South Wales, Taking The Fosse Way to Trecco Bay

porthcawl-has-everything

“My studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years.”  –  Mark Twain, ‘A Tramp Abroad –That Awful German Language’

Just a few months ago I went to mid Wales and stayed in a caravan in Borth, near Aberystwyth.  Naturally I wrote about the experience.  In one post I talked about some things I find amusing about the  Welsh Language. I find things amusing about most languages, even English.  Just a bit of fun, nothing remotely malicious. Rather like Mark Twain I like to think.

I received a lot of negative response.  The really gross stuff with the dreadfully bad language and the most appalling racist personal abuse I deleted but some of the less offensive comments I allowed to stay attached to the post just to demonstrate how some half-wit ignorant people have no sense of humour.

Salvidor Dali once said, “Each morning when I awake, I experience again a supreme pleasure – that of being Salvador Dali.”  and I rather feel like that about being English!

One responder accused me of being a “cultureless, uncouth, knuckle-dragging racist” and warned me never to visit Wales again because I would not be even half-welcome in the hillsides.  I saw the funny side in that comment because in spitting out his obnoxious bile he must surely have been looking in a mirror when he wrote it.  As his blood boiled and his brain fried I am certain that the irony was lost on him!

I ignored him and risking assault with a deadly dictionary set off in October for another caravan holiday this time in the south, to Porthcawl and the holiday village at Trecco Bay.

Undeterred, I will return to the issue of the Welsh language again later…

dictionary-attack

It was a long difficult two hundred and seventy mile journey from Lincolnshire to Porthcawl but as soon as I arrived I knew that I was going to like it there.

South Wales isn’t new to me of course, I studied history at Cardiff University between 1972 to 1975, worked a summer season at Butlin’s Holiday Camp at Barry Island and I have visited several times since but on this occasion I was travelling with my good friend who hails from the Rhondda Valley and he had promised to show me some things that I might not otherwise have expected to see.  A privileged insider’s view as it were and I was looking forward to that!

The Parkdean holiday site was neat and tidy and the caravan was equipped as though it were my home, central heating, cooker, fridge/freezer etc.  It is a big site, once, it is claimed, the largest in the United Kingdom which was once host to hundreds of holidaymaker families from the South Wales valleys.  To assist with orientation it is divided into sectors, all named after trees.  Finding the caravan was rather like being lost in a forest.  We were in the Cedars district.

trecco-bay-caravan-park

This reminded me of a weekend trip to Haugesund in Norway a few years ago.  I stayed at the Hotel Amanda which is home to the annual Norwegian film festival and the whole place had a movie theme with every room named after a famous film.

I would have liked to have been allocated the Gladiator suite but we were given Shane, named after the famous 1953 Alan Ladd western (one of my favourites by the way), which although not as exciting as Ben Hur or Spartacus was a whole lot better than the Rosemary’s Baby room on the opposite side of the corridor because I could have guaranteed nightmares if we had been sleeping there.  Actually, I might have refused to attempt sleep in there at all!

This is Marilyn Monroe in Haugesund

Marilyn Monroe Haugesund Norway

It had been a long day, my pal had recommended a rather curious route which I should have challenged but was foolish enough to agree to which took us along the Fosse Way, an ancient Roman Road, almost two thousand years old and complete with all original hazards, then through the crowded and always overrated Cotswolds, a tedious crawl through Cheltenham and Gloucester with a hundred or so red lights to negotiate and then a drive through the frankly uninspiring Forest of Dean.

I am not saying the Forest of Dean is uninspiring in general you understand, just this bit of it where the road carves through.  Before going on I want to clear that up because I don’t want the good folk of Gloucestershire getting upset with me.  I am likely to have enough trouble in Wales!

fosse-way

I am not usually that enthusiastic about motorways but boy was I glad to reach the M4 for the final thirty miles and vowed there and then to take the motorway option back home at the end of the week.

Oh, I nearly forgot to mention – on the way (about two hours previously) I had taken a short detour through the town of Rugby in Warwickshire which is where I had grown up as a young boy and a teenager but I failed to generate much interest in that, not even a short walk to see a statue of the poet Rupert Brooke or to visit the Gilbert Rugby Ball Museum.

As a consequence of dashing through Rugby and then failing to find anywhere suitable for a lunch stop on the Fosse Way (since the Romans left nobody uses the Fosse Way any more so there are no pubs or service stations, not even for a Caesar Salad) we arrived in Trecco Bay a little earlier than I had imagined we would.

fosse-way-service-station

An odd thing was that it wasn’t raining.

If you have ever been to Wales then you probably won’t believe that so I will say it again, in fact I will shout it out loud – it wasn’t raining!  It always rains when I go to Wales but this evening there was blue sky and the prospect of a good sunset so after allocating rooms and settling in I made my way to the beach and waited for a Welsh Dragon to breathe fire and turn the sky red and after only a short while I was not disappointed.

Wales Porthcawl Sunset

Greek Islands, Final Days and a Last Walk

cyclades-postcard

“… but God’s magic is still at work and no matter what the race of man may do or try to do, Greece is still a sacred precinct – and my belief is it will remain so until the end of time.” – Henry Miller, ‘Collosus of Maroussi’

Leaving Tinos the Blue Star ferry made its way to neighbouring Mykonos where we would be spending the last two days of our trip before flying home.

Usually we choose to stay in traditional accommodation with average prices but for the last two days we had selected instead to stay at a more expensive boutique hotel just outside the Chora.  Actually, it wasn’t that expensive just a bit more than we like to pay and the result was that we were allocated a very nice room with a balcony and a Jacuzzi and a glorious view over the town and the bay.

Mykonos Street 1

By comparison the mini-bar and restaurant prices were ludicrously astronomical so it didn’t take us long to make a decision to take a walk back into the centre for an afternoon stroll, search for a sunset and then find a reasonably priced taverna for evening meal.

Now at the end of our holiday we challenged each other to record the highs and lows of the three week trip.  We didn’t agree entirely with each other but I think this list of highlights is safe enough to share…

  1. Amorgos was our favourite island
  2. Homer’s Inn on Ios was, as always our favourite hotel
  3. The gyros in Syros was our favourite meal
  4. Mountain tracks on Amorgos were our favourite walks
  5. The seven hour ferry journey from Ios to Syros (Andrew)

We struggled to make a list of low-lights but these were suggestions…

  1. Car hire in Amorgos
  2. Cruise ships in Mykonos
  3. The seven hour ferry journey from Ios to Syros (Kim)

The list complete we thought about our last day and agreed that it might be a good idea to try and break our walking record and see if we could crash through the ten mile barrier so we decided to start early and walk to Ornos where we had stayed two weeks previously and then on to Agios Ioannis and then return.

Walking in Mykonos

So, next day we did just that and immediately after a rather chaotic hotel breakfast we packed our rucksacks and set off.

It was late October now and the scorching summer weather was on the glorious tipping point into Autumn and there was a welcome breeze, well, wind actually, which made it a pleasant walk to the south of the island.  Once there we thought about a swim in the sea but the beach was still crowded with sun-worshippers cluttering up the beach so we passed straight through and on to Agios Ioannis where we stopped to swim for the last time this year and then to have a drink before retracing our steps stopping in Ornos on the way for a light lunch.

The taverna was next to the bus stop and there a middle-aged shabbily dressed American with grizzled grey hair and an extravagant pony tail was giving Greece travel advice to a younger woman who had admiring doe eyes and was hanging on to his every word as though he was Ernest Hemingway or Henry Miller or Rick Steves.  Some of the advice was quite useful as it turned out but it dried up when the bus arrived and they climbed aboard and left.

We left shortly after and walked the two miles back to the hotel where we sat in the sun, arranged our suitcases ready for the journey home and enjoyed some time in the Jacuzzi.

mykonos-jacuzzi

For evening meal we had chosen a beach side taverna a little way out of the town (we needed the steps) and we presented ourselves at the agreed time of eight o’clock.  It was a busy restaurant and we were obliged to share a table with a couple from France who arrived shortly after us and were both clearly very drunk.  They ordered several starter plates and a bottle of retsina and then nibbled at the food and got seriously stuck into the wine.  They were generous with their food and invited us to share but I noticed they didn’t offer any wine.  They ate almost nothing but very quickly ordered a second bottle.

As we ate the American and his adoring companion walked by and although I am certain they had only recently met they were now holding hands.

It was a good meal, perhaps the best of the holiday? I don’t know, I can’t really be sure, but we enjoyed the musicians who played traditional Greek music throughout the evening and the amusing company.  He danced, she chatted, they were clearly local celebrities and when it was time to go we said goodbye and as we left they ordered their third bottle of retsina!

Greek Dancing

We walked back and saw the American and his friend who were now walking arm-in-arm – the old man of the sea had clearly been hooked.  Back at the room we checked the pedometer – 10.35 miles, we had broken our record and we were self-congratulatory about that.

On the final morning I was surprised to see no cruise ships in the harbour or the bay so anticipating that this might make a difference I made a final visit to the town.  It was charming, empty, quiet, unhurried and delightful.  Without hordes of cruiser invaders the little streets of the town had a whole different ambience and improved quality.  I liked it so much I did at least two full circuits of the town and I was so happy to see it like this in the last few hours before returning back home.

We had enjoyed the Cyclades and agreed that we certainly wouldn’t leave it another five years before returning to one of our favourite places.

Ios Unique Restaurant

Greek Islands – Tinos, St Pelagia and Pilgrimage

tinos-pilgrim-statue

“Tinos, where the little hanging offerings of crutches, bandages and paintings, testify to the miracle having taken place, and remind one once again that here, as in the ruined and forsaken shrines to Aesculapius, healing and divination are one.” – Lawrence Durrell – ‘Reflections on a Marine Venus’

The ferry from Syros took us first to the intriguing island of nearby Tinos which is a secretive place that doesn’t feature very often on holiday itineraries.  As we approached the port we could see that not being a holiday island it wasn’t going to any special effort to become one and the harbour front was rather functional and utilitarian and without the ribbon of colourful bars and tavernas to which we had become accustomed.

Actually, although it didn’t seem a tourist hot spot to us as we approached the harbour, it turns out that Tinos, a large island just northwest of Mykonos, is in fact the most visited of all Greek Islands.  Not with overseas visitors however because 90% are Greek and since Greeks come looking for an authentic experience even the most tourist friendly places retain a feeling of originality and visiting the island is a more genuine and unique experience than say Mykonos or Santorini.

Greek Doors 2016 (3)

One of the reasons so many Greeks visit Tinos is that it is an intensely religious island famous most of all for the Church of Panagia Evangelistria which holds a reputedly miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary and is the venue for an annual pilgrimage that is perhaps the most notable religious pilgrimage in the region of the eastern Mediterranean.

Many pilgrims make their way the eight hundred metres from the ferry wharf to the church on their hands and knees as an extreme sign of devotion.  It was extremely hot and it was hard enough work just walking up the long hill to the church so I imagine that you would have to be seriously determined to do it on all fours, although to be fair there is a ragged strip of dusty red carpet at the edge of the pavement to stop pilgrims ripping their hands and knees to shreds or getting stuck in the melting tarmac.

On the way to the church there were old fashioned stores selling various sizes of candles to take to the church and instead of postcards there were racks of cards each with a picture of a part of the body.

The shopkeepers could speak little English so couldn’t explain what these were but we eventually worked it out for ourselves.  If you have a bad limp then you buy a leg picture, a poorly arm an elbow picture, a hangover a brain picture, if you are going to crawl to the church you will probably need a knee picture and so on and then you take this to the Church and ask for a cure and secure it to an icon and when you leave just to be certain so that God doesn’t just simply forget about it shortly after you have gone light a candle to remind him.  The bigger the candle the better and some of these monsters, without exaggeration, were easily four feet tall and a real fire hazard I can tell you!

pelagia-of-tinos

We reached the brilliant white Renaissance style Church, gleaming like a fresh fall of snow and went inside to see the miraculous icon which according to tradition was conveniently found after the Virgin appeared to the nun, St. Pelagia, and revealed to her the place where the icon was buried.

By suspicious coincidence the icon was found on the very first days after the creation of the modern Greek State and henceforth Our Lady of Tinos was declared the patron saint of the Greek nation.  Inside the church it was hard to find because in contrast to the bright sunshine outside it was dark and oppressive with the sickly aroma of incense exaggerated by the heat of the burning candles but eventually we found it, almost completely encased in silver, gold, and jewels, and with a line of people waiting their turn to admire it and place a gentle kiss upon its base.

All of this icon kissing means quite a lot of unwanted spit and saliva of course so to deal with this, cleaning ladies with spray cleaners and dusters circulated constantly to deal with the slobber and the germs on a continuous and never ending polishing circuit of the church.

After we had seen the church and wandered around the gardens for a while we walked back down the long hill and back to the harbour where we walked rather aimlessly until we came across the best of the bars that we could find and stopped for a drink while we waited for the ferry to Mykonos.

 

Image

One Door Closes….

Spain Door Catalonia

Greek Islands, Old Doors of Syros

Syros Mansion WindowsSyros delapedated windowsSyros Greece Old DoorSyros Greece Old Door

Greek Islands, Syros, Bus Ride and Gyros

Syros Helmet Greece

After the Herculean exertions of the day walking to the top of two high peaks and negotiating hundreds, maybe thousands, of steps we were in no mood to march a great deal further this evening and so rather than walk to the town or the harbour we stopped instead at a gyros restaurant (and I use the word restaurant in its loosest and most generous sense here) and ordered some fast food and some white wine served from a plastic bottle.

After two weeks we were ready for this and the really good thing about the Greek Islands is that there are no McDonald’s, Burger King or Kentucky Fried Chicken because fast food here is all about the gyros which is a Greek speciality (sold all over the World now of course) where the object is to cram an entire meal, meat, chips, vegetables and sauces into a pitta bread wrap and then try to tackle it without it falling apart and the contents dribbling down the front of your shirt or falling onto the floor.

greek-gyros

Well, this was absolutely divine and I am not knocking all of the restaurants and tavernas that we had eaten in so far but it just might have been the best evening meal so far.  We drooled over it, we described it to each other in ever-increasing gastronomic superlatives and we mopped our plates clean.  Disappointingly of course this was fast food and it was all over in a flash and were back in the hotel sitting on the balcony and looking out over the lights of the town and the reflections on the water which spread and shifted like a kaleidoscopic diesel slick over the water.

The next morning over breakfast on account of the fact that we had completed two days intended walks in just one we had to make some alternative plans so we thought we might find the bus station and take a ride around the island.

Syros Street Decoration

Bus services in the Greek Islands used to be reliably unreliable but things have changed since our last visit and the entire bus service thing appears to have been privatised.  Gone is the inefficient fleet of state-run cream and green coaches with their tatty seats, worn out curtains for shade, belching engines and groaning gear boxes and they have been replaced with a fleet of modern Mercedes-Benz vehicles with engines that meet EU emissions standards and have air conditioning, recliners and seat belts.  The price to pay for this little bit of progress is that the new bus service is much less regular.

Those were the days – Serifos (2009)…

Old Greek Post Pre-Privatisation

So we took the ride to the nearby village of Vari on the south coast.  As we left the bus we instinctively knew that this wasn’t the sort of place where we would want to spend the entire day so we examined the bus time-table and noted that the next bus back was in forty minutes, which was too soon and after that an hour and ten minutes and we thought that we might be able to manage that.

To be fair there was a nice beach and we had a swim in the sea and then a drink in the water side taverna and then strolled back to the bus stop and waited, and waited, and waited and waited.  The bus did not come so after half an hour we gave up and started to walk back to the taverna.  Suddenly a bus appeared and we sprinted like Olympic athletes back to the bus stop only to have our hopes dashed and be told that this was a school bus and there was no way we would be allowed on that even though we had just given a whole new meaning to the term ‘school run’!

The driver told us that the next bus back to Ermoupolis was in about an hour so we wandered back to the taverna and ordered lunch and waited.

To be honest I wasn’t at all confident that there would be any sort of bus back at all but sure enough one eventually arrived and we thankfully got a ride back to the port.

Syros Church and Statue

It was our third and final night in Syros and because we had enjoyed the gyros so much the day before we just went back to the same place for our evening meal.

The following morning we had an early morning ferry to Tinos and then on to Mykonos so after settling our account we followed the steep path down to the ferry terminus and waited for the Blue Star to arrive.  It turned up dead on time and Kim immediately stood up and started pushing her way to the front of the line.

Kim is from the North-East of England where most people have a lot of Scandinavian heritage but I swear Kim is an exception and has French blood pulsing through her veins because she just cannot be in a queue without wanting to get to the front of it.

When the boarding gates opened she did her best Lionel Messi impression and swerved and weaved her way skilfully through the crowds of people, scattering children and elbowing people aside if anyone dared get in the way.  I have reminded her several times that it is all completely pointless because I am left way behind and eventually she will have to wait for me because I am the one with the tickets!

Anyway, we eventually got on board the Blue Star, made our way to the top external deck and watched as the pastel colours of Syros faded away behind us as the ferry made its determined way to nearby Tinos.

Tinos Greece Ferry

Greek Islands, Syros and the Twin Peaks

Wall art Cyclades Greece

The seven hour ferry journey turned into a seven and half hour ferry crossing on account of high winds and rough seas and by the time the Aqua Spirit finally docked in Syros at about seven thirty in the evening we were glad to get off.  Kim especially so!

After a little difficulty we located and approved our accommodation and with the rosy glow of a sunset over our shoulders surveyed the town from our balcony as roosting birds chattered in the tree tops, bats began to swoop overhead and the lights began to flicker on one by one.  We thought that we might like this place.

In the morning a sunrise invaded our room as golden light leaked through the gaps in the shutters and the curtains and woke us early which gave us plenty of time to shop for breakfast in a nearby bakery and to arrange our schedule for the day.

Syros cyclades

In contrast to most of the Cyclades Islands Syros is a busy port with an important dock yard and ship building industry.  It flourished after the Greek War of Independence of 1821 and for a while was the most important and most prosperous city in all of Greece.

There are two important areas of the city and as were here for two days we thought we might visit one each day.  Ano Syros is the old medieval district built at the top of a steep hill and Ermoupolisis is the post 1821 development built in the neo-classical way of Venetian style villas and a practical grid pattern of streets that rises steeply and dramatically from the water’s edge in the port.

Neither were far away but both involved a demanding climb up a never-ending set of steps to get to the top because Syros is what I describe as a vertical city.

We thought we might start with Ermoupolis and walked first to the main square and a massive city hall building appropriate to its status as capital of the Cyclades region of Greece.  It is quite unlike anything you might expect to find in the Cyclades with marble footpaths cascading like a hanging garden and a large statue of Andreas Miaoulis , a hero of the Greek War of Independence.

Andreas Miaoulis Syros Cyclades

From the square we moved into the back streets and began the slow steady climb towards the top.  It was relatively easy at first but soon became exhausting in the hot sun and we started to slow down and tackle the ascent in sections of fifty steps at a time, stopping at each milestone for a break and a breather.  There must have been a thousand steps – it felt like ten thousand.

As we walked we passed villas and mansions in various states of disrepair, too expensive to renovate because restrictive planning laws insist on exact restoration due to their historical and cultural importance.  Instead it is cheaper to build new properties so these neglected fine buildings steadily decay and collapse.  One day they will be gone and that will be a real shame.

As the day continued to get hotter, shutters were thrown back like butterfly wings basking in the sunshine, washing hung steaming from open windows and every doorstep had a sleeping cat for decoration.

Eventually we reached the very top and the Greek Orthodox Church at the peak and found a bench to sit down and look down and simply admire the view.  A handsome town of pastel shades tumbling all the way down to the port and on an adjacent hill the sister village of Ano Syros challenging us to continue our walk and complete both climbs  on the same day.

As we started back down we were undecided about that and at a point where we really needed to make the decision we stopped to consider the prospect.  Kim was all for going straight back  and leaving the second climb until tomorrow but this didn’t make sense to me because we were already half way there and would have to do the same thing all over again the next day.

Ermoupolis Syros

As we debated our options a Greek man came by and intervened and interpreted our dilemma as a desire to walk to the second mountain peak and although he spoke no English, and the pair of us no Greek he made it clear that he was happy to act as our guide and beckoned us to follow him to Ano Syros and at the time it seemed rude not to!

So that is how we came to tackle both climbs on the same day.  The  steps to Ano Syros were steep and irregular and the climb was difficult and demanding and with stops becoming all more frequent it took us some time to reach close to the top where we were happy to find a bar and stop for a while for a drink before carrying on to the Catholic Church of St George at the very pinnacle of the climb.

Going up was hard on the thighs but coming down was tough on the knees and it took us some time to identify and negotiate the least difficult route back to the main square where we were happy to stop again at a bar for some time where we looked back at the twin peaks and congratulated ourselves several times on our achievement and I wrestled with the conundrum of when they build a village on a mountainside do they start at the top and work down or at the bottom and work up?

Ermoupolis Syros Cyclades