My holiday ended on Wednesday. I was at the airport by 11 o’clock, in the air before 2 o’clock, and getting through UK Border and baggage reclaim between 4:30 and 5pm UK time. I got my car back at 5 o’clock and after successfully negotiating the M25, M40, A43 and the M1, I reached home shortly before 9pm – can’t complain about that. Then there began the post holiday round of unpacking, washing & ironing, of course.

So what did I think of the holiday? After all, this was my fourth visit to Crete in successive years – am I all ‘Crete-d out’? Well, there were times when I was beginning to think so. However, my overall conclusion is that I enjoyed it and I had a good time.

I came to like Heraklion a lot. I mentioned in an earlier post that I was surprised that the town didn’t make more of its port; well, I think I’ve got over that feeling. What I came to realise is that Heraklion isn’t primarily a tourist town, or a resort – it’s the capital of Crete and most of the restaurants and bars are catering primarily for a Greek population. In fact, given that it’s a good-sized city it’s an urban, educated and professional population at that. The number of tourists in Heraklion itself is quite small, I think, and is dwarfed by the local population. Once I’d realised this, I came to enjoy it. Most of the people I was seeing were therefore local people getting on with their lives.

In contrast, Agios Nikolaos was completely touristy. That was probably the most unsatisfying day of the holiday – I got hot and tired and didn’t really discover anything new. And I found the restaurant I visited for lunch less welcoming than the non-tourist restaurants in Heraklion. Little things – in Heraklion, no sooner had you taken your seat in a restaurant or bar but a glass of water would be placed in front of you, together with a small bowl of nibbles, all free of charge, whereas at the restaurant at Ag Nik I had to ask for water, and when it came it was in a bottle that I had to pay for.

Chania, too, shared some of the touristy aspects. The harbour front is undeniably beautiful and I always enjoy walking along it, but it’s also the case that the greeters at the restaurants are undeniably pushy, and again you can get charged for things that you’ve come to take for granted in other places. (Of course, I do recognise that you also get that amazing view.) I enjoyed visiting some lest touristy places, so here’s an honourable mention of the Galileo Cafe, which is on the harbour front, and the Melodica bar on Sifaka, away from the harbour altogether. And I enjoyed really exploring parts of Chania that I’d not been to in previous years – the Splantzia area, for example.

So overall it was a good holiday. But next year I don’t think I will be returning. There will hopefully be other family events happening, on dates that aren’t yet known, so I won’t be making any plans for the late spring or summer.

Crete 2018 – Chania

Chania Harbour from Kastelli (iPhone)

I finished my holiday with a couple of full days in Chania. I had been wondering what I would do with myself – was I mistaken to have gone back there for a fourth time in as many visits? – but the answer was ‘no’. It’s as beautiful as ever, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and I do enjoy just walking around.

Of course I refreshed my memories of the places I already – the lanes around the harbour, the walk out to the lighthouse, and the climb up to Kastelli overlooking the harbour, and I enjoyed seeing them all once again. But I also managed to find one or two places that I hadn’t visited before, the Archeological Museum of Chania, and also the Splantzia area.

The museum was OK. To be truthful, there’s no way it could match the the glories of the Archeological Museum in Heraklion. Chania doesn’t have a Knossos on its doorstep, and while there has been a settlement in the Chania area for a very long time, it seems as if it was always a minor place in the high Minoan period (proto- and neo-Palatial periods) – it only came into some prominence in the later post-palatial or Mycenaean period. And of course, the fact that Chania was then built on top of Kydonia doesn’t help archaeologists – in a place like Chania you can only dig when a site is available, which isn’t often. But there were some lovely Roman mosaics in the museum; indeed, I would say that it’s stronger for remains from the Classical and Roman periods than the Minoan.

I enjoyed exploring the area around Splantzia square. I’d seen (from a distance) one obvious sign of its existence on each of my previous visits, the minaret of Agios Nikolaus church, but had never been able to get up close. This time I did. But what’s a minaret doing on a church? Well, the answer is that after the conquest of Crete by the Ottoman Turks in the 17th century, most churches were converted into mosques, and gained a minaret; then when Crete became fully independent in the early part of the 20th century, the mosques were converted back to churches and the minarets demolished – except (in Crete) in the case of this one. The church was originally part of a Dominican monastery, and there are some ruins in the area around the existing church that I assume data back to the monastic period. Since the Dominicans were a western (Catholic) order, I believe that the monastery would date from the Venetian period.

I also did a sunset cruise. I’d done one of these on my first visit, on the good ship ‘Irene’ and I was disappointed to see her moored up in a far corner of the harbour looking rather sorry for herself – lots of rust streaks and generally not in a good-looking condition. But I found that the sunset cruises were being run this year in a smaller but still traditional boat, and on my final evening in Chania I went on one. It was pretty much the mix as before – a short boat trip out to an island a couple of miles off Chania harbour; sit there in the gentle swell for 40 minutes or so while some people went for a swim; then enjoy some refreshments of fruit and raki; and then as the sun dropped below the island, the run back to the harbour. It was advertised as being from 7:30 to 8:30, but in the event it was more like 7:45 to almost 9pm.

And after that I spent the rest of the evening – until quite late, actually – in the Melodica cafe-bar on Sifaka just outside the Byzantine walls. I’d visited it last year on a hot afternoon, and did the same this year, but this was the first time I’d visited during an evening, and I certainly had a relaxing time. Excellent Cretan wine, and a bit of conversation – recommended. It’s definitely not a tourist place – I was the only non-Greek person there – but welcoming and peaceful.

Chania Harbour from the breakwater

Sunday was the day I transferred from Heraklion to Chania. This was to be by bus, and I already know it would be a long journey – anything up to three hours. Check-in time at my hotel in Chania was two o’clock and I wanted to be there no later than that. There was also the fact that I couldn’t really get any lunch until after I’d checked in, which was another argument for getting to Chania as close to check-in time as possible. So I walked down to the bus station (getting rather hot in the process) and arrived there at just after ten o’clock.

The buses run every hour on the half-hour, and I was able to get a ticket for the next bus, at 10:30. I’m never sure if they check how many tickets they’ve sold, but probably they do – the buses are generally full, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen people refused boarding at the starting point. Anyway, this bus was certainly full on leaving Heraklion but it slowly lost passengers as we went westwards. The main exodus was at Rethymno, which is about two-thirds of the way to Chania. But progress was fairly leisurely, with frequent stops and some departures from the main road – for example, the bus went into the centre of both Rethymno and Souda, from each of which it then had to get back onto the main road. All in all it was almost three hours three hours after leaving Heraklion that the bus rolled into the familiar surroundings of Chania bus station. The ticket cost just €15.something, which was a bit more than I remembered.

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The Venetian Loggia, Heraklion

On Saturday I spent a final day in Heraklion. I went out early in the morning (well, ok, “early-ish”) to re-take some shots of places that I’d taken a couple of days earlier and wanted to repeat, and that hour or so went well. I still hadn’t visited the Archeological Museum so that was on my list of things to do, as was just exploring the city – and putting together in my head the various places I’d strolled through so that I had a better map of it.

First target was the Venetian Loggia, and I think I got better shots of it today. I also learned its secret – it’s not, in fact, Venetian at all; it’s a (very) faithful reconstruction of the original Loggia. Apparently, the original (which was first built in the early 17th century) was damaged a number times over the following centuries, by earthquake, fire and battle. The Ottomans re-purposed it, of course, but with Cretan independence in 1898 proposals began to be made to restore it. However, nothing came to fruition – indeed, exactly the opposite, as the first floor was demolished around the time of the first world war, and then the remaining ground floor was similarly demolished. Nonetheless it was “restored” following the second world war, though I’m not clear on how much was restoration and how much was reconstruction. Nevertheless it’s a beautiful building and worth photographic attention. If I’d been keener I’d have gone out even earlier, but I’m on holiday after all.

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View of the inner harbour, or lake, Agios Nikolaus

Agios Nikolaus (or ‘Ag Nik’) is a smaller resort 40 miles or so east of Heraklion. I’d read about it, and the guidebook suggested that it was perhaps one of the prettiest harbours in Crete. So I decided to take a look, and took a ride on the KTEL bus. The journey took about 90 minutes, and the bus was pretty full both ways.

I’d seen some pictures of Agios Nikolaus and it did indeed look attractive. One thing I hadn’t understood was that the waterfront area (which consists of an outer and inner harbour, a marina, and a couple of public beaches) is surrounded by steep hills. The only way from the bus station would be over one of these hills, and indeed moving around the town seemed to involve hills quite frequently. In the Cretan sunshine this wasn’t the best news, and somewhat dampened my  enthusiasm for the place.

The harbour is indeed very attractive, and is of course surrounded by restaurants and bars. I had a meal here, and for the first time on this holiday I had to order water with a meal – I’d got used to having a bottle of chilled tap water magically appearing. Certainly a glass-full… but not in this place, so I had to order a bottle of mineral water.

Having eaten I explored. I was trying to not have to climb the hills too often, so I walked up a street called Sfakianaki which apparently led to a beach on the actual coast. Even this had a bit of a hill, but soon enough I was looking at the beach. Then I followed a path to the right which would take me along the coast to the marina. Well, it did, and the stretch of coast path was attractive, but the marina was a disappointment. It’s just a series of yacht mooring stations; there’s no activity around them at all. I did enjoy one area, and that was what looked like a boat repair yard, or at least an area where boats that needed repairing had been beached. One boat in particular took my eye – wooden-built and in traditional style. I was able to walk around it (not on board) and take some pictures.

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The Venetian Loggia, Heraklion

I spent yesterday, the first full day of this holiday, just walking around Heraklion. Apart from the two flying visits mentioned in yesterday’s post it was my first encounter with this city. I’d heard many things about it, both good and not-so-good. I had a good-enough map with a couple of suggested walks marked on it, so I decided to follow the map – with the occasional detour to follow my nose – and see what I would see.

At the end of the first hour or so I was pretty enthusiastic about the city. I was surprised at how much of the old town appeared to be intact – I had read that it was badly damaged during the battle of Crete in 1941. However, many of the buildings appeared to be old – Venetian era – and there are a number of specific structures from that time. For example, there’s the Venetian Loggia; the church of St Titus; and a number of fountains, including the Morosini fountain in the middle of the old town. It also helps that many of the streets are pedestrian-only; and of course there are restaurants and bars by the hundred. (As regards the old buildings, I also gather that some of the better ones – the Loggia, for example – have been reconstructed, several times.)

A few hours later I wasn’t so sure. I’d followed the walk to its end at the Archeoligical Museum and had then continued, aiming to get to the port; this appeared to be not far beyond the museum, albeit down a hill. However I was surprised at how difficult it was to make my way that last distance, and how little there was around the port area once I’d got there. The old town, which is up on the hill, is surrounded by wide roads (dual carriageways in UK-speak), and these roads run between the old town and the port. There is therefore a definite discontinuity between the old town and the port. And as I said, once you get there there aren’t many attractions. There’s the old Venetian fortress that I visited last year, and you can walk along the quay side for some distance, but that’s it – very little in the way of bars and restaurants.

I don’t want to be too down on Heraklion – it’s an attractive, busy and vibrant place, but some decisions years ago have restricted their options somewhat. One advantage, however – the KTEL bus station is on these main roads so the buses aren’t trying to get around the wider city too much.

After leaving the port I eventually worked my way back to the Archeological Museum, arriving there at about 3 o’clock. When I’d walked past it a few hours earlier it was an ocean of peace and calm, but this time the covered courtyard outside was packed with people. Looking closer it was obvious that they were a party from a cruise ship. Indeed, they were several parties; I saw at least three differently-numbered badges. I eventually got to speak to one of the guides, intending to ask how long their visit would last. it took a minute or two to make myself understood but the guide got the point. “One hour”, she said, “you come back in one hour and we will be gone!”. Then she leaned forward and said quietly to me “is a good idea, I think….”. Having been on cruise excursions many times, it was interesting to see it from another perspective. In the event I didn’t return – I found a glass of wine in a bar and decided that it would mark the end of my explorations for the day.

Is he landing in the car park?

It’s early summer so it must be time for another trip to Crete. This is my fourth in as many years. On previous visits I’ve based myself at Chania in the western end of the island (with side-visits to Paleaochora), but this time I’m having four nights in Heraklion. It’s the largest city in Crete and lies on the centre of the north coast (all of the largest cities and towns are on the north coast). I visited Heraklion a couple of times already – once on my first trip to Crete when I did an excursion to Knossos and the archeological museum in Heraklion, and the second time was last year, when I did a day trip to Heraklion on the public bus.

Given that I was going to spend the first few days in Heraklion it made sense to fly in to Heraklion airport rather than Chania. A number of airlines do that route – step forward, Ryanair – but my experience with them was so uncomfortable in 2016 that I preferred to not use them. BA do flights to Heraklion, from Gatwick, so I planned the trip to drive to Heathrow the day before, do a Premier Inn Sleep-Park-Fly stay and leave the car at Heathrow, get the coach from Heathrow to Gatwick, and fly to Heraklion. Then the flight home, which would be from Chania, would be back to Heathrow where I’d left the car.

So far, that’s all worked out well. I drove to Heathrow on Tuesday and then had an afternoon in London. Wednesday was a long day – up early to make sure I got the car into the car park system in time for the coach to Gatwick and then the flight to Heraklion. Unfortunately that was delayed (late in-bound aircraft) so we arrived at Heraklion rather later than originally planned – about 9pm instead of 8:15. What with waiting for bags, etc, it was gone 9:30 before I stepped out of the airport. And then the fun really began.

I’d havered between getting a taxi to the hotel or using the bus. My original plan had been the bus as I’ve heard bad things about Greek taxi drivers, but there was some uncertainty as to whereabouts in the city the bus would go – it was likely to be a city bus rather than the long-distance KTEL coaches that I’m used to – so I’d decided to get a taxi. (This meant getting Euros at the airport, of course.) Then I ran into a big problem – there were no taxis! In fact there was a sign at the taxi bay, “Taxi Strike”! Not good news, at approaching 10pm when I was feeling tired. However, away in the distance I could see an illuminated sign for the Bus Station, so I dragged my bags over there and found a ticket shack where I bought a bus ticket into town for €1.60, fora bus “in 10 minutes….”. I shouldn’t have been so doubtful – the bus (#6) duly turned up, we sat for about 5 minutes, and then it trundled off. I was checking progress with Google Maps on the phone, but just when I was thinking we were at a good spot to jump off, the driver announced that we had indeed reached “The Centre”. So it was then about a 15 minute walk with my bags to the hotel, where everything went well. Then, despite, the time, I went back out for drink or two.

Next post – first impressions of Heraklion.

‘Friendship of the People’ fountain, Alexanderplatz

On my last afternoon I went on a walking tour of East Berlin – or at least, around some remnants thereof. I organised this through AirBnB – it was one of their ‘experiences’ for Berlin and was advertised as “East Berlin with a travel book writer”. The walk lasted for just over three hours and to be honest was quite tough going – I was pretty tired by the end, as we were on our feet through most of what was a hot afternoon. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It gave a fascinating glimpse into some aspects – probably some of the better aspects, to be honest – of a vanished state.

The first half of the tour was a walk along Karl-Marx-Allee. This runs eastwards from the Alexanderplatz area in what was East Berlin. In fact we began with a quick look around Alexanderplatz itself and had the various buildings explained to us. Some were definitely GDR (German Democratic Republic, i.e. East Germany) era, and some, to our surprise, dated from earlier, the 20s and 30s. That said, most of what was there before WWII was barely there by the end – I read that in 1945 the Red Army fought it way through Berlin via Alexanderplatz and I gather that as a result pretty much everything there was destroyed. After the war the station was repaired and brought back into use, some of the existing buildings were restored and the rubble of other buildings was removed, thus leaving space for GDR-era new buildings.

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The Reichstag Dome

On the morning of my first full day in Berlin I visited the dome of the Reichstag. Sounds fascinating…. Actually, it was interesting and certainly dramatic looking.

The Reichstag building is where Germany’s parliament meets. However, that’s always been the case. The building was completed in 1894 and was used thereafter just over 20 years by the parliament of the German Empire. In 1918 following the defeat of imperial Germany and abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II the Weimar Republic was proclaimed from a balcony of the building, and it was used as the parliament building for the republic. Then in early 1933 the National Socialists came to power, and shortly afterwards a fire gutted the main meeting chamber. This was used as the pretext for emergency rule – i.e. rule without the need for parliamentary approval – and for the rest of the Nazi era the Reichstag building was unused. Then it was damaged both in the bombing of Berlin and during the final battle for Berlin at the end of WWII. There’s a famous image of the Hammer & Sickle flag being raised on the roof by red army soldiers during their capture of Berlin.

After the war the building was essentially a ruin. To add to the problem the boundary between the Soviet and US zones of Berlin ran within just metres of it – the Reichstag was in West Berlin, but the Brandenburg Gate, just a couple of hundred yards away, lay in East Berlin. So the building lay largely derelict for a number of years. The Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) had its capital in Bonn, including the location of its parliament, the Bundestag, so there was no pressing use for the Reichstag building in Berlin. However the building was repaired and restored, at least externally – essentially the shell was restored, and internal meeting rooms were created, but no formal chamber was built. Also, as part of these restorations the previous cupola on the roof was removed. (The German Democratic Republic – East Germany – declared East Berlin to be its capital and built its own parliament building in the east. However, this was a Soviet-style show parliament, not an expression of democratic will.)

Then came the events late 1989 when the wall came down, and in October 1990 Germany was formally reunited. Continue Reading »

A visit to Berlin


The Brandenburg Gate

I recently spent a few days in Berlin. This was my first real visit to Germany – I’m not going to count changing planes at Frankfurt, nor even a day visit on a cruise to Warnemunde – and definitely my first first to Berlin.

The summary is: I had a great time. It helped that the weather was great – blue skies and temperatures around 25º – but I also found the city endlessly fascinating. Of course, it played straight into one of my great interests, history. Berlin has so much of that, both good and bad, and most  of it very dramatic.

I won’t go into a long detailed account of the whole visit. This post will contain a summary and then there will be two more posts about specific activities that I did and really enjoyed.

I few from Manchester to Berlin Schonefeld airport with Ryanair, arriving mid-afternoon. I’d researched transport options from the airport into the city, and bought myself a 3-zone day ticket at Schonefeld Airport station. That would be valid on the S-bahn, U-bahn and regional trains of Deutsche Bahn, and I chose to get regional train RB14 from Schonefeld (the terminus for that service) to Alexanderplatz, the nearest station to my hotel. The journey took about 25 minutes, with just a few stops. (I could also have used the S-bahn but that would have taken longer, perhaps twice as long, with many more stops.) That RB14 train seems to run at 30-minute intervals throughout the day, and calls at the major stations on the StadtBahn, the string of stations through the city-centre: Ostkreuz, Ostbahnhof, Alexanderplatz, Friedrichstrasse, and Hauptbahnhof.

My hotel was just off Alexanderplatz – I’d chosen it because the location was ‘central enough’, and it was just 5 minutes’ walk from the S-bahn and U-bahn stations at Alexanderplatz. It also turned out to have a number of restaurants nearby, plus handy shops around the station itself for lunchtime snacks and other practical things – there was a pharmacy there, for example. Finally, there are some touristy things on Alexanderplatz itself – the famous World Clock, for example. (And of course I remember the Alexanderplatz scenes in the film “The Bourne Supremacy”, for my money the best in that franchise.)

I spent three nights in Berlin, so I had the late afternoon and evening of the first day plus two complete days after that. Then on the final day I just went straight to the airport after breakfast as my flight was at about 12 noon. As for what I did, well mainly I just walked around, getting a feel for the city. I made a couple of visits to each of Potsdammerplatz and the Brandenburg Gate; I walked past the Reichstag several times, as well as visiting it (to be covered in a later post); from the Bandenburg Gate I walked all the way up Unter den Linden back to Alexanderplatz; I walked all along the Ku’dam; I walked along the river from Hauptbahnhof back to Alexanderplatz; I did a long walk down Karl-Marx-Allee looking at some remains of the DDR (again, to be covered in its own post); and on the last evening I explored the Nikolai Viertel quarter for a while. There’s lots I didn’t do – for example, I didn’t visit any museums or galleries. Partly this was because I just wanted to get a feel for the city, and partly because the weather was so good it seemed a shame not to be outside enjoying it. (See here for a blog about another visit to Berlin in less good weather!) So I do feel another visit coming on. Perhaps in the late autumn or early winter – less good weather and darker days would lead me naturally towards doing things indoors.

Finally, here’s a selection of images that I took during my wanders.