Looking Back on My Adventures: 2015 Travel Review

As the old year ends and the new begins, we’re drawn to reflect on happenings from the past 12 months, and start to ponder possibilities for the future.  It’s an odd position for me, as I’ve had an unpredictable employment situation for the past few years, working short-term “filler jobs” whilst I tried to get back into conservation.  Things that made planning tricky, if not an impossibility.

However, 2015 was the year where I learned to embrace the challenge that a complete lack of structure offered, and to jump at any opportunities that turned up.  These are some of the highlights of my adventures.

I visited lots of nature reserves and national parks across Britain, and beyond, and indulged my love of the natural world.  I got a job, just for the summer, as a Ranger in the idyllic New Forest National Park.  Then when that seasonal contract ended I got another, just for the winter, as a Ranger watching migrating birds visiting the coast of the Isle of Wight.

I did a lot of walking this year.  I walked most of the way across Bermuda on the Old Railway Trail.  Then hiked to the volcanic summit of the island of Faial in the Azores.  And I completed over 100 km across Scotland too, taking in a couple of mountains on the way, on the TGO Challenge.   (I had to withdraw halfway to go for an interview, but I did get the job, so it was worthwhile).  I got to know the more out of the way parts of the places I visited, learning their secrets and hidden histories.

I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, from Bermuda to England, via the Azores, on a tall ship.  I moved house, twice.  Three times if you count living on the ship, as I stayed on after my voyage to do maintenance work.   I joined the crew of another boat for a while too.  I caught up with old friends all over the place, and made lots of new friends along the way.

One thing that really didn’t keep up with the momentum was this blog.  Oops!  Ideas for improvements dragged on without ever happening, and several weeks without communications didn’t help either (I have a fat handwritten journal from my sailing voyages beyond the realms of wifi).  So my big resolution for 2016 is to get writing and really make an effort with making this blog brilliant.

And, as for the rest of the year? Well, I know my current job will end at the end of March, and most likely there will be another house move on the cards.  And there’s a couple of things in the pipeline for the summer, fingers crossed.  But although I don’t know exactly what’s to come in 2016,  I know I’m more than ready for it.

The final thing left to say is a massive thank you to all that read my blog.  These Vagabond Shoes started life as a journal of my travels for family and friends, but since then it’s continued to grow, and my adventures have been read by more people than I ever though.  Thank you so much for the support, and I hope you stick with me to share the stories that the future has in store.

All the best for 2016,

Vicky xxx

 

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The Caldera Clifftop Hike on Santorini

Santorini1Santorini was once a single island, rising in the centre to a beautiful cone-shaped peak (like Fujiyama in Japan, or Taranaki/Mount Egmont in New Zealand). Along with Crete, it was at the heart of the Minoan civilisation; a culture that dominated the eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze age, until a cataclysmic volcanic eruption about 3,500 years ago.

SantoriniHike2The cone of the volcano burst open, spewing smoke and ash high into the atmosphere. The explosion would probably have been heard as far away as Scandinavia and Central Africa, Gibraltar and the Persian Gulf. The mass of rock thrown skyward formed a vast caldera, into which the sea flooded. Giant waves generated by the blast swept across the Mediterranean, as the fragments of the island were buried under a white-hot blanket of dust and debris.

Today, Thera, the largest island of the Santorini archipelago, is a remnant of that catastrophe. Sheer cliffs, banded with charcoal grey, rose pink and rust brown strata, rise from indigo water on the eastern side of the drowned crater, catching that famous sunset in their curves. A hiking trail snakes along the rim of the caldera between the island’s capital, Fira, and the picture-perfect village of Oia, on the northern tip of the island.

SantoriniHike1We started the hike early to beat the heat of the day (As a pale-skinned Scot, I wilt in midday sunshine). With dawn creeping up the sky, the sounds of the waking island filled the air. Crowing roosters, barking dogs, and the tolling of church bells more rhythmic than melodic. The sunrise washed over us as we made the short climb through the winding lanes of Fira, spilling down into the caldera as we reached the rim.

Far below, water taxis cast off from the harbour, heading out to meet the first cruise ship to arrive into the caldera. Donkeys mustered at the bottom of cliff, ready to transport passengers up the seemingly endless zig-zag trail. Cleaners and handymen buzzed around rooftop terraces and infinity pools, preparing for the day ahead, but heading away from the centre of Fira, things quietened down considerably.

SantoriniHike3We took a diversion in the village of Imerovigli to walk out to Skaros Rock, a fin of rock protruding out from the caldera rim, topped with a reddish rocky chunk that wouldn’t look out of place alongside the mesas of Monument Valley. It once boasted a fortified citadel, long destroyed by earthquakes that accompanied eruptions in the centre of the caldera. All that remains is the tiny chapel of Agios Ioannis Apokefalistheis, clinging to the side of the cliff a hundred metres or so below.

Rejoining the main trail, we passed a number of exclusive hotels and apartments heading out of the village, barely spotting any other people. The exception was an Asian woman in a gorgeous and elaborate bridal gown, choreographing her photoshoot against the backdrop of the view. I don’t think her groom/cameraman was going to be allowed to to feature in any of the shots.

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SantoriniHike6Leaving Imerovigli, we were joined by a dog taking himself for walkies, who we named “Sausages”. He seemed particularly nonchalant about that development, and eventually left us to pursue a female dog taking a walk in the other direction.

Once out of the villages, the trail snaked through the cinders along the caldera rim. Scrubby bushes lined the route, providing shelter for lizards that scarpered out of the way as we passed by, before returning to bask in the sunshine. It wasn’t until we reached the chapel above Oia that we met others on the trail; two birdwatchers engrossed in watching a merlin (a small hawk) search for prey on the hillside. They’d picked a great spot, with a panoramic view of the sugar-cube houses of Oia arranged haphazardly along the spine of the island, framed by the blue Aegean. The island of Therasia mirrored Oia, with a snowdrift of white buildings spilling across terraces of rock.

SantoriniHike7From this point, the trail drops steadily into Oia, where it runs into the main “street” and on through winding lanes to the remains of Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village. We stopped into a café for a long, leisurely brunch with a couple of frappés (the real Greek coffee!) before exploring the village, soaking up the gorgeous sea-views and people-watching, whilst trying to identify the easy listening covers of popular music of the café soundtrack. Amongst the constant flow of tourists (identifiable from their leisurely walking pace), we spotted another two Asian brides, marching purposefully between vantage points to capture shots with the best backdrop.

 

What to see in Oia

  • The most famous photographs of Oia seem to be taken from Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village, where you have a panoramic view across the village, including the famous windmills, and over to the island of Therasia.
  • The picturesque port of Amoudi, at the bottom of 300 steps below Oia, is the place to go for fresh fish, and even to take a dip in the clear water.
  • Atlantis Books. I know I find I hard to walk past a bookshop, but this is a real delight. It stocks books in Greek, English, German, Spanish, French, from fiction to philosophy.
  • Beautiful Asian women in wedding dresses. I don’t know if it’s a thing, or my visit coincided with a magazine photoshoot, but I spotted at least 6 different brides in places around the village.

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Important information

Depending on exact start and finish points, the trail is 10 to 12km in length, with the hike taking around 3 hours, depending on fitness, how relaxed you make your pace, and how often you stop to stare with amazement at the stunning panoramic view.

SantoriniHike5The trail is pretty obvious, so you don’t need a map, although if you don’t look ahead at some points it’s possible to make a wrong turn and end up on edge of a busy winding road. The ground underfoot is uneven, and the trail rises and falls as it winds along the clifftop, so suitable footwear is recommended (volcanic cinders and sandals don’t work well together). There is little escape from the sun on the route, so carry plenty of water and remember sunblock and all that sort of thing (as I try not to sound too much like your mum).

SantoriniHike8The hike can be done either direction, but if you’re hiking in the afternoon, consider walking from Fira to Oia, arriving in time for the sunset. Just bear in mind this is a popular destination and you may have to share your spot with a crowd. However, sunset views are just as impressive everywhere on the caldera edge.

Buses for the return journey depart regularly from the square in Oia, and are cheap (1.60euros).SantoriniHike11

Weekly Photo Challenge: Selfie

Selfie was nominated as the word of the year last year by Oxford Dictionaries, narrowly beating bitcoin and twerk.  I’m not really a selfie-taking type of person, or even someone who will ask others to take pictures of me.  In fact, I rarely take pictures with any people in them.  It has to be quite an exceptional situation for me to think about it.  Like this one.

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On the side of Pen-y-Fan, Brecon Beacons.

I know, its a terrible picture.  You’d barely recognise me from it.  You’d barely recognise anyone from it.  That’s because the phone I took the picture on was in a waterproof cover, and the rain was so heavy it was running over the screen, over my hand and down the sleeve of my jacket.  But as the wind was blowing the rain down my face and neck, and down the front of my jacket, I didn’t notice it too much.

I couldn’t really see the screen either, as my eyelashes were filled with windblown rain.  And the wind was so strong, it felt like nails on my skin.  Gusts were pushing me off my feet.

I love the mountains.

The weekly photo challenge can be found here.

2014 Travel Resolution #3: Become a Better Photographer

Camera. Image by Alba Bautista on Flickr

How are those New Year’s resolutions going? We’re three-and-a-half weeks into January now, often just when our good intentions start to dry up, and resolutions fall by the wayside. Other things might start to fill your time making it harder to keep up learning a language, and the grizzly weather can make it harder to muster up the motivation to train for an active challenge. So my third travel resolution suggestion is something that combines learning and practice, and can fit into any free moments in your day.

 #3. Become a better travel photographer.

Travel and photography go hand-in-hand for many, myself included. We take pictures to capture memories, and to share our experiences with others. But images often don’t quite turn out as we’d hope for. So how can we make our photography better this year? Here are 5 things worth working on. Continue reading

Travel Theme: Sky

This week’s travel theme from “Where’s my backpack?” is sky.  So what better way to show off the sky than a sunset from the end of the world?  Or it might be the sunrise, as both happened within 10 minutes of each other.

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Views from Gjesvær, Nordkapp

Just a few days later and neither would happen again for another 2 and a half months, as the midnight sun doesn’t drop below the horizon north of the Arctic Circle.

How to Train your Dragon, Part 3.

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Foul weather sailing.  Photo by Peder Jacobsson.

Making a tack or a gybe in Drakan is hard work for the crew involved, especially when we’re beating our way up a narrow fjord and changing direction every 10 minutes or so. The ship can’t run as close to the wind as a modern sailing ship, so we have to make tighter zigzags, taking much longer to cover the forward distance. Continue reading