Friday, May 4, 2018

May 2nd – Driving The Country Rhodes

After visiting all these exotic ports in developing countries, I find that there’s always something reassuring in coming back to Europe. There’s plenty of fascinating sights on offer, but you just know that the hassle factor will be less, you know that the price in a shop is not an inflated one that needs to be bargained down, and there’s a refreshing feeling of familiarity and civilisation that’s not always apparent in Asia or the Middle East.

This was particularly true in our first European port – Rhodes, a place where the history is all around you, where the people are friendly (particularly at this time of year, before the tourist season hits full swing), and a place which really couldn’t be any more convenient for sightseeing. We dock right next door to the medieval Old Town, with its formidable walls looking as good as ever in the early summer sun, and there are car hire companies just outside the port for you to do a bit of exploring on your own.

We hired a car for the day (25 Euros from 9am till 10pm), so went off on a drive around the island. Having been on so many tours where you’re constantly looking at your watch to make sure you’re back to the coach at the appointed hour, there was a real feeling of freedom as we zoomed down the coastline, up mountainsides, and past olive groves, making up our route as we went along.

We first called in at Tsampika to do a trek up to its hilltop monastery (having climbed up 300+ steps). The monastery itself is small, but you’re visiting this place for the tremendous views it provides – over some gorgeous sandy beaches, washed by the gentle waves of the dark blue Aegean.

Next, we went for a coffee to the small town of Haraki, where the setting couldn’t have been much more idyllic – its picture perfect bay overlooked by a ruined Byzantine Castle. We thought that we had stumbled across this place by accident, but as soon as we saw that bay we recognised it as exactly the same spot that we had stopped in at, last time we hired a car here, 10 years ago – fate must just keep driving us to this beautiful spot.

After a photostop across to Lindos, we then drove across the island, from its touristy eastern coast to the more unspoilt western coast. As we drove along these winding country rhodes, the tourist crowds melted away and we were met with wide open landscapes of pine forests and mountains, with scarcely a trace of humanity. After calling in to see the spooky remains of an abandoned Italian village at Eleoussa, we stopped in the tiny village of Dimylia for lunch. As we were the only customers at this rustic taverna, the owner couldn’t have been more pleased to see us – it felt like we must have been his first customers of the season.

Next we called in at the ancient site of Kamiros, a really well preserved site of an ancient city that got destroyed and covered over by successive earthquakes. Not many of the buildings were above waist height, but the remarkable thing was that you got a great understanding of the actual street layout of Kamiros, with its streets of shops, temples, houses and cisterns. Much better than I’d expected.

Our final stop was to take the extremely winding rhodes that led up to Mount Filerimos to see its combination of ancient Greek temples, Byzantine fortress, Knight’s castle, Italian restorations and Orthodox monastery – aside from the great views, this sight really encapsulates the long succession of powers and history that this unique island can boast.

To round off an excellent day, we went to a lovely restaurant just outside the city walls called Nissa. Super-friendly service and simple but tasty food – again, sums up everything that’s good about Rhodes.

Since we first came here when we were just 19, I don’t think that I’ve ever had a bad day in Rhodes – a wonderful island.

April 28th – Finding the Holy Grail of Petra

Any time spent in the magical Lost City of Petra always leaves me wanting more. The main landmark sights, like the iconic Treasury, the Ancient Theatre and the Royal Tombs are stunning enough, but there’s so much more to this amazing site than that.

On a day trip from Aqaba, you spend 2 and a bit hours to get there, then of course you have that atmospheric walk down the Siq (the canyon) to get your first stunning views of the Treasury – and, for a lot of people, that’s about enough. The walk is tiring, the ground uneven, and seeing the Treasury is sometimes enough to “tick the box” for that quintessential Petra view.

But, for me, I’m always desperate to see more – it’s just a case of how much time you have and how far you can go, before you have to turn around and re-trace your steps. Luckily enough, our group this time was quite a speedy one and our guide was quite economical with his words, so on getting to the Treasury, we were given 2 hours of free time.

So, I had to calculate how far I could go in that time. My goal was to get up to see the Monastery, which is at the far end of the site, and up over 800 steps up into the steep hills behind the main ruins. Our guide said I should calculate on 45 minutes to get to the trail, and 1 hour to get up – which obviously wouldn’t be enough time, but I reckoned I could do it in half that time if I was fast.

Fortunately, it had rained the day before in Petra (a rare occurrence in these arid landscapes), so it was a bit cooler for my march through the sand to the start of the trail up to the monastery. At this point, I decided that I needed to run up the steps if I was going to have any chance of making it up there.

I was like a man possessed as I bounded up the steps, (some of them worn by the millennia into little better than rough slopes), and I zoomed past the other monastery-climbers. I think that my puffing and panting and slipping and sliding must have scared a few of them taking a more leisurely climb, as I loomed up on them like an asthmatic mountain goat. As I rounded every corner I expected to see the Monastery there waiting for me; however, as fatigue was setting in, eventually, a kind stall holder told me that I was 2 minutes away, so I began to relax, and then I got my first breathtaking view of the Monastery to put a spring back into my weary steps. It had taken me 19 lung-bursting minutes.

In some ways, the Monastery is more impressive than the Treasury – it’s less ornate, but it’s bigger, and it’s more obviously part of the rock face. Plus, the other good thing is that the hundreds (possibly thousands) of tourists and vendors who throng the Treasury, turning it into a bit of a noisy zoo, will never make it up here, so you feel like you’ve got this place to yourself. If I hadn’t now been plastered in sweat and weak from my run, it would have been a totally magical experience, savouring a view that feels like it’s one of the Holy Grails of travelling.

I gave myself 5 minutes to drink in the view (and more importantly get my breath back), and then it was time to run back down again, in a journey that wasn’t really any quicker because I kept slipping on the sandy rocks.

Somehow I got back at the appointed hour for lunch, and I have to say that the cold beer back at the lunch venue has rarely tasted better after this exertion. Sometimes a good day’s sightseeing can be a combination of workout and ancient wonders. Another wonderful day.

April 27th – A Lazy Day in Safaga

 After a gruelling 14-hour tour the day before, the only way to recover was to find a shady sunbed on the beach, and have a refreshing dip in the Red Sea.

To be honest, what I’ve seen of Safaga wouldn’t necessarily mark the town out as a place I’d go to relax – the town sits on the edge of the bleak Eastern Desert, and is mostly scruffy, dusty and appears half-finished. However, outside of the town, in the fenced-off Soma Bay area, there’s some very high quality resorts that take advantage of the attributes that Safaga has in abundance – sun, sea and sand!

So, I had the hard job of accompanying the tour to the upmarket Sheraton Soma Bay Resort, where we given a cabana on the beach, and left to get on with the difficult job of relaxing. This I achieved quite well, interspersed with a couple of breaks for swimming – the sea was actually a bit colder than I’d expected, but seeing as the temperatures out on the sand had by now reached roasting, it was nice to cool off.

There wasn’t really anything more to my day than that. Sometimes, it’s good to keep things simple.