Conquering Chania

Just north of the African continent, a little southeast of Italy and southwest of Turkey lies the island of Crete, the southernmost island in Greece. Its location plumb in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea has made Crete a stopping-off point for thousands of years. Throughout history, anyone going from here to there in the Mediterranean likely had a layover in Crete. And these successive waves of traders, marauders and pirates are the key to understanding the many layers of modern Crete.

Much of the flux in Crete has centered on the city of Chania in the west of the island. Here the successive layers of conquest and immigration by various Mediterranean and European groups is hidden in plain sight. You just need to know a few clues and, like an x-ray machine, all the intricate layers of history are revealed.

Today’s invaders of Crete are mostly package-holiday goers, a relatively benign force that, as a rule, stays in camp, rarely venturing out. When they do go out, a popular destination is the historic and beautiful harbor at the center of the old city. On our initial visit to Chania we too headed straight for the harbor in search of history, local culture and fresh regional cuisine. What we found was fast food, cocktails and the drum beat of euro-pop echoing across the deep blue waters.

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Briefly disoriented, we thought surely this is not the Chania we had read about. Were we mistaken about this place? We quickly changed strategies.

It is true that Chania’s harbor is the most picturesque part of town, and probably for this reason uncontrolled development has taken over, making the place a bit of a mess. Realizing we needed help ferreting out the hidden delights of Chania, we sought professional assistance.

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Dr. Alexandra Ariotti is an Australian born archaeologist and historian. She works all over the world researching, lecturing and digging. She has extensive experience around the Mediterranean and a particular focus on the Middle East. However when she is not working abroad, she calls Chania home. Alexandra hosts fabulous private historic walks, each lasting 2.5 to 3 hours, guiding you through a maze of streets and alleys on routes which reveal the mysteries of Chania’s fascinating history. Alexandra knows the city inside and out. Listening to her weave historical and present day Chania together brings the place alive.

I jotted down some observations from our tour with Alexandra:

• Chania is the second largest city of Crete and until 1971 it also was the capital (today the capital is Heraklion). The old town of Chania is the site of the Minoan settlement the Greeks called Kydonia, Greek for quince.

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• Crete has quite a tumultuous history due to its strategic location in the Mediterranean. Ever since the Byzantine era, the Venetians, the Ottoman, all the way up to the Germans in World War II, fought for and occupied the island. You can see the scars of conflict all around you. Alexandra points out the dividing lines in some of the excavations, where one group co-opted buildings from the past to build on Crete’s evolving urban landscape.

• Walking around town you come across various excavation sites seamlessly woven into the fabric of a neighborhood. Some of them feel a bit neglected, but since everywhere you scratch the surface you stumble across some important archeological find, important ones are simply stabilized, protected and left for future research.

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• We saw many old houses falling apart and in ruins while right next door a house would be beautifully restored and fully occupied. Alexandra explained that in World War II during German occupation, the city was heavily bombed, killing the occupants of the buildings. Ownership is often shared between family members or is murky with the former owner deceased. Without clear ownership or agreement on who can develop the homes, they fall into disrepair and eventually fall down.

• Walking through town while Alexandra points out details dating back to Minoan times is like walking through a mystery novel. All the while locals come and go among the ancient structures seemingly oblivious to the history around them.

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• Walking through the market area where in days past fine Cretan leather products would have been made and sold, we notice that most of what’s on offer is imported. There are exceptions though. We found one obscure shop still making the famous black leather boots worn by men throughout Greece. You have to look hard but there are a few shops that still practice the traditional Cretan crafts.

Having completed our time with Alexandra we had a good overview of the old city and could start navigating on our own. We set out to explore some more. Here are some of the places we found that are worth checking out.

The Archeological
Museum of Chania

The museum is housed in the former Venetian monastery of Saint Francis, a truly wonderful place to explore. The old worn walls in pinkish colors and the 1950’s-era museum cases make for an interesting mix of styles. You can see jewelry, vases, sculptures and coins from the Minoan, Roman and Byzantine times.

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Etz Hayyim Synagogue

We sat down with Dr. Nikos Stavroulakis in the Synagogue’s courtyard, to talk about the buildings long history.

Etz Hayyim Synagogue is the only surviving Jewish monument on the island of Crete. The building goes back to the Venetian period and became a synagogue in the 17th century to serve a vibrant Jewish community living in Chania at the time.

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For about 2,300 years, Jews thrived in Crete, sharing in its history and contributing to the complex local culture throughout the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Andalusian Arab, Venetian and Ottoman periods, until near the end of World War II, when the Cretan Jewish community was, decimated.

In early June 1944, virtually all the Jews in Crete were rounded up and arrested. Together with some 600 Greek and Italian prisoners, the Jews were put on the German merchant ship Tanais and shipped off the island. Tragically, soon after its departure, the Tanais was spotted by the British submarine HMS Vivid and fired on. The Tanais and all on board were lost.

Canea Gift Shop

While wandering around, we happened across the Chania Gift shop. Owner Konstantinos Konstantinidis was born and raised in Chania and after living abroad for many years came back home to start a local business. His idea was to make a gift shop that sells unique products that are designed and made in Greece.

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You will find smartly designed mugs, towels, bags, T-shirts, and notepads: absolutely the best place to get a souvenir to bring home from Crete. I still use my mugs from Konstantinos regularly and remember my time in Chania every time.

Tamam Restaurant

After talking to Konstantinos for a while about his shop and his great products, he invited us to come by his restaurant, Tamam, to meet his partner. Tamam is quite well known for its authentic regional cuisine. And like his shop, at Tamam, Konstantinos’ mission is to support local producers.

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Located one street behind the harbor but still in the hub of the old town, Tamam has been in operation since the 1970s. It is still one of the best places to eat in Chania. There are two indoor seating areas across the street from each other. And in-between, a narrow row of tables where you can sit outside and watch the people passing by. As usual, in high season it will be very, very busy, and off-season a real delight.

The Well of the Turk

Wandering through the back streets of old Chania, we stumbled across the restaurant, The Well of the Turk, and recalled that it has been recommended to us by friends. Located in a quiet neighborhood, it’s a great restaurant serving an eclectic mix of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food.

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House 66

There are many homes for rent in Chania, but we happen to have the inside track on one of the best. This apartment is right in the heart of the old town and owned by an architect husband and wife team living in London. It’s a great place to spend a few days … or much longer. Check the details section below for contact information.

Doma Hotel

A wonderful hotel owned by two fascinating sisters who were born in this house which has been owned by the family for generations. If you are looking to immerse yourself in Chania history this is the place for you.


< More fascinating vacation destinations await. Let’s go.

Details


To book a tour with Dr. Alexandra Ariotti go to;
www.chania-oldtown-walks.gr

To visit the Archeological Museum of Chania, go to 25 Chalidon Street.

For more information about the Etz Hayyim Synagogue go to;
www.etz-hayyim-hania.org

For more information about the Canea Gift Shop go to;
www.facebook.com/caneagiftshop

For more information about Tamam Restaurant go to;
www.facebook.com/tamam

For more information about The Well of the Turk Restaurant go to;
www.welloftheturk.com

To book House 66 in Chania go to;
www.residencechania.com

To book a accommodation at the Doma Hotel go to;
www.hotel-doma.gr

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Planning a visit to Chania? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.

Day Light, Blue Nights

Trevose Harbour House: If you have never explored Britain’s South West, there is a place on the coast of Cornwall that is a particular favorite of mine. And it is not surprising because this town has been a magnet for more than a century, attracting notable artists and all manner of spirited individuals to experience the unique combination of light, air and sea.

Before I visited for the first time I recalled reading about the “light of St. Ives” and honestly, when you have not been there it is impossible to imagine. Since I am particularly interested in the work of artists from the St. Ives School, I knew there must be something to the place, but I suspected all the fuss about the light was a little over hyped.

Boy, was I in for a surprise. It is definitely a thing. Some people say it has to do with the relationship between land and sea, with St. Ives being uniquely situated with water on two sides. That makes sense, but after several visits, I still couldn’t tell you what it is. All I can say is there’s a palpable, positive feeling that results from being in St. Ives and I suspect the light has a lot to do with it.

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I have stayed in several places in St. Ives, and each time the experience was somewhat disappointing. Walking up to catch my train back to London on a recent visit a new place caught my eye. It looked promising and I made note of it for next time, the Trevose Harbour House.

On arrival Owners Angela and Olivier were at the door to meet us. Crossing the threshold we immediately felt at home. It was a rainy afternoon and the little lobby containing a cozy living room, small breakfast area and well-appointed honesty bar, was warm and welcoming. The room was light and fresh, decorated in a blue and white color scheme. The fire place was glowing.

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Angela and Olivier immediately engaged us in conversation. The combination of charming hosts and an interior I could easily make my own, gave me the feeling that I was getting reacquainted with old friends. You know your old friend you don’t see very often, but you can just pick up with immediately whenever you see them? That’s the feeling.

It’s clear that Trevose Harbour House is borne of experienced hands. While the place feels casual and new, the service feels more like that of a mature hotel. Both having studied at the famed Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne and subsequently worked for some of Europe’s top hotels, Angela and Olivier live and breathe hospitality. Good service has to be pervasive and invisible at the same time, a difficult balance to maintain. But Angela and Olivier pull it off like pros.

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Trevose Harbour House is only a year old, but back when it was first being considered, it was not certain at all that it would come to fruition in its current location. Olivier tells me that the original plan was to open a small hotel in Brazil. But on reflection the focus moved dramatically northeast, and with a leap of faith, they planted their dream in St. Ives. Everything fell into place when they heard that The Sunshine B&B was up for sale and they decided to have a look. “We knew in a matter of minutes this was the place” says Olivier. And so the plan was complete. With a top-to-bottom renovation Trevose Harbour House was born.

In my opinion it’s the small details that make a place, and Angela’s personal touches are everywhere. She has a clear preference for mid-century furniture, which is quite refreshing in a small seaport town where the vernacular style can get a little tiresome. From antique books and vintage suitcases doubling as night stands to mid-century cherry sideboards combined with sleek new wash basins, Angela has seamlessly combined old and new into her own signature style. I am particularly fond of how she has upholstered vintage chairs with striking patterns from Designers Guild. Great idea.

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Neal’s Yard is a great British natural cosmetic brand, and the house brand for in-room personal care. You will definitely want to buy more after using their products during your stay. Rounding out the room details is the help-your-self tea service. The perfect thing after a day of hitting the surf or relaxing on the beach.

Trevose Harbour House is Your Private lookout on the Changing Light of Beautiful St Ives

As this is a Bed AND Breakfast, you will be glad to know that Olivier is as adept a chef as Angela is an interior designer. For breakfast you are in for a real treat. Olivier prepares the most important meal of the day, mostly with fresh local produce. My favorite is the heavenly home-made muesli and the perfectly fluffy scrambled eggs: yum.

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I heard talk of a Trevose sponsored beehive to come. Can’t wait to try that at a future breakfast. It will go nicely with the house-made jam, on sale to take home as a souvenir.

Along with their two lovely children, the Noverraz family is an integral part of close-knit St. Ives community. As it is with small towns, everyone knows what’s going on, so Angela and Olivier can easily advise you on how to fill your days while in St. Ives. When we visited, we expressed an interest in discovering more about the artists that have made their home in St. Ives. Olivier promptly set us up with a private tour of the Sandra Blow Studio, which was a real treat. Need restaurant reservations or a surf lesson? Angela and Olivier will have great ideas for you.

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On our last afternoon we took advantage of Trevose’s picnic basket service. Olivier prepared scones, sandwiches, salad, coffee and a bottle of chilled Champagne, all packed in a classic wicker picnic basket. We whiled away our last sunny afternoon on a grassy hill near the beach, enjoying the sea and the spectacular changing light that makes St. Ives such a special and a unique place.

Details

If you plan to vista during high season make sure you book early. Personally, I prefer the off-season which is about now. For more information and booking go to; www.trevosehouse.co.uk

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Walking Wales in the Path of Henry Tudor

You may have noticed, Bearleader likes a good hike. There is nothing like a day of fresh air, stunning scenery, a good story, and some simple fare. You can get by with any two of these and have a perfectly enjoyable day. Can you have it all? It’s not easy, but you can find it. This story is about walking Wales in one of those places that has it all. A walking holiday, if you will.

In the west of Wales lies the Dale Peninsula, a small piece of land ostensibly surrounded by water except for a small neck of low-lying land where the town of Dale sits. The peninsula is mostly farmland bordered by steep cliffs. The cliffs are distinctive in their own right. The geology of the area is such that tectonic plates have pushed and bent the geology into unbelievable knots of rock. And seeing the tension revealed in the earth makes evident the changing ever-moving relationship between land and sea.

A peninsular so uniquely and prominently jutting out into the sea is sure to have strategic significance. And the various installations, constructions and ruins scattered around the perimeter are testament to the importance of this tiny piece of land over the years. Light houses, communication towers, battlements and key historical sites can all be found along this fascinating pathway.

Walking Wales at Henrys Landing | Bearleader No.14

We started our walking Wales trek from the National Trust car park at Kete. You can also start in Dale but Kete puts you closer to Henry’s Landing so you don’t have to wait so long to come across this part of the hike. From Kete we made our way west towards the edge of the peninsular. The hike is mostly around the perimeter of the peninsular so you are usually walking on the edge of cliffs with the sea to your right. With few exceptions the hike proceeds over gently rolling hills and is easily manageable for all fitness levels.

Walking around Frenchman’s Bay towards St. Anns lighthouse we passed several old lighthouses and some battlements. Once beyond St. Anns Head, we continued on towards Mill Bay the historic highlight of the walk.

Walking Wales at Henrys Landing | Bearleader No.14

Descending into a small gully down some wooden steps, we arrived at Henry’s Landing, a protected rocky inlet. In 1485 Henry Tudor landed here along with 2,000 French mercenaries funded by the King of France. From here Henry began his own walking Wales excursion which finally resulted in the Tudors taking the crown.

Surely the geography has changed somewhat in the intervening years. But evidence of geology much older than 1485 is visible in the cliffs that tower above the small beach so the place today is not without similarity.

Standing on the small patch of sand amongst the rocks, you realize how cramped it must have been for 2,000 people with their gear to disembark and make their way up to the cliffs above. At low tide we could stride across the gully in a few paces. It was clearly a good choice of landing spots and it would have been hard for Henry’s enemies in nearby Dale Castle to detect his arrival.

Walking Wales at Henrys Landing | Bearleader No.14

Following in Henry’s footsteps, we traversed our way out of the gully. From here, Henry overtook Dale Castle and made his way towards Bosworth to do battle with King Richard whom he defeated. We followed Henry’s path as far as Dale castle. Continuing along the cliffs, and soon caught sight of three transit towers in the distance. They resemble surreal sculptures. The path runs right under them so that was our next target.

In 1485 Henry Tudor landed here along with 2,000 French mercenaries funded by the King of France. From here Henry began his own walking Wales excursion which finally resulted in the Tudors taking the crown.

Looking around you find nothing but breathtaking views. Rarely even another hiker interrupts your view. A great thing about the Dale peninsular is that it’s never that crowded, so you will mostly be on your own. During our day walking Wales we only came across five other people.

Walking Wales at Henrys Landing | Bearleader No.14

Following the path we passed through fields of grazing cows, not the least bit interested in us. Only giving us the slightest notice as they focused intently on the bright green grass they were munching on. Don’t forget to close the gates behind you as you pass from field to field.

Soon we were back in civilization walking through the alleys of Dale. You might want to take a break at the Dale Boat House or Griffin Inn. They serve lovely pub fare with locally sourced fish. We had a very fresh fish pie that really hit the spot.

Walking Wales at Henrys Landing | Bearleader No.14

In Dale the trail got a little hazy. Maybe we enjoyed that meal a bit too much, but be on the lookout. Walk along the water past the parking lot and take a left into the residential area. Down the road you will see Dale Castle. Past the castle, walk through a meadow and you will soon be back at the sea.

The trail goes left up a short hill and then through a few more farms. This side of the peninsula we saw mostly horses. Like the cows, not at all interested or bothered by our presence. I did try to pet one since they looked so friendly. Not a good idea. Looks can be deceiving as it turns out.

Walking Wales at Henrys Landing | Bearleader No.14

A little further along, turn left to the car park and you are back where you started!

Our walking Wales excursion was moderately difficult mostly because it was quite a long walk. Good footwear makes it much easier. And like anywhere in the UK, being prepared for some rain is always a good idea. The weather has a funny way of changing when you least expect it. On this hike, we started in the rain and by the time we finished, it was all blue sky and sunshine.

The hike is only 7.5 miles and has total elevation change of 300 ft. All the paths are very well maintained and there are only a few short segments on paved roads in Dale.

This Walking Wales excursion can ge done year round. Even so, in the spring, summer and fall it is most beautiful. So take our advice and spend some of your holidays in wales walking. You will be glad you did

Details

The Griffin Inn at Dale: Hours vary seasonally so check out their website for opening times when you visit.

www.griffininndale.co.uk

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

From Sky to Shining Sea

With a few idle days on the beach under my belt, it was refreshing to be on a tight schedule again. The first bus for the Samaria Gorge leaves before dawn and I was the first passenger to arrive at the central bus depot in Chania to start the journey. Just me, some staff and a friendly stray dog that sleepily stumbled from place to place as she was gently prodded by a sweeper preparing the station for the day’s coming crowds.

I have visited Crete several times and completing the Samaria Gorge hike has always been on my list to things to do. This time though the Samaria Gorge, it was September. Why is that important? Well, September is off-season and the Samaria Gorge is such a fantastic trip that in high season it can sometimes feel like a 16 kilometer queue. Doing it slightly off season means you have some room to breathe in this, one of the world’s great natural landscapes.

The hike offers a range of varied experiences all rolled into one. There’s nature: etched over time by a small river between the White Mountains and Mt. Volakias, the Samaria Gorge is a national park formed in 1962 in part to create protected habitat for the local species of mountain goat, the kiri-kiri. There’s history: the gorge has been occupied since ancient Greek times. You can visit the remnants of an ancient temple on which is built the more recent church of St. Nikolas. And the area was so inaccessible in the past that it occasionally was used as a retreat and hiding place for those defending Crete from invaders. And there’s exercise: the walk is exhilarating and a pretty good challenge, as is swimming in the Libyan Sea.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

The bus quietly winds through country roads, along mountain passes and through herds of goats, reaching the settlement of Omalos in about an hour. The sun breaks the horizon just after we arrive and I am ready to start the day’s descent.

Descent is one of the distinguishing characteristics of this hike. Starting at an elevation of 1,250 meters, over the course of 16 kilometers, you eventually end up at sea level. At the trail head you pay a small fee for entrance into the park. Down the trail the valley vista opens up as you traverse the steep switchbacks and stairs. It’s a glorious sight. For the first hour and a half you walk through mountainous terrain, the early morning sunlight filtering through the dense trees.

In the beginning, experienced hikers will be moving through at a fast clip in order to make the mid-day ferry from the town of Agia Roumelli to the bus in the town of Chora Sfakion. I was in no rush though, so I could take my time and absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the surrounding mountains. After the initial morning rush, the trail was quite empty.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

A little ways on, I began to see odd little stacks of rocks along the trail. Just simple stacks of three to seven stones balanced one on top of the other. They looked decidedly man made. Around each corner, the constructions became more prolific and elaborate until a few hundred meters on they started to overtake the landscape. Who was the “artist” that took time to painstakingly make these earth works with such tender care? I have no clue but the mystery of it makes it all the more intriguing.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

Further on, I arrived at the settlement of Samaria where a lot of those speed hikers that passed me earlier were on lunch break. There is a first aid station here and it’s a good place to hang out with your fellow hikers and some local goats. A note of warning, wasps are numerous and tenacious here. Stay calm and move away slowly once they find you … and they will find you. One savvy hiker I met brought a pipe to smoke to keep the wasps at bay. After battling them in vain throughout my lunch, I realized he had the right idea.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

Before embarking on my Samaria Gorge treck, several people told me, to my disbelief, that some tourists walk the gorge in flip-flops. This seemed absurd to me and I put it down to urban legend. But as I had lunch I noticed a young woman strolling into the settlement in flip-flops. Kitted out with good boots and already with some aches and pains, I couldn’t believe it. Over the next few kilometers, we crossed paths several times and she asked me to take her photograph. Like some sort of magical mountain pixie, she navigated the trail as easily as one of the goats. There is some lesson there about keeping your mind open and not putting limits on yourself. However, unless you are an experienced flip-flop hiker, I would not suggest trying it out for the first time on this particular hike.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

Leaving the the Samaria settlement, I soon came across the most famous part of the Samaria Gorge. It’s the point where the path narrows to just a few meters. The enormous height of the gorge at this point is both breathtaking and treacherous. Signs kindly instruct you to “walk fast” as a way of lowering the risk of injury from falling rocks.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

By this time it is around 1:00 pm, the sun is directly overhead and shade is hard to come by: good idea to bring a sun hat for this part. Here, the trail consists mostly of the river bed. The big boulders, small path, searing sun and a downhill trajectory make for a tricky walk.

This time though the Samaria Gorge, it was September. Why is that important? Well, September is off-season … in high season it can sometimes feel like a 16 kilometer queue.

Up until this point the trail has been mostly deserted but now I am encountering a lot more hikers coming in the other direction. These hikers seemed less prepared than those I started out with at the top. Come to find out that some tour groups take the boat to Agia Roumell but only walk up to the big attraction where the path narrows. I can only imagine that this might not be much fun in mid-summer.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

At the end of the Samaria Gorge trail, there is the customary snack and postcard shop. But wait, I’m still not there yet. I need to get to Agia Roumelli to catch the ferry. It’s a short three-kilometer walk through the outskirts of the town. Or for a small charge you can hop on a van. My feet said, “take the van”.

Samaria Gorge, Crete | Bearleader No.11

The ferry to the town of Chora Sfakion leaves late in the day. So after locating and buying my ticket, I head to the real treat of the whole journey. The Libyan Sea is a shade of blue I had not experienced. Photos can only suggest the intense color of the water. Add to this a jet black beach, a strong wind, and an absolutely wild surf. It was like jumping into river rapids. I figured out that if I walked up the beach a hundred meters or so, and jumped in, within a few minutes I would be back where I started. The combination of exhaustion, intense sun, a billowing gale and plunging into this deep blue sea was unforgettable.

The ferry docked as large waves pounded the shore, showering all within proximity. Quite the dramatic scene to observe. Someone at the back of the ferry was waving vigorously signaling that it was time to board. En masse we passengers suddenly realized that in order to get on the ferry we would need to go through this test of water. Huddled together and wincing at the prospect of being doused, we dashed for the boat, encountering a few waves along the way. “Chaos” is not too strong of a word to describe this scene.

Upon arriving at Chora Sfakion there is one last bit of chaos when all the ferry passengers climb a few steps to meet the waiting busses. In the confusion it seems like this can not possibly work out … but it does.

Details

Here are a few tips to make your Samaria Gorge experience a successful one.

– The walk is mostly down hill over rocky terrain. Walking in these conditions puts enormous pressures on your joints so be prepared. If you are relatively fit you will be fine.

– Wear good walking shoes.

– Bring plenty of water and enough food to fuel you for 16 kilometers. There are plenty of places to refill your water bottle with natural spring water, but no food available until you reach Agia Roumelli at the end of the gorge.

– This is one of the safer and better organized hiking experiences you will find. There are plenty of people around and Rangers on donkeys posted along the trail to rescue you in case of injury.

– Bring a bathing suit, a towel and flip-flops for the big plunge at the beach in Agia Roumelli.

– Pack a disposable rain poncho in case of rough seas on the ferry.

– There are a few places along the way where tickets are required; 1) the round-trip bus ticket that takes you to Omalos and picks you up in Chora Sfakion to take you home, 2) the entrance ticket to the Samaria Gorge, 3) the three-kilometer bus to the ferry (optional), and 4) the ferry ticket to Chora Sfakion to connect back to the bus home.

Finally, if you prefer a more guided hike, I highly recommend you contact the company Natour Lab. they are an experienced team specializing in local hikes. They also hold cooking classes on how to cook naturally using traditional Cretan methods. Definitely worth checking out.

www.natour-lab.gr

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Foraging for Food

As I put pen to paper to recall my foraging expereince, I am just around the corner from the former St. Vincent hospital in New York where, in November 1953 at the age of 39, the Welsh Poet Dylan Thomas passed away. Along with Richard Burton, he is one of the most well-known sons of Wales.

On December 14, 1944, nine years before Thomas’ legendary drinking got the better of him, he recorded a reading for the BBC of a wonderfully lyrical description he wrote of the quaint village of New Quay on the south coast of Wales where he was in residence at the time.

“Who lived in these cottages? I was a stranger to the sea town, fresh or stale from the city where I worked for my bread and butter wishing it were Laver-bread and country salty butter yolk-yellow Fishermen certainly; no painters but of boats: no man-dressed women with shooting-sticks and sketch-books and voices like macaws to paint the reluctant heads of critical and sturdy natives who posed by the pint against the chapel-dark sea which would be made more blue than the bay of Naples, though shallower.”

Foraging for Food in Wales | Bearleader No.7

Reading Thomas’ words now transports me to my recent trip to the very spot where those words were recorded, and my first hearing of the term “laver-bread” (pronounced LAW-ver). I was on my way to a small patch of Welsh coast known as Fresh Water West, to meet chef and expert at seaside foraging, Jonathan Williams.

When I contacted Jonathan about foraging for food with him, I had no idea what to expect. I arrived at the beach early in the morning at low tide according to Jonathan’s instructions. The beach and surrounding area is part of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. If you are a fan of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, you will have seen Fresh Water West. The shell cottage was located right on this extraordinarily wide beach where I now stood.

Foraging for Food in Wales | Bearleader No.7

Jonathan’s Cafe Mor (mor means “sea” in Welsh) at Fresh Water West is open daily during the summer season from May to mid-September. They serve fresh food, mostly sourced locally, and a range of packaged goods under Jonathan’s brand, Pembrokeshire Beach Food Company.

Fresh Water West is a nature reserve so no fixed structures are allowed in the park. Cafe Mor, therefore, is on wheels arriving in tow early each morning.

I ventured out onto the beach and across the tidal pools with Jonathan, on his daily harvest. Rocky outcrops divide the vast areas of flat sandy beach, with grass-covered dunes behind. On the day of my visit, the sky mirrored the landscape with spacious blue interrupted regularly by fluffy clouds drifting by making for a dramatic and constantly evolving light show.

This stretch of beach is perfect for foraging, an edible feast of seaweed. Jonathan took me through the different habitats, each with its own characteristic seaweed species. Some of the varieties we sampled were Sea Spaghetti, Sea Moss-Caragheen, Dulse and Laver-bread or Bara lawr, as it is called in Welsh. If you’ve had Sushi, you have had Laver-bread. In Japan seaweed is washed, dried and flattened into sheets called Nori. Laver-bread in Wales is prepared in a very different and much moister form.

When I contacted Jonathan about foraging for food with him, I had no idea what to expect. I arrived at the beach early in the morning at low tide according to Jonathan’s instructions.

In fact just behind where Jonathan forages, you can see one of the original seaweed drying huts. It has been restored by the national trust as a reminder of this important local food source in the history of Wales. At the height of the local Laver-bread industry, there were as many as 20 huts along the beach, each one maintained by a local family from the nearby town of Angle. Seaweed harvesting was a thriving cottage industry in the area throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and was still in operation as recently as 1950.

Foraging for Food in Wales | Bearleader No.7

The first recorded Laver-bread description was written by William Camden in his work, Britannia. There he vividly describes the springtime harvesting of Laver-bread at the beach of Eglwys Abernon, dating back to 1607. In 1862 we find another mention, from the writer George Borrow, who wrote in Wild Wales, that he ate “moor mutton” with piping hot Laver sauce. In recent years Laver-bread seems to have fallen from favor, but with renewed interest in the reviving of old customs and traditions it is coming back and can now be found on the menus of some of the more interesting UK restaurants.

One person described Laver-bread to me as the Welshman’s caviar. It is black, salty and has a very distinct taste, but that’s about as far as it goes. So how do you eat Laver-bread? Typically the raw seaweed is boiled for about 40 minutes until it breaks down. Then it is layered out to drain away all the excess moisture. It is served as a side dish in a kind of stewed or fried form with many local foods such as cockles, sausage, or bacon and eggs, which makes for a very hearty breakfast. Laver-bread is exceptionally healthy, containing iron, iodine and over 50 vitamins and minerals including vitamins A, C and D as well as some B-Complex. Laver-bread was a dietary staple for hard-working miners who would take it with them into the pit for flavor and energy.

At the lowest tide, the rocks furthest out are revealed. And this is where you find some of the most interesting seaweed delicacies. Wading around in water up to our knees, Jonathan pointed out a variety called Dulse, and picked a sample for me to try. He handed me a bunch of small purple colored fronds and asked me, “What it taste like”. It was familiar, but when you are eating raw seaweed while standing in a big puddle it is hard to put the flavor in context. When Jonathan said, “It is also called the truffle of the sea,” it clicked. It really does taste just like truffles with a touch of pepper and, as it grows marinating in salt water half of every day and night, it really is pre-seasoned to perfection. It’s delicious.

Foraging for Food in Wales | Bearleader No.7

Jonathan opened my eyes to the great variety of flavors growing in the tides. Eating sushi, I had never really noticed the taste of Nori. It seemed more of an edible container rather than an actual food itself. Now I see it in a whole different light. The different seaweeds Jonathan showed me were all amazingly flavorful, with distinct and, surprisingly, non-“seaweedy” flavors.

We foraged for about two hours, taking in the natural environment and tasting as we walked. It’s a totally unique and delightful experience. You can arrange a foraging excursion with Jonathan via his website (http://www.cafemor.co.uk/index.php). He will show you some amazing things the sea has to offer, tell great stories … and provide a picnic to boot.

A note of caution: It is prohibited to forage on your own. You need a license, and expertise, to ensure that the seaweed is harvested in a way that keeps it growing for future generations. Jonathan is an accomplished forager and licensed to harvest.

After our trek through the tidal pools, Jonathan prepared one of Cafe Mor’s signature dishes, a seashore wrap: pan-fried flatbread with Pembrokeshire bacon, cockle and laver-bread mixed with egg and cream—absolutely delicious! And it was packed with enough energy to fuel a long walk along the dunes to enjoy the rest of the wonderful scenic views.

Foraging for Food in Wales | Bearleader No.7

As the tide came in, the beach grew smaller and smaller and the rocks slowly disappeared, immersing all that seaweed in the swirling waves to grow again for another harvest.

Details

Foraging: Jonathan runs both scheduled and private foraging trips. Check the Website for scheduled times and be sure to book early, the groups fill up fast. Costs start from: £25 per adult, £10 per child (Under 12’s), Free for kids 5 years or under. Email Jonathan directly to arrange a private foraging event.

Cafe Mor at Fresh Water West: Opening times follow the parks schedule. And be aware that times may vary from day to day. So its best to check their Twitter feed for the latest.

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Morning Surf—Afternoon Tea

I got the chance to visit St. Ives, Cornwall, at the end of September. It seemed a bit late in the season for a beach-town visit but sometimes you have to say “why not?”… What I found was blue skies, quiet streets, wide open beaches, and tables readily available at the best restaurants.

On Sunday night I boarded the Night Riviera train at Paddington Station. I booked a sleeping compartment imagining I was in a Miss Marple story. I arrived early the next morning rested, and fortunately, no one had come to a mysterious end during the night.

After dropping off my bags at Trevose Guest House with owners Angela and Oli Noverraz, I headed across town to the St Ives Surf School on Porthemore Beach. Learning to Surf was really my main objective on this trip, but I must admit I have never engaged much with bodies of salt water. I was born in a land-locked country. I appreciate the beauty of the sea but more from an aesthetic point of view, well above sea level.

No.4 | Morning Surf—Afternoon Tea at St Ives Surf School

I had decided it was high time to tackle this fear. Katy at the St Ives Surf School checked the tides to see when the next class would be, and booked me in. The instructor for my class, Simon, also happened to be on hand when I arrived, and he and Katy expressed such certainty that all would be okay and that I would be riding waves by the end of the lesson, that I had no choice but to believe them.

My fellow students were a diverse bunch: different ages, men and women, and all different fitness levels. And everyone seemed as excited as me about the prospect of riding a wave for the first time.

No.4 | Morning Surf—Afternoon Tea at St Ives Surf School

Simon first gave us a safety rundown, taught us what the flags on the beach meant and, most important, showed us the hand signal to indicate that you’re in trouble – arm straight up with fist clenched, in case you are wondering. Then, he taught us some physics about how to distribute your weight on the board to avoid a nose dive, shared the two techniques for standing up, and we were off to the surf.

I had decided it was high time to tackle this fear. Katy at the St Ives Surf School checked the tides to see when the next class would be, and booked me in.

Simon shouted encouragement and tips from waist-deep water as we struggled to keep board, wave, and body all going in the same direction. Two hours later, completely exhausted, we all had a few decently ridden waves under our belts. I have to say the experience was absolutely exhilarating. I am hooked, as were the others.

No.4 | Morning Surf—Afternoon Tea at St Ives Surf School

After drying off and getting back into some warm clothes we were off to the Portemore Beach Cafe, next to the St Ives Surf School, for a good cup of tea. What a great feeling.

No.4 | Morning Surf—Afternoon Tea at St Ives Surf School

I settled into my comfortable bed at the Trevose Guest House early that night. I was completely knackered. Apparently there are some muscles you use in surfing that are not generally used. I really was sore.

No.4 | Morning Surf—Afternoon Tea at St Ives Surf School

Next day, after enjoying Oli’s fantastic breakfast, he and Angela invited me along for a tour of the studio of the late artist, Sandra Blow. Each Thursday her studio is opened to the public (by appointment and for a small fee to keep the estate maintained) by trustees Jon Grimble and his partner Artist Denny Long. Everything is just as she left it. Various materials and art supplies lie in place, her abstract paintings adorn the walls, and her eccentric wardrobe still hangs on a coat rack in the studio.

Like many artists Sandra Blow moved to St. Ives for the amazing light. Jon, her long-time friend, talked vividly about the beginnings of her art career in Chelsea, and her creative process. I found that part the most interesting. A fabulous morning.

No.4 | Morning Surf—Afternoon Tea at St Ives Surf School

For lunch I met up with Australian Chef Michael Smith, owner of Porthminster Beach Cafe. I had read about him and have his cook book, so I was eager to meet him.

The restaurant is on the second floor of a white Art Deco building lovingly restored to house the restaurant. I’m told that in summer the place is buzzing. Now, everyone seems to be enjoying a bit of a breather from the crowds. Michael uses only fresh local ingredients so seafood figures prominently on the menu. I had the Monkfish Curry, one of his signature dishes, and ate the Sticky Braised Pork Cheeks with wasabi puree, peanuts and prawns. A modern take on surf and turf.

No.4 | Morning Surf—Afternoon Tea at St Ives Surf School

The temperature was pleasantly cool. Sometimes warm when the wind was calm and a bit chilly when the wind picked up. Most people were still out in flip-flops and shorts. I’m always cold so I stood out a bit, dressed in my winter garb. The locals have an interesting theory about the temperature this time of year. The air temperature declines at a much faster rate than the sea and it is around this time that they equal out. So the theory goes that it actually feels less cold than in the summer because you feel the same in or out of the water. I was skeptical, but after my firsthand experience, it did kind of work that way.

No.4 | Morning Surf—Afternoon Tea at St Ives Surf School

Over my three-day stay I would constantly run into people I had met: My fellow students and I would exchange sore muscle stories, I got the thumbs up from the real surfers that have seen me floundering about in the surf, and even some of the shop owners I frequented got to know my name. St. Ives has a quiet charm in the off season with a lovely mix of people.

On the train ride out of town the track winds around the edge of the bay until it heads back inland. With the sun setting the light was, as usual, magnificent. It is easy to see why, for many years, artists and surfers alike have been drawn to make St. Ives their home.

Details

To arrive via the Night Riviera Sleeper train:
Depart from Paddington and change trains in the morning at St Erth. From there it is a short trip to St. Ives which is at the end of the line.

For the best guest house accommodation in St. Ives: www.trevosehouse.co.uk

For breakfast, lunch or tea on Porthmeor Beach:
www.porthmeor-beach.co.uk

For breakfast, lunch or dinner on Porthminster Beach:
www.porthminstercafe.co.uk

To arrange a private visit to the Sandra Blow Estate:
Call Jon Grimble 011 44 (0)1736 756 006. Note: Drop the “(0)” if dialing internationally. Tours can usually be arranged each Thursday.

For surfing lessons:
www.stivessurfschool.co.uk
Telephone: 011 44 (0)1736 793 938 Cell: 011 44 (0)7527 477 492 Note: Drop the “(0)” if dialing internationally. Email: info@stivessurfschool.co.uk

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

The Good Host

I arrived in Chania late at night and was met by a taxi driver Ammos Hotel had arranged for me. As we set off, the driver took great care to explain the circuitous route we would be taking. I wasn’t sure why he went to such lengths to describe the short trip, but I was excited to have arrived, and quickly put it out of mind. Some 15 minutes into the cab ride the scenery was not quite matching up with my expectations of where I would spend my holiday. The area around the hotel was filled with suburban-looking buildings and garish shopping malls, punctuated by abandoned construction sites. A distinct 1980 package-holiday feeling came to mind. I now understood why the driver had taken such pains to adjust my expectations.

But then, after turning off the main road, winding down a quiet neighborhood street, and making a quick right turn into the hotel drive, a very different picture emerged. Nestled by the sea at the end of the street sat the Ammos Hotel – a 33-room hotel built by the Tsepetis family in the 1970’s. Their son, Nikos, a journalist by trade, took over management of the business, and in 2008, in collaboration with architect Elisa Manola, did a complete redesign. I was greeted and delivered to my room by one of Nikos’ lovely staff members, Nektaria, who made me feel at home right away.

No.5 | Crete's Ammos Hotel and its Good Host

The next morning I met Nikos behind the reception desk. He can be found there every day, in his uniform of jeans and a revolving collection of eclectic T-shirts. He is one of a rare breed of hotel owners. He’s charming, funny, immensely patient and deeply knowledgeable about all the interesting happenings around Crete (Nikos’ blog about things he likes in Crete is worth checking out). And his personal traits extend further than just the front desk. Nikos’ keen sense of easygoing design and fashion can be seen and felt throughout the hotel. I was immediately inspired and relaxed.

No.5 | Crete's Ammos Hotel and its Good Host

The charm at the Ammos Hotel is one part calm one part design and one part comfort. The mixture is intoxicating. The layout of the hotel flows effortlessly, with its lounge, terraces, pool, and beach access. The beach is public but the Ammos Hotel maintains its own beach chairs and palm umbrellas for guests. With pool and ocean adjacent to each other you can easily satisfy your bathing whims. There is always a perfect place available to lie in the sun.

No.5 | Crete's Ammos Hotel and its Good Host

The rooms are impeccably designed and well-appointed. Beds are comfortable and the bathrooms are just right. Furnishings are minimal and custom-designed for the purpose. Each room is outfitted with a simple kitchenette. The freedom to be able to prepare a small meal and watch the sun set from your own balcony is a big plus for longer stays. I, for one, was glad for the opportunity of an occasional night in.

On my first day out and about in the hotel it occurred to me that the hotel’s clientele was distinctly on the young side. I mean really young … less than two! Families and small children are welcome at the Ammos Hotel. In fact they are catered to, and I think that is what makes it work so well. Even though I arrived with no little ones in tow, and was momentarily nervous at the sight of several toddlers, it turned out that some youthful enthusiasm actually added to the pleasant ambiance.

No.5 | Crete's Ammos Hotel and its Good Host

At the Ammos Hotel, I sometimes felt like I was a guest at a friend’s house rather than at a hotel. Nikos and his staff took every opportunity to engage with me, whether I needed a fresh beach towel, a trip into Chania, or a rental car for a longer excursion.

The charm at the Ammos Hotel is one part calm one part design and one part comfort.

I had decided that I wanted to hike the Samaria Gorge, a hike that starts high in the mountains and ends at the sea. My plans were the subject of much discussion with the reception desk staff for the few days leading up to the event. I got a range of comments, from helpful tips to genuine concern. “Are you sure you want to do that?” I was asked more than once. On the day of my hike, I had been absent all day and tried to sneak into the hotel unnoticed after dusk, but was spotted by Penelope and Yannis, of the wait staff. They noticed my wobbly legs and said one word, “Samaria?” We laughed and exchanged some jokes and stories about the day’s amazing activities.

No.5 | Crete's Ammos Hotel and its Good Host

If you like, you can eat all your meals at the Ammos Hotel. They have a great kitchen that cooks everything fresh from locally sourced ingredients. The regular menu of simple Greek fare is outstanding, and with daily specials written on the notice board each morning, you can dream about your next meal as you lay in the sun. Even the wine is sourced from a nearby winery, and Nikos can arrange a tour for an afternoon excursion.

I enjoyed the great weather and the lack of crowds during my stay. As with many places around this latitude, summer-like temperatures often extend into October and with the school holidays over you will have a much more pleasant experience at local attractions if you go off-season. I am planning another trip for April or May, as hiking in the beautiful Cretian mountains will be fantastic then.

No.5 | Crete's Ammos Hotel and its Good Host

As I write this story it is raining in London. The memory of falling asleep and waking up to the sounds of the waves each day is still fresh in my mind. I email Nikos to check some of my facts. He emails back right away relating that he has just finished shutting down for winter and that he was a bit sad that the season was now over. I got sad as well, imagining the hotel quiet and empty, everybody gone home until April. Looking forward to a new season opening …

Details

We suggest you visit Chania off season, April to June or September to the end of October.

Nearest Airport: Chania Airport. Easy Jet, Condor, Aegean, Olympic and Lauda Air all maintain service to Chania Airport.

Or take the ferry from Athens/Pireas To Chania. Ferries run daily service year round. The trip takes approximately 5-8 hours and voyage is overnight.

For Accommodation contact the hotel at:
www.ammoshotel.com


Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Walking with Seven Sisters

This one-day getaway from London to Seven Sisters Park in East Sussex is one of my favorites. If I need a day out of the city, this is the quickest route to breathtaking natural landscapes and fresh air. It’s easy to get to, and you don’t need a car. Just hop on a train and you will be on an East Sussex walk in little over an hour. You will return refreshed.

The name “Seven Sisters” refers to seven hills by the sea that have been incrementally eroded revealing massive white chalk cliffs. They fall between Cuckmere River and Birling Gap a valley that ends at the seaside. Access to the area is provided by South Downs National Park on the East and the National Trust on the West, and the trail that runs through it is known as South Downs Way.

The name Seven Sisters refers to seven hills by the sea that have been incrementally eroded revealing massive white chalk cliffs

The cliffs are often used in movies as a substitute for their more famous “sisters” the white cliffs of Dover. Development has infringed on the Dover cliffs and over time they have become less white. In contrast Seven Sisters are pristine, so if you are after an authentic, chalky-white, outdoors experience, this is a great choice.

No.3 | Walking with Seven Sisters in East Sussex

If you are just visiting London, this is a great day trip, a popular tourist destination. On most weekends, you will see an interesting mix of people; young, old, many families and tourists, all there to marvel at the breathtaking views. Strangely, the park is featured prominently in many Asian guide books and classified as a major London landmark. But if you ask someone in London about the Seven Sisters, most people will not have heard of it, thus, a good proportion of people walking the park are from Japan and Korea. So much so that the information provided in the visitors center is available exclusively in English and Japanese.

No.3 | Walking with Seven Sisters in East Sussex

I personally like to start on the west side and walk east, stopping at the beach before heading up the first hill. At low tide a strange landscape is revealed of white rocks covered partially in lush green seaweed. The sea continues to erode the chalk, releasing the stones that were trapped here millions of years ago. The “beach” is made of these stones smoothed over time by the waves. They are hard to walk on, but it is good exercise.

As you ascend the steep hills, don’t forget to turn around and take in the breathtaking 360-degree view of the valley below, with the sea and the cliffs in the distance.

No.3 | Walking with Seven Sisters in East Sussex

I recommend bringing a picnic lunch. There are many lovely spots along the way with unbeatable views that will make for a memorable meal.

At each end of the walk, you will find convenient resting places. On the east side is the Birling Cafe, and on the west, next to the County Park Visitors Center, is a lovely tea room. For the ambitious walker South Downs Way continues beyond Birling Gap to the town of Eastbourne. If you take that in, it will about double the length of your walk.

No.3 | Walking with Seven Sisters in East Sussex

If you are anything like me, heading home by train or car at the end of the day, you will feel refreshed and ready for a new week.

Details

To travel via train: Southern Railway trains leave from London Victoria. You will change at station Lewes for the Seaford (Sussex) train. Seaford (Sussex) is the last stop on the line. Don’t forget to buy a day pass for the bus along with your train ticket. Ask for “PLUSBUS” when buying your train ticket.

When you arrive in Seaford, cross the street in front of the station and turn left, walking beyond the last shop on the right to the bus stop. Take the No.12 bus to the Exceat Park Centre stop. Walk through the Visitors Center to the park entrance.

Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger