Because of the continuing and growing uncertainties of travel during the pandemic, I’m not going to Canada again this winter, stuck in Grey Britain, so harking back to Christmases Past for a greetings photo. This one, taken high-up at the Lake Louise ski area in The Rockies with temperatures around minus 350C freezing every tiny droplet of water in the cloudless sky, shows a spectacular Sun Dog and, striking down to earth, a Sun Pillar.
Hope to make it back to Banff next winter.
In the meantime – Happy Christmas and best wishes for a significantly better New Year.
Back home in Grey Britain now. Warmer than average for this time of year, cloud acting as insulating blanket kept temperatures up through much of November – but spirits down. Mostly between what mountaineers call ‘claggy’ and ‘very claggy’ – grey or dark grey skies. Guess I suffer from SAD. Thankfully there is the occasional day or two of sunshine.
In the summer, before flights to Greece re-started, I harvested fruit from the garden, enough stored in the freezer for the next twelve months and beyond. But little is left now. Beans finished. Pests have ruined winter veg. Caterpillars ravaged brassicas. Weeds inevitably rampant after weeks away. Deepens the gloom.
Need to get on with Autumn clearing which is never the most joyful of tasks.
One bright spot is the crop of tomatoes. Three plants in the Blue House, reached nearly 5 metres to the roof, climbing through the palm tree and the agave, and produced a huge crop, a final 5 kgs of fruit, when I cut them down. Finished now.
Quite different from arid Symi where summer is the dormant period and Autumn marks the beginning of new growth. End of September and beginning of October sees the emergence of life. Not as flamboyant or as prolific as the flora in April and early May, the flowers of early autumn are perhaps more appreciated because they emerge from months of drought and are comparatively scarce.
In a couple of easily bypassed locations, sharply contrasting with the summer-crisped vegetation, is a profusion of pink flowered Autumn Crocuses, (Colchicum Autumnale), one of the plants also known as Naked Ladies because the flowers, up to 10cms across, emerge from parched soil and bare rock ahead of the leaves. They begin to appear at the end of September and multiply rapidly into October.
Less flamboyant, indeed small and insignificant, seemingly shy and retiring (to anthropomorphise), is the Biarum Marmarisense. Again, I know of them only in a couple of small areas in the mountains on Symi. Pale white suffused with pink and only about 6cms high they are easily missed even though close to and even in paths. They are not missed by bees as they are one of the few sources of nectar at this time of year. They don’t begin to appear until the first week of October but as I head home mid-October I don’t know how long they least or when the foliage comes through. One of the places they occur is on a goat-migration route and they are usually grazed-off at soil level.
With cooling temperatures, wildlife which has been keeping out of the scorching sun during much of the day begins to emerge. Gnarly tortoises (Testudo graeca) amble along jerkily even towards midday.
It’s good to look back. And to look forward to Spring. Meanwhile hunkering down and hoping for bright frosty days and a good dump of snow
A week of trekking around Nisyros. So much to see. So many familiar places to revisit. Such a warm welcome from so many people.
What impressed us first when we arrived on a day trip from Tilos in 2001, and continues to impress, is the 3-kilometre-long caldera and its craters. The eastern end, towards the caldera-rim village of Emborios, is an open woodland of oak and turpentine (Pistacea terebinthus) trees, riven by a fissure from seismic activity in 2003, roamed by goats, turkeys and feral pigs. The western end is a dustbowl with a series of sulphur-venting craters. Half-expect the Pale Rider to emerge from the shimmering heat, but more likely to see a lanky Welshman trudging along.
Returning from the crater on the bus on that first trip, we were let loose on the town to spend our hard-earned in the shops and tavernas of Mandraki. Instead, we somehow found our way a short walk from the town up to the Paleocastro, the second WOW factor in a couple of hours. As with the caldera and craters, I revisit every time I’m back on the island. This time, once again, there were new things to see as well as be gob-smacked by the sheer size of the blocks in the stone walls.
But the historical interest is far from being just the immense structure of the Paleocasto. Though the chapel is locked, the small, walled monastery complex of Armas has three cave chambers used for storage with amphorae still in place.
The even smaller walled monastery of Siones, is even more interesting. I had heard reports that it was being turned into a private house with the frescos in the chapel painted-over. Given what happened to the remnants of the castle at Emborios, I found that thought depressing. But not so. The work which has been done has been to protect what is a valuable historical monument. Still open to those wanting to go inside, but with properly fitting doors and bolts to keep out the goats, nothing has been lost. The roof of the chapel has been repaired to protect further damage to the frescos and all that has been painted over is the wall below them. The original cave dwelling and the other rooms built on later are all intact and repaired. Very encouraging to see.
Another fascinating place is the high-level hidden ‘valley’, really a caldera, of Nifios. With settlement history dating back to Dorian times, there is much evidence of antiquity. The ‘Horns of Consecration’ and the cave below. A complex of linked stone houses and a church built into the rocky crags. Nibs for roof timbers in a crag. Underground chamber with a central stone pillar used as a chapel. Terraced fields stretching up the mountainside. …….Frescos
At the far end of the now inactive Nifios caldera, looking straight down into the craters in the main caldera, is a rock where I perch with my camera, hoping the whole thing will blow and I’ll get the Ultimate Shot. Never mind that no-one will see it.
A challenge every time is Oros Diavatis, highest mountain on the island topped by the chapel of Profitis Ilias. It can be climbed by taking a hire-car or scooter to Evangelistria which cuts the climb by half, but to climb it properly should be from sea-level at Mandraki. This time, having reached the top, the challenge was to avoid being blown off by the significantly stronger than usual wind. It was the first time I have been cold on the top of a Greek mountain in summer. Very satisfying trek. Challenge overcome. I think I earned my post-walk pint.
Perhaps one of the simplest but greatest pleasures at the end of September on Nisyros is seeing the Sea Daffodils. Coming to an end but still in evidence. Then returning to Symi in time for the emergence of the Autumn Crocuses and the prospect of the tiny, shy, Biarums. Fabulous.
After three weeks on the Hot Rock, I took advantage of a new ferry service and travelled to Nisyros for a week. I have done this for a number of years but it has been hampered by the fact that there has been a direct link from Symi to Nisyros but not back again, necessitating diverting via Kos. The new service is not only direct both ways but from 15 September, is free. I travelled on the 16th. Yes, that’s right, fare both ways, €0.00.
Nisyros is a volcano and walking is the most dramatic I know. The bus service to the caldera-rim villages has now shifted to term-time hours, leaving the harbour at 08.00 in order to collect kids for school. As I said in my last post, my metabolism is very slow to ease out of overnight sloth, so rather than struggling to catch the bus, I walk from the hotel, leaving about 09.30. This means that distances are longer than I do on Symi. First day I did 18 kilometres, second day 22. And it’s getting hotter again.
Given that the wind has dropped and temperatures are back up in the mid-30s, walking around a volcanic crater requires more care. The usual check for dehydration, monitoring the colour of my pee, is more a case of noting the lack of frequency and downing more and more water. That may be too much information, but it’s all to do with safety in the mountains.
First day I trekked up the path to Evangelistria with its great shade-tree (the reverse of Nisyros Walk 2 on the Greek Island Walks page of this blog), a climb of 250 metres, Then continued up a further 100 metres to Emborios on the caldera rim (the reverse of Walk 1). Ancient agricultural terraces climb to the tops of mountains, now disused because of drought and massive population migration. The path has deteriorated in recent years but is still passable and well worth it to see the awe-inspiring lava bubble rising about 60 feet above.
After a frappe in the Balcony Taverna cantilevered out over the caldera and looking along its length to the active crater at the far end, time to turn round and walk back. Though the much-visited main crater, ’Stefanos’, is nearly 3 kilometres away, it should not be overlooked that the whole island is a volcano. Some of the houses in Emborios have fissures underneath providing ‘underfloor heating’. Whatever the weather, Nisyros is a Hot Spot.
Back in Mandraki, time for cold beer looking across the narrow channel towards the mounds of ‘white gold’ on the island of Yali, pumice from volcanic eruptions being quarried at the rate of up to 1,000,000 tonnes a year and shipped for industrial uses worldwide.
On the Hot Rock for just over two weeks and getting into the swing of things.
Walking in the mountains every day, increasingly long distances, increasingly strenuous, interspersing occasional easier days to allow recovery before the next big hit. My metabolism is very slow to ease out of overnight sloth, so I aim to get going about 09.30 or 10.00.
Walking conditions are extraordinarily good, mostly cloudless, temperatures now dropped to low 30s with a breeze taking the edge off even the mid-day heat. It means that sweating appears to be reduced, skin and T-shirt drying up almost instantly except under the rucksack. It means you don’t realise how much moisture you are losing, and how dehydrated you are becoming. One of the ways the body acclimatises to heat is to reduce the amount of sweating. Another is to reduce the amount of electrolytes in the sweat. But that is by no means certain and you can’t count on it, especially in the short term. So, I’m trying to make sure I drink more water than I have in the past, carrying an insulated sleeve with 1½ litres with a core of ice.
After the unusually high temperatures over several weeks on the island before I came, the vegetation is more than usually parched and crisped. But this is just a continuation of years of rising temperatures and drought. Fig trees from which we picked figs at Gria even 15 years ago are now dead and crumbling into the dust, being finished off by ants or termites. Many trees are looking stressed, leaves on the evergreen holly oaks looking distinctly jaded and off-colour. By contrast, in the old ruins in the Horio, fig trees seem to be thriving, exploring sternas and vothras with their roots, ready supply of water and nutrients.
Places visited so far include Agios Emilianos, Agios Vasilios/Lapathos, Agia Marina, Nimborio Gorge, Agios Nikolas Stenou, Sesklia, and Lapotoniou Castle. The trek up the steep ridge to Panagai Hamon was particularly pleasing, repairing the markers I put in place to indicate the tortuous route a few years ago.
Below is a random selection of images. I’ll try to get down to a more systematic approach soon.
After three failed attempts to return to Symi this year, I have finally made it.
A cancelled flight in May because of the pandemic was followed by another at the beginning and then another at the end of June. I usually fly home at the end of July partly to sort the vegetable garden and partly because August is very hot on The Hot Rock. The exorbitant cost of PCR tests in the UK and the UK Government’s insistence to having them meant a short visit was not an attractive proposition financially. So, I decided to postpone further attempts until the end of August.
I finally made it. Temperatures are mid-30s, a good bit warmer than the 20 degrees before I left, but significantly cooler than the mid-40’s which prevailed for the previous 4 weeks or so. First task is to acclimatise to the heat. Normally I come out end of April or beginning of May and then acclimatise slowly as the heat ramps up. The body undergoes chemical changes to accommodate the heat and it remains to be seen if that change can take place over a shorter rather than longer time-scale.
For now, I’ll be doing shortish walks and avoiding the middle of the day, not usually a problem with early-season starts. Given that the house is 50 metres above the shops, tavernas and restaurants in the village and 150 metres above those in port, there is plenty of exercise just going about normal day-to-day activities. But I did a walk via the ridge-top with a friend yesterday. Fighting over-confidence now.
As an intro, here are a couple of photos of the view from my balcony.
This is the Year of the Ox, to be precise, the Year of the Metal Ox. It began on 12 February and replaced the Year of the Rat. At least for the Chinese. For me, 1 March marked the end of Year of the Parsnip. And the beginning of …….. ?
2020 will be remembered for a lot of things that most of us wish to forget. ‘Normal’ life was suspended, still remains suspended. Much time was spent in solitary confinement. Some were angry at the limitations placed on our lives. There was anger at those who behaved as if restrictions imposed in the best interests of all were for the plebs but not those with the inbuilt superiority of a privileged upbringing, those with a villa in Greece to maintain or an eye test to carry out. There was bereavement and grieving without the usual social mechanisms for easing it. Some, whose mental capacity I cannot begin to comprehend, denied there was a pandemic.
It was a year of no escape from the greyness of Grey Britain sinking inexorably towards the mire of Brexit with the encouraging words of those who made their political careers out of telling lies about Our Golden Future ringing increasingly hollow as the economy sank ever lower.
With all the Big Things in life looking gloomy, it helps to try to push the negative out of our brains by focusing on small things. Confined to home and the local area I had a good year in the garden. I repaired and painted the Blue House, a large greenhouse used as a Mediterranean environment. I harvested enough fruit to eat every day for months and have over 200 portions in the freezer for winter. I didn’t have to buy vegetables for 8 months, gave away pounds of courgettes.
But what was outstanding were the parsnips. The previous summer, not a single one germinated despite a repeat sowing. So, late winter 2020, I sowed parsnip seeds in the cardboard inners of loo rolls, several in each, cut off all except the strongest when they germinated, and then planted them out. Result: the biggest crop of the biggest parsnips I’ve had in 40 years of gardening. I started harvesting them at the end of October. Over half of them were more than a foot long and 4 inches at the shoulder, weighing nearly 1½ pounds (700 gms). Each was enough for at least 4 meals (roasted of course!). Two were enough for 8 helpings of parsnip and ginger soup. I harvested the last two on 1 March, a few surface blemishes but enough for three meals from the shoulder of one and 6 helpings of rib-sticking soup.
Small things of not the slightest significance in global terms but for personal well-being it’s good to focus on the pinpricks of light in the darkness that just might lead out to the sunshine.
In gloomy times it’s also good to have something to look forward to, days of trekking around the mountains in the Greek sunshine. In a fit of optimism, I booked a flight for 2 May. It was cancelled. Still hopeful, I booked another for 8 June. It was cancelled on the grounds that the government announcement of conditions for resumption of foreign travel lacks clarity. The conspiracy theorist in me suggests that the UK Government is set on forcing us to holiday at home to boost the economy. Certainly, a requirement for a Covid test before flying, and again when coming back is a disincentive – given that they cost £120 each, more than the flights. Still hoping but waiting on developments.
So, in the meantime, I draw some small comfort from the emerging of Spring: crocuses, daffodils, tulips, primroses, Purple Sprouting Broccoli (probably my favourite vegetable), and garlic and onions thrusting out of the soil. And the fact that solitary confinement has been eased.
I can now meet up with a friend in the garden again, as last Autumn, warming ourselves on cold April evenings in front of a blazing fire in the cheminierre and chewing the fat.
I’ve written before on the psychology of time, about which I read initially in Thomas Mann’s book ‘The Magic Mountain’ when I was in the 6th form and more recently in Claudia Hammond’s ‘Time Warped’, published 2012, exactly 100 years after Mann started his classic.
Basically, if time as you pass through it seems to drag, when looked back on has flown by, whereas time which goes slowly as you pass through seems to stretch back a long way in retrospect. It’s all to do with interesting things happening – or not. Events which interest or excite us, capture our imagination, act as milestones in the memory. Hammond calls it ‘The Holiday Paradox’.
The effect of the pandemic exemplifies this graphically. Locked-down, seeing no-one, going nowhere, the weeks drag. It seems hardly any time at all since I arrived home from my daughter’s where I spent Christmas. Yet it’s 5 weeks. Five weeks of nothing. Five trips to the supermarket for food. 30 treks to the top of the ridge. 45 evening meals cooked. Sporadic picking vegetables, winter digging, cleaning the house ….. not a lot.
Why haven’t I made any progress on the next book I’m working on? Why haven’t I written to friends – especially those who have been good enough to write to me? Why have I not done any more woodcarving? Made any more clocks? Cut the hedges?
Finally, the light came on. It’s to do with how I’m wired. I have known for a long time that I perform best under pressure. Hard deadlines focus the mind. A report to write by tomorrow morning? No problem! Sometime in the next 3 weeks? Ooops! Now, with time stretching out uninterrupted into the unknown, hazy future – no chance! That’s the effect of lockdown. It’s difficult to break the shackles on a mind torpid from lack of stimulus.
I read a book some time ago whose main thesis was that to be truly content, we have to learn to be happy ‘being’. That’s fine for those who can, I envy them, but I can’t. I have to be ‘doing’. But I can only ‘do’ if there is a goal, a deadline. Since I retired there has not been a problem, my time has been full of activity. Until now. Now, what we can do is severely constrained, especially in winter in Grey Britain..
As well as engendering chronic procrastination, the pandemic has had even greater effect. It has changed horizons. Being confined close to home has meant narrow spatial horizons. When I went to the North of England for Christmas it was as if I was Magellan in fear of sailing off the edge of the flat earth. The sameness of every day has the opposite effect on temporal horizons, pushing them further into the future. The planned trip to Greece in May is far into the future with nothing in between except more of the same grey. May has never seemed so far away in February.
So, when overnight snow was forecast and being a chionophile, I set my alarm for 07.30 and set out up the mountain soon after, knowing the forecast was for rising temperature and sunshine so a rapid thaw. I’ve known ever since the one-and-only time I made the mistake of changing my afternoon run to before-breakfast that my metabolism doesn’t do early starts. It makes me ill. But this would be worth it. It was.
Before I set out, trees in the garden were decked with snow – and grumpy jackdaws.
The air was crystal clear, the initial part of the walk alongside the canal dramatically coloured after days of greyness.
I was under clear blue sky but ahead of me I could see a wall of mist. Looking behind was another which seemed to be pursuing me. As I started the climb towards the ridge-top, I was racing the pincer movement as the two advancing banks of mist met and started rising behind me.
Then it stopped and as I climbed, I was out of it again.
The ridge top was glorious. The snow on the trees had melted by now but there was still a covering of a couple of inches on the ground which hid the morass of mud which the ridge-top path had become with the passage of many feet in weeks of wet weather.
By the time I dropped off the end of the ridge on the way back, the mist had dispersed and the garden was in sun. A milestone day in a weeks of greyness.
There are parts of Symi which are rarely seen but which at one time were hubs of activity. I have long taken an interest on going ‘off-piste’, wandering around away from marked footpaths. In recent years I have taken an interest in the Northwest of the island and find it fascinating. I have put information together in the attached PDF about two derelict fortifications, an agricultural enclosure, and a hidden valley. Because they are near Toli Bay I’ve called it ‘Konda Toli’. The document is a work in progress.
The two fortifications are less than half a kilometre apart, Kato (Lower) Toli close to the sea, Pano (Upper) Toli at the top of the hill. It’s probable that they were built by the same community of people as they are identical in size with the main entrance on the short side to the north. Kato Toli is to some extent hidden behind a small hillock. However, both are difficult to see because they are made of stone from the immediate vicinity so blend in remarkably well. Access is difficult as the ground is loose underfoot and footpaths have all but disappeared through lack of use. Built of large ashlar blocks, some remain in place but others lie around, having fallen or been pushed over. From the amount of fallen dressed masonry it’s not clear how high the walls would have been and it is possible that the large, cut blocks were topped by random stone walls.
The area marked as Louria on the SKAÏ map is a hidden ‘valley’. 280 metres from Pano Toli over very rough ground and XX metres lower, though it is certainly hidden, critically important in some periods of history, it’s not really a valley. The land rises on all sides, so unlike either fluvial or glacial valleys there is no outflow channel for water. My guess is that a seismic tremor caused a localised downwards shift along a fault line. So, instead of a stream bed draining the valley in times of heavy rainfall, there is what can best be described as a geological plug-hole at the lowest point, a cave entrance. The cave is likely a ‘fault’ cave rather than water eroded so may well be blocked by dislodged rocks – but I hope to explore and confirm. Whatever, the valley is certainly well hidden from the sea and so comparatively safe from raiders and has a good-sized area of flat agricultural land.
There may have been little everyday contact between these locations and the final remnant structure, Kato Kokkinhoma, which is a kilometre and a half away over difficult ground and more easily accessed on foot from Nimborio and Agios Nikolaos Stenou or by sea. It is probable that it was inhabited more recently than the other locations, the house having wooden cupboards built into the walls and roof timbers, decaying but still roughly in place. This is reminiscent of houses in Micro Horio on Tilos abandoned in the 1950s. Construction of the walls of random stone rather than dressed ashlar blocks and the enclosure of smaller areas within the perimeter is an indication that it was for agricultural rather than defensive purposes.
As with Kato Toli the principal access would have been by sea, the main entrance being towards the beach. Apart from access by foot to the immediate locality, field terraces and the like, it is probable that movement between settlements was most frequently by sea. For centuries this was the case in Britain, communities having only infrequent contact with each other, focusing on the all-consuming processes of everyday living and in the immediate locality. The sea would have been of primary importance both for communication and trade, but also for fishing, the staple of the economy together with agriculture.
If you haven’t come across what3words it’s a great app for locating places anywhere in the world, identifying 3-metre squares precisely with three random words. Click on any of the links below and it takes you to the location, then click on the Google Earth icon in the bottom right of the screen – and pan in or out from there to see the structures in context. Of particular interest to look out for are the many vestiges of long-abandoned agricultural terraces on the steep hillsides – and the proximity of beaches.