Stopping off on the beach at Strandhill in County Sligo - chowder, home baked wholemeal bread and a pint of Guinness - the Perfect Irish lunch. You can get these ingredients anywhere in the world but they will never taste as good as they do here, except maybe a few miles down the coast in County Clare.
County Mayo and Connemara, part of the ancient west coast Province of Connacht (Connaught), have always been special places – bleak and beautiful, desolate yet full of human tragedy and heroics. The landscape has a dazzlingly watery green beauty, readily appreciated by city dwellers who see the tranquillity of open hillsides and moorland although local farmers see more than that – they see the poor soil that won’t grow food and they know of the harsh way of life that used to be lived here.
The O’Malley family were hereditary lords of the Mayo coast and the many islands around Clew Bay. If you weren’t an O’Malley or were not for the O’Malley’s they made formidable enemies.
In the sixteenth century the remarkable and unprecedented Grace O’Malley (gaelic= Granuaile, 1530-1603) lived in County Mayo but was written out of official Irish history so that tales of her exploits were relegated to local myth and legend. In life she caused havoc to ships passing off the west coast, which was well documented (with considerable annoyance) in English State papers during the reign of Elizabeth I.
Granuaile (pronounced Granya Wale) was an embarrassment to the recorders of Irish history because she did not play the part of the typical heroine beloved by history recorders. She flouted every conceivable law, tradition and social custom, yet she also sailed her ship up the Thames to meet the Tudor Queen Elizabeth I in London.
Uniquely for the sixteenth century her charisma and daring made her the leader of an army of 200 men and captain of a fleet of galleys. Sometimes she was a legitimate trader but when business was slow she was also a pirate, plunderer, mercenary, rebel and was renown as the scourge of the Galway coast in the way that Blackbeard was the scourge of the Spanish Main.
Grace O’Malley was a unique character and someone who deserves a little more recognition from the annals of history.
So I took a train from Dublin which meandered westwards through the rich fertile eastern and midlands to the end of the line at Westport on Clew Bay. I cadged a lift to Roonah Quay, a few miles from Westport, and took the tiny ferry across to Clare Island.
Approaching the sparsely inhabited island the most notable landmark is the promontory fort or Tower House on the harbour where Granuaile was born. It’s a sixteenth century three-story, square stone keep with battlements and would have been new when Granuaile was born.
For such a fabulous monument its left wide open to the public, but very few people ever visit. An iron gate is swinging open and inside there are stone stairs, fireplaces but the upper wooden floors have rotted away long ago. It seems cold and bleak but in its day it was probably considered pretty swish.
Clare Island is a modest place of 15 square miles with hills, bogs and small patches of woodland. It’s beautifully unspoilt, around 130 people live there now and it’s about ‘as away from it all’ as you can get.
I strolled across the island to the small 12th century Cistercian Abbey where Granuaile is buried. The frescos have been badly affected by weather so since the Abbey has been made water tight it’s been kept locked - but a note says that the key is with Bernie, next to the O’Malley store.
Bernie’s two dogs rush out to greet me and he shouts ‘come on in’ through his open front door. There’s an upturned bike in the living room and he says, ‘my friend here is having a little trouble, do you know anything about bikes?’ So I sit on the floor and fiddle with the brakes while Bernie makes us a cup of tea.
Key in hand I set off back to the Abbey and the little old storekeeper asks me to give her a hand with her rubbish bins. What fabulous little vignettes of island life – that it’s a matter of course that passing folk will give you a hand if you need it.
The Abbey must have been much larger in its heyday but now the remaining building is just the size of an average village church.
Inside there’s an elaborate O’Malley crest but the burial site of Grace O’Malley is not evident. It has the ambience of a barn but contains some remarkable, although badly damaged, medieval wall and ceiling frescos. The frescos would once have covered the entire ceiling in a kaleidoscope of colourful mythical, human and animal figures including dragons, a cockerel, stags, men on foot and on horseback, a harper, birds and trees.
I took the Greenway back to the pier, walking between the giant hump of Knockmore at 1,516 feet and the more gently sloping Knocknaveen. I didn’t see a soul but there are many signs of long gone people.
There were old potato ridges, or ‘lazy beds’ everywhere; leftovers from the 19th century when the island’s population peaked at 1,700 and the famine came, even to this isolated island.
The islands history is not just the 16th century O’Malley’s and the 12th century Cistercian monks because there’s also a prehistoric Bronze Age story with megalithic tombs and Bronze Age cooking sites dating from 3,500 BC.
Grace O`Malley, the Pirate Queen of Mayo, was a tyrant of the ocean, adventurer, clan chieftain, mother, wife and amazing survivor. Her deeds are now obscured by time, but her legacy survives in the ruined monuments and the folk-consciousness on Clare Island and beyond.
She had plenty of other castles and hideouts so I’m off to Rockfleet, Achill Island and Lake Corrib to look for some more.
Visiting the Cu Chi tunnels, 65km northwest of central Saigon, it might seem odd but I’m reminded of something I heard chef Keith Floyd say while he was cooking his way around Vietnam.
The site at Cu Chi is a 250km network of tunnels, which is an unbelievable feat of bucket and spade engineering - so unbelievable that the Americans never really understood just how vast and complex they were.
In his inimitable style of blurting out non-PC, but thoughtful comments, in the guise of dietary points, Keith Floyd nailed what went wrong for the American’s in Vietnam.
“All this heavy armament couldn’t crush the fighting spirit of the North Vietnamese, while one side was fighting on a diet of doubt, fear, hamburgers and coke the other had a clear conviction of victory and only a daily cup of rice, snake or rat and a handful of dried fish. As a cook, and not a military historian, that’s where I think the battles were won.”
OK, so there was more to it than just that, but Floyd’s comments about failing to understand your opponent and value of conviction are well made.
The Cu Chi tunnels are so much more than the idea that ‘tunnels’ might convey; the vast network is more like an underground town on three levels - 3 metres deep, 9metres and the deepest at 18 metres. Amongst the tunnels there are bunkers, kitchens, storerooms, meeting rooms, sleeping quarters, armouries and a command centre, all interconnected into a vast warren. There are lots of ventilation shafts and disguised smoke outlets as well as dozens of sealed doors to prevent gas and water spreading through the system.
Vietcong soldiers in the tunnels were kept supplied via the Ho Chin Minh trail and would regularly launch attacks on Saigon. Dozens of US military Operations tried to clear the tunnels using CS-type gases, flooding them, setting mines and sending in dogs but because there were endless escape routes and doors to seal off separate sections, they were never more than marginally successful.
The area around Cu Chi was also protected with horrific and deadly bamboo mantraps and it became notorious as ‘Deadly Ground’. After using bulldozers to ineffectively dig up some of the tunnels the Americans resorted to widespread carpet-bombing, which turned the lush jungle landscape into a barren moonscape. There are still B52 bomb craters around the site.
The tunnels themselves are terrifyingly small and entry routes are no more than 12 by 18 inches - way too small for the average American to access. Some tunnels have been enlarged to allow visitors to get a feel for what they were like but even these are horribly narrow and require you to walk bent double. Just a little way in I decided to settle for the concept rather then the claustrophobic reality.
Not surprisingly the Cu Chi tunnels have become a bit of a theme park with tour groups, a shooting range with old wartime weapons and souvenir shops selling bullets, grenades and other memorabilia. Except it’s not an imaginary theme park, it’s a place of historical significance – a tragic memory for many but a key part of Vietnam’s history and one they are very proud of.
Like all historical events, the recounting of stories depends on who is telling them. For the Vietnamese the Cu Chi tunnels are their Battle of Britain – fighting against overwhelming military power, never giving up and eventually prevailing against all the odds.
By comparison with Kastro, Vathy is a very ordinary village and makes no claim on antiquity although people have lived here for hundreds of years. Most buildings are classic white cubes with blue doors and shutters, pots of red geraniums on the step and wooden seats by the door. The houses spread out from the tiny dazzling white church from where the black robed, long bearded priest regularly emerges to stroll his beachside parish.
Only 20 people live in Vathy all year round but the population swells to 200 during the summer, augmented with day visitors arriving by bus and from anchored sailboats. There are only a couple of dozen foreign tourists, most are local Greeks who now work in Athens but still have a family house on the island.
Greeks who emigrate usually keep close links with their family home. One day a large wedding of third generation Greek/Americans brought the entire village out of their houses. The 250 guests descended on the village by mega-yacht or fancy car and milled around outside the little church of Taxiarchis, only capable of holding 25 - 30 people. After the service the guests trooped along the beach to a modern but traditionally styled hotel complex at the edge of the village. It was a bizarre sight to see men dressed in shirt and tie in dinner jackets but with their trousers rolled up and carrying their shoes as they paddled along the beach. But best of all was the bride, accompanied by mandolin and fiddle players, holding up her wedding dress, splashing through the surf and laughing hysterically.
Greece is full of vignettes like this. Around 2600 years ago Herodotus wrote about how great Sifnos was – ‘a rich island with gold and silver mines’, not so today, but it is still full of riches that are worth more than gold.
There’s not much to life in a Greek fishing village or perhaps it’s that all life is there. In such an intimate place that you soon get to recognise everybody who lives there - pregnant women, babies, toddlers, semi-wild children, teenagers, grizzled old men and grannies in their black widows garb.
So as I get ready to leave, I don’t seem to have done that much, although it feels like I’ve been here for an age; as if I’ve been more alive and that each moment has been indelibly etched on my re-awakened Greek soul.
The nearest bank and ATM is in the old capital of Apollonia and there’s a bus every few hours. Apollonia is a typical small Greek town with a single street, frantic with traffic, and a network of steep alleyways only accessible to donkeys or motorbikes. They are full of little bars and micro shops that have their deliveries made by well-laden donkey.
In the main street, cars are not so much parked as abandoned near or on the kerb. While talking to a shopkeeper there was a loud whistle from the street, she looked at me, put her hand up and ran out of the shop. Five minutes later she returned and said, “sorry, I had to move my car.” She explained that the police don’t ticket badly parked cars they just blow a whistle calling the owner to move them – how unbelievably civilised?
The policeman went to school with half the town and is related to the other half, so as soon as he’s gone everyone puts their cars back where they were – the law is enforced, honour is preserved and everyone parks where they want - and everyone is content.
A donkey track meanders from Apollonia down into a lush valley and then on to the islands ancient capital of Kastro. The path is partly paved but is old and broken, strewn with rabbit and occasional donkey droppings. The valley is beautiful but has an abandoned and uncultivated air; hill terracing, that cost tens of thousands of man-hours, now crumbles back into the hillside. Only the donkeys show any interest in the derelict olive groves and everywhere there’s the drone of bees and an almost overpowering scent of wild sage, thyme and oregano. The local windmill is now derelict and the few old houses with their classic triangular dovecotes of the Cyclades are also abandoned.
But the hilltop town of Kastro is a different world. It’s one of the islands jewels and is almost too pristine from the care that’s lavished on it. Gleaming white facades with vaulted arcades providing welcome shade and everywhere there are the scattered relics from a distant age. The houses were built backing defensively towards the sea as a fortification against marauding pirates and five gates give access to winding alleyways that lead back on themselves or into dead ends.
Yianni runs our favourite taverna; he lives in Athens during the winter and has only been back on the island since May. He loves to chat as its still surprisingly quiet in June. After a few pleasantries my Greek falters but Yianni’s English staggers along a bit further. Fortunately we’re both saved by his 7-year-old daughter Eleni who is the only person capable of holding an intelligent conversation with everyone in the taverna.
The rest of Yianni’s family have not arrived yet, so he cooks everything himself and says that nearly all his food comes from the island. A typical meal is a couple of shared starters – always a Greek salad, nothing like that served elsewhere in the world, the sweetest red onions imaginable, huge tangy slices of tomato, cucumber as succulent as a drink and topped with a massive wedge of feta cheese with a sprinkling of oregano.
The tzatziki might just be from a carton but the briam, chickpea balls, French beans, yellow peas, and calamari all come fresh from the kitchen. One jug of local retsina from a barrel is usually enough to accompany main courses of rabbit stiffado, lamb in the oven, meatballs, rooster in wine or souvalaki.
There are a few guidelines for identifying the best tavernas – obviously if local (as opposed to vacationing) Greeks eat there, if it’s a family run affair, if you’re welcome to visit the kitchen (Health and Safety regulations - pah!) and special offers or overly slick advertising is absent.
The village has two ‘mini-markets’ that provide all life’s essential requirements and very few pointless frills. They sell most things, like any typical supermarket, except everything is crammed chaotically into a 30-foot square room. At first they appear crazy and disorganised but eventually you come to view them as the most brilliant corner shops imaginable. If they don’t have what you want its invariably there the next day.
Arriving on Sifnos it was already blazing hot and the light dazzled unprotected eyes as it reflected off the gleaming whitewashed buildings – keeping them cool but blinding everyone else. The bustle of Kamares port is short lived as our taxi climbs straight out of the harbour into the scorched and barren hills.
I haven’t arrived on Sifnos to do anything specific, unless wallowing in the unique and palpable ambience of Greek island life is specific? Greek islanders are one of the most laid back people on the planet; so I’m not here to do things but I might practice undoing a few things.
As the taxi drives off, leaving us on the outskirts of the fishing village of Vathy, we stumble down an unmade lane towards the sea. Anna from a beachside taverna was expecting us and had the key our fisherman’s cottage. Perched on the edge of the Aegean I imagine the old fisherman having a lazy day and throwing a fishing line from the porch and pulling the fish straight out.
The stone built cottage wasn’t smart but had panoramic views across the deep horseshoe bay. To the right dazzling white cubic houses with powder blue shutters and doors climb back onto the pungent oregano, sage and thyme covered hillside. To the left beautifully soft sand stretches around the bay, partly shaded by Tamarisk trees and dotted with pink and white Oleander bushes.
Sitting on the porch the crystal clear waters lap its edge and the only other sounds are occasional church bells, a distant tinkle of goat bells, a murmur from the nearby taverna, occasional clanks from moored sailing boats and the all pervading drone of cicadas.
The bay is a popular harbour for sailing boats and different flotillas arrive every evening along with the occasional multi-million dollar yacht. Watching inexperienced sailors anchoring their boats and zigzagging ashore in overloaded dinghies is a major entertainment highlight.
Our favourite of the five beachside tavernas was Yianni’s and we ate there most nights. Every sunset was toasted with a couple of glasses of ouzo from the porch; the sun slipping behind the hills, as first the swifts then the bats swoop passed snatching unsuspecting and unwelcome insects from the evening air. Then we would stroll along the beach to Yianni’s.
Taverna’s are the hub of life in any Greek community: Grandma is usually in the kitchen, mum races around organising everything and takes the cash, the kids are waiting tables and dad is in charge of chatting to friends and neighbours and quality testing the homemade retsina or ouzo. No one expects to be served quickly, don’t necessarily anticipate being able to decipher the menu and don’t be foolish enough to think you’ll get exactly what you ordered. But, you’re breathing warm, fragrant evening air, feeling sand under your feet, gazing at more stars than you ever thought possible, listening to the sea murmuring close by and watching fishing boats twinkling in the dark — just chill out, what’s the hurry, this is Greece.
I sigh and flop into my seat on the 7.30am ferry from Piraeus to Sifnos, I now feel I’ve really arrived in Greece. The smart Athens airport and the would-be racing driver of the 96X shuttle bus could be anywhere else - but the port, with its dozens of ferries all lined up and raring to go, could only be Greece.
The inter-island ferry network is probably the most efficient and reliable service sector in Greece and weather permitting, they run like clockwork. They’re like a national bus service with routes that can take you to any island although you may have to change boats for a connecting destination. They’re not as quick as flying but are more spacious, much more interesting and much, much cheaper.
International ferry connections with Italy, Egypt, Israel and even Greece’s old adversary Turkey are possible. But Greek island hopping has a cache all of its own - on a par with visiting the Taj Mahal or trekking to Everest base camp but without the hassle or the effort.
Island hopping is easy, although a little daunting if you’re on a tight schedule – because they wait for no one. Some routes can be booked on the web, although the booking fee can cost more than the ticket or simply walk into one of dozens of ticket agents at every harbour and buy as you go.
I’m relaxing with a coffee on board Minoan lines ‘High Speed 1’ as it glides out of Piraeus on the dot of 7.30; it’s a hydrofoil, so it’s twice the price but takes half the time of a standard ferry. Within minutes we are cruising through the dazzling blue waters of the Aegean; passing Aegina with little fishing boats bobbing in our wake and barren uninhabited islets that make up Greece’s improbable total of 2,000 islands.
There’s a café, TV room, lounge and a business cabin but this is a ferry not a cruise ship; its part of the essential lifeblood of small island communities scattered over thousands of square miles of the Mediterranean. Dozens of trucks are crammed onto the lower deck - piled with building materials, food and household goods. Upstairs most passengers are equally laden with boxes, bags, but you’ve got to be impressed by the guy carting a fridge and the family struggling with various items of furniture.
All the Greek passengers seem to know each other, their kid’s race around like demented chickens, old men sit flipping their worry beads while others sprawl out to sleep the routine journey away.
Greece really is all things to all men; it has everything from the unsavoury and seriously down-market 18-30 resorts of Faliraki on Rhodes or Kavos on Corfu to luxury villas, hotels and multimillion-dollar yachts. But neither of these extremes of alcohol-fuelled debauchery or luxury seclusion is the real Greece.
A third of the population live in Athens but the heart of Greece is in the small island communities. Each is a little different but all have a common thread of culture that is impossible to mistake. The best way to identify an island that is likely to have retained its Greek culture and traditions is to check that no charters fly there. A small domestic airstrip is usually OK but even better if there is no airport at all and that means taking a ferry.
As our ferry pulls into Sifnos, part of the western Cyclades, trucks and passengers start spilling onto the quay within minutes. Vehicles and passengers jostle for precedence on the ramp, dodging each other in that refreshing but hair-raising ‘sort yourselves out’ attitude of Greece.
There’s a unique sense of bustle and excitement when boarding a night sleeper train, especially in a foreign country. I know it’s mainly down to the cultural imaginations of Agatha Christie and James Bond, but still, there’s a novel tingle of expectation.
My night train to Vienna left Krakow at 9.59 on the dot. My sole occupancy cabin was a 91-euro reservation/supplement and was good value as it saved a night’s hotel cost and ate up the miles to Vienna without my noticing it.
Once settled into my cabin I get off, like almost everyone else, and stare up and down the platform as if expecting a sudden last minute message or some forgotten lover to rush up to me. Clearly I’ve been watching too many old B/W films.
I lock my cabin door just in case some murder mystery adventure happens before Vienna - but it doesn’t.
There are few luxury frills on public night trains but I still find they are an excellent way to travel. The cabin was around 8 x 10 feet with a curtain to hide clothes and bags, two high shelves, a wall cabinet, a shelf with a sink and water within, electric sockets and reading lights. There was no dining car, because most people have recently had dinner and in-cabin refreshments consist of bottled water, an apple drink, croissant and a Mars bar.
The toilet is at the end of the carriage and I didn’t sleep deeply but dozed regularly, the real joy of a cabin is the privacy and the ability to stretch out and be comfortable.
Half an hour before we arrive the guard brings a wake up cup of coffee and then it’s Vienna - the city of Johann Strauss, elegant waltzes, dancing horses, Sachertorte, strudel and for me the best bratwurst ever.
Train travel has so much more to offer the traveller than simply getting from A to B; some train journeys are adventures in themselves, invariably generating good memories and they can be a vacation in themselves.
It doesn’t involve the tremendous hassle of airport queues nor does it have the monotonous uniformity of air travel where you’re anonymously processed like a piece of labelled cargo - strapped into a seat until you can be off-loaded.
I’ll take the train over the plane any day. Here are some useful tips:
InterRail have an excellent website for planning journeys and they can book necessary reservations for sleeper trains and high-speed routes. Non-EU residents buy a Eurail pass which is basically the same and has some useful advantages
Download the really useful InterRail planning app (and route map) which works on iPhone and Android devices and is great for checking times and routes whilst travelling
Planning pays off if you want a leisurely and comfortable trip, especially pre-booking at least the first nights accommodation at each destination
Use overnight trains to save on accommodation costs and minimise perceived travelling time, but there are supplements to pay
For short trips between destinations it may sometimes be sensible to take a bus or buy a local train ticket and save a rail pass travel day for longer journeys
Although you can usually take as much luggage as your like, its sensible to pack light and only take one bag to reduce transit hassle
Decent restaurant carriages are very rare so buy your favourite picnic food and drink for long journeys and skip the overpriced and invariably poor fare from the snack trolley
Whatever it is that you enjoy at home for relaxation - reading, music, games, films - take some with you for long journeys or station waitsYou can reserve seats at any station on your day of travel, but during high season (June-September) reserve seats as far in advance as possible if you need to travel on a specific train - especially French TGV, Thalys and sleeper trains
For maximum flexibility check the InterRail website option to search routes and timetables for trains that don’t need reservations