Saturday, 29 July 2017

Short summer breaks

As the peak of the summer holiday season arrives in August, it’s opportune to share the joy of short breaks closer to home based on two trips in recent weeks.   
The first journey necessitated flights to England; the second involved a drive by car across the Irish border.

The east of England

At the end of last month, we visited our youngest daughter Jennifer, her husband Sam and their son Max in Essex.  They live in the historic market town of Saffron Walden.  Having experienced its many delights previously, we took our son-in-law’s advice and ventured eastwards on this occasion.  
Following an afternoon visit to Cambridge we set off.  Our destination was East Anglia, more specifically the coastal town of Southwold.

On the previous weekend with my wife making her way to Birmingham to watch a pre-Wimbledon tennis tournament (and travelling on to Saffron Walden a week later), I was tantalised and severely tempted by photographs as Jennifer Sam and Max relaxed on Southwold’s exquisite beach. 


It probably helped that the air temperature was a sweltering 30+ degrees centigrade.

There was only one logical course of action.  After observing that the weather was set fair for the coming weekend, a decision was rapidly made to fly over at the end of the week and meet up with my wife and Jennifer in the tropical south-east.

This turned out to be a wise choice because the pleasing climate allowed us to capitalise on the resort’s outdoor opportunities.   

Sandcastles were built, 

we explored the town’s uniquely well-preserved pier replete with all manner of Victorian inspired eccentric amusements


and we ate superb fresh fish in waterfront restaurants.

On our second day, I had time to test the waters with a sea swim.  Normally I wouldn't consider swimming in the sea until late August or September but this turned out to be an invigorating personal highlight of our short getaway in Southwold.  The benign water temperature enabled me to splash and thrash about for surprisingly longer than the 60 second dip I had anticipated beforehand.

We also visited the area’s best known attraction, Adnam’s.  Best known for its beers, this is a company which also also directly retails a diverse range of its own drinks and even kitchenware in very impressive modern premises.  Its ambient outdoor restaurant appealed the most to us.

Having made the decision to visit Suffolk’s east coast at such short notice, finding accommodation for a group of four adults and a toddler took a little more time to arrange.  
In the end, fortunately, we were delighted to find a place to stay about twenty minutes inland[i].  Glamping is the neologism.

Our accommodation for two nights was based on an isolated rural farmstead in the scenic Waveney Valley.  It offered us a genuine Mongolian yurt 

together with a conventional annexe (to the main farmhouse) which supplied all of the facilities we needed to be self-catering.
That said, the only meal we prepared was breakfast on both days.

A relaxing and tranquil rural idyll.

Sam’s eloquent testimonial summed up our thoughts:-

“Celeste and Sergei were wonderful and welcoming hosts. We were a family of 5, grandparents, parents and a three year old. The Yurt and the annexe were clean and very comfortable, our three year old loved the 'adventure' and sleeping in the big tent. Local beer in the fridge, milk, eggs from the farm and a range of supplies for breakfast were very much appreciated.  The garden is beautiful and walking around the farm is a pleasure.  The goats and numerous chickens were friendly and another great addition for our son.  Would return without hesitation.”

The west of Ireland

Two weeks later accompanied by Jennifer’s older sister, Deirdre and her two daughters (who live in the magnificent Scottish Highlands), we drove the 170 mile journey from Belfast to Ballina in County Mayo.  
Based on a friend’s recommendation, we booked a self-catering lakeside lodge which is part of a hotel[ii] two miles south of the town.

Situated in the successfully-marketed Wild Atlantic Way which includes Ireland’s west coast, Mount Falcon itself is set in 100 acres of its own estate parkland.  Appropriately, it offers displays of falconry, they also have hawks, and visitors can engage in rural sports including clay pigeon shooting and archery.
A peregrine falcon with handler

A harris hawk sitting on a neighbour's car

But what a tranquil location, both by day and by night - in spite of all of the activity.  
If anybody out there wants to escape to a peaceful place where you will be well fed either to write a book or to compose a symphony, this estate would be an inspirational choice.

On the first of our three evenings, I was walking past the lake opposite our lodge and heard what sounded like someone dropping a stone into the water.  I looked around and dispensed with that theory, there being nobody else nearby.  Then I heard the same sound again.  Looking at the lake, I spotted a fish leaping straight up to catch an insect.  What a sight.  Our gorgeous little lake is full of trout.

Next morning I ventured out for a short bike ride.  On the 6 mile stretch of road from the hotel to Foxford (with its woollen mills), I noticed several signs for fisheries, a larger sign advertising the Ballina Salmon Festival starting the week after our departure, and places to eat and drink like the Mayfly Inn.  There is a theme here.   
Later that day, my wife told me that she had spotted a flier describing Ballina as the salmon capital of Ireland.
Mayo salmon on the Mount Falcon menu

Ballina, Foxford and Mount Falcon are situated on the River Moy.  The ardent fisherman, legendary English footballer and former manager of the Ireland football team, Jack Charlton, was so impressed with Ballina that he bought a house there.  Its back garden faced the River Moy.

For the purposes of keeping our two grandchildren amused, the hotel’s spacious grounds with leaping trout and its other wildlife, especially ducks, were perfect for some nature study especially when weather conditions were so favourable.   

In addition there was a kids club in the morning, after which we would bring them to the hotel’s swimming pool before heading off into Ballina for lunch.

Just like our earlier visit to East Anglia, the beach was the best alternative attraction.  It must be at least fifteen years ago since Marie and I last visited the nearby County Sligo town of Enniscrone.   
This was the opportunity to introduce new members of our family to its sand dunes and beach with loads of sea swimmers.  Candy floss and an arcade of amusements were predictably popular with our two young visitors.

The abiding memory I took away from that earlier visit was attending the Hot Seaweed Baths.  This Edwardian institution has been operated by the same family for over 100 years[iii].   
On this return trip, I was delighted to see that it is still as popular as ever.

Ballina’s charm was well diagnosed by my daughter who knows a bit about retail therapy.  Almost in the planning parlance that her father might use about town centre health checks, she astutely observed that it has a reasonable number of national multiples, but that these are well outnumbered by local businesses.  
Their presence adds an emphatic local accent and individuality to Ballina’s shopping offer.

On a pleasant summer’s day where else would you want to be – apart from Enniscrone’s seaweed baths or maybe its beach - or Southwold’s golden sands. 

The west of Ireland and the east of England, a broad horizon, perfect for short breaks.   
Both have beauty in spades.

Lakeside lodges Mount Falcon Ballina
Beach huts in Southwold

©Michael McSorley 2017


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