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A Cretan Odyssey | Part 5 – Spinalonga, The Island of No Return

As my last few posts have hopefully demonstrated, the bay of Mirabello in Eastern Crete is every bit as beautiful as the name suggests. And yet its coastline, fractured by little spin-offs of mini mountain islands tracing the coast yet a water’s breadth apart, holds a darker, more ugly secret: Spinalonga. The name sounds like the setting for a fairy tale – a spindle perhaps, upon whose thorny point a princess pricks her finger. But this is no fairy island. It is a place which, up until as recently as 1957, was an island cut off from the mainland not just by sea but by law and stigma: it was the home of Crete’s leper colony, an exile for those afflicted with history’s most devastating illness.

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Those of you who have read Victoria Hislop’s bestselling novel, The Island, will already know about Spinalonga. Once a fortified stronghold created by the Venetian occupiers of Crete and later taken over by the Ottomans, it was put to use as an island on which to keep leper suffers forcibly separated from the rest of society. Once diagnosed as having the condition, suffers would be flagrantly torn from their families and shipped off to the island. Few would ever leave it.

As Hislop describes, as the decades went on, Spinalonga went from an utterly savage backwater completely devoid of civilisation to a thriving little town in its own right fit with electricity, shops, a theatre, even a hairdresser. And when the discovery of a cure for leprosy meant that the island was finally abandoned in 1957, all of that civilisation was forsaken to the elements. It was in that state of utmost dilapidation that we found Spinalonga when we took a boat from nearby Eloundia to visit this most dejected of locations.

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Barren, sun-roasted and rocky, the island on one side was little more than a fortified wall with stark cactus-filled cliffs. However turn landwards and amongst the rubble you could start to see the ghosts of former houses, their shutters half hanging on rusty hinges and their contents long since pillaged. Stone staircases were collapsed under the weight of fallen rubble and punctuated by weeds; the bare bones of wooden beams indicated where once a roof had stood. There is no doubting the feeling of melancholia and claustrophobia which pervades this small tumbledown space, yet few could deny the beauty which was also visible in the stark contrast between rubble and ramshackle, and the stunning turquoise seas which surround the island, and cut it off from the rest of the world.

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We left Spinalonga utterly captivated by the historical significance and emotional impact of the leper island. You cannot escape the sadness which permeates the very fabric of this island of imprisonment and social rebuff. Yet across the Cretan winds, uplifted by the deep ultramarine blue of the island’s surroundings, there is the smallest hint of hope – for Spinalonga’s desertion indicated mankind’s dominance over a disease which had ravaged millions since the beginning of time. And that is surely a cause for celebration.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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A Cretan Odyssey | Part 4 – Nymph Beach and other wonders

When we had had our fill of our perfectly proportioned, utterly private pool (when that was possible – it actually amounted to being dragged away by the fear that we might otherwise be addressed as the kind of philistine pool-huggers who see nothing of the countries they visit on holiday) we only had to stroll 5 minutes down a little lemon and pomegranate tree lined lane to get to the beach. And what a beach it was. Utterly secluded, populated only by the small number of guests from a nearby hotel, a walk some 10 metres along the shingle shore meant complete privacy in waters as clear as Evian. We became accustomed to visiting the beach both first thing in the morning and in the dying light of day. On both occasions there was a tangible magic to the place as the sun, either in its rise or its descent, sent golden sparkles bouncing across the mirror-like waters. It felt mystical, as though Apollo, god of music and harmony, were present.

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Characterised by its rocky promontory, the beach was cosy, enclosed, a safe harbour from winds and an utterly magical place to be. But the mere presence of that promontory had our explorer’s curiosity peeked, and it wasn’t long before we started expiring the cliff tops, an entire plateau covered with olive trees and harsh stones, an ancient biblical landscape tinged with the gold of the Cretan sunshine. We trekked through the landscape, unsure what we would find as the cliffs undulated down to the sea. What we never expected to discover was another beach. This one caught between the dramatic overlap of rocky outcrops and descending hills.

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The beach was perfect. It was completely private. Not a sole around, no one in sight, apart from the mystery of a lone towel abandoned on the shore. That mystery was solved a few minutes later as a lady, perfectly toned, wonderfully naked, appeared on the horizon and glided steadily towards the shore. As she approached the edge of the beach she rose from the water, the sparkling sea sliding off her perfectly tanned and silky skin, and she reclined upon that same towel, almost oblivious to our presence. This was no human. Surely this was a nymph, so perfectly was her body adjusted to the molten waters of the bay.

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We strongly felt that we had entered some kind of mystical place when we swam out away from the shore and came face to face with towering craggy cliffs backlit by the descending sun. Once again Apollo’s touch was here, and when we turned back to shore, no sign remained of the nymph, as though the apparition of her fleeting presence had dissipated into the heady evening air. But we never doubted her existence. Nor the magical moment of our visit to what we now know as Nymph Beach. I won’t tell you where it is. Only that it exists, ripe for discovery by those curious enough to find it.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

A Cretan Odyssey | Part 3 – The Paradise Pool on Mirabello Bay

The weather in Crete was peculiar for the summertime. We basked in sunshine most of the time, but always looming close by, like the sword of Damocles threatening to unload itself on our holiday, were dark clouds foretelling of dramatic thunder. Perhaps we should not have been surprised – Crete is the birthplace of Zeus after all, so why shouldn’t he be able to throw a thunderbolt or two down on his homeland, just for reasons of pure nostalgia? Hugging Poseidon’s coast seemed to protect us from Zeus’s sport, but as we drove deeper into the mountains, our encounter with storms was guaranteed. It was under one such dramatic downpour, and having traversed the island from Chania in the West to Agios Nikolaos in the East, that we arrived into the lush, humid valley of our new location near Istron. What we found there may have been wet (but perfumed by the utterly, verdantly fresh fragrance characteristic of post summer rain), but as we arrived at our villa and home for the remainder of our holiday, we knew that we had arrived in paradise.

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A little self-contained house on two floors with lounges upstairs and down looked onto the most incredible views over Mirabello Bay. There was an indication of other villas nearby, but the lush vegetation meant we felt utterly secluded in this mountainous Elysium… and as we were to learn, the nearby villas were sparsely occupied. But best of all was our pool. 4 by 6 metres of joyous, turquoise happiness all to ourselves. We could swim by day, we could swim by night. It was like a painting by Hockney come alive for our sole and exclusive enjoyment.

Before we could even unpack our beachwear, we inflated our must-have flamingo inflatable, as well as his baby (niftily designed to hold a drink). Ian Flemingo, as he became known, was a welcome point of additional colour in a landscape which we gazed over in awestruck wonder every morning, lunch, night, dusk and dawn during the four days that followed. And when we had had enough of our pool (not that we ever truly could), it was a mere 5 minute stroll down the lane to the private beach of the swanky hotel in whose grounds our villa was located. The beach, like the valley, was like a mythical paradise to behold…but more about that another day. 

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In the words of Coldplay, this was para…para…paradise, and the dazzling, sparkling cerulean rectangle of happiness that was our pool played centre-stage. 

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

A Cretan Odyssey | Part 2 – Chania’s Labyrinth

Crete is an ancient land. Its very rocks breathe a thousand tales of nymphs and satyrs, of the birth of Zeus and the anger of Pasiphaë. But the most famous tale of all is spun from the endless twists and turns of the renowned labyrinth, built by master craftsman Daedalus to house the bloodthirsty Minotaur, bastard son of King Minos’ queen. There, somewhere in the labyrinthine grounds of the great Palace of Knossos, Ariadne spun her thread to lead Theseus out of the complex maze, but only after his bravery put the Minotaur to death. Today, there remain many theories about exactly what shape the labyrinth might have taken; some even suggest it was the Palace of Knossos itself. However, one things is certain in modern day Crete: head to the utterly quaint, twisting and convoluted streets of Chania’s old town, and you will feel like you have found the ancient relics of Daedalus’ mastery.

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We adored Chania. How could it be otherwise? With cosy little streets, strung with canopies of the pinkest bougainvillea, offset against yellow, blue and dusky pink houses and white-edged cobbled streets, it is a town of picture-perfect quality. Everything about the archetype of postcard Greece is embodied here: the bright blue rickety wooden chairs set outside cafes and tavernas serving Greek salad on blue and white checked table clothes, wine in terracotta pitchers, and lazy cats strewn languidly across the streets in the afternoon sun. Unlike many places which have fallen foul of the ravages of tourism, Chania has upped its game. Its shops and restaurants are positively up-market; there is a real feeling of Capri town or the Amalfi Coast about this town. And our unbroken record of finding perfect eateries, night after night, only confirmed the consistent quality of the place.

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So while Chania’s true highlight may be its dazzling Venetian harbour, just behind the front line of seaside houses, this maze of quaint alleyways will ensnare with equal charm. This is one labyrinth to enthusiastically get lost in. 

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

A Cretan Odyssey | Part 1 – Chania’s Venetian Harbour

You’ll excuse the long absence of The Daily Norm from your inboxes and browsers: We’ve been on an adventure; an Odyssey if you like, to the birthplace of Zeus and the land of the entrapped Minotaur, haunt of Olympian gods and roaming mystical beasts. For as the year rolls on and the summer reaches a glorious pinnacle, our 2018 travels continue – we’re off to the delectable Greek island of Crete.

Laced with mythological connotations, imbued with the smell of wild oregano, and jangling to the sound of wild goats and the sea which swishes upon its mammoth mountainous coastline, Crete is one of the longest continuously inhabited and historically relevant of all European destinations, as well as one of the Southernmost located. Yet for our summer holiday, it provided all of the luxuries, the aesthetics and the charm that could possibly be required of a modern holiday. Daily Norm readers: I welcome you, to Crete.

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We start our adventure in Crete’s second city: Chania. Sprawling along the coast on the North-Western side of the island, Chania doesn’t feel like a city at all when you’re nestled inside the ancient walls of its richly-encircled old town. The sensation is one of a quaint little village, with picturesque roaming streets winding steadily down to a waterfront which is the beating heart of the city.

This harbour, so called Venetian because of time of its construction under the dictate of La Serenissima, is understandably the focal point for the city. It is alive at all hours with the bustle of its bars and restaurants whose collective unity beguiles the visitor with a harmonious panoply of sun-drenched little buildings hugging the shore. It is a waterfront which sparkles and ripples as water bounces off the crystal clear sea and makes fun of the straight lines adjacent, and a place imbued with a historical ambience translated through the presence of ancient stone houses and cobbled pavements. But pulling focus on the harbour is undoubtedly the Küçük Hasan Pasha Mosque, a leftover from Ottoman rule, and which today looks like a perfectly balanced candy-pink blancmange which turns ever so butterscotch in the golden evening sun. 

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We were lucky: our hotel room enjoyed the most stunning balcony views over this harbour, affording us the opportunity to revel in the changing faces of Chania’s ancient heart as it metamorphosed from slow and sleepy morning village to a bustling evening spectacle whose lights sparkled across the deep inky waters. We saw its colours dance vividly in the morning sun, and bathed in the golden light of early evening. And we breathed the deliriously fresh seawater perfume which pervaded the entire harbour, morning till night.

Chania’s Venetian harbour was the perfect way to commence our Cretan Odyssey, promising great things were in store from this island of plenty.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Sicily Inspires: Baroque Suite at the Palazzo Trigona

I cannot agree with those who say it is unimportant where you stay on holiday. “It’s only where you sleep” they proclaim, while bedding down into a threadbare hostel with more cockroaches than fellow guests. For me, the accommodation acts as a kind of spinal cord of a holiday from which all other experiences branch off; it is the place where the real rest takes place, those moments of marvellous contemplation, and where you can truly feel at home in a strange city. So for me where you stay on holiday is very important, all the more so because these places so often inspire me to paint.

Having started making gouache illustrations of hotels and hotel rooms back on my 2015 honeymoon, I have carried on the tradition in places such as Granada, Rome and Marrakech. And Noto in southern Italy was never going to be an exception, especially when we saw the splendour of the suite in which we found ourselves at the Palazzo Trigona Suites, just next to Noto’s iconic cathedral.

Noto is a city awash with baroque detail and architectural grandeur, and so it felt appropriate that we would be housed in a room which exhibited wonderful high ceilings, a stately black and white chequerboard floor, and all number of design flourishes befitting the period. Such was the grandiosity of the room that we took to playing baroque classical music whenever we were in situ, and against that erudite background I sat down to create this gouache painting.

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Baroque Suite at the Palazzo Trigona (gouache on paper, ©2017, Nicholas de Lacy-Brown)

Featuring the understated tones of grey and gold which made up the room’s design, as well as that wonderful floor and accompanying furniture, the highlight of the painting is the room’s view, looking onto the Chiesa Madre di San Nicolò Cathedral, the side profile of which dominates the piece. It’s a work which feels very different from my illustrations which have gone before it, which seems about right. After all, there’s no place quite so magnificently, baroquely, like Noto.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. For more information on the artwork of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown, visit http://www.delacybrown.com 

The Sicily Series | Part II – La Pescheria, Soul of the City

You can smell Catania’s famous daily fish market, Le Pescheria, long before you approach it… that unmistakable smell of the sea tinged by an ever so decipherable pungency of putrid flesh together with the fresh zing of lemon, the fragrant perfume of fresh herbs and the pure scent of water, the neutral base note which both reflects and is imbued with the distinctive nature of the surrounding area. In Catania, that is a smell which is characterised by the scorching heat absorbed into and evaporating off the dark lava stone walls of its ancient Etna-born palazzos. Follow the scent, past the resplendent Baroque Duomo, and you find yourself in Catania’s burgeoning and frankly raucous market, starting with the abundance of locally caught fish, and spreading outward into the streets beyond where stalls loaded with fruit and vegetables, herbs and spices, bread and cheeses populate every spare inch of the pavements.

The famous fish market

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I have been to many wonderful European markets. Each have their own character, and every one of them is utterly captivating for the breadth of fresh produce and characterful salesmen. But Catania’s market feels more historical and more authentic than any I have visited. Gathered together among the foundations of ancient Roman ruins and decaying Medieval walls, the stalls of the fish market are collectively transportative, with the power to recall the bustle of a Roman Forum or a scene from the Renaissance. The market takes us back to the roots of modern civilisation, stripping back our senses to a basic appreciation of nature at its best: enviably fresh fish, sensationally plump vegetables, none of them the result of quality control but a product of nature’s caprice. And beyond the produce, perhaps the best thing about Catania’s market is its people, the fishermen and stall holders who are so full of passion, who will declare strong and loud that their fish is the best, outdoing one another to see who can attract the most attention, and secure the quickest sales of their freshly acquired catch.

To be accompanied by some super-fresh fruit and veg… (and cheese)

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All of this combines to make a visit to Catania’s market an ultimately thrilling experience, full of noise, of smells, and of colour; shades of pink and red and green and blue whose vibrancy truly shines against a backdrop of black lava stone. This is street theatre at its thrilling best, as fishermen slice open slithering fish and proudly display their decapitated fish heads while elegantly dressed women totter in heels, neatly stepping over pools of water stained with blood. Catania is a city with real spirit and an abundance of outwardly expressed emotion, but it is perhaps in its market where Catania’s soul truly resonates.

…and some more fish

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Another walk one early Tuscan morning: Corn fields and pine trees

I love walking, perhaps you’ve noticed. I trace the passion back to my 2008 accident and the two years of limited movement which resulted. When finally I lost my crutches, I realised for the first time the very simple joy of being able to walk. What a liberty to be able to walk wherever your feet may take you, one that most take for granted but which we all should cherish, especially when those legs take you somewhere as beautiful as the Tuscan countryside.

On the way to the pine tree forest

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The last walk I described passed through the ravishing local vineyards whose striped embodiment of leafy lanes roll leisurely over the nearby hills. But turn the other way, and a landscape of equal enticement spreads out for the offering, one of corn fields and olive trees which back onto what in the coastal town of Donoratico is a locally iconic wood of pine trees running all the way long the sea. This dense collection of the umbrella pines which are an iconic element of the Tuscan landscape make for an incredible sight, not least from within where a glance upwards unveils a ceiling of semi-transparent pine needles punctuated with light. Meanwhile and endless collection of pine tree columns is like a cathedral of wood which apparently spreads forwards for an eternity.

Within the woods

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There is something about a wood which is deeply, sensuously mysterious, drawing you in, albeit with some trepidation as to what lies within. We adored our time wandering through this lofty space, where we stumbled upon crazily shaped fallen trees and shards of light breaking through the pine tree canopy. But best of all things was the treat at the end, as the final archway of trees led directly onto a wide sandy beach and the turquoise sea beyond.

Breaking out 

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Tuscan Towns #3 – Casale Marittimo

Driving along on the slower (and far more beautiful) inner coastal road from Castagneto towards Livorno, you may notice on the hills beyond the acres of vineyards a perfectly formed little town perched up at a height. Small as a toy town but quaint in every respect, there is very little in Casale to place it on the tourist map, but with its cute little central square and an endearing piccolo church I defy it not to please any visitor to the max. But for us Casale was not about the uniquely formed sloping streets or the picture-perfect micro-shops. It was about the views, and one very special lunch spent appreciating them.

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At the Osteria L’impronta, we enjoyed one of those lunches that will linger a long, long time in the memory. With the most incredible private terrace all to ourselves, a soundtrack of jazz, sun rays bouncing off the table’s edge and an endless supply of wine produced on the very land whose spectacular appearance we spent our whole meal admiring, it was like a lunch from a legendary time of utopia. The kind of occasion writers conjure up and artists swoon over. And then there was food – a mix of perfectly al dente pasta, crusty bread with deep golden olive oil, and unctuously rich cinghiale (wild boar) from the surrounding landscape. All combined to make this lunch the culinary high point of our holiday, and a true homage to this legendary region of Tuscany.

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. 

Tuscan Towns #2 – Bolgheri

Bolgheri is a tiny town, more of a hamlet really, based as it is along one main street which latterly converges into two, a sunny square and a row of delightful little houses and restaurants precipitating the divide. For the majority, the closest they will come to knowing Bolgheri will be to read its name upon one of the plethora of nectarean bottles of wine produced by the region every year. Yet for the lucky few, who are led, magnetised, down the perfectly straight cypress-lined Roman road to the tiny little village, finding Bolgheri will feel like stumbling upon a hidden jewel.

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While Bolgheri has a castle, it is as proportionately small as the village. It is not a place for museums, nor a city for those wishing to stroll endlessly from one new corner to another. No, the real attraction of Bolgheri is its atmosphere. It is enchanting. While a visit at any time of the day will be enthralling enough, there is a poetic grace about Bolgheri in the late afternoon, as the sun starts to set over the vineyards and rolling hills to the West, and every cafe and shop and house seems to fling open its shutters greedily urging the peach coloured light to spill into its small little terracotta buildings.

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Bolgheri in the afternoon is a place in which to sit and close your eyes, feeling the sunlight spill across your face. It is a village where sipping upon an aperol spritz takes on new majesty, and where an ice cream glimmers with a precious golden aura. It is a time which is all about relaxing, chatting, strolling, thinking, and if I wanted to do anything when I set out to take these photos, it was to capture this time of utopia. So apologies in advance to the fellow visitors who ended up in the photos on this post, but without the look of sheer pleasure and relaxation written all over their faces, I don’t think I could ever have properly expressed the blissful experience of an afternoon in Bolgheri.

© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.