Crete and Cyprus: Highlights of 2016
Samaria Gorge Walk 8.6.16
(From Kolymbari, Crete, in June 2016: Margaret had struggled a little on an 8 mile round walk to view the Ancient Olive Tree near Vouves in northern Crete. Although I felt encouragingly fit, we both had decidedly sore feet by the end, and I began to wonder whether the Samaria Gorge Walk later in the week was really on ...)
... But Samaria was intended to be the high point of our holiday, something that we were both keen to do, and we felt that with a local day or two to relax and recover (both before and after), and the cooler weather forecast for midweek, we could go ahead and book the long day’s excursion for Wednesday June 8th.
The day started with a 4.30 am wake up call (!) so that we could meet the excursion bus which was to take us to the start of the Walk on the Ourmalous Plateau 40 kms into the interior; it went via several other pickup points to Charnia, where our Guide, Marco, joined us and explained how the long day would work.
We would be dropped off (in heavy cloud and rain that morning) at the entrance to the Samaria National Park at 1230 metres above sea level at about 8.15 am, and would walk initially down the well-marked but very steep path to the bottom of the forested valley. From there we would roughly follow the bouldery bed of the river through deep gorges (mainly dry to start with), all the way down to the sea at Agia Roumelis. This was more or less as we anticipated, and did not sound too different from valley walks we had done before, including those in the Brecon Beacons. However, the scale was breathtaking, with constant warning signs about falling rocks and landslips: some boulders were ten metres or so across. There were three long stretches lower down where the 3 metre wide river occupied the whole valley bottom with vertical valley sides rising up to over 300 metres, and including a notorious ‘Iron Gorge’ section. The whole walk was 17 kms long, and should take a reasonably fit person 5½ hours on average. It was all downhill, with three Rest Stations on the way manned by radio-equipped and mounted Park Rangers (there was one emergency helipad, but no vehicle access), and Marco would be shadowing our group all the way. It was challenging, but we were assured that visitor safety was right at the top of the agenda.
However, the end of the Walk would not be the end of the whole excursion. Roumelis was a tiny village resort accessible only by boat; it had basic amenities, including emergency accommodation and a sandy beach, but no proper road: Gorge Walkers would need to catch the 4.30 pm ferry to Soughia, a larger village 45 minutes away, where the buses would be waiting to take everyone back to Charnia and Kolymbari, just in time for a late evening meal. That was the plan; but in the event our experience was rather different!
We quickly discovered that constant steep walking downhill , particularly on the rough uneven ground, was going to be a problem for Margaret’s dodgy knees. Although she insisted they were not actually painful, they were obviously weak, and within 2 or 3oo metres or so they could hardly support her. This affected her balance, which made the problem worse, and we were having to go slowly and stop more and more frequently. Marco our guide was obviously concerned, but said that as there would be no transport back to our hotel from the top entrance where we had started, there was no option but to carry on the 15 kms or so to the bottom at our own pace. Six to seven hours should be plenty of time to get to the ferry; he would still be shadowing us, and was in constant radio touch with other guides and the Park Rangers.
We soldiered on and made the best of a difficult situation. Our bus group had been one of the earliest of five to start the Walk, but by mid-morning all of our former companions were obviously way ahead of us, and we had not even reached the more spectacular parts of the Gorge. People from other groups offered help, including walking poles and other means of support, but Margaret’s wrists were still weak from her fall earlier this year, and she couldn’t put pressure on them either. Small steps in the path that most people barely noticed, Margaret was increasingly having to negotiate backwards. Marco encouraged us to keep going, and I tried my best to keep Margaret from stopping too frequently and for too long, but it was obvious that we were not going to make it to the ferry in time. Our first objective was to get to the main Samaria Rest Station, which was about one third of the whole distance, and should have been reached by mid-morning: we did not reach it until 2pm, and Margaret did not even want to have a break and look around. She wanted me to go on without her, but there was no way I was going to do that. I increasingly went short distances ahead to suss out the easiest path (which was getting less obvious now), and there were fewer and fewer other people on the path to follow.
Meanwhile, by mid-afternoon Marco had reluctantly told us that, as his responsibility was for the whole of our Group, not just us, he had to leave us and go on more quickly to make sure everyone else got on to the ferry and back to the buses. He confirmed we were not going to make the ferry by 4.30, but he had already warned the Rangers and the Rousios Taverna at Agia Roumelis that we would require accommodation for an overnight stay; and promised he would meet us again in 24 hours with tickets for Thursday’s Ferry and the buses!
By late afternoon the spectacularly narrow sections of the ‘Iron Gorge’ loomed ahead. The rocky path crossed and recrossed the river several times, and we were warned to pass quickly through several sections of dangerous landslips and falling rocks, which compounded Margaret’s problems. I was still feeling relatively fit, but I suddenly realised I had no spare heart medication with me and would have to do without for at least another 24 hours. I was also beginning to worry about the light. The Gorge was so deep and narrow lower down that the sun rarely reached the bottom anyway, but it was now getting towards evening, and we still had another 2 hours to get to the Park Exit, and probably another hour to reach Roumelis itself.
Margaret was almost out on her feet, and I too was beginning to feel I had had enough, when the Gorge finally opened out a little, we could see sunlight high above us, and we were met by a friendly local guide who had been sent up to help us down to the end. At 7pm, exhausted, we finally reached the Park Exit, where we were given much needed refreshment, and the offer of a lift in a battered old Toyota truck to the Rousios Taberna, which we gratefully accepted. Our scheduled 5½ hour walk had taken nearly 12 hours, but against all the odds we had done it: as the local tee-shirts proudly announced ‘WE SURVIVED THE SAMARIA GORGE’! All we could do now was to hope that Marco had managed to organise the ferry and bus journey back to our hotel in Kolymbari.
It was getting dark when we arrived at the Rousios Taverna, but after a much-needed meal and drink we were driven a short way to a clean, well-appointed apartment with views over the village and the sea at a cost of only 30 euros for a night’s bed and breakfast.
Thursday in Ag Roumelis was very much a recovery day: Margaret was still having problems with support and balance and spent much of the morning on the terrace of the Taverna and the balcony of our apartment. Agia Roumelis proved to be a delight. Yes, it was small, isolated and limited in amenities, but it was welcoming, relaxing, and had an idyllic setting; it was a throwback back to Crete as it would have been 50 years ago or more, and was just what we needed for a day to reflect, and recharge our batteries. We did manage a morning walk around the village (which we seemed to have to ourselves apart from just a few locals), and I ventured a bit further to take photographs. During the afternoon Thursday's Gorge Walkers began to appear, and then we were relieved to be greeted by Marco, who assured us that our journey back to Kolymbari by ferry and bus was all arranged. We finally got back safely to Hotel Chrissana at about 8.30pm, had a meal and collapsed thankfully into bed!
Samaria, with its unscheduled Agia Roumelis extension, was certainly the high point of our Cretan holiday, but it wasn't quite all over yet. On the Friday we felt sufficiently restored and enthused to take the local bus into the town of Charnia with its ancient Minoan and Mycenean remains, its Classical Greek and Roman ruins, its Byzantine and Orthodox churches, and its Venetian and Moorish architecture overlooking an extensive harbour, not forgetting an interesting Regional Museum.
On Saturday (our last day), Margaret relaxed by the pool, while I walked into Kolymbari for the last time, and then continued past the Monastery and 4 kms on up the quiet zigzag coast road to the hilltop village of Afrata, where there were fine views of Charnia Bay, the mountain spine of the empty peninsula stretching away to the north, and the tiny 'Afrata Paradise' Cove far below (somewhat ironically, the latter was accessed down a deep narrow gorge, which I decided not to attempt!).
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In September 2016 we visited Crete for the second time, one week for Enid and David's Golden Wedding in Elounda, then a second week at Rethymnon 30 km east of Charnia.
We enjoyed our week at Rethymnon: there was a long sandy beach well-known for its breeding leatherback turtles; there were dozens of good value restaurants and shops along the front; the town itself was charming, quiet, and well-appointed, and it was dominated by an extensive harbour, overlooked by the medieval walls of the 'Fortezza', the largest Venetian citadel in the Mediterranean. From the Citadel there were excellent views of the coast, the town, and some spectacular sunsets.
Rethymnon from the Citadel. Waiting for sunset: a tasty bayside meal, & last evening on the beach
There was plenty to do and see around the town, but we also made two local excursions. We knew there were 2 or 3 Gorge Walks in the area, one of which (the Mili Gorge) was only a couple of miles from the town. When we learnt there was a Hop-on Hop-off Tourist Bus that served Mili on its way to a small military museum, a former 15C monastery, and a Carmelite Convent, we jumped at the opportunity thus presented. The Mili Gorge takes its name from the 20 or so old water mills still visible along its path, and was delightful (and mercifully cool); there were fine views over the coast from the Convent which had been lovingly rebuilt by the nuns themselves after dereliction and destruction in the 1980s.
Margaret surveys 18C mills in the Mili Gorge & ancient tombs at Armina. Our sad balcony view!
Our second excursion was by local bus a few miles south to the village of Armina, where a Neolithic and Bronze Age necropolis (burial ground) had been discovered by local schoolchildren 30 years ago, and was fully opened to the public only recently. With our well-known predilection for ancient sites, we decided this we had to see. It was well worth it, in spite of it being little known and not easy to access without a car. There was an information board and leaflet with some tantalising pictures of the excavations, but few artifacts. But the graves themselves were the stars of the site: there were over a hundred of them packed into a small area, of many different styles, ages and scales, some of them comparable with the more famous 'Tombs of the Kings' in Cyprus we had visited a few years ago, most of them more modest, and similar to the Enkomi and Salamis necropoli we were to visit at October Half Term (see below).
Before the flight home we were able to spend a few hours in Heraklion, the capital whose important Venetian port was being excavated, and to visit its fine Archaeological Museum. Here many of Crete's most important Minoan, Mycenean and Classical Graeco-Roman finds are displayed, including the wonderful frescoes, mosaics and jewellery from King Minos' Palace of Knossos, and finely wrought artefacts from the wealthy Roman city near Malia. We hoped also to find out more about the recent excavations in Charnia and Armina we had seen this year, but there was surprisingly little. We shall just have to go back some day ... !
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In late October Margaret and I flew with Sarah and Eddy, Mary and Bel to North Cyprus, for a week in Famagusta (Gazamagusa), where we could enjoy some sunshine on the shores of the Mediterranean, and explore the ancient settlement and burial sites at nearby Salamis and Enkomi. We had read a lot beforehand about North Cyprus' chequered relationship over the years with Britain, Greece, Turkey, and its Greek Cypriot neighbours to the south (the backdrop to Victoria Hislop's novel The Sunrise, and Gerald Durell's book Bitter Lemons), and we had briefly visited parts of the predominantly Turkish-oriented territory before, but now we were able to witness at close hand the destruction of lives and property along the so-called 'Green Line' dividing the Turkish and Greek communities. Our hotel literally adjoined the former glitzy resort of Varusha which has lain abandoned as a ghost town since the Turkish invasion of the 197os, and within which access and photography are strictly forbidden.
Famagusta port from the City Wall; Varosha's gaunt ruins from Palm Beach; Eddy & family in Salamis
The Palm Beach Resort and Casino is a new hotel complex about a mile south of the once opulent city and port of Famagusta. The city is the focus of a wide, level plain which has nurtured three ancient civilisations: the Bronze Age city state of Alasia (Enkomi), famous from the 14th century BCE for its copper industries; the Mycenaean settlement and 'Royal' tombs of the Salamanians described as a flourishing culture by Homer in the 9th century BCE; and the illustrious Greek and Roman kingdom of Salamis which prospered for well over a thousand years from the 6th century BCE. Christianity gained an important foothold in the country very early on, and many Christian saints lived and died here (including Barnabas, St Paul's close friend and companion, and St Catherine, notoriously martyred on the wheel, both of whose tombs are preserved near Salamis). Substantial remains of these ancient settlements have been excavated over the years, and some of the finds are in the British Museum.
Famagusta itself was founded in the 3rd century BCE, but did not really develop until Salamis was abandoned in 648 CE as a result of major earthquake activity and coastal change. It boomed again after the Fall of Acre to the Ottomans in 1291, when hundreds of Christians fled the Holy Land and settled in Cyprus, bringing wealth and holy treasures, building opulent and beautiful basilicas and churches, and developing trade and industry. The Crusaders and Venetians were responsible for much of the distinctive vernacular, religious and military architecture that still gives character to the city; the Ottomans and Turks added mosques, souks, and hammams (baths), but sadly, were also responsible for much desecration and destruction, particularly of Christian sites.
Enkomi copper industry; fine grave goods were found in Salamis Tomb 3; is this Barnabas' Tomb?
The British (to whom Cyprus was mandated after the Great War) began a period of recovery and rehabilitation, working mainly through the Greek Cypriot authorities, which included archaeological excavation, the enlargement of Famagusta port, and the development of the tourist industry. The latter gathered momentum during the package holiday boom after the Second World War, and led to the building of the prosperous, mainly Greek, suburb of Varosha to the south of Famagusta, as well as to expansion into the Turkish communities inland and to the north. Thus were sown the seeds of the Turkish army's advance into the area in 1974, the increasing separation of the two communities, and the current political and diplomatic impasse.
The majestic ruins of the Cathedral from the Venetian Ramparts; Bel and Mary in the dungeons of the Othello Tower; the Cathedral's beautiful West Front in the Main Square (Rheims anyone?)
Impressive Bastion on the 15C Ramparts; interior of the Sultan's hammam; the Sea Gate and port
Our favourite pitch on the beach; Eddy loved the play park; he was the star of the dining room too!
Eddy and the girls spent a lot of time on the beach, but we also enjoyed visiting the Old Town and viewing the former Medieval and Renaissance churches and other remains inside the well-preserved walls. We had all been briefly to Famagusta before, but there was much still to see. We also took taxis one morning to Salamis to revisit the main Greek amphitheatre, baths and temples, but while the girls took Eddy back in their taxi to the hotel, Margaret and I stayed on and spent a rewarding couple of hours exploring the Roman agora, basilicas, bath and villa that we had not seen before. We had dismissed our taxi so that we could walk the five miles back to the hotel and see some more of Famagusta on the way, but I think we would rather have seen a bus!
Salamis' seaside Roman Basilica; ruined Carmelite Church by the Walls; the Venetian market hall;
However, undaunted, Margaret and I more or less repeated the experience two days later, in order to explore the famous burial and settlement sites near Salamis: the impressive 'Tombs of the Kings' with their amazing chariots and horse burials and huge St Catherine's Mausoleum, its interesting museum, and the Chellarga Neolithic and Bronze Age necropolis nearby; then St Barnabas' Tomb and Basilica, and on about a mile to the extensive but little-known copper and bronze settlement of Enkomi (which we had to ourselves). From Enkomi we walked back home this time via the village of Tuzla, where we unexpectedly came across the sixth century (CE) Cenotaph of Nicocreon, the last King of Salamis. What a day that was, and a fitting end to a stimulating and enjoyable year of adventure!
Eddy managed to get Mary, me, and Margaret in the sea! The sun setting on another great holiday
(Margaret and I visited North Cyprus again in March 2017, see 'Home and family' page.)