Happy New Year

2017 was not  as eventful for me as 2016, my Annus Horribilis, which included a dislocated shoulder, diagnosis of a heart condition, Easter in a Greek hospital, skin cancer …..  and culminated in an 02.30 evacuation from a hotel fire in Banff and the loss of everything I had.   But it wasn’t great, not least because of the still not successful struggles to get compensation for the losses in the fire.

Looking forward to 2018 it’s perhaps as well that I don’t believe in portents.  One recent morning the sky was streaked vivid red, painting the Monmouthshire-Brecon Canal at the end of the garden.   Only lasted a few minutes but it was very impressive.

2018 will hold whatever it does, it’s in God’s hands not some old wives/sailors/shepherds omen.

So,  happy New Year.

2018 New Year w

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Happy Christmas

Christmas in Grey Britain this year.  Weather unexciting but a couple of weeks ago we had a good fall of snow at home followed by a few days of blue skies and freezing temperatures.

Looking forward to going to Banff and a Rockies Winter in early January.  In the meantime – Happy Christmas.

2017 Christmas w

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Nisyros: beach art

Nisyros has some of the most spectacular scenery and most spectacular treks in the Dodecanese.  But it’s not great for beaches.  If you want a beach holiday, Nisyros is not the island for you.

Not that it doesn’t have beaches, it’s just that they are not the sweeping stretches of golden sand which characterise other islands and there are very few sunbeds and umbrellas.

Though I’m a mountain rather than a beach person I usually pay the odd visit to a beach for a swim and a break from strenuous activity.  This year on Nisyros there was added interest – beach art, or more properly ‘land art’.

Land art, usually made of local natural materials, is often ephemeral, washed away by the tide or blown away by wind.  It’s also often in remote locations so makes it back to an urban audience only in photographs and books.  Typically, it’s not created by artists whose ambition is to make money but by those who reject the commercialisation of creativity and spurn urban living.

After a particularly strenuous few days of trekking on Nisyros in September this year I opted one day for an easier day, following the old route from the caldera rim village of Emborios down the coast near Palloi from where centuries ago local people moved to escape the constant ravages of piracy. With time to spare before the bus back to Mandraki, when I reached the coast I turned west to have a swim at the small beach beyond a great tongue of black lava poking out into the sea.

One access to the beach is through a narrow cleft in the high pumice cliffs.  Turn left onto the thin strip of beach and there is a row of shallow sea-cut caves in a line of weakness rising up the layers of pumice.  These have been the summer hang-out of youngsters for a number of summers since I’ve been coming here, strewn with artefacts of simple living, like any typical teenager’s room.  By September the caves are usually deserted as cooler weather sets in and the new academic year begins.

This year there was a radically more sophisticate dwelling.  Not quite the maisons troglodytes of the Loire Valley but with a well-constructed drystone retaining wall to expand the living space, stocked with rudimentary furniture.

At the edge of the terrace were a number of stones carefully balanced on edge and as I walked further along the foreshore there were others balanced on rocks.  Obviously someone with artistic flare and well-honed skill.

The path up to the top of the lava tongue towards Palloi had deteriorated so badly with slippage of the soft pumice cliff that I decided not to risk it. As I retraced my steps along the beach I passed the guy who obviously lived in the cave on his way back from the supermarket with plastic bags of food.  I said that I liked what he had done, for which he thanked me.  Whether he will stay over the winter, or how the retaining wall will survive winter storms I don’t know.  But it was great to see.


The narrow cleft through the pumice cliff to the beach


Looking along the beginning of the line of shallow caves in the pumice cliffs towards the lava tongue


A little further and the ‘improved’ cave dwelling comes into view part way up the cliff


Looking directly at it, the well-constructed retaining wall topped by living space under an awning


Artwork of balanced stones on the left of the terrace


Couldn’t help making my own contribution down on the beach, though showing less skill or artistry, just a calling card to say “I was here”

A week later, another series of hard walks, an early start so an early finish, and another visit to a beach.  This time north-facing Hochlaki Beach just round the headland from Mandraki underneath the cliff-top Enetikon Crusader castle and the Palecastro.  This is a beach of large black pebbles, a ‘dumping’ beach as sea canoeists would say, very steep in profile with large waves dumping heavily rather than rolling in.  In summer the black pebbles absorb the sun’s heat and are too hot to sit on.

A few days earlier friends had commented on the stone pillars on the beach.  Little did I appreciate how amazing they were.  Turn the corner on the path underneath the overhanging cliff and then look along the length of the beach with small stone columns stretching into the distance.  I didn’t count them but estimate there were well over 100.  Some were just single pebbles standing on end.  Others were several delicately-balanced pebbles high.

The balancing looked so impossible that the temptation was to think that they were glued or pinned.  But not so.  The friends who told me about them said a tripper had taken one apart and found it impossible to put it back together.  I wasn’t about to make the same mistake.

Three things I was sure of.  They were done by the same guy I met at the caves west of Palloi.  They represented many hours of work.  I suspect that they were done just for fun, out of a creative impulse.

The world is a better place for such creativity and love of the environment.

I walked along the beach and around the next small headland and they continued there as well.

I decided that it would be a shame if they had only a very limited audience and were to be lost for ever in the winter storms so I spent the next hour or more grovelling along the beach to try to photograph them.  They were not just impressive individually but comprised a single entity, a large installation occupying the whole length of the beach in the same way as Anthony Gormley’s ‘Another Place’ at Southport in Lancashire. The following photos are a small sample.  I didn’t have the photographic skill to capture the extent and scale of it.

On the further beach there was a different but complementary style of structure.  Hundreds of storm-randomised pebbles had been cleared from one area and a floor of stone slabs laid down.


I have seen far less impressive works of art in galleries, including Tate Modern.  Yet this guy may be an unknown making no money from his art.  If he or someone who knows him sees this blog I hope they get in touch.  Or if there is a gallery exhibition of better quality photos of the installation I would love to know.  A check on the internet indicated that there was a land art project on Nisyros between 11 and 25 September this year but I can find no images of this beach installation – or any other land art.  In fact, despite being there for the duration, I saw no indication that there was a land art project on the island.

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The sunshine has gone



The warm sunshine of the morning has gone.  Now only pale crepuscular rays filter down through thick cloud driven by strong winds


….but today that’s not the focus.  It’s remembering the brightness.


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Nisyros:  castles in the air

Nisyros has some of the most spectacular scenery and most spectacular treks in the Dodecanese.

I first went there in 2001 on a day trip from Tilos.  We only had a few hours on the island but in that time we were hooked.  First we went by coach into the caldera, the 3-kilometre long ‘hole’ in the middle of the near-circular island, and were overawed by the main crater, hissing and steaming, belching sulphur gas which crystallised in small but intricate formations.  Then, taken back to the harbour and let loose on the town to spend our money in the shops and tavernas, we chose instead to go for a walk and somehow found our way up to the Paleocastro (paleo = ancient) on a hill overlooking the town.

We were blown away by the scale of it, not only its extent but the huge size of the stone blocks from which it is built. Added to and extended over the centuries, the earliest part of the fortifications are reckoned to be Mycenaean, dating back to at least the 12th Century BC.  We visited world-famous Mycenae in the Peloponnese the following year and, with the possible exception of the Lion Gate, were underwhelmed by it having been to the Paleocastro on Nisyros.    I head up to the Palecastro at least once every time I visit the island and it never fails to impress.


The extent of the Paleocastro set on the top of a hill above Mandraki


Approaching the main entrance


Looking back through the entrance, nearly 10 feet high, walls well over a metre thick


Huge stones are cut to precise shapes to fit tightly together, no mortar or cement used.


One of the towers built in later centuries to augment the defences


Some of the building blocks collected together to carry on restoration work when funding allows

I think it improbable that it was occupied by the Crusaders who built or re-fortified a number of locations on Nisyros such as the Mycenaen fortress at Stavros.  Two main reasons for thinking this.  First, it is much too big to be defended by the size of force that would have been committed to such a small island with limited strategic value. It seems more likely that it was part of a communication network based on signalling from one island to another, the main fortification being on Rhodes with relatively small forces defending the smaller islands.  Second, the nearby castle of ‘Enetikon’, now partly occupied by the monastery dedicated to the Panagia Spiliani (the Madonna of the Cave), was clearly occupied by Crusaders as evidenced by the escutcheons built into its walls.  Enetikon is a much more appropriate size of defensive site.  The Paleocastro relates in size more to the vast agricultural production from the thousands of terraced fields, supporting and defending a population which must have numbered many thousands.


Enetikon, the Crusader castle set on a rocky crag dominating the main town, Mandraki, now partly occupied by the white-painted monastery.

At the other end of the size scale is the fortress of Parletia.  Once on the main route between fortifications at Nikia and Emborios on the caldera rim, now Parletia can only be reached by a rapidly deteriorating path which becomes more challenging every year.  It’s a trek I do at least once every year but, in contrast to the gentle stroll on a stone-paved kalderimi up the Paleocastro, I would hesitate to take others whose abilities I don’t know to Parletia.

Not only that but to get into the fortification involves modest climbing ability partly on constructed fortification which are increasingly unstable.  Compared to the Paleocastro, Parletia is tiny, built into lave pinnacles with a series of small unconnected stone walls between the natural rock barriers.  More than any other there is a sense of this being a castle in the air.  Standing on the edge looking down to the caldera is breathtaking

I’m not sure what it’s purpose was.  It has no views of the surrounding sea-lanes and so cannot serve as a viewpoint.   It is entirely inward looking, overlooking only the caldera and its rim.   It is in direct line of site of other fortifications at Nikia, Emborios and Stavros all of which have views of the sea approaches as well as the caldera and the mountain passes into it.  But they can all be seen from each other as well so can have direct visual communication with each other without the need for a relay from Parletia.  Maybe its purpose was to defend the routeway.

There is no doubt that it was indeed a fortified site, albeit very limited in extent.  On the east and north sides the crag is virtually unclimbable.  On the west and south sides short sections of wall have been built not to retain soil for agricultural terraces but to augment the natural rock defences.


Looking from the floor of the caldera up to the volcanic plug which is Parletia


Approaching Parletia on the path from Nikia, short sections of stone walls on the flank


The top of the fortification is reached by climbing the rocks and wall


Remains of one of the short sections of wall, not built to retain soil in a terraced field but for defensive purposes


Remains of dressed stone wall on one of the platforms at the top of the fortress


Old dwelling built under a large overhanging lava slab just below the highest point


Establishing beyond doubt the fact that this was an occupied site, the remains of what may be an old altar


…….. and a bowl carved out of lava.  I found part of a similar bowl in a limestone-built fortification on Symi


Guarding the site, a huge lava dragon, Emborios in the background


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Symi:  castles in the air

One of the great things about the smaller Greek islands such as Symi, Nisyros, Tilos, and the smaller villages on the larger islands such as Emborios on Kalymnos, is their peace and tranquillity.  In Greek it’s called ήσυχια.

But it was not always so.

For centuries the islands were plagued by piracy.  The people of the small harbour village of Paloi on Nisyros got so fed up with being raided that they moved up to the crater rim, considering the simmering crater below a safer bet.  An incidental advantage was underfloor heating from volcanic vents.

The Crusades between 1091 and 1295 AD upped the anti big time.  For two centuries the Crusaders successfully defended the Dodecanese islands between Rhodes and Kos from attack.

It’s all very murky and there are many interpretations about what happened and why.  The Knights Templar are now generally considered to be the military arm of the Masons and to have been primarily in pursuit of loot. The Knights Hospitaller, who occupied the Dodecanese islands, seem to have been more about bringing medical aid to pilgrims though they were also a military force.  Medecins sans Frontieres backed by the SAS.

The combined effect of centuries of piracy and warfare left a legacy of fortifications.  Some are extant, like the Paleocastro on Nisyros, the castle above the harbour on Chalki and the fortifications on Rhodes.  Others are mere remnants, some completely obliterated by newer building or lost on abandoned footpaths.

Difficult to work out what went on as layers of culture and settlement sit on top of or replace each other ….. but fascinating to try to piece things together from observation trekking around the mountains.

Last year I wrote about some of the ancient structures on Symi:


Still a lot more to check out and think about.  This blog looks at another two fortifications and a possible third.

The mountain-top monastery and church of Archangelos Michail Kokkimidis can be reached by vehicle but I trekked there via an obscure trail up the steep northern flank of the ridge.  Dramatic location and extraordinarily well-preserved frescoes covering the  interior of the church are good reward for the effort.  I have visited several times in recent years.

But this time I looked behind the obvious.  Having been alerted to the fact by a chapter by Michael Heslop in the book “On the margins of Crusading: the Military Orders, the Papacy and the Christian World”1, I went uphill behind the church to look at the remains of fortifications, part of a Crusader stronghold.

At just short of 600 metres above sea level and perched on the edge of vertical cliffs, the views across much of Symi and across the intervening Aegean to the islands of Rhodes, Tilos and Nisyros would have been a crucial part of the inter-connected lines-of-sight of defensive network.  With remnant walls still over two metres high the fortification would also have been easily defended.


Random-stone walls on top of the cliff behind the church of Archangelos Michail Kokkimidis

Some hundred or more metres below the Kokkimidis fortification another smaller but better preserved fortification stands on a small rocky knoll close to the track.  It doesn’t have the same panoramic vantage point but it’s purpose may well have been very different.

There are a number of beach landing points on Symi but few better than Nanou on the east coast facing what is now Turkey.  With a comparatively easy access up the gorge (for a commando-style invasion force) it would have been a good way up to the ridge at the heart of the island.  The castle occupies a strategic location at the top of that gorge.

One thing has perplexed me about the fortifications on Symi.  The 20-foot high walls of the Paleocastro on Nisyros are built entirely of huge ‘ashlar’ blocks of stone to over 6 metres high.  The archaeological reconstruction in recent years has collected together hundreds of others found lying around nearby.  On Symi, the ashlar blocks of the remaining most fortifications rise to no more than 3 courses, just under two metres high at most.  There are large blocks lying around nearby but nowhere near as many as at the Paleocastro, certainly insufficient to make comprehensive walls to a defensible height.

The more intact walls of the fortification at the top of the Nanou gorge may provide the clue.  Large blocks rise to two or three courses with additional height gained by smaller, random stone.  There could be a couple of reasons for this.  The limestone of Symi may be more difficult to work into blocks than the volcanic rock on Nisyros.  Allied to this may be that the defences had to be constructed in more of a hurry under pressure from potential invasion.  Or it could simply be that the original walls were rebuilt post-Crusades for more agrarian purposes, though that doesn’t explain the paucity of other large blocks.

Whatever the reason, it seems a reasonable conclusion that the other fortifications on Symi followed the same pattern, two or three courses of large dressed stone and the rest of random stone.


Looking across to the fortification from the track.  Stone walls below it may have served the dual purpose of providing agricultural terraces and slowing down attack.


Getting closer shows the lower courses of stone are well-cut but above that the stone is random.  A few but not many large cut-blocks lie nearby.


The threshing circle inside the fortification seems unusually well built.  Most are just a circle of narrow stones set on edge.

The third location in this blog post may – or may not- be the remnant of a fortification.  The path from Horio to Agia Marina is one which I have avoided in recent years because it is increasingly impeded by the invasion of alien ‘tree tobacco’.  I carry secateurs and cut it back but it makes for slow progress.

However, at the end of my stay on the island last October I walked the route, going off-piste, as is my wont, and spotted what may be another fortification.  Certainly, on the top of a small knoll on the ridge overlooking both the main harbour and Pedi Bay it is in a location where a fortification might be expected.

The remnant walls of large blocks of stone are most unlikely to have been for agricultural purposes.  Two lines of such stone are clear, with a few others scattered around, but a lot of clearing of the jumble of rocks would be needed to get a clearer picture.  From its comparatively small size it is unlikely to have been a castle like that above nearby Horio but it may have been an observation point, commanding views of the two main anchorages and the approaches from the mainland.


The thin red line shows the single course of large-cut blocks above current ground level


And running to meet it, another culminating in a large jumble of rocks


1 On the Margins of Crusading: The Military Orders, the Papacy and the Christian World    Helen J. Nicholson     Published by Routledge (2016)

ISBN 10: 1138269832 ISBN 13: 9781138269835


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Nisyros: scratching the surface

Sandwiched between spending time on Symi I hopped a little further north in the Dodecanese to spend a couple of weeks on Nisyros.  Google it and you will see lots of photos of ‘The Volcano’ and the Paleocastro, both very dramatic. But there is far more to the island than that.  I have visited many times, in recent years spending a month each trip, each time amazed at how much I hadn’t previously seen.  This year was no exception.

First off, Nisyros doesn’t ‘have a volcano’, it is a volcano. And it’s still active. To be more accurate it is a volcano which is the remnant of a much larger volcano which originally encompassed the western part of Kos, the sea in between once the caldera.

Most people get on the ‘Volcano Bus’ or hire a scooter or a car and zoom around the roads ….. and miss a great deal. Trek around on foot and the island has a wealth of natural and historical interest.  The following is just a brief scratch below the surface, the island from a different perspective.


Looking down to the main crater from the caldera rim near Nikia.  Sit here, sip your ouzo and wait for it to blow.


Part of the cliffed wall of the main crater from the path around the rim high above


One of the active areas away from the main crater looking across to Oros Divatis, highest point on the island.  The fumarole changes all the time as the sulphur gas crystallises and is then washed away in winter rains


Sulphur washes down the cliffs


….. in places more thickly deposited than others.  Note the caldera-rim village of Nikia high above.


From the macro to the micro, a crystal flake on top of a pillar


In 2003 seismic activity opened a fissure in the floor of the caldera, in places 20 feet deep and more than that wide.


Increasingly the caldera is so hot and arid that many trees cannot survive the drought, especially closer to the main crater.  This one points towards the dramatic lava cone with the Crusader fortification of Parletia on top.


Though wooded at the eastern end of the caldera, the western end towards the still-active craters is desert, though even here a few trees still survive.

The whole island is made up of rocks which are without exception volcanic in origin.  Apparently, the magma chamber below the island is comparatively shallow and though there is no sign of lava flowing now, in many places past extrusions are very evident.


Some of the most dramatic, and least seen, are the lava stacks near the southeast of the island.  Isolated and inaccessible, difficult to reach overland


A giant sea horse emerged from the sea and has stood resolute over the centuries


On the approach to the coast at this point, gas bursting from large blocks of lava make them look as if they came from space rather than exploding out of the ground


Other blocks have contorted multicoloured patterning


While further north along the same coast pieces of lava bubble litter the shoreline (the toes give scale)


… many variations


Some are very different, looking like huge golden nuggets


Sea cliffs are very varied, in places layers of different colours and textures.

The fact that Niyros has been volcanically active over many centuries has not deterred settlement, if anything it has encouraged it because of the fertile volcanic soil. The main caldera, a number of smaller, hidden ones, and steeply terraced mountainsides were farmed and extensively populated.  There are large numbers of individual houses, others in small clusters, many under the terraced fields to maximise productive area.  Most are now abandoned, a few still used for agricultural purposes. Of the four main settlements, Mandraki and Palloi are on the coast, Emborios and Nikia on the rim of the main caldera.


From the flank of the mountain, zooming in on the Crusader castle and the Panagia Spiliani monastery towering over Mandraki


Approaching Emborios perched on the eastern end of the caldera rim


Within the village, arches brace the buildings against seismic activity.  Many are long derelict but an increasing number are now being restored, in many cases by incomers to Greece.


Perched on the southern rim of the caldera, Nikia has a very photogenic main square at the top of the village


One of the many architectural details in the square.

The island has been occupied from prehistoric times probably by a pre-Hellenic Cretan civilisation.  One of the earliest settlements is thought to be Nyfios in a small high-level ‘valley’, really a dormant caldera.  It was clearly settled and farmed but may also had a religious role, the ‘Sanctuary of the Nymphs’.   Though ‘Nyfios’ on the maps, local people still call it ‘Nymfios’.


Entering the tiny, completely hidden, settlement of Nifios high in the mountains. The ‘Horns of Consecration’ carved out of the rock indicate a Minoan culture.


The main settlement is built into the rock, a single cluster of about eight houses around what is now a church which is still painted, cleaned and candles lit.


Looking from the crag across the top of the buildings along the ‘valley’, Oros Diavatis towering above


Two of the houses in the cluster.  Note the massive stone lintels above the doorways.

There are also small fortified monastery complexes, most noticeably Armas and Siones.  Both probably started as cave dwellings with other buildings added later including small churches.  Both churches are covered in frescoes, that at Siones is open but the one at Armas is locked.


Terracotta storage containers in one of the caves below the Armas compound


Part of the fresco-covered interior of the church at Siones


Looking back at one of the two caldera leading from Siones, traversed by a now tortuous but once walled and paved footpath


One of the many small settlements on the caldera rim below Nikia, remains of a windmill above

These are some of the ‘themes’ on Nisyros but there is much else besides.


At the side of an ancient sunken pathway between terraced walls, an ancient oak has grown around a boulder next to a stepped entrance to a building and enclosure with a piece of imported dressed stone incorporated into the wall.


Scarce Swallowtails (Iphiclides podalirius) flit everywhere, occasionally settling long enough to photograph


A grass snake (Natrix natrix persa) basks in a patch of sun at the bottom of a dry sterna, next to the shadow of my head.  The following day another, about 2 feet long, shot between my sandalled feet as I walked up a narrow rocky path below Emborios.


In July the spectacular flowers of capers are much in evidence


Selfie.  Reflection in the water at the bottom of a sterna

Nisyros has some of the most dramatic and historically interesting landscapes I know.  This year I spent two and a half weeks on the island, trekking in the mountains every day under cloudless sky in temperatures up to the mid 40s.  Hard going, especially the trek to the lava stacks at the southwest of the island but worth every drop of sweat.  And in the evening, with another route achieved, sit back with a beer and watch the sun go down.


In the middle of summer the sun sets into the western end of Kos

Sadly I had returned to Symi by the time of the earthquake on 21 July.  At 6.7 on the Richter scale and aftershocks of 5.4 it woke me up at 01.30 with the house shaking and rattling.  With the epicentre further north the impact on Nisyros must have been greater. It would have been fascinating to visit the caldera and the craters again to see what changes there had been.  Next time.

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