Monday, 2 March 2015

Battersea Power Station

Battersea Power Station has (temporarily) lost one of its landmark chimneys.  Out of use since 1983, the largest brick building in Europe is finally being converted into apartments. 

The cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album “Animals” famously featured a giant inflatable pig tethered to one of the chimneys.  The pig broke free, rising into the flight path of planes descending into Heathrow.  (No animals were hurt in the making of this album cover)

February 26th 2015

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

St Paul's Cathedral

A cold December night, a very dark sky: a good background for St Paul's, with Unilever House to left, Blackfriars Bridge in front

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Crete - April 2014 week one, The Mistral Hotel, Maleme

Week one

After my long trip last year travelling down the west coast of America, I wanted to be closer to home for this year’s holiday.  I settled for two weeks somewhere around the Mediterranean, and eventually chose the island of Crete, where several walking holidays are available at the western end of the island.

Crete. I flew into Chania (Khania) and stayed at Maleme

I stayed in the Mistral hotel, at Maleme, about 18km west of Chania (Khania) to where there are frequent flights from around Europe. The hotel is small, taking just 30 guests, and bills itself as providing  Sociable holidays for the independent single traveler. 

The Mistral Hotel, Maleme, Crete
 The Mistral caters exclusively for independent and single travelers who enjoy great food, good company and a warm, natural environment. If you want to travel alone but not be alone, join us to experience authentic Greece and Crete and we promise to make your singles holidays stay a memorable one. We welcome single travelers and small groups looking for a singles resort from all over the world. We offer a vast range of excursions and activities and you can take part in as much or as little as you wish. There are also Special Interest Weeks at the Mistral Hotel throughout the season. A 45% repeat guest rate is the best reassurance and guarantee of the quality of our service.

I can’t praise enough the hotel’s beautiful design, facilities, and wonderful management and small staff.  It delivers on its promises, and exceeded my expectations in every regard.  My first week was at the end of April, the quiet season, and with only twelve guests it felt very much like we were having a house party.  The hotel is owned by the Gialamarakis family, brothers Vassillis and Adonis.

The photographs which follow show just a small selection of the activities I undertook: they don’t really show that there was also plenty of time for lounging and lazing, sunbathing by the hotel’s two pools, wining and dining, chatting with others, but also being left alone to read in quiet if that’s what you wanted.

The beach at Maleme, opposite the Mistral hotel

On the hill just behind the hotel is the German war cemetery.  Six thousand Germans died in the brief battle to secure control of the island of Crete.  It is a quiet place of calm, respect, reflection, and commemorative stones. ‘Zwei Unbekannte Deutsche Soldaten’ appears on quite a few of the stones.  

Two Mistral guests observe the cemetery

West from the hotel, just a mile along the road, is the RAF memorial: a simple stone and brick arch, with two panels carrying the names and ranks of the fifty men killed in May 1941.

A cycle hire shop has just opened in Maleme (Chania Cycles) and I’m one of the first customers.   Rather ambitiously, I decide to ride to Chania, 18kms away, trying to hug the old coast road and avoid the fast main road. It’s quiet and enjoyable, with plenty of opportunities for photos and coffee stops, until I get to the outskirts of the city and three hills. After the third, I decide it is time to return home.  Not quite so enjoyable: I face a strong headwind all the way back.  I rode about 40 kms today.

It is only 12euros to hire this brand new bike for a day.

We all took a trip to Falasarni, on the west coast, to see some ruins, enjoy the beach, and have a fish lunch.  
The archeological site was an ancient Greek harbour town, the visible remains of which were built around 333 BC, and include several imposing sandstone towers and bastions, with hundreds of meters of fortification walls protecting the town, and a closed harbor, meaning it is protected on all sides by city walls. The harbor is ringed by stone quays with mooring stones, and connected to the sea through two artificial channels. Notable finds in the harbor area include public roads, wells, warehouses, an altar, and baths. Most of these structures were revealed by excavations that began in 1986. 

Two of our group take the opportunity to swim, the rest sit it out at the cafe

It is only a short drive south to the tiny town of Sfinari where right on the beach another taverna, the Sunset Fish Restaurant, is the location of the Mistral’s renowned fish lunch. Adonis takes us into the kitchen to meet the husband and wife owners, the Baladakis family, and show us what is to be cooked for our feast.  We sit, chat, drink, enjoy the shade, and taste dish after dish for well over three hours, finally saying our farewells, clambering back in the minibuses and heading home.  

Proprietors of the restaurant, the Baladakis family

I took a cycle ride south, away from the coast, exploring some of the countryside, rich with olive groves and orange orchards.  I made it as far as Nderes, about 15kms from the hotel. 

The late Minoan Tholos tomb can be found just a few hundred metres from the hotel, completely overgrown in the corner of an orchard. More details here.

I made two visits to Chania, on successive sundays, travelling by the very efficient public bus service from outside my hotel.
Chania, an elegant city of eucalyptus-lined avenues, miles of waterfront promenades, and shady, cobbled alleyways lined with Venetian and Ottoman houses is close to the heart of all Cretans. It was here that the Greek flag was raised in 1913 to mark Crete's unification with Greece, and the place is one of the most beautiful of all Greek cities. Its beautiful Venetian quarter is a web of atmospheric streets that tumble onto a magnificent harbour. Restored Venetian townhouses have been converted into chic restaurants and boutique hotels, while ruins house stunning tavernas. The prominent former mosque on the harbour and other remnants of the city’s Turkish rulers add to Chania’s exotic charm.

Four of us took the ferry, a one-hour sail north, along the eastern edge of the peninsula, and round the top to the uninhabited island of Imeri Grambousa.  We  disembarked and then walked, climbed and scrambled up the path and steps to the ruined Venetian fort at the top (1579).  Other details here.

Ruined Venetian fort

At the top of Imeri Grambousa.

Back on the ferry we sailed for about 15 minutes across to the Balos lagoon where we had the afternoon to laze and swim. The water was beautifully warm, being very shallow and heated quickly by the sun.  It’s a lovely place, really quite special, perhaps the most striking feature being the incredible shades of the water;  my photos don’t do justice to the variations of colour.

Balos Lagoon
Balos Lagoon

West of the Mistral is the little town of Kolymbari, an ideal place for two of us to have lunch at Tripadvisor’s top-rated restaurant, Palio Arhontiko, at a table in the shade, right on the water’s edge.  

Stuffed calamari


Back at the Mistral it's the end of week one, and some guests depart for home.

For week two of my holiday, the walking week, click here

Crete - May 2014 week two Walking in Crete

Week two   (for week one of my holiday in Crete, see here )

I have recently returned from holiday on the island of Crete, where I stayed at the excellent Mistral hotel, a small boutique hotel which caters exclusively for independent and single travelers.

The Mistral runs several activity weeks across their season (cooking, wine appreciation, photography, art, scuba diving and walking). I planned my trip so that my second week would coincide with the walking week. 

This week the hotel is full. Some guests are regulars, returning again and again, others are newbies, first-timers, with people coming from Austria and Australia, Scotland and Switzerland, and one who has flown from the Bahamas.  The big draw for all is the walking week, which is led by co-owner Vassillis Gialamarakis, a passionate and knowledgeable guide.

Each morning we travel in these small minibuses to the start point of the walk

Walking day 1. The walk today is to the restored hamlet of Milia.  Vassillis led us uphill, through orchards, scrub, flowers, gorse, talking knowledgeably about the area, farming and produce.  After a couple of hours we arrived up in the hills, at the tiny hamlet of Milia, restored from dereliction, where we met the chef and enjoyed a lovely lunch. Read more about Milia here

View from the terrace at Milia

Walking day 2  Ravdoucha to Nopigia. This was a moderate walk, on the Rotherpou Peninsula, lasting about three hours. We started at a high level, overlooking Kissamos Bay, and made a slow gentle descent to sea level, walking through relatively easy terrain.  An excellent lunch, which included snails, was served at Porfira Tavern, Nopigia, run by mother and son.

Our hosts at Porfira Tavern, mother and son

Walking day 3. This was the hardest of the walks, down in the south west corner of the island.  We started on the beach west of Palleochora and walked to Ellafonissi.  We began with quite a stiff ascent, walking generally west, in very hot conditions, on scrub and gorse. Much of this walk follows the E4 footpath. (The E4 European long distance path starts in Spain, continues through France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, visiting Crete and Cyprus and ending in Greece. It runs to more than more than 10,000 km.)

The walk from Palleochora to Ellafonissi

We came across a long procession of goats, perhaps 150, walking down a long track

We paused for water and rest at a small chapel, where I chatted to two Austrian hikers who were walking the length of the island over several weeks, carrying their possessions on their backs: the island is 260 kms east to west.

Our sandwich lunch was eaten on the beach
The walk involved a fair bit of scrambling over rocks, using hands and walking poles. It was hot, tiring, but ultimately very rewarding.  At the end, the swim in the sea at Elafonissi beach was delicious!
The walking group

Mountain goat

Five minutes after taking this photo I was in that beautiful water, cooling off

Walking day 4.  Another day of glorious weather. We drove to the top of Deliana Gorge from where Vassillis took us on a long slow scenic descent, with the benefit of a wide path allowing us to walk abreast and chat much more than on other walks. Once again, we enjoyed a late lunch in a taverna, again run by mother and son.

Another day, another wonderful taverna lunch, with Yannis and his mother looking after us

Three hotel guests asked if I would take them on a bike ride, so we hired more bikes and set out on last week’s route to Nderes. We planned to make a proper lunch stop here, although arrived well after lunch in the middle of the siesta. However, the proprietor was happy to see and serve a lunch of omelettes and salad.  After we had finished and settled the bill these freebies arrived: a bowl of oranges, sponge cake, pastries, and glasses of raki.  He insisted that we take away in foil those things we couldn’t eat. Such generosity was typical of all the places I visited on Crete.

Cycling posse at the Mistral
Rock formation on the road to Nderes
On the road to Nderes
Oranges, cake, pastries, and glasses of raki - all gratis
Adonis Gialamarakis, co-owner of the Mistral hotel, with his wife Aura

Adonis took me into Koylmbari to do some fish shopping, and later invited me to share his fish lunch on the hotel terrace.

Life for guests at the Mistral hotel follows a simple pattern: breakfast has a wide spread of foods, and is eaten indoors or on one of the terraces. The bar (outdoors) seems to be open from mid-morning till well after midnight, for drinks, juices, coffee and snacks.  Whatever people have done during the day, we all seemed to congregate there sometime after seven, before all sitting down to eat together at eight.  The food is fabulous: most is home-grown in the hotel’s garden, simply prepared, always fresh and tasty.

Drinks at the bar before dinner
Drinks at the bar after dinner

And so it is time for a final trip into Chania   I feel I haven't seen enough of this city but that's because there has been so much to do at the Mistral. Perhaps a return visit is called for.....

Time to go home, time to say goodbye to all the guests, and to Donna Southgate-Smith who has been our excellent host at the Mistral

I hope these photographs and my comments convey some of the pleasure I had in this holiday, and in my stay at the excellent  Mistral. If you want to check other opinions, look at Tripadvisor’s page on the Mistral and read the 200 plus 'excellent' reviews.