in-laws garden half a century ago still thrives.

May has continued much the same with plants flowering in the garden which I normally miss because by now I’m usually in Greece.  So, here’s a sample of Spring flowers in the garden rather than a Greek island. Wild garlic covered an ever-bigger area.  Aquilegia spreads further every year as I shake the rattling seed-heads around the garden.

…….. and I may even get to harvest some of the fruit before I leave.

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Greece

Unfortunately my planned return to Greece has been delayed because of health issues.  Not sure yet when I’ll be heading back as I’m resisting the urge to go back and become a health tourist again.  The World Health Organisation puts the Greek health service a good few places above the UK which seems to be sinking deeper and deeper into the mire of over-management and inefficiency.  The Greeks sorted out the issue for me at Easter 2016, the NHS came in on the tail end of that 3 months later.  I have no idea why Brexiteers are fixated on stopping health tourists coming to the UK.

Anyway, enough of grumpiness.  “Greece Unpackaged”, my book on independent travelling in Greece, is now on special offer with Amazon for a week.  You can buy it for £0.99 until Saturday 20 April.

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Canadian Rockies: what to do when you’re not skiing

Spring is on its way and I’ll soon be heading for Greece again, but before I get there, a last look back to winter and the Canadian Rockies.

One of the great things about Banff, apart from the skiing, is the opportunity for trekking winter trails and snowshoeing.  I generally avoid skiing at weekends because the slopes are busy with Calgarians who come up to Lake Louise or Sunshine Village for the day.  I don’t want to get in their way when I can enjoy the good snow for the rest of the week.

A forecast of heavy snow on a Friday is a guarantee that half of the one-and-a-quarter million population of Calgary will be on the road for the hour-and-a-half trip well before sunrise, having mysteriously developed some form of ill health overnight and phoned in sick.

When more than 70 cms of snow fell in 36 hours the Trans-Canada Highway must have been nose to tail, the car parks and approach roads blocked by cars desperate to offload their powder-hungry cargoes, the lift-lines snaking hundreds of metres long and the slopes a blur of Olympic wanabees and never-befores.

I’m told it was so.

Me?  I went snowshoeing up the frozen Bow River in snow varying between a foot and unknown depth because my snowshoes kept me floating on the upper layer. No sun, because it was snowing most of time but fabulous because there was obviously no-one ahead of me.  There is something magical about making ‘first tracks’ in virgin snow and I was doing that for over three miles upstream.

Not that there was any sign of a stream until I reached the confluence with Sundance Creek, three miles from where I set off.  There, a thermal spring keeps a narrow channel of water open, meandering from side to side.  I had to cross it at some point.  Back-tracking onto the Bow beyond the holes of open water, I picked out what I considered to be the best crossing point up the Creek.  Too far for a stride even of my long legs.  I had to jump.  Ever tried taking a run-up and jumping in deep snow in snowshoes?  My right heel crashed through the edge of the ice but the crampon-like grips at the front dug in.  I threw my weight forward onto my left foot  ….  and crossed dry and unscathed.

I was well pleased.

It had been tiring walking up the deep snow on the river, lifting feet high at every step. Great to be making fresh tracks but hard work.  So, I decided to return on the Sundance Trail, used by cross-country skiers and snowshoers and so hopefully a little more compacted and less strenuous.

But before that, I sat on the bank of the river, in the snow, and munched on a Kashi bar.  In front of me as I relaxed, was the pyramidal Mount Edith, nearly lost in the swirling snow.

The walk back was certainly less strenuous.  A few people were coming the other way on snowshoes, finding it hard work, trying to look bright and cheerful.  Then, looking nonchalant as another couple approached, I stepped off the trail into thigh-deep snow to explore a photo opportunity presented by an area of open water. One of my many non-appealing traits, I do sometimes, too often, feel and look smug.

Another couple stopped as I looked at the river below marked by only one set of tracks.  “I wonder who that was.”  they said.  “Me!”, I replied, a bit embarrassed by my hubris.  There were no-one else’s tracks on the river all the way back.

As I got back towards Banff, it stopped snowing and the lenticular clouds over Mount Rundle were dramatic. The scale of it reminds you of your insignificance.

Next day, Saturday, I walked the well-trodden path to Bow Falls.  There was less ice on the river than usual but the falls were largely frozen, water tumbling through the snow-covered ice. From there I took the trail along the bank of the Spray River, again fairly well trodden as far as the footbridge across.  Then, continuing up-river I was on virgin snow again but this time on a narrow path between the river on my right and the steep quarried rockface on my left.

A short distance further upstream and an even narrower trail climbs up the steep slope to join the higher level ‘Spray River Loop’, a broad trail flanked by trees and used by cross-country skiers as well as trekkers.  With periodic detours through the trees to the top of the cliff and views down to the river below, I headed back to the Bow Falls.

The car park was now nearly full.  Though in the shade from the low-angled winter sun, scores of people posed for photos with the frozen falls in the background or looking down the valley to the Fairholme Range still gleaming in the sunlight.

Sunday, I opted for an easy start by ambling along the main street, Banff Avenue, to the river bridge, then along the broad path flanked by expensive houses most of us can only dream about, to the new footbridge and back to the hotel.  That was enjoyable but not really enough.  So I went up Tunnel Mountain.

At 1,690metres, about 300 metres and two-and-a-half kilometres above the town, it’s a short but fairly strenuous walk.  A measure of the attitude of locals is that on Sunday afternoons there are scores if not hundreds of people on the trail.  This is an outdoor persons’ town.  All ages, most walking, many with dogs, some running.  In places the path is built up on the downhill side like a Greek kalderimi.  Well used, there is no need for snowshoes but cleats are a definite advantage, especially on the way down.

I sat on the slabs of rock at the top in sunshine, munched a Kashi bar and reminisced about a great three days trekking. Back to skiing on Monday.  Someone has to do it.

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Canadian Rockies: snow, ice and steam

Again, first the festive stuff:  A belated New Year to all.

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I’ve been doing more trekking than usual thanks to a bug which I picked up on the flight and which kept me hotel-bound for a while.  However, unable to just sit around, I went out each day for longer and longer walks on some of the many winter trails, increasingly strenuous as the effects of the bug receded.

A nice easy walk is along the Bow River to the Canoe Basin (deserted now the river is frozen over) and then upstream on Forty Mile Creek on the ‘Fenland Trail’. The Bow is frozen across its whole width at this point but the faster flowing Creek has thinner ice where the two merge, with evidence of at least three people being overconfident and having fallen through.

The Creek still has stretches of open water with many trees fallen across it.  It froze while the level was still high but now it has dropped there are sheets of ice suspended in the air and in the afternoon, when the temperature rises slightly, there are cracking sounds like rifle shots as another section succumbs to gravity under the weight of recent snowfall, followed by an unearthly shuddering sound as the remaining ice readjusts.

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The Bow frozen across its width

 

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Thinner ice at the confluence with Forty Mile Creek with holes where people fell through

Another day, with more energy, I followed Forty Mile Creek and used the footbridge to cross it and turn left to walk on the frozen Vermillion Lakes.  Shallow and with very little movement, the ice is always trustworthy on the lakes but following the unusually warm weather (temperatures up to minus 4) I was suspicious of it at first.

It turned out to be as reliable as usual.  Under cloudless blue sky the views across the flat expanse of white to the mountains were cliché breath-taking. As always, close to the edge of the lake it was important to watch out for open water, for two reasons.  First, near open water is where the ice is thinnest.  Second, because that is where some of the best photo opportunities are.

The open water is from thermal springs which emerge from the mountains and flow into the lake.  As they mix with the cold water their effect is diminished but close to the source they create a unique micro-habitat of both flora and fauna.  On the surrounding vegetation the water vapour freezes in microscopic ice crystals.

The largest area of open water is towards the furthest end of the Second Vermillion Lake.  I found it a number of years ago and at that time there was no sign of anyone having visited. Now there is evidence that a local tourist guide is driving visitors here along the Vermillion Lakes Scenic Drive and escorting them down to the photo opportunity.  Which is pretty dramatic.

Push through vegetation beyond the edge of the lake and there is a large open pond directly fed by a thermal spring.  Steam rises off the surface.  Again, this is a unique habitat and I have seen fish and bird life, though on this visit it was too shy to submit to being photographed.

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Christmas in the Canadian Rockies

First, lets do the festive stuff:  Happy Christmas to all.

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Climate change is having weird effects.  There is no doubt that this is real winter but not as icy or snowy as in the previous eight years. In 2010 temperatures were below minus 20 for the month I was here for the first time.  Nasal hairs developed icicles as we crossed the car park.  Last year heavy snowfall meant deep deposits when we arrived, refreshed regularly.

This year there was heavy snowfall at the beginning of October followed by a partial thaw.  There is certainly nowhere near as much ice on the Bow River as normal.  A friend of ours was going ice-fishing and went through the ice into the water as soon as he stepped onto the river.  No snowshoeing up the river for a while yet.  The ice sheets have been broken up and piled up downstream. A grizzly bear was seen wandering around town in early December, long past its bedtime.

There is enough snow for very good skiing but it could do with refreshing and there is none in prospect.  Sunshine Coast, one of my favourite runs at Sunshine Village, has the tops of small trees poking through the snow.  I didn’t realise there were any trees there.

Walks are good but no need for snowshoes or even cleats.  Tunnel Mountain, Bow River Falls, Spray River Loop.  All very enjoyable

Not as much snow and ice as usual.  Still, who is complaining.

Below a melange of images from the first few days.  (Just showing I know some posh words).  A striking difference in colour from the previous blog post.

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All change

Back from Greece.  Very soon off to the Canadian Rockies.  But before I go, a sample of the brilliant autumn in the UK this year.

As a planner by temperament as well as former profession, about 15 years ago I started preparing for inevitable decrepit old age by planting the bottom end of the quarter-acre, 50-metre long back garden with maple trees.   Now it’s a woodland environment with bluebells and wild garlic in Spring .  But this Autumn it was stunningly colourful.

Here’s a sample.

Next blog post will be dominated by white – high mountains and snow.

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Nisyros:  into the crater

I‘ve often said that Nisyros has some of the most spectacular walking routes that I know in Greece.  Treks around the caldera rim, including the one in the last Nisyros post on Barry’s Ramblings, offer views into the craters in the caldera a thousand feet below. But they are upstaged by getting up close and personal with the craters themselves.

The largest, Stephanos, is the most visited. Some years it is very dramatic with sulphur-encrusted fumaroles puffing out steam and gas as well as cauldrons of bubbling grey, gloopy mud at boiling point.  The crater floor is a crust of varying thinness and integrity.   Each year an area is roughly cordoned off with a single strand of rope to keep visitors away from the parts of the crater floor which it is judged may give way.  At times those brash enough to venture across the cordon have found to their pain and discomfort what the dangers of a semi-dormant/potentially active volcano can be.  One visit I stood too long to compose a photo of a bubbling mud-hole, only to suddenly find that, even though I was well inside the ‘safe‘ area around the perimeter, my sandalled feet were depressing the soft crust and boiling water was overlapping to marinate my toes.  I hopped quickly away.  Lessons learned?  Spend time coming to know what different surface textures mean practically.  Don’t stand still for too long.  Tread softly.  Be prepared to move quickly but lightly.

Viewed from the crater rim, this year Stephanos looked less interesting than previous years.  The cordoned-off area in the centre was very small.  There was little sign of fumarole activity around the edges.  And there were coachloads of visitors crocodiling single-file down the narrow path to the crater floor.

But back to the beginning of this trek. Again, this is not a description of how to find the route but a sample of interesting things to see on the way.  The first part of the trek is Walk 3 on the Greek Islands Walks page of this blog, taking option 3 part way down the first page.  https://barryh2.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/nisyros-walk-3.pdf.

The next stage of the walk is very definitely off-piste and I’m unlikely to include it in Greek Island Walks for reasons of safety. The third stage I may well write up.  The final stage links up with the route in the last blog, joining the track below Stavros monastery.

The island bus, though often free of charge but this year costing €3, deposited the few of us who had travelled up from the harbour to Nikia in the small triangular square at the end of the road.  The kalderimi down to the floor of the caldera begins here so rather than starting the day with a frappé in the square at the top of the village, turn right at the side of the Museum of Volcanology (well worth a visit) to the top of steps heading down to the caldera, the 4- kilometre-long hole in the middle of the island.

The start of the walk is overlooked by the newly built Agios Nektarios church on top of the mountain behind the car park, and by a voracious volcanic beast.

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The mountain behind the car park. Agios Nektarios perched on top with newly improved path up to it on the right of the photo and a spectacular lava plug on the left

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…. zooming in on the lava plug

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… which in reality is a petrified roaring beast.

From the main path which leads to the Agios Ioannis Theologos monastery the craters are clearly visible a thousand feet below.

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The oval Stephanos crater in the centre, the two Polyvotis craters and Alexandros behind.  In the background the highest mountain on the island, Oros Diavatis, the tiny church of Profitis Ilias a white speck on top.

Turning left off the main path, the first part of the kalderimi is well stone-paved.

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The stone-paved kalderimi is cambered to allow cornering at speed.

The kalderimi zig-zags down the side of the caldera.  From one of the hairpin bends the jagged lava outcrop of Parletia is clearly visible.  The crags, a highly defendable location, have long been fortified, including by the Crusaders.  But that’s another trek.  (see for example: https://barrysramblings.com/2017/10/16/nisyros-castles-in-the-air/

However, you can’t ignore the view of another lava monster looking imperiously over the caldera.

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The lava ‘neck’ of Parletia

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…..  zooming in

Further down the zigzagging path is a large rock with holes and recesses blown by escaping gas and softened by weathering. I’m a sucker for weird shaped rocks.

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From one angle the rock looks like the head of an inscrutable alien

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Looked at from the opposite direction it’s a harmless but intriguingly shaped rock with the craters in the background, reminder of where I’m heading

As it reaches the floor of the caldera the path turns onto a dry stream bed, squeezed between the high stone wall of an old agricultural terrace and a 20-foot high boulder

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The path, now a stream-bed squeezed between stone wall and huge boulder

From here the route is diagonally across the caldera floor towards the oasis of the taverna surrounded by large eucalyptus trees.  There is no path to it but myriad potential lines to follow through the desert environment, white ‘soil’ reflecting the heat from nearly-overhead sun, sparse, scraggy vegetation and occasional stunted tree offering no shade.  Keep your eyes fixed on the oasis and salivate at the prospect of ice-cold drinks in the shade.

But it’s worth deviating off the most direct line to climb the rise to look down into the floor of the Stephanos crater.  Visitors the size of ants walk down the steep path to the crater floor and cluster around the unstable area in the centre even though the most interesting sulphur-emitting fumaroles and boiling muds are around the perimeter.

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Looking along the length of the Stephanos crater

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Zooming in on the unstable area in the centre

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…..and on the crocodile of people on the path down

The large area of shade at the taverna lasts throughout the day as the sun moves and so creates a microclimate with a refreshing breeze. But can’t linger long.  It’s a long way back to Mandraki.

It’s gone noon when I leave the oasis. Now I’m into the heat of the day. The route I take most often is to follow the concrete path from here and then join a white-dust track towards the end of the caldera.  But on this occasion I have something different in mind.

The next section of the walk is most definitely off-piste and not at all for the trepid. Instead of visiting the floor of the Stephanos crater I opt to head for the Polyvotis craters.  Behind the taverna is an enclosure where the guy who runs the taverna grows figs and olives, though I don’t know how they survive, let alone fruit, in this aridity.  Facing the enclosure and the colourful flank of the Alexandros crater, there is a path to the left, well-trodden at first.

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The colourful flank of the Alexandros crater

A few of the more adventurous on the bus trips take the short climb on the narrow path, improved since last year when it had been damaged by winter rains, to reach a narrow ridge between the two Polyvotis craters.  This year, no problem and to my mind always very good value for effort.  The smaller of the two craters is more volcanically active and I have always fought shy of trying to climb down into it. The surface is unpredictably unstable and with gases at boiling point hissing out of the sides it’s not worth the risk. The larger, seemingly less active, of the craters is steep sided.  The action is higher up.

I go into the mountains on my own and my guiding principle is to take responsibility for my own actions not to depend on others getting me out of trouble.  Especially with no one else around, climbing down into either of the Polyvotis craters is just too much of a risk.  Though one day, when I’m not so pressed for time, I hope to suss out a route into the larger crater ………  Watch this space but not too closely.

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The narrow ridge between the two Polyvotis craters, colour added to the basic barren white by red and yellow sulphur deposits.

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Looking along the length of the larger of the two Polyvotis craters.  Note especially the narrow cleft centre right in the far distance

I’m heading for the cleft at the far end of the larger crater.  From the ridge between the two, a very narrow path, barely the width of my foot, goes off to the left.  It’s always a bit loose and unstable so care is required.

Then a really fun bit!  Up to the left as you traverse the narrow path, an even narrow, more unstable ‘path’ heads up towards an area of fiercely gassing bright yellow sulphurous fumaroles, gases backlit by the sun.  A photo opportunity not to be missed.  I never have, and I didn’t this time.  It’s different every year.

The ground is very steep, extremely unstable, and very hot.  As always, I’m wearing walking sandals so every footfall has to be carefully assessed.  Walking in boots would arguably be easier but would also be more damaging to the extraordinarily fragile volcanic environment. Even in sandals I couldn’t completely avoid setting the surface in motion.  Camera in hand, I spent about half an hour inching my way around the hissing hot spot.

Eventually and reluctantly I tear myself away and backtrack carefully to the ‘path’ and head for the far end of the crater and the cleft between the mountain at the side of the caldera and the flank of the craters.

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From the far end, looking along the ‘Grand Canyon’ towards the crater

Turning my back on the canyon at the end of Polyvotis crater I head up the narrow cleft.  From here there is no semblance of a path, not even a goat path. No animals venture here. There is nothing for them.  Only mad dogs and Welshman.  Probably not even the mad dogs.

No photos.  They would show only white, yellow and ochre rocks.  And in any case, it’s imperative to concentrate on both route-finding and foot placement.  Many times, it’s the angle of your foot and its position on the rock which ensures security.  Even though outside the crater, there are still a few fumaroles hissing away and washed-out sulphur deposits.

I have never been to the moon, obviously, but I guess its surface could hardly be more desolate, barren and devoid of life.  It’s awe inspiring, a privilege to be here.  Though only a few hundred metres in  a straight line from the hundreds of people at the taverna the sense of isolation is profound.

The ground rises steadily between the mountain which forms the northern rim of the caldera on the right and the outer flank of the Alexandros crater on the left.  Reaching the top of the gully and though now the floor of the caldera is in view, route-finding becomes even more difficult.  Not so much determining where you are aiming for, that’s fairly obvious, but in terms of how to get there safely.

A stream bed cuts across the route it’s necessary to take, if anything even more unstable and unpredictable.  But no major issue. I’ve been this way before.  Continuing with the extreme care necessary so far, the tactic is to aim for a small animal enclosure. Head for the ‘stream-bed’ and a large boulder, then cross to the other side of the gully and climb carefully up the opposite flank.  I work on the premise that If there is human activity out here, there must be some kind of path or track to it from the farm at the southwest corner of the caldera below the Stavros monastery.

It is with relief that this proves to be the case.

It’s a good to reach the arid, white-dust track running from the taverna to the farm.  Even though only for a short distance, it’s relaxing to not have to choose every footfall, just step out and keep the loose grit out of sandals. As it reaches enclosures, the track bends rightward through 90 degrees into a rough farmyard, thankfully with no free-range pigs wandering it on this occasion, and leads to the bottom of an old kalderimi winding tortuously upwards.

At first there is a raised causeway carrying the path up through disused terraces, fallen into disrepair and overhung by trees but easy to follow.  But then the route is lost, winding its way upwards, twisting and turning between rocks, fallen trees, landslips and terraces.  It’s difficult to find but can be picked out by careful observation, aided by the occasional red spot.

This is walking up through history with abandoned houses, threshing circles and sternas, testimony to what must have been a small but significant community.  Amazing that people should have chosen to live here.  A surprising amount of original structures have survived intact despite being on the inside of the caldera of an active volcano, thanks mainly to the stone-built, barrel-arched architecture..

It winds upwards for a kilometre through a narrow valley, much of it in shade which is a welcome relief in the heat of the afternoon, emerging below overhanging cliffs on the bulldozed track on the Mandraki side of Stavros monastery.

From here the route is on the track and paths described in the last Nisyros walk on Barry’s Ramblings and in Walk 6 on the Greek Island Walks page.
https://barryh2.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/nisyros-walk-6.pdf

The steady climb on the track to the col offers no shade at all, no respite from the heat. The shade and ice-cold drink at the crater-side taverna is a fading memory but once at the col, though still in the full glare of the sun, at least it’s downhill from here on.

Fly over the route:  https://www.relive.cc/view/e1188781743

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