Saturday, 29 April 2017

The Greek Easter

Forty-five years ago this month I visited Greece for the first time.  That’s a nano-second in archaeological time.  We were a group of conscientious students (if that’s not too much of an oxymoron), there to learn about the urban planning of the ancient Greeks.   
Our party went to the island of Rhodes and a variety of classical sites, almost mythical in their legend.  These included Delphi, Epidaurus, Olympia and the Parthenon on the mainland Peloponnese.

This month, my wife and I together with our daughter, her husband and son went on a two-week holiday to Crete, less academic in intent, but nonetheless keen to include some exploration of the island’s archaeological and religious culture.  This activity would act as an occasional diversion from swimming, sun-bathing and fine dining.

One thing we missed in 1972 was the Greek Easter, which had been much vaunted by our lecturers.  It may have been Easter at home, but that was one of those years when the Julian calendar did not coincide with the Gregorian equivalent that rules in western countries.  
With the two Easters falling on the same day in 2017, this visit included the climax of the Christian calendar, celebrated as such with pomp and ceremony in both Christian traditions.


My personal priority on this tour - after family activity in two beach resorts - was to see the island’s cradling of civilisation that existed more than 4000 years ago. 

From around 2000 BC, the Minoans developed Europe’s first real civilisation right here in Crete.  With unexpected hyperbole the Rough Guide proclaims that “their artworks are unsurpassed anywhere in the ancient world.  For 500 years, Crete was home to a civilisation well ahead of its time.”  It would be discourteous not to see them.  The greatest of the Minoan palaces is at Knossos and it lies just outside the island’s capital Heraklion.

The official site brochure acknowledges the role of an English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans both in the excavation and reconstruction of the palace.  His sculptural image is the first object to greet visitors inside the entrance.  

The palace covered 20,000 square metres set around a large central court.  

I’m going to have to return because we didn’t have time to visit Heraklion Archaeological Museum which houses the site’s beautiful artworks, pottery, vessels, figurines and the original wall paintings.

Venetian occupation

Crete’s history is one of occupation on a regular basis.  Apart from the Minoans (said to have come from Anatolia), the island has been subject to Rome, Byzantium, Venice and the Turkish Ottoman Empire.  
As if this litany wasn’t long enough, it was invaded by the Germans during World War 2.  

Of these occupiers, the most noticeable influence for us as holidaymakers was the Venetian settlement.
Two fortresses stand out as examples of the endeavours of development by the Venetians on the island’s north coast.  
Rethymno’s Venetian fortress, or Fortezza, sits on a hill at the eastern side of the city on the seafront.  According to the Rough Guide, it is said to be the largest Venetian Castle ever built and is indeed of vast scale.   

It was built as a response to pirate raids that devastated the town in the late 1500’s.  Its failure to protect Rethymno from a Turkish invasion fifty years later, however, says something about the Venetians’ defensive effectiveness.   
As a place for a leisurely visit or a concert and somewhere to enjoy spectacular views, it is an inexpensive must.

Restoration of Heraklion’s Venetian Fortress has been completed within the last year or so in most impressive style.  A visit creates a more accurate impression of what a functioning Fortezza would have looked like.  The restored building is replete with stories set out on panels describing the history and of the lengthy process of restoration.  

One unexpected bonus is the collection of artefacts found submerged in the sea and donated to the city by the French explorer Jacques Cousteau. This is another inexpensive must-see project.

The Greek Easter Ceremonial

An unexpected highlight of our holiday was to witness the Greek Easter midnight mass, marking the end of Lenten fasting.   
When we checked into our hotel on Good Friday afternoon, it was gratifyingly apparent that we were not going to be surrounded exclusively by foreign visitors like ourselves.  A large influx of Greek people were also arriving specifically to celebrate Easter.

Despite the crowds in the lobby, we were welcomed warmly by a senior member of staff.  She advised us that we could attend the religious ceremony on Saturday night in the Orthodox Church that lies within the hotel’s grounds.   
She explained that in the early hours of Easter Sunday morning after the midnight mass, Cretans dine on lamb and other meats, with bouzouki music an important part of the celebrations.

Shortly before 11 o’clock, we made our way in the dark to the hotel’s very own Church and joined the substantial congregation most of whom were standing in the outside space around the front of the building.
Before the prayers began, there was a regular stream of family groups making their way inside to light their long thin candles and place them upright on the special table.  The small number of foreign tourists present had also been presented with candles.  Nice to be made to feel welcome.

Eventually, two priests began a series of arcane chants lasting over half an hour, culminating in prayers involving responses from the congregation, the only one of which I recognised was the Kyrie Eleison.  
As the chanting drew to a conclusion, some Cretans emerged from the Church bearing the paschal candle-light.  Gradually it was shared from candle to candle and quickly spread in a most convivial way to the hundreds of people gathered. 

Then to my huge surprise and accompanied by the frantic ringing of the Church’s small bell, an impressive display of fireworks changed the atmosphere from solemn to something more like a huge release of adrenalin.

I don’t know if it was by accident or design, but both the bell-ringing and fireworks ended exactly together in perfect synchronicity.  
As soon as the firework display ended and I checked my mobile phone for the time. It showed 00:00.  It seemed almost miraculous that that it was exactly midnight. 
Easter Sunday had arrived with a huge bang.

Fireworks displays, I learned later, are a normal part of the Greek Easter ritual[i].  The thought occurred that this might be something for the western Christian Churches to think about replicating.

Family holiday

We arrived on 5 April at the very start of the Cretan holiday season, instanced by the fact that many restaurants and hotels had not yet opened.   
We spent our first night in a good hotel[ii] in Chania Town (about 10 miles from the airport).  We then stayed for just over a week in a family-oriented “beach resort” hotel[iii] next to Kaylves town with our daughter, son-in-law and grandson; and an extra few days further east in a beach resort hotel in Rethymno[iv].

Before and after the hectic activity of the Greek Easter weekend, the resort hotels were otherwise very under-crowded on the first and final days of our visit.  This meant more time and space for enjoying the simple pleasures of a beach holiday.

Dining tips

The best Greek restaurant (outside of the resort hotels) was not the high-end Avli set in a converted Venetian palace but the more modest Bakalogatos in the busy heart of Rethymno’s old town.  After eating a substantial two-course starter and main course late lunch, on asking for our bill we were served with a large plateful of Greek donuts covered in chocolate and a free shot of raki.

The best coffee shop was the modern Grampous[v] which bakes its own bread, cakes, bread sticks - all following Granny’s handed-down recipes.  It also makes its own ice cream. On our final day en route to the airport, the owners’ daughters gave us complimentary home-made biscuits and bread-sticks for our journey home.  
From there we travelled by taxi to Rethmyno bus station and took the bus on the scenic hour-long coastal journey back to Chania airport.

©Michael McSorley 2017

[ii] Kriti Hotel, Chania
[iii] Kiani Beach resort, Kalyves
[iv] Aquila Rithymna Beach
[v] 350 metres from Aquila Beach hotel towards Rethymna centre

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Homage to Barcelona

Let me try the impossible -  to summarise  personal impressions of Barcelona in a couple of pages.  The opinions are based on two visits there in six years.

“Barcelo-o-na,” as sung so exuberantly and with such emphatic national fervour by the Catalonian capital’s operatic diva Monserrat Caballé in a duet with Freddie Mercury. 
This was my modernist operatic image of the city that hosted the 1992 Olympics, when BBC television adopted the Queen song to introduce its coverage.  
The exhilaration of the musical theme heightened my anticipation of our first visit in early autumn 2010.

Emerging from our nearby hotel, helpfully located only about 100 metres off the city's main throughfare, my first surprise was to encounter Las Ramblas heaving with people.  This, after all was a midweek in October.   
After viewing the city from the nearby portside Columbus Monument, an American tourist informed me that today was a public holiday marking the discovery of America.  
I had begun to wonder that if these crowds are typical of autumn, what must the peak of summer be like.

Las Ramblas has the air of a permanent carnival.  There are countless stands and kiosks, some selling exotic flowers, others selling assorted fluffy pets.  “Living sculptures” abound. Barcelona takes mime artistry to a sublime level.  

Not content with standing statuesquely and faces painted to match elaborate and colourful outfits, most of the city’s street artists play for laughs and obligingly pose for photographs. One had squeezed herself into a baby’s stroller making jocular squeaking noises, another hid beneath a table from which three heads - only one of which was his (or hers) - protruded like grotesque gargoyles.

The Picasso museum comprehensively traces the development of the artist’s style ranging from conventional art of his youth to the more abstract style of his later years.  
I loved the use of photographic technology to demonstrate his reworking of the Velazquez masterpiece Las Meninas.  Zooming in, section by section, the slideshow superimposed Picasso’s swishing brushstrokes over the classic original, much to everybody’s amusement.

We go to see Bizet’s Carmen in the Liceu Opera House.  The renowned tenor, Roberto Alagna is the leading male in a modern and risqué production.  It includes 11 Mercedes cars; a naked male singer grabs our attention; and a voluptuous Carmen unzips the leading man’s trousers.  All done in the best possible taste as sleek contemporary style meets classical genius.

Gaudi is the pervading influence.  In bright autumnal sunshine, we tour the city on an open top bus.  
His “expiatory” cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, is a hectic building site (and still is when we return in September 2016).  

Sparks fly from celestial heights as teams of artisans work furiously.  A Papal visit beckons.

A century ago, Gaudi steadfastly refused to give a deadline because (and I love this quotation), “my client is not in a hurry.”  Mi Dios.

Park Guell sees Gaudi’s riotous imagination at its creative best - buildings eschewing straight lines and features embellished with fairyland ornamentation. The very entrance pavilions look like wholesome and tasty gingerbread concoctions.

It is only after the event that the impact of our visit sinks in.   
My impression is that Barcelona likes to shock to impress.  Gaudi’s architecture, the development of Picasso’s art, the radical production of Carmen, the Ramblas entertainers - all break the rules and conventions.
Perhaps Barcelona is motivated by an unstoppable urge to emphasise its own identity and to differentiate itself from Castilian Spain.  The result is fantastical creativity, innovation, and joy for cultural tourists.
Five days is too little time but it gave my wife and I a good excuse to return.
In 2010, our accommodation was a boutique hotel on a side street off Las Ramblas.  In 2016, we were self-catering in an apartment[i] which overlooked the Sagrada Familia Cathedral. You could almost reach out from the balcony and touch the Cathedral's spires.

On this second visit, we were accompanied by our youngest daughter, her husband and their two-year-old son.  A wedding reception in an edge-of-city historic house awaited.

Despite the proximity to the always-popular cathedral, it is reassuring to know that dining out in such a locality is not always dominated by tourists.  We found two top-quality[ii] and good-value restaurants[iii] serving Catalonian cuisine, frequented by local people and located very close to our apartment.

I would recommend one book.  
The award-winning author of bestselling novels like Nora Webster, The Testament of Mary, and Brooklyn is Colm Tóibín.  He has also written what is, arguably, the definitive book about the city and region, “Homage to Barcelona.”

©Michael McSorley 2016


Wednesday, 29 June 2016

The Algarve


“Portugal – it’s like Donegal, only with sunshine.”

I recall this quip from a work-mate, a description of his favourite golfing destination when I told him about my impending first trip there back in the 1970’s.  And it is indeed accurate, in a couple of senses.
Just as the Irish county is bolted onto Northern Ireland providing Ulster’s western seaboard, Portugal reveals itself as an appendage to the Iberian peninsula, almost in the shadow of its larger Spanish neighbour.  But the most striking parallel is that both places contain some of Europe’s most beautiful and inviting beaches.

That was why the Portugal was this family’s preferred holiday destination when our children were growing up.  One or two trips were made to the country’s west coast near Setubal; but most of those idyllic holidays were spent on the south coast, the Algarve.

This year, like a new awakening, it dawned on us that it had been more than 20 years since visiting Portugal (apart from one trip to Madeira).  To prove our resolve, an immediate decision was reached to remedy the shameful deficiency.  But rather than return to earlier haunts like Alvor, Portimao and Albufeira, we decided that the priority this time would be to explore the eastern Algarve.


From Ireland, there are two principal options for flying to the region’s airport at Faro.  One is Belfast, the other is Dublin.  The former entails a very early start to meet a 6 a.m. flight departure; whereas the latter offers a late afternoon departure and a mid-morning return flight.  For that reason, as well as the benefit of free transport direct to the front door of the airport terminal (using the senior citizens bus-pass), we booked Aer Lingus flights from Dublin to Faro.


One attraction for holiday-makers to Portugal is its range of good quality accommodation in restored buildings of architectural and historic interest.  
Pousadas describe themselves as small luxury hotels and are spread over the country[i].  Only three are located in the Algarve.  One sits in the village of Estoi which is just north of Faro.  It was temptingly described by one travel writer[ii] as

“for style and luxury combined with Portuguese panache, base yourself in this Neo-Rococo palace with chandeliers, mirrors, impressive stucco work...”

Evidence which is hard to resist.

Arriving in the early evening, this was a good choice for us being a short drive from the airport.  The late 18th century Pousada do Palacio de Estoi is a spacious modernised property in a grand baroque building with Versailles-style gardens.  It has 45 double bedrooms, 15 superior rooms and three suites.  Its facilities include outdoor and indoor swimming pools, spa, and wifi.

Venturing out without ambling too far beyond the confines of the village, our first discovery was the Algarve's premier Roman site at Milreu.  This is the location of a Roman villa and a range of associated structures, whose most impressive feature was a series of beautiful mosaics. 

It appears that the affluent Romans built villas with facilities that are still regarded today as the the essence of luxurious living, such as a spa.  Very civilised.

One joy of discovering this area in late spring is the abundance of all sorts of wildflowers.  Poppies thrive. Nature is winning.


We visited two of the most beautiful beaches anybody could wish for, both accessible (almost tantalisingly) only by boat.

The first was the aptly-named Ilha Deserta.   
We took a boat from the Porta Nova just outside the walls of Faro’s old town, a trip of about 20 minutes.  You sail along shimmering channels between sandy islets through the Ria Formosa Natural Park wetlands, emerging onto what appears like the most expansive and deserted sandy beach ever.  After an hour or more of relaxing with a good novel and some swimming, there is time for a late lunch in the island’s single restaurant before a return trip back to Faro.

The other magnificent beach was thirty kilometres further east, off the pretty town of Tavira.  The ferry-boat to the Ilha Tavira leaves from a spot close to the town centre at the estuary of the Rio Gilao.  The distance and time to get there is similar to that for Faro’s deserted island.  

One difference is that this island is populated with an array of restaurants, all grouped together and offering a range of prices.  Another difference was that there were more visitors than on the Ilha Deserta.  That said, however, walking for no more than five minutes up the expansive sands and it was easy to find privacy away from the madding crowd.  Gorgeous sand and crystal clear water once more.  Bliss.

Faro, the old town

A couple of years ago we spent a week discovering Malaga, through which most tourists pass through from the airport and head to the costas.  That trip was a revelation, partly because Malaga is a fascinating city with many cultural assets and one that is not dominated by tourism.  In such resorts, one feels more like a local than a visitor.  The same applies to Faro.

We travelled from Estoi into Faro on the local modern bus, offering the opportunity to gaze at the verdant countryside and its fertile fields displaying a wide range of horticultural produce including olive groves, orange trees, and grapevines.  The 8 kilometre journey took less than half an hour.

One of the most eye-catching sights of Faro is storks and their nests.  These tall skinny-legged birds build the most enormous nests sited precariously on top of some of the city’s most prominent buildings.   
Storks' nests (4) on Arco da Vila
I observed as tourists risked getting knocked down attempting to get the impossible photo of these elegant creatures landing and taking off.  What a tribute to Faro’s green credentials and its citizens that they allow nature to co-exist rather than, as might happen elsewhere, relocate the nests.

Entering the old town at the 19th century Arco da Vila gateway and its bell tower adorned with storks nests, we visited the majestic Santa Maria Church, Faro Cathedral.  This is the centrepiece of the historic quarter.  The Cathedral accommodates eleven or more chapels, replete with enough religious art and sculptures to keep a saintly person going for at least a lifetime.  
                                    And what a view from above.
View over Faro from the Cathedral

Outside the old town, we visited another large church, the Igreja do Carmo, again full of elaborately decorated altars, a place for quiet reflection.  Its chief draw for visitors, however, was the almost ghoulish Capela dos Ossos, or Bones Chapel.  
Apparently, to accommodate an extension to the mother church, the skeletons of many monks were disinterred from the adjacent cemetery and to this day their skulls and bones form the neat interior of this chapel.

This being a holiday, more earthly pleasures merit space.  While waiting for our return bus to Estoi, we stopped at a cafe across the street from central station for coffee and cakes.  I ordered a triple pancake smothered in cream, ice cream, strawberries all covered in a Chantilly and chocolate sauce.  
A mid afternoon snack like this combined with pleasant sunshine creates quite a soporific effect.  I suspect this is why I slept most the way back to the Pousada.


Before setting out on this visit to the Algarve, a friend at home had recommended a visit to Tavira as the most pleasant place to visit, unspoilt by mass tourism.  It lies about 30 kilometres east of Faro, an easy drive for us from Estoi.   
The Ilha Tavira ferry
Apart from the beach on the Ilha Tavira, the town’s riverfront was recommended by our guidebook[iii] as the best place for a wander.  It leads up to the town’s central square, the Praca da Republica, where we were met by the magnificent strains of the best busking jazz band I have ever heard.  Not unlike the Buena Vista Social Club in tone and quality.


When we visited in mid-May, apart from some cloud on the first two days, the weather was mostly very pleasant with temperatures in the low 20's C. Sea temperatures were perfectly acceptable for swimming.  
All in all, our next visit to Portugal will not take twenty years to organise.

©Michael McSorley 2016

[ii] Belfast Telegraph Weekend 2 June 2014 Harriet O’Brien 48 Hours in Faro
[iii] The Rough Guide to Portugal Jan 2014