Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Austria in Greece!

I didn't expect the White Mountains to be white but as I exited the bus at the entrance to the Samaria Gorge the ashen peak of Kinkilos dominated the landscape. In an endeavour to avoid the droves of tourists headed for the gorge; instead of going down, I headed up, into the Lefka Ori and towards the small mountain lodge of Kallergi Refuge.

As I headed up the mountain it wasn't long before all I could hear was the tinkering of goat bells and all I could see was the view of the Omalos Plateau sprawled below. Before too long I arrived at the refuge sitting high atop the mountain, boasting impressive views of the basin below and prime position to gaze at the vultures soaring and diving and the clouds fluxing in and out of the valley.

After too long, staring entranced by the view I made the move towards the lodge to get myself settled and found myself promptly in Austria! Kallergi is owned by a well traveled interesting Austrian man whom I spent the better half of the afternoon chatting with as he plied me with Glühwein and fed me Obst Knödel! Certainly not how I had envisaged the day but a welcome development of events.

Early to bed, early to rise was my plan of attack. Early enough to see the Milky Way as a glittering rainbow above me and early enough to need my headlamp for the first 4km of my 22km hike.

While being lovely the Samaria Gorge had nothing on its Rethymno cousin of Myli. It was 16km downhill, over rocks, with little more than a few Cretan butterflies to spot. Ruined by tourists who have built up small piles of rocks everywhere in order to consummate their trek of the gorge. A LNT disaster....thankfully I had managed to avoid almost all of the tourists. I was through the gorge in five hours and then sat impatiently for the next five hours for the  ferry to arrive, watching the masses arrive at the end of the gorge in the small village of Agia Roumeli on the South coast.

Prior to my arrival to Omalos I had a fleeting and also lacklustre sojourn in Heraklion, for the primary reason of visiting Knossos Palace, which turned out to be a load of arranged ruins; some British guys interpretation of what the Minoan capital had looked like.....

I guess its had to compete with the adventures of the past month; Santorini, the Magnificent 7, Athens and the two wonderful weeks at Biotopes, which had culminated in a night out in Old Town, much vodka and sleeping out under the stars on a trampoline!

With one day left on the island of Crete and in the spectacular country of Greece, I'm looking forward to a sleep in and exploring the Old Town of Chania before I head off to one of my favourite countries, fourth time around.... the land of pizza and pasta, designers and style, MotoGP champions... Hello Italia!

View of the lighthouse in Chania Old Town

Old Town Harbour Chania

Knossos Palace

Chania Old Town...gorgeous

White Mountains Crete

Heraklion Fortress
View of the basin from Kallergi Refuge
Omalos Plateau
Fragana & Mountains
Soaring vultures 
An Austrian hideaway in Greece

More Lefka Ori beauty

Kallergi Refuge
I took so many of the view....

Inside Samaria
Rocky understatement

Samaria Gorge at its narrowest

At Agia Roumeli

Friday, September 14, 2012

Back to nature

I woke from an intermittent sleep; it was 6:30am so I expected we must be close, as I climbed the stairs to the deck the pre-dawn sky appeared luminous, a balmy breeze washed over me and the Minoan island of Crete emerged before me.

My adventure for the next couple weeks would be living and working at a Nature Farm, a great way for me to spend some time in the outdoors, getting back to the natural world and no doubt a stark contrast to my recent life of luxury. I was welcomed warmly by Susanne and Mihales, the creators of the park, along with a fellow Aussie; Laura, who was also volunteering.

Crete is home to one of the oldest human civilisations in the world, dating back over 130,000 years and it is also the home of extensive biodiversity, around 10% of the island plants are endemic. Biotopes Nature park was created to showcase the various botanical environments of the island and to conserve, create and share, encouraging a reconnection of adults and children to the natural world.

A typical day in the life of a volunteer is feeding and caring for the animals that live here; Chameleons, Snakes, Frogs, Geckos, Rabbits and Chickens and leading Guided Tours of the park for the visiting tourists. The lifestyle is typically Greek; relaxed and unhurried with a focus on delicious meals and peaceful mid afternoon siestas. We work in the mornings and evenings when its cooler, during the middle of the day the sun is intense and voracious. 

Biotopes Nature Park is perched high upon a hill above the city of Rethymno and overlooks a sandy coastline and a tepid cerulean sea. The walk to the water is a feast for the senses, fragrant jasmine and frangipani waft through the air, figs and grapes overhang fences, caper plants crawl along pathways and you are met with bright pink, white and blue flowers at every turn. An afternoon amble down the hill has become a regular occurrence, the sea is a salty, soothing, siesta delight and a welcome relief to the still scorching September sunshine that consumes the park. 

Another great escape from the heat of the day is the Myli Gorge, a lush and green abyss not too far from the park, although the walk there is slow and stalled as you can't help but to stop every 10 metres of so to smell another wild herb, look at the hundred year old olive trees, to search for a ripe fig or carob pod on the plentiful fruit trees, or just to admire the spectacular views.

A few days after I arrived we were joined by Sabrina, a shy but spirited German relative of Suzanne's. Incidentally, Laura and I have become informal English tutors, although often I can't help to laugh or just stare at her blankly, sometimes correcting her use of grammar and vocabulary and of course teaching her the odd piece of slang here and there.

A morning hill climb has become routine, running down the steep hill to the town and then back up, maybe stopping on the way to pick some of the last Blackberries of the season to top my breakfast of Greek yogurt and honey. I have become very good at catching Grasshoppers, the staple diet of Chameleons as well as becoming best of friends with our resident Australian Python who I pick up and show as part of the park tour. 

There is an abundance of edible plants and fruits strewn all over the island; wild mint, anise, oregano and Vlita grow on the side of the road, I ate walnuts straight from the tree in the Myli Gorge and plundered an orchard of Avocado trees at the bottom of a stoney gully.

Evenings are mere, existing of simple pleasures; jumping on the trampoline as the sun sinks into the incandescent sky, preparing a salad of flavoursome tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden, splattered with fresh herbs and smothered with local olive oil, savouring a frosty Fix and enjoying good conversation, in several languages with new friends.

View from Biotopes Nature Park
Bougainvillea everywhere
Laura & Sabrina...sightseeing Rethymno
Old Town Port 
More cobblestone streets and terraces
We couldn't resist this unique bar
A refreshing Fix on another scorching day
A trail leading to siesta delight
One of the many park residents
Views on the way to Myli Gorge
 Myli Gorge Church 
Views from Myli Gorge Taverna 
Onion Flower and friend  
Rethymno Fortress 
My morning run... ok mostly walk
Dinner for rabbits

Our resident Indian Boa.... 5 metres, 50kg!

Biotopes Nature Park 
Baby Chameleon

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Blessed by the Goddess Athena

I arrived to Athens in the midst of the Blue Moon, the area surrounding the Acropolis was dense with locals and tourists enjoying full moon symphony performances. The city air was thick with fumes and cigarette smoke which made me feel like unleashing the Mighty Dragon and fleeing towards green space and clean air at the earliest opportunity.

After, what by comparison to recent nights was an early one, I rose feeling optimistic to discover Athens in the light of day. Much to my surprise and delight breakfast brought Manuel, a handsome Colombian into my life, a welcome change to the hordes of Australians that are roaming Greece.

Following a morning walking tour taking in the many sights of the city, in an effort to escape the stifling mid afternoon heat, Manuel and I headed for the National Botanic Gardens; Fix (local fermented beverage) and Pistachios in hand. Once rested and just nicely hydrated we decided that Lykavittos Hill, perched high above the city was the only place to take in the sunset and set off in search of the telefonica. As we traipsed around the base of the rather large hill in search of the elusive telefonica I reminded Manuel that the guide had mentioned that the entrance could be "a little difficult to find". "How hard can it be? Its a telefonica" retorts Manuel.

After stopping for more supplies and more (unhelpful) directions we found ourselves hiking up the dusty wooded hill in thongs, stopping part of the way for much needed refreshments and to laugh childishly at how difficult it apparently could be to find the telefonica.

The hike was well worth the effort, the views of the city, the surrounding mountains and the sea were exceptional. We sat for hours, our legs dangling over the edge of the marbled walls of the chapel, talking incessantly about anything and everything and sharing the last Fix since someones' had become a casualty of the rocky abyss below. Slowly the golden sun sank into the mountains on the horizon and as dusk became twilight, one by one, the lights of the city began to sparkle below.... my first day in Athens; not bad at all ;)

My second day in the city of Goddess Athena brought the marbled magnificence that is the towering Acropolis, along with more scorching heat, dusty hiking, thirst quenching Fix, endearing company, laughs and great conversation. Following yet another brilliant sunset from high above the city and a final shared feast of Greek culinary delights it was time to farewell my Colombian as he boarded a train bound for Italy and I prepared to sail to the island of Crete.

It is serendipitous how the universe can bring people into your life, so abruptly, so pleasantly... Sometimes you wake up with an arse in your face, turns out there are worse things ;)

Some of the many ruins around the city of Athens
Botanical bliss
Escaping the heat
The Palace Guards 
Tower of the winds
The Acropolis
Ok I'll have a photo! 
Silly....its the key to life man 
What a view
Another day another beautiful sunset 
Greek culinary feasting at its best
Marbled magnificence
Super scorching mid day rays
Just imagine how they actual built this....amazing
Me and Manuel
The Greek flag flying large and strong 
Spectacular views 
Athens is full of graffiti, this is the nicer kind
The ultimate bearded man....Zeus
Some things are constant...thousands of years ago chicks loved earrings!