A former teacher and charity worker from the North East of England, I love people and places and like to try out new experiences wherever possible. Capturing that 'perfect pic' is all part of the pleasure. Access issues are a particular interest.
Published February 5th 2014
Island Hopping in Style
Mediterranean Odyssey - Malta to Greece
Our odyssey continued with a short over-night hop from Sicily to Malta, entering the Grand Harbour at abour 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning. We didn't get up for that as we'd holidayed in Malta the previous year and we didn't feel the need to rise that early.
We decided we were going to visit the island's capital Valletta, which is a beautiful medieval city surrounded by the waters of the Grand Harbour.
It's fair to say that Valletta is a small and cosy capital city, you can walk around it in a few hours, but it has a mighty history. Being placed equidistant between Europe and Africa it has seen many wars and fought many battles. Valletta was built by the Knights of St. John following the Great Siege of 1565, when the island was besieged by the Ottoman Turks, who had previously expelled the Knights from the Greek island of Rhodes and were now attacking Christendom in a campaign where the inhabitants of Malta were outnumbered six to one.
St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta
The victorious Knights were rewarded by the Papacy and architects were sent directly from Rome to create the new city of Valletta, named after the Grand Master of the Knights of St. John, who had held the fort and claimed victory over the Turks – Jean Parisot de la Vallette.
So Valletta, has a very Italian feel about it and we headed towards one of our favourite places there, the Upper Barrakka Gardens, overlooking the Grand Harbour. The best thing about it is that you can walk to Valletta from the harbour – although it is all uphill.
Shuttle buses were available but we thought we knew better and set out to walk there. In hindsight it would have been better to take a bus or taxi as it was quite a hike, however, there is now an elevator available to take cruise passengers up to Valletta from the harbour side, opening out at street level a stone's throw from the gates to the Upper Barrakka Gardens and costing only a few Euros. Well worth it in my view.
If you like art and culture, then Valletta has to be on your list of places to see, including the magnificent St. John's Co-Cathedral in the centre of Valletta, which houses many art treasures, including some by Caravaggio, who gained patronage from the then Grand Master while on the run from Italian authorities in 17th century.
Margaret in Barrakka Gardens overlooking the Thomson Celebration alongside in the Grand Harbour
Valletta is another of those places where you just want to 'be', a place to be absorbed and enjoyed – and we did.
Heading eastward, we sailed towards the Greek island of Crete. We'd had enough experiences to last a lifetime but the fact that we were going to visit Egypt and the Holyland was one of the things that attracted me to this particular cruise and the journey to Crete was another stepping stone in the direction of Jerusalem and the Pyramids, which I'd come so far to see.
Crete is the largest of Greece's islands and lies to the south of the Greek mainland in the chain in known as the Dodecanese.
The Palace at Knossos, Crete
One of the cradles of western civilization, Crete was once the home of the Minoan people and the Greek legend of Theseus and the Minotaur stems from here, indeed the palace at Knossos, near the island's capital, Heraklion is thought to be Minoan in origin and artefacts found by archaeologists in the vicinity appear to support the myth.
Excursions on offer included a full day trip around the island, including Heraklion with its impressive Venetian fortresses, and a visit to Spinalonga, a small island off the coast of western Crete, which has the dubious honour of being the last leper colony in Europe - right up until 1957.
The Thomson Celebration in the harbour at Agios Nikolaos in Crete
We docked in western Crete, where the town of Agios Nikolaos beckoned us ashore. In an attempt to take things easy, we decided to stay near the port and just take the short walk (about 200 metres) into the town centre. To our delight we were caught up in the local Feast of the Annunciation with children marching in the parade, with Greek flags and national dress providing the spectacle while crowds gathered to watch and locals met up with family and friends.
After the parade, we took some time to check out the local beach and spent the afternoon just soaking up the sun and partaking of local hospitality at one of the lakeside restaurants in the town, where the owner told us a bit of local legend in that what we were looking at was actually a 'bottomless lake' that had once swallowed a WW2 German tank.
Agios Nikolaos translates as Saint Nicholas in English. The town evolved around a small Greek Orthodox church there. As I understand it, the term Agios is sometime spelt Aghios (depending on which area of Greece you are in) and is pronounced 'Ayios' which is a masculine term for 'saint' - its feminine equivalent is Aghia (Agia or Ayia depending on local variation) but many tour guides refer to this Cretan resort as Ag Nik - we tourists are such simple souls.
We had visited Crete on two other occasions and were well aware of this beautiful island and its beautiful people's ability to make you welcome, and even though we hadn't been to Agios Nikolaos before, there was an air of familiarity about this friendly little resort and we felt very welcome.
Greek Orthodox church of Agios Nikolaos in the town of the same name