Exploring Downtown Montreal

Early in the morning on August 31, we drove to Mount Royal.  This hill at its 233 meters of altitude and 200 hectares in area, quite literally in typical tactical language of a young subaltern, ‘dominates’ Montreal.  Mount Royal owes its name to Jacques Cartier who then turned the name Mont Royal to name the city Montreal!    Mount Royal is nicknamed the ‘Mountain’ by Montrealers.   The park atop the mountain was created in 1876 and designed by the same landscape architect as the Central Park in New York, Frederick Law Olmsted.

We parked our car at the base of Mount Royal, next to the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery and then We took a stroll inside the cemetery.  It stands as a celebration of Montréal’s religious, cultural, historical, architectural and environmental heritage.  It is Canada’s largest Catholic cemetery with over 900,000 people buried there since 1854.  Over the years, it has become not only a natural haven for local flora and fauna but also home to some rare tree species.

With the city thriving, a resting place for the departed had to be established far from the city, for reasons of health and hygiene, as well as for lack of space in the downtown area. In 1852 the first cemetery was created on Mount Royal and was used for burial of   Anglophone Protestants.  The Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Catholic cemetery followed in 1854.

We then trekked our way up the mountain, walking through a pine forest to the summit to the Mount Royal Chalet.  This building was commissioned in 1931 by the then Mayor, Camillien Houde to provide employment during the Great Depression.  It was designed by the Québec architect Aristide Beaugrand-Champagne with a stone facade, large windows and elegant doors.  Inside the chalet, are paintings depicting the history of Montreal.  It also houses a food counter and a souvenir shop.


Kondiaronk Lookout located outside the Mount Royal Chalet is the best-known lookout point on Mount Royal, offering an exceptional view of Montreal and its skyscrapers as well as the St. Lawrence River.

Our trek then continued to the Iron Cross.  It was erected in 1924, the cross atop Mount Royal to commemorate the day of January 6, 1643.  The cross stands 30 metres high and when lit, can be seen from nearly 80 kilometers away, weather permitting.

In December of 1642 Montreal was threatened by a dangerous flood. The city’s founder, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, prayed to the Virgin Mary, vowing to raise a cross to honour her if the settlement remained safe from the flood.  His prayer was answered and the water receded. He fulfilled his promise, carrying a wooden cross to the top of Mount Royal on January 6, 1643, raising it in the Virgin Mary’s honour.

In 1874 the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society decided to raise a new metal cross to honor Maisonneuve. The project was funded by public subscription. However, the project ran into financial difficulties and soon came to a grinding halt.  Ultimately the project was completed 50 years later, in September 1924.  After five years, the cross was handed over to Montreal City.

After walking around Mount Royal, we drove to Parc Olympique, one of the most controversial structures in Montreal.  Built for the 1976 Olympic Games, it remained unfinished until the 1980s.  The Olympics cost $1.6 billion to the city (including $1.1bn for the stadium), 13 times over budget, with a string of officials convicted of breach of trust and the greatest white elephant of a stadium ever built.  The city was left with a debt that took 30 years to pay off.

The city had hosted one of the most successful World Fairs ever in 1967 -the Expo 67 – and the city, to add another feather in its cap, bid for the XXI Olympiad.

During the opening ceremony of the Olympics, out of sight of the cameras and the throng inside the stadium, the staff were frantically working to clear away the building debris. In the final scrambling months before the Games, 3,000 labourers had worked in teams 24 hours a day to make it possible for the Olympics to begin at all. They just about succeeded.

On culmination of the Olympics, the City realised that it might cost a lot to tear down the structure and also cost an enormous amount to operate.  It was also the only time in the history of the Olympics that the host nation did not win a single Gold Medal!


We then drove to St James United Church on Sainte-Catherine Street.  It is one of the city’s religious heritage gems built in 1889 by Methodist Loyalists who left New York City in the late 1700s.  The church is characterised by its spectacular stained-glass rose window, massive towers, gargoyles and High Victorian Gothic Revival architecture.

Montreal is a city that quite literally creeps under your skin and into your bloodstream. I had a sense of wanting to stay on and explore a lot more of the city’s history and heritage. But then plans are plans and we decided to stick to our schedule and accordingly, after lunch, we commenced our return journey to Toronto.

Montreal : Expo 67 & 1976 Summer Olympics


(Image Courtesy Google)
After the cruise on Saint Lawrence River, we drove to Saint Helena’s Island  and undertook an electric car ride to explore the island.  This ride traces the history of the island  from 1611 to the present day, highlighting its natural, cultural and military  heritage. City of Montreal came into world prominence with the conduct of Expo 67 and 1976 Summer Olympics.  Let me take you through this trip based on these two events which were mostly held on Saint Helena’s Island, also called Montreal’s baby sister island.


This island was named by Samuel de Champlain – founder of Montreal – in 1611 in honour of his wife, Hélène Boullé.  Located in the Saint Lawrence River, South-East of  the city of Montreal, it was purchased by the British government in 1812.  In 1870, the Canadian government acquired the island and converted into a public park.  Up until the construction of the Jacques-Cartier Bridge in 1930, it was only accessible by ferry.  The island was originally much smaller than it is today. In preparation for Expo 67, the City of Montreal consolidated several of the surrounding islands and enlarged it using earth excavated from the river bed and the construction of the Montreal Metro tunnels.


As a good soldier, let me begin with the Saint Helena’s Island’s buildings of military history value.  Above is the Fort built in 1824 by the British for protection against the United States.  It served as a storage and distribution centre for weapons and ammunition.  Today the Fort is home to the David M. Stewart Museum, where historical artifacts from Canada’s colonial past, particularly that of New France are displayed.


This is the Large powder magazine located in the centre of the Island, protected by a wall.  It had a storage capacity of 5,000 barrels of gun powder.


The Military Cemetery is home to over 1000 fallen soldiers. According to the commemorative plaque in the graveyard, there are a total of 58 known soldiers and many unknown buried here. The plaque says that “several wives and many children were also buried here”, but there is no mention whatsoever of 800 unknown soldiers buried in mass graves.

That was the military history aspect and now let me take you through what unfolded during Expo 67.  The name ‘Expo,’ which is simply an abbreviation of exposition, was coined by Montreal, and world fairs since have continued to call it ‘Expo.’  Expo 67 had pavilions from 62 participating nations.  Among the companies, Kodak and  the telephone industry had their own pavilion.  The pavilion visitors liked the most was that of telephone industry, followed by Czechoslovakia.

From the time of Expo 67, various art works were commissioned on the island.  Let us visit some of the artworks that impressed me.


This is the iconic sculpture ‘L’homme’ (The Man), commissioned in 1967 as a gift from the International Nickel Company, showcasing the theme of Expo 67- ‘Man and His World’.  It took five months to complete at a cost of $135,000.  Today it is  valued between 50 and 200 million Dollars.


The Iris sculpture was done in 1967 by Québec artist Raoul Hunter in conjunction with Expo 67.  It has four curved petals made of aluminum sheets.  All the concave surfaces converge towards each other, creating an enveloping effect.


La Ville Imaginaire is a sculpture made out of white granite.  It was a gift from Portugal in 1997 to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Montreal’s Metro subway system  and Expo 67.  It depicts reflection as to how humans create mythical spaces, both out of necessity and in response to challenges.


This sculpture, l’Arc, next to the Iris, is made of ultra-high performance concrete.  Inaugurated on September 11, 2009, it was built in honour of the Chilean president Salvador Allende, who died in 1973. It depicts a curved tree with its branches touching the ground.  It was designed by Michel de Broin as a complex symbol whose meaning was to be open to individual interpretation.

Main attraction of Expo 67 was that the visitors had to stamp their passports at the entrance to each pavilion.  It encouraged people to visit more pavilions than they would have otherwise, only to get more stamps in their passport.  Let me take you through some of pavilions as they stand today.


Montreal’s famous geodesic ball, the Biosphere, was the US Pavilion during Expo 67. Instead of using bolts, the structure was welded together due to time constraints and covered with an acrylic shell. In 1976, when the structure was being repaired, welding torches set fire to the Biosphere, completely burning off the acrylic shell in less than 30 minutes, leaving behind only the steel skeleton.  During Expo 67, the pavilion trumpeted America’s ‘Race to the Moon,’ and also the American  entertainment industry. The Biosphere was later purchased for $17.5 million and restored to become Canada’s first Ecowatch Centre on World Environment Day June 6, 1995.


French Pavilion from Expo 67 is now home to the Montreal Casino. According to the original Expo 67 description of the pavilion, it featured ‘aluminum sun-breaker strips, providing an attractive sculpture effect’ and ‘a steel arrow.’


Jamaican pavilion, a replica of a 19th century two-story Jamaican country shop was constructed of thick, sand-colored plaster walls with shuttered upper windows and a cedar shingle roof.  It has been completely renovated and is now a very popular wedding destination, surrounded by trees and nature.


Building off the success of the 1967 Expo, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau wanted to cement Montreal’s place in the world as a truly International City.  Thus the city took on hosting the XXI Olympic Games in 1976.  Montreal Olympics was best known for Nadia Comăneci – the first person to score a perfect 10 at the Olympic Games – and also infamously for Canada becoming the first Olympic hosting nation not to win any Gold Medal.


This is the Olympic Basin which was used for canoeing and rowing competitions during the 1976 Olympic Games.  It extends over 2.2 kilometres in length; it is 110 metres wide and 2.5 metres deep. The Basin’s unique installations and it’s calm waters make it the pride of every rowing enthusiast.  The pavilions of Expo 67 of India,  Germany, Australia, Myanmar, Mexico and Thailand had to be demolished to make way for the Basin.  Today many competitive boating events are held here such as the Canadian Masters Championships and the Montréal International Dragon Boat Race Festival.


Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve is a 4,361-metre long car-racing track which has played host to the Formula 1 Grand Prix du Canada since 1978. The track is well-regarded for its smooth asphalt surface and the meticulous manner in which the track is maintained. These track conditions contribute to the high-calibre racing performances by the F1 cars.  When it is not hosting an event, the Circuit is where cycling, para-cycling, inline skating and running enthusiasts come to train.

From Saint Helena’s Island, we drove to our hotel in Montreal City for a well deserved rest and to explore the city next day.

A Cruise on the Saint Lawrence


After a sumptuous lunch, we walked down to the Vieux Port (Old Port) of Montreal to embark on our cruise boat – Le Beteau Mouche – meaning ‘The Riverboat.’  This 50 passenger boat is 37meter long and 7meter wide with two decks.  The terrace on top as well as the two decks offer a panoramic view of Montreal.  The Old Port stands at the very spot where the City of Montréal was founded.


The Old Port like most ancient docks around the world fell into decay, but today, thanks to the Old Port of Montréal Corporation, one can stroll, cycle, skate, rollerblade and eat along the waterfront.  Today the port is the starting point for many vessels offering a cruise on the Saint Lawrence River.


Our boat cast off from the Old Port at 3 pm on its journey up North, and under the Jacques-Cartier Bridge.  This steel truss cantilever bridge with a five-lane highway is 3,425.6 meter long, across the Saint Lawrence River and allows access to Saint Helena’s Island.  Originally named the Montreal Harbour Bridge (pont du Havre), it was renamed in 1934 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s first voyage up the Saint Lawrence River.


As the boat cruised away from the port, we could see the Old Montreal’s buildings, mainly Notre-Dame Basilica, Aldred Building, etc.


As we steamed out of the port, we came to the Clock Tower, a 45 metres tall structure.  It marks the entrance to the port and is a memorial to the sailors lost at sea in wartime.  The clock is still said to be extremely precise with its legendary accuracy.  The clock’s mechanism was made in England by Gillett and Johnston and is a replica of Big Ben in London.   The Clock Tower was the port’s time keeper in an era when wrist watches were not common.


Past the Clock tower is the Molson Brewery, a relic of the glorious industrial past of Montreal.  In 1782, at the age of 18, John Molson sailed on a leaking ship from England to Canada, with a thirst for a better beer in a new country. In 1786, he founded the Molson Brewery, the oldest brewery in North America, and subsequently, Canada’s second oldest company (the oldest company is Hudson’s Bay Company established in 1670).  Through expansion and rebuilding after Montreal’s Great Fire of 1852, the facility still stands in its original location.  John Molson who also built the first steamship and the first public railway in Canada, was a president of the Bank of Montreal, and he also established a hospital, a hotel, and a theatre in Montreal.


This is the entrance to the 306-kilometer long Saint Lawrence Seaway between Montreal and Lake Ontario, built in the 1950s.  It stands as a symbol of challenging engineering feats in history.  The seaway consists of seven locks – five Canadian and two US – in order to lift vessels 75 meters above sea level as they transit from Montreal to Lake Ontario.  Opening of the seaway diminished the importance of the Montreal Port as ocean going ships could now traverse through the Great Lakes and there was no requirement of offloading Great Lakes going smaller vessels from ocean going larger ones.


As we touched the Northern tip of Saint Helena’s Island, we saw La Ronde (Round)- Quebec’s biggest amusement park with more than 40 rides and attractions.  It was built as the entertainment complex for Expo 67.  (More about Expo 67 in a subsequent post.)


We then sailed to Habitat 67, a much sought after residential complex in Montreal.  It is considered an architectural landmark and one of the most recognisable and spectacular buildings in Montreal.  This housing complex was designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie as part of his Master’s thesis in architecture at McGill University and then built as a pavilion for Expo 67.


We then came to Silo Number 5 and the boat took a turn on its return trip.  It was in 1906 that Silo Number 5, formerly known as Elevator B, came into operation.  At that time Montreal Port was known as a hub of the grain trade in North America.  It was built with brick and non-combustible materials to avoid the risk of explosions due to grain dust.  Grain dust which is highly combustible can form explosive clouds.  A fire or an explosion can happen at a large grain-handling facility if accidentally ignited.  The Silo consists of three distinct parts linked together by aerial galleries. Its floating elevators allowed offloading of grain from the holds of smaller lake going ships and the simultaneous loading of trans-Atlantic vessels without ever coming into contact with the quays.  Disused since 1994, the site is today plagued by vandalism and graffiti.


As the boat turned around we could see Bota Bota Spa.  Located on a ship anchored in the Old Port of Montreal, Bota Bota, offers its passengers the healing benefits of a spa while being lulled by the natural movements of the St Lawrence River.  Bota Bota consists of five decks, a floating terrace, restaurant, and a modern garden area which houses the various spa installations.


The Sixty-minute cruise on the Saint Lawrence River was educative and comfortable.  It is surely one of the best ways to learn more about Montreal as an island. Our tour guide gave very many details of all landmarks as we cruised along.  We were amused by many of her fun facts, trivia and anecdotes.


From the church we drove to Saint Helena’s Island, crossing Saint Lawrence River over Jacques-Cartier Bridge.  Our exploration of Saint Helena’s Island is covered in the next post.

 

Exploring Montreal on a Calèche

From the Place d’Armes square, we embarked on a horse drawn chariot (Calèche) ride with our hostess Sue to explore the area of Old Montreal. The city of Montreal has decreed that Calèches will be off the city’s cobblestone paved pathways from the New Year Day of 2020.   There have been cases of horses being mistreated and horses dying while drawing carriages. The lawmakers felt that the resources employed to ensure safe operations of Calèches were causing a heavy drain on its budget.  The city plans to replace Calèches with electric vehicles.

Sue, an incessant chatterbox, kept us engaged throughout the tour with her commentary on the history of Montreal and the significance of each street and building, while simultaneously cursing motorists who blocked our way.  Most of her ‘constant cacophony’ was historically accurate, but every now and then she would come out with something outrageous which indeed needed the proverbial pinch of salt to digest


We rode through Notre-Dame street. On either side were shops selling their wares, mostly to attract tourists.  This is a historic street created in 1672 that runs parallel to the Saint Lawrence River.  The shops have large entry gates – these were meant for the horse-drawn carriages to pass through.


We came to the Old Courthouse, built in 1857, which today houses Montreal’s financial services.


Adjacent to it stood the modern Palais de Justice or Court House inaugurated in 1971.


Opposite to the court houses stood the Ernest-Cormier Building of 1926, from where once the Criminal Court operated.  The building features monumental granite, limestone and an imposing portico of 14 columns. The building now houses the Quebec Court of Appeal.


Next we came to the seat of Montreal’s local government, referred to as the Hôtel de Ville de Montréal – an imposing five-story building, constructed between 1872 and 1878.


We then came to Place Jacques-Cartier.  By the early 1800s Montreal was expanding and it had outgrown the old market square. In 1803 a fire destroyed dozens of buildings. This newly freed-up space became a public market square, Place Jacques-Cartier.  The market operated from here up until the 1950s.


At the North end of the Place Jacques-Cartier stands the Nelson’s Column, about a third of the size of the original.  It was erected by Montreal’s Anglophiles to celebrate Lord Nelson’s defeat of the French at Trafalgar in 1805.  It is also the city’s oldest monument and is the oldest war monument in Canada.  The monument caused plenty of angst and the local government proposed moving Nelson to some far off suburb but newer generations of Anglophiles fought tooth and nail to ensure that the idea was dumped.


Opposite the Nelson Monument is the Francophiles answer to the Nelson’s column, the statue of the French Naval Commander Jean Vauquelin.  He fought many battles in the mid 1750s against the British Navy.  The Francophiles honoured him with a square bang opposite the Nelsons.


The next point that we saw was the Place du Marché – or market place.  Prior to building of the Notre-Dame Basilica and the Place d’Armes square, this was the commercial hub of Montreal and also the gathering spot of the community.


Adjacent to the Place du Marché is the Old Customs House, now part of the Pointe-à-Callière museum. It was called Place du Vieux Marché until 1892.  On the 250th anniversary of Montreal’s foundation, it was renamed Place Royale.


As we rode through the cobblestone paved streets, Sue pointed to this building and said that most buildings in Old Montreal had windows of varying shapes that decrease in size and height with each higher storey.  According to her, it was to avoid the ‘Window Tax‘ being levied by the City of Montreal in those days.  I could not find any reference to any ‘Window Tax’ in Canada, however, a system of window tax, based on the number of windows in a house was in vogue in England and France.  In England this tax was first imposed in 1696, and was repealed in 1851 as it was more of a ‘tax on health, light and air’


This is one of the oldest churches in Montreal, the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, also known as the Sailors’ Church, since many sailors prayed here for safe passage.  In 1655, Marguerite Bourgeoys, a teacher, in return for her unpaid work, requested the construction of a new chapel dedicated to Virgin Mary.  The church was completed 13 years later.  This church burned to the ground in 1754 and the present church was built in 1771 over its ruins.


We then rode past one of the first fire stations in Old Montreal, now home to the Museum of Montreal History. The exhibits showcases the history of the building itself and how it transformed from a stable for horse drawn fire equipment to motorised trucks..


Next we came to the Customs House, erected in 1912, is closely associated with the growth of Canadian trade during the first decade of the 20th century. With Its responsibilities enhanced in 1916 with the introduction of direct taxation, this building gained prominence.


This building caught my attention, more for Sue’s commentary.  The inscription ‘Grand Trunk‘ and the accompanying GT monogram on this five-storied building indicates that it belonged to the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad Company.   The building was built in 1902 by Charles Hays, the President of the company.  Unfortunately, he was aboard the Titanic that sank on 15 April 1912, with his wife, Clara, daughter Orian and son-in-law Thornton Davidson.   The materials used are grey granite, beige limestone and chamois sandstone from India.

Sue commented that after the Grand Trunk Company closed down its Canadian operations in 1923 after its acquisition by the Canadian Government, the company moved its operations to India.  Again, I could not find any reference to this claim, but possibly the name ‘Grand Trunk’ being a proprietary trade name, could not have been used by the British-Indian Railway, unless the Grand Trunk Company had some association with it. So, Sue may have a point here.  The Grant Trunk Express, the legendary train in India may provide the link if any.


Thanking Sue and tipping her well for her ‘stories’, we alighted from her carriage and walked to Place Jacques-Cartier for lunch.  While waiting for the lunch to be served, I booked tickets for a boat cruise along Saint Lawrence River, for a story that follows.

Montreal : The Canadian Paris


When my eldest brother and sister-in-law came calling, how could we miss a trip to the great city of Montreal – even though it was my third trip to the city.  Montreal, a Canadian city in Quebec province is the third largest French speaking city.  The first would surely be Paris, but the second, you would not guess it in your wildest dreams!  It is Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It seems virtually everyone speaks French in Kinshasa.


In 1603, explorer Champlain made his first of many voyages across the Atlantic to the St. Lawrence and planted the French flag here in 1603. Then the British and French fought over this land with the British victory in the 1760’s, Montreal was under British control. The French and Brits lived together but anger and warring was never far from the surface.

French was declared as  Québec’s only official language in 1974 when Charter of the French Language, commonly known as Bill 101 was passed by Canadian Parliament.  The primary purpose of the bill  was to encourage non-French-speaking immigrants to integrate into the francophone community.  For a traveller it gets trickier to read the road signs as they are only in French and most staff at hotels and restaurants tend to speak only French.  These were two handicaps I suffer whenever I travel to Quebec province, but has still not managed to learn French.


We set off from Toronto early morning and after seven hours of drive reached  Montreal’s old town, Vieux-Montreal.  Driving through the narrow cobblestone streets with lot of pedestrians, spotted with Victorian lamp posts, accompanied by horse-drawn carriages transported us into a different world, but driving through these narrow roads was bit uncomfortable for me being used to multi-lane roads of suburban Toronto.. Once Montreal’s financial hub, Vieux-Montreal is now home to hotels, restaurants, pavement cafes and art galleries.


How did these Scottish cobblestones came to be paved on Montreal’s streets?  They came over as ballast in the late 1700s in ships that returned to Montreal after unloading its cargo of fur and blubber.


We parked our car and set off on foot to explore Vieux-Montreal like most tourists.  We headed straight to the Place d’Armes square -said to be the heart of the city, though it mostly consists of office buildings.


The square is always bustling with activity, with musicians playing.   The monument in the center of the square is dedicated to Paul de Chomedey, founder of Montreal


In the Place d’Armes square, two tall bronze sculptors caught my attention.  These sculptors have been inspired by two snobs in the novel ‘Two Solitudes’ by Hugh Mac Lennon.  The two snobs depict the cultural distance between English and Francophone Canadians.  On the left is an Englishman holding his pug, staring at the Notre-Dame Basilica, a symbol of religious influence on Canadians.  On the right, two hundred feet away, stands a French lady with her poodle in her hand, giving an offended look at the Head Office building of Bank of Montreal, symbol of English financial power.


On the Eastern side of the Place d’Armes is the majestic Notre-Dame Basilica – built between 1824 and 1829 with two  towers reminiscent of Notre-Dame-de-Paris.  At that time,  the church was the largest in North America and remained so for over fifty years.


Entry into the church costs $5 – a token to help maintain the Basilica in pristine condition.  You will not repent paying $5 for a glimpse inside.  The interior of the church, based on Gothic Revival architecture. is decorated with golden stars, reds, purples, silver, and gold – all on a blue background.  It is filled with intricate wooden carvings and several religious statues.


The stained glass windows along the walls of the sanctuary do not depict paintings from the religious history of Montreal.


Rear top of the church houses a pipe organ, built in 1891.  The organ comprises four keyboards, 7000 individual pipes and a pedal board.


Adjacent to the Basalica is the Saint-Sulpice Seminary, a U-shaped building.  The building was completed in 1687and the clock added in 1713.


As we walked out of the Basilica, on our front left, across the Place d’Armes square, stood the Head Office building of Bank of Montreal,  Canada’s first bank –  Bank of Montreal  was founded in 1817.  This building was built in 1847, designed by British architect John Wells, resembling the Pantheon. On the bottom left,you can see the French lady with her poodle.  The building is in operation today as BMO’s main Montréal branch.


On to our right stood two classical buildings.  The white building called the Aldred Building built in 1931, designed by Ernest Isbell Barott, with a height of 96 metres or 23 storeys.  The building’s setbacks at the 8th, 13th, and 16th floors to allow more light on the square and create a cathedral-like effect, like the adjacent Notre-Dame Basilica.

The red building with a clock tower is Montreal’s New York Life Insurance Building (also known as the Quebec Bank Building) and was built in 1887. It was the tallest commercial building in Montreal at the time.


We now set out to explore Old Montreal on a horse-drawn carriage ride (calèche).  In recent years calèche has drawn the ire of animal rights activists and lobby groups.  The calèche will not be there with the turn of next year as the city has banned them from 2020.

Lavender: The Flower of Purity


On August 07 we visited Terre Bleu lavender farm in Milton, Ontario with my brother and sister-in-law.  Terre Bleu farm was started by Ian and Isabelle Baird who were enchanted by the spectacular fields of purple and the fragrant air that swirled all around, while vacationing in Quebec.  They moved from downtown Toronto, with their young children William and Madeline, to rural Milton and began farming organic lavender.


In 2011 the Bairds planted their first 10,000 lavender plants. After years of careful planning and cultivation the farm opened to the visiting public in 2014. Today, this is the largest lavender farm in Ontario and is home to over 50,000 lavender plants and many other herbs and flowers spread over 160 acres. Thousands of visitors throng Terre Bleu every summer to share the experience of sustainable organic farming.


Lavender is believed to have originated from the Mediterranean, dating back some 2500 years. It is a flowering plant of the mint family known for its beauty, fragrance and its multiple uses.  Today Lavender is cultivated across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America.

Lavender is amongst the world’s most ancient documented plants. Hieroglyphic texts from Ancient Egypt mentions the use of lavender in embalming and cosmetics.  When the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened, jars filled with ointments resembling lavender were found.


The ancient Greeks called Lavender Nardus (commonly called Nard), after the Syrian city of Naarda. Nard, or ‘Spikenard,’ its Greek name, is referenced throughout the Bible.

“While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth forth the smell thereof” (Song of Solomon 1.12)


Lavender derives its name from the Latin ‘lavare’ meaning ‘to wash’. The Romans used lavender to scent their baths, beds, clothes and even hair. They also discovered its medicinal properties.  In ancient times, bundles of dried lavender were given to women in labour for squeezing during contractions as the fragrance released was known to alleviate the pain and facilitate an unencumbered birth.


On reaching the farm we embarked on a farm tour.  Our tour guide was a smart enthusiastic young lady pursuing her university degree in life sciences.  She said she loved working on the lavender farm for the fresh scented air she could breathe as it rejuvenated her and also that she could put into practice what she learned at school.  Obviously, it did provide her monetary benefits, especially during her summer vacation.


Walking through the farm we saw women harvesting lavender flowers.  At Terre Bleu, they harvest the flowers manually.  Here they grow the French and English lavenders. Both are lookalikes with the French lavenders a bit taller than their English counterparts.  English lavender in comparison produces less oil, but is more in demand due to its aroma.  French lavender has more camphor in its oil which has a soapy taste. Hence, English lavender oil is preferred over French lavender oil in cooking.


Enjoying the aroma filled air of the farm as we walked a few minutes, we entered the distillation plant.   Lavender oil is distilled here by steam distillation.  This copper still (pot) distillation plant was imported from Portugal to facilitate distillation through the age old European traditions.  The still is packed with lavender flowers to the top avoiding air pockets between the lavender and water at the bottom.  The top of the still is connected to a condenser.  The still is heated and the water boils to form steam.  The steam rises and passes through the still stuffed with lavender flowers.  As the steam passes through the lavender, the pressure inside the sealed kettle along with the high temperature of steam causes the buds of the lavender to release its oils.  The lavender buds hold most of the oil and not the actual flowers.

In the condenser, the steam gradually cools down and turns to liquid that drips out.  As oil and water do not mix, oil floats on water because water is denser.  Oil is drained out from the top spout of the condenser and lavender hydrosol (mixture of oil and water) is removed from the bottom spout.  Hydrosol is used for removing makeup, and in the manufacture of body sprays, deodorants, linen sprays etc.


We then walked to the Apiary being maintained by the farm. The relationship between flowers and bees is only too well known.  Terre Bleu promotes organic cultivation, free from pesticides that are harmful to the bees.  This ensures many healthy bee colonies in the farm.


Lavender is definitely more than just a pretty purple bloom. It has many health and wellness benefits.  Lavender is a good sleep aid and can calm your stress and anxiety.  It is naturally anti-inflammatory, antiseptic and anti-bacterial and can cure dandruff.  It fights congestion and can relieve sore muscles and headaches.

Our farm tour ended at the farm-store where we enjoyed lavender flavoured ice-cream.

An Evening in Lisbon


After a sumptuous lunch and enjoying some Japanese cultural events, we set out to visit the Monastery of St. Jerome.  The monastery was populated by monks of the Order of Saint Jerome, whose spiritual job was to give guidance to sailors and pray for the king’s soul and success of many explorations the Portuguese explorers undertook.

Commissioned by King Manuel I in 1501, to celebrate Portuguese voyages around the world and in particular to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s voyage and give thanks to the Virgin Mary for its success.  The decorative style of stonework that incorporates maritime motifs such as twisted rope and the armillary sphere (a spherical framework of rings, centred on Earth or the Sun, that represent lines of celestial longitude and latitude and other astronomically important features).

The monastery lies on the site of a former chapel built by Prince Henry the Navigator and dedicated to St Mary where Vasco da Gama is thought to have prayed in 1497 before his epic voyage to India. Construction of this building took a century to complete.


We entered the monastery through the 32-meter high door in the center of the façade of the stunning and exuberant South portal.  The ornate stonework contains over 40 statues set into the pillars that flank the door which includes the twelve Apostles of Christ.


At the centre of the portal, between the two doors, on a pedestal stands the statue of Henry the Navigator.


The Madonna (St Mary) is on a pedestal on top of the arch doorway, surmounted by the archangels.


The Church is made up of three halls with a width of 30 meters of the same height united by a single vaulted ceiling supported by six pillars with a circular base.  This design enabled the church roof to withstand the 1755 earthquake which brought down many buildings in Lisbon.


Hailing from Kerala,  this was what I was in search of during my explorations of Lisbon city – the Tomb of Vasco da Gama.

Vasco da Gama, discovered the sea route from Europe to India, circumnavigating Cape of Good Hope and landed at Kappad near Kozhikode (Calicut), in 1498.  He died at Cochin (Kochi) in 1524, on the Christmas day during his third voyage.  He was buried at the St Francis Church. Kochi (at that time the church was called St Anthony’s.)  In 1538 Vasco Da Gama’s remains were taken to Goa and then to Portugal. This tomb in the monastery is the final resting place of Vasco Da Gama.


From the church, we walked into an open lawn in the centre of the monastery, covered from all sides by the two level of cloisters.. These covered halls of the cloisters were architectural masterpieces and full of so many sculptural details.


The cloisters are magnificent, with each column and arch differently carved with coils of rope, sea monsters, coral, and other sea motifs, representing Portuguese exploration at sea.


From the monastery, we walked on the road that ran along the river.  Here we came across this crane.  This crane is installed at the very site of the Air Base from where the Seaplanes operated to patrol Portuguese coast during World War II.  This was also the base from where two pilots Gago Coutinho and Sacdura Cabral departed in their Seaplane on March 30, 1922 on their first successful trans-South-Atlantic flight to Rio-de-Janerio.


As we walked another hundred meters from the crane, there stood a steel replica of the Seaplane ‘Santa Croz’ which flew the last leg of the trans-South-Atlantic flight.


We continued our walk along the river front to reach Belem Tower.  This tower was constructed between 1514 and 1520 as part of the Tagus estuary defence system. Years later, it was transformed into a lighthouse and customs house.  The tower has two distinct parts – the taller one a keep tower and the other with two artillery levels to house cannons.  There were pits in the lower level where the prisoners were thrown into.


On the western façade of the Tower of Belém, is a rhinoceros head.  How did this rhino find a place on a tower in Lisbon?.

In 1514 Afonso de Albuquerque, the Governor of Portuguese India wanted to build a fortress in Diu, governed by Sultan Muzafar.  The Sultan did not grant his wish, instead gifted a rhinoceros. Albuquerque decided to gift the rhino to King Manuel I.  The animal was shipped to Lisbon and it roused curiosity in entire Europe. It was the first live rhinoceros to be seen in Europe since the 13th century.  The King wanted to gift the rhino to the Pope.  A ship carrying the rhino left Lisbon in December 1515 but sailed into a violent storm and sank, killing the entire crew.  As the rhino was tied up it also died, however, its body was recovered.  The King ordered the rhino to be stuffed and sent to the Pope, as if nothing had happened.


How to convert a tuk-tuk into a piece of art?  A bird skimming on water, standing in front of Modern and Contemporary Art Museum.  This artwork caught my attention as we walked to catch a tuk-tuk from the Belem Tower.


We got into a tuk-tuk on our journey through Lisbon to Kerala Restaurant we chose for dinner.  Lisbonites advice that in case you wish to have a smooth ride, select tuk-tuk driven by a woman.  This ride did prove the saying.


We passed by Monsanto Forest Park, a municipal protected forest in the middle of  Lisbon covering 10 km2.  It offers a well diversified tree-covered area to the Portuguese capital and also acts as the city’s ‘air purifier.’


We then drove through the Alcantara valley passing by the Aqueduct.  Built in 1746 to supply clean drinking water.  This 58 km aqueduct is made up of 109 stone arches, which were the tallest stone arches in the world when they were built. Luckily, it too survived the 1755 earthquake.


We landed at the Kerala Restaurant and we were in for many surprises.  We were ushered in by Thrineesha, co-owner and wife of Chef Vijeesh Rajan.  She is an IT Professional who works during the day, pursuing her higher studies and assists her husband in the restaurant in the evenings.  Every aspect of the restaurant – from decor to the food being served – had her signature.


It was in fact after a long time that we from North America had authentic Kerala food – we had to travel all the way to Portugal for it.  We really enjoyed our dinner and bid goodbye to Thrineesha and Vijesh.

We returned to pack up our belongings and prepare for our return flight to Canada.

The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.”  Tony Robbins, American author, philanthropist, and life coach.

 

Discovering the City of Discoverers


On the morning of June 22 we decided to explore the Tagus River front of Lisbon.  We walked to the Vasco da Gama Garden on the Northern bank of Tagus River. The garden is a lovely green space situated in one of the noble areas of cosmopolitan Lisbon.  The garden features a wave-shaped lake on the lower level of the garden and a fountain with waterspouts.


The most prominent landmark visible from the garden is the 25th April Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in Europe. The 2277 meter long bridge has two levels, the top level with six lanes is for cars and the lower, which was added in 1999 carries double electrified railway tracks.  The bridge was inaugurated on 06 August 1966 and was named Salazar Bridge, after António de Oliveira Salazar, dictator of Portugal until 1974. After the Carnation Revolution that took place on 25 April 1974, Salazar’s regime was overturned, the Bridge was named 25th April Bridge.


On the Southern bank of the river is the municipality of Almada and there stands Cristo Rei, one of Lisbon’s most iconic monuments. This statue depicts Christ with open arms raised, blessing the city.  Its construction commenced in 1950 in reverence for Portugal being saved from the horrors of World War II.  Lisbon’s Cristo Rei has many similarities to the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio, and the Brazilian statue was the original inspiration.


In the centre of the garden stands the Monument to the Discoveries, originally built for the 1940 World Exhibition.  It commemorates the achievements of explorers during the Age of Discoveries and the creation of Portugal’s empire.  The monument was only built as a temporary structure and it was demolished a couple of years after the closure of the exhibition.  The monument of today is an exact replica of the original one. It was built in 1960 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death.  Henry the Navigator was a driving force behind the overseas exploration and he financed many of the Portuguese expeditions.

The fifty meter tall monument, shaped like a ship’s bow, stands where in 1493 a storm forced Christopher Columbus to anchor here on his way back to Spain after his discovery of the Americas and in1497 Vasco da Gama embarked on his voyage to India.  The monument has thirty-three statues of people who played an important role in the Portuguese Age of Discovery.  Each statue is designed to show movement towards the front (the unknown sea), projecting a direct or indirect synthesis of their participation in the events after Henry the Navigator.


At the tip of the bow stands Henry the Navigator holding a model of a Caravel.  The Caravel was a small, highly manoeuvrable sailing ship developed in the 15th century by the Portuguese to explore along the West African coast and into the Atlantic Ocean.

On the port side of the ship, behind Henry are King Afonso V who supported the exploration and colonization of Africa  and the explorers Afonso Baldaia who explored the coast of Western Sahara, Vasco da Gama, Pedro Álvares Cabral (discoverer of Brazil) and Ferdinand Magellan (the first explorer to circumnavigate the world). They are followed by navigators, writers, missionaries, a mathematician, a cartographer and other figures from the era of the discoveries.


On the starboard side, Henry is followed by Prince Fernando, brother of Henry, and explorers João Gonçalves Zarco who established settlements on the Madeira Islands, in the Atlantic Ocean, South-West of Portugal.  They are followed by a Queen, a writer, a poet, a painter,  chroniclers and pilots of Caravels.


We entered the monument, and purchased the entry tickets.  The monument houses a museum, exhibition halls and other rooms spread over seven floors.  An elevator leads to the rooftop, but I climbed to the rooftop through the stairs.  The rooftop offered a stunning view of the city and Tagus River.


At the foot of the Monument to the Discoveries is a giant 14 meter wide marble wind rose embedded in the pavement – the Mappa Mundi – a gift from South Africa in 1960.  A map of the world at the center of the wind rose charts the Portuguese explorations.  The map shows the most important dates in the history of the discoveries and ships mark the locations where Portuguese explorers first set foot on land.


I was more interested in the exploration of India.  Calicut (Kozhikode), Goa and Daman find a place on the map so is Ceylon (Sri Lanka).  Portuguese led by Vasco da Gama were the first to land at Kozhikode, sailing from Europe, circumventing the Cape of Good Hope in search of spices.  I was fascinated more by the spellings of various places on this map.


We climbed down the stairs of the Monument to the Discoveries and walked to the East end of the Vasco da Gama Garden where the Japanese Festival was being held.  The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Japan in 1543.  Now more than 400 years past that first sparkle of friendship, this event is held in June to celebrate the friendship between two countries and their cultures.  This annual festival is organised by the Japanese embassy and Japanese Trading Commission among others.

We enjoyed various cultural performances by Japanese artists while savouring authentic Japanese dumplings and sushi for lunch.

After lunch, we continued with our explorations of the city of Lisbon.

Quinta da Regaleira : A Mysterious Palace

After exploring the Moors Castle, we set out to the Quinta da Regaleira, an extravagant neo-gothic mansion – also a UNESCO World Heritage protected landscape. There is more to Quinta da Regaleira than its architecture. However, let us understand what is meant by Gothic and Neo Gothic in Architecture. Gothic architecture is from the later Middle Ages characterised by pointed arches, elongated vertical windows, and flying buttresses — the pillars or other supports outside the building to give its walls further lateral support and allow for greater height and larger windows. It originated in France in the 11th century and spread across Western Europe and subsequently petered out by the 17th century, when it was replaced by other styles. Neo-Gothic, also called Gothic Revival, is a resumption of the Gothic style, from the 19th century to the early 20th. It tries to imitate and idealize original Gothic architecture, or more correctly a highly romanticized version of it. The movement was in keeping with a general trend towards romanticism, as a reaction against the intervening centuries of the renaissance or enlightenment which celebrated Reason, science and logic.

The Quinta da Regaleira was constructed in 1910 by Carvalho Monteiro, an eccentric millionaire who made his wealth in Brazil exporting coffee.  The property consists of a romantic palace and chapel, and a luxurious park. Carvalho was fascinated by secret cults and mysticism, and filled the densely forested grounds of his mansion with symbolic religious icons. This includes the 27m deep Initiation Well, which was used for Knights Templar or Tarot initiation rites

Below the grounds are a series of grottos (a small cave or artificial cave mostly used for religious purposes) and passages, which symbolise a hidden underworld, and there is even a cave entrance concealed behind a waterfall.


The exterior of the mansion is equally intriguing, with creepy wells, ornate pinnacles and gothic architecture.


The Quinta da Regaleira – a decorative 20th century residence is a grand house, split over five floors and has an ornate Gothic façade. The real ‘spooky’ attraction is to the rear with the enchanting gardens.


First, a bit of history. The property originally belonged to Francisco Alberto Guimarães de Castro, who bought it in 1715 when the Regaleira tower was all that occupied the land. In 1800, João António Lopes Fernandes acquired the land and owned it until 1830, when it was transferred to Manuel Bernardo.  A year later Ermelinda Allen Monteiro de Almeida, a wealthy Portuguese businessman bought the property and named the estate Quinta da Regaleira after she received the designation of First Viscountess of Regaleira. The estate was sold to Carvalho Monteiro, a wealthy Brazilian and heir to a successful coffee trade business who already owned land adjacent to the property.


The palace was constructed in 1904 by Carvalho Monteiro, which gave its local name ‘Palace of the Monteiro Millionaire’. The construction of the current estate commenced in 1904 and much of it was completed by 1910.  On the death of Carvalho Monteiro, the house was purchased by Waldemar d’Orey.  It stayed within the family until 1987, when it was bought by Aoki Corporation of Japan for private functions.  Sintra local government reclaimed this monument it 1997 and opened it to the public in 1998.


After purchasing the entrance tickets, we commenced our long trek to the hill top through a walkway adorned with many stone archways.  After about ten minutes of climb we reached one of the most fascinating features located in the area – a pair of wells known as the ‘Initiation Wells’ or ‘Inverted Towers’, spiraling deep down the earth.


The main well contains nine platforms, which are said to be reminiscent of the Divine Comedy by Dante and the nine circles of Hell, the nine sections of Purgatory and the nine skies which constitute Paradise.  At the bottom of the well is a compass over a Knights Templar cross.  Very little is known about how the wells were used and what exactly went on there, though it is evident that great effort went into its planning and construction.


We climbed down the stairs of the well and from the bottom of the well, we walked through a secret tunnel and arrived at the middle of the spiral staircase underground.  We were now at the bottom of a smaller well, called the ‘Unfinished Well.’  It all appeared to be a mysterious place that we thought could only exist in fairy tales.  Looking up we could see a patch of perfect circular sky through the well.


This well contained a set of straight staircases, connecting the ring-shaped floors to one another.  The wells were never used, nor intended for water collection. Instead, these wells were used for secretive initiation rites.  The wells left us bewildered about the events that must have transpired there. For a while we were transported to an ancient spiritual world of mystery and intrigue. One could literally sense restless souls moving about in the dark corners.


Walking through a tunnel from the unfinished well, we landed at the Cascade Lake in the middle of a garden.


From the lake we walked to the Portal of the Guardians, a highly dynamic structure composed of twin towers flanking a central pavilion under which is hidden one of the underground ways to the Initiation Well through the mouth of the Cascade Lake.


We were now greeted by main gate of the entrance of Quinta da Regaleira.


Next to the entrance is the Chapel of the Holy Trinity or the Regaleira Chapel.  It is a Roman Catholic Chapel that stands in front of the palace’s main façade. The interior of the chapel is richly decorated with frescoes, stained glass windows and lavish stuccoes  surrounded by pentagrams. Despite its relatively small size, the chapel has several floors.


Fresco above the altar in the Chapel depicts Jesus Christ crowning the Virgin Mary.  The Chapel is also adorned by scenes of the life of Jesus Christ.  The crypt is linked to the Palace through a tunnel.


We entered the palace through a grand archway with wooden double doors.  We were allowed entry into the first floor of the palace to explore.


The first room we entered past the main portal was the octagonal Dining Room.  A  massive fireplace that supports a statue of a woodsman was the main attraction. The mantelpiece depicts well carved hunting scenes.  Thus the room is also called the ‘Hunting Room.’


We crossed over the corridor to the Renaissance Hall, the drawing room of the palace.  The design of the room was inspired by the Urbino Palace of Italy.  Intricate wooden ceiling will caught our attention.


This Music Room designed for social and personal gatherings.  The paintings depict that it was more appropriate for a feminine type of elegant living.


Now we entered the Kings Room, formerly the billiards room.  Its ceiling is decorated with the portraits of 20 Kings and four Queens of Portugal and the Coats-of-Arms of Four Portuguese cities – Lisbon, Porto, Coimbra and Braga.

We bid goodbye to Sintra in the evening to catch the train to Lisbon.

Sintra – A Portuguese Fairytale City


On June 21, early morning we walked from our hotel to Rossio Railway station to catch a train to Sintra, a picturesque town that boasts of extravagant palaces, ancient castles and stunning scenery. Located about 25km West of Lisbon, is connected by a regular train service.


The trains to Sintra are operated by the national train company of Portugal –  Comboios de Portugal (CP).  The train passes through non-descript residential housing areas that surround Lisbon


As we alighted from the train and exited the station, we were swarmed by touts selling tuk-tuk tours, guided tours, and other means of transport to explore the hills of Sintra.  We opted to catch the 434-tourist bus.

From where the bus dropped us, we could visit the Pena Palace and Moors Castle, but we decided to visit only the castle as we had planned to visit Quinta da Regaleira.


Pena Palace boasts of painted terraces, decorative battlements and mythological statues.  The restored palace reflects its decor of 1910, when the Portuguese nobility fled to Brazil to escape the revolution. The palace sits atop a rocky outcrop surrounded by forested grounds. The base structure of the palace is formed around an abandoned monastery, and remnants of the original structure is still visible.  In 1996 the palace underwent an extensive restoration and its exterior walls were restored to its original colours.


Moors Castle is located atop the hills of the Serra de Sintra and is a very challenging up-hill hike to reach its top.  It is a classic ruined castle with high fortified stone walls, treacherous ramparts and massive battlements.


The vantage points of the castle offers wonderful panoramic views over the hills of the Serra De Sintra and the plains stretching West to the Atlantic Ocean.

The castle dates back to the 8th century and was built by the invading Muslim Moors from North Africa. The castle dominated the area as it provided a suitable vantage point over the River Tagus and offered protection to the town of Sintra.

During the Crusades in 1903, King Alfonso VI managed to capture the castle, but held on to it for a year only.  The castle flourished between the first and second Christian crusade and this was regarded as the high point of the castle’s history.  The fortifications of the castle were greatly enhanced but were not tough enough to repel the second much larger Christian crusade of 1147.


Significance and importance of the Sintra castle reduced over the centuries and by the 15th Century the Jewish settlers were the only inhabitants. When the Jews were expelled from Portugal,  the castle was completely abandoned. In 1636 a lightning bolt caused a massive fire that wrecked the central keep while in 1755 the devastating earthquake leveled much of the walls and battlements. The Moors castle in this era was so insignificant that it was not even considered in the plans to rebuild after the earthquake.

King Ferdinand II, King of Portugal, obsessed by art, drama and the good life, transformed the entire Sintra region.  The castle was reconstructed in 1840 so that he could view it from his beloved Pena Palace.


As we climbed up the pathway to the castle, out first stop was at the Silos.  These are secret caves cut into the rocks to store grains and pulses.  These silos were built by the Moors who built the castle.


We then stopped at the site of Islamic Houses.  These remains are of the foundation of houses and silos on the South-Eastern slopes of the hill occupied by the Muslims.  During excavations, typical artifacts from 10th to 12th Century Islamic culture were discovered.  Some remains of Neolithic (5000 BC) occupation were also identified during the excavation.


We then climbed up to the Church of St Pedro.  This was the first parish church of Sintra constructed by King Afonso Henriques on recapturing the castle in 1147.  In 1840, King Ferdinand II transformed this church into a romantic ruin.  It now houses the Interpretation Centre of History of the Castle and houses artifacts recovered during the archeological excavations.


In the process of transforming the church in 1840, the cemetery was damaged.  King Ferdinand II built this tomb to lay the remains that had been unearthed.  Its headstone bore the engravings of a Cross and a Crescent with an epitaph ‘What man has assembled only God can set apart‘ meaning that it was impossible to distinguish whether the human remains were that of a Christian or a Muslim.


We then climbed up to another excavation site.  This was a Christian tomb excavated from granite alongside a Muslim silo.


Our next halt was at the Cistern of the castle.  This vaulted reservoir had a storage capacity of 600 cubic meters of waters.  The masonry signs on the granite blocks indicate that construction commenced in the 13th Century.  The water in this cistern has not dried up ever as per records.  The myth has it that a Moorish King is buried underneath this cistern.


We then moved to the Castle Keep, the strategic centre of the castle.  As it stands on one of the high points, it is visible from the surrounding plains and also from the Atlantic Ocean.


We walked  to the Door of Betrayal – a small gate that allowed discreet access to the exterior during a conflict or to be used as an escape route.


After five minutes of steep uphill climb, we reached the Royal Tower.  This tower offered a privileged view of Pena Palace and would have been one of the favourite locations of the art-lover King Ferdinand II.


From the Royal Tower we commenced our descent to the base of the hill.  On our way  we came across the Second Circle of Walls, much below the main castle walls.  As the castle offered security to the locals from invaders, many settled on the slopes of the hill.  In order to protect the people, their animals and crops, this second wall of defence was built.  The extent of the wall indicates that a sizeable population inhabited these hill slopes.

From the second wall we walked 15 minutes to the bus stop to take the bus to Sintara and further to Quinta da Regaleira Palace.

Lisbon: Lisboa – Meaning a ‘Safe Harbour’


On June 20 we landed at Lisbon Airport and drove off to our hotel.  After lunch we decided to explore various landmarks of Lisbon on foot.  Our first stop was Rossio Square.


On reaching Rossio Square we were greeted by Tuk-Tuk (Auto-Rickshaw) drivers who carry passengers through the cobblestone paved narrow twisting alleys of Lisbon.  From 2017, by law, all Tuk-Tuks had to be electric and could operate only until 9 PM.  Obviously, they are unpopular with the city’s taxi drivers who see them as a threat to their livelihood.


Rossio is the liveliest square in the city, where people stop to sit and relax, or for a drink at the several cafés with outdoor seating.  The Praça dom Pedro IV is the official name of the square after the inauguration of the statue of Dom Pedro IV in 1874 but Lisbon’s residents have never taken to the name and still refer to the square as Rossio meaning ‘common land.’


On either side of the square are two baroque fountains, and in the center is a 27 meters high monument.  It consists of a pedestal with marble allegories of Justice, Wisdom, Strength, and Moderation – qualities attributed to Dom Pedro IV – whose statue stands on top of the monument.   It is widely believed that the statue in the centre of Rossio is of Dom Pedro IV but legend has it that the statue is that of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. Maximilian was assassinated soon after completion of the statue and the unwanted statue was sold to Lisbon at a fraction of the cost as both Dom Pedro IV and Maximilian were near lookalikes.


On the North side of the square is the Dona Maria II National Theater, a monumental neoclassical building built in the 1840s. The portico has six Ionic columns (originally from the Church of St. Francis, destroyed in the 1755 earthquake), and crowning the pediment is a statue of playwright Gil Vicente.  The theatre was built in 1846 on the site of the old Palácio dos Estaus palace, initially constructed in 1450 and was used by the Portuguese royal family to host foreign dignitaries.

The wave pattern stone paving was added to Rossio during the 19th century and was designed to resemble the oceans but more often disorientates late night revelers. The two baroque fountains, imported from France, were installed at the same time as the statue of King Pedro IV (1870).


From Rossio we walked to Praça do Comércio, (Commerce Square), Lisbon’s central point. It was built on the site where the old Royal Palace destroyed by the 1755 earthquake stod.  It is said that one of the motivations for the monumental sculpture’s prominent location was to honour King Joseph’s reconstruction efforts after the earthquake of 1755.

The 14-meter-high monument consisting of a bronze equestrian statue that depicts King Joseph I riding his horse, with several snakes at its feet on a large, richly decorated, lime stone pedestal.  The statue is the first cast bronze statue in Portugal and is the oldest public statue of Portugal.


The King’s statue stands on a pediment, flanked by sculptures of Triumph and Fame, which symbolise the submission of four continents to the Portuguese.  On the left is Fame driving an elephant – representing  Asia – over a human figure – representing Africa.  On the right is Triumph, leading a horse – depicting Europe –  over a human figure – depicting America. The depiction is strongly suggestive of Portuguese domination of the world during the middle ages.

The southern end of the plaza is open and looks out onto the Tagus River. The other three sides have yellow-coloured buildings with arcades all along the façade. When the square was first built,  commercial ships would unload their goods directly onto this square, as it was considered the ‘door’ to Lisbon.


Our next destination was Santa Maria Maior or Se Cathedral, a twelfth century Cathedral.  Surprisingly it survived the 1755 earthquake, which left only a part of it in ruins. The solid and imposing Se Cathedral is Lisbon’s most important and iconic religious building. The exterior of the grand old church resembles more that of a military fortress than that of a church, with massive solid walls and two imposing clock towers.

Inside Gothic arches extend to the faulted ceilings and medieval statues and decorative altars fill the alcoves. To the rear  are the ancient cloisters, which were constructed directly on top of a ruined mosque built by Arabs, dating back to the period of the Crusades.


Every year in June, Lisbon honours St. Anthony of Padua, the city’s patron saint.  Lisbon almost entirely shuts down for one month, with locals decorating the street and plazas in bright colours.  In rest of Portugal however, he is considered the ‘matchmaker’ – a patron saint for singles.  Some people also call it the Festival of Sardines.

In the month of June, the smoky scent of grilled sardines fills the Lisbon air and in every corner one will find someone cooking a batch of sardines on a grill.  People also gift pots of basil to their beloveds.

We were lucky to witness the horse parade of over fifty well manicured horses, with men and women riders dressed in traditional Portuguese attire.


Our final destination for the evening was The Miradouro de Santa Luzia (Saint Lucia’s Viewpoint), one of the best places to view the city on a clear day.  We enjoyed the view caressed by a cool breeze from the Tagus River. Shady trellises and bougainvillea  provide protection from the intense sun.


The red-tiled roofs of the old downtown area below us, in the backdrop of the Tagus River meeting the Atlantic Ocean and visiting cruise ships provide a picturesque setting.


Near the viewpoint is the Church of Santa Luzia with blue pictorial tiles depicting the city’s Praça do Comerçio (Commerce Square) dating back to the 1755 earthquake.

From Saint Lucia’s Viewpoint, we walked for about 25 minutes to reach our hotel for a much deserved rest and dinner and also to prepare for a long journey to Sintra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 30 km North-West of Lisbon.

The Journey of Port


In this travel episode let me take you into the intricacies of the fascinating world of port wine. Let me submerge you in wine as it were. For the wine buffs amongst you, it would be particularly interesting.

On reaching Pinhão, we drove straight to Croft Winery founded in 1588.  It is the oldest firm still active today as a Port wine producer. The company is renowned for its Vintage Ports as well as for its range of wood aged wines.


We were ushered into one of the ‘Lagares’ where a Croft Associate briefed us about Port and how it is bottled from grapes that grow on their vines. A ‘lagar’ is simply a wine press.

The grapes are harvested by hand in the second half of September.  They are carried to the winery where they are crushed to allow the fermentation to start. Fermentation is the process whereby the sugar in the grape juice is converted into alcohol by yeast.


Once fermentation is under way, care is taken to ensure that the grape skins are kept in contact with the fermenting juice so that their colour, tannin and flavour are released into the wine.  Traditionally this is achieved by treading the wine by foot in wide granite tanks called ‘Lagares’.  Foot stomping to tread wine is employed nowadays only by some wineries like Croft. In most others, foot treading has been replaced by mechanical methods.


Foot stomping ensures that the grape seeds do not get crushed.  Pressure from human foot is gentle enough so that the seeds do not break, which can adversely affect the taste of the wine.  In the most wineries around the world, foot stomping grapes for wine production is not resorted to as they do not seem to like mixing feet with wine. However, during various festivals, foot stomping of grapes is resorted to, but the end product is not used for wine production.   When about half of the natural sugar in the grape juice has been turned into alcohol, the treading stops and the skins are allowed to float to the surface of the ‘lagar’.

The fermenting wine is then drawn from under the skins into a vat.  As the fermenting wine runs into the vat, grape spirit – a colourless, neutral spirit distilled from wine – is added to it. This raises the strength of the wine and stops fermentation. As a result, much of the natural grape sugar is preserved in the finished Port.   This technique of adding a small amount of grape spirit at some point in the wine making process is called fortification.  Hence, Port is a fortified wine. When you want the wine sweet, the spirit is added earlier and when the desired product is required to be ‘dry’ the spirit is added later so that there is little or no residual sugar.


Port houses own cool dark ageing warehouses called ‘lodges’.  In Pinhão, the temperate climate of the coast ensures that the wines age slowly and harmoniously. One of the unique properties of Port is its ability to gain in richness and flavour over very long periods of ageing in wood. This is partly because it is fortified and partly because it is a wine of extraordinary concentration and aromatic potential.


Broadly, Port falls into two categories: Wood-aged and bottle-aged. The vast majority of Ports are wood-aged, meaning that they are fully matured in oak casks or vats and are ready to drink when bottled. Bottle-aged Ports, are those that spend only a short time in wood and then continue to age in bottle. Vintage Port is by far the most important category of bottle-aged Port, as it represents only the finest wines of the best years and the amount produced is very limited.


Vintage Port is the finest and rarest of all Ports, the most sought after by wine lovers, collectors and investors. It is a selection of the very best wine from a single exceptional year and represents only a very small proportion of the crop. A bottle of Vintage Port must always be stored lying down so that the cork is in contact with the wine and does not dry out.

Port is declared a ‘Vintage’ by the wine regulator Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP) when they feel that the wines which were produced in a given harvest year possess the characteristics of a Vintage Port.  IVDP ensures that the wine is produced, aged and bottled according to the regulations which define Vintage Port.

Vintage port remains in wood for only two years, usually in a large vat. It is then bottled and continues to age for many years or decades in bottle, gradually developing the aromas which are the hallmark of a great mature Vintage Port.

During the ageing process a sediment or crust will form in the bottle. Before serving a Vintage Port it is often necessary to decant it to separate the wine from the crust. Decanting also brings the wine in contact with the air, allowing the aromas of the wine to open out after the long period during which the wine has been enclosed in the bottle.


The tradition of ‘laying down’, or putting away some bottles of Vintage Port for a child when it is born derives from the fact that a declared Vintage will last for the child’s entire lifetime, reaching maturity when the child is old enough to appreciate and enjoy it.

A bottle of wood aged Port must be stored upright in a dark, cool place, if possible away from direct light.  There is no need to decant a wood aged Port. It will remain in good condition for six weeks or more after the bottle has been uncorked for the first time.


After the briefing, we were ushered outside to the egg shaped concrete vats.  These vats provide temperature consistency for fermentation.  Fermenting grape juice in concrete is a pretty ancient practice.  The minuscule little air pockets across the surface of concrete allows the fermenting juice to breathe much in the same way that oak does, but without borrowing any flavors.


We were then taken to the wine tasting gallery to devour three special Port wines: Croft Pink, Ruby Reserve and a Ten-Year-Old Tawny.  Even though none of us were wine connoisseurs, we learnt a lot about wine and had lots of fun.


We then drove to the jetty on Douro River for a cruise in a small boat.  The boat sailed under Pinhão’s famous bridge, designed by renowned French architect Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, best known for the world-famous Eiffel Tower.  We sailed along admiring the patterns weaved by the vineyards on the terraced hill slopes.

We returned to Porto by late evening, had dinner and retreated to our hotel room to prepare for our early morning flight out of Porto to Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal.

Vineyards of Douro Valley


Day 2 of our Portugal trip, June 19, early morning we set out from Porto to visit Douro Valley, in Northern Portugal,  It is the first demarcated and regulated wine region in the world (1756), known mainly for Port.  The name Port is obviously derived from their homeland Portugal.  Port is a sweet, red, fortified wine most commonly enjoyed as a dessert wine because it is rich and sweet. Wine production in Douro Valley is regulated by Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e Porto (IVDP).  They control the quality and quantity of Port wines, regulating the production process.  This region also produces some of the best wines in the world, other than Port, and also olives.


On our drive to Douro Valley, we halted at picturesque Amarante town, on the banks of River Tâmega, known for the São Gonçalo  (Saint Gonzalo) Church.  Amar in Portuguese means ‘to love.’

The granite bridge above was built over the Tâmega River in the late 18th Century. The original bridge, believed to have been built in the 13th Century, collapsed in a flood in 1763.  The present one was completed in 1790. A plaque on one of the obelisks (in Greek meaning a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monument which ends in a pyramid-like shape at the top) guarding the bridge entrance on the left bank commemorates the victorious resistance of General Silveirea, on the 2 May 1809, when he confronted Napoleon’s troops led by General Loison.


This Church, built in 1540 houses the tomb of São Gonçalo who died in 1259.  São Gonçalo, the patron saint of Amarante, is believed to be a wedding facilitator for older women. As per legend, in order to find the love of one’s  life, one must touch the statue of São Gonçalo on New Year’s Eve.


This lady was selling ‘Doces Falicos‘ or ‘phallic sweets’, a sugar  glazed phallus shaped cake, also known as ‘Little Gonzalves.’  This phallus cake originated in from pre-Catholic times, with roots in pagan fertility rituals. The cakes are handed out together with locally-harvested dried figs at ceremonies held each January (on the anniversary of São Gonçalo’s death) to usher in a ‘fertile and favorable’ year.  It is also used in June street parties, by local singletons who believe that it could bring them true love and a happy family.   The cakes are much sought after by old spinsters in search of a husband, where the ‘old spinster’ are often single woman in their late twenties or early thirties, keen to settle down and start a family.

In the 1930s, Portugal’s fascist Second Republic outlawed the cakes as being obscene, but the villagers of Amarante continued to make and exchange them secretly. After the dictatorship fell in 1974, the Bolos de São Gonçalo came back out of the closet.

From Amarante we drove crossing the Marão ranges through a tunnel to Douro Valley.,


The Douro Valley lies about 100 kilometres inland from the coast and is protected from the influence of the Atlantic winds by the Marão mountain ranges.  The oldest vineyards are planted on traditional terraces supported by dry stone walls. These walls were built by hand on the steep hillsides and then filled with soil.  Most of them are narrow, often bearing only one or two rows of vines.  These historic walled terraces rise up the rocky slopes like the steps of the Pyramids.  Today, they form one of the world’s most dramatic and inspiring vineyard landscapes.  A vineyard estate in Portugal is known as a ‘Quinta’.

Vines of Douro Valley are not artificially irrigated.  The vineyard soil is very stony and is rich in nutrients but is free draining.  The roots sink deep down in to the soil in search of water and the grapes produced by such vines is said to be of better quality to produce Port.


The art of creating a terrace has died down due to hard work and costly labour involved and also availability of earth moving equipment.  The cost of terracing has become prohibitive and they are no longer built today. Only the old vines grow on terraces.  These wines are planted in closer rows as no tractors are used.


Patamares
are modern terraces cut into the mountainsides using earth moving equipment.  They are not supported by walls but are separated by tall earth banks.  Near the vines, they grow lavenders and roses.  The health of the flowers of these plants are indicators of the quality of grapes growing on the vines.


Relatively inexpensive and quick to build, Patamares may cause soil erosion.  Many vineyards plant olive trees to bind the soil.  The vines are planted in rows with a wider gap to allow tractors to move between the rows.


In places where the gradient allows, terracing is replaced by vertical rows of vines running perpendicularly up the hillside.  Vertical planting also provides better leaf canopy exposure.


After about thirty minutes, we reached Pinhão, a small sleepy town near Spanish border, the heart of Port wine country on the banks of Douro River.  From here we set out to visit Croft Winery followed by a cruise on Douro River.

Portugal: A Land of Explorers

But Portugal has a peaceful feel about it. I sit on the terrace overlooking the vineyard there and I feel cut off from the world. You need that sort of thing. – Cliff Richard

Physical Location Map of the Area around 39° 30' 19" N, 7° 34' 30" W

It was Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer who first sailed from Europe to Kozhikode (Calicut) in Kerala in 1498.  Under the leadership of Prince Henry, the Navigator, the Portuguese accumulated a wealth of knowledge about navigation, geography of the Atlantic Ocean and had monopoly on spice trade with Kerala, during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Christopher Columbus who inadvertently discovered a new continent was neither Portuguese-born nor sponsored, but was Portuguese trained. He married a Portuguese woman; obtained navigation charts and related information from his father-in-law, Bartholomew Perestrelo.  He also collected maritime intelligence from returning explorers and sailors.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese born explorer, is known to be the first to first circumnavigate the globe, an exploration sponsored by Spain. He sailed around South America, discovering the Strait of Magellan, and across the Pacific.


On June 18, we flew into the Northern city of Porto – home to Port wine and a beautiful old city centre which UNESCO recognised as a World Heritage Site.  It was a rainy and cloudy summer day and in the evening we set out on foot to explore the city.

Clérigos Tower and Sé Catedral do Porto are the two prominent buildings on the Porto skyline, a must-see location for all those who visit the city of Porto.


From our hotel we walked to Sé Catedral do Porto (Porto Cathedral), built in Romanesque style construction which began in the twelfth century.   The paintings by Nasoni, the carved gilded wood altarpiece and the silver altar of the Blessed Sacrament are all worth a glimpse.


The beautiful blue (azulejo) tiles that cover its galleries, as well as the chapel are from the Gothic period.


The church offers a panoramic view of Ribeiro, is one of the most popular neighbourhoods in Porto. True to its name, the district is situated on the riverbank (Ribeira in Portuguese stems from the word river).


Clérigos Tower is considered a National Monument since 1910. The Tower built in the 18th century, is now a museum, open to the public.


From the church, we walked to the Ribeira, a riverside historic neighbourhood that retains all its medieval charm.  Its colourful and wonderfully decorated façades and many restaurants that line up will please any visitor.


Walking through the Ribeira, along the Douro River, we reached Dom Luis bridge, dating from 1886.  The upper level is used by metro-rail and the lower level by automobiles.  We walked along the walkways on the lower level and reached the wine lodges of Porto.  On one end of the bridge is the former Monastery of Serra do Pilar, characterised by its circular church and cloister.


Port Wine Lodges are located in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite side of the Douro River.  Sandeman’s and Croft’s are two of the best well-known lodges.  Most buildings had red tiled roof, akin to old building’s roof of Kerala, which must be from Portuguese influence.


Below the monastery we found many love locks which couples lock to a steel bridge, and throw away the keys into the river, to symbolise their unbreakable love.  The city authorities are not pleased by such display of love as they consider them as vandalism due to the damage they cause and the cost of removing them.


From the Ribeira, we walked through the rain to São Bento Station, made of glass and wrought iron.  Built in 1900, this beautiful station was named after a Benedictine monastery that once occupied this space in the 16th century.


Inside, twenty thousand azulejos (hand-painted Portuguese blue tiles) cover the grand entrance hall depicting Portugal’s history, its royalty, its wars, and its transportation history. The blue and white tiles were placed over a period of 11 years (1905–1916) by artist Jorge Colaço.


Next to the station stood the Santo Antonio dos Congregates Church built between 1662 and 1680.  During the Siege of Porto (1832-33) by the Liberals, this church became a military hospital and army storage facility.


Our next stop was at the Praça da Liberdade, the commercial hub of Porto, built in 1920s. At the top of the square is the Câmara Municipal (City Hall), with its distinctive clock tower.


Walking through Rua Santa Catarina, a cobblestone paved pedestrian only shopping street, packed on either side with international stores and numerous restaurants, street vendors and coffee shops, we came to a shopping plaza.  My eyes caught on to the Indian made Bajaj Scooter on display in a clothing store.


We continued walking along Rua Santa Catarina and reached the Chapel of Santa Catarina, also called Chapel of Souls. This unique shrine dates back to the 18th century and is completely covered in the typical blue Portuguese tiles.

A bit tired after a long walk through the rain with jet-lag hanging on our eyelids, we dined at a roadside restaurant with entrée being Bacalhau (salted cod fish).  It is the most popular base commodity in Portuguese cooking.  Traditionally there are more than 365 different dishes, one for each day of the year, and the country has a love affair with the pungent smelling fish.

We then returned to our hotel to prepare for the Wine Tour of Douro Valley for the next day

Arequipa – The White City of Peru


After the wedding at Piura, Peru, we flew to Lima, early morning on January 06.  We were joined by Stephens, our travel companions.  The party consisted of Vijas, Ranga, Aravazhi with their better-halves and Mrs. Anita Chandramouli.  Our trip was organised by JourneYou, a travel company founded in 2011 by a team of travel professionals.  Their agent received us at Lima Airport and facilitated our check-in for the Arequipa flight. After an hour, we landed at Rodriguez Ballon International Airport at Arequipa.


Arequipa in Southern Peru is the second most populated city in Peru. It is considered one of the most fascinating areas in the country, due to its architecture, varied gastronomy, impressive landscapes, imposing volcanoes, and the deepest canyon in the world. The most prominent feature of the landscape of Arequipa is undoubtedly the majestic Misti volcano, which sits at 5,825m above sea level. ‘El Misti’ comes from the Quechua language (language of Incan Empire), meaning ‘The Gentleman.’

Prior to exiting Arequipa Airport, all our baggage was thoroughly scanned by Animal and Plant Health Service of Peru to detect if we were in possession of any fruit – a rare inspection, that too when flying within the country!  It is to ensure that no fruit flies, its larvae or eggs are brought into this region.  Passengers who were in possession of any fruit had to either consume it or discard it there.

Southern Peru has managed to eradicate fruit flies by means of the area-wide integrated application of the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT), a nuclear technology package developed by a joint division of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  These pests used to cause annual losses of up to US$12 million to the farmers and fruit growers in Peru.


Arequipa is named the “White City” (Ciudad Blanca) due to the whiteness of the houses and buildings made using white ashlar, a volcanic stone abundantly found in the area. In the background of the photograph above is the Misti Volcano on the Left and Pichu Pichu Volcano (5,669m) to the Right.

On arrival at the Airport, we were greeted by our travel guide from JourneYou, who escorted us to our hotel.  After lunch we set out to explore the city with our travel guide.  Our first stop was Santa Catalina Monastery.


Convent of Santa Catalina de Siena was built in 1579 and it served as a cloister for Dominican nuns from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and it still houses a small religious community today. The complex is built from volcanic Sillar stone and is organized into cloisters, living quarters, a plaza, a gallery, and a chapel.  The Monastery was founded by Maria de Guzman, a rich widow, who only accepted nuns from the rich Spanish families. Traditionally, the second daughter of upper-class families entered a nunnery, supposedly to live in poverty and renounce the material world.  They had to pay a dowry on entry and they lived in luxury with servants or slaves.


In addition to the dowry, the nuns also had to bring 25 listed items which included a statue, a painting, a lamp and clothes. In the case of the wealthiest nuns, these included the finest English china and wonderful silk curtains and rugs.


The Orange Tree Cloister (Claustro los Naranjos) in the Monastery have three crosses set among the orange trees and these constitute the center of the Passion of the Christ ceremonies, a dramatic presentation of the trial, suffering and death of Jesus Christ, carried out during Lent.


Apart from daily prayer and meals, the nuns took time to bake (mostly bread) which was then either eaten communally or sold to the public.  This photograph depicts what was once their kitchen with a stone water filter on the Right.


We then visited an old chapel, now converted into an art museum with over 400 restored paintings.


This is Calle Toledo, a long boulevard with a communal laundry at its end, where the nuns (probably their servants) washed their clothes in halved earthenware shell like basins.  The laundry area is surrounded by a colourful garden.  Water was diverted from the channel in the center to the washing pot by blocking it with the hand.  Everyone tried their hand at this.


Walking out from the convent through its lanes and by-lanes, we headed straight to the city-center.


When the city was founded in 1540, it all begun with the square – Plaza de Armas.  Surrounded by the Cathedral and various portals.  In the center is a fountain with a beautiful bronze statue of a soldier.


On the Northern side of the Square is the majestic Basilica Cathedral of Arequipa, the most important Catholic church of the city.  Its construction started in 1540, the same year that the city of Arequipa was founded, built in ashlars (white volcanic stone) and brick vaults.  Throughout its history the church was destroyed many times by fire, earthquakes and volcanic explosions, restored after each destruction, the latest in 2001.


On January 6 Peruvians, just as many other Christians, commemorate the arrival of the Three Wise Men or Three Kings at Jesus’ manger bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  A large crowd had assembled at the Cathedral, with many occupying the roads  to celebrate the event.  Thus we decided not to get into the church.


Our next stop was Jesuit Church of Company, located on the South-East corner of the Square.  Its facade is an intricately carved masterpiece in ashlars.  The design of the church is Spanish, but the carvings in these stones are filled with relief and the motifs which are mostly Incan.  Construction of this church commenced in 1578, but was destroyed many times over due to various earthquakes.


Inside the church is the high altar which houses a painting of Mother Mary with child Jesus by Italian painter Bernardo Bitti, who had come to Peru in 1575.


On the either sides of the main alter there are two more beautiful altars, carved with gilded wood. It is called the “Altar of the Founders,” as it holds many images of several founders of the Jesuit order.

After the long and tiring walking tour of Arequipa city, we had dinner and returned to our hotel for a well deserved rest.

The Last Evening in Heraklion


As the night set in, we walked from our hotel to the 25th August Street.  It is now a paved pedestrian street, and boasts the most beautiful Neoclassical buildings that house banks, travel agencies and tourist shops.   This street may have been first cut by the Arabs in the 9th or 10th century, the main thoroughfare of Heraklion, linking the town centre to the harbour. During the Venetian period it was called the Ruga Maistra (Main Street), while in Ottoman times it was known as Vezir Tsarsi (Vizir’s Market) after the Vezir Mosque. The modern name of the street relates to a tragic event. On the 25th of August 1898, during the feast of St Titus, fanatic Muslim mob slaughtered many Christians, including 17 British soldiers and the British Consul.


Walking down the street, we came to the Lions Square.  It holds the ornate Venetian fountain of four lions with water gushing from their mouths. The fountain is officially in ‘Eleftheriou Venizelou’ Square in the centre of Heraklion, but the inhabitants of the city never use the official name, usually referring to it as the Lions Square or the Lions for short. The Venetians built it in 1629 as a solution to the problem of supplying Heraklion with water, providing 1,000 barrels of water a day.


Opposite the Lions Square is one of the first and most important works of the Venetian settlers, the St Mark Church.    Next to the church on the South-West corner was a high bell tower with a clock. During the long Turkish siege of the city, the bell was used as a bomb alarm, resulting in the bell tower becoming the target of the Turkish cannons. When the Turks took over the city, the church was converted into a mosque.  The bell tower was demolished and in its place they built a minaret.  Restoration of the building commenced in 1956 and today it houses the Municipal Art Gallery.


Down the street is the Loggia (noblemen’s club), constructed in 1626-28 AD by Francesco Morosini, the same man who built the Lions Fountain. This is the fourth and final Loggia built during the period of Venetian rule. Very little information is available on the first three.  Venetian political and social customs demanded the construction of a public building in Heraklion, as a meeting-place for the nobles, rulers and feudal lords, where economic and commercial decisions were made. It was also a place for them to relax.   The building is a faithful reproduction of Palladio’s famous Basilica in Vincenza, demonstrating the significance the Venetians attached to the city of Heraklion.  . Today the Loggia has been restored to its former glory and houses the Town Hall.


In 961 AD, the Arabs were driven out from Crete, bringing the island back under Byzantine Empire. This is when the first Orthodox church of St Titus (Agios Titos in Greek) must have been built, to rekindle the Christian faith and tradition in Crete, which had declined due to the Arab conquest of the island.  Saint Titus was a disciple of the Apostle Paul and the first Bishop of Crete.  At the fall of Heraklion to the Turks, all relics were removed to Venice, where they still remain today. The single exception is the skull of St Titus, which was returned to Heraklion in 1966 and is now kept in a silver reliquary in the church.  During the Turkish rule, the church was converted into a mosque known as the Vezir Mosque.  The great earthquake of 1856 totally destroyed the church. It was rebuilt in its present form as an Ottoman mosque.  The minaret of the church was demolished in the 1920s, when the last Muslims left Heraklion   The church was further modified in 1925.


Heraklion, a city well known for its intense and vibrant nightlife, offers many a chance for a night out.  The night entertainment consists of modern and traditional spots to choose from. There is an interesting variety of bars and clubs and they stay open till 3 o’clock in the morning. These bars play lounge or loud music and on some live bands perform.   Many taverns host bands which play live traditional music, with dancing.  One can enjoy a dinner at the many taverns which offer delicious local Cretan delicacies, local wine and salads.


We observed that almost all restaurants had many tables outside, especially after the sunset.  Taverns and bars serve traditional local drinks like ‘tsikoudia’ and ‘ouzo’ and special snacks.


The beautiful narrow streets with its narrower lanes and by-lanes, are brimming with tourists and locals all through the night.  It may well be the most ‘fashion oriented’ city in the Greek islands.


Crete has one of the oldest and perhaps the most delicious gastronomic traditions in the world with Cretan olive oil as one of the basic ingredients of Cretan cuisine.  Archaeological excavations indicate that the ancient Cretans used to consume almost the same products as the contemporary islanders. Large jars for storing olive oil, cereals, pulses and honey we saw at Knossos palace possibly stand testimony to this tradition.   This storage habit would have helped them to survive many sieges the island experienced, mainly by the Arabs, the Venetians and the Ottomans.


We dined at a restaurant next to the Lions Square. The Menu was Greek Mussaka –  Oven baked Greek dish with layers of eggplant, zucchini, potato and minced meat; Shrimps Saganaki – shrimps with white Feta cheese cooked in spicy tomato sauce; slowly cooked goat with citrus fruits served with sautéed Cretan greens, carrot jello, Greek yogurt and tahini (a paste made from ground sesame seeds.)

On 17 June 2016, we took the Air Canada flight from Athens to return home. At the end of the journey I would like quote Douglas Noel Adams, an English author, humourist and satirist who said ” I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”

Island of Crete and City of Heraklion


The island of Crete in the past two thousand years has changed hands many times over.  The Romans arrived in Crete as mediators  in 67 BC and settled here as conquerors. After three years of fighting, Crete became a Roman province and enjoyed a period of prosperity.  During this period it is believed that Bishop Titus converted the population to Christianity by order of the Apostle Paul.  In 285 AD, with the division of Roman Empire into Roman and Byzantine Empires, Crete came under the Byzantine Empire.

From 824 to 961 AD Crete was occupied by the Arabs. After a struggle lasting for many years, Byzantines  succeeded in freeing Crete from the Arabs and the second Byzantine Period lasted from 961AD to 1204 AD.  During this period, Byzantium nobles, European merchants and Christians from eastern countries settled in Crete and attempts were made to destroy all traces of the Arabs.  Crete was then sold to the Venetians who occupied it for the next 450 years.

Turkish attempt to conquer the island started with a pirate raid against the coastal towns in 1645.   Turks captured Crete in 1669.  The entire Cretan population deserted the city  and settled on the neighbouring islands and in Venice.

Crete was ceded to the Egyptians in 1821 from whom the Turks took over again in 1840.  Crete was not part of Greece when Greece state was formed in 1832 as it was under Egyptian control. Crete became independent in 1898 after the ‘Great Cretan Revolt’.  Crete was  united with Greece in 1913.

With the outbreak of World War II, Germans occupied Crete in 1941 The Battle of Crete was the first airborne invasion using paratroopers in military history.  Commonwealth forces, mainly British and New Zealanders, supported by the local resistance, fought hard for a week before being forced to evacuate the island.  Germans used it as a naval base to control the sea lanes in the Mediterranean Sea.  It also served as a supply base in maintaining supplies to Rommel’s Afrikan Korps  fighting in North Africa, until vacated by the Germans in July 1945.


On June 16, we decided to familiarise with the city of Heraklion and the best method was to get on the ‘Hop on-Hop off’ open double-decker bus.  Onboard audio commentary available in English, Greek, German, Italian, French, Spanish, Russian, and Turkish, gave out information about various sites enroute.


We boarded the bus at this seaside Venetian fortress situated at the entrance of the old harbour, built by the Venetians to protect the port  between 1523 to 1540.  This two-floored fortress was built with big blocks of stone.  The ground floor used to house captains of ships and also to store food and ammunition.  The upper floor had canon emplacements.  The upper parts of the castle are Turkish additions.


Driving along the coast road, we came to the ruins of the Dominican Church of Peter and Paul. It was built in the 13th century, during the Venetian period.


This ruins are of the second church, built on the site of the original building after it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1508.  During the period of Turkish rule, this church  was converted into a mosque.  It is currently being restored by the Archaeological Service.


Opposite the church is the Natural History Museum, functioning under the University of Crete. It is aimed  to study, protect and promote diverse flora and fauna of the Eastern Mediterranean region.  The museum is based in a restored industrial building that housed an electric power plant.


The bus drove along the Venetian Walls  fortifying the city of Heraklion.  It is a series of defensive walls which surround the city with a perimeter of roughly 5 km, supplemented with a ditch without water and bastions.  The first city walls were built in the Middle Ages, but they were completely rebuilt by the Venetians.  The fortifications managed to withstand the longest siege in history for 21 years, before the city fell to the Ottomans in 1669.  The walls remain largely intact to this day, and they are considered to be among the best preserved Venetian fortifications in Europe.

The gate of St. George at the East of the city was demolished in 1917. The gate Jesus is at the South, the gate of Pantocrator (known and as gate of Chanias) was at the West.


St George gate on the wall connected the then Venetian town of Chandaka to Eastern Crete.   This gate was built in 1565. Its name comes from a relief decorative representation of St George, which is today exhibited in the historical museum of the city.


Gate of Jesus or New Gate (Kenourgia Porta) was built on the South side of the Venetian Walls in 1587.   The gate also hosted the pipeline which supplied water to the city.   An arched passage across the wall was constructed in the 1970s for cars.  On either side of the central doorway there are some openings corresponding to stairs, windows and secondary entrances to adjacent locations, and to rooms above and inside.  The rooms were used for storing weapons and for accommodating the guards of the gate.


We ‘hopped off’ the bus to visit the Tomb of Nikos Kazantzakis, the famous Greek writer born in Heraklion in 1883.  Throughout his life he received many critics, particularly from the Church, as he was trying to explain the notion of God and humans.  When his book, ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ presenting Jesus Christ as a tragic figure who had been fighting all his life between the duty and mission on one side and the human desire to live a normal life on the other side, was published in 1951, the Roman Catholic Church banned it.  He left for the United States  in 1911.  As the Church had excommunicated him, he was not allowed to be buried in a cemetery when he died in 1957.  He was buried  outside the walls of his hometown as per his will.  His tomb is plain stonework and surprisingly it has a wooden cross on it.  Epitaph on his tombstone in Greek, when translated reads ‘I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.’

We hopped on to the next bus and got off to visit the Palace of Knossos built around 1900 BC.

The last leg of a long Sojourn: Heraklion, Crete

Crete is an island steeped in ancient history, lore and legend. It is the seat of the oldest civilisation in Europe. For centuries it has been attacked by many including the Romans, the Iberian Muslims, the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Ottomans. The locals met each of these aggressors with courageous and stiff resistance.  The architectural and cultural fusion of the various attackers and the locals could be seen everywhere by the discerning eye.

Crete tickled my military mind. Two facets from military history. One, the Siege of Candia (modern Heraklion). The venetian ruled city was besieged by the Ottomans for 21 long years from 1648 to 1669. The second longest siege in military history. Despite stiff resistance the Ottoman forces were eventually victorious. And then more recently the Battle of Crete. On 20 May 1941, the Germans launched Operation Mercury, the first ever Airborne invasion in military history. The Allies and Greek forces simply capitulated in 48 hours and the island of Crete fell into German hands.

After alighting from the bus, we walked a kilometer to the Minoan Knossos Palace, a city steeped in antiquity, which was inhabited continuously from the Neolithic period until the Fifth Century AD.  The palace was built on the Kephala hill and had easy access to the sea and the rest of the island.   According to tradition, it was the seat of King Minos.  The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization on the island of Crete and neighbouring islands which flourished from about 2600 to 1600 BC.

The first excavation of the site was conducted in 1878 and was followed by the long-term excavations (1900 to 1930) by Sir Arthur Evans, a British archeologist, who uncovered virtually the entire palace.  The palace was a multi-storey building with painted plaster, marble revetment and wall-paintings adorning the rooms and passages.  The palace also had a complex drainage and water-supply systems.


As we walked into the palace compound, we were welcomed by a dancing peacock.  The dance was obviously not to impress us, but the peahens in the vicinity.


Let me venture into a pictorial account. This is where the ‘West Porch’ of the palace stood, a roofed area opening onto the central court, supported by a column of which part of the gypsum base remains.


Here is a restored version of ‘South Propylaeum’ by Evans who put up a copy of the ‘Cup-Bearer’ fresco on the wall, depicting a man holding a libation vase.


The ‘Pitho’i (large storage jars) on the East side of the Propylaeum indicate that this area was used for storage.


The ‘Throne Room’ as per Evans is the room used for ceremonies with the king in his religious capacity. However, Evans believed that it was unlikely to have been a ‘Throne Room’ in the modern sense of the word.


The “Queen’s Megaron” at the South-Eastern part of the Palace is believed to be the apartment of a queen. The suite includes a toilet, bathroom, and store room, as well as a light well to provide the apartment with light during the day. This is famous for the Dolphin  Fresco,  reconstructed from fragments as a wall fresco by Evans.


The ‘East Wing Staircase’, was built into the side of the hill on top of which lies the rest of the Palace, with two storeys below the level of the Central Court. Today, a large part of it has been reconstructed in concrete.  Evans believed it to be the residential quarters of the Royal family.


The ‘Magazine’ to the north of the East wing staircase took its name from the pithoi that were found here. The jars have relief disk and rope decoration.


An open air paved narrow passage linked the Central Court with the North Entrance. On the right and left were two raised colonnades known as ‘Bastions’.  Evans reconstructed the Bastion on the West side with a copy of a restored relief fresco of a bull. The wall painting may have formed part of hunting scene.


We hopped on to the next bus at the Palace of Knossos and hopped off at Eleftherias Square to commence our walking exploration of the city centre.  In the Venetian period, Eleftherias Square was used as a training ground for the Venetian mercenary army, and was called Campo Marzio or Piazza d’Armi.   When the St George Gate was built in the 16th century, the square was renamed St George Square.   Eleftherias Square also housed circular underground granaries, in which the Venetians stored grain for emergencies such as sieges and houses a large water cistern.  During the Turkish period, Eleftherias Square was an open space.   Prior to World War II, British troops camped on the walls and trained in the square, as the Venetians had done centuries earlier. Any connections with ‘Game of Thrones?’

At the turn of the 20th century, the square was the inhabitants’ main recreation area.  The most recent restructuring was intended to give it a modern look and the air of a major European city.  The square, retaining some of its eucalyptus trees, was paved with marble and was decorated with metal pylons symbolising ships’ masts, reminiscent of the city’s maritime history. The people of Heraklion have never been happy with this new square and there are ongoing discussions about changing it and we all generally tended to agree with the locals.


In the centre of Eleftherias Square stands the statue of the Unknown Soldier, a 20th century creation.  On national days and on the anniversary of the Battle of Crete, the Heraklion authorities lay wreaths here in honour of those who sacrificed their lives for their motherland.


We then walked to Kornarou Square, named after the great Cretan poet Vincenzos Kornaros (1552-1613), who grew up in Heraklion and wrote ‘Erotokritos’. This is a romantic epic poem written in the Cretan language about the love of Erotokritos and Aretousa, often compared to ‘Romeo and Juliet’.  Kornarou Square is adorned with a fountain and a statue of Erotokritos on horseback, bidding farewell to his beloved Aretousa.  The statue was a bit confusing to us as we initially perceived it as a multi-headed and multi-legged horse with two horsemen.  On reading the information tablet we realised that it was the artist’s multidimensional depiction of the hero and his horse showcasing movement and drama of the scene.


We then moved to the Agios Minas Cathedral, the seat of the Archbishop of Crete of the Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to Saint Minas, who was declared the patron saint of Heraklion during the Turkish period.  It was built over the time period of 1862 to 1895. The construction was interrupted during the Cretan Revolution of 1866 to 1869. The church has a cruciform architecture with a central dome.

The name Minas is rare in Heraklion, which sounds strange for a city whose patron saint he is. The reason for this is given in an old story.  During the Turkish rule, illegitimate children were often left on the steps of the church of Saint Minas. The church took care of the children and named the boys Minas.  Thus the Cretans preferred to avoid the name.


To the Left of the St Minas Cathedral stands the original little church of Saint Minas built in 1735.  It housed the Greek Orthodox Church’s Metropolitan of Crete for the first time after the Turkish occupation.

From the cathedral, we returned to our hotel for a wash, change and rest.

 

Lunar Landscape of Nea Kameni to Heraklion


Our boat anchored at the wooden pier of Erinia cove of Nea Kameni island.  We disembarked from the boat and entered the Nea Kameni National Geological Park.  There is a two Euro entry fee and the proceeds go to support monitoring of the volcano.


Vegetation is sparse with the volcanic rocks covered by red grassy bushes and yellow sulfur deposits.  The 30-minute hike up over this volcanic mountain is moderately challenging but worth the effort for the breathtaking view that it offers.  Hikers need to keep to the track full of stones and gravel formed due to cooling lava.  Hence, proper walking shoes are a must.


As we stepped into the Geological Park, the terrain was akin to that of a lunar-landscape.  As we climbed up the hill, on the sides were solidified lava ejected by the volcano called volcanic bombs.  These are the oldest volcanic bombs on the island and were the result of volcanic eruptions of 1573.


Further walking up, we reached slopes of the dome of Mikri Kameni, the oldest lava on the island. The path that led us to the top of this dome, to the crater of 1570 eruption.


Our next halt was at the Dafne crater caused due to volcanic activity of 1925-1926.


We then came to the twin craters formed as a result of 1940 volcanic eruption.


Climbing further up, we came to Georgios dome peak.  The crater here was created in August 1940 by two large volcanic eruptions atop of the dome of George, which was created in 1866.


On top of the hill at about 127 meter we saw deposits of solidified Lava.  These rocks were formed due to cooling and solidifying of molten lava which erupted in 1950.


On the top we could see that many sensors were deployed. The seismic sensors monitor tectonic activity that may precede a volcanic eruption.  Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are also monitored.  With modern technology and monitoring, it is believed that scientists are in a position to forecast the volcano’s next eruption, at least a few months to a year in advance.


After spending about 90 minutes at Nea Kameni, our boat headed back to the Fira port.  As we stepped out of the boat, we could hear the cacophony of donkey drivers hailing for passengers.  The donkey is Santorini’s logo, its trademark mascot. During a Greek wedding, the bride rides a donkey to the church and back to her home.  We all decided to take the donkey ride up the 588 steps of Karavolades stairs.


These donkeys are well trained and the rider is required to sit firmly on the saddle.  There are no reigns and so the rider has little or no control over the animal’s movements.  As we sat on the donkey, they set off on the way up.  There were many pedestrians walking up and down, so also other donkeys coming down the stairs.  These donkeys steered their way through this ‘crowd’, as if they exactly knew what to do.   For the donkeys it appeared that their only aim was to reach the top as quickly as possible. The level of training was quite akin to that of the famed ‘Mule Artillery’ of the Indian Army.


On reaching the top, the donkeys stood at the donkey-taxi stand.  The drivers helped everyone to dismount.  We then had dinner at the Fira and returned to our hotel.

On June 15, after breakfast we checked out of our hotel.  Our ferry to Crete island was scheduled for 4 PM.  We then set out to explore the area around our hotel.


Economy of Santorini, like all other Greek islands, is supported by tourism.   Santorini grows a special variety of small cherry tomatoes, fava beans, yellow peas, cucumbers and white eggplants.   There are lots of wild fig trees growing all over the island.


Unlike the mainland of Greece, Santorini does not grow olive trees due to the strong winds and the lack of water.  Instead they grow a lot of pistachio trees.  The olive tree above grows between the buildings at the hotel.


From the Hotel, we walked down to Kamari beach resort.  On the Southern end towers the enormous rock of Mesa Vouno with the archaeological site of Ancient Thira on its top, 400 meters above the sea. The beach offers a wide range of facilities like sun-beds, umbrellas and various water sports.


The water is deep and blue, the sand is black.  The beach is filled with black sand and pebbles as a result of extensive volcanic activity over centuries.


We boarded the high-speed ferry operated by Minoan Lines to Heraklion, Crete.  The cruise was very comfortable and smooth.


We reached Heraklion port by 5:30 PM.  We drove to our hotel by taxi and checked in.  As the night fell, we walked to explore the city.


We walked to the largest cistern to provide drinking water to the Heraklion port. The cistern consists of two oblong vaulted chambers linked by arched openings. Light and air enter the cisterns through large light shafts on the top of the vaults.  Today, all the daily garden watering needs of Heraklion Port Authority (about 7000 litre of water) is provided from an underground cistern, built by the Venetians (People from Venice), hundreds of years ago.


Venetians also built a series of shipyards (known as Arsenali) at the southern and the eastern area of the port, in order to house and protect the activities of the building and repairing of ships.  These large, barrel-vaulted buildings were shipyards built by the Venetians and were capable of housing ships in need of protection or repair and for the construction of new vessels.


Night life in Heraklion is very hectic with shops, restaurants, taverns, discos, clubs, etc, all open till 3 o’clock in the morning.


Summer in Crete and in Greece means ‘tables outside’: The guests meet the local people and everyone joins the party.  We had Cretan cuisine for dinner and retired to our hotel.

Volcanoes of Santorini


On June 16, after breakfast we set out to visit the volcanic islands of Nea Kameni, meaning ‘new burnt’ and Palea Kameni meaning ‘old burnt’.


During the Bronze Age, Santorini was called Strongyli, meaning ‘rounded.’  Devastating volcanic eruption of 1650 BC resulted in decimation of Strongyli, creating the crescent shaped Santorini and several surrounding islands.

The island of Hiera was formed due to volcanic eruption which started around 197 BC.  In 47 AD the volcano reawakened spewing huge quantities of magma forming a new island which merged with Hiera to form Palia Kameni.  Breakup of Palia Kameni occurred between 1457 and 1458, as per Roman historian Aurelius Victor’s ‘Historia Romana’. At that time the island had a perimeter of 5,550 meters.  It gradually acquired its present shape through fragmentation by great cracks and collapse of its shoreline, with the current perimeter of only about 4000 meters. Like a slumbering demon, the volcano remained dormant for the next seven centuries. It became active again, very violently in 726 AD.

Nea Kameni is Eastern Mediterranean’s youngest volcanic landform.  It is a protected natural monument and national geological park.  In 1573 AD, about 65 years after Palea Kameni reached its present form, volcanic activity broke out resulting in the formation of a small island called Mikra Kameni meaning ‘small burnt’.  Formation of Nea Kameni commenced with the volcanic eruptions from 1701 to 1711.  Volcanic eruptions of 1866 to 1870 caused the smaller island of Mikra Kameni, to be joined with the larger Nea Kameni.  During the period 1939-1941, many eruptions occurred in Nea Kameni which changed the topography of the island.  The volcanic activity ended in July 1941.  Today, magma exists at depths of a few kilometers, giving Nea Kameni its trademark sulfur odour.


From our hotel we rode a local bus to Fira, the capital of Santorini on the West coast of the main island.  Fira is a ‘whitewashed’ town of cafes, bars, restaurants and shops, all filled with tourists.  We had to now go to Gialos, the old port of Fira to sail to the volcanic islands.   Till a few decades ago, Gialos was the main commercial port of the island.  The port now is active mostly in summer and serves only the cruise ships, the excursion boats to the volcano, and a few fishing boats.   The port is located about 275 meters below the cliff.

Alighting from the bus, we walked to the cable-car terminal to purchase tickets for the ride to the port.  The queue was pretty long and we got our tickets after about 30 minutes.  The ladies made use of this time to buy trinkets and memorabilia from the shops around, while the men stood in the queue.


There is a zigzag track of 588 steps called Karavolades stairs from the Fira to the Old Port.  There were many tourists walking up and down these steps.  There are mule-taxis, that operate on the same track, taking tourists up and down.   The Karavolades stairs have several large bends which offer magnificent view of the volcanic islands.


The fastest option to reach the old port is surely by the cable car system, commissioned in 1982.  The project was funded by Loula & Evangelos Nomikos Foundation created by the wealthy Santorini ship owner Evangelos Nomikos.   He mediated with the traditional mule drivers who were operating here and ensured that a part of the income went to the mule drivers and the rest to the city. The cable car runs every 20 minutes and a single ride takes 3 minutes. The cable car ride to the old port gave us a stunning view of the volcanic islands, bizarre cliff sides and still blue waters.


On all sides of the old port were restaurants, taverns and small shops, mostly catering to cruise ship tourists who come ashore by chartered boats as the huge cruise ships cannot berth at the harbour.  At one end of the port is the caved houses that appear stuck on to the rock and rock caves that have been created by erosion.  We booked our tickets for the boat journey to the volcanic islands and had lunch at a restaurant at the pier.


We set sail on a boat from the port at around 2 PM to the island of Palea Kameni.  After about 20 minutes, the boat anchored at the cove of Agios Nikolaos.


As we came closer to Palea Kameni island, we were greeted by steep cliffs formed by solidified lava.


The cove is formed between small cliffs filled with solidified lava rocks.  The island is uninhabited, but we saw goats grazing, presumably wild, miraculously perched on the ledges on the cliff, chewing away on the almost non-existent shrubbery.


The boat anchored about 75 meter away from the hot springs.  We had to jump seven meters from the boat deck, plunging into deep cold sea water which is greenish yellow and then swim for about five minutes towards the orange coloured hot springs.  (Attempt this only if you are a good swimmer.)  At the mouth of the hot springs stands a little Greek Orthodox church dedicated to Saint Nikolaos, the patron saint of sailors in Greece.


Due to volcanic activity in the cove area, the water is warm and rich in sulphur, iron and manganese.   This gives the water an orange colour and is believed to have therapeutic benefits.  As one swims closer to the cliff where the water is orange, one can feel the increasing water temperature.  It is slightly warm and there is no fear of getting burned.  The seafloor around the hot springs is muddy, rocky and slippery, making it difficult to walk on.

After about half hour stay at the cove, a swim in the warm waters, a view of how the earth would have evolved, the boat steamed off to Nea Kameni, the younger sister island of Palea Kameni.

Wine & Sunset at Santorini


While at Megalochori, we visited Katsoyannopoulos Vineyard for wine tasting.  The vineyards of Santorini date back almost 5000 years and are believed to be the oldest in Europe.  Volcanic eruptions left behind a mixture of volcanic ash, pumice stone and pieces of solidified lava and sand, which together make up the soil of Santorini.   This soil, rich in essential minerals, result in wines with low pH level or high acidity.


About 1400 hectares is under vineyard cultivation in Santorini.


Lack of rain coupled with constantly blowing sea-winds has resulted in vines being grown in the “koulara” method, that is, they are woven into continuous circles to form a basket.  This protects the vines ion from the strong winds and the harsh summer sun.


After viewing the vines, we visited the Wine Museum showcasing history of wine and the life of vine-growers in Santorini from 1660 to 1970.  It was followed by wine tasting where we tasted four vines – two red and two white.  The white wines from Santorini are bone-dry with a distinct aroma of citrus combined with hints of smoke and minerals from the volcanic soil.   The dessert wines are sweet with aromas of crème, chocolate and dried apricots.


From Megalochori, we drove to the northern tip of Santorini and reached the village of Oia (pronounced ia).  It is considered to be the best sunset viewing location on the entire island. Oia is one of the most beautiful and picturesque villages of Santorini, situated atop an impressive cliff.  It offers a spectacular view over the volcanoes of Palia and Nea Kameni and the island of Thirassia.


Like the other Greek villages and cities, cobblestone paved lanes led us through the village to its Western end.  Both sides of the lanes are lined with shops selling jewellery, paintings, gifts, etc.  There are many taverns, cafes, and restaurants too.

We visited the Church of Our Panagia Platsanis located in the village centre.  It was originally constructed inside the walls of the Castle of Oia. The church was rebuilt in the village center, on higher and more stable ground following the earthquake of 1956.


As the sun was setting, the area was getting crowded.  Every parking space was occupied and also all the seats in the cafes and restaurants were taken by tourists – all awaiting the sunset.


We too took up a vantage position at a cafe to enjoy every single moment of that spectacular natural phenomenon.


As minutes clicked past, the sky appeared to have been painted with various colors like yellow and orange in striking contrast to the blue dome of the church.


The sun then turned to myriad shades of pink and purple as it went down into the Aegean Sea. Sunset over water is often both spectacular and sublime. It’s just that we often wait until we reach Greece or some such similar destination to realize how incredibly beautiful it is. After watching the sunset and dinner, we retired to our beds after a tiring day of walking in the hot sun.

Santorini -An Island on a Volcano


On June 13, after breakfast, we sailed from Mykonos to Santorini Island in a high-speed ferry.  The voyage lasted over two hours.  The ferry offered comfortable seating and a few restaurants, but the menu was expensive as seen in all ferries in Greece.


Crescent-shaped Santorini or Thíra in the Aegean Sea, is a group of islands consisting of Santorni, Therasia, Aspronísi, Palea and Nea Kaméni.  Santorini, the youngest volcanic land in the Eastern Mediterranean, is still an active volcano and probably the only volcano in the world whose crater is in the sea.  The islands that form Santorini came into existence as a result of intensive volcanic activity.  12 huge eruptions occurred, one every 20,000 years approximately, and each violent eruption caused the collapse of the volcano’s central part creating a large crater (Caldera). The volcano, however, managed to recreate itself over and over again.

The last big eruption occurred 3,600 years ago during the Minoan Age, when ash, pumice and lava stones covered the islands.  The eruption destroyed the thriving local prehistoric civilization, evidence of which was found during the excavations. The solid material and gases emerging from the volcano’s interior created a huge vacuum underneath, causing the collapse of the central part and the creation of today’s Caldera– with a size of 8×4 km and a depth of up to 400m below sea level.


Eruption of the submarine volcano Kolúmbo, located 6.5 km North-East of Santorini, on 27 September 1650, was actually the largest recorded volcanic eruption in Eastern Mediterranean during the past millennium.   The most recent volcanic activity on the island occurred in 1950.  The whole island is actually a huge natural geological/volcanological museum where you can observe a wide range of geological structures and forms.

Caldera is a lagoon of sea water surrounded on three sides by the steep cliffs of Santorini and on the fourth side by the island of Thirassia, which was part of Santorini before the eruption. The currently active volcano on the island of Nea Kameni sits in the middle of the Caldera.  It is active but presently not at risk of erupting.


As our ferry pulled closer to Santorini Island, we could see the steep escarpment of Santorini Island formed due to volcanic activity.


The colours of different layers of rocks up the escarpment is due to lava deposited during various volcanic eruptions.  The upper crust is mostly pumice and below it is red and black granite.


We  checked into our hotel and post lunch set out to explore Santorini.  Our first halt was Pyrgos, a medieval settlement that is nestled at the highest spot of the island. We drove up to the entrance of the settlement by taxi.  As the village lanes are narrow and cobblestoned, we had to walk up to the castle and churches atop the hill.  On to the left of the image above is the castle, which is well-preserved despite the serious damage caused by the earthquake of 1956.  It was built to protect the people from marauding pirates.


Pyrgos is said to be the first capital of Santorini, before the onset of the 19th century. It is built on top of a hill overlooking the Aegean Sea, which makes it an exceptional observatory.


As we walked up the track, close to its entrance to the castle lies the church of Agia (Saint ) Theodosia.  This church was built in 1639 and renovated in 1857, but it collapsed in the earthquake of 1956. In its place, the present church was built in 1965.


Further uphill we walked and came to  the church of Christos.  The bell tower of the church is visible from a distance. This is the only church on the island with an octagonal cupola while the rest have a round cupola on top.  The bell tower and the yellow flag of Greek Orthodox Church resembles that of old Syrian Orthodox churches of Kerala.


We walked downhill and drove to the village of Megalochori.  Here we all for the first time saw a Pistachio tree with fruit.  The debate that erupted amongst us was as to whether Pistachio is a nut or not.  Pistachio, though known as a nut, the fruit of the Pistachio is botanically a drupe, a type of fleshy fruit (like a coconut), the edible portion of which is the seed.


Megalochori  offers a nice mix of white Cycladic (Cyclades –a civilisation that existed in the Bronze Age)  houses, several churches and narrow alleys.  A prominent feature of the historical homes and mansions are the high walls, inner courtyards and solid wooden door entrances, built for privacy and for safety against pirates.


In the center of the village, stood a wonderful traditional square with taverns, restaurants with bougainvillea-covered patios and trees providing shade for a quick cup of coffee. The square is the heart and soul of Megalochori, a gathering place for the locals to play a game of cards


Megalochori has two well-known bell towers spanning the street. This one is part of the Panagia church and is characterised by the clock on top.

Megalochori is famous for its winery and wines and we went ahead to visit a winery, covered in the next part.

 

Exploring Mykonos Island


June 12, Tuesday, was spent exploring Mykonos Island.  After breakfast, we boarded a bus from Chora to Paradise Beach, a 10 km trip. We walked about a kilometer to reach Paradise Beach.  Here we rented a canopy with sun-beds.  We enjoyed a swim in the cool, crystal-clear, blue green coastal waters. The setting simply forces you to adopt a laid back attitude and let the rhythm slow down under the warm and bright sunlight. A local Greek cocktail played its part too.


The famous Paradise beach is a nice, flat, white-sandy beach of impeccable beauty, dotted with a number of popular bars.  It is a getaway, mainly for the young and also for the not so young.  It is now Greece’s number one open-air seaside clubbing venue.  There is live music playing from all the restaurants.  Sun-beds with grass canopy are available on rent. It has to be seen to believe.  The place comes alive mainly with the hep crowd, young, wild and rich. Glamorous parties and endless entertainment in the infinite sunshine with a picturesque landscape as a backdrop.


After lunch, we returned to Chora.

Located on the island’s Western harbour is Chora.  It is a very beautiful old town, which in the past was visited by merchant fleets from all over. Today it has become a popular tourist destination.  There are whitewashed houses, windmills, a multitude of chapels, busy back streets with balconies full of flowers and multi-coloured fishing boats in the port.  It becomes very crowded after sunset as tourists throng this luxurious marketplace, restaurants, bars and discos.


We got off from the bus and headed towards the windmills on foot.  From as early as the 16th century these windmills have been the classic landmarks of Mykonos. Due to its geographic location, Mykonos being situated on major sea trade-route, traded in grains. The need to grind grain flour and then ship it out to distant lands, must have made Mykonians to set up windmills, as there was plenty of regular wind all the year round.  To facilitate easy access to the harbour, these windmills were positioned in or around the main port.

The windmills of Mykonos must have contributed to the economic prosperity of the island in those days.  In 1700 AD, about 11 windmills were in operation around the port.  With the advent of modern technology, especially after World War I, these windmills ceased their operations as more efficient flour mills were commissioned. Today these well preserved windmills stand as iconic landmarks of a medieval period, sentinels of simplicity to balance the surfeit of all round glamour!

Though the Greek islands have been blessed with strong dry winds that blow from the Aegean Sea all through the year, we did not come across any wind turbines in any of the islands we visited.  There were no solar panels either to be seen.  May be the Greeks did not want to displease Anemoi – the Geek God of wind – and Helios – their Sun God.


From the area of the windmills, narrow and endless cobblestone paved alleys lead us to Little Venice.  It is a charming little area looking into the sea.  Buildings with balconies that overhang the water and the windmills in the background make this area the subject of many paintings and is a photographers dream.


Little Venice is an area that lines the waterfront with rows of Eighteenth century fishing houses with balconies that jut into the sea. These houses originally belonged to shipping merchants which gave them direct access to the sea. Being built right on the water, it resembles Venice of Italy, hence the name ‘Little Venice’.


The old fishing houses have been converted to house cafes, restaurants, bars and shops. Taking advantage of the beautiful view both by day and especially at sunset, restaurants have been set up all along the sea front, to give diners a unique experience.  It is quite peaceful during the morning but afternoon onward, you will be jostling for a seat. This area becomes a beehive of activity at sunset as thousands of people throng here to watch the enchanting sunset

Most of the cafes will start putting out reserved signs on the tables that are right on the edge of the sea as these are the prime tables. You may not find fine dining here but it is all about the experience of sitting beside the seawaters for a special dinner, a once in a life time experience.


Like in Venice, the balconies of houses here are interconnected over the lanes at many places.  It is to facilitate the residents to move around in rains without getting their feet and shoes wet and muddy.


Surrounded by the boutiques and bars in Little Venice stands the flower-bedecked Church of Panagia Paraportiani (Our Lady of the Postern Gate). This church is a cluster of four whitewashed chapels, topped by a further bright white chapel on the upper storey, reached by an external staircase. Built between the Fourteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, the church once guarded the entrance to the town’s castle, long since destroyed.


The multi-layered nature of the church gives it a unique shape, rising from the squared-off white chapels on the ground level to the domed church of the Virgin Mary on the top.  The church has no windows or doors as seen from the sea.  Rather from the seaside, it does not resemble a church.  It was constructed this way not to attract attention of attacking pirates.


From Chora, we took a bus ride of 10 kilometres to Elia Beach.  Elia is the longest sandy beach of Mykonos, offering a wide choice of taverns and bars as well as water sports facilities such as water-skiing, parasailing and windsurfing.   There are comfortable lounge beds and umbrellas lined along the sand.  We enjoyed the views of the Aegean Sea and the nearby island of Naxos on the horizon, obviously with a cocktail in hand.  Elia is one of the most popular nudist and gay beaches in Mykonos.


We returned to Little Venice in the evening, well before sunset to take up our reserved seats at the restaurant at the brim of the sea.  The area was thronging with tourists as everyone comes here in the evening, to watch the magnificent sunset.  As the sun goes down, the sky shows off some brilliant colours of red, orange and pink.  The reflection on the water is awesome. The expression “picture perfect postcard” some how seemed be so very apt. At sunset, we watched a profusion of colours ever so slowly leak out of the Aegean sky, enjoyed a sumptuous Mediterranean dinner, mainly of seafood and Greek salad and then returned to our hotel, quite exhausted and a lot more contended.

 

Mykonos Island- A romantic Getaway


Early morning on June 11, we checked out of the hotel and drove to Piraeus Ferry Port and boarded the high-speed ferry operated by Hellenic Seaways.  The journey of about three hours was very comfortable, more so because it was a large ferry and hence more stable.  Food in the restaurants onboard was pretty expensive. Luckily our hotel had provided us with packed breakfast.  I would recommend travellers to read a book or watch a downloaded movie during this journey.


After three hours of sailing on the Aegean Sea, Mykonos Island with its prominent whitewashed buildings with blue windows and doors came into our view.    As per Greek mythology, Mykonos was formed from the petrified bodies of giants killed by Hercules. The island took its name from the grandson of Apollo, ‘Mykonos’. Some how, all these Greek deities still seem to be hanging in the air.


It is mandatory in Greece for the houses to be whitewashed with blue painted windows and doors – the colour of the Greek flag.  In 1974, the then military government made it a law that all houses must be painted in the beautiful Greek colors of white and blue as a patriotic gesture to represent the colours of the Greek flag.  The law remains in place although some island authorities have begun to permit other pastel colours.


Mykonos is one of the islands of the Cyclades and is one of the most beautiful sites, very popular with tourists traveling to Greece. It is a relatively small island, measuring 85.5 km2; inhabited by about ten thousand people.  Tourism is their mainstay and they receive visitors from all over the world with open arms.  Mykonos has a rich night life with many restaurants and cafes which attract famous performers and the not so famous ordinary people and lots of young couple in love. Add white sandy beaches, crystal clear, blue green sea and breathtaking cliff-side views, make it a romantic paradise.


Myknonian landscape is dotted with many churches and many more little chapels.   It appeared that every household or family had a small chapel attached to their homes.  Roof of these small chapels were painted blue, red or white, depending on the family occupation.  Red indicated that the chapel belonged to a farmer family, blue meant the owning family are seafarers, sailors or fisher-folk, and white indicated that the family were migrants.  .


As per Mykonian customs, the bones of a person buried in the church is excavated by the priest after six years and is handed over to the family.  The family then place the bones in their family chapel.


98% of Greek population is Greek Orthodox Christians and the rest two percent is Muslims, Catholic and Jewish. Greece and Russia are the only countries to have such a great proportion of Orthodox Christians. Even though Catholics  and Orthodox  believe in the same God, they differ in that for Catholics deem the Pope as infallible while Orthodox believers don’t.   Catholic priests cannot marry, while Orthodox priests can marry before being ordained as a priest.  Latin is the main language used during Roman Catholic services, while Orthodox churches use native languages.  Catholics venerate statues as much as  Orthodox believers venerate icons.

Our family belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church of Kerala, India.  It is believed that Saint Thomas, disciple of Jesus, spread Christianity in Kerala in the First Century.  These Christians received episcopal support from Persian bishops, who traveled to Kerala in merchant ships through the spice route. Hence they are called Syrian Orthodox Christians and use Syriac and Malayalam – language of Kerala – in their services.

After checking into our hotel, we travelled to Ano Mera, a village about seven kilometers away to visit the 18th Century Monastery of Panagia Tourliani.


The church looked almost similar to many of our Syrian Orthodox churches in Kerala.  A marble bell tower with intricate folk carvings was a standout point of the church building.


The altar screen, like those seen in our Orthodox Churches, has small icons carefully placed amid the wooden structure’s painted green, red, and gold-leaf flowers.  At the top are carved figures of the apostles and large icons depicting the New Testament scenes.


Most liturgical instruments used during prayers looked similar to those in our Orthodox churches.


After lunch, we walked to the jetty at Mykonos Port to board a boat to the island of Delos.  According to Greek mythology, Delos is the birthplace of Apollo, God of music, and his Moon-Goddess twin sister Artemis, Goddess of hunting.  In 1100 BC, Delos was inhabited by the Ionians who worshiped God Apollo. (The Ionians were one of the four major tribes that the Greeks considered themselves to be divided into during the ancient period; the other three being the Dorians, Aeolians, and Achaeans.)  The Ionians also managed to develop the island into a powerful commercial and spiritual centre (7th century BC).  Thereafter, the Roman period was the most prosperous and wealthy period for Delos which turned the island into an important port.  In 88 BC, the King of Pontos who was against the Romans completely destroyed Delos and Mykonos.


History of Delos remains completely unknown after this period as there are no historical records. The excavations that brought to light rich archaeological finds in Delos started in 1873 and continue to be carried out by the French School of Archaeology.


The island boasted of many temples, market places, living quarters, theatres, gymnasium, etc, all to cater for traders, sailors and locals.


As trade prospered, rich merchants, bankers, and ship-owners from all over the world settled in Delos.  They attracted many builders, artists and craftsmen to build luxurious houses, richly decorated with statues, frescoes and mosaic floors. This well preserved house has an atrium with a mosaic floor which portrays Dionysus seated on a leopard.


The houses in Delos varied in size, layout and construction based on the requirement and wealth of the owner.  Most houses looked inwards and the rooms were built around an open square to allow air-circulation and to receive light.  Ground floor rooms did not have windows making the houses cooler, safer and quieter.  These houses had separate kitchen and latrines and drainage system.


This is a theatre in ruins.


Rainwater was collected in drains connected to a large reservoir.

In the evening, we returned to Mykonos island, after spending over three hours at Delos.

Historical Landmarks of Athens


After lunch, we set out on foot to explore the city of Athens to visit other important historical landmarks.  Our first stop was at the Panathenaic Stadium.


Panathenaic Stadium or Panathinaiko, is also known as the Kallimarmaro, which means ‘beautifully marbled’ and is the world’s only stadium made entirely of marble.  It was built in 1896 for the first modern Olympics on the ruins of the ancient marble stadium that was built in 329 AD for the Panathenaic Games, replacing an even older stadium made of wood.  In 140 AD it was enlarged and renovated and it seated 50,000.  During the 1896 Olympics it accommodated 80,000 spectators.


The stadium was excavated in 1869 and hosted the Zappas Olympics in 1870 and 1875. After being refurbished, it hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the first modern Olympics in 1896 and was the venue for four of the nine contested sports.  In the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, archery contests were held here and was the finishing venue for the Marathon race.


We then walked to the Zappeion Exhibition Hall, or the Zappeion as the Athenians call it.  It has witnessed the history of Athens for the past 130 years. A major scene for some of the most significant moments in the country’s history, it has always been integrally linked to the Olympic Games.    It was built by Evangelis Zappas, a rich businessman living in Romania, who participated in the Greek War of Independence (1821–1832).


From the Zappeion we moved to the Greek Parliament Building.  This building was erected between 1836 and 1842 as the royal palace for King Otto I, the first king of modern Greece. After a fire damaged the palace in 1909, the king moved to a nearby building (now the presidential palace) and the original palace became known as the ‘Old Palace’. In 1929, after the monarchy was abolished, the Greek government decided to move the parliament from its existing building (now the National Historical Museum) to the old Palace. The parliament has resided here ever since 1935.


In front of the Parliament Building is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  The monument, with a large relief depicting a nude, dying hoplite (citizen soldier of Ancient Greece, quite different from a professional soldiers), was inaugurated on March 25, 1932, on the Greek day of independence. On either side of the tomb are excerpts from Pericles’s famous funeral oration inscribed on the wall.

The Tomb is guarded by the Evzones, a special unit of the Hellenic Army, also known as Tsoliades. A pair of soldiers guard for one hour and throughout these 60 minutes, they stand perfectly still until it is time to switch with another guard


We were impressed by the ceremonial uniform the guards were turned in.  The uniform consists of the Phareon -a hat – made from red baize with a black tuft, white shirt with loose sleeves, Phermeli, a handmade waistcoat with many shapes wrought on it, Greek kilt made of 30 meters of white cloth, Tsarouchia, traditional leather shoes of Evzones with a small tuft in front, (each shoe weighs three kilos) and a leather belt.


As we stood there at 3 pm, we witnessed the elaborate drill associated with the changing of guards, very similar to such ceremonies worldwide.  The only difference here is that most drill movements are carried out in slow-motion.  The change of guard takes place every hour and it attracts many tourists.


Since 1914, Greece (Hellenic Republic) has mandatory military service (conscription) of nine months for men between the ages of 16 and 45, quite in tune with the practice in ancient Greece.  Citizens discharged from active service are normally placed in the reserve and are subject to periodic recall of one to ten days at irregular intervals.  That could well be the reason that we hardly ever came across a Police Officer or a Police Cruiser.

Our next stop was the Athenian Triology, three buildings, the Academy, the University Building and the National Library, located next to each other.


The Academy is the most magnificent of all the neoclassical buildings, constructed in Athens during the nineteenth century. The Academy is the most acclaimed of the three buildings.  It was constructed in marble between 1859 and 1885.


The design of the central temple, with a large Ionic portico, was based on the East side of the classical Erechtheion at the Acropolis. Relief sculptures atop the entrance symbolise the birth of Goddess Athena.

Flanking the main temple are two tall Ionic (the Ionians were one of four major tribes of ancient Greece) columns with statues of Athena and Apollo. Athena, the Greek Goddess of wisdom, arts, civilization, warfare and justice is shown dressed in armor, holding a shield and a spear. Apollo, God of music and poetry, is depicted holding a lyre in his left hand.  On either side of the main entrance leading to the Academy are the statues of the famous Greek philosophers Plato and Socrates, shown seated.


The next building was the University.  It has functioned as a university ever since its establishment in 1837 and is the oldest institution of higher education in modern Greece.  Today it is one of the largest universities by enrollment in Europe, with over 100,000 registered students.

To the left of the steps leading to the building stands a statue of John Capodistrias, who founded the University after declaration of Greek independance in 1821.   On to the right is the statue of Alexander Korais, a Greek scholar credited with laying the foundations of Modern Greek literature and a major figure in Greek Enlightenment.


The frieze (wall decorations) inside the portico shows King Ortho with great Greek arts and science personalities of the time.


We then moved on to the National Library of Greece.  This library building was built at the end of the nineteenth century, as the last of the neoclassical trilogy of Athens.  In front of the building is the statue of Paul Vallianos, one of the Vallianos brothers who helped fund the construction of the building.  The library’s collections include more than half a million books, with many dating back before 1500 AD.  It boasts of the largest and best-kept collections of ancient Greek manuscripts.


From the National Library we took a taxi to the base of  Lykavittos hill.  Lykavittos is the highest hill in Athens, rising 277 meters, and is visible from all over the city. We then boarded the funicular (cable based) railway, operating every 30 minutes, to reach the top of the hill.


Perched on top of Lykavittos sits the whitewashed chapel of St George. This Greek Orthodox chapel was built here in the nineteenth century and replaced an older Byzantine church dedicated to the Prophet Elias.


The hill top offered many a scintillating view over the Acropolis and the city of Athens, especially the Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus, the Panathenaic Stadium and the Parliament Building.  We returned to the base of the hill by the funicular railway, though there were many tourists walking downhill.

By now we were all well and truly exhausted and we decided to return to the hotel as we had to catch the early morning ferry to Mykonos island.