Icy art

Temperature in Canadian Banff, where I usually am at this time of year, is between a high of minus 20 and 25 in the afternoon.  Not quite so cold in the UK despite dramatic and completely unfounded headlines in some of the less reliable newspapers.  However, an overnight frost produced a work of art on the car bonnet one morning. Helps keep the spirits up in Grey Britain.



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Happy New Year

New Years Day 3 years ago and this was my room on the top floor of the hotel we were staying in in Canadian Banff, sky visible through what had been the ceiling and the roof.  Evacuated at 02.30 into minus 25 degrees Celsius.  Room totally destroyed along with all my stuff.  I had only what I stood up in.

Wishing us all a better start and 2020 vision for the coming year.


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Happy Christmas

For various reasons I’m not going to Canada this winter.  So no new shots of snow covered Rockies.  Hopefully, next winter.  However, given the greyness of Grey Britain at the moment, I can’t help looking back to winter and Christmas in the high mountains of western Canada near Banff.

Happy Christmas and Best wishes.



Minus 30 degrees – a sundog-day at Lake Louise

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Greece, Nisyros: The Island Underground

It’s not surprising that limestone Symi has an underground.  Nor is it surprising that with very little rainfall the caves seem to be all ‘fault-caves’ caused by rock movement along fault lines (see). The result is that they are too small and inaccessible to have any history of use by people or animals.  I know of two exceptions, the ‘Wendy’ Cave, and Skordhalos Cave.  The steeply-inclined Wendy Cave has been used by people only to the extent that rubbish has been thrown into it after nearby church festivals.  The much larger Skordhalos Cave was probably occupied in the distant past by people and animals and archaeological excavation of the floor may well be productive of interesting information.

Consisting entirely of lava, volcanic rock, ash and pumice, by contrast Nisyros has no natural caves save a handful of wave-cut shallow openings and enclosed rock-overhangs.  But it has a vast, fascinating wealth of historical underground living.  The reason?

Initially, thick deposits of consolidated ash and pumice facilitated excavation into steep valley sides for primitive cave-dwellings.  Volcanic soil being extremely fertile the island could, and did, support a very large population, cultivating thousands of narrow terraced fields in many cases stretching to the tops of mountains.  The soil was so valuable that when the original cave was extended these were built underneath the terraces with either cultivation or a threshing circle on the ‘roof’.  In a few instances the original cave was extended several times, some becoming fortified monasteries.  Both Siones and Armas are very good examples of this, with dwellings, accommodation for animals and a church within high enclosing walls with the cave subsequently used for cool storage.

At Nifios, a high level hidden ‘valley’ (really an inactive volcanic caldera), settlement dates back to Dorian times.  A cluster of dwellings are built into the crags with a church at the back.  Part way along the valley is a tiny underground vertical chapel.  It’s accessed by a low entrance hidden under overhanging rocks, a steep flight of stone steps, a central pillar carved from the rock, and an altar.

My guess is that there are thousands of ancient dwellings on Nisyros and possible as many as half of them are at least in part underground.  This year I revisited one which I find particularly fascinating.  With three rooms or chambers, one behind the other going increasingly deeply into the mountainside, it displays a number of characteristic features

The entrance chamber, probably about 4 metres by 3, has the remains of a still for distilling ‘tsiporo’, the local ‘raki’ and ancient amphorae for storage of grain or olive oil.  This room is still used by the local farmer, as evidenced by basic agricultural tools and paraphernalia – and empty plastic water bottles chewed by rats.

Behind that, with tree roots hanging down through the roof, is a larger room about 5 metres by 4.  More amphorae in here together with two ancient wooden hand-ploughs, one tipped with iron. But especially interesting is the tiny niche with an altar finely carved out of black volcanic rock.  I find this niche fascinating, hidden as it is from the eyes of persecutors during Ottoman occupation. The edges of the doorway are painted white, a characteristic of many small mountain churches. Inside is a cornucopia of carved stones stacked on the sides rather than part of the construction.  At least one is from another time and place, possibly dating back to classical times. It’s an example of the collecting of such pieces, to me implying that they were, probably still are, regarded as talismanic.  There are a number of other examples of such pieces on Nisyros, easily identified because the rock is of a type found nowhere on the island and they are shaped and carved.

Further back again is a stone wall with a low entrance into a large cave. The floor is rough-dug and sloping up towards the back, the roof is curved, low at the edges with many tree roots reaching down in search of moisture but finding none.  The whole inside of this place is powder-dry.  Not a place for arachnophobes.

I’m giving no indication as to where this place is. No video of the route I took.  No photo of the outside so it can’t be identified if you chance to walk past.  If it was in the UK it would be a folk museum.  Thankfully, here it’s probably regarded as just old farm junk.  Unless someone decides to take Angela Merkel’s advice and sell-off yet another piece of Greek history.  Sadly, that has already happened on Nisyros with the remains of the castle at Emborios being redeveloped by rich incomers, obliterating what was left of the original.  Apparently, the same fate is now befalling the fortified monastery of Siones where the 17th century frescoes in the church have been hacked off.

I plan to revisit this house again and do a better job of recording what’s there.

But here’s a taste of what it’s like inside.




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10 years. Still waiting for the sunshine




Check the route


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Greece, Symi: The satisfaction of discovering. And undiscovering

After a brief sojourn on Nisyros, back to Symi, revisiting familiar and looking for new places.  There is great satisfaction in discovering new places.  But that’s ‘discovering’ in the sense that Columbus discovered America.  It was already there, complete with people, who Canadians call the ‘First Nation’.  America was also already ‘discovered’ by the Vikings.  And over the centuries the Inuit sometimes got blown off-course in their sea kayaks and ended up a lot further south than they planned.

So, just like Columbus, it is patently obvious that I didn’t ‘discover’ anywhere on Symi.  The best I can claim is that I rediscovered them, though even that may be gilding the lily because the local farmer knows they are there and periodically visit.  Empty cartridge cases also show that hunters regularly go (in the hunting season obviously) to off-piste parts of the island no-one else visits.

This is about a trek I do, partly on established paths and kalderimia, partly off-piste to rediscovered places.

Set out through the winding alleys of Horio and out of the village onto the kalderimi leading up to ‘The Viewpoint’ Walk 1 of Greek Island Walks. After stopping to take in the stunning view down to the main harbour and over Pedi Bay, continue upwards on the kalderimi towards the tiny church of Agia Paraskevi (Photograph 4 of Walk 2).  Now that the damage of the November 2017 flood has been repaired, the church is open once again.  Take a moment to pop in and look at the icons of the eponymous saint, she who plucked out her eyes because her great beauty got in the way of her devotion to God so she disfigured herself.

A short distance after the church is a ‘new’ house on the left.  From here, the old kalderimi has been bulldozed and paved to provide vehicular access.  After a few yards a dirt path goes off to the right, winding attractively if somewhat unevenly up to the tarmac road above the army base.

There are a couple of ways onwards from here depending on how much tarmac you want to walk, but those options are for another blog and maybe a route on Greek Island Walks.  The route I follow (see the Relive video) avoids the tarmac for all except about 20 yards but is very rough and difficult to identify, especially after the flood. It winds its way down to an ancient stone olive press at GPS coordinate N36:36:57.3732, E27:48:38.4946.



A path leads via the top of the Nimborios gorge and then rises to the church of Agios Dimitris where all the options meet.  Take a break here, it’s the last shade you will get for the rest of the trek.

From Ag. Dimitris the looping bends in the bulldozed track can be cut, joining the remains of the path down to Toli beach, before re-joining the track at a much lower level.

To this point It has been fairly tiring because of the terrain and the distance covered, especially in the heat of the day, but here is where the interesting stuff begins.  If you hire a vehicle you can drive this far.  You will have missed an interesting walk but conserved energy for the strenuous bit ahead.

Soon after joining the bulldozed track down to the beach there is a bench by a wooden electricity pole at N36:37:15.3552, E27:48:10.7812.  Look carefully down and there is the unmistakeable outline of a large stone construction.  It’s built from the stone of the immediate locality and so unless you look for it, it simply merges into the rock-and-scrub background.  Once spotted, it’s unmistakeable. I spotted it a few years ago having passed it on numerous occasions previously, and scrambled down to check it out.  In that narrow sense, I ‘discovered’ it.


To get to it, it’s necessary to first of all scramble down the loose rubble bulldozed over the edge.  There is the thin remnant of a path just about discernible lower down the slope leading to one of the two entrances to the fortress at N36:37:13.9709, E27:48:04.2211.

The fortress, which I call Kato (Lower) Toli, is 36 metres by 20 metres and constructed of large stone blocks, once higher but now 2 metres high on the up-slope side, 3 metres on the lower side closest to the sea.  The seaward wall is a retaining wall, levelling the site.  It doesn’t command views of the sea because it’s deliberately located behind a small hillock which would have hidden it from view of approaching piratical craft.  The main entrance to the fortification is part way along one of the shorter sides, flanked by large portal-stones, the right-hand side when facing the sea.

It’s a steep climb back up to the track by the bench but an alternative is to take the vestigial path a short distance until it intersects a well-trodden goat path going leftward. This traverses the slope, crossing a shallow dry gully which offers an easier route back to the track, if you prefer rock-scrambling rather than slithering up loose gravelly soil.

Turn downhill on the track again and soon reach a short ‘cul-de-sac’ on the right used for dumping stone.  From here, N36:37:24.7887, E27:48:04.7649, pick a line going steeply up the slope towards the ridge-top.


One of the many lines through the vegetation is an old pathway judging by the terracotta shards on the way up.  Getting closer to the top the pathway becomes clearer and leads directly to another fortification at N36:37:28.4059, E27:48:07.4381.  I ‘discovered’ this one from Google Earth.  Particularly when I go ‘off-piste’, I plot my routes using a tracker on my phone and then look at the line afterwards.  On this occasion I noticed a feature which had straighter lines than was likely to occur naturally off to the side.  Next day I went to check it out and found another fortification.

I call this one Pano (Upper) Toli.  It’s also made from huge blocks of very local stone and so merges into surrounding rock.  Knowing it’s there, it can be seen from a couple of points on the bulldozed track to Toli but at a casual glance it looks to be just a part to the limestone crags high above.

This one is also 36 metres by 20 metres with the main entrance along one of the shorter sides, again the right-hand side when facing the sea.  Coincidence or significant?  The right -hand corner of the fortification is nearly 2 metres high and there are many similarly large blocks nearby so presumably the wall was once a good bit higher.

There are hundreds of terracotta sherds within the site, best I leave all in situ against the faint possibility that at some point it may be examined by trained archaeologists rather than enthusiastic amateurs like me.  It would be interesting to have them ‘aged’.

However, most strikingly within the fortification are two large ‘artefacts’.  One is a very precisely cut stone about a metre long, half a meter wide and 25cms thick.  There is a similar one built into the perimeter wall of a settlement below Agios Nikolaos Stenou near the Kokkinohoma area of the island but that one has a number sprayed on it in red so has obviously been recorded, presumably by or on behalf of the Greek Archaeological Service.  This one is unmarked so presumably not recorded.

I have a theory that such stones were cherished by local communities, regarded as talismanic, a link to the glories of Greece’s Classical or Hellenistic past. I have found collections of them, distinctly different from everything else, in hidden and subterranean locations on Nisyros  I’m sure archaeologists have a more scientific explanation.

The other large artefact I can locate rather more accurately. It’s a fragment of a stone basin carved out of basalt, deriving from Nisyros.  I can be sure of this because there is no such geology on Symi and there are many similar pieces on Nisyros where the rock is found in abundance.  Evidence of inter-island trading.

I moved the basin fragment closer to the large stone to make the ‘collection’ easier to locate.  They are at N36:37:28.4579, E27:48:0.0276.

Continuing beyond the Pano Toli fortification is a hidden valley which has no obvious drainage outlet, unlike normal valleys. Investigation shows it draining into a cave at the lowest point.  There are two areas of flat field within the valley which I guess were formed by channelling floodwater-borne-sediment.  There are signs of an ancient dwelling.

A friend and I plan to explore the cave next year.  It’s a fault-cave, caused by rock movement along a fault line.  With limited amount of water flow there is little likelihood of water erosion passageway.  In all probability, supported by comments from someone who lived in the area as a youngster, and exploration of the ‘Wendy Cave’ with a caving friend in 2014, I suspect that rock-fall has blocked it.   But we have to look.  There are two openings close together, either or neither of which may ‘go’.

The route I took back to Yialos is via this valley and the path around to Agios Nikolaos Stenou, then down onto Nimborio.  It’s shown on the ‘Relive’ video but would tax readers’ tolerance beyond breaking point if I continued this blog post even further.  So, I’ll describe that part of the trek another time.

Watch the video: https://www.relive.cc/view/vPOpWW1WGRv

But before I finish, a brief further word about the conceit of ‘discovering’ places.  As I said in the introduction to this blog, it’s not really discovering because these places were already known.  In the case of the fortifications they were built by people. There are genuine discoveries, most notably by cavers and divers who go where no-one has been before.  I envy them.

But I envy more those few who ’undiscover’ places.  Most notable and, the cause of great envy on my part, is the ‘undiscovery’ of Sandy Island by a team of Australian oceanographers which included a friend of my daughter and her husband.  He actually stayed in our house!!!!!  The island has been shown on admiralty charts for over a century.  It was even shown on Google Earth.  But it doesn’t exist.  Never has.  It’s supposed to be where there is nothing but deep ocean.  It could never have been there.

Undiscovery, now that’s a real achievement.  A challenge for my next visit to Greece.  What can be undicovered on an island with millennia of history ‽‽

However, there may be an opportunity for genuine discovery.  A friend has found the entrance to a large cave.  We plan to go back next year and investigate that as well.  Far more promising! That could be a real discovery.  But not as unique and satisfying as an undiscovery.

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Greece, Nisyros: up close and personal.

There are great walks on many of the Greek islands I know. Symi, Tilos, Kalymnos, Amorgos, Hydra ………   However, I have often said, become a bit boring about it maybe, that the most spectacular walking/trekking I know is on Nisyros.   Despite what a lot of people and websites say, it’s not an island with a volcano. The island IS a volcano.

And you can get up close and personal.

If you are staying on the island, rather than coming in on a day-trip, the early morning (08.00) bus to Nikia, one of the two villages perched on the caldera rim overlooking the still active craters, gives plenty of time to do precisely that, get up close and personal.  If you know where to go.

Brief pause there.  It is a mistake to think that the island has just one crater.  OK, it’s great, more dramatic than most people have ever experienced, to drop down the path from the coach park and walk across the floor of the  huge Stefanos crater, then climb back up and have a drink in the oasis which is the taverna.  The day-trip coaches stop here so it’s an easy win. But there are at least another four craters, a bit more difficult and time consuming to access.

Drop down the old kalderimi from Nikia and as you get closer to the floor of the caldera the smell of sulphur gets stronger.  In some years there are active fumaroles at the side of the path and the sulphur smell is even stronger.  This year it’s wafting from elsewhere.

There are reminders that this is not a Disneyland but a living place.  The earth is breathing.  It has a long history of settlement.  Many old abandoned stone-built houses have survived earthquakes because of their barrel-arch construction.  But there are also many small things.  A wooden gate into a homestead with a simple but very efficient wooden bolt across it. You won’t buy those in B&Q!   A snake skin sloughed as it slithered into the thick stone wall of a long-abandoned house right on the floor of the caldera.  People lived and farmed here into the 20th Century.  Some on the island people still remember as children staying with grandparents in the caldera during the summer.  It’s still farmed now: turkeys, chickens, cattle, pigs all roam free.

Reaching the bottom of the kalderimi from Nikia, turn left (westwards) close to the cliffed side and you are walking across desert.  The western end of the caldera is the most active and the ground is hot not just from the scorching sun but from below.  Sparse vegetation.  An occasional stunted tree.  Shiny white ‘soil’ washed down in winter rains.  It’s another, alien world.

The low-angled morning sun starkly outlines where the ground is breathing out its sulphurous gases.  Need to be careful not to get too close, the ground is hot underfoot even through thick-soled walking-sandals.  I can only cope with the gases for a relatively short time before they make me feel unwell.

Get closer and there are myriad brightly coloured fumaroles.  They look, and indeed are, very delicate with their thousands of bright yellow slivers of sulphur crystals.  Put you hand over the top and you’ll withdraw it pretty quickly.  The gases are painfully hot.  Look inside the black interior: that narrow tube goes a long way down!  You get the feeling that with a powerful enough torch you may be able to look all the way to the centre of the earth.  Well, at least as far as the magma chamber.

Pull back and look at the bigger picture.  The sides of the craters with white and red sulphur as well as yellow.  A canyon cut by a river in winter rains.  Dried and cracked seasonal lake-floor.

I know nowhere else remotely like this.  It holds a pervading fascination.  That’s why I keep coming back.  It changes every year but the impact is still the same. I’m hooked.

TIP  If you haven’t already, click on any image to enlarge it Continue reading

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