Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Capri and Cool Breezes

While there is no doubt that the Amalfi Coast has one of the most spectacular coastlines in the world, it’s really all about the water! So clear and the colour of Persian Blue, everyone who visits in the heat of summer are overcome with the immediate urge to either get in it, get on it or enjoy the cool breezes that come off it! Along the coast, thousands crowd tiny beaches while slightly off shore, hundreds of boats take to the water to enjoy Amalfi’s waters. We had already been out to sea once since arriving, but we were keen to find another excuse to further enjoy the Mediterranean, so what better way than to take the boat over to the renowned island of Capri that lay just over 30 minutes away.

Having been on board quite a tiny craft a few days before, we were quite surprised by the size of the boat that would be taking us over to the island. Clearly its large capacity was an indication of the amount of people that normally head over to Capri during the summer months, so we began to brace ourselves for the type of tourist onslaught that is normally reserved for major Italian holiday hotspots. Fortunately, in the end the boat was well below capacity by the time we departed Positano, so we could position ourselves nicely along the gunwale to enjoy the views and of course the cooling sea breezes. As we powered along, we skirted the three small rugged looking islands collectively called ‘Li Galli’ that apparently have a history dating back to ancient times. It was here that mythical sirens were said to lure sailors with their beauty and lilting voices, causing boats to be shipwrecked onto the rocks. More recently the islands have became famous for being once owned by Rudolf Nureyev, proving that not only was he a great ballet dancer, but also had a keen eye for breathtaking real estate.

As we approached Capri, I must admit to being slightly under whelmed. Despite its reputation as one of the playgrounds of the rich and famous, it provided nowhere near the same visual impact of Positano and other towns along the Amalfi coast. When I made this remark to Jules she reminded me that what I was actually looking at was the port and the real town of Capri was to be found high up in the hills above. The port itself was all that we were expecting with hordes of tourists and tacky souvenir shops. Queues seemed to be everywhere … for the funicular heading up the hill, for novel open-top taxis, for tiny buses that tour the island, for boat trips to the famed ‘Blue Grotto’ and for other boats heading back on the water to get away from all the chaos.

As recently experienced hikers, we thought that we might provide the exception to the rule by actually getting to the town of Capri by following the 20-minute walking trail that leads you up the hill. Amazingly, we were pretty much by ourselves! So by the time the other visitors below had reached the head of their queues, we were already there, a little puffed but fitter for the experience. Just as it was below, the town was very busy but to be fair, it was a whole lot nicer. There was clearly a touch of sophistication here with narrow alleys filled with quaint Italian buildings converted into all manner of high end shopping. Restaurants were abound, each proudly displaying photographs of the various high profile celebrities who had previously dined there. Considered to be somewhat of a fashion centre, Capri boasts an extensive range of boutiques for the style conscious, as long as you are prepared to wear either white, off white or a pale shade of beige as these colours seem to be the official uniform of the well healed.

Like many such places we have visited in the past, Capri had everything but seemed to lack something! It was like looking into a glossy picture book world that wasn’t quite real ... a little too manufactured for our liking. What we thought might suit us better would be the nearby Anacapri, only a short distance away. This is often unfairly considered to be the down market version of Capri and over the years has tended to live in the shadow of its more famous neighbor. So being a little too far to walk, we boarded a bus for one of the most hair raising 10 minute trips of our lives. With narrow winding roads traversing steep cliffs and with an almost vertical drop below, there were quite a few audible gasps from the passengers. It seemed that disaster was imminent with every turn, possibly resulting in a repeat of the final scene from the movie ‘The Italian Job’ … but somehow we made it!

Anacapri had a totally different atmosphere from where we had just been. It was much smaller, with far less crowds and was decidedly less pretentious. We sensed that in all the hype that revolved around Capri, such smaller towns had all but been forgotten, yet as a community they were desperately trying to jump on board the tourist bandwagon having seen its obvious economic benefits. It was quiet and gentle in comparison; an ideal place for a gelato and a pleasant stroll before heading back to the chaos of the port.

Indeed by the time we had made it back by late afternoon, the scene was even more manic than we had experienced earlier. Day-trippers such as us were by now all converging back to the boats and clambering to get themselves back to the mainland. So there was a slight sense of relief when our boat (much fuller than when we arrived) finally upped anchor and began to set sea bound for Positano. It had been an interesting and enjoyable visit, despite all the crowds. Jules and I were glad to have experienced Capri, as it is one of those much talked about places that we felt had to be seen. As we bounced along on the afternoon swell, holding our hats and admiring the coastal view as our boat pushed into the wind, we knew that this was one of those travel episodes that would remembered as much for the trip as the destination.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Walk of the Gods

I’m not sure whether it’s our recent desire to experience the great outdoors or the thought of those extra kilos we have put on while tasting the local cuisine, but Jules and I have found ourselves doing quite a bit of hiking of late. We are certainly not seasoned trail blazers by any means, but the challenge of a good climb, the possibility of some scenic views and the promise of a beer at the end is normally enough to get us interested. Such was the case when Jules suggested that we might like to tackle the much talked about trek from Positano (via Nocelle) to Bomerano, which goes by the intriguing title of ‘The Walk of the Gods’. Now, we have both been traveling long enough to be a little wary of grand titles given to certain walking trails … sometime the hype can overshadow the actual trek. However, as we had already experienced some of the breathtaking views from the cliff tops overlooking the Amalfi coast, we looked forward to this particular walk in anticipation of the amazing sights it might offer.

With seemingly endless days of 30+ degree temperatures, we knew that we would have to begin the walk quite early in the day … a feat easier said than done when you’ve slipped into holiday mode! However, with the mountains above Positano still in shadows, we began the initial climb to Nocelle. We had been warned that this part of the walk would possibly be the most testing, as it consisted of a very steep series of steps winding up the cliff face. Well, when I say a ‘series’ of steps, what I really mean is an ‘awful lot’ of steps! It was a few days later, with our muscles still feeling the pain, that we found out that the actual total number of steps covering the 400 metres upward was over 1700! It took us 45 minutes and was a very testing way to begin. So with a certain degree of satisfaction, we sat down for a minute in a small piazza in Nocello, guzzling water and looking back down toward Positano that sat far below.

Our initial plan for the 7 kilometre walk was to see how we felt after an hour or two and if the going was getting too tough, we would simply turn back, but having come this far we just knew we would have to press on. Although we weren’t right at the top of the mountain range we were pretty close, on a trail that seemed to thread its way along the very edge of its rocky ridges. Occasionally the track would dip back into dark leafy valleys then emerge once again to reveal spectacular views of the Amalfi coastline and beyond. Gradually we began to see more walkers, but they were all heading in the opposite direction than us! It seemed that they might have been more aware of those steps from Positano to Nocelle than we had been and had chosen for the more favorable down hill option to finish their journey rather than at the start.

As we pressed on, we came across the occasional deserted stone ‘rustico’ and wondered whether some folks might have been totally seduced by such an amazing outlook, only to forget about the problems associated with inaccessibility of the location. True, the views did seem to get better and better the further we progressed and we could well see the temptation to build up there. Even when the trail turned inland on the final stretch, we could see evidence of small dwellings carved into the cliff face itself, looking like something straight from the days of the ancient Aztecs. Those who had somehow managed to eke out an existence at these lofty heights had over the years carved staggered tiers into the hillsides on which grapes, olives, lemons and corn seemed happy to grow.

After four hours of walking and a little leg weary, Jules and I finally wandered into Bomerano. Unlike the tourist towns down by the coast, this was by comparison a sleepy little place. It was well into lunchtime by now and most of the businesses were closed. All was quiet except for a few old men sitting on chairs in the piazza, discussing life as Italian men do, while watching the young men set up what looked like a small performance stage for the evenings entertainment. Jules and I bypassed them all and headed straight to the pub to enjoy the coldest glass of Peroni Beer we could buy … boy, did it taste good! With drinks in hand we also took up a seat overlooking the piazza to observe the scene and to contemplate our hiking achievement.

As we savored our icy cold drinks, we observed other venturers preparing to tackle the trek in the reverse direction. By now the heat of the day had well and truly settled in and although we didn’t envy what they were about to physically endure, we knew that they would be amply rewarded for their efforts, as we had been for ours. ‘The Walk of the Gods’ had well and truly lived up to its grand name and reputation as one of Italy’s great walks. However, at this point we were more than happy to conveniently take the bus back to Positano where it had all began.

Friday, 26 July 2013

The Captain & The Coast of Amalfi

With anticipation and a touch of car sickness, we finally arrived in Positano. It was so good to leave the grime and congestion of Naples behind us and to break out into the countryside to eventually catch sight of the spectacular coastline of the Amalfi coast. Even though the narrow winding roads had some effect on Jules’ stomach, she was more than pleased that getting there had gone so smoothly. The place she had chosen for us to stay was not in Positano itself, but sat high on the cliffs facing the picturesque township, so it appeared to us daily much as it does on countless post cards, only better!

It was of course the height of summer, so we were anticipating huge crowds when we eventually made it into town. However, to our surprise it was relatively quiet, as foreign and Italian visitors alike had by that time taken up their position on the neatly lined rows of sun beds along the beach and most of the charter boats had already set off for the day. So, while local restaurants prepared their tables for the lunch time trade and the local shops owners hung out there tourist tempting trinkets, Jules and I wandered around the narrow streets taking it all in. It is hard to imagine such a picturesque coastal spot, with pastel coloured buildings staggering their way up the cliffs to overlook the azure waters of the Mediterranean. Having provided a backdrop to such movies as ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, Positano has developed a worldwide reputation as the place to visit to experience a true Italian summer.

With memories of driving the coastal roads still fresh in our minds, we decided that the only way to see the rest of the Amalfi coast was by water. So the next day we booked ourselves onto one of the many smaller charter boats that head down the coast daily for a touch of swimming, sightseeing, eating and drinking… all the ingredients for a perfect day! Our tiny wooden boat was captained by Salvatore, an old Italian seafarer who was as tanned as an old sandal and with a cheeky sense of humor that comes with having one of the best jobs in the world! As we chugged along the coast, Salvatore would regale us with tales about the various coastal features and significant buildings we were seeing along the way. When he wasn’t doing that, he was handing out drinks or entertaining us with his repertoire of classic Italian songs. When he sensed that we were getting a little hot, he would drop anchor at a picturesque spot so that we could cool off in the crystal clear waters. One of these stops was at a secret ‘grotto’ where we could swim inside a cave to view the jade green waters. This spot was nowhere near as famous as the ‘Blue Grotto’ on nearby Capri, but it also didn’t have the tourist traffic either, so we could totally enjoy the experience alone.

Although we had been slowly meandering down the coast, it was early afternoon by the time we reached the actual town of Amalfi. This was quite a bit larger than Positano with a harbour bustling with boats, coaches and cars transporting tourists to and from the various scenic spots surrounding this famous town. It all seemed a little too hectic for us and at that point we knew we had made the right choice in basing ourselves near Positano. Salvatore also thought it was a bit too busy and as he was starting to think about lunch, he chose to turn the boat around and head back a little way up the coast to a tiny spot called Santa Croce Beach. Here we would enjoy a wonderfully traditional Italian meal complete with enough courses to see most of our small band of fellow sailors strung out on the deck like beached whales for the return journey home.

Today’s lunch was indeed bigger than normal with the addition of yet another course to the menu compliments of Salvatore, who had managed to catch a large fish (around 3 foot long) earlier in the morning and had brought it to the chef to cook and share. While each course just kept on coming, Salvatore managed to pace himself nicely, after all he was used to such banquet meals, indulging in them almost daily. In between explaining various dishes, how to eat the large local lemons and introducing himself to fellow diners, he managed a few mouthfuls of each course, then nicely broke it up with a glass of vino. This probably explains why he was in such fine singing voice on the way home as he stood at the stern of the boat steering the rudder with his foot. He had clearly had yet another great day and so had we!

In Captain Salvatore’s little wooden boat we had experienced all that the Amalfi coast had to offer compacted into just one day. Through his conviviality, the scenery and the sea air (not to mention the food and wine) Jules and I had momentarily tasted ‘La Dolce Vita’ and I’ve got to say it wasn’t half bad! It may sound a little cliché, but there is something in this intoxicating mix that repeatedly entices Italians, foreigners and romantics of the world back here each summer.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

On the Streets of Pompeii

Touching down in Naples, Jules and I could see the hazy, yet unmistakable silhouette of Mt. Vesuvius looming large on the distant horizon. Below on the foothills that led down to the ocean there were thousands of houses and apartments of the city, whose comparative scale only further accentuated the overwhelming presence of the dormant volcano. Over the years the local population and the giant mountain have somehow managed to co-exist and despite the various eruptions recorded throughout history (the most recent being in 1944), the local Napolese have always returned to the area in the knowledge that such events were relatively few and far between. However, to see first hand the destruction caused by molten lava, ash and poisonous gases you need go no further than the cities most popular tourist attraction … Pompeii.

Jules had stretched the budget for a driver to take us from Naples to Positano and as we would be passing Pompeii along the way, we asked if we could make a small detour in order to visit this much celebrated archeological site. While we first imagined that the ancient Roman city would be well away from the major populated areas, we eventually discovered that it was actually just off the local freeway and surrounded by suburbs. However, once we had exited the motorway, the proliferation of concrete constructions quickly gave way to a large green belt that much better suited the type of environment that might have existed there over 3000 years ago.

Once we entered Pompeii itself and opened up our map, we began to appreciate the scale of the original city. We could see that in its day this was quite a place, complete with bustling streets, thriving businesses, venues for public gatherings and homes representing various status in Roman society. It seemed quite incredible that a township of this size could have been suddenly covered by metres of volcanic ash on that fateful day in 79 AD and then managed to lay totally undiscovered until the 1700’s. Even the name of the original city had almost been totally forgotten with the passing of time. Today, the archeological dig still continues, with only three quarters of the site excavated and several large areas remaining roped off to the public.

Jules and I had entered through the Porta Marina (the original town gate) and then worked our way up the hill toward the ancient city to eventually arrive at ‘The Forum’, which was once the spacious main square of Pompeii. From here we headed down the main street as Romans once did in ancient times. It was fascinating to still see the grooves and ruts worn into the flagstone road as a result of years of use by horse drawn chariots. We also noticed the large stepping-stones used by town’s folk to cross the street in order to avoid getting their sandals wet when the roads were regularly flooded.

With limited time we darted around to some of the most popular venues in town during Romans times. We were more than impressed with the Amphitheatre that once seated 20,000 people and the Great Theatre, where the greatest actors and entertainers of the day would have performed. As we sat high up in this semi-circled arena enjoying a cooling breeze, a couple of patriotic Canadian tourists stood in the centre of the stage and burst into their national anthem, proving to us all the amazing acoustic qualities of this space. Of more historical significance was that here was where emperor Julius Caesar was murdered by his Roman senators on the ‘Ides of March’ (March 15) in 44 BC, a date that would remain poignant throughout history and often quoted as a date to ‘beware’ in Shakespeare’s famous play.

While the hot sun continued to beat down on the ancient streets, we both wandered around and imagined what life might have been like during these times. A visit to the Bath House revealed some amazing architectural features and relief sculptures while the ‘House of the Faun’, (so named because of the bronze statue of a dancing faun found in a central water feature) provided an indication of how the more wealthy residents of the city might have lived in their day. Of course there were also several plaster cast remnants of some of the poor souls who lost their lives on that eventful day, further humanizing the impact of the great eruption.

In the end, we were not at all surprised that Pompeii remains one of the most visited archeological sites in the world. More than any textbook or museum, the ruins provided us with a wonderful insight into the daily life of regular people during those ancient times. While our stay was all too short, we had managed to cover quite a bit of ground although to be fair, even a full day wouldn’t have fully done it justice. There was so much that had managed to be preserved and so many small details to be discovered. These streets had witnessed such a tumultuous event, but through the devastation a unique time capsule had somehow been revealed.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Testament to the Power of a Volcano

On my last blog post, I was mentioning ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and their mythical connection to Santorini. Well, their story continues … after having quite an adventure searching for the ‘Golden Fleece’, our intrepid band of heroes apparently sailed past Thira (now Santorini) on their return journey, only to encounter a bronze giant known as Talos who stood on top of a mountain throwing giant rocks at passing ships in order to keep them away from his kingdom. Many historians have naturally drawn an analogy here with the violent volcanic eruptions that occurred on the island over 3600 years ago. By all accounts this must have been an apocalyptic event, with the devastation literally tearing the island apart and wiping out its Minoan inhabitants. There are also several theories that the Santorini eruption may have even caused the destruction of the legendary city of Atlantis.

Early into our visit, Jules and I had taken the bus to the archeological dig Akrotiri where an ancient Minoan village has been uncovered from around the time of the eruption. While it is nowhere near as large or as in tact as Pompeii, it is relatively well preserved and did give us some idea of what life might have been like before this catastrophic event. However, in order to get a real sense of what caused this devastation, we had to do no more than look across the water from our verandah to the baron looking island of Nea Kameni to see the remnants of the burnt out volcano. Not that its completely finished yet, because as recently as 1950 it has been providing small eruptions just to remind everyone that it is still a force.

So early one morning we boarded one of the many wooden boats that take visitors over to the desolate island to allow them to come as close as they dare to an active volcano. On our particular boat, there was a large contingent from Finland who I think were actually more interested in enjoying the sun, beer and swimming in the crystal clear waters than actually hiking up a steep hill to see a dormant volcano, but it was all part of their tour package so they were happy to go along. When we docked, what struck us immediately was the unearthly quality of the landscape. What looked from a distance to be scrubby spinifex, turned out to be piles of misshaped rocks that had obviously been a result of the volcano long ago. There was little in the way of plant life at all, so much so that if a film director wanted to produce a sci-fi movie set on a distant planet, here would be a very good place to start.

The trek to the highest point of the volcano was dry and dusty and while there was plenty of evidence of previous volcanic activity, there appeared to be very little happening today. Deep chasms of crumbling rock suggested the areas where the volcanic vents may lay, but for now we would just have to be satisfied with the desolate landscape the unnatural views provided. More tangible evidence could be found at the other side of the island with the promise of a swim in the hot springs that lay just off shore. This greatly excited our Finland friends who were the first to leap off the boat when we arrived. By the time I finally hopped in and headed toward the warm waters, I could see them already in the shallows, caking themselves from head to toe in volcanic mud amongst much laughter. The mud is apparently good for the skin, but to me it just gave them the appearance of having been covered in chocolate sauce, which I guess was part of the fun.

Reading some earlier background information about the volcanic eruption, it was claimed that its force was the equivalent of 1000 atomic bombs. While such an impact is almost unimaginable, the end result was that Santorini, which was originally one island, suddenly was split into several islands of various sizes. One of the largest pieces to detach itself became the island of Thirasia, which we could see quite clearly from our apartment verandah. With a resident population of around 200 people, it is quite an isolated existence, however what the locals do rely upon is the daily visit of tourists and so that would be our next destination. With the Fins finally cleaned up, back on board and happily sitting back with a beer in hand, we headed across the straight to the next island.

Thirasia is an idyllic little settlement with all the scenic benefits of its larger neighbours but without the noise of traffic or other problems that result from a larger population. Things here are pretty much as they have been for decades, with ‘mod-cons’ only slowly beginning to infiltrate their traditional existence. A few small open-air tavernas nestle along the coast with families selling all kinds of meat and fish dishes cooked over wood fire coals. While the folk from Finland were tucking into lunch, Jules and I decided to walk the shore to find a nice secluded spot for a swim. While the beaches consisted purely of washed pebbles, there were still plenty of nice spots off the rocks to experience the pristine waters of the bay. Later, we walked down to a small wooden platform overlooking the water where ‘Tony the Greek’ prepared us both the best souvlaki we had ever tasted.

Back on the boat late into the afternoon, everyone appeared relaxed and subdued. Whether it was the long lunch, the heat or the copious amount of beer drunk by our Finnish friends, there was a certain quietness that had not been there earlier. The afternoon breezes had picked up as we held onto our hats and sailed on to the village Oia on the main island. Here a few of us would get off to enjoy the setting sun while others including group from Finland would head back to Fira. As we climbed the steep steps to the town, it was tempting to call on the services of a donkey as many seem to do but Jules is more principled than that and simply wouldn’t expect an animal to do something that she couldn’t do for herself, so we pressed on. When we finally reached the top, we could see our little wooden ship heading off into the distance against the backdrop of the two islands we had visited. Both of these islands had been born through the violent power of nature, but what had been created remained truly unique. It had been an enlightening and enjoyable day and in the end we both felt that it was somehow testament to Santorini that such a major volcanic eruption could not destroy its rugged beauty.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Trekking with the Argonauts

When I was very young, I remember watched the 1963 movie version of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ that told of the adventures of a band of Greek heroes who sailed the seas in search of the ‘Golden Fleece’. It was a movie with plenty of imaginary creatures and some impressive stop-motion animation that was way ahead of its time. Yet more significantly, it was a film chock full of references to Greek mythology, which at the time was all very new, but both exotic and exciting. I had just about forgotten the Argonauts epic adventure until I began to read about Santorini and its place within this legendary tale. According to the story, the Argonauts were gifted with a piece of earth by the God Triton, which was then tossed into the sea where it miraculously turned into an island. The Argonauts were so impressed with this island that they called it ‘Kalisti’ meaning ‘the most beautiful one’. Later renamed Santorini by the Roman Catholic crusaders, for centuries the island continued to shape and evolve as a result of a series of violent volcanic eruptions. However, despite the turmoil of its transformation, the beauty has somehow remained and the description the Argonauts gave to the island still holds true.

Jules and I decided to explore the rugged beauty of Santorini by breaking away from our tourist comforts in the village of Imerovigli and hitting the coastal trail. After all, our verandah faced directly onto one of the islands most prominent natural landmarks on the northwestern cliff face. ‘Skaros Rock’ is a geological monolith that looks as if has been lifted straight from a John Ford western and somehow placed into the Mediterranean. It is in fact an uninhabited outcrop of land jutting out from the cliffs and is an ideal place to view the entire coastline. This was exactly what the Catholic settlers of the Byzantine era thought too when they set about building a medieval fortress on the rock to warn the inhabitants of imminent pirate raids. Although this was a significant structure, repeated volcanic activity from the 1600’s-1800’s eventually resulted in it crashing into the ocean, returning the rock to its natural state. As we walked around we could spot just a few remnants of the original buildings but the giant rock itself appears to have been scarcely effected by the impact of man or nature’s elements over the years by remaining as prominent as ever.

Looking northward down the coast and despite the 30+ degree temperature, we thought that we might tackle the challenging 5 kilometre trek from Imerovigli to Oia around Mousaki Bay. In doing so we were walking a path that still remains largely unaffected by the ever-widening string of white wash apartments that stretch along the peaks of the northwestern cliff face. As we walked on a dusty track worn by the gradual disintegration of ancient volcanic rocks, we could certainly appreciate the dramatic nature of this harsh landscape, as well as the difficult existence for the Islands earliest inhabitants. This can be so easily overlooked by today’s visitors, who tend to stick to the villages or choose to simply lay back on their sun beds next to their infinity pools while occasionally peering out at the vast ocean views. On the track, the views are just as impressive, but here they contrast against a stunningly rugged coastline where the notion of a swim remains temptingly out of reach. This must have been quite exasperating for the early inhabitants, as down below there is a sheltered bay that looks as if this might have been an ideal place for a port, if it wasn’t for the sheer steepness of the surrounding cliffs.

However what you do have here, in addition to the view, is silence and isolation. This is a place for contemplation and possibly a spiritual connection, as in this most deserted of areas you can find a number of small iconic chapels. For some reason these tend to appear in some of most secluded places on the island, as if a testing pilgrimage to an uninhabited spot was something of a requirement for followers of the Greek Orthodox faith. As expected there was indeed a tiny white chapel at the highest point of the track and from here we could also clearly see the picturesque town of Oia jutting out from the most northerly tip of the island. This is the jewel of Santorini; meticulously maintained white washed buildings, blue domes and its distinctive marble footpaths. It’s no wonder that the town remains the most photographed area of the island and certainly the most sought after spot to watch the setting sun.

As we headed down the slope for the final leg of our trek, Jules and I could almost taste the ice cold beer that was waiting for us somewhere down in Oia and at that stage we knew it would be well deserved. As we came closer we could once again see many of the high-end apartments staggered along the cliff face overlooking a bay dotted with luxury yachts. Tanned bodies were baking on their sun beds while others splashed in their glistening blue pools. I’m not quite sure what the Argonauts would make of their island today but I would like to think that high up on the wind swept cliffs, Jules and I experienced just a taste of what they and the original pioneer settlers saw in this ruggedly beautiful island, with its dramatic coastline and endless sea views.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Serendipity in Santorini?

Several years ago, Jules had one of her most disappointing traveling experiences. It wasn’t the loss of luggage or passport or some other dramatic episode that can suddenly bring a holiday to a crashing halt, but to her at the time, it was equally upsetting. It was in fact a missed opportunity to visit the Greek Island of Santorini. This was a very significant place that had loomed large in her childhood, with her mum having had a ‘Shirley Valentine’ moment many years before, resulting in a lone pilgrimage to the island only to return to Australia to enter into what is now referred to by the family as her ‘Greek phase’. The result was that for several years, Jules was exposed to images of the Greek islands, ate just about every Greek dish imaginable and lived in a house filled with the constant soundtrack of Bouzouki music. So when we finally managed to book ourselves onboard a cruise ship touring the Greek Islands, she was understandably excited.

All was going well until the day before we were about to visit the iconic island and the ships Captain made the disappointing announcement that due to rough seas, we would be unable dock. It appeared that the small boats used to tender passengers from cruise ships anchored off shore to the coastline below the steep cliffs would be unable to cope with the choppy conditions, so the reluctant decision was made to bypass the stop completely … Jules was not at all happy! From that point onward the episode would be forever referred to as the ‘Santorini Incident’ and as a rule was not to be spoken about, such was the painful memory that the ‘non-visit’ resurrected. It was felt for a long time that the opportunity to visit Santorini had been lost and that we would possibly never experience this place, having already seen several other aspects of Greece during the cruise. However, I underestimated Jules’ desire to satisfy her longing to visit the island’s iconic cliff top villages and failed to realize that she was would eventually plan to rectify what she considered to be the fateful injustice of not being able to visit Santorini previously.

So four years after the infamous ‘Santorini Incident’ we found ourselves onboard a Blue Star Ferry taking the seven-hour trip from Athens, with Jules feeling quietly happy with herself. This was the final leg of a marathon 48-hour journey from Japan, but tiredness was certainly not going to spoil the satisfaction of finally achieving her much anticipated goal. Her smile grew even wider as she eventually caught sight of the classic white dwellings and blue domed churches perched high on the cliff tops … we were finally there!

 As the drawbridge dropped and all manner of vehicles and passengers simultaneously jostled their way off the ferry, there was clearly a collective sense of excitement at finally arriving in Santorini. The summer sun was baking the island as it always does in July, but the dry heat was nicely tempered by a cooling sea breeze. Somehow amongst the chaos of the dock, we managed to find a shuttle bus that would take us to the outlying village of Imerovigli. Jules had diligently researched the various options available and had opted to position us away from the more tourist orientated main town of Fira. She had booked a traditional apartment on the western side of the island that sat on the highest ridge of the cliff. From here we could view the full length of the dramatic coastline spanning the volcanic caldera from which an eruption had created the rugged island formation thousands of years ago. Looking out to sea, the view toward the horizon looked infinite, revealing far away islands that seemed to fade away into a distant haze.

As we finally sat down on our white washed terrace on our first night, sipping a glass of chilled Rose, we couldn’t quite believe that we had finally made it. Looking northward along the coast, we could see the picturesque town of Oia with sailing boats setting out in readiness to view a typical Santorini sunset. As the glowing sun slowly approached the horizon, it seemed that just about everybody had the same idea as us and emerged from their dwellings to marvel at the spectacular scene and enjoy the serenity. In that moment, the ‘Santorini Incident’ had been relegated to a distant memory and from then onward any references to the island would only conjure up warm and enduring memories.

 However the story wasn’t quite over yet, because when we awoke the next morning and stepped onto our verandah, we spotted in the distance an ocean liner slowly approaching. As the ship began to anchor in the sheltered waters of the bay, we realized that it looked strangely familiar. In an amazing coincidence, this was the very same cruise ship that we had been on board four years earlier. This time it seemed that seas were calm enough and it was about to stop for its scheduled day trip to the island. For a brief moment, memories of the disappointment all those years ago returned with the realization that this particular group of passengers were about to experience what we had originally sought when we had booked our Greek Island cruise. But then we thought again; if the ‘Santorini Incident’ hadn’t happened, would we have ever returned?

Somehow destiny had demanded that we spend much more time here. It appeared that we were meant to soak up the spectacular scenery, linger over delicious Greek meals and ponder life while watching glorious Santorini sunsets. We now realize that a day trip would not have been nearly long enough to fully appreciate what the island truly had to offer. After all, this is the quintessential Greek island, so familiar to us all from countless coffee table books, calendars and postcards. During the week we stayed, we never tired of its scenery, nor the unique qualities of the island lifestyle. In the end the serendipity of this trip had become obvious to us both with our stay here effectively turning disappointment to delight!


Friday, 5 July 2013

The Mt. Kurama Odyssey

One of the wonderful things about living in Kansai is that so many facets of Japanese life can be experienced in this region and it’s all as close as a train trip. Indeed, just when you think you have seen much of what the area has to offer, you discover something new. Such was the case when Jules read an article that talked about a unique summer dining experience to be found in the mountains just outside of Kyoto. She had heard about the seasonal construction of small wooden platforms over the fast flowing streams that run from Mt. Kurama. Here diners enjoy traditional Japanese meals amongst scenic surroundings in a picnic-like manner. The notion of getting out of the hot city and into a mountain forest to eat local foods had all the elements to attract us, so it wasn’t too long before we were on our way. Yet, as we discovered, the area would have even more to offer than purely a dining experience.

While Mt Kurama is only around 30 minutes outside of Kyoto, it took us just over 90 minutes to get there by train from Osaka. However, when we arrived and with sunlight filtering through the towering trees, we knew instantly that it was going to be a worthwhile trip. It was such an idyllic spot and with a fast flowing stream leading the way, we began the short walk uphill to the little town of Kibune where our unique lunch experience would be waiting.

There was certainly no shortage of choice, with quite a few restaurants offering what is known as ‘Kawadoko’ dining during the summer months. After selecting a suitable spot, we were guided down to a series of small cascading waterfalls where tatami covered platforms spanned from one bank to the other. As is tradition, we removed our shoes and sat on pillows at low dining tables, which further added to the ambience of the setting. As Jules and I enjoyed our meal, we couldn’t help but be amazed by this idyllic location and particularly with this unique way of appreciating it. Although the bamboo structures were entirely temporary, they were constructed with a very stylish sense of tradition. We were not at all surprised that the mountainous spot was also popular with locals, who would often wear their finest kimonos for this rare dining experience.

It would be quite easy to spend the day enjoying the mottled sunlight, while sitting above a babbling stream, but such is the popularity of Kawadoko dining that each table has a prescribed time limit and eventually it was time for us to leave.  We were now suitably relaxed and fueled to tackle yet another of Jules internet discoveries; the hiking trail from Kibune to the nearby town of Kurama. She had read that this 4.5 kilometre trek was quite a spiritual one and included several significant temples and numerous vantage points along the way. However, what we were about to discover was that this trail would provide us with one of most enjoyable mountain walks that we have ever experienced.

 Armed with a wooden walking stick provided by the lady who manned the entrance gate, we began to tackle the steep upward climb. On the way we encountered several small yet beautifully proportioned Buddhist shrines that were nestled amongst the forest. Here towering cedar trees spread their gnarled roots across the forest floor, providing an unearthly landscape reminiscent of ‘Lord of the Rings’. Upon reaching the summit, the rugged trail gradually gave way to more formal stone paths, each lined with hundreds of traditional orange lanterns. You could imagine that these would look quite amazing set aglow in the evening, particularly against the mysterious forest backdrop. On the downhill stage of the trek, we viewed the impressive Kurama Temple, with its grand scale and colourful decoration. This is the location for several significant Buddhist festivals and ceremonies held throughout the year, but it also provides a wonderful scenic outlook over the valley below.

It had taken us the best part of two hours to walk the forest path and although Jules and I knew that we would both be sore tomorrow, we had thoroughly enjoyed our Mt Kurama odyssey. Of course, we could have done the trek first and then sat down to enjoy our meal over the falling waters of Kibune, as many tend to do. However, looking at the rain clouds forming overhead, we felt that this time we had got it right. Besides, we somehow suspected that it might not have been possible for us to get up again once we had settled into our platform dining positions, had we done the whole thing in reverse!