Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Vikos Gorgeous

In the Pindus Mountains in northern Greece lies the Vikos Gorge, a geological record-breaker, which is claimed to be the deepest gorge in the world (being 900 m, or 2,950 ft deep and only 1.1 m or 3.6 feet between its rims). Visiting in June, we were driven along the twisty mountain roads from our hotel in Aristi, to the north, to Monodendri in the south by our charming host, whose English was limited, but whose generosity and kindliness was not.

We had been advised to start early, at 6 am, but were delayed by breakfast and a wrong turn on our way down into the gorge, and did not begin until nearer 7.30 am. We had started by walking most of the way to the monastery of Agia Paraskevi, built on the edge of the Vikos Gorge, before being called back by our host, who had tottered after us in wooden wedges, which were distinctly unsuitable for the ridged pathway. We had just reached the gateway to the monastery, and decided that there was no safe way down into the gorge from there, when we saw her following us along the path, calling us to return, and made our way back to the village, and from there down a different street.

Finally on the right course, walking down the winding path to the bottom of the gorge, we relished the cool breeze that occasionally wafted through the tree-dappled sunlight. It had been a hot couple of days; the heat so intense that, stopping for lunch in the town of Ioannia the day before, I had heard the pine cones crack in the sun, the reports sounding like gunshots.

Reaching the bottom of the gorge, we walked along the dry riverbed, occasionally exploring its water-scoured rocks, as the sun rose beyond the towering  mountainous sides beside us. At one point, I stopped, arrested by a strange animal noise off to the left - a repeated half bark, half howl - which even now I cannot confidently identify. The gorge is home to bears, wolves and boar, among other animals, and as we walked quickly away from the sound, as much as I tried to be reassuring about it being behind us and no threat, I could not help keeping an eye on the path for decent-sized throwable stones, in case of an emergency.

Further on, and comfortably removed from whatever has made the noise, I was delighted to find a pool in the rocks beside the dry river, in which I saw first tadpoles, and then several frogs of increasing sizes. Flow in the river is seasonal, and underground watercourses mean that one may hear water running, but only occasionally see it on the surface. This little pool was a perfect pond for this group of amphibians, the water level of which was presumably refreshed from time to time by rainfall.

The walk from Monodendri to Vikos, to the north of the gorge, is supposed to take between four and a half and six hours, but by the time we neared the final stretch, and the climb back out of the gorge, it was past midday and the the blazing sun had well and truly risen, which slowed our progress considerably. The shaded wooded pathway gradually petered out, and the way ahead of us became dry and exposed to the heat, with only the occasional patches of shade, between which we dashed as quickly as tired legs and the extreme temperature would allow.

Despite having hiked and climbed in equatorial Africa, this felt like the hottest walking I had ever done. Although I was happy that I was protected against the sun, I began for the first time to worry about heat stroke. As the sweat ran off me, I could not avoid the thought that this had become a dangerous situation, with which my body was not coping very well. Noël Coward's line "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun" repeated in my thumping head, and I could feel my heart pounding fiercely and too fast.

By pouring half the contents of our drinking water over ourselves, we managed to keep on just the right side of exhaustion and we forced ourselves on, desperate to get out of the heat. As we eventually climbed out, over the lip of the gorge at Vikos, I gave thanks to whoever had built a stone shade with a water tap, which stood across the road. I put my head under the cooling water, and felt both relieved and revived as my pulse and breathing returned to a more normal rate. 'Next time,' I said, gratefully letting the water run down my sweat-drenched shirt, 'We start at six.'

Monday, 13 June 2016

Mooning around Stockholm

In Gamla stan, the Old Town of Stockholm, there sits a statue of a boy looking at the moon. The figure is called Järnpojke, or Iron Boy, and was created in 1954 by Liss Eriksson. He takes a bit of finding, partly because he is tucked behind the Finnish Church, near the Stockholm Palace, and partly because the boy is only 15 centimetres (5.9 in) high (making him the smallest public monument of Stockholm).

With a little time to kill, and having heard about the statue, we wandered around Gamla stan, occasionally stopping to peer around the occasional church, in search of the right one. Eventually, we gave in and looked up it location online, because otherwise we could have been searching for hours. Seeing the figure, however, repays the effort. The boy may be small, and his features indistinct, but he is undoubtedly charming, and there can be no question but that he is looking at the moon.

When we arrived, we discovered (as is, apparently, the custom) that somebody had provided him with a small woollen hat (which I removed, only temporarily, for the picture, above, but then returned with care). In the winter, apparently, he is also given a small scarf to keep him warm against the Swedish cold, which appealed to me enormously, as I like the idea of a community collectively agreeing that what is, objectively, a lump of cast iron is, in fact, a person to be cared for.

Waiting for the Ghost Train

Tucked away behind undergrowth and wire fences, near the A66, beside Bassenthwaite Lake (the only "Lake" in the Lake District, tedious pub trivia fans; all of the other lakes are actually "Meres" or "Waters") stands the crumbling remains of what was once Bassenthwaite Lake railway station. The station was part of the Cockermouth, Keswick and Penrith Railway but, along with the rest of the line west of Keswick, closed on 18 April 1966, just over a century after it was opened.

I have always found something rather fascinating about exploring old ruins; as a child, I braved the wildly overgrown ruin of a large house at the end of my village, and for a long time afterwards was obsessed with the vacant rooms I had found, with tantalising hints of their former grandeur. Even today, I love the strangely surreal atmosphere of coming across buildings slowly being reclaimed by nature. So it was, having finished a short hill walk in the Lakes earlier in the year, that I realised I would be passing the ruins of the old railway buildings on my way to my hotel.

Some time before, whilst distracted at work one day and exploring Google Streetview, I had seen the ghostly outline of the old station building beside the main road. There has (and remains) some talk of reopening the line between Penrith and Keswick, which greatly appealed to me, although I fear that it may remain a unrealised dream of enthusiasts. Wist reading about it, I had been looking into the old railway that served this part of the Lakes. Later, I read The Lake District Murder by John Bude, in which the main characters frequently travel up and down this line, investigating shady goings-on, and was curious about this one of many abandoned railway lines. Since its closure, the Keswick to Cockermouth stretch of the railway has been built over, as the A66, which means that, with a little effort, one can imagine a little of the old journey.

I parked the car up a side road and approached the remains of the station building. It roof having been removed (or collapsed), it was clearly in a bad state and it was fenced off, with signs warning against trespass. Not wishing to do so (and, anyway, being unable to find a practical way through the fences), I walked around to the front of the station, along what I realised would have been the track-bed in front of the platform. The elegant wooden waiting room, also without its roof, was still recognisable, with its red and cream panels fading and overcome by mildew, and I could make out the ticket window in what I presume was the station master's office beside it.

Walking along the platform, whose edging stones remained beneath a carpet of moss, it did not take a great deal of imagination to see the building in its heyday, although somehow this made its current state all the more forlorn and sad. For a functional building, it had been created with very pleasing elegance, as I suppose was the way things were done in the 1860s. I wondered whether the craftsmen who laid the stone and created the woodwork ever considered that there might come a time when their hard work would be left to fall apart, but then reflected that few of us think of the future like that. It had been a smart building on a railway line, and presumably something that its station master and railway staff had devoted time and care to maintain, but its time had passed.

Returning to my hotel along the A66, I passed several other obviously railway-related buildings, which had now become homes, and was pleased to think that something of the old railway, beside the course of its old line, remained and was in regular use.