walking samaria // europe’s longest gorge

The Samariá Gorge, or as it is known in Greek, Φαράγγι Σαμαριάς, is a national park in the Greek island of Crete. Depending on the source, Samaria is often said to be the longest gorge in Europe. I am proud to say that I conquered it this June.

When I was planning my trip to Crete back in the depths of winter last year, I confess that I didn’t know much about the island I was going to visit. When I came across the Samaria Gorge hike, it ticked all of my boxes. Doable on a day trip by public transport? Check! Cheap? Check! Gorgeous view? Check! I immediately resolved myself to do this hike.

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I grew up doing Scouts back in New Zealand, so I was well used to tramping, as we call it. However, since moving to a largely flat city where I have to rely on public transport, I will confess that I haven’t really done any hiking. Don’t get me wrong, London has some great parks and forests, but it’s not the same as a fully fledged wilderness!

From my research though, Samaria seemed to be essentially downhill the whole way, and doable for someone who definitely hadn’t done anything strenuous in a while. There were a few scary reviews online about difficulty, but I’ll be honest, I didn’t find it that difficult. The heat was the worst part! But we arrived early, so we missed the hottest part of the day.

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I don’t usually do tours when I travel, but I’m glad I treated myself to this one. It was only €5 more than if I had made my own way up with public transport, plus our guide was pretty good, so it was well worth it. After arriving at the entrance, we split up to do the walk at our own pace, and only rejoined the main group when we left for the ferry at the end of the day.

I’m lucky in that my life doesn’t involve early starts very often, but that backfired against me in this case, because I spent the entire night terrified that I would sleep in. I set five alarms, and went to bed as early as possible. Of course, most of that fear turned out to be irrational, because I woke up before my first alarm even went off, and spent half an hour sitting in the lobby contemplating my existence while waiting for the bus.

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Even the drive there was gorgeous. We left the busy streets of Chania behind very quickly, and the suburbs changed to vineyards and fields. We passed through narrow, winding roads, and through villages that didn’t look like they had changed in centuries. The villages got smaller and smaller, until we were only seeing the occasional farmhouse. Having spent the majority of my trip close to the sea, it was fascinating seeing another side of Crete. The sun was up by the time I had left, but as we gained altitude it disappeared as the mountains obscured our view of the sky. I got to enjoy my second sunrise of the day, as the sun made it’s way over the White Mountains.

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We were one of the first tour groups to arrive, which was nice because it meant that it started off very peacefully. The first two kilometres of the walk was strictly downhill, on some rocky staircases, if you could call them that. The only thing protecting you from the edge was a wooden fence precariously clinging to the dusty rocks, which wasn’t particularly reassuring. Five minutes in, I seemed to be getting the hang of the steep, crumbling stairs. It was a good call bringing my hiking boots; they made me feel much more stable on the slippery rocks. Shortly after I thought this, I slipped over and got a killer scrape on my knee. I bounced back up, with renewed caution. Thankfully, I had learnt my lesson, and didn’t slip over again.

There was this American family from Washington who were walking at the same pace as me, and we eventually got talking. There were two cousins there who were the same age as me, but their lives couldn’t be more different to mine. We spent the whole trip swapping stories about our home lives. I don’t really know that many Americans in real life, so most of what I know is from TV. It was really fascinating hearing about it first hand! Halfway down we also met some more Americans – a retired couple, with the strongest Texan accent. I had never heard one in real life before, so that was weirdly one of the highlights of the trek.

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Hikers of all shapes and sizes joined us!

And as for the scenery? It was almost ridiculously beautiful. And saying that, I come from New Zealand, so I’m no stranger to natural beauty. But many walks in New Zealand are covered by bush, so you don’t necessarily see the view for most of the walk. However, the Samaria Gorge was fully exposed to the beauty of nature, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. It was extremely hot. Even as we were heading down the initial steps at 8am, it was already starting to heat up. Greece was providing us with another 33º day. Or as my weather app said, ‘feels like 36º’. Thankfully, the perk of walking down a gorge is that we always had access to fresh river water to refill our bottles.

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Before modern times, the canyon was extremely difficult to access. Even nowadays, you can only reach the village at the foot of the canyon by boat, or by hiking down the gorge. You can still see the reminders of how the trail was once used for more practical purposes, by looking at the several small churches dotted along the path. Up until the mid 20th century, there was actually another village halfway down the trail as well. It was only abandoned when the area was official made a national park. Some of it was re-purposed for hiking facilities.

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At the end of the gorge you’ll find the tiny village of Agia Roumeli. There wasn’t much to it, aside from a couple of restaurants, souvenir shops and a few hotels. Because of its isolation, most of the population is someone who probably just completed the Samaria hike. There’s two ferries a day to the neighbouring towns, and I imagine the majority of the town disappears after these ferries leave!

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Despite the cavernous cliffs looming behind it, the relative normality of village felt like a totally different world to that wild world of the canyon. I’m glad I brought my togs, because I managed to squeeze in a quick swim before heading back.

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Although I initally had my doubts about doing the walk, I’m glad I did it in the end. It certainly lived up to it’s reputation as one of the most impressive walks in Europe. If not for that, it was a good excuse to dust off my walking boots.

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berlin // grunge, graffiti and architecture

Much like London, Berlin is one of these iconic cities with a history and culture leagues above other cities. It’s been on my bucket list for years, and this December I was lucky enough to finally visit! And actually, it reminded me of London in more ways than one.

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Changing trains at the central transport hub of Alexanderplatz was almost surreal, because it felt just as busy and chaotic as an interchange station in London, but it was actually in a whole other country altogether. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many different cities in my time, but Berlin was the first time that I felt like I was in a place as big and exciting as London. Of course, they call their trains the U-Bahn’s, not the tube, and they just use ordinary titles for the various branches (the U1, U2, etc), as opposed to odd proper nouns like the Piccadilly Line and the Victoria Line. The station architecture is quite different too, and the platforms were much more spacious than London’s ageing Victorian infrastructure. Despite these differences. I might as well have been standing at Oxford Circus or Liverpool Street station, because the atmosphere felt exactly the same.

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Berlin was also ridiculously photogenic. It was a credit to the city that it actually took me a while to reach the proper tourist sights. Of course, I was always planning to head to the main attractions, but I definitely got distracted by the areas that weren’t even in the guidebooks. I fell particularly in love with the neighbourhood’s of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, the latter of which my hostel was located in. Much like London, the best part about Berlin is how much there is to see. Stumbling around a random corner could be just as exciting as the major attractions.

That being said, the main sites weren’t half bad either. There really was some stunning architecture there!

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Here’s a little list of highlights of my trip:

1. Getting to see the remnants of Cold War Berlin.

Well, of course I had to mention the wall first. That’s one of the first things that springs into mind when you think of the East/West Germany divide, isn’t it? The East Side Gallery was my first look at the wall, running parallel to the river. The murals and graffiti are really cool, but you can’t help but just notice the impossible scale of the Wall.

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It’s just that; a wall. A massive, inelegant concrete wall, and it split up an entire city, an entire culture. It’s mad to believe that it’s only been gone for barely 30 years. Most of it was ripped down soon after the fall in 1989, for understandable reasons, but there are still segments remaining around the city. The East Side gallery is the longest remaining stretch, and is now covered in a diverse array of murals, some abstract, some clever, and some just pretty to look at.

 

You could still feel the divide between East and West Germany in many sides, with the eastern side of the city being noticeably more run down than the west side. That being said, I definitely found the eastern side to be more interesting! Maybe that’s because I prefer East London as well.

2. Wandering around Kreuzberg.

The easiest way to describe the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg is Cool, with a capital ‘C’. I felt trendier just walking around it. There were posters, everywhere, and the events they were advertising all sounded so cool! Graffiti and street art turned the beautiful old buildings into canvases, and it really felt like it was a neighbourhood occupied by people, not by corporations.

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I found so many cute shops and cafes here, and the entire area just exuded creativity. You can easily see how this area became one of the musical hubs in the 1970s, with venues frequented by the amazingly talented David Bowie and Iggy Pop.

3. Shopping in the biggest charity store in Europe.

Usually I’m not one to travel just for the shops, but in this case I made an exception. I’ve been op shopping all of my life (that’s the New Zealand word for thrifting), and basically all of my clothes are second hand, so when I learnt that the biggest charity shop in Europe was in Berlin, of course I had to go. It didn’t disappoint!

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Five floors of glorious second-hand goods, and the icing on the cake was that it was actually reasonably priced as well. My eyes practically bugged out of my head when I saw the €1 sale racks! In the end though, I only came out with a 70s knitted waistcoat for a steal at €2.50. Having an already full suitcase was a very good deterrent!

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4. Exploring the Christmas Markets

People don’t exaggerate; Germany really does come alive in December. Even though I don’t really like wine, I do love the smell of it, and you could smell Glühwein (mulled wine) around almost every corner! There was one huge one right in the centre of the city at Alexanderplatz which wasn’t my favourite, mostly because it felt quite similar to Winter Wonderland in London (yes, I’m spoilt for choice).

However, the beauty of Germany in December is that they take Christmas markets rather seriously, and there was a market around the city to suit just about anyone’s needs. I found so many good ones, hidden away in side streets, or put right in centre display!

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My favourite market had to me a medieval themed one that I came across in Friedrichshain on my very last day. I needed to burn some time before leaving for the airport that evening, so I decided to just explore the area around my hostel, and I came across this beauty in the middle of an abandoned industrial site.

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True to its medieval theme, it was more traditional than the other markets I had come across, and they even had activities like archery, or even donkey rides! It was a great way to finish off my holiday.

5. Just enjoying the history and culture of Berlin.

I already touched over this a bit before, but Berlin is such a fascinating city. Over the centuries, Berlin has gone through world wars, being split in two, and has emerged into the 21st century as a global hub of politics and the arts. You truly get the feel of a city that has grown and evolved organically.

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I fell in love with Berlin in my short visit, and I can’t wait to return one day, perhaps in the summer where the sun doesn’t go down at 3:30pm! Berlin was the kind of place where I could even see myself living there, one day. Maybe when my German is a little better.

whitby: a day on the yorkshire coast

While staying with some Yorkshire relatives this week, we decided to take a day trip out to Whitby, a seaside town famous for Dracula and Captain Cook. I have a real soft spot for this town. I’ve only been here a few times, but whenever I come back I’m filled with nostalgia. I came here as a child with the aforementioned relatives, and I have memories of eating fish and chips and playing with 2p coins in the amusement arcades.

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Bram Stoker took most of his inspiration for Dracula from this striking seaside settlement, and you can easily see why. With its sleepy harbour, moody grey clouds and dramatic cliffs, it’s basically a recipe for a great story. Also, Captain Cook reportedly learnt most of his sea craft here as a youngster before his later voyage to settle New Zealand, so that’s pretty cool.

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I came here once in summer, and Whitby was right in the middle of a Goth Weekend, which meant that the town was absolutely packed! It was quite a cool time to visit, seeing people wearing goth fashion wandered the streets, weaving in between the ordinary tourists dressed like a generic H&M advert. It was a glorious juxtaposition. Today though, the streets were empty.

Let’s set the scene: the sun was beginning to set, and the Christmas lights were starting to switch on. There was a grey and stormy sky, and and the remnants of the wet morning provided a muted reflection of the sunset on the pavements. The streets were just how I like them; all higgledy piggledy, with messy, alternating shopfronts and colours.

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There were so many cute looking shops around here! If I had the time and money, I would have spent all day inside them. Alas, I could only enjoy from the outside. The people in this town certainly know how to coordinate a shop display.

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After wandering through the cobblestones of the town centre, we had lunch inside a lovely cafe called the Monks Haven, because of course it was. I had fish pie, because a trip to the seaside is not complete without some form of fish in a meal! I didn’t take photos inside because our food was distractingly good, but the interior was very nice.

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We climbed the 199 steps to the Abbey, which is situated on a dramatic clifftop perch, overlooking the entire coast. With it’s weathered gravestones and ruined silhouette, you can easily see why Bram Stoker was inspired by this image. The views from the climb were stunning.

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From the bottom of the steps.

Following the climb, we headed off to the beach for a quick wander. I spent my entire childhood living next to the ocean (although ironically, I never went), but I’ve only seen the sea a handful of times since moving to London. I really miss it. To stand there, on that English coast, just for a moment, was amazing.

The sand was getting all over my boots, and the dying pastel hues of the sun were reflected in the waves. Seagulls flew overhead, and the water stretched as far as I could see. I just stood there for a bit, feeling the cool winter wind on my face and gazing out into the Yorkshire sea.

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It was a long drive back to my relative’s place. We were all exhausted from our long day out, and my headphones provided a soundtrack to the drive as I leaned on the window, staring up at the stars over the bleak moors. It was a good day.

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Whitby is of my favourite places in this country, and I don’t think that its just the nostalgia talking. It’s a lovely town, with friendly people who also happen to have excellent taste in decorating. If I had more time I would have delved more into the historical background of this town, but I know I’ll be back at some point! If you ever get a chance to visit Yorkshire, I highly recommend coming over to the east coast and spending some time in Whitby.

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impressions of oxford

It’s hard to describe exactly what makes Oxford, England so great. Perhaps it’s the obvious sense of history and sense of curiosity exuding from the gaps between the well-worn flagstones, or perhaps it’s just the small things. Flowers spilling out over bicycle baskets, books haphazardly piled along window sills, reflections of the past in store windows.  It’s just as much about the little things as it is about the obvious, big historical attractions.

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I have been there on two separate occasions; once in a rainy spring day in May, and another in a mild autumn day a few weeks ago. I don’t think it matters what the weather is when you visit though; Oxford’s appeal is not consigned to one particular climate. Here are some photos I’ve taken during my two visits.

 

 

I’m not a particularly studious person, but it is difficult to avoid the gentle influence that Oxford University has had over this city for so many centuries. I’ll be honest – if I had to describe my ideal student life it would be in Oxford! I almost could have imagined myself trawling through one of the bookstores looking for an obscure volume, curled up in a coffee shop with my laptop, or studying with friends in the wide lawns of the colleges. Or to be more realistic, running through bucketloads of tourists in the cobblestoned streets because I slept in and don’t want to be late to my class. Dreams need a bit of a reality check sometimes as well, don’t they? I’m almost jealous of the students studying there. Academic results aside, you can easily see why Oxford is one of the most prestigious universities in the world!

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Oxford has a certain timeless feel to it. Sometimes it feels like any modern urban centre, and other times you could have stumbled into the mediaeval times. Students tap away at their MacBook keyboards with their headphones in, but then sometimes you will stumble into a deserted street and it will strike you that this street probably hasn’t changed in centuries.

 

 

Oxford is also home to one of my favourite museums, the Pitt Rivers/Oxford Natural History museum. It’s got an amazing collection related to anthropology, and it’s situated in a gorgeous Victorian building. I’ll write a more detailed post about the museum soon!

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Oxford is barely an hour away from London on the train, and a return day fare from London is only £26.00 (or less if you have a railcard!) which isn’t too bad as rail fares go. If you buy in advance you can get return fares for just over £10 too! You can walk literally everywhere in Oxford too, so there’s no need to worry about getting around once you’re there. So, if you are ever in London and feel like taking a day away from the city’s hustle and bustle, maybe you’ll consider Oxford.

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This is something a little different for me, so I hope it turned out okay. Thanks for reading, and I hope you liked my photos.