Banff, Canada:  ……… and then the hotel burnt down

If I may quote  HMQ speaking on British TV in November 1992, for me and for many others I’m sure, 2016 was an Annus Horribilis, a horrible arse of a year.

Returning to Banff in early February to continue to try to put into practice some of the skiing skills I had been shown in January but not reinforced, I fell heavily and dislocated my shoulder (see).  Visit to hospital, no more skiing, so I opted for the early bath and flew home after only a week. (see)

On the flight home I picked up a virus infection which laid me low.

A visit to the doctor to sign an insurance claim form to recover the considerable medical and travel expenses incurred by the injury led to tests because I visited so infrequently.  When the results came back I was shipped straight to the Emergency Assessment Unit in the local hospital because I was misfiring on two cylinders, a side-effect of the virus infection.

The diagnosis was confirmed and medication prescribed. An echocardiogram scan was recommended but there seemed to be no urgency as I heard nothing about an appointment.

So, after clearing it with the doctor, in April I went to the Greek island of Symi for the summer.  Operating well below par I tried to build up stamina with daily walks.  Until things went badly wrong.

Deciding that I was so below form that I should return home, I booked a flight and walked down to the harbour to book my ferry ticket.   It was a 15 minute walk which took 6 days.

Whisked off to Rhodes hospital by the Hellenic Coastguard, what the much vaunted NHS had failed to treat in the UK was dealt with very efficiently and expeditiously by the Greek health service. I was electrocuted, checked, tested and discharged.  Once again firing on all four cylinders, back on Symi I went wild, took to the mountains, slower than usual but considerably more comfortable than for the couple of months previously.

Months of more scans and tests in the UK, an increase in medication, and it all got more complicated.  The side effect of one of the drugs can be internal haemorrhaging so when signs appeared in the pan it was back to the surgery then off to hospital to swallow a camera to check for the Big C.  Side effect of the other drugs can be damage to the kidneys.  More tests showed that for the first time in my life I had anaemia, so more tests for that.

This is just a quick skate through the trials of the first 10 months of the year.

There were also many sadnesses including the death of a good friend on Symi, and concerns about the health of family and friends.

It all changed the shape of the year completely.  Became a paranoia, almost an anger wrought of frustration.

The planned trip to Banff for Christmas skiing with my daughter and her husband was a beacon on the horizon, an end to the hassle.

Didn’t quite work out.

Flight delays meant we arrived on 18th December rather than 17th after a lot of stress caused by British Airways inaction and an enforced overnight stay in Slough.  Frustrating and disappointing, late-night shopping required for essential items because we didn’t have our hold luggage, not eating until nearly midnight.  But unlike Christian in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, we weren’t yet in the Slough of Despond.  We had our skiing gear in cabin luggage. Result!  The day after we arrived we were out on the ski hill in fresh and falling snow.  Great!!!

However, sadly, there was more shopping in Banff because three of our five bags didn’t arrive until 21st.  More essential items needed.  Receipts carefully kept ready to make a claim from the airlines for additional costs.

When the bags came it was like Christmas as we were reunited with our stuff.  Four days later we had a great Christmas Day, skiing followed by Skype to the family and a meal in the hotel.  Really good.

Then the hotel caught fire.

A relatively early night, ready for an early start to the ski hill next day, just after 2 am came a thunderous banging on the doors along the corridor.  Thinking at first it was youngsters up from Calgary returning to their rooms after partying in the Dancing Sasquatch, at first I ignored it.   But when it continued, became more urgent, I opened the door to an RCMP officer saying that the roof was on fire and to evacuate immediately.   We were on the top floor.  There was a smell of smoke.  RCMP officers, who had spotted the fire from the main street, banging on doors further along the corridor were in a billowing haze.

We left.

Don’t mess with this stuff.  Get out. I grabbed trousers, shirt, sweater, ski jacket, boots …. and opened the door to my daughter’s hammering, afraid I was sleeping though the rumpus.   I have slept through much louder disturbance so a justified concern.

It was right that we got out straight away, ours were 2 of the 10 rooms completely destroyed., the fire raging out of sight in a roof-space directly over our heads. Had the RCMP not spotted the fire and taken immediate action it is likely all three of us would be dead from the smoke.

We evacuated into the car park at below minus 200C.  Some ran out in night attire and bare feet.  One elderly lady refusing to leave, not wanting to be told what to do, was pushed into a wheel chair and carried down the stairs protesting.

No-one was hurt.  Inconvenient.  Uncomfortable.  But all 297 guests were evacuated safely and accounted for.

The strange thing is that the brain processes these things in relation to what has happened in the past.  Sure, I grabbed clothes knowing it was very cold outside but still couldn’t think beyond this being a false alarm.  Years as a Health and Safety officer with regular fire practices meant I knew there were no practises at 2 in the morning.  But I also knew that there were occasional false alarms with someone’s elbow landing in the wrong place.  And Christmas/New Year in Banff is party time with merry inebriates thinking all sorts of nonsense is funny, including setting fire to waste bins and punching fire alarms.

The unquestioned but false assumption was therefore that after an hour or so out in the cold we would all be filing back inside with the perpetrators identified from the alarm point triggered.

On this occasion not so.  From the car park at the back the flames and plume of smoke could be seen clearly and were growing.  This was for real.  A fire engine arrived, then another.  Firemen set up hoses and got up onto the roof.

That’s when it started to sink in.  The past is not always a guide to the present.  Why didn’t I grab my passport?  And my cards and money?  And my phone?  And my computer?  I couldn’t go back now.  The flames were getting huge, licking hungrily 20 feet into the night sky, feeding on the wood and other flammable materials.  The firemen up on the roof pumping hundreds of gallons of water.  We didn’t know at the time but they also removed six 100 pound propane cylinders which had they been compromised would have made things far worse.  The flames were doused but the smoke billowed more.

I lost everything.  All I had was what I stood up in plus my reading glasses which for some reason I picked up subconsciously as I left.  I had a shirt, a sweater, a pair of pants, pair of trousers, socks, boots … and a ski jacket. And my ski season pass attached to my jacket.  That was it.  Nothing else.  We had had our stuff for a week before it was destroyed.

It’s a strange feeling suddenly having nothing.  It numbs the mind which races to try to catch up with the new circumstances.  Tries to work out what has to be done.  Your brain tells you there are millions of others in the world to whom this is happening, made destitute by violence or natural disasters, but being from the privileged world, this doesn’t sink in.

We were evacuated to a temporary emergency centre in the sister hotel to the one we had been staying in.  We dozed leaning on tables in the restaurant. That was when we had the first inkling of the generosity of the community in Banff.  A friend who worked in the hotel due on shift at 06.00 came and searched us out and took us back to her house to spend the rest of the night more comfortably and then fed us breakfast.

Brewster’s, the hotel company, went over and above to provide help and support at a personal level from the president right through to off-duty employees coming in to help out even though they knew that with no hotel they may have no job. Shops, restaurants, bars in the town all offered big discounts as we sought to replace necessary items and went to eat.  There was a very real sense that this is a small community which cares and offers practical help.

The days which followed we spent trying to prioritise replacement of essentials.  First was to replace medication.  I had already had to visit the pharmacy because other than the medication I needed for the trip and the next day everything had been in the misplaced hold luggage.  Now I had to visit a doctor to get a prescription for the rest of the stay.  You pay for medical care in Canada.  The fee for issuing the prescription was reduced by more than 50%.

It has been, and to a diminishing extent still is, a traumatic time but the trauma has been offset by the overwhelming sense of generosity of the community.

I was leaving a shop after buying another bit of ski gear (I lost the lot, except skis stored in an outside locker) when I accidentally bumped into a guy coming in.  I apologised.  He said “Why are you apologising?  Only Canadians do that”.  I replied “I guess I’ve been coming over here long enough to have picked up the politeness”.  He said “We call it the Canadian stand-off:  After you!,  No, no, after you”.

At the end of the day (I do love clichés) what we have lost is just ‘stuff’.  No-one was hurt.  What we have gained are a glimmer of understanding of what it is to have everything stripped away in an instant and life-long friendships.  For us it’s a First World problem.

It will be difficult to recover from the trauma but it will fade.  What will remain will be the memory of the generosity of the people of Banff.


Part of the front of the hotel after the fire


… and that was my room, blue sky showing through the smoke and water smeared windows

Many articles about the fire on the internet, including this one from the local newspaper The Crag and Canyon

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Banff, Canada:  A Rocky white Christmas

A change of scene.  And what a contrast.

After a journey during which British Airways and Air Canada seemed to conspire to cover themselves with ignominy rather than glory we arrived in Banff a day late and minus three of our 5 bags.  But we had made sure we had ski gear in hand luggage and the temperature here in the Canadian Rockies had soared to a toasty minus 15 rather than the minus 35 which it had been for the two weeks before we hit town.

It snowed every day for the week leading up to Christmas, making for good skiing.  Then Christmas Day dawned cloudless, a fabulous day for skiing with the bonus that most folk were wrapping themselves around turkey and pud rather than cruising the slopes.

It’s still 25 December here though not for folk in Europe. So Happy Christmas in retrospect.


The forecast is for blue sky again Boxing Day and then more snow leading up to New Year.  With a season pass there are no restrictions on which days we ski so it’s a matter of picking which days will be busy on the slopes and doing something else rather than dodging the crazies.

Happy New Year in prospect




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Symi:  focus ….. and losing it

I don’t consider myself an adrenalin junkie, though I know some who disagree.  But one thing which I have learned from ‘adrenalin sports’ (white water kayaking, paragliding, climbing ….) is the importance of maintaining focus.  Lose it and there are consequences.  Shoot the rapids, relax mentally, capsize. Once on the Tryweryn in North Wales I lost it and capsized coming to the top of Bala Mill Falls.  Fortunately the adrenalin kicked back in, I rolled up literally on the brink of the falls and managed to paddle back upstream.  It was dubbed by onlookers as ‘The Electric Roll’.  Have a great flight on the paraglider  in difficult conditions, relax as you come in to land … ouch!  Once in the Alps after soaring to several thousand feet I missed a humongously large landing field and landed ignominiously in a chalet garden.  No injury but serious humiliation.

I’m not the only one, it’s a fact well known in outdoor pursuits. After a major personal achievement the adrenaline suckers you into thinking that you are indestructible.  Sadly, some have died.

Though not generally thought of as an adrenaline sport, rambling around the mountains in Greece on your own and in summer heat needs focus, especially if you go ‘off-piste’ as I do most of the time.

I became mindful of the insidious but potentially devastating effect of dehydration after tackling the Four Peaks Challenge in the Lake District in a heat-wave (yes, we used to have them in Grey Britain) when two friends dropped out after 33 miles and with 15 miles and another peak still to go the fourth became delirious and sat down in the middle of nowhere and wouldn’t/couldn’t go on.  So now I always carry lots of water.  Even so, one recent summer on Tilos I developed a urine infection because of dehydration (a fever, dizziness, weakness, disorientation).  Thankfully I turned back before I was too committed to the route.  I have been even more careful about taking on enough water ever since.

Walk a route with which you are familiar and it’s easy to become blasé, and careless.

When I’m on Symi I often spend the cool of the morning tapping away on the keyboard and then give-in to itchy feet and head off for a walk towards midday, trekking into the heat.  One great short route I have sussed out and now do regularly is from my start point in Horio up to the ridge and then a gradual drop down into the harbour at Yialos.  I have found a way to avoid all but a few metres of tarmac.  It’s a very enjoyable route with dramatic views and enough challenge on the tarmac-avoidance bits to add sparkle.

I have walked it often enough to know it well.  Nevertheless, one day it went mildly wrong despite clear portents.

Always bleary-eyed when I wake up I backed carefully down the ladder-steep stairs into the salon, down the few steps into the courtyard and into the kitchen.  Lifting the up-turned washing-up bowl in the kitchen sink before turning on the tap to fill the kettle for my caffeine-fix I found myself looking at a Symi Spider.  Until that point I had regarded them as mythical.  I had had close encounters with tortoises 30 cms plus, lizards nearly as long, various snakes up to 2 metres, but spiders no bigger than in the UK.  This was orders of magnitude bigger.  And very hairy.

My immediate reaction was “Oh! That’s a Caetopelma Aegyptiacum, a Cypriot Grey”.  Well, not really.  My initial reaction was actually: “I can’t run the water for a coffee with that there”.  I didn’t find out the rest of it until afterwards.  Now I know it’s the largest spider native to Europe, a species of tarantula and though its bite can be painful, it’s not fatal.

Between 12 and 15 cms across (5-6 inches) I didn’t fancy picking it up like I do with most spiders.  Instead I got a pint glass and tried to put it over the top of but it was too big.  So I nudged it with the edges of the glass until it retracted its legs over its body and then slid a sheet of paper underneath.  Easy from then on.  First thing was to get the camera.  Next, I carried it outside and let it go on the garden wall at the side of the house.  Finally, I could have my caffeine fix.  It served to focus my mind earlier in the day than normal.


The Symi Spider in my kitchen sink about 6 inches across before I nudged it to get it inside the beer glass

Fairly buzzing I couldn’t settle to write so headed up through the narrow alleys of Horio to the open mountain on an old but reasonably well preserved kalderimi to The Viewpoint. (Symi Walk 1).


Narrow alleys in Horio


leaving the village and rising steeply up rough steps to reach ….


….. The Viewpoint


Looking down to the main harbour from The Viewpoint

I’m always focused when I get to that point, partly with anticipation of the stunning view which never ceases to have the ‘Wow!’ factor, partly because last year I surprised a snake which reacted by striking at my sandalled foot.  It missed as I leapt backwards and then disappeared rapidly down a small hole (the snake disappeared down the hole, not me).  Since then I get my camera out every time I approach The Viewpoint, hoping to renew the acquaintance.   Sadly, yet again there was no sign of it.

The kalderimi continues unmistakeably and enjoyably as described in the first part of Symi Walk 2 to pass Agia Paraskevi on the left.  From the monastery with its shady courtyard, the kalderimi improves, surfaced to facilitate access to a recently renovated house  a couple of hundred metres further uphill, but  which the cynic in me says was funded by the EU on the pretext of being required to facilitate access to the church.


The path is through rugged and in some places aggressively sharp limestone ….


…… but is always very clear with the occasional tree offering shade


…… until it reaches the shade at Agia Paraskevi

Immediately after the house is a dirt path which going off to the right (N 36o 36’ 28.2”  E 27o 49’ 35.8”).  Despite having taken the path many times, on the day I missed it because I wasn’t focused, my mind wandering onto all sorts of other things such as the spider and the snake.  If your mind is wandering, your feet follow, in this case eyes fixated by the well-surfaced kalderimi continuing straight ahead. My subconscious kicked in fairly soon, told me I was off my intended route, and I backtracked thankful that there was no one around but feeling foolish nonetheless.

Though rough, the path is clear as it first goes level and then drops down into a gully before climbing up to rock slabs, another dramatic viewpoint looking straight down the valley to the harbour at Yialos.  The path, increasingly broken up in places, continues unmistakeably up to the tarmac road along the ridge.


turn right onto a narrow dirt path


drop down rightward into a gulley


…. before rising up to rock slabs and another great view


continue on once-well-made kalderimi


reaching the end of the kalderimi at concrete track leading to main tarmac road

Reaching the tarmac road is the start of the next stage of the route, completely different from the rough but clear kalderimia so far.  This is the ‘Tarmac Avoidance’ bit, much more difficult to find, very rough underfoot …. but a lot more fun than the alternative which is to trudge the road for a couple of miles.

From the point where the path reaches the tarmac I go up to the right, first over agricultural mess – bits of timber, fencing etc – past a number of large eucalyptus trees.  Mind suddenly focuses again.  The first of the trees was buzzing loudly.  In full flower it was the focus of the huge numbers of bees brought to the island at this time of year to take advantage of the thyme and the eucalyptus, both much sought-after specialist honeys commanding a premium price on supermarket shelves.  Bees don’t really freak me out but in such large numbers I find them more unnerving than anything else I encounter in the mountains.


turn right and go uphill under eucalyptus trees, no path


Flowering for  only a short time the eucalyptus trees attract thousands of bees in turn


Reaching a high point with views across the narrow channel to Turkey

A brief sit down on the rocks at the top to take in the view and munch on a nut bar, then I headed down over broken ground parallel with the wall and fence trending leftward back towards the tarmac. On reaching the road it’s only a few metres before turning off it again and onto an old but very little used mule track.


Reaching the tarmac, follow it for a few metres


… before turning off over rough ground


…. to reach the start of the mule track marked by paint spots on a telegraph post

A few paint spots confirm the route but do not help finding it.  At first there are the remains of stone markers along the sides, passing stone walls but soon you need to be able to read the ground and see the line of the path.  I have walked it many times but close attention is still required.  Wander away from the line and it is difficult to find again.


The path follows the fence downhill until striking off to the right


Aiming for the wall in the distance marked by a triangle, at first the remains of the old track are fairly obvious


…. but soon there is no alternative to reading the ground


Reaching the wall the onward path is once again clear from trodden ground


…. confirmed by paint spots as the edge of the drop is approached.

On reaching the edge of the steep drop the route starts to zigzag sharply to make the gradient suitable for laden donkeys.  For a short distance the downhill side is marked by rocks but soon it’s a matter of looking out for a line threading through the old terraces where ground which is more compacted by the passage of feet and hooves.


The next target to aim for is the gap in the fence way below (indicated).  Initially the mule track goes off to the left and is clear but soon deteriorates.

I became blasé again.  It wasn’t so much that I lost focus but that I was paying more attention to the line of the path and potential variations to it rather than to my footing.  Result, I trod on a stone which twisted, throwing me off-balance.  I recovered easily but not before banging my shin on a sharp limestone rock jutting out.  Thin skin and anticoagulants meant there was a lot of claret.  Again.  Getting used to the problem by now, a single expletive polluted the air then I just sit down on a rock, took the first aid kit out of my rucksack and started the well rehearsed process of staunching the flow.  This time it was superficial but over a large area releasing lymph as well, so rather than leaving it open to the air, my preferred option, I applied one of the few remaining hydrocolloidal dressings in my pack and make a mental note to restock.

It’s was a relief to reach the gap in the fence and the beginning of the final phase of the route.  Following the wall around to the right the track soon gives way to a faint path and leads around to a small col with a Byzantine stone wine press on the left and an ancient olive press which makes a great place to stop for a banana and a siesta.


Follow the wall around to the right.  Note: there is a way to this point by following the road, shown coming in from the left.


Reaching the large stone slab of the ancient olive press

From here the path back to Yialos, skirting high above the western side of Nimborio Bay, is much clearer and will be described in a future blog.  Indeed, the intention is to write up the whole route to add to Greek Island Walks, though in a different format to those included so far.


The onward route from the olive press is more trodden and therefore much clearer


This is probably the last blog about Greece this year.  Hope you have enjoyed it. I’m off to Canada in a couple of weeks and so will be writing about the Rockies in winter.

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Seven years. Missed no less


Blue sky in the distance


….. but that’s not the focus today



Posted in Grey Britain, Landscape, Mountains, Photography, Pontypool, Reflections, Wales | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Nisyros:  Rock around the volcano

Signs on roads and footpaths around Nisyros point to ‘The Volcano’ in English and in Greek.   Arrive by boat in the harbour and you are offered coach trips to The Volcano.  A bit misleading that because by the time you arrive you are already standing on it.  The whole island is a volcano.  Or more strictly speaking, it’s part of a very much larger volcano which blew its top many years ago when it encompassed what is now Nisyros and the western end of Kos, the sea between being the now submerged caldera.

The ‘remnant’ volcano of Nisyros is classed as potentially active and is still grumbling away.  Thermal springs emerge around the island at places such as Mandraki’s Hochlalos Beach, Avlaki, Palloi and the medical spa at Loutra.   Indeed Hippocrates, he of the oath, sent patients from Kos to the spring in a cave in Palloi, also used by the Romans.

What is referred to as ‘The Volcano’ is the Stephanos crater at the western end of the 3 kilometre-long caldera, adorned by a coach park and taverna, but there are a number of other smaller craters and active hotspots nearby.  The main caldera, Lakki, is the most seismically active but there are a number of smaller apparently dormant calderas including those at Nifios, Kato Laki and two between Siones and Evangelistra.


Zooming in on the Stepanos, Polyvotis and Alexandros craters from near Nikia, 1000 feet above


…. and zooming in still more showing people on the floor of the Stephanos crater ….. it’s big!


Part of the wall of the Stephanos crater

These calderas offer some of the most diverse and spectacular trekking I know, much of it on ancient routeways because the immensely fertile volcanic soils meant the island was once very densely populated.  Old pathways and kalderimia link ancient settlements, habitations, chapels and monasteries.  It’s a great pleasure to revisit old favourites and discover ‘new’ routes.

This year much of my walking focused on the main caldera and the active craters, old pathways going around much of the caldera at a high level with kalderimia zigzagging down to the caldera floor from the villages of Emborios and Nikia, and the monastery of Agios Stavros perched on the rim.

I am a self-confessed ‘vrachophile’, a neologism derived from the Greek βράχος  (vrachos) – a large mass of rock, and φίλος (philos) – friend. Sounds so much less suspect than petrophile, πέτρα (petra) being a stone or small rock.  I don’t go around hugging rock, certainly not when there may be anybody looking or unless I’m climbing, but I’m fascinated by them and do go around photographing them.  Repeatedly.  Obsessively.

This blog is about rocks around the caldera on Nisyros not from a geological or geomorphological perspective but aesthetic, a fascination with shape and texture, imagination running riot.

The whole of the island is made up of volcanic rock varying from famously hard black obsidian to very soft off-white pumice.  Some of the most spectacular features are lava pinnacles, thrust upwards during eruptions and sculpted into fascinating and weird shapes by gases exploding out of them.


A huge pinnacle like a beaked dinosaur towers above the path on the way eastwards from Nikia, touched by early morning sun


The scale is shown by the Blue Rock Thrush perching on the top


Looking back to Nikia, the lava beast seems to be haughtily standing guard over the village


A short distance further and another prehistoric beast tops a crag above the old pathway, Stephanos crater 1000 feet below.


Then the dramatic pinnacles of Parlettia, topped by an ancient fortification still in use during the Crusades.  Another prehistoric beast looks out over the caldera


The access to Parlettia involves a modest rock climb, the crags reinforced by stone walls


Yet another snarling beast watches the access point


At the side of the kalderimi from Nikia to the caldera  a rock like the helmeted head of an alien from science fiction watches Parlettia


….. eying the beast watching the caldera


While near Emborios a giant hound keeps watch


Nowhere is the effect of the gas breaking out of the molten rock more evident than in the 60-foot high lava bubble at the side of the path from Emborios to Evangelistria (scale shown by the person in the bottom right of the photo)


Detail of part of the inside of the bubble

Drop down to the caldera floor from Nikia and turn west towards the Stephanos crater and cross barren desert to reach a ‘hotspot’ with bare rock heavily coloured by sulphur and fumaroles encrusted with needle-like sulphur crystals formed as boiling gases emerge.  The surrounding rock is heated not only by the sun from a cloudless sky but by the underground furnace that is the magma chamber.  It’s too hot and sulphurous to linger long but it draws me back time after time.


As it nears the caldera floor the kalderimi, for most of its way rough stone paved passes through a zone of recent activity and strewn with loose rock encrusted with yellow, white and red sulphur


Looking up one of the small sulphur encrusted gullys


Heading towards a hotspot


Sulphurous gas from a cluster of fumaroles emerging from rock blackened by the heat


The gases from a hotspot near the head of a large gully


Approaching with some circumspection shows delicate and colourful crystal formations


Some are like yawning holes reaching up from the centre of the earth


But don’t put your hand closer than about 30 cms – the gas is near boiling point


Looking down the gully to the main caldera floor, finer material forming a stream bed


The caldera floor near the main crater, true desert


The fissure in the caldera floor opened by seismic activity in 2003 shows the nature of the ‘rock’


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Nisyros:  All in a day’s trek

I have been back to the UK planning to continue the blog about treks on Symi but mundane stuff got in the way.  Now I’m on Nisyros and as always blown away by this place.  Been out in the mountains every day, pushing the limits thanks to an optimistic report from the chief mechanic just before I left who reckons I’m firing on all cylinders, albeit, regrettably, with lots of additives.

I had intended, indeed planned, to write up a great short walk on Symi, but instead I’m writing about a great walk on Nisyros.

What I saw of it, the summer back home was good by UK standards but temperatures on Nisyros, though cool for August, are considerably higher (mid 30’s compared to 18-20oC)  I usually build back up slowly to acclimatise to the heat but decided “sod that for a game of soldiers” and on the first full day went for a challenging trek from the caldera rim, down to and along the caldera floor, then up at the far end 2 ½ miles away and back to the coast at Mandraki.  About 10 miles in all.  If you don’t know, Nisyros is a volcano, nearly circular with a hole in the middle ….. and is classed as ‘active’.

I saw far more that was interesting and dramatic in that one modest trek than on any comparable route that I know.  Anywhere! And as I was trying out a new camera I took lots of photos so this mainly a visual blog.

The trek began with a frappé in the Balcony Taverna cantilevered out over the northern rim of the caldera in the village of Emborios.


From the Balcony Taverna looking along the caldera to the active craters at the far end


Zooming in on the craters, ‘Stephanos’ centre, ‘Polyvotis’ on the right


…. and zooming in even more on one of the many abandoned, and in this case derelict, houses in the caldera

Some of the houses in Emborios have underfloor heating from volcanic vents and the path starts steeply downwards in a narrow alley a few metres from the taverna between some which are being renovated, showing cavernous fissures in the floor and arched subterranean rooms.

The first part of the walk down to The Tarmac is described in Greek Island Walks 4

The rough-paved kalderimi has been generally well maintained but over the winter major soil slips have done a lot of damage in some sections. The path zigzags down between narrow terraces supported by dry-stone walls up to 10 feet high.  Alongside are signs of long-abandoned settlement.


In deep shade at this time in the morning the paved kalderimi winds down past high, narrow stone terraces


Some dwellings are very simple, built up entrances to shallow caves or overhanging rocks


A common sight, carved stone top of a sterna with a stone bowl alongside.

Looking back on the right hand side the massive 60-foot lava bubble on the northern flank of the caldera can be seen through the trees.


Lava bubbles in the cliff face


Zooming in on the largest, right alongside a path and about 60 feet high

As the gradient lessens near the bottom of the kalderimi the old houses are bigger and the architecture more sophisticated, barrel-arch construction having resisted the soon-to-be-very-evident seismic activity.  Doorways may be low but the interiors are 8 feet or more high in the centre. Some are fronted by walled enclosures with gateways.


Stone gateposts at the entrance to the small enclosure in front of two semi-detached houses near the tarmac

The kalderimi reaches the new tarmac road to the taverna at the side of the Stephanos crater but the old route continues straight across onto a raised causeway and then down between stone walls.  Here there are signs of even grander settlement and a larger grouping of ancient houses than anywhere else I have seen apart from the two main villages. In one place there are about 15 dwellings built into the rocks and under terraced fields, completely hidden to view unless you go right up to them even though only a few metres from the tarmac road.  Some have more than one room.

Like the other old houses, elsewhere on Nisyros, these do not show up on the satellite imagery of Google Earth because they are either under fields or roofed with local soil over the stone barrel-arches.  There is even what would become known centuries later and in other places as a street.


Grand entrance to a pair of ‘semis’


The houses


Like so many others, each barrel-arched and earth-floored


Others have rooms off to the side

It becomes clear looking around this settlement that there was a recognition of the superiority of an even older culture.  As I found on Symi, individual pieces from a more sophisticated architecture are incorporated into the construction and more sophisticated artefacts are ‘collected’ even if of no practical use any longer.  A number of these pieces are in houses near to what is undoubtedly a ‘throne’ or Seat of Authority, presumably where the head of the clan lived and presided .


A carved piece of stone incorporated into the entrance to one house


… a large dressed stone in the corner


… with a fragment of a fine white marble vessel inside


Outside the house, a threshing circle


… and the carved top on a sterna, a bowl of black lava more than a metre wide, and another fragment of the same fine white marble vessel


The Seat of Authority carved from a large rock incorporated into a terrace wall

But these houses are not entirely abandoned.  In some colonies of bats have moved in.  More disconcertingly, in one a 6-foot long snakeskin hung from the roof where its previous owner had presumably squeezed between stones to slough it.  Maybe I should check what is slithering above my head in the rooves of these old houses more carefully as I grope my way inside.


Part of a small colony of horseshoe bats


A closer look


They start to become disturbed sensing my presence .. so I leave


Sloughed snakeskin 6 feet long above my head


A closer look

As if that wasn’t enough interest. I continued from this ancient settlement to the southern end of the caldera and the craters.  First stretch is through open woodland, mainly oak, olive and terebinth on a plain otherwise devoid of any other vegetation at this time of year.  Even some of the deep-rooted trees have died.

In a short distance fissures start to appear snaking through the landscape, the result of a significant tremor in 2003 (if I remember correctly).  Some are shallow, others up to 20 feet deep and maybe 50 feet wide.  This was not a place to be when it happened as whole trees fell when the fissures opened and bleached animal bones lie in the bottom..


Looking through the treed but otherwise barren landscape, Emborios on the caldera rim behind


Zooming in on Emborios, the Balcony Taverna on the right.


The damaged houses zoomed in on from The Balcony in Emborios, almost certainly damaged by seismic activity evident in the ground  a few metres further on


Large trees dying in the extreme drought


… some trying to screw themselves out of the ground


At first shallow, the seismic fissures soon become deeper


…. and wider


Standing in the bottom of one of the accessible ones.

Reaching the active craters towards the southern end of the caldera I chose to climb up the narrow path to Polyvotis rather than the larger, Stephanos which attracts most visitors because it’s closer to the coach stop and the taverna.  A narrow neck with an even narrower path separates the two Polyvotis craters which I guess at some point will merge.  This is a strange world of vivid colours, sulphur encrusted steaming fumaroles, deep vertiginous canyons through stratified rock, and the cracked bed of the sulphur-covered crater floor which floods in winter.


The narrow neck between the two Polyvotis craters


One of the groups of sulphur encrusted fumaroles


… doing what fumaroles do – fume


Looking along the length of the main Polyvotis crater


Closer look at the cracked bed of the sulphur-covered floor


Looking down the upper section of the seismic fissure canyon


… and the lower section, maybe 80-100 feet deep

How’s that for interest and variety on a few hours wild walking?

Posted in Greece, Hiking, Landscape, Nature, Photography, Wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Symi:  Rambling around the past

WARNING:  make yourself comfortable and a cup of coffee before starting to read this.

If there is anyone out there hooked on Barry’s Ramblings and having withdrawal symptoms, apologies!  I have had people staying with me most of the time on Symi and have been out trekking in the mountains every day.  Very little time to write.

I haven’t been wandering aimlessly but when I haven’t been introducing people to the many walks on the island, or quaffing the occasional beer, I have been pursuing a pet project – trying to track down old settlements and piece together a pattern.  Scrutinise the Google satellite images, go off-piste, and it is surprising how many there are.  It’s a work in progress but somethings are starting to emerge.

The SKAÏ map of Symi, the best available though with significant omissions, marks ‘archaeological sites’.  Trekking little-used paths and scrutinising the track from my phone overlain on Google Earth a number of others have come to light.  None of these sites can be reached by using marked routes though most can be accessed by locating ancient, very obscure and ‘thin’ paths which I suspect are now only used by goats.

I concentrated on the northernmost part of the island and have indicated seven of these sites on the map below.

In the same way that ancient Celtic Christians hid their churches from pillaging Vikings sailing around the coast of Wales (most notably St David’s Cathedral hidden around a bend in the river and with a low, squat tower) so most of these defensive settlements are located in places hidden from view from the sea once plagued by pirates.  Though none is on a scale approaching the massive construction of the Paleocastro on nearby Nisyros, remnants of outer walls built with large dressed stones were an exciting find.

I can’t begin to put a timescale on any of these locations, I’m not even an amateur archaeologist, just an observer, but I draw a couple of conclusions.  The three sites marked on the SKAÏ map are labelled ‘Classic Period Ruins’, ‘Hellenistic Period Ruins’, and simply ‘Ruins’.  I can neither refute nor confirm any of this …. other than to affirm that they are ruins.  With one possible exception.

Sites A, B and C are clustered around Toli Bay and reached by going off-piste from the track down to Toli Beach.  Sites D, E, F and G on the Kokkinochoma Peninsula are reached by taking the well marked path (not shown on the SKAÏ map) up to the ridge-top Agios Nikolaos Stenou monastery, diverting off that close to the top onto a well-trodden but unmarked  donkey trail and then going off-piste from that.

Symi (north) 2

Sites around Toli Bay

A  Hidden to view from the sea behind a hillock forming a small headland this site is visible from the track recently bulldozed down to Toli Beach – if you know it’s there and look for it.  Built with stone from the immediate locality it blends in with the hillside.  Getting down to the site requires first negotiating the loose rubble pushed over the side by the bulldozing of the track and then picking a way over loose ground through dense oregano and thyme.

Much of the outer walls consist of three or four courses of large dressed blocks each as much as 1½ metres long and about ½ metre high and wide.  The entrance is on the landward side, no entrance directly down to the sea, and the walls were obviously built for purely defensive purposes.  A number of large dressed-stone blocks are scattered about in the surrounding vegetation.


The site seen from the track down to Toli beach


Zooming in


One of the well preserved corners


Large stone gateposts at the entrance to the site


Looking along the remains of the wall at the seaward edge of the site


….. and from the other end


B  The next site is very steeply uphill from the Toli dirt track. Having spotted a faint outline on the satellite image and gone in search of it last year, so knowing roughly where it was, this site can be seen against the skyline from Site A and indeed from part of the Toli track.  With walls built of similarly large blocks but in this case made of limestone it is probable that they would have blended into the craggy backdrop when viewed from the sea and without the advantage of modern optics.

Slightly smaller in area than Site A, with the main entrance also on the side of the enclosure, the inside is cluttered with rocks and smaller dressed stone.  Many large dressed stone blocks lie around the outside of the site showing that the walls must at one time have been much higher.  Scrambling around the inside of the site this year I spotted a large rectangular block with cut slots at each end and a shaped groove on one side which struck a chord with one I found at Site D last year.

A depression towards the back of the site indicates that at one time it may have been used for water storage though with limestone bedrock I guess it would have to have been lined in some way.  It would be interesting to revisit the site in the wet season.


Zooming in on Site B from the walls of Site A


Reaching the site after a steep climb


Well preserved corner, here built with limestone blocks


Looking along the seaward edge of the wall


Standing on top of it looking towards Site A which blends into the hillside


Many large dressed stone blocks scattered nearby


…. and in the centre of the site a very precisely cut stone block


This site is on the headland above Toli Beach and much smaller than the previous two.  The remains of the limestone building and walls again blend into the crags in which they are built.  It looks more like a small homestead rather than a defensive site.  It is reached by means of a well trodden but unmarked path, the start of which is obscured by, as so often on Symi, the thoughtless bulldozing of the track.  Marked on the SKAÏ map as ‘Ruins’ I trekked to it a few years ago but didn’t revisit this year.


Sites on the Kokkinochoma Peninsula

D  Like Site A this is close to sea level and hidden behind a hillock forming a small headland but differs from it in a number of respects.  It is reached by dropping down steeply from the ridge-top path along the peninsula over loose ground through dense thyme but there are thin remnants of an old path which can be picked up lower down the slope and even what may be an old ‘stone-on-a-rock’ route marker.

None of the walls are made from the massive stone blocks characteristic of Sites A and B and so no neat rectangular corners.  Rather they are built of random, undressed stones of varying size and geology.  It is more extensive than any of the other sites with multiple internal walls, a building which was clearly used as a dwelling probably into the 20th Century, possibly within living memory, and a communal bread oven in the centre of the enclosure.  It has two entrances, a ‘backdoor’ at the top giving access inland and a main entrance flanked by large white gateposts leading down to the beach.

There are a number of large white semi-dressed stones built into the random-stone walls at various points but most dramatic is a large, finely shaped rectangular block with the same configuration as that in the centre of Site B, cannibalised from an earlier structure of much greater architectural sophistication.

Some distance away in a stream bed filled with dense oleander and other vegetation is another walled enclosure, still to be investigated but possibly associated with water supply.


The site seen from the ridge-top path along the Kokkinochoma Peninsula


…. and zooming in for a closer look


Reaching the top entrance, ‘back-door’ of the site


The main entrance to the site shows the principal access was via the sea, not inland


The community bread oven on a prominent position in the enclosure


Looking from the bread oven up to the back entrance


Looking up through the main entrance


Walls built of random undressed stones


…. except for one piece cannibalised from earlier more sophisticated architecture


The remains of a dwelling which artefacts show was occupied in ‘modern’ times


The stone-walled enclosure in the streambed


E  From the top of the jagged limestone crags towards the mid-point of the ridge I had spotted what I thought could possibly be the top of another wall of large limestone blocks in a valley dipping away to the east.  Dropping down the donkey path into the col and then left downhill into the small valley, with dense thickets of oleander indicating more water than the surrounding arid mountainside, a very thin but trodden path led towards it.  Disappointingly it turned out to be simply an outcrop of rock.

However, hidden inside the oleander thicket is a tiny spring-fed pond with stone walls hidden from view from the crags above.  Once again low down and close to the sea but completely out of view from it, my guess is that this is another ancient settlement.  The steps leading down to the pond are well polished by feet and hooves though the number of wasps attracted to the fresh water put me off getting too close.

The walls don’t seem to form a defensive enclosure but rather a rampart on the side of the valley which could be defended if it ever attracted any piratical interest.  The construction is of random, undressed stone but a few slightly larger blocks scattered around had been cut and dressed.


From the top of the crag forming the ridge-top and then zooming in, what appeared to be another wall of large blocks … but is just a rock outcrop


The small spring-fed pond hidden in the oleander


The rough stone wall in the foreground is probably simply supporting the terrace behind but the wall in the background may well have been a defensive rampart.


Dressed stones indicate there may have been more sophisticated architecture.


F  The donkey path along the Kokkinochoma ridge drops into and finishes in a col with a small settlement which is still occupied and farmed with many indications of modernisation rather than abandonment.

Completely out of site from the sea it is clearly very old.  To the West the cliffs are virtually unclimbable because they are so loose.  To the East the col could be reached by climbing up the oleander-studded valley from sea-level in days when the sea was the main means of transport and communication.  Now the only access is by foot or donkey along the ridge top from the Agios Nikolaos Stenou monastery.  That the path is still used to transport produce, including honey, is evidence by the well trodden earth, donkey droppings …. and the fact that I have seen an elderly guy with his laden donkey heading down to the beach at Nimborio.

I have checked around walls of the settlement, avoiding being intrusive, but have failed to find any evidence of the ‘Hellenistic Period Ruins’ marked on the SKAÏ map.  It may be that the settlement are the ‘ruins’ in which case they may be the only Hellenistic ruins still occupied and with a photovoltaic power supply.  Certainly there is an atmosphere of antiquity about the enclosures and the buildings.  The extreme edge of Europe.


Looking down from the limestone crags to the settlement in the col


Zooming in on the oldest part of the settlement … and the photovoltaic panels


G  Set into the top of the jagged limestone crags from which E and F are viewed are what could be the oldest structures on Symi.  Into one crag a platform has been built, so basic in its construction that it makes me (in my ignorance) suspect it may be Neolithic.  It is very small, no more than 5 metres at its widest, but large enough to suggest it may be used for defensive purposes to protect a family or community rather than simply a lookout platform.  To get onto the platform requires some exposed scrambling and climbing.

On top of the adjoining crag and slightly higher is a structure which looks like a small cromlech or dolmen, a miniature version of those found throughout Wales and indeed many other parts of the world.   Certainly it is man-made not naturally occurring and if indeed it is a dolmen that would support the Neolithic assumption of the nearby platform.


The construction built into the top of the crag


On top of the platform


The dolmen-like structure seen from the direction of the platform


…. and from another angle.


Still a lot more wild rambling and investigating to do.

Posted in Greece, Hiking, History, Landscape, Mountains, Photography, Wales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments