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.

Rabbies Tour day 3

View from the window, third day

If the weather on our second day of our tour had disappointed then on the third day it was back to the glorious sunshine of the first. There was still a stiff breeze and it was cold, but everything looked wonderful in the sun. And of course the previous day’s rain had washed the air completely clear.

The plan was to leave Arran’s west coast and take the small ferry over to Claonaig on the Kintyre peninsula, and doing so meant that the day started with a drive round the north of the island to Lochranza. We had time here to visit the ruined castle and explore the small harbour and anchorage, but it was so windy and cold that after exploring the castle ruins most people headed for the ferry dock about a quarter of a mile away where we found a sheltered spot to drink a takeaway cup of tea from a local stall. Then it was onto the ferry for the short crossing to Claonaig. I went up on deck to get some images but it was very windy and cold out on the open sea.

After landing in Claonaig we drove north to Tarbert, a very pretty spot with a sheltered harbour and – yes – yet another ruined castle. (I gather that the west of Scotland was a pretty warlike place in the past.) And yes, given that we were on the Kintyre peninsula Pete our tour guide did give us a quick blast of That Song by Wings….

Then it was on again, to Inverary. Once again we had the chance to walk around. We’ve been to Inverary before and had visited the castle (this one being of the stately home variety rather than ruinous). In fact the visit wasn’t very long, but we had time to explore the small town and have some lunch as well.

View from the Rest and Be Thankful car park

Back in the bus we went onto the next stop – the top of the Rest and Be Thankful pass, which is route from the west side of Argyll to the more south-facing area at the top of Loch Long. Apparently it was given this name by soldiers in the 18th century who had climbed the steep military road out of Glen Croe and were on their way over to Inverary. This was the end of the climb, and it became the practice for the soldiers to take a break – to truly ‘rest, and be thankful’ that the climb was over.

View across Loch Lomond from Tarbet pier

Then there was just one more stop to make. The official itinerary called for a stop at Luss in the central part of Loch Lomond, but Pete suggested a change so we called at the small landing stage at Tarbet, in the northern part of the Loch instead. Again, very pretty and more photos were taken.

After that was the drive down the length of Loch Lomond which was over far too quickly. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves on the M8 going past Glasgow airport, and heading into Glasgow to drop Ilona off. Then we headed back to Edinburgh, and we were outside the Rabbies Cafe-bar not long after 6 o’clock. And that was the end of our Rabbies tour to Arran.

But our day hadn’t ended…. we walked round to the Crowne Plaza hotel, checked in, and found that this time we’d hit the jackpot. We’d been upgraded. I need to explain that this hotel is situated in several houses along Royal Terrace, which was laid out in the 1820s as an eastern extension of Edinburgh New Town – here’s a link to a Wikipedia article about it. Obviously most of the rooms in the houses have been subdivided, but a few – just three, I think – have kept their original full width and full height, and we had one of these for the next two nights. Fantastic!

Room 110, Crown Plaza Hotel, Edinburgh

Rabbies Tour day 2

Goat Fell, morning day 2

The second day of our tour of Arran with Rabbies dawned a bit differently from day 1 – as you can see above. That’s the view from outside our guest house at breakfast time.

However, it was’t actually raining at breakfast time nor when we set off, so the day’s first business was a walk across Machrie Moor to the various standing stones and stone circles. These are reckoned to be at least 3,000 years old, but as usual with these things, no-one has any real idea what their purpose was. One thing is clear, however: given the number and size of the stones (that large standing stone is approaching 4 metres high), this wasn’t the work of one person working on a whim – there must have been an organised effort to create these structures, involving many people and continuing over many years, perhaps generations. So that suggests that there must have been a society, with hierarchies; someone to decide what should be done, how, and with the authority (political? religious?) to get other people to do the work; and many other people to actually do the hauling and digging. Given the thin margin of agricultural surplus that would have been available at that time, I think the society was quite large. Yet we know nothing about them.

As we were leaving the rain was starting. We then drove to the southern end of Arran and escaped the rain, reaching Drumadoon Bay near Blackwaterfoot. This was just a wide, wind-swept beach – quite evocative in the gathering gloom. After that we drove round the southern end of the island and back up the eastern side, going through Whiting Bay and Lamlash before arriving at the Wineport near Brodick Castle for lunch. We had a couple of brief stops for ‘photo ops’ on the way, but by this time it was raining steadily.

After lunch, and in view of the continuing heavy rain we did mainly indoors-y things. We visited some craft shops near the restaurant: a leather good store where Val and I each bought a new belt, and a ‘smellies’ shop – Arran Aromatics. There was also a small craft brewery, Arran Brewery, which other people in the groupl visited. Finally it was off to Lochranza at the northern end of the island for a visit to the Arran distillery. This is a new distillery, just 22 years old. Indeed, when it opened it was the first new distillery in Scotland for a very long time. It’s very small – the wash tun, the brewing vessels and both sets of stills (four in total, two used for each stage of a double-distillation) are all located in one room. Quite a contrast with the Glenfiddich distillery which we visited a year earlier!

We were dropped at our lodgings at around 5:30. After resting for a while, having a cup of tea and cleaning ourselves up, we got very wet on the short walk round to the Douglas hotel. Still, we enjoyed our meal there, we sank a bottle of Chilean Merlot, and enjoyed a dram of Arran malt to finish.

Rabbies Tours bus

Actually, we’re already back. We went to Edinburgh on Sunday in late April for a first night, then joined the three-day, two-night Rabbies tour to Arran early the following morning. We finished the holiday off with another two nights in Edinburgh, returning home on Friday afternoon. Mostly the weather smiled on us (always a benefit in Scotland), the tour was great, and there’s always things to do in Edinburgh whatever the weather.

The tour was a three-day, two-night affair. Starting in Edinburgh early on Monday we drove over to Glasgow for another pickup then south to the Ayrshire coast. The target at the end of the day would be Brodick, the main ferry port on Arran, but we visited other places along the way.

Whitelee Wind Farm

First was the Whitelee Wind Farm…. an unusual attraction I’ll admit, but apparently it’s the second largest in Europe and has just over 250 turbines; it can generate a lot of electricity. Scotland is aiming to produce 100% of their electricity from renewable sources by 2022, and apparently they’re well on track to achieve that. (One of those small blobs at the bottom of the windmill is a person.)



Then we went to Culzean Castle, which is actually an 18th century stately home, where we spent several hours and had lunch; and finally we visited Alloway, the birthplace of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. We saw the Auld Kirk of Alloway and the Brig o’Doon as well as the memorial gardens. Read Tam o’Shanter for more about the Kirk and the Brig. (Warning! it’s long, and in Scots…. but very evocative.)


After that we did the drive to Ardrossan where, at six o’clock, we boarded the CalMac ferry ‘Caledonian Isles’ for the 55 minute crossing to Brodick. We ate our evening meal on the ferry, as we had been advised that places to eat in Brodick might close pretty early in the evening.

Goat Fell, Arran, from our guest house window – first evening

We were booked into a guest house (Hunter’s) in Brodick which was delightful. We met the proprietor, Caroline, who was very friendly and chatty, and who showed us to our large, comfortable room at the front of the house overlooking Brodick Bay . The weather that first day was delightful – sunny with blue skies – but not that warm as there was a chill wind blowing. Still, the weather gave us excellent views of the Scottish landscape during the day, and the view from our room of the bay and Goat Fell, the highest mountain on Arran, was pretty special.


We went out for a drink later at the Douglas hotel, just over a quarter of a mile away, which we discovered a) served food and b) seemed to be still doing so at 8:30 or so. A quick look at the menu revealed things we would enjoy so we decided that would be our dinner location for the following evening. Then it was back to the guest house to bed, for a fairly early start the next day.

Here are some images I took with the iPhone while i was away. Most of these were taken at times when I didn’t have the DSLR with me, i.e. I wasn’t on what I was expecting to be a photographic excursion, but then I ran into a scene that I wanted to capture. One or two of them already appear in other posts – apologies for the repeat.

First, some night images:

Next, a few from around Singapore:

And finally some from Kuala Lumpur: