A year ago I was at Up Helly Aa

Up Helly Aa has been and gone again. It’s always on the last Tuesday of January and brightens some of the darkest days in the British winter. Shetland being so far north, it gets even gloomier than Manchester. Something hard to believe with the gloomy, drizzly weather we’ve been having lately.

Last year I was fortunate to be able to spend a week in Shetland and attend the festivities. I got to have one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life (and there have been a few!) and to cross a challenge off my 60 things to do before I’m 60 list.

I’ve been following it closely online this year and wishing I was there. I’ve just been reminiscing with my photos. The low light, rain and fast moving Vikings made it difficult to get good photos, but even the worst photos have good memories behind them and I love looking back at them. I’ve selected a few of the better ones and have put together a Flickr album.

Up Helly Aa

I’ve written a few other posts on Up Helly Aa and they can be found by clicking on the links below.

After my trip last year, I wrote about the day and the night parts of the festival.

I’ve also written an overview of what Up Helly Aa is.

My potted history of the festival can be found here.

The Up Helly Aa website can be found here.

 

Kungsleden Photographs

Photographs from the Kungsleden; Sweden’s spectacular Arctic wilderness.

In the summer of 2014 I walked about half of Sweden’s Kungsleden (it translates as the King’s Way or the King of Ways, depending on who you choose to believe).

The Kungsleden begins well above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland and follows a trail through valleys, over mountains and across rivers and lakes. Although there are camping huts spaced roughly a day apart, for the most part this is true wilderness with the nearest road often being several days walk away.

Basic food supplies can be bought at some of the huts, but for the most part you have to carry everything you need. The food in the huts is of the dried, canned and processed variety as it all has to be brought in my snow-mobile in March when the snow is at its deepest. It then has to last till the end of summer.

Water for washing and drinking is taken from the lakes and rivers and is some of the purest I’ve ever drank (and washed in).

I’ve put some photograhs (actually, I’ve put a LOT of photographs) on Flickr, but even the best photography can’t do justice to the beauty of this place. It’s one of those places you just have to see for yourself.

Click on the image below to access the album.

Kungsleden

The Golden Circle at New Year

A New Year’s Day trip round Iceland’s Golden Circle.

Having posted my wintry Reykjavik photographs yesterday and having my first Flickr experience, I’ve got a bit carried away and put another album together.

The Golden Circle is a popular day trip from Reykjavik. The 300km loop encompasses Þingvellir (the site of world’s oldest parliament and the place where the tectonic plates that form Europe and America are being slowly pulled apart), Gullfoss waterfalls and the geysers at Haukadalur which include Strokkur and Geysir (the one after which all other geysers are named). The tour also includes Kerið volcano crater, Skálholt church and the small geothermal town of Hveragerði. I chose to visit on New Year’s Day in 2012 when everything was frozen and under a thick layer of snow. The scenery I saw that day still takes my breath away when I think about it.

Click on the picture below to get to the album on Flickr.

The Golden Circle at New Year

Wintry Reykjavik

As there seems to be no chance of a white Christmas this year, I’m reminiscing about whiter times in Reykjavik.

I’ve been seeing so many beautiful, wintry, snowy photos on Facebook recently. Each time I look at them I’m reminded of the snowy New Year I spent in Reykjavik a few years back. Nowhere else has ever come close to the jaw-dropping, fingertip-freezing scenes I saw there. Even ordinary streets and shops looked like something out of a Bruegel painting. Although the sun barely rose above the horizon the light and colours were stunning. I took hundreds of photographs, even though it meant I had to keep taking my gloves off, just because I wanted to capture every last icicle and snow-covered rooftop.

I’m enjoying looking back at those photographs so much I’ve put some of them together in my first ever Flickr slideshow. Unfortunately, WordPress and Flickr don’t seem to like each other and so rather than a smooth link I’ve embedded a link to Flickr in the picture below. Clicking on the picture should take you to the album. If anyone knows a better way of doing this, your advice will be gratefully received!

 

Wintery Reykjavik

Chungking Mansions

Living in a heaving, chaotic metropolis I found tranquility by getting high (no, not like that!).

This is a piece I wrote recently for a Wanderlust competition. I didn’t win, but it’s still nice seeing my work on their website. The criteria for the entries was to write about a ‘high place’ you’ve travelled to. Instead of mountains, I chose to write about my time living as a backpacker in Hong Kong in the mid-1990s.

 

The Seventeenth Floor

Fifteen people stood waiting for the lift, the one that stopped at even-numbered floors only. Most of them were Westerners. That was no good. Although the sign inside the lift claimed it was designed to carry six people at a time, it neglected to mention that this didn’t include Westerners. Being on the whole much larger and heavier than the local Chinese, the lift would refuse to budge if more than four squeezed in at once.

If I was going to have to wait for the lift to do its journey more than three times, it was quicker to walk. I turned and pushed through the doors leading to the stairs. I was good at this now and no longer needed to pause for breath as I climbed to the seventeenth floor.

Living on the seventeenth floor, I felt like I was part of a secret club. Most people didn’t know it existed. Of course the even-floored lift didn’t go to the seventeenth, it stopped at the sixteenth, but for some reason the odd-floored lift didn’t go to the seventeenth either. It stopped at the fifteenth.

My building was officially called a Mansion, but was more often referred to as a ‘death-trap’ or a ‘den of iniquity’ and sometimes, when a journalist needed to pad out his word count in the South China Morning Post, as a ‘cockroach-infested, iniquitous death-trap’. He wasn’t far wrong.

I shared a room with ten people. Those on the top bunks had to carefully manoeuvre onto their beds so as to avoid decapitation by the uncovered ceiling fans which were constantly whirring in a vain attempt to counteract blood-boiling temperatures and humidity levels of nearly 100%.

We shared two toilets, not just my roommates and me, but the people in the other rooms too. The toilets were holes in the floor. The limp bit of hose dangling from the wall was the shower. To use it, I’d stand straddling the toilet hole; if I dropped the soap, I was never getting it back. I’d wave the hose around as tepid water dribbled out. Water pressure was an unknown concept on the seventeenth floor.

When the air became too stifling; the noise too deafening; the smells too overpowering, there was an escape. If not many people knew about the existence of the seventeenth floor, even fewer knew of the rickety ladder leading to a trapdoor at the corridor’s dark dead-end. Pushing up through that trapdoor led to the roof.

In among the grimy water tanks and pipes, leaning on the low wall that edged its way round the roof, I could look out over all the other buildings and peer down onto the flashing neon billboards strung across the road and plastering the buildings. It was quiet up here. Peaceful. Almost tranquil. It didn’t even smell too bad.

Overcrowding and a lack of land meant there was a need for tall buildings, but the jumbo jets circling low as they descended to the airport, put paid to any idea of Dubai-style skyscrapers. Planning regulations in Kowloon dictated that buildings couldn’t be higher than seventeen storeys.

On the roof of the seventeenth floor I was the highest person in Kowloon. I was up there with the planes, trying, but never quite being able, to see the faces of the passengers which I knew would be glued to the glass the same as mine was when I first flew into Hong Kong. I’d never had an introduction to a city like it; a pigeon’s eye view of the streets I’d soon be walking down.

I knew I lived in a dive. It was a place my Chinese students were too terrified to enter. It had weirdos and people hawking up phlegm. It had police raids at 5 o’clock in the morning. It had cockroaches and rats. But it also had the best Indian food and the friendliest people. It was a hive of activity. It was a hub of multi-culturalism. And there, perched on that roof top, gazing out at the lights reflecting in the harbour, caressed by the warm night air, I knew Chungking Mansions was the only place I wanted to be. It was home.

 

To Stachi veggie restaurant

One of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.

Was it really a week ago that I was in To Stachi eating one of the best vegetarian meals of my life? I don’t think I’ve stopped salivating over it yet.


We discovered To Stachi when wandering around the Venetian Harbour on our first morning in Chania. The friend I was travelling with remembered an organic food shop on a street set a little way back from the harbour and we went to see if it was still there. We found it, but it’s no longer a shop and instead has been converted into a small restaurant.


The place was empty as it wasn’t yet lunch time, but we went in and ordered coffee and sat with it at the tables outside the front. The owner, cook, herb-picker, vegetable grower and slow-food aficionado brought us a free piece of freshly-baked cake with our coffee and stayed outside to chat with us. 

Stelios owned the shop that was previously on the site and decided to turn it into a restaurant a year or so ago. He’s passionate about vegetarianism and food that is local, organic, traceable and slowly cooked with love. 

He explained that the name To Stachi means an ‘ear of wheat’ and told us about his family land where he grows a lot of his own produce. We’d also learnt during the week that Cretans are great at foraging, making use of all the wild herbs and greens that grow rampantly on the island.


Helen was so enamoured with the place she decided this was where she wanted to come on Friday evening to celebrate her birthday. Stelios was delighted and promised to make something very special.

On the Friday evening five of us arrived for dinner and were looked after wonderfully by Stelios and his daughter; he brought a constant stream of food to the table and took time to explain what every dish was. Unfortunately as I didn’t write everything down, I’m already struggling to remember what I ate. What I do remember was that it was all amazingly delicious. Here are photos of just a few of the dishes we were served. 

Best of all, at the end of the meal, Stelios brought out a birthday cake he’d made specially. It’s called galaktoboureko and is made from filo pastry and a thick gooey layer of semolina custard. It’s making my mouth water just thinking about it. 

galaktoboureko

The quality of the photos is poor because not only had I not taken a notepad and pen, but I’d also not taken my proper camera. I expected the food to be good, but really thought I’d be focussing more on the conversation, so I only had my mobile phone with me. Now I’m regretting that decision. 


To Stachi can be found at 5, Defkaliona Street, Chania. 
Here’s the Facebook page

Manto Studios

A beautiful place to stay in Paleochora. I never wanted to leave.

Manto Studios from the front

Arriving in Paleochora, down on the western edge of Crete’s south coast, we had no problems finding our accommodation on a corner of the town’s main street. Parking was free and our host had cordoned off a space for us right outside the door. 

Manto’s gallery (L), stairs to roof terrace and reception (R)


Entering the reception area we already knew we’d come to a place we were going to love. Art work decorated the walls and hung from the ceiling; a long sofa sat opposite a large TV (we never saw it switched on – Paleochora is far too nice to spend time indoors watching TV); the scent of jasmine drifted in from the courtyard outside the back door. 

Reception


Manto, the owner, appeared. She was welcoming, friendly and spoke good English. After moving the buckets she’d set out on the road to keep a parking space for us, she showed us to our room. We had booked a studio which turned out to be on the ground floor. We had our own little veranda with a table and chairs and a stable-style door that led into the room. 

Love the terracotta pots set into the walls


The room itself had twin beds with thick, red satin duvets, chairs, a table, wardrobe, dressing table and TV. Hidden behind a set of cupboard doors was a little kitchenette with sink, fridge and hotplate. The en suite had a spacious shower, toilet and basin with towels and basic toiletries supplied. 

 

Manto is an artist and has a large gallery at the back of the guesthouse. Her work is displayed throughout and even the headboard, mirror rim and dressing table top had been painted by her.

Easter treats



As an Easter treat she had laid out a selection of goodies on the table. A bowl of fresh fruit, sweets and wafer biscuits; a bottle of wine; three chocolate fondant ladybirds (ladybirds symbolise Easter); a couple of dyed red, hard-boiled eggs (red being the colour of Easter); and a loaf of sweet Easter bread inlaid with another red hard-boiled egg.




Outside the room, the narrow courtyard opened into a much wider space at the back of the cafe area. The plants were just starting to blossom and a line of mint was pushing its way through the soil. The large jasmine tree shaded the area and made it a really pleasant place to sit and linger over breakfast. 

Just part of the amazing buffet breakfast
Just a small part of what was on offer


Breakfast was included in the price and was served in the cafe. The buffet was a help-yourself affair laid out along three walls. Juices, a choice of teas, coffee, a range of breads and home-made jams, fresh and canned fruit, compote, cereals and muesli, scrambled or hard-boiled eggs, bacon, sausages, yoghurt, honey, cheeses and cold meats, pizza, warm freshly-made cheese and spinach pastries, meat pastries, cheese croquettes, olives, three kinds of cake … it went on and on. I wanted to try a bit of everything, but even taking tiny portions, there was no way I could do it. The food was delicious, the coffee was good and Manto and her husband helpfully explained what everything was and made sure I knew which pastries were vegetarian. 

Just when we thought the place couldn’t get any better, I noticed stairs leading up to the roof from just beside the reception door. I climbed them to discover the roof of the gallery was a large sun terrace with loungers and spectacular views of the mountains. Peering between buildings I could just glimpse the sea a block away. 
 

I loved this place and although I wanted to see more of Crete, I could have quite happily spent the whole week here. If anyone is planning a trip to Crete and looking for accommodation, definitely check out Manto Studios. And if you’re in the area, but not actually staying, then at least call in for breakfast. 

An example of Manto’s artwork on the wall in our room


Cost: 2 people, 2 nights over Easter weekend, including breakfast = €75 (total)
Non-guests can have breakfast for €6.

You can find the website here.

Fish ate my feet

A birthday breakfast where we were the breakfast.

I travelled to Crete with a friend who just happened to have a birthday whilst we were there. To celebrate she decided to get her feet eaten by fish. I have some weird friends.

There were a few places around Chania where, those so inclined, could pay to sit with their feet dangling in a fish tank and let the fish chew (or rather suck) the dead skin from their feet. I’ve seen these fish spas popping up all over the place in recent years as the experience is considered to be a spa treatment rather than a ghoulish way of serving breakfast to Goldie.

Birthday breakfast



Up until the last moment I ummed and ahhed over whether to join her in being breakfast or settling for being food photographer. I always like the idea of trying something new, but usually shy away from anything involving my feet as they are SO ticklish.

In the end, I couldn’t resist trying and slipped off my shoes and rolled up my trouser legs. My lower legs and feet were soaped up and hosed down before I was sat on a bench with a gaping fish tank in lieu of a footstool. 

I was supposed to let them settle on my feet, not kick them away


The fish, which are all freshwater fish imported from a river in Thailand, knew breakfast was about to be served and, piranha like, caused a mini-riot at the surface. I gingerly lowered my feet into the frenzy and squealed as a dozen or so tiny mouths started to pluck at my flesh with the sensation of couple of dozen mini electric hammer drills. At least this is what I imagine a wall must feel like when a hammer drill is used on it. I likened the feeling to a constant vibration; my friend to a series of tiny electric shocks.

Regardless of whether it was more akin to vibration or electrocution, it was definitely ticklish. Really ticklish. I struggled to hold my feet still, sometimes involuntarily kicking out to dislodge the fish. When the timer rang at the end of 15 minutes, I thankfully lifted my feet out making sure no fish were still attached. My non-ticklish friend opted to stay in for another 15 minutes and seemed to find the whole experience quite relaxing. Which I suppose is part of the point of a spa treatment. She was quite impressed with the results too, feeling her feet to be a lot softer afterwards.

I didn’t have much dry skin on my feet to start with and as I spent more time kicking the fish off than letting them do their job, I really didn’t notice any difference. 

Toe sucking




The fish used are garra rufa, also known as ‘doctor fish’. As well as sloughing off dead skin, the fish secrete an enzyme in their saliva (diathanol) which is thought to help heal skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. On the downside, concerns are sometimes raised about the hygiene levels of these salons (water is not changed between customers and additives such as chlorine can’t be used because they would harm the fish).  It is also thought that there is a very slight chance of the fish passing on HIV or hepatitis, though there is no evidence for this. It is advised that if you have open wounds you pass on this treatment. The salon we chose seemed very clean and our legs were checked for cuts. The therapist found a tiny cut on my friend’s leg (so tiny she hadn’t noticed it herself) and this was covered with a plaster so the fish couldn’t get to it.

Another concern of course, is for the welfare of the fish. I was worried that the sunscreen I’d applied to my legs wouldn’t be good for them, and so was pleased with how well my legs and feet were washed before they were allowed into the tank.

We went to Doctor Fish and paid €10 for the first 15 minutes and €9 for the second 15 minutes.

Greek Orthodox Easter – the video

A short video to capture the sounds and atmosphere of Orthodox Easter.

If I ever want to get good at making videos, I need to start actually making videos. Greek Orthodox Easter in Crete provided me with a good opportunity for a first attempt, as photographs alone couldn’t do justice to the occasion. I didn’t have a tripod or a specialist video camera, so I just pointed my usual camera and pressed the record button. I think I’ve done okay at capturing some of the sound and atmosphere, but I obviously have a LONG way to go to perfect my filming technique! 

Greek Orthodox Easter

Fireworks and an effigy burnt on a bonfire. No, not Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night, but Judas and Greek Easter.

It was all a bit last minute. A friend, who had previously lived in Crete, suddenly found she was free over the Orthodox Easter period and decided to use this unexpected time-off to return to visit friends and join in the celebrations. As my only previous experience of Greece was a rushed and unplanned visit to Athens when I was inter-railing in Western Europe in the ’80s, I couldn’t resist tagging along. 

My previous trip had happened because someone had enticed me with the information that if I went to Athens I could sleep on a roof. Coming from Manchester where we not only sleep under a roof, but also under a thick duvet and preferably with the central heating on, the idea of sleeping on a roof was, at the time, way out there in terms of adventurous and wacky things one can do with one’s life. This time, I was enticed by the slightly more academic reason of learning about a branch of Christianity I know very little about. Ok, thoughts of sunshine and raki had something to do with it as well, but only a little bit. Honestly.

Finding a last-minute cheap flight over the Easter period wasn’t easy and so we ended up flying out early on the Saturday morning. The whole week leading up to Easter is celebrated in Greece much more than it is here, so unfortunately we did miss quite a lot. But at least we were there for the main event.

As we’d been up most of the night due to our early flight, once we arrived at our accommodation we had a bit of a snooze in order to gear ourselves up for the night. Consequently, the first I saw of Paleochora, the small town on the south-west coast where we’d chosen to spend the weekend, was after dark. The main street was lined with bars and shops and had mountains looming over one end and the church looming over the other. People were feeding into the main street from the  many side streets and flowing in an ever-growing crowd in the direction of the church. There was a frisson of excitement in the air, probably made more palpable by the dark shadows and my lack of knowledge as to what lay down the darkened narrow streets that peeled off to my left and right. 


We went with the flow and headed towards the church. We’d have known it was the church even without having a crowd to follow, as it was the brightest thing around. Illuminated by numerous spotlights, it glowed whiter than a white shirt in a Persil ad. As we got closer we could hear the chanting from inside and slipped in through the double doors to find out what was going on.

Inside, the church was bathed in a muted golden light. It shimmered off the gold chandeliers and gold-haloed icons. The icons, mostly painted directly onto the walls, covered every inch apart from a section of the ceiling. Men were choosing an icon and kissing it as they came in. Women were taking slim white candles from a box near the door, slipping a coin into the cash box slot, then lighting their candle and offering up a prayer before blowing it out. Children were playing hide and seek in the lectern and behind the curtains of the confessional. The priest was to one side, singing and chanting in the ancient Greek that is the sound of worship. Recent discussion brought up the idea of holding services in modern Greek so more people could understand them and ideally encourage more young people to attend, but this idea was dismissed as the ancient language adds a mystery and tradition far too important to be discarded for the sake of modernity and upping recruitment.

I grew up attending Catholic Mass. I always found it staid, boring and stiff. The service here was anything but staid, boring and stiff. People came and went as they pleased; moved around; chatted quietly to their neighbour; let their children play; all the while seeming to be involved in the devotion. The priest continued to sing. By the end he’d been going for several hours straight and how he wasn’t hoarse, I don’t know.

After a while, we left the church and wandered back down the main street. The church was getting more crowded now and we were going against the flow. The street was much fuller, but still everyone was going in the same direction. Except us. We went into a bar for a rejuvenating cup of mountain tea and sat on bar stools chatting to the bartender. Just before midnight we left our mugs in his care (he was very trusting as we hadn’t yet paid) and went back down to the church.

Burning Judas


As midnight struck, the lights went out and people began to stream out of the church to join the crowd outside who hadn’t been able to squeeze in. The priest came out, still singing, and continued his chants at a shrine in the church yard. Fireworks exploded above our heads and the bells donged noisily. On a cliff rising directly behind the church are the remains of the town’s old fortress. It was here that the bonfire was lit. As we burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes on Bonfire Night, the Greeks burn a life-size effigy of Judas, Jesus’ betrayer, on Easter Saturday night. Gazing up, I could just about make out the humanoid form in the flames. 

People leaving the church


It is at midnight that the candles are lit to symbolise the resurrection of Jesus and, no doubt, also symbolising the more pagan beliefs of the new life and light heralded by the onset of spring. This is no ordinary lighting of candles. No whipping out a Zippo or striking a match here. Instead, each candle is lit from a flame that originated in Jerusalem a few hours ago.

Waiting for the candlelight to be shared

Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre is believed by Christians to be the site at which Jesus was buried and resurrected. Believers claim a flame spontaneously bursts from his tomb on the day before Easter Day to show that Jesus has not forgotten his followers. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem is the main guardian of this ritual. Each year he enters the small tomb where Jesus is believed to have been buried and waits alone for a blue light to appear and ignite the flame. Before he enters, the tomb is checked to ensure that there is no way the flame can be lit by human hand.

The candlelight is spreading

The flame from this ‘Miracle of Holy Fire’ is used to light 33 candles – one for each year of Jesus’ life – and from these the candles of the many worshippers who attend this ceremony are lit. Also lit are a set of lanterns that depart on a special flight for Athens. From Athens the flames are circulated to churches throughout Greece and it is at midnight that this flame is used to light the candles of the worshippers in each church. The light is passed from candle to candle; people chatting and smiling as they share the sacred flame. Seeing this I understood why the women I’d watched lighting candles earlier, had blown them out once they’d finished their prayer. 

Spreading the joy


Eventually all candles were lit, the flames of the bonfire died down, the bells stopped ringing and the priest stopped singing, the lights were back on and the fireworks had finished. People started to move away sheltering the flame of their candle with a cupped hand. Some would be travelling home in cars with their lighted candles. We weren’t so reverential and, blowing our candles out, returned to the bar to finish our tea and pay our bill.

Guarding that flame!


I didn’t take photos inside the church as it seemed disrespectful to be taking pictures during the service. I went back during the daytime hoping to get some photos, but it was all locked up.