Thursday, 31 July 2014

England – The historical heart of Yorkshire

July 31

Hello everyone!

It’s stating the obvious to say that London is the British city most visited by tourists. What do you think the second most popular city could be?

Old friends in new places

Could be the home of the Beatles…
The home of prestigious universities…
The home of comedy…

Maybe the home of Roman history…

Turns out none of the above are visited as much as Manchester (the home of the Premier League’s best team) or…York. The home of…what exactly?

They may not have been last season, but they are statistically the Premier League's best team!

I decided to find out whilst visiting friends made in Kazakhstan. York is a fair distance from Cardiff on a train: approximately five hours. This meant an early start so that I could arrive in York at lunchtime. Exiting the train station immediately introduces you to one of York’s main features; the centre of the city is protected by a low, faded stone wall. The foundations of these walls date back to Roman times but were erected in their current guise in the medieval period. You can walk along the walls and get some nice views into the city centre.

One such view is of York’s ‘castle’. These days it’s less a castle, more a simple keep known as Clifford’s Tower. It was built by William the Conqueror shortly after…well, conquering England for the Normans. Having run up the stairs to the stone base, I can tell you that it’s higher than it seems.

No matter how high or low you are in York, it is difficult not to spot the city’s premier building: York Minster. This is a large, largely rectangular cathedral – apparently the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe – which dates back to the 8th century. Amongst the relatively pale spires and straight edges are some elegant windows which seem to droop down from the roof. I was surprised at how angular the building was but it is impressive nonetheless.

York is also the location of the National Railway Museum. This may interest some more than others but, as someone who enjoyed building train tracks with Brio as a young lad, I was very keen to explore this homage to trains.

For people older than myself, it may be a welcome trip down memory lane. Retro adverts promoting various regional railway operators hang from the walls of one of the main atria. Old ticket stubs with much more personality than current, bland versions are dotted around. Yet all of this is merely decoration, for the trains dominate each room you enter.

There are trains of all shapes, sizes and ages. From early variations on Stephenson’s original model in the early 1800s to one of Japan’s ultra-modern bullet trains, there is an incredible range of trains on display. We witnessed a train being manoeuvred on a turntable, which moves much faster than I would have imagined (about 90 seconds for a complete rotation).

Trains from the early 1820s and late 1990s - spot the difference?

One aspect of the trains which surprised me was the height of the wheels. It’s something you don’t really appreciate as the train tracks are so much lower than the station platforms, as well as modern trains covering much of the wheel. However, some of the wheels on the older trains were almost as tall as I am!

So what is York the ‘home’ of? It is full of history, both old and modern. It was home to the Romans. It was the second city for both the Vikings and the Normans. It is the home of the largest train museum in the world. York is thus an important historical centre in the United Kingdom; I can fully appreciate now why so many people come to visit this pretty city.

Love you all


Saturday, 19 July 2014

Greece – Perusing the Peloponnese

July 14-18

Summer is usually associated with glorious sunshine and sizzling temperatures. So far on our summer holiday we have been blessed with excellent weather in the two countries that we have been to.

Such wonderful weather isn’t guaranteed in the north of France and north-west England, however. We thus booked ourselves a guarantee of constant sunshine and temperatures in excess of 30’C by heading to Greece for a week.

Regular readers will know that we went to Greece last year, to the western island of Zakynthos. Though we started and finished our week here, Hannah and I tagged along with her extended family as they explored the mainland nearby: the peninsula of the Peloponnese.

I came with an open mind and precious little knowledge about the region. I didn’t even know how to say that long word (it’s pronounced peh-loh-POH-neez, if you’re interested). However, five days of extensive travel around the area have educated me about this historical land, as well as entertained me immensely.

Two places on the Peloponnese are recognisable around the world: Sparta and Olympia. Sparta is famous, some would say infamous, for these folk:

We didn’t go there. On our way down from the ferry port of Kellini to the southern part of the peninsula we did stop at the home of the ancient Olympic Games.

Olympia is fames for being the birthplace of the Olympiad, though is just as interesting to those who study other aspects of Greek life. In its prime it was a large settlement and was an influential voice in the Greek world. The ruins visible over 2500 years later suggest a thriving cultural hub with all of the usual ancient buildings.

Unfortunately no ruins are left of the Statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Below is a suggestion of what the statue would have looked like. The statue and its adjoining temple stood proudly for about a millennium. Historians aren’t completely sure of how the demise of the statue came about. Some suggest it was destroyed in 425 AD along with the temple in a great fire. Others believe that it was deconstructed and reassembled in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul), before being destroyed in a large blaze in 475 AD. Wherever the end took place, it seems that fire brought about the end of Zeus’ statue.

The ancient Olympics are believed to have been held here in 776 BC, doing so every four years until they were suppressed by the Romans in 394 AD. They were a way of unifying the city-states and outlying regions. Winners would be presented with an olive wreath and have their victorious tales told for years to come.

The events took place in an oval-shaped stadium, banked by grass on three sides which allowed up to 45,000 spectators to observe and cheer. The shape of the stadium still exists today, and also has some similarities to the Panathinaiko stadium which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. The modern version of the sporting event is still linked to Olympia, as this is the place where the famous flame first lights.

Olympic Stadium - Olympia

1896 Olympic Stadium - Athens

Of course, no trip to Olympia would be complete without running the old track. Not that thin lines of stones at each end representing starting and finishing points constitute much of a track. We’ve read that the length of the arena is 212 metres, which makes my time of 28.81 seconds seem quite quick, at least in my opinion.

Stopping at Olympia was a welcome break on a long, sweltering drive from our base on Zakynthos to the resort town of Stoupa, close to the village of Neochori where we were staying. Stunning landscapes and sheer drops were always visible from the windows of our phosphorescent vehicle.

The village itself was beautifully tranquil. Cobbled streets become ever narrower and disappear from view with the high, light grey walls protecting pretty, flower-smothered houses.

Some nearby villages, smattered with gently bobbing sailing and fishing boats, also had a quaint attractiveness which is common for coastal towns being lapped by southern European seas. Others were dramatically positioned high in the hills, a sure sign of previous territorial battles and defensive positions.

The Peloponnese peninsula if often described as having ‘fingers’. We read that the bottom of one of these fingers is apparently the second southernmost point in continental Europe. Try saying that quickly five times in a row. The southernmost point is in Spain. Looking at a map, I’m not convinced that this place is further south than other places in mainland Italy, Spain or Portugal. It is, however, the southernmost point of mainland Greece, thus worth a visit.

The tip of this finger, which geographers would call the Mani peninsula, was historically seen as the end of the Greek world. As we drove along the winding, exposed roads to reach the closest village, Porto Kagio, the vegetation began to disappear and the hills became rockier. This continued as we walked the occasionally treacherous path to reach the tip, really bringing home the idea that life wouldn’t survive much further south than this point. The fact that many Greek islands, not to mention Africa, lie south of this point seems to be forgotten, or at most a mere footnote.

The point of this finger is called Cape Tainaron. In addition to having a couple of very nice beaches sheltered in coves, it has two important monuments: one natural and one man-made. The latter is a mosaic honouring Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea.

The former is only accessible by boat and probably a place you wouldn’t want to go. It is a cave that Greek legend claims is the entrance to Hades. God of the dead. Probably quite dark, that cave. An alternative sight is a simple lighthouse at the tip of the peninsula.

The Peloponnese (make sure you’re saying it correctly) adventure was great fun, full of interesting sights, sounds and smells. The food was wonderful, most of the people chatty and friendly. I’ll gloss over the fact that they have no idea how to make a cappuccino. Our key lime pie-coloured car clocked up hundreds of miles to see some wonderful scenery. If you do happen to visit Olympia, get in the spirit and have a run! Remember: 28.81 seconds!

Love you all