A pause before Paros

Sometimes it is essential to pause, to take a break from something and continuing a journey sometimes takes longer than anticipated.  The journey to Paros from Naxos was not a long one, it has just taken longer to tell it. Paros is typical of many of the islands in the Cyclades, peppered with whitewashed buildings, blue domes and Taverna tables. It is one of the lesser known and comparatively  quieter islands but its hub at Parikia is a vibrant port, a key transportation route and fishing base for the island.

It was down the road from here, close to Livado beach,  that I stayed in a modest but beautiful boutique hotel, owned and managed by two brothers and their father who had fished the seas around Paros for over 30 years. He still dressed in the uniform of the seas and every morning as he served breakfast he looked like any minute he was off to captain a boat.

 

I should have known that with his experience and probably his sons too, their understanding of what might be regarded as choppy seas might be different from mine. I do not have good sea legs but I wanted to take the opportunity to see other islands. The short boat ride to Anti- Paros had probably lulled me into a false sense of security. But still I found myself  making my way to Naoussa for a ‘cruise’ to Delos and Mykonos.

The boat looked substantial which reassured me and as we sailed away from the harbour I took comfort from the gentle waters.  Inside the music played as we lounged in something reminiscent of the 1970s Loveboat. As we took to sea though, the calm changed as we crashed over the seas. Soon the sick bags were out and I was hoping for the destination to arrive quickly. It truly was a surreal moment as Zorba the Greek played through the boat and a Mr Bean film played on the TV.

Delos, the first stop for the boat was an island that felt like a living an evolving museum, a place of artefacts and emerging excavations. In its heyday, the houses would be filled, the markets full of traders, theatres packed during celebrations. Now it has no inhabitants, just a steady flow of archaeologists and the curious. If this was as an island of celebration of Apollo in years gone by,  its nearest neighbour Mykonos is now an island for present parties. It was a pleasant place for lunch and a few hours but I was glad that I had stayed on the more authentic Paros.

Naxos

There is something beautiful about arriving to an island by boat. Obviously flying into Santorini was stunning, the island spilling out beneath me as we came into land.

Naxos appeared in the distance,  its white buildings lifting from the sea. As we got closer my eyes were drawn to the monument of Portara.

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Portara is a huge doorway  (and its literal meaning)  made of blocks of stone. An entry to a temple that was never complete, facing towards the island of Delos.

Its emotion is in the story of ambition which never quite reached fruition. Its beauty is in its framing of the island,particularly in the evening,  the sunset and sea on one side and the lights of the harbour restaurants and bars on the other.

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The harbour itself is busy, working from the fisherman of first light. If you go at various times of the day you can almost see the circle of fish from sea  to restaurant to table, including the sight of octopus legs hung to dry in the Greek sun.

It is the starting point for some winding walks to the old town. It appears from some of the history that these pathways would have been dangerous in times past, the castle at the top of the island offering warning of, and refuge from,  invaders. Now though, the only danger is the slip after a cocktail on the shiny cobbled walkways or the temptation of ice cream. They wind and you duck  beneath the stone archways and at every turn there is something else to explore.

naxos octopus

The excess can be slept off the next day on any of Naxos’ beaches. I stayed close to one for all but one of the nights I was there. I forgot to book one nights accommodation but error became advantage as on the last night I booked into a hotel on the harbour and sat on the baclony, drinking and thinking of the days ahead.

Santorini Sails

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At any point in time, around the blue waters of the Greek Islands, boats and ships sway, bob, glide and course. All sizes, two men craft, fishing boats, pleasure cruises, luxury yachts up to the superfast ferries and catamarans. But it is the Blue Star ferries of Greece that are the majestic kings of these waters. Their grace as they move 20-30 knots through the water, their paths the veins and arteries of the Aegean, the lifeblood. I had always wanted to ‘island hop’ on any scale here and now I had the chance.

There is of course the opportunity to do significant journeys around these islands. Many start the adventure at Athens as the gateway by boat to the islands. My plan was more modest, focused on the islands of the Cyclades. I flew straight to Santorini from where the journey began.

It is probably the most iconic and most photographed of all the islands thanks to the stunning landscape of the caldera, particularly from the observation point of the main Island, Santorini. The pathway from the main town of Thira up to the northern point of Oia frames this stunning view. The view can be enjoyed simply, intermittently there are benches to sit at along the route or expensively sipping drinks at one of the many bars that spill over the edges of the white cliffs. The classic time to observe the natural theatre of this place is at sunset, as the colours run across the darkening sky. A slower golden Greek version of the Northern lights.

The town of Thira itself is touristic with shops and bars dominating the cobbled streets. Further inland is the islands main bus depot where you can journey to some of the beach areas such as Kamari and travel north to Oia, again a beautiful place to observe the sunset.

A cable car or a donkey will take you down from Thira to the main harbour. It is at this point that passengers from many of the cruise ships land on small boats as their ship anchors between Santorini and the volcanic island of Nea Kamini. Further along the coastline is the ferry terminal and it is here that the journey to the other islands begin.

In the town of Thira, at the ticket office, on a chalk board the weeks sailings are listed, days, routes, lines. It is take your pick time and the options are universally wonderful. Santorini for me was a place of great beauty and anticipation. Another new beginning. Another adventure.

The sense of excitement as I waited a day later to board the ferry was huge. Lines meandered  as people waited for the Ferry’s arrival. On the horizon, the outline of the boat got bigger and clearer and before longer its height and scale lifted my head, eyes squinting in the sun. With remarkable efficiency, hundreds of passengers spewed out and I ran on. Before long I was at my seat on the top deck as the boat turned and started on its way.

Barcelona

img_291087By the time I travelled on the fast train from Madrid to Barcelona I felt a great deal of satisfaction at the journey behind me. Of course, travelling across Europe is by no means a hazardous journey but I felt a sense of accomplishment that it had gone well. Now all that was left between now and the return flight home was a night in Barcelona. I had been here before so I had no sense of ‘must sees’.

The food on this trip across Portugal and Spain had been a major highlight. Barcelona was no different and after checking into my room I walked on recommendation of the apartment owner  to a  local tapas bar and indulged. And then I walked and took turns through streets and squares until I came to a place where people were sat outside in the sun drinking with friends and there I went to a bar and I stayed and watched.

It was the thing that I had found most enjoyable on this trip, to be able to just sit and enjoy. If ‘sights’ are the things a city wants you to see it is in wandering, in taking turns, in following a group that you learn some of its secrets. Not spectacular or dark ones but the things that are not easily discovered.

In getting lost on this trip, I had also lost or left something behind,. a working life that had been mine for many years. I hadn’t dwelt on what might come next. I had enjoyed the moments, every one of them, and there were more to come

 

 

 

 

Madrid welcomes You

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In Lisbon I’d watched as the UK voted for Brexit and David Cameron resigned. That and the European refugee ‘crisis’ seemed to dominate the summer. People, countries were  reacting their own way to this, some more positively than others. It was wonderful in Madrid to see a sign draped across City Hall stating ‘Refugees Welcome’. Very fitting for the ‘City of the Hug’. In the basement of City Hall an emotional exhibition recreated the long and perilous  journey refugees make. In a darkened room a film was projected on a wall showing the infra red of 3 people huddled together, talking of their discomfort. It soon became apparent they were travelling hidden in a lorry. It was claustrophobic and emotionally draining to watch. The film left it unclear as to whether they made it or not. It made me reflect on the privilege of my life, the purple passport I carried that allowed me to journey unhindered across the world and within European to pursue a new life should I wish.

Buen Retiro Park offered a  great space to think and an opportunity to see more art at the Palacio de Cristal. The exhibition included a textile representation of the doomed Titanic sailing, suspended it from the ceiling it hang downwards. The weight of it was emotional and even more so in the context of the other refugee exhibition. In very different circumstances the occupants of many boats trying to reach for a new life in Europe were not making it also.

Travel is an escape but it is also an opportunity to understand how events are viewed differently elsewhere, how other people are reacting, an opportunity to learn and reflect. Some days later the Madrid banner was viral and was being photoshopped to reflect the ‘plight’ of those in the UK who voted to remain part of European Union. ….British Refugees Welcome!

It was a tempting offer. The art and cultural offer in the city’s museumss delights and in this capital city there are expansive open spaces to sit and enjoy. But the final leg of my journey through Portugal and Spain beckoned. Barcelona would be my final stop.

 

 

The Granada Life

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I’d booked modest rooms as I traveled through Spain and Portugal. In Granada, I probably took my search for a bargain room too far. The street the hotel was on was a backstreet of shuttered up shop units and graffiti, like a scene from Edward Woodward’s ‘The Equalizer’. However, I try not to judge a hotel ‘book’ by its cover and given I was only there a couple of nights I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt.

The woman on reception was pleasant and showed me the facilities- sadly not a spa but a lounge with a tv and a kitchen should I want to cook (she obviously doesn’t know me). On the way up to the room we exchanged pleasantries and I asked the woman if the hotel was busy. ‘Not that busy’ she said ‘No one is crazy enough to come and stay here in the height of summer’. Charming, but I later realised she had a point.

The room was clean with a singled bed and shower/ bathroom. It was however a homage to stained wood – shutters, skirting, wardrobe. It reminded me of the nuns or monks cells we used to learn about in RE at school (see pic below). I noticed the room was warm and dark and that’s when the penny dropped as to why it was so cheap- no air condition or a fan. Oh well I’d have to simply sit by a fan with a cold beer in a pub for most of the evening to beat the heat. Terrible.

I only had one intention going to Granada and that was to see the Alhambra Palace. Given the volume of visitors it gets it is necessary to book ahead for the Alhambra Palace and an allocated slot to go into the Nasrid Palace. I picked up my tickets that first evening from a cash machine where you can collect booked tickets from and had a walk to get my first view and picture of the palace

Unlike the bold colours of Sintra, the lines of the Alhambra almost blended against the pink blue sky, surrounded by lush greenery. Its magnificence unique. Unlike the room I returned to some hours later back at the hotel. I took a cold shower to cool myself but an hour after trying to get to sleep I was blessing the sheets with cold water and fanning myself with the wardrobe doors. As the humidity rose I sat bolt upright in the bed, like a scene from the exorcist.

At some point I must have fallen asleep and slightly jaded the next day I headed for the Alhambra Palace. It’s a 20-minute walk to the palace from the centre and I headed straight for the Nasrid palace first for my allotted time so that I could be more flexible for the rest of my visit. They are strict on the timed visits, arrive late and you miss out and arrive early and you will just be told to wait at the back of the queue. The formality and rigidity whilst understandable put me off a little. At one point, I felt I missed a bit in the Nasrid Palace and attempted to retrace a step. No can do! But despite this it is a magnificent building with fantastic rooms and courtyards. After I enjoyed the other highlight for me, the gardens of the General Life. Even with the number of visitors there it was a place of beauty and peace.

And Peace was what I needed! When I returned to the hotel the receptionist was brandishing a large plastic gun and playing a shoot em up game on her PC with her feet up and a FAN!! It was the last time I saw her. With some success in regulating my body temp I slept a lot better and left the next morning.

To Seville By Bus

On a crisp Saturday morning, the streets of Tavira were quiet as I made my way to the Bus Station. The bus station was quiet too, apart from two other travellers in a panic as they realised they had lost one of their bus tickets. The bus journey was long but comfortable and the beauty of it was the vibrancy of the view, green and gold fields scorched in the morning sun. After about 3 hours, the windows went dark ,as we pulled into the covered Seville bus station.

Seville’s guidebook attraction is its historical centre and I spent time exploring the magnificent Cathedral, the Alcazar and the Plaza de Espana. Again though, it is the neighbourhoods or Barrios of Seville that held the greatest appeal. On the first evening, I made my way across the iconic Isablel II bridge into Triana and my first experience of eating in a Spanish tapas bar. I stood at the bar (always a nice option when travelling solo) and I started to understand why nights soon become mornings in this city. It is the ease and the comfort of a beer, some tapas dishes, a wine and some more tapas dishes. I loved the commitment to small delightful dishes with the minimum of fuss. It’s a place to people watch and soon I was sat at a pavement table drinking a cold beer. Entertainment in Triana comes to you, an accomplished accordion player was followed by two young brothers or friends, one of whom also played the accordion and sang whilst the other one had the no less essential job of clapping and smiling. And of course, of collecting a token of enthusiasm after.

These pavement cafes have something to offer at most meal times. Most mornings I enjoyed the set breakfast of tostado with tomatoes, coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. Exploration happened between meals and drinks and Seville has its fair share of areas of quirky shops. I even managed to find time to get my hair cut at a Barbers (of Seville).

It was the district of Alameda where I spent most of my evenings.  I must have an instinct for the neighbourhoods where historically the dispossessed would frequent and Alameda has a chequered history. It is now though an eclectic mix of tapas bars, public art, open squares, gay bars and playgrounds filled with families. It is busy well into the night, the sort of place you don’t want to leave because you get the sense as you walk away that you are missing out.

All of this though pales against the thing in Seville which left the greatest print on my mind. It is a place I said earlier of stunning architecture but it is one of its newest structures that left me with the greatest sense of satisfaction and glee with this city. A couple of blocks away from the Cathedral, undulating over the city like a giant crinkle cut crisp is the alluring Metropol Parasol, an interlocking wooden structure of enormous and controversial ambition. As I walked under it and saw blocks of sky, as I ‘rode’ its winding paths and as I took in the way it picture framed the horizon I was left breathless. It stayed with me days after I left

Travel is about connection with people in a physical and timely sense but the parasols reminded me it is also about the admiration for the passion and commitment of the people who built and shape the places we visit.