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Chania Harbour and Porto Veneziano hotel

After leaving Palaiochora I went back to Chania for three nights. This was my third holiday in Crete and all of them have featured nights in Chania so I was wondering if I would be getting bored with the town. But not so – I find it as delightful and entrancing as ever.

This year I was staying at the Porto Veneziano hotel. I found it to be very good. It’s a much more modern hotel than any of the others I’ve stayed at in Chania – indeed, it’s almost the only new structure around the harbour. So the rooms were very modern and comfortable and there were good facilities on the ground floor. There’s no restaurant (well, apart from a buffet breakfast area) but that’s not a hardship – there are a million restaurants around Chania harbour, including a couple just outside the hotel. This hotel is right at the eastern end of the harbour, very close to the Venetian Arsenal, which was also new to me – previously I’d stayed at hotels at the opposite end of the harbour, which is a good half-mile or more away. I found some areas of Chania that I’d never explored before – the area further east of the harbour, round by the Sabbionara Rampart and the walk around the bay to the east of that. I was also closer to the oldest part of Chania, ‘Kasteli’, the low hilltop immediately behind the eastern end of the harbour. There are archaeological excavations around that area which reveal the history of the settlement that became Chania going back to Minoan and even pre-Minoan times – nearly 4,000 years ago. Some areas have been excavated and have interpretative displays, in English and Greek, available to read. But the highest point of the hill is occupied by much more recent buildings, so what might lie beneath those areas is still unknown. As ever when looking at very old archaeological sites, I’m completely thrown by the fact that the historic ground level is a number of feet lower than ground level today. Who knew that 4000 years of rubbish would have such an effect?

Here are some more pictures of Chania harbour:

On my first full day in Chania I actually went to Heraklion! I did this on the regular public bus which took longer than I had remembered – about two and three-quarter hours going, and a solid three hours on the return. I had thought that the journey time was more like a couple of hours or so, but I was mistaken. My target in Heraklion was primarily the Historical Museum of Crete which I found easily and which was good. There was a particularly good room on the ground floor about the Ottoman conquest of Heraklion in the 17th century, and the way the defences of the city were enhanced over the previous fifty years or so to combat the threat. Another display featured a large number of icons – all beautiful and colourful, and ranging from very skilled and sophisticated to icons that are cleary the work of more rustic artists.

After spending a couple of hours or so in the museum I went down to the harbour where there is large Venetian-era fortress (the Koules fortress) which has been restored and opened to the public in recent years. It’s a truly monumental piece of architecture with walls some yards thick in order to withstand the Turkish attacks. All to no avail in the end…

On my final day I went to a resort not far from Chania, Kalyves. I had been looking at this as a possible place for a holiday for Val and I together someday – it’s not too far from Chania and and not too commercialised. In the event however I came away a little underwhelmed with Kalyves. I think if we go there it might be better to spend a few days in a good resort hotel  somewhere like Platanias, in the developed strip west of the town, before going back to Chania for a final few nights. But I finished the day with a beer in a bar in a road away from the harbour – very quiete, a bit hippy, and not too commercial.

Fisherman with a view

Then the following morning I had to leave. I took a final few pictures around the harbour; I bought a small piece of local art ceramic from a small gallery; and then it was time for the taxi to the airport to wait for the flight home.

I eventually got to Palaiochora just before lunchtime on Thursday. While I was waiting for my room to be ready I reacquainted myself with the town, and walked around for a couple of hours. From one beach to the other, and a climb up to the Castro at the end of the peninsula, did the trick. A cappuccino and sandwich at the Castelli snack bar above the sandy beach also helped.

I checked in and then just rested at the hotel for a couple of hours – after all the travelling I was ready for that. Although the weather was better – it wasn’t raining, for example – it wasn’t very warm either so sitting on the beach wasn’t quite right. Eventually I decided it was time to go out and eat, and I had a Cretan meal in a traditional taverna, ‘Portofino’, overlooking the stony beach. I had a Graviera Saganaki starter (a fried breaded cheese dish – very tasty) followed by “lamb and potato from the oven”, which was also good if very filling. Then back to the hotel for an early night.

Friday was the highlight of my stay in Palaiochora. Starting just after 10 o’clock I walked up to Anidri village, about three miles away. There’s a good kaffeneion there in the old schoolhouse at which I enjoyed the best cheesecake in the world, but the main point was that Anidri is at the top of the eponymous Gorge, which leads down to Giaskala beach itself about three miles from Palaiochira. Immediately after starting the gorge path I found the old (14th c.) chapel of Agios Giorgios – St George – complete with frescoes of him slaying the dragon. The chapel is very small and very peaceful, and well worth a visit.

Then it was on down the gorge. This took about an hour, so it was much simpler, shorter and easier than last year’s walk down Samaria gorge. Nonetheless it was a very enjoyable walk. At Giaskala beach there’s another taverna where I enjoyed a glass of fresh orange before the walk back along a dusty road back into Palaiochora. I’ll admit, this section was somewhat underwhelming. Then it was back to the hotel at just after 3 o’clock.

I ate in Portofino again that evening, this time rather less successfully – “beef from the oven”, which was tasty enough but of which there was a huge amount.

Saturday was my last full day in Palaiochora, and I spent it exploring the beaches. In the morning I walked out along the road leading westwards of the town, along the sandy beach, and then walked back along the beach itself. I paddled! The weather was sunny and warm, but again there was a stiff breeze which was hitting the sandy beach hard and it wasn’t the right place for sitting on a lounger. So I headed up to Castelli again and had my first serious junk food of the holiday – a club sandwich + fries, which was in fact delicious, and which was followed by a glass of draft Alpha. In the afternoon I put on my swimming gear and walked up the stony beach to a beach club – Perla Cove – where I bagged a lounger and enjoyed an hour on it. This beach is out of the wind. I did try going on for a swim but the beach is, as I’ve mentioned, stony underfoot (and thus painful), while the rocks that are permanently under water (even just a few inches) are very slippery, so I thought better of this. As an alternative I headed for the bar above the beach and let the barman mix me a gin and tonic. Then back to the hotel – slowly.

View from Castro cocktail bar

I spent the main part of the evening having first a cocktail and then a meal at Castro, a restaurant/cocktail bar on the way up to the the actual castro. It’s stunningly located, high up above the town, but the wind got up and I was in shirt sleeves, so I ended up very cold. The plate of pasta was excellent, however, and the glass of raki at the end had a certain warming effect. Either that or it helped me stop worrying about the cold…. A quick trip back to the hotel was followed by a visit to Monica’s Garden, Palaiochora’s best (only?) wine bar where a glass of cretan wine was enjoyed. Then back to the hotel for the last night.

The following morning it was time to move back to Chania. One last look around Palaiochora after breakfast, finish packing, and then I was on the midday bus.

Last look at the beach

Chania in the rain

It’s early summer (OK, late spring) so it must be time for my holiday in Crete. As usual I’m there for a week, with the first four nights in Palaiochora and the remaining three nights in Chania. Bearing in mind last year’s long wait for the flight home at 9pm (and the consequent very late arrival ay East Midlands airport) I looked for more convenient flight times and booked with BA out of Heathrow. Outbound flight would be at 7:05 am and the return flight would be at 13:45, Chania time. Of course, the very early outbound flight necessitated an overnight stay near Heathrow the day before, and indeed flying our of Heathrow meant I would have to do the Totley to Heathrow drive twice. The flights were on successive Wednesdays

The drive down to Heathrow was easy – 165 miles straight down the M1 and onto the M25, it took three and a half hours with a couple of shortish stops, and I achieved a magnificent 54mpg! I got to the Premier Inn on Bath Road at just about 2pm, checked in, and decided to go into central London. This required a bus from outside the hotel to Hounslow bus station followed by a Piccadilly line tube, and the whole experience took about an hour; so a bit of a faff.

While I was wandering around St James/Piccadilly I received a text from BA – my flight would now depart at 9:05 the following morning, i.e. two hours later. In and of itself this didn’t bother me too much – I would still have needed to get to Heathrow the day before. But it could have an impact on my plans for the following day. With the flight originally planned to arrive at Chania at 1pm I would have had plenty of time to get the last bus from Chania bus station to Palaiochora at 4pm. But an arrival at 3pm would put the operation in considerable jeopardy – getting through immigration, retrieving luggage and getting into Chania by 4pm would be tight, and any further delay would rule it out. And a later taxi wouldn’t be an option – it’s 75 kilometres from Chania to Palaiochora, over the mountains, and this would cost £££ (or €€€ actually). So I decided to book an emergency room in Chania for the first night and was able to get space in the Casa Veneto in the old town, for €51. I also contacted the Hotel Glarios in Palaiochora to tell them I wouldn’t be there the first night. Continue Reading »

13 hours to Inverness

Regular readers may remember the posts I did about my visit to Inverness eighteen months ago, and the very enjoyable train journey I had to get there. Val and I decided to repeat the experience together, so yesterday (26 April) we set off.

The main part of the train journey – the ride to Inverness on a Virgin East Coast HST, in 1st class with all the benefits – wasn’t due to start until 13:55 at York (the nearest point we could connect with that service). Just getting ourselves to York started at 10:45 with a taxi to Sheffield station, then (after a wait at Sheffield because we were early) a Cross Country train to York which got us there at 12:40, so more waiting ensued. (Why did we do all this so early? Well, our ticket from York was an Advance ticket and was therefore only valid for that one train, and the taxi and early train to York were to ensure that we didn’t miss it.)

Finally the Highland Chieftain pulled into York, on time. We boarded, found our seats, sat in them and were quickly served with wine and water and had our lunch order taken. About 20 minutes or so into the journey I became aware that the train seemed to be gradually slowing and not making much noise, but we were still moving so I gave it no thought. I think I had just been served with my lunch when the train manager made an announcement – “the train driver has just told me that he’s lost power to both locomotives, but he is trying to restart them! I’ll keep you informed”. I then noticed that the train had continued to slow, and shortly afterwards drifted to a standstill. On the East Coast main line….

Time passed, with various announcements to the effect that (on the advice of a remote technical team he was in contact with) the driver was trying this, that, and the other, but apparently without success. Eventually we received a very depressing message – the driver had been able to get the rear locomotive running but unfortunately the train could only be driven from there and not from the front loco – so we would have to head southwards, back to York.

We arrived back at York at around 3:45, and at that point some confusion ensued while the Virgin East Coast staff worked out what to do. Passengers for stations as far as Edinburgh were advised to transfer to other Virgin East a Coast services. The problem lay with those passengers who, like us, had been going north of Edinburgh – that train was the only Virgin service that went up that line. But eventually they found a spare HST that they could press into service – actually, I think it was a service from Kings X terminating at York that should have headed back, but they cancelled that journey and sent it on to Inverness. We set off from York again at 4:45, nearly three hours behind schedule.

Thereafter the journey proceeded quite well. We were kept well supplied with food and drinks, and standard class passengers were getting free tea, coffee and snacks. But we must have lost more time and it was 11:35 when we reached Inverness. It was nearly midnight when we reached the hotel, just over thirteen hours after leaving home. We were shattered.

Courtyard of XVA Cafe, Bastakia quarter

On the morning of my second day in Dubai (the only full day) I visited the Dubai museum and then the Bastakia quarter.

The Dubai museum is housed in the former Al Fahidi Fort, itself the oldest building remaining in Dubai. Somewhere in the museum there’s a map of ‘Old Dubai’ which shows the small town backing onto the Creek to the east with the Al Fahidi fort acting as the secure gateway to the town on the west. Now it’s buried in an inner-city area which looks ripe for re-development.

The museum, which consists of two sections, is excellent. First is the courtyard of the old fort itself, i.e. at ground level. Within that space are a number of old boats of various sizes together with a reconstructed traditional house. Possibly two houses, in fact – there’s one with thicker walls that might have been (semi) permanent and was the winter house, while an altogether lighter and flimsier structure that is described as a summer dwelling – this latter might have been temporary, erected by the inhabitants anew each summer. Secondly there are the new underground galleries. These consist of a series of life-sized dioramas showing life in Dubai as it was in the first half of the 20th century. It shows the people and the trades, crafts and activities they followed at that time. There are also interpretative displays about pearl diving – at one time Dubai was a centre of this activity – and above all there are evocative displays about the bedouin and their way of life. It’s a very good museum, and I came away with a very clear understanding of how much Dubai has changed in 60 years or so – you won’t see any pearl divers or bedouin today. In fact, that point began to niggle away at me as I was going round – the museum is a wistful evocation of how things were, with a subtext of “and this is how the real arabs lived”, yet every decision that has been made by this city’s rulers in the last 60 years or so has been to remove Dubai and its people ever further from that. In Singapore the clear message was “this is how things were – look how well we’ve done!” while in Dubai the message was almost “this is how things were – look at what we’ve lost….”.

After that I went round to the nearby Bastakia quarter. This is a fairly small area of old Arab houses that’s been preserved. The houses themselves have all been repurposed, mainly into hotels or guesthouses, cafes and restaurants, and/or art galleries. It made for a very pleasant hour or strolling around. Being Arab houses they have blank exteriors – just a few very small windows facing out (and mostly on an upper floor at that). But each house is arranged around an internal courtyard, and these were delightful.

Later that day I went to the mall and had my less-than-pleasant subway experience – see here – before eating in the hotel.

Batu Feringhhi beach

I’ve just realised that I haven’t written anything about Batu Feringghi or its beach. To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of the town, or the resort, itself – just a road running past the beach and lined with eateries and a few hotels such as the one I was staying at, the Lone Pine. To be honest I found the eateries a bit intimidating – there’s a picture below that might explain why that was.

The big attraction (?) in BF (apart from the beach) is the night market. This is basically many, many market stalls running alongside the road and filled with – stuff. There was nothing there that attracted me. Quite a lot of the stuff looked like it was fake – there was one stall selling stuff that looked as if it was labelled Cath Kidston, but for very low prices, while another stall had what at first sight looked like Lego Star Wars kits, but if you looked closely you could see that they were made by “Lelo” and were in that company’s “Star Wart” range…. The pictures were correct, so it was pretty much a rip-off of this model. But basically the night market left me cold. Or hot, actually – the stalls are built right up against the road so the only way of getting along is by walking through the middle of the stall, and they were hot and crowded.

I did enjoy walking up the beach, however. It’s a beautiful setting – a crescent bay, hills at each end, and the sun sets behind them. There weren’t many people in the water, which given the health warnings I’d read about the pollution was understandable. There was a lot of water sports, and one or two beach bars. I decided to patronise Bora Bora, and had a good time there. I also ought to say that the hotel was very good – very restful.

My main reason for going to BF was to have a break between the visits to Singapore and Dubai, which I expected would be hard work (though enjoyable). The day spent around the pool at the Lone Pine was very relaxing, and I certainly enjoyed the couple of hours in the the Bora Bora beach bar on my last evening there.

For this second day in Dubai (and the only full day) I decided to visit the Dubai museum, to learn something about its history. After that I would wing it a bit, but I had in mind that might want to go to the Burj Khalifa area. Both of these objectives required use of the Dubai metro so the first step was to get access to that.

My hotel was on the Deira (eastern) side of the creek, and the museum and other remnants of old Dubai were all on the western side, and the metro was the easiest way to get between them. The first task therefore was to get an all-day ticket for the metro. This cost 22 UAE Dirhams, or around £5, and gave me unlimited rides for the day. The metro itself was in many respects similar to the one in Singapore – very modern, and with enclosed platforms. By which I mean it’s not like (most) of the London Underground where there’s no barrier between the platform and rails; instead, as has been done in recent LU extensions, there is a ceiling-high wall between passengers and the track, but with sliding doors in it. When a train arrives its doors line up with the platform doors, both sets open simultaneously, and you step onto (or out of) the train. However, there were some differences between this metro system and any other I’ve seen. First, there’s a first class section, referred to here as the Gold car. Secondly, and more significant, there’s a complete carriage on every train reserved for women and children. On my first trip I inadvertently stepped into this carriage, realised I was the only male in it, and shuffled embarrassedly to the next carriage (the connectors are open).

There were a couple of problems. First, although there were diagrams of the system on the platforms, there were no hand-out maps or diagrams available, so I had to use the street maps in my guidebook to identify the station I wanted. That introduced the second problem – several of the stations had been renamed since my guidebook was printed! So I experienced some confusion, but I managed to sort all of these out and successfully got to my morning destinations.

Late in the afternoon I went to the Dubai Mall, first to have a look at what is allegedly the world’s largest shopping mall, and secondly to get to the area where the glitziest skyscrapers are, including the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest structure. Getting there was no problem – there was a direct metro route from Union station near-enough to the hotel to a dedicated stop, Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall. There was then a 400 metre walk along an internal walkway into the mall, and from which at a few points I was able to see the Burj. The mall itself wasn’t anything special – quite ordinary, in fact, apart from its size. However the setting of the metro Red line, on elevated tracks alongside one of the city’s main highways, and with tall skyscrapers on both sides, was quite dramatic. I was able to get some pictures of the setting.

Getting back into central Dubai was a lot harder, however. I waited for a train back and when the doors opened stepped forward to get on. Then I realised that there was simply no space on the train – it was already packed full, and no-one was getting off. I gather that there are business districts further out and that using the metro is how people get back into town to their accommodation; and this was going-home time. I waited for the next train, and the next, but none were any less crowded. I noticed that each time one or two people were able to insert themselves into the carriage, so when the fourth train arrived I did the same. I then had to travel six stops to the first junction station – between the Red line which I was on, and the Green Line – where I reckoned that people might start getting off. I lost my hold on a grab handle within the first few minutes of the ride, so for the rest of that journey I was relying completely on the press of bodies to keep me upright (which it did). Eventually at the junction station a lot of people got off, and the station after that was where I was doing the same, so in the end it was OK. But it was an uncomfortable experience. Apparently this is a well-known problem for which there doesn’t seem to be a real solution on the cards.

In the end I felt that the Dubai metro was useful, especially during off-peak hours; but the rush-hour crushes make it uncomfortable (the evenings are worse than the mornings). I wouldn’t want to have to do that every day, and visitors may want to bear this in mind when planning their day.

I landed in Dubai at about 1 o’clock local time after seven and a half hours in the air and went though the usual immigration/security stuff. I have to say, Dubai immigration was the least efficient of the three countries that I’ve visited on this trip. And that was as a Brit – as such I could go through a fast-track procedure. Other arrivers, from India for example, had to join the back of long, slow-moving queues. It looked as if they were in for a long wait.

Anyway, I got through and was quickly taken to my hotel, the Hilton on Dubai Creek. It turned out that Trailfinders had got me a super-deluxe room, on a corner, and therefore with views in two directions, including of Dubai Creek. The room was very spacious – probably the best room I’ve stayed in, in fact. (Apart from the Holiday Inn in Rotherham that Val and I stayed in the time the boiler was kaput and we fled the house. That was an enormous room, and very comfortable, although it didn’t have a view. Still, it would have been a view of Rotherham – Canklow, actually, for those who know South Yorkshire – so I reckon a view of Dubai Creek wins it.)

After settling in and taking my ease for a while I went out to explore. Mainly this was to locate the nearest Dubai metro station, which turned out to be Union station, on both the Red and Green lines. It was just about 15 minutes from the hotel which meant a warm walk. However I was immediately struck by one difference between Dubai and Singapore – although the temperature figure was the same (30° or a bit over), Dubai was much drier. As the evening wore on it definitely got cooler which it never did in Singapore, so score several points for Dubai.

After returning to the hotel and eating I went out again and explored the Creek. To be honest this was a bit less exciting than I had hoped – just a dock with a lot of old Arab shows moored. Interesting enough, but not especially exciting. By this time I was very tired – it was nearly 10 o’clock locally, which meant 2am by my time given that I had started the day in Singapore. So I went  to bed and and slept well; until the call to prayer from the mosque next door at 5:45 or so. By this point I was wondering a bit about Dubai. But I got back to sleep and eventually rose at about 8am ready for the new day.

Today has been a travelling day, mostly. I left the hotel in Batu Feringgi at abound 9 o’clock for a flight at 12:15. So there was the usual ‘hanging around the airport’ thing before a very efficient and short flight back to Singapore. A taxi ride from Changi airport got me to my hotel, the Changi Village hotel (in Changi village) by about 2:15.

I spent the latter part of the afternoon taking a walk around Changi Point. This turned out to be very hot (surprise) and I was pretty much melted when I got back to the hotel. I had been researching local restaurants & bars, but I decided instead to spend the evening in the hotel. So I had a meal at their Italian eatery, the Cantina of Venezia, on the 8th floor which had an outdoor terrace. I don’t think the food was very special – certainly not worth what I paid for it – but the setting was sensational. It seemed that I was looking down on the jets coming in to land at Changi airport.

Then I blagged my way into a gathering of regular guests that was arranged by the hotel administration – a sort of ‘keep in touch with your customer’ do, with canapés, little desserts, and drinks. OK, I didn’t blag my way in; I peered round the door, asked what was happening, one of the staff asked me if I was actually staying at the hotel and when I replied that i was, practically hauled me in. I ended up having a fascinating conversation with a French couple who knew northern England very well – they’d been married in Liverpool and knew and liked the Lake District very much.

I need an early night tonight. The flight to Dubai is at 9:35 tomorrow morning, which means I have to be on the shuttle to the airport at 6:30, which in turn means getting up at about 5 am. Bed, here I come.

Chinese temple in George Town

Today I visited George Town, the main city in Penang (which is itself a state of Malaysia). This required a bus ride, on a local bus – but as ever with these things, it was all absolutely straightforward and easy. And cheap, too – the cost of the rid, about 20 kms or so, was MR2.70, or around 50 pence, each way in an air-conditioned bus.

George Town is a strange place. You could say that it was “nearly Singapore”. Like Singapore (and Malacca), it was one of the Straits Settlements, and in fact was claimed by the British (or by the East India Company) almost 40 years before Singapore. For much of the 19th century George Town (and Penang) was at least as important to British interests as was Singapore. I believe that it was only in the 20th century, with the development of the naval base and associated land defences at Singapore, that that city got ahead of Penang in economic and political terms. And in the end, of course, Singapore ended up as one of the world’s city-states, free to put the interests of the city at the heart of the nation. George Town wasn’t as fortunate. That said, it’s apparently still the second most important area of Malaysia, economically-speaking. It has a city population of 700,000, while the urban area that it commands has a population of 2.5m. Much of downtown George Town is dominated by all the paraphernalia of a modern eastern city – high rise apartments and hotels, and shopping malls.

But that’s not what I was there to look at. I was interested in the George Town World Heritage area. This consists of a labyrinth of small streets close to the old port area where formerly the traders, merchants and craftsmen (and women) of George Town made their living. Essentially the streets consist of terraces of buildings, the ground floors of which were given over to business while the first (and sometimes second) floors were given over to living quarters. The enterprise on the ground floor could be anything – a workshop, a small warehouse, a merchant’s office, a retail or wholesale premises, somewhere that sold food and drink – whatever economic activity could be fitted into the structure and from which people could make a living. As I said, it’s very reminiscent of the older parts of Singapore, and i believe that the term ‘shophouses’ applies to the premises in George Town as well as Singapore.

By the 1970s & 1980s things had moved on – the new technology of trade (containers, global networks) rendered much of these old premises redundant, and the older area became very run-down and dilapidated. But the area was declared a World Heritage site in 2008 and various protection measure put in place to preserve the architecture, and it’s become a major tourist attraction.

One problem is that because it’s remained a working area, it’s very difficult to get good pictures of it – the streets are very busy, there are cars parked everywhere, and of course there are endless streams of motor bikes zooming around. So no great pictures, I’m afraid. (the 90º+ heat didn’t help, of course.)

One interesting aspect of the area is that there are a number of Chinese temples. These too are historic (late 19th century in some cases) but I have a feeling that the actual buildings may have been renewed since then. A few of them are very grand.

I also visited one of the Clan Jetties. These are structure that were originally based on boats joined together and projecting out from the shore into the sea, by more than 100 yards. On this structure were built houses and some business premises, and later shops. They were built by the Chinese and each of the jetties was built by a specific clan or extended family. I visited the Chew jetty and I gather it’s the case that many of the current residents (they are still lived-in) are members of the original clan.

Finally, I must report that while in George Town I ate local. I visited a tandoori shop in George Town’s Little India for lunch. Formica tables, simple menu, and I was told what to order – Tandoori Chicken with plain naan. Delicious; and incredibly cheap. The chicken and naan cost me the equivalent of £1.50, and, big spender that I am, I bumped it up to £2.50 by adding a glass of really thick mango juice.