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Friday, 31 August 2012

Gramvousa and Balos (Γραμβούσα και Μπάλος)

All photos (found in this link) taken on 28 August, 2012.

The island of Crete has two 'fingers' (or 'legs' as we like to call them in Greek) at its north-western tip, both of which are bare rocky uninhabited peninsulas.


The Gulf of Kissamos is found between Crete's two 'fingers': the small peninsula of Gramvousa and the larger Rodopou peninsula.

Gramvousa
Rodopou
These peninsulas (Γραμβούσα - Gramvousa and Ροδοπού - Rodopou) are generally accessible only on foot; visiting them in the winter, you would be left exposed to the very harsh elements of the season, while in the summer, they provide no shade and there is no place to top up your water supplies. But they are still bewildering places to visit: the stories they hide are shocking tales of survival and patriotism.

Full house - the cruise offered something for both the sun-and-sea reveller and the history lover.

Apart from spectacular views, Gramvousa, the westernmost peninsula, offers very little to the trekker, besides that feeling of having walked through a remote area and feeling on top of the world. A narrow rural road makes it possible to drive over it, to admire the flora and fauna of the area. You can then walk down the hill to end up at the mesmerisingly beautiful lagoon of Balos on the west coast of the peninsula (after the drive, you need about an hour's walk to the lagoon). After your swim there in the shallow calm waters, you would also have to walk back up the hill to get back to your car, unless you manage to make it in time for the departure of one of the mini-cruise boats back to Kissamos harbour on the mainland (and you have someone to drive the car back). This would also entail missing out on visiting the little rocky island of great historical importance, where the Gramvousa fortress is located.

The cave below, located on the eastern side of the Gramvousa peninsula, is believed to be Tersanas, an ancient shipyard - the level of the sea was higher in ancient times. 
The Gramvousa peninsula also encompasses three or four islands, depending on how you classify the piece of land that forms Balos lagoon. Άγρια Γραμβούσα (Agria Gramvousa = Wild Gramvousa) is located north of the peninsula. It is largely inaccessible due to its rocky inhospitable formation - little wonder how it gots its name. Ήμερη Γραμβούσα (Imeri Gramvousa = Tame Gramvousa) is located west - this is the island where the fortress is situated. Then there is a tiny rocky islet further to the west, in the middle of nowhere, appropriately known as Ποντικονήσι (Pontikonisi - Mouse Island). 

In this photo, the effect of the earthquakes 2000 years ago can be seen: the black strip of land used to be below sea level.

Closer to the coast, there is an islet that looks like a little mound of land which helps form the lagoon on the peninsula. The lagoon is known fittingly as Μπάλος (Balos), which is probably derived from the word 'bale', as this piece of land looks like a big round ball. The coast on the peninsula is called Τηγάνι (Cape Tigani), 'frying pan' in translation, because of the shape of the lagoon, which is round and shallow like a frying pan, and is separated from the deeper waters by a long strip of sea bed that looks like the handle of the frying pan. Mini-cruise boats leave from Kissamos harbour and pass through the strait between the tip of the peninsula and Wild Gramvousa, to take you out to Balos lagoon, stopping first at Imeri Gramvousa for a tour of the fort.

Agria Gramvousa

Imeri Gramvousa (about 70 minutes sailing from Kissamos harbour) is not as tame as its name suggests. The first thing you see as you approach it is a rusty shipwrecked boat, which is a spectacle in itself. The fort at the top of the steep hill was built in the mid-sixteenth century by the Venetians (from Venice) who were occuping Crete to guard the area against the Ottoman Turks who wanted to occupy Crete. Eventually a Neapolitan (from Naples) betrayed the Venetians and the Turks captured the island. The Venetians left and the Turks were now in power. In the early nineteenth century when the modern state of Greece was formed, Cretan rebels (with their families) got rid of the Turks on Imeri Gramvousa and began to occupy the fort, even though Crete was still under Ottoman and not Greek rule. In order to survive, the rebels resorted to piracy as there was no other way to get food supplies. They even established a school for their children and a church was built, Παναγία η Κλεφτρίνα (Panagia i Kleftrina - Mary the Klepht), dedicated to the wives of the pirate rebels. Up to 3000 people lived on the island for three years until Greek authorities smashed the pirate rings.


Imeri Gramvousa, with Pontikonisi in the background
The shipwreck at Imeri Gramvousa

The day-long boat trip to Imeri Gramvousa stays at the island to allow tourists to see the fort and possibly get a chance to take a swim at the beach. Then it departs for Balos lagoon (about a quarter of an hour away) where you can continue to swim. If you're up to it, you can take anther nature walk to the top of the peninsula, something I would have done if I didn't have children with me - naturally, we stayed at the beach. Balos lagoon will not fail to mesmerise even the most critical tourist, with its wide range of blue hues - let's just say it was an incredible feeling approaching one of the most beautiful areas of the world*.

Boats are used to ferry people off the ship and onto land when the weather conditions aren't good at Imeri Gramvousa - thankfully, this didn't take place on the day we were there, as it takes away precious time that could be used to stay longer on the sites. 

During the height of summer, the whole cruise ship thing can be very tiring. There must have been something like 1000 people (half of them Russians) on the boat when I took this tour. Lucky for us, it wasn't so hot - meltemi winds were blowing, which made the weather cooler, but it also made the journey rather rough, thankfully not so rough that people were throwing up. I enjoyed the rocking movement of the boat - it almost felt like a cradle. One second we were looking at the sea, the next we were looking at the sky. 
Before we landed on Imeri Gramvousa, it seemed deserted; when the ship docked, the steep road up to the fort looked like an army invasion! But the view was worth it - from the fort, we had a very clear view of Balos lagoon (which was also waiting for our onslaught). 
 
I booked the tour through Balos Cruises - they offer a highly professional cruise, which I found faultless. The crew is multi-national with all languages represented by the passengers used over the intercom; everyone could remain informed with each and every announcement, and there were quite a few, ranging from routine messages, guided explanations of the scenery, changes in departure times and happy hour announcements (ie cheap booze). It is a cruise ship after all, and there are all sorts of other gimmicks on board to help people get the most out of the trip.

Above: the entrance to the fort and the church of the Virgin Mary the Klepht.
Below: although I didn't try any meals on board apart from a coffee, the food seemed to be freshly prepared. Towards the end of the trip, I saw some kitchen staff preparing yemista (stuffed tomatoes and peppers) from scratch. Souvlaki was also cooked at the time of serving. 

You need to be fully prepared before the trip when it comes to food and water. We bought some supermarket supplies and prepared a packed lunch. A very wide range of Greek and international meals is available on board the boat, which I noticed were all reasonably priced - very important during a crisis. There is also something like a small canteen run by the authorities on both Imeri Gramvousa and Balos lagoon. Together with the boat tickets (€22/11 adults/kids, cheaper if you book online), and bus tickets to get to Kissamos harbour (I took my car), the journey will be an expensive one if you need to buy all your food needs.


This rock simply rose out of the sea after an earthquake - the black part used to be below sea level.

The most important need is water. I managed to avoid the need to buy any during the trip by freezing 500ml bottles of water, one for each person. The very thick ice did not melt immediately, so we all had enough water to last us throughout the trip. The bottle would melt just enough for us to be refreshed with an ice-cold gulp of water, which we first needed as we climbed up to the fort (you probably don't want to drink too much - especially ice-cold water - while you're walking, to avoid stomach cramps). By buying water constantly, you are not saving much effort, since refrigerator water heats up quickly. I noticed a lot of half-empty bottles being cast aside: who wants to drink tepid water on a very hot day?

Approaching Balos lagoon: the light green waters were shallow, while the whitish sand was soft.

Above all, the cruise combined adventurous fun with stunning scenery. It's hard not to feel a sense of exhiliration as each amazing view comes into sight. The forces of nature are very visible to boat passengers: a discernible strip of land along the coast shows the 3-9 metres where the peninsula was raised after two strong earthquakes about 2000 years ago, which also shows the general trend that southwestern Crete rises, while northeastern Crete sinks with the very slow passage of time. There are also interesting caves, believed to date from ancient times, that would be difficult to access or even see if you trek instead of sail through the area.


To get to the lagoon, we had to walk over a kilometre-wide expanse of ankle-deep water.

Gramvousa, in my opinion, is one of those places where I have truly experienced the must-see-before-you-die sensation. I would definitely do this trip again: it's a great place to take friends visiting my homeland. My photos don't do the area justice - but you will find loads and loads of others on the internet.

If you were an angel was playing while I took this video.

*One thing ruined it for me - there is a lot of tar stuck on the rocks where the ship docks. And a stinky methane smell, presumably from the boats. You win some, you lose some.

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Thursday, 30 August 2012

The old Hania-Kissamos national road (Παλαιά Εθνική Οδος Χανιά-Κισσάμου)

Sometimes I feel I haven't travelled as much as I would like to in my own town. We drive along the same roads every day to get from A to B and to get our jobs done. Then we leave town and go elsewhere for a holiday. But I could easily take a holiday in my own area, without needing to drive further than 100 kilometres, not just to see but also to feel the most picturesque sights that I have not had the chance to get close to. I recently found a good opportunity for this during a drive out to Kissamos harbour. Instead of taking the highway, I took the curly route through some almost forgotten villages on the old national (mainly coastal) road that once linked Kissamos with Hania. It took longer, but I saw places I would never have seen if I had taken the national highway.


Coming off the motorway at the coastal town of Platanias (near Agia Marina), a choice village for many of our  package tourists, we drove on to Maleme village, where we stopped off at the old bridge rebuilt by the Nazis during WW2. Bridges were usually built in the traditional style of the area (eg with stone), or they were very rudimentary. The bridge was originally built in 1901, using steel imported from Germany, but it was designed and built by Greeks. It was partly destroyed during the Nazi occupation, and was roughly rebuilt by the Germans. It has been renovated twice since then. When the Nazis came, they built steel constructions that were made to last forever. Some of those bridges are still being used now, but others have become obsolete due to new roads being built alongside them - but they are hardly ever torn down, and in fact, they are maintained, because they are often used as footbridges and they have contemporary historical value. The Maleme bridge has been slightly renovated, but the basic structure is the one that was built 100 or so years ago. They are part of the legacy that has remained in Greece of German occupation during WW2. These bridges are admired for their durability - things made in modern times are not usually made to last forever, like these bridges.

The German-built bridge in Maleme is no longer in use - a road has been built next to it (on the right hand side in these photos).


The Maleme area is full of reminders of WW2. The German cemetery for soldiers killed during WW2 in Crete is located here on a little hill overlooking the panoramic view, a fitting place for the young lives lost to rest in peace.

At one point, in a nondescript village whose name we didn't manage to catch (I think it was Plakalonas), I drove past what looked like a very old grocery store, which also acted as a cafe, as grocery stores in small villages did in older times. I immediately realised that this would be a classic one-stop shop for the older residents of the area, which looked as though it was made up of small neighbourhoods with this grocery-cafe in the centre.

This grocery-cafe is probably where the mail is delivered, where fresh bread is delivered possibly daily form a local bakery in a larger area, where the bus stops, where the people meet up with each other, where they go to see another villager, where grandparents buy their grandchildren an ice cream, where they buy their gas bottle for cooking (and in the winter, for heating too), where they may buy locally made soft drinks, where they may see the odd passing stranger, where they will buy Greek ground coffee and sugar when they run out, and a koulouraki if they have last minute visitors, where they read a newspaper, and where they find out who died or had a baby.

Kafe To Athinaikon (Cafe "The Athenian") began operating in 1945, just as WW2 was over, when food supplies began to replenish in the area, when people began to make up for what they lost during the war, when they began to feel free to live as they once used to, and the fact that it is still going now almost 70 years later shows that its function hasn't changed for many of the older residents of the area. 

As you drive through the windy roads of the Kissamos area, you cannot help noticing the very green and highly fertile landscape, much of which is covered by olive trees. What you probably don't realise is that many of these groves are full of century-old olive trees. You will see olive trees with very warped twisted trunks. These trees outlive humans! 
Although the traditional image of Crete is found everywhere in the region, there is also a changing Crete tucked away in these secret nooks and crannies, a lesser known Crete to most people, created by non-Greeks who have adopted Crete as their homeland. These people have brought their own know-how to the area and offer services that are appreciated by their country's travellers; in this way, they help provide a greater range of services for the varying tourists whose tastes are now changing, and moving away from traditional tourism as it was known a decade earlier.

 st john baptist kasteli hania chania
Before arriving at Kissamos harbour, you will come across the church of St John the Baptist,. commemorating his birthday. The church is built on the side of a cave; the rock forms one of the walls of the church. This church always has visitors stopping by during the summer. 


The fertility of the Kissamos area hosts a wide variety of plants; this papyrus plant near Koleni village stood out against the clear blue sky, while the pumpkin's bold colours made a bold statement in the olive grove.

Still in the village of Koleni, we drove by a row of houses which all had their own private iconostasis outside their home, viewable from the street to the passerby. One of those miniature churches was dedicated to St Emmanuel of Sfakia, a home-grown Cretan saint. He was depicted in the icon as wearing the traditional formal outfit of the Cretan man - the vraka (Cretan trousers).


Not all things are as they seem - we passed what looked like a house built in the style representing old Cretan grandeur, left to the elements, with a grindstone which was now being used as a potted plant container.

To see these sights, you need a car, you need to drive off the beaten track (which is narrow with bendy curves) and you need about at least 90 minutes from Hania to enjoy all the sights I've mentioned. Even though we managed to stop at quite a few places, we still didn't manage to see all the secret Crete that I know is hiding inland behind the motorway - so I will have to make one more visit to the area soon...

By the time we reached Kissamos harbour to take the boat, we felt we'd already just been on a tour of Western Crete - but the fun was only just beginning!

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Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Misunderstanding (Παρεξήγηση)

All photos were taken yesterday in the late afternoon at the German cemetery of Maleme, Hania.

About a year ago, I attended a lecture given by a group of economists who wished to point out to the general public that there is a way out of the economic crisis that the country is in. It was a very interesting discussion, conducted in a civilised orderly manner, with a full house attending. Among the speakers was the German EURO-MP Giorgos Hadjimarkakis, whose origins are from Hania. Given his high profile position, his job, his origins and his present status, he had some valid points to make; the crux of his opinion lay in one word: he believes that the whole economic crisis was simply a matter of one side misunderstanding the other - and I am inclined to agree.

Since the economic crisis began, the Greek mainstream media mainly pick up on what the Germans say about the Greeks, or to put it another way, what Germany says about Greece. Generally speaking, we hear mainly extreme points of view from both sides, which could be summarised by cultural differences, something that seems clear to me, but of course, among politicians, such clarity is not always preferred because the answers seem so obvious and too straighforward for the power games being played in the highest echelons of international government. It doesn't suit those in such positions to talk about matters in such simple terms because the answers suddenly become simple too, and each side has its own agenda, to keep their position and to keep those under them happy, which doesn't seem to be happening much these days. 

As an example of what I mean by a simple solution, it's quite obvious that one side doesn't have the money - and will never have it - to repay enormous debts. On the other hand, it's obvious that the other side wants to ensure that they get their money back whatever the cost, even though they are not really short of money and can do without it. Scraping to the bottom of the pan, it becomes clear that one side has consistently shown it can never repay such loans, while the other side consistently lends out money to them, doing whatever they can to force the others to pay them back - and still no real result. So the simple answer is that Germany should stop lending money to Greece, something Germany won't do because of the consequences to the value of the euro - the medicine isn't working, but no one is willing to change it. Apparently there is too much to lose - for both sides of course - so the game continues to be played in the same way.

Politicians' handling of the situation has pitted people against each other, it has had detrimental effects on relationships between the two nations and the two peoples, and it has exacerbated the problems caused by mainly cultural differences. These differences were recently pointed out to me through a study comparing extension agents (who generally play the role of advisors) of organic farming in Baden-Württemberg (BW), Germany and Crete, Greece. The study was conducted by a German researcher at MAICh

In a nutshell, the main difference between the groups was that BW organic farmers like to get their information through leaflets, regular newsletters and advice from public servants, while the Cretan organic farmers preferred sources such as the internet (Greek organic farmers use it to get the information they want without a middleman), private advisors (eg people who work in shops selling supplies for organic farmers) and seeing what other organic farmers do. And now for the similarities: both groups like to discuss organic farming issues with other farmers - and they get the same results in the end.

As I read the study for the purposes of proofreading for English language grammar, it came to my mind that an implicit reason for the different types of information sources between the groups involves a matter of trust: in Germany, the public service seems reputable whereas in Greece, it does not. The difficulty of the (in particular) Cretan terrain (mountainous land) with organic farming taking place on small plots of land can be compensated by the difficulty of the German weather (low temperatures) with organic farming taking place on very large expanses of land. The Germans like to be well informed; the Greeks prefer to 'see and do'. This is all a matter of education and tradition. But at the end of the day, they get the same job done (they produce certified organic food).

Yesterday, I was in the Maleme area, a coastal village of some significance in the contemporary history of Crete. It was where the Battle of Crete took place, where the German parachutists began falling out of the sky onto Cretan land - there was no other way for the Nazis to get their troops onto the island, due to the heavy resistance that they faced from the Cretans. The invasion was successful, meaning that the Nazis managed to occupy the island - but it came at a great cost to them: an unbelievably high number of their troops were killed by the local people, who were ill-equipped and had hardly any weapons. Many of the parachutists - young boys who were executing orders on a mission - got stuck in olive trees, and the locals beat them with rocks, sticks, and whatever other non-technological self-styled weapons they could muster. A high number were also killed on impact with the rocky ground, or in the sea. The German soldiers who died on Cretan soil were laid to rest in a cemetery in Maleme village, which to this day, is still tended by the German government. 

The cemetery is another example showing how Greeks and Germans differ culturally - but at the end of the day, they share similarities in the crux of the issue, which, in the case of the German cemetery for those who died in battle, is that both sides show respect to the lives lost, the lives of people who were not to blame for the atrocities of war. The German cemetery has that functional simple look that you come across in the German culture, something totally removed from the individual level; nothing like a Greek cemetery, where colours and personalisation of graves is a common sign of the respect paid by family members to their departed. Tombstones are rarely simple orthogonal structures in Greece, and there is always provision made for a perpetual flame for each individual grave.

The German cemetery has the kinky Northern European look of a well-ordered nature park, with well-marked pathways for guided walks and simple wooden benches along the way to stop and admire the view. Of course, Greek cemeteries don't have such pathways and benches, but even in other Greek nature areas, the pathways are often uneven asymmetrical dirt tracks, and any seating area will probably look a little disarrayed. But that's not the point - the differencs in the way Greek and German nature areas are set up simply shows the cultural habits of the people; the end result is that people actually get enjoyment out of what they see and do there. In most cases, both sides can appreciate each other's sites of interest; this is achievable if respect is shown to the needs of both sides. 

The area surrounding the German cemetery reminded me of that orderly look I saw in the Tiergarten in Berlin, and the predominantly monoculture species of trees and vegetation that I came across in Berlin parks. It looked very tidy, neat and orderly compared to the huge range of biodiversity, which is rarely tamed, that one comes across in Greek nature areas. The German parks resemble German technology in their perfection; the Greek parks show our lack of uniformity in other aspects of life. But at the end of the day, what counts is that Germans can come to Greece as tourists and appreciate the vast range of natural beauty that the Greek landscape offers - and Greek tourists to Germany can also appreciate whatever it is that fascinates them into buying German technology and holding it in high esteem.

We are all different, and we find it easy to compare each other through our differences, because they stand out more than our similarities. But at the end of the day, we all get the same job done - we are all trying to get through life using the resources most easily available to us, preferring those that work better in each individual case. 


 One of the most famous impressions of the Battle of Crete, by Petros Vlahakis 

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