The Samaria Gorge, Crete

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The Samaria Gorge, fast flowing icy water and stones, stones, stones

It was when I was sorting through some old photographs of former vacations to make room for the overflowing baskets of new images I’ve acquired from  this year’s trips, that I came across those of the Samaria Gorge in Crete, a place I hadn’t thought about in years.

It was 1990 when I was there last if my memory serves me right, and I can still recall the icy-cold waters which we had to wade through.  I remember I had to buy a pair of trainers because I didn’t have adequate footwear for the trek and you aren’t allowed to enter without full preparation for the walk.

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Me, younger, fitter and wondering if I’ve bitten off more than i could chew, bearing in mind I hate having wet, cold feet.

I so enjoyed looking through my old photographs that I thought I’d write something about the Gorge and upload some of the photographs, taken on negative film on my trusty old Canon Camera.  I’ve had to scan  these in and because of their age the colour is not very good – a rather pinkish tinge seems to cloud them.

I know that the Samaria Gorge  hasn’t changed since I did the trek as I stayed at the Mistral Hotel in Malame in Crete last year and spoke with visitors who had done the walk.  They had to leave the hotel at 05.00 a.m to do this, came back exhausted but thrilled to have accomplished the walk (with boots, walking poles, mobiles, sat navs. etc.)  We didn’t have those sort of things when we did it as you can see from the above photograph.

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At times the cliffs on either side seem to bear down on you. Don’t rest beneath them, there is sometimes a rock fall

Samaria Gorge is situated in the National Park of Samaria, in the White Mountains in West Crete and is considered one of the main attractions of that lovely island.  It is 16 Kilometres long but the walk from the exit of the National Park to Agia Roumeli adds another 3 km. to that.  Even so, it is not the longest in Europe as it sometimes claimed: that honour belongs to the “gorges du Verdon” in Southern France which is a little over 20 km in length.

The Samaria Gorge starts at an altitude of 1230 metres and takes you down to the shore orf the Libyan Sea in Agia Roumeli, and the walk will take between 5 -7 hours to complete.  The terrain is rough and difficult to negotiate at times due to the water rushing over stones which can cause you to stumble, so you need to have a certain degree of fitness and walking experience.  I doubt if I could do it now, but in 1990 (it may even have been the eighties) I was younger, fitter, and up for anything!

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A few are hesitant about going on. This is the start of the trek.

Best way to arrive is by public buses (KTEL) from Chania to Omalos every morning when the gorge is open. Once you have walked through the gorge and are in Agia Roumeli there is a ferry boat to take you to Hora Sfakion for the return connecting bus to Chania.

Normally, the Gorge opens at the beginning of May and closes at the end of October, but if the weather is at all inclement, this can all change.  The gorge will also close on rainy days when there is a danger of rock falls.   Make enquiries before heading off to Crete if the Gorge is one of your main reasons for visiting the island.

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Negotiating the terrain in Samaria Gorge isn’t easy. It may be shallow but it is slippery

The park opens at daylight and closes at dusk but I would suggest starting at dawn if possible, as the first tourist buses arrive about 7.30 or 8.00 o’clock and it can get a bit crowded then.  You can start later, at say, 11.30 or noon when there are fewer people, but you will need to spend the night in Agia Roumeli because the last boat out will have left by the time you get there.  Spring is the best time to walk the Samaria Gorge, avoid the summer at all costs when the heat is intense.

This is not a walk to do with children who could easily fall and injure themselves, although children accustomed to walking, say from the age of nine or so, should manage it.  Bear in mind though, that once embarked on the walk there is no quick exit anywhere along the way.  There are wardens in radio contact with each other along the way, who will help you in case of trouble or injury and the presence of well-maintained springs mean that you do not have to carry much water but there are no huts in which to rest.  The walk is long but not especially difficult for the experienced walker – the word here being experienced.  Every day some people manage to get into trouble, but they are usually those who have never attempted a long walk, or a walk over such rough terrain.

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Nearly half way along now

When I say rough terrain, I mean stony terrain.  You will encounter stones in all shapes and sizes, from uneven stones at the start to pebbles in the river bed (tiring on the soles of the feet).   You often have to cross the river bed by stepping on large stones which have been placed at strategic intervals and which require some sure-footedness.

The village of Samaria is situated roughly at the halfway point and most people take a rest here.  You may care to take a quick walk around the village where you will probably catch glimpses of the  kri-kris, the Cretan wild goats, but avoid approaching them if they are with their young.

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And lastly, a Cretan wild goat with her day-old kid. She was a Diva and refused to pose, deliberately turning her back on me.

And lastly, you can visit the gorge on an organised coach trip and the coach will usually pick you up at your hotel in the early morning.  You don’t walk in a group, once there you can set your own pace but you have the advantage of knowing there are other people entering the Gorge at the same time.  It can be a lonely walk if there are not many there on the day you choose to do the trek.

Essentials for the trip

You won’t need much water but you will need a water bottle which you can refill on the way.

The last part of the walk has very little shade so sun cream and a brimmed hat are essentials.

Sturdy shoes.  Something that won’t cause you to slip on the stones.

There are no shops, no cafes and no restaurants  inside the National Park so you must carry your own food if you are likely to be hungry.

It can be cold at dawn at 1230 metres so wear something warm .

Waterproof plaster in case of blisters.  You never know and help is a long way away!

 

Winchester, Ancient Capital of Wessex

Winchester Cathedral

It seems a shame that King Alfred, the man who defeated the Danes and united the English, has gone down in popular history merely as the man who burnt the cakes.  But the city he made his capital does the man proud and it is impossible to stroll through the ancient streets of Winchester and not be aware of how “the Great” came to be added to Alfred’s name.

An unspoilt city and England’s ancient capital (the Court was mobile during the Anglo-Saxon period but the city was considered the capital of Wessex and England at the time), the cobblestones, buildings and monuments of Winchester, just an hour from London, ring with history.  If you like big bangs and all things military, it is also home to a host of museums dedicated to all things warlike.  Surrounded by water meadows and rolling downland, it offers the best of city life – modern shopping, quirky open air events, and great entertainment and it can be covered in a day (although a couple of days will show more of what is on offer and allow trips into the surrounding villages).

Fulling Mill Cottage and River Arle

To get a panoramic view of the streets and buildings laid out according to the original Saxon plan, a good starting point is St. Giles’ Hill (a great spot for a picnic), from where you can  pick out Hamo Thorneycroft’s famous statue of King Alfred.  Then follow in the King’s footsteps from the walls erected to keep out the Danes to what is the largest medieval cathedral in the world.   Famous for its treasures, from the sumptuously illustrated 12th century Bible to medieval paintings and a 16-metre stained-glass window 66% of which dates from medieval times, Winchester Cathedral is that much-overused word, awesome.

One of the Anthony Gormley Statues in the Crypt of Winchester Cathedral
One of the Gormley statues in the Crypt of Winchester Cathedral
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The Crypt, Winchester Cathedral

The newest acquisition is Sound ll, the Antony Gormley sculpture now permanently installed in the cathedral’s crypt where it looks particularly striking when the crypt floods which it frequently does.  Even if you don’t make a habit of visiting cathedrals, do make an exception to view this magnificent Gormley work.

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The Cloisters, Winchester Cathedral

Fans of The Da Vinci Code will be interested to know that the cathedral’s North transept doubles as the Vatican in the film of the book, but those of a more classical bent will head for the tomb of Jane Austen which can be found in the  nave where there is also a stained glass window to her memory.

Jane Austen Plaque in Winchester Cathedral

The novelist died in Winchester on 18 July 1817 and is buried in the cathedral.  While in this part of the cathedral, take note of the black font which depicts St. Nicholas of Smyrna giving an old man three bags of gold for his three daughters, said to be the forerunner of the pawnbrokers sign of three golden balls.

Continuing in the footsteps of King Alfred you could then head up the High Street to the Great Hall, all that remains of Winchester castle, and which for 700 years has housed the legendary Round Table.   Old it certainly is, and round, but it hangs on a wall where with its red, black and white colouring it resembles an enormous dartboard.  According to myth, the original was created by the wizard Merlin, but carbon dating in 1976 proved that this particular table was not made in the Arthurian 6th century but in the 13th, and this use of HyperPhysics sadly put paid to the legend.

The Round Table

The Round Table, High up on the Wall

Just outside the south door of the Great Hall, is Eleanor’s Garden, a re-creation of a medieval herbarium with turf seats and a camomile lawn, named after Eleanor, wife of Henry III, and Eleanor, wife of Edward I.  All the plants you see would have been grown in the 13th century, when floral symbols had priority over design.  The rose, lily, iris and strawberry plants represent aspects of religion while the greens – the grass, ivy, bay and holly represent faithfulness.

The oldest continuously running school in the country, 14th century Winchester College which became a model for Eton and for King’s College, Cambridge is nearby.  You can join a guided tour for an intriguing glimpse into the medieval heart of the college, the 14th century Gothic chapel with its early example of a wooden vaulted roof, the cloisters (where graffiti carved into the stones during the 16th and 17th centuries is still visible) and the original scholars’ dining-room.  As a complete contrast, you could later check out medieval Westgate, a fortified gateway which served as a debtors’ prison for 150 years and where prisoners graffiti is also still intact, albeit rather different from that of the scholars! 

The West Gate, Winchester
Westgate

One expects to find ghosts in most ancient cities and Winchester is no exception.   The most famous haunted Inn is The Eclipse in The Square, where the spectre of Alicia Lisle haunts the corridors.  Seventy-one years old when she was found guilty of harbouring rebel cavaliers and sentenced to death by Hanging Judge Jeffreys, she spent her last night here in 1685 listening to the scaffold being erected for her hanging.

Old Prison Gate
Old Prison Gate

At the Theatre Royal in Jewry Street, a wandering apparition haunts the dress-circle and gallery looking for her long lost lover while in the 18th century High Street offices formerly occupied by the county newspaper, the rattling chains of a woman dressed in grey has been known to rattle the staff on more than one occasion.

Streams and waterways punctuate the streets of the city giving it a homely atmosphere – especially when you see someone hauling a fine trout out of the river – and the Bikeabout Scheme means that you can tour around for most of the day for the small registration fee of £10.   Reflective jackets and helmets are also available.

Half-timbered hous in Winchester
Half-timbered hous in Winchester

You don’t need to cycle of course: there is a good transport system from Winchester to the picturesque villages of the Itchen and Meon Valleys,  handsome Georgian colour-washed Alresford (pronounced Allsford) for instance, home of the famous Watercress Steam Railway where you can make a childhood dream come true by riding on the footplate.   Later, stroll down the town’s elegant streets with their antique shops, and discreet fashion boutiques or along the riverside where the thatched timber-framed Fulling Mill straddles the River Arle.  Alresford is the home of watercress farming in the UK, so expect to sample gourmet dishes made of the green stuff – watercress pudding, watercress quiche and even watercress scones with afternoon tea – in smart bistros, tea rooms and old-fashioned pubs like the Wykeham Arms with its award-winning menu.

 

Main shopping area in Alresford

If there are children in the party, then don’t miss Marwell Zoo.   Home to over 200 species of animals and birds, from meerkats to sand cats, and some of the world’s rarest big cats including the Amur leopard and the snow leopard.  There are volunteer guides around the park to help visitors and to explain and illustrate the efforts the zoo is making to rehabilitate endangered animals back in their habitat.

And after all that history and ancient stones, Winchester can still surprise you with its pedestrian-friendly streets, colourful markets and exquisite boutiques nestling beside large-scale stores.  The High Street – once the Roman’s east-west route through the city – is home to stylish shops with Regency and Elizabethan bow-fronted windows, while The Square offers quaint pubs and restaurants after your exertions, and everywhere you’ll find bronze and stone carvings, many by famous sculptors.    It lies just one hour by train from London, 40 minutes from Portsmouth Ferry Terminal, and 15 minutes from Southampton Airport.

 

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Very Old Barn, NB date of erection in grey bricks at bottom of building.

Winchester’s a winner, and whether you taste runs to real ale or English wines, pub grub or gourmet dining, Goth outfits to designer chic, you’ll find it all here amidst the quiet stones that hold history’s secrets.

Interior Winchester Cathedral

Interior, Winchester Cathedral

 

Tribute to Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint died of a heart attack on November 10th last. Aged 77, he was one of the great Jazz and Rock and Roll legends that influenced many of today’s household names, including Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas and Ernie K-Doe. He collaborated with Paul McCartney, LaBelle, Robert Parker and Elvis Costello over the years and he was also a talent scout, record producer, studio owner, singer and arranger. He left New Orleans for New York in the wake of Katerina and it was when he returned to New Orleans that his career as a performer really took off.

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Toussaint receives Medal for Services to the Arts from President Obama Photo by P. Souza

 

Piano-player/Bandleader Jon Cleary, born in the UK but long-time resident in New Orleans and considered a native of the city, has long been a fan of Toussaint and in 2012 he recorded Occapella, a mix of popular and less familiar pieces penned by the legendary songwriter.

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Jon was one of the musicians asked to play at the Tribute Concert held in the Orpheum Theatre, New Orleans on November 20th, just prior to the internment.

The casket was placed at the front of the stage and friends, fans and fellow stars joined together to mourn the legend, then stayed to cheer his legacy. This legacy was celebrated by an all-star lineup of singers and musicians who took to the stage to perform his songs in genres that covered his work in pop, R&b, gospel and even funk. The recently re-opened theatre rocked.

For the finale, all the musicians, along with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, piled onstage and blew the roof off with a frantic rendition of I’ll Fly Away with Troy ‘Trombone Shorty’ Andrews and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
After Oh Didn’t he Ramble the pall bearers carried the coffin out of the theatre to the hearse, followed by the family and everyone who’d been on stage, as the band played  Just a Closer Walk with Thee in slow tempo.

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Allen Toussaint Photo by Derek Bridges

Outside, crowds had been waiting since the small hours to pay their respects. They waited almost silently as the slow march continued and as the coffin was placed in the long stretch limo hearse. Then they erupted, singing and dancing, twirling their umbrellas, and in general, giving one of New Orleans’ favourite sons, a joyful send-off. The family hadn’t intended for the traditional Second Lining, but they gave in to the crowd’s wishes and the place went wild.

New Orleans will continue, as it always has, but it will never be quite the same.