Thursday 21 November 2013

Lochs and castles

Driving west from Edinburgh in the late summer this year we took both the high and the low roads
along the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond ...

where road signs start to appear in Scottish Gaelic

(How much more interesting does Ceann Loch Chille Chiarain sound - hear it pronounced here -  than Campbeltown, once, though no longer, a centre for whisky ... Now Campbeltown Loch is a beautiful place/ But the price of the whisky is grim/ How nice it would be if the whisky was free/ And the loch was filled up to the brim) 

and the cattle are distinctively Highland ...

(I could never get a close-up of these beautiful, shaggy, shy creatures who took off every time I came near. Perhaps if I'd spoken Gaelic to them ...)

Looking onto and over water becomes mesmerising in these parts ...
for young lovers too

the town of Inverary a reflection in the water ...

... its castle, seat of the Campbell clan, now better known for having been the setting for last year's Christmas special of Downton Abbey (in which the Granthams decamped en masse for a spot of hunting to the fictional 'Duneagle Castle' owned by the unfortunately named cousin Shrimpy).

Loch Fyne was a welcome pit-stop for lunch ...

with bucolic views of water and green hillsides

(and this fine vintage Jag in the car park)

But not for long. The road further west was beckoning ...

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Patina of age

"We don't say 'shabby', Max. We say 'filled with the patina of a bygone era'" goes the line from A Good Year

which takes on new meaning in a place that is close to 4000 years old
... Knossos, in Crete, Europe's earliest civilization 

and source of the myth about the half-man half-bull in his intricate labyrinth.

Doing thriving trade with surrounding ancient cultures and civilisations, the Minoans learned the art of frescoes from the Egyptians and goldsmithing from the Syrians.

The sea fortress in Heraklion, where the ruins of Knossos are situated, is a reminder that this was once a great naval power in the Mediterranean and North Africa.

Down the coast, on the island of Spinalonga, the ramparts and buttresses of a Venetian fortress jut into the turquoise sea

... but there's a darker, sadder history here - Spinalonga was home to one of Europe's last leper colonies. 
Separated from their families and communities, people with leprosy were rowed out to the island by boat. Imagine their feelings on entering  the colony through this gate ...

... inscribed with Dante's description of the gates of hell: Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

Here they lived and worked, some intermarried and had children, but without a hope of leaving in their lifetime.

This ghost village of weathered stone buildings are what remains of the daily lives of people cast out of society for a misunderstood disease.

Windows gave the inhabitants daily views through trees to the mainland ...

 where, only a ten minute boat ride away, they could see and imagine daily life continuing without them in the village of Plaka (below), the ferrying point to the island, and where a patina of memories remains.

To see other posts on this theme, link here to this month's By Invitation bloggers.

And for an authentic account of Spinalonga and Europe's last (20th century) sufferers of leprosy, there is nothing better than Victoria Hislop's novel The Island. I began reading this while in Plaka, where it is partly set, and before visiting Spinalonga, and recommend it as a moving and engaging read.

Monday 26 August 2013

Sailors, swimmers and saints

Elounda, on the northern coast of Crete, is a typical small fishing town, set in one of the coves that zigzag around the island, with mountains at its back and the turquoise Aegean stretching out in front.

Boats bob around in the harbour, tavernas line the streets and shore. Palm trees and low buildings give it the touch of North Africa that's in its history ...

... it's only a hop across the Mediterranean, after all, from here to the coast of Egypt and Libya - though I wouldn't want to do it in one of these fishing boats.

A short drive along the sea-road from Elounda is the much bigger town of Agios Nikolaos, meaning Saint Nicholas ... that hard-working saint who is (whatever the Dutch additionally credit him with) to Greeks the patron saint of sailors

... making him a very important personage in these parts. 

There's a stretch of sandy beaches and clear blue sea here that is perfect for swimming

or enjoying fabulously fresh seafood with a  view. 

On the inland lagoon in the centre of Agios town, small boys were fishing and messing about on boats ...

watched by curious geese

and girls itching to join in

Driving inland from Elounda or Agios Nikolaos means negotiating hectically winding roads, with hairpin bends and precipitous cliff-face drops, into the island's mountainous interior.
Spectacular sea views are exchanged for inhospitable-looking hillsides covered with olive groves, and seemingly more churches than houses.

Here we found the village of Fourni
which, despite being tiny, has two churches

one with Byzantine frescoes

There's an air of dereliction about the old homes and stone walls

but a thriving extended family life

In the village square we sat under a giant plane tree at the family-run Platanos kafenion, for delicious mezze and traditional Cretan dishes.

Later in the evening guests began filling the square, tables were pushed together in a long line, and three generations sat down to celebrate a wedding under the stars - what a perfect setting.

Saturday 24 August 2013

In Crete this summer

 ... there were bold primary blues

and reds

a whitewashed villa with a deep terrace to protect from the fierce Meltemi wind

steep, stony hillsides dense with olive groves

winding roads dipping down

through tumbledown villages

narrow alleys overrun with climbing bougainvillea, jasmine, spreading vines

cheery geraniums, plumbago and pansies, orange trees and foraging cats

ancient ruins in beating sun, a din of clicking cicadas, the sound of summer

all paths leading to the sea

where a table at the edge of the water

always seems to be waiting

at any time of the day

Crete, July 2013

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