Travelling: sights and sites

Today, I’m removing myself from wet, chilly and windy London and re-visiting Plovdiv, a town I’d love to see more of. First, a bit of history to set the scene. The earliest evidence for Plovdiv is a Neolithic settlement; it was later settled by invading Thracians, expanded by Philip II of Macedon who named it Philippopolis, and, in due course,, it became part of the Roman Empire. The photo below of the archaeological excavations of the Roman Odeon below, shows how closely packed the layers of history are. You don’t have to dig very deep to find something surprising. But more of that in a minute.

Excavations of the Odeon in Plovdiv

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We are getting towards the end of January; the temperature on Thursday slumped to 4C and the wind was bitter. My fingers turned white, even with my Alpaca wool gloves on, and the forecast shows that it will remain 6C at best for God knows how long. I’m not a winter person; cold just makes me want to hibernate.

The gardens at Ninfa

I long to be somewhere warm and Italian; somewhere with flowers, trees, shade as well as sunshine, flowing water and romantic ruins. Ideally, I want to be transported to the gardens amid the ruins of the medieval town of Ninfa. I cannot think of anywhere nicer – especially when, back in England, it’s so cold and wet.

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Lord Byron (1788-1824), Romantic poet; a man fatally attractive to women; a friend of many literary figures of his day, including the atheist poet, Shelley; a fighter for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire; and an intrepid traveller, was a man who tended to leave scandals in his wake. In 1809, when he was twenty-one, he left England for the continent on what he called a ‘pilgrimage’. In effect, it was a Grand Tour, taking in Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Albania and Greece, and it seems to have involved a lot of drinking, stupendous scenery, and sex.

Ancient Apollonia, the Agonothetes Monument; a reminder that Albania was once part of Greece  

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Only a few miles east of the Giant’s Causeway, perched on Northern Ireland’s basalt cliffs, the spectacularly-sited Dunluce Castle plunges straight into the Irish Sea. (Game of Thrones fans will recognize it as Pyke Castle, stronghold of the House of Greyjoy.)

Dunluce Castle has inspired many books and films. from C. S. Lewis’s Cair Paravel, the capital of Narnia, to ‘Game of Thrones’

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The story of Glenarm Castle begins with a murder. In 1242, John Bisset, a hot-headed young Scot of Norman origin, was implicated in the murder of Padraig, Earl of Atholl, after a tournament in Haddington, where John’s uncle Walter was beaten by the earl. In revenge, John murdered the earl, set fire to his house to conceal the crime, and fled to Ireland.

It was John Bisset who built the first castle at Glenarm on the Antrim coast, facing his old homeland. Bisset then fades from the castle’s history. But every castle worthy of the name needs a good murder in its founding story.

Glenarm Castle

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Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland is Britain’s largest sea lough, covering 58 square miles. It runs north to south with the long, narrow Ards peninsula running down its eastern side between the lough and the Irish Sea. At the lough’s south-eastern edge a narrow channel leads to the sea; with the picturesque little port of Strangford on the west side linked to Portaferry on the Ards peninsula by a car ferry.

View across the straits from Strangford to Portferry: the yellow rape field is on the far side

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The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland is something I’ve long wanted to visit and last week my wish was granted. Geologically, it comprises over 40,000 interlocking basalt columns of different sizes created over 60 million years ago as a result of intense volcanic activity (the temperature needed to create them is between 840ºC and 890ºC). As the molten basalt cool, pseudo-crystals form creating the mainly hexagonal columns we see today. It was granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 1986.

The Giant’s Causeway from the east side

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It’s been a chilly, damp week and I’m longing for a bit of sunshine, so today I’m revisiting sunny Sardinia, a fascinating island, full of interest. And it’s a beautiful country, especially up in the mountains.

View at Serra Orrios. Note the cork oak with its bark stripped in the foreground

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Visiting Crete in October, just as the tourist season is coming to a close, has many advantages. There are fewer tourists, the weather is still excellent, and the places you want to see – in my case, archaeological sites – have not yet closed for the winter months. However, this post is not specifically about the archaeology, fascinating though that is, instead it is a whistle stop tour of what’s Crete has to offer in October. We started off in beautiful Chania.

Chania: looking towards the Venetian lighthouse across the harbour

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The ancient history of Crete has been shaped by forces outside its control. A tsunami resulting from the volcanic eruption on Santorini (ancient Thera) in 1500 B.C. destroyed the Minoan palace of Knossos, and there have been other geological disasters. A massive earthquake in the 9th century A.D. was caused by the collision of two tectonic plates beneath the Aegean Sea, and the resulting tidal wave, suddenly raised the sea level of the ancient port of Lissos on Crete’s south-west coast by ten metres. The city never recovered.

Ancient olive tree amid the ruins of Lissos

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