Monday, June 23, 2008

Ardnamurchan - Kilchoan and Mingary Castle

Kilchoan, the most Westerly village on mainland Great Britain, is the largest settlement on the Ardnamurchan peninsula and pretty much the closest thing to the city lights that you'll find for miles; I mean, it has a shop, a garage, a hotel and even a tourist information office. It also has a car-ferry terminal from where you can catch the boat over to Tobermory on Mull and, with seven crossings a day during the Summer months, it's obviously a popular route. The shop, a life-line to anyone staying in the area, is pretty well stocked and not over-priced and has a very decent range of beers and wines to pass away the solitude of cottage life.

Mingary CastleMingary Castle

We drove on down to the tourist information office, which lies on the road down to the ferry terminal, and had a bit of lunch in the small café in there. It wasn't bad either - home-made soup, rolls, buns, etc.; what else do you need for a quick snack to keep you going in the middle of the day? From there it's a short drive down to the pier where there are some good views out over the Sound of Mull and back over to the ruins of Mingary Castle, which lies about a mile round the bay from Kilchoan.

Built in the 13th century for the MacIains of Ardnamurchan, the castle sits atop a rocky outcrop in Kilchoan Bay overlooking the entrance to Loch Sunart and the Sound of Mull. Like most Scottish castles of that era, it's had a pretty eventful history from being used by James IV in the late 15th century to help him suppress the MacDonalds, the Lords of the Isles and in the early 16th century it was besieged and taken by the MacDonalds of Lochalsh.

Mingary CastleMingary Castle

In 1588 the Macleans of Duart on Mull captured the castle with some involvement from a ship of the Spanish Armada en-route back home after their failed invasion of England. In the 17th century the castle was captured during the Wars of the Covenant and during the 1745 Jacobite rebellion it served as a government garrison. Today, it's in pretty poor repair and access to the interior of the castle is restricted for fear of causing someone an injury.

Getting to the castle involves either a trek round the shore from the pier or you can drive out just East of the village where you'll find a small track leading down a place where you can park and then walk down to the castle. Needless to say, we chose the easy route as the weather wasn't that great and we fancied wandering further along towards Ben Hiant, which is the highest peak in the area.

Ben HiantBen Hiant

After a bit of clamber down to the beach from the castle and pottering about a bit on the rocks, we did indeed wander further along the track towards Ben Hiant and the weather had brightened up a bit so we got some good views of the hill and across to the Island of Mull. It's a pity it wasn't as nice earlier or we'd have probably gone to the top of the hill as the views out over the Sound of Mull are supposed to be excellent.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ardnamurchan - The Lighthouse And Bay MacNeill

Ardnamurchan LighthouseArdnamurchan Lighthouse

If you're in or around Ardnamurchan, then a visit out to the 36 metre high, pink granite lighthouse on Ardnamurchan Point is a must-do. The lighthouse was built in 1849 by engineer Alan Stevenson, the uncle of writer Robert Louis Stevenson, and it's the only lighthouse in the UK built in the Egyptian style. It's also commonly described as the most Westerly point on the British mainland but it's not quite. A wee hillock about a kilometre to the South called Corrachadh Mòr is the real most westerly point.

You can reach the lighthouse by means of the single-track road just beyond Achosnich and at one stage it's controlled by traffic lights due to a blind corner going round a cliff edge just before you reach the car park. For the more adventurous, there's a path leading over from Portuairk, past the sandy beach at Bay MacNeill and which joins the road near the lighthouse.

The Small IslesThe Small Isles

It's all automated now but it houses an exhibition called the Kingdom of Light and, for a fee, you can climb the spiral stairs to the top of the tower to get a view of the surrounding sea and landscape. Close-by, there's also a small tea room and shop which does a decent range of scones and cakes. The electricity supply was fluctuating badly on one of our visits and I think we were lucky to get a hot cup of tea at all; the place was on battery power and the traffic lights were out of action, which led to a few head-head confrontations on the narrow road.

There are good views out over the Small Isles of Muck, Eigg and Rùm and we drove round there a few times. We even ended up down on the very small beach and scrabbling around looking for cowries; found a few too!

Bay MacNeillDozing On The Beach At Bay MacNeill

On a better day, we took the path from Portuairk up over the hill and got some really good views out over Ardnamurchan Point and out to the islands. We dropped down from there into the valley beside Sgurr nam Meann and followed the stream down to Bay MacNeill, a largish beach of white sand and rock. However, the weather was so nice, we ended up just staying on the beach with me running around with the camera and Lorna having a doze in the sun.

Ardnamurchan PointArdnamurchan Point

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Ardnamurchan - Portuairk

We spent a week on the Ardnamurchan peninsula this Summer, staying in the wee hamlet of Portuairk. Ardnamurchan, the most Westerly tip of the British mailnland, is also one of the last unspoilt places on the British mainland; a place of white sandy beaches, rolling hills and even a volcano or two.

Sunset From PortuairkArdnamurchan Sunset

Getting There

Getting to Ardnamurchan is fairly easy, if a bit onerous as far as the driving goes. We drove up the A82 to Nether Lochaber, which lies about nine miles south of Fort William, and took the Corran Ferry across Loch Linnhe to Ardgour. This avoids the much longer route that you can take by heading up to Fort William and heading along the A830 and cutting off onto the A861 at Kinlocheil or continuing on to Lochailort and then taking the A861 down to Salen; either way, it's a long drive.

From the ferry, there's 13 miles of decent road until you get to Strontian and then a horrible 35 miles of single-track road to Achosnich passing through Kilchoan, the largest village in the area. I don't mind driving on single-track roads, in fact I quite like it as it means you have to concentrate on driving, but 35 miles of this really windy and rolly road at an average speed of about 25 m.p.h. is very, very wearing. From Achosnich, it's only a few more miles to Portuairk and we were very glad to see it.


Portuairk (Port of the Wild Boar)

Portuairk, which claims the honour of being the most Westerly settlement on the Scottish mainland, consists of only a handful or two of small cottages at one end of Sanna Bay. There's not a lot else to say about it other than it's a very pleasant little place with a natural harbour, protected from the worst of the weather and where the locals keep a few boats tied up, and it's surrounded by hills. Oh, and it's ruled by the flock of sheep that roam all over the grassy areas surrounding that end of the bay.

The nearest shop is in Kilchoan but it's fairly well stocked and the prices aren't that bad at all. for eating out, there's the Sonachan Hotel just past Achosnich and the Kilchoan House Hotel in Kilchoan. There's also a week tea-room in the Kilchoan Tourist Office and another out at Ardnamurchan Point but that's about unless you want to venture a fair way back along that single-track road.


We rented a cottage right down on the beach front, called simply The Bungalow, from a company based in Kilchoan and which I found online. They have a fair number of properties for rent on Ardnamurchan and, sad though it is, there seem to be more holiday homes there than those occupied by locals. The cottage was plainly furnished but reasonably well kitted out and it even had Sky TV, although that may have been because the chances of getting terrestrial TV out there was probably remote.

Portuairk BeachPortuairk Beach

As with most of these holiday cottages, it was really too big for just the two of us and could take six easily but that's the price of a quiet week in the countryside. With a decent sea view, the sunset shot above was taken from the front door, the beach only a few yards away, hills close by and absolutely no hustle or bustle, it suited us just fine and proved an ideal base from which to explore Ardnamurchan.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Crete - Heraklion

It was time for a break from beaches and archaeological sites on Crete so we hopped on the bus and headed into Heraklion for the day. Heraklion is the largest city and the capital of the island. It's had a fairly mixed history; Probably a port for the city of Knossos during Minoan times, the city proper was founded by the Saracens back in 824 A.D., then passed into the hands of the Byzantine Empire who then sold it on to the Venetians, who called it Candia. After them, it passed into the Ottoman Empire and they eventually made it a republic until it was given over to Greece in 1913. So it's had Minoans, Arabs, Romans, Venetians, Turks and Greeks in control of it over the centuries.

Castello del Molo (Koules)Castello del Molo, also called Koules

We'd been to the city on a previous visit and had spent most of that day in the archaeological museum. It wasn't the plan at the time but the museum is huge and it takes a long time to wander through all of it. Most of the good stuff from all of the ancient sites around the island has ended up here so it's worth a visit if you're interested in that kind of thing. Anyway, we'd already done that so this day was for a more general wander around.

The bus station is quite close to the harbour so that's where we headed first with the intention of visiting the Castello del Molo, which dominates the entrance to the Venetian harbour tand is also known as the Rocca a Mare and the Koules Fortress. This version was built around 1523-1540 to protect the enclosed harbour and predates the second Venetian fortifications around the city. We had a good old wander around the fortress, both inside and out, and it offers some excellent views out over the city, against the backdrop of the Idi mountains. Closer to the harbour, you can see the enormous Venetian shipyards or arsenals, which were used to house and build ships.

Morosini FountainMorosini Fountain

After lunch in a seriously busy restaurant just up from the harbour, we wandered up the 25th of August Street, heading for Eleftherias Square. On the way, we stopped in the little El Greco Park and passed the impressive Byzantine cathedral of St. Titus as well as a host of architecturally beautiful buildings. We also stopped at Lionaria Square, which is home to the beautiful Morosini Fountain but it was being renovated and was both incomplete and difficult to see. We eventually ended up at Eleftherias Square, a huge open square but not particularly interesting.

Agios TitosAgios Titos

From there we headed over to the St. George's Gate on the Venetian city walls, which was used as the main route between the city and the port. It's now used mainly as an art exhibition venue. We also had a brief detour around the nearby little Georgiadis Park before heading back to the bus station and out to Hersonissos.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Starship Troopers 3: Marauder

The war against the Bugs continues and, after the abyssmal effort that was Starship Troopers 2, we're being treated to a third installment - Starship Troopers 3: Marauder. However, with this one it looks like they've gone back to the same cheesey formula that made Starship Troopers such a hit.

The plot is fairly simple - when a Federation starship containing Earth's beloved Sky Marshal Anoke (Stephen Hogan) crash-lands on a distant planet called simply OM-1, it's up to Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), the reluctant hero of the original Bug Invasion on Planet P, to lead a squad of Troopers on a daring rescue mission. The team have to battle both old and new bugs and the new “Marauder” advanced weapons technology may be their only hope against a treasonous element operating within the Federation itself. As Captain Lola Beck (Jolene Blalock) and the rest of the crew fight to survive in the harsh conditions, it begins to dawn on them that something on OM-1 is very, very wrong. This time the bugs have a secret weapon that could destroy humanity.

It must be reasonably good as Paul Verhoeven puts his name to it presenter. It's written and directed by Ed Neumeier and special effects are by Academy Award winning Robert Skotak (Terminator 2, Aliens, X2). Nice to see Casper Van Dien back as a much older and highly promoted Johnny Rico and along with a few other recognizable names including Jolene Blalock as the tough but gorgeous Captain Lola Beck, Amanda Donohoe as Admiral Enolo Phid and Catherine Oxenberg as a technician, we might actually get a half decent movie this time. It's due for a straight-to-video (DVD and Blue-ray) UK release at the end of September. See the trailer for it here...

Friday, June 13, 2008

Crete - Malia

With our three-day stint with the hire car over, we thought we'd take the local bus service along to Malia for the day. The buses run every 30 minutes during the day but there's no way of knowing when they'll turn up as all the times posted seem to indicate the time they leave Heraklion. There's a nice wee disclaimer at the bottom of the timetable stating that "any delays in service are due to traffic!". So twenty minutes later than when we thought a bus would come, one did…

Malia PalaceMalia Palace

Malia is a strange sort of resort town. Above the main road is the old town of Malia, where the locals live, and it's full of little windy streets and white houses; just what you'd expect from a little Greek village. However, below the main road is a different world; a hell on earth if you're our kind of tourist. The main strip down to the beach is a yob's paradise of English and Irish bars, all claiming to sell the cheapest and largest amounts of alcohol they can. Fancy a goldfish bowl full of synthetic alcohol? Yes, well you can buy as many as you can drink here in Malia.

We've stayed in Malia on two previous visits to the island but always in the off season, when it's quieter and the invasion of bar-crawling rabble is either over or hasn't begun. It's actually not a bad place to visit during those quieter periods. Anyway, the bus dropped us off in the centre of town and we headed East, walking about three kilometres out to visit the archaeological site of the Minoan Palace of Malia where, according to legend, Sarpedon, the third son of Zeus and Europa and brother of King Minos, ruled here. The first Palace was built around 1900 B.C. but destroyed in 1700 B.C. and a new Palace built but like all of the other Minoan palaces on Crete, that was destroyed in 1450 B.C. We'd been here before but it seemed a reasonable target for a short walk in the sun.

Tropical BeachTropical Beach

After an hour or so wandering around the ruins, taking the odd snap and chasing butterflies, we started wandering back towards Malia with the intention of getting a bit of lunch and then lazing about a bit on the beach. We found quite a nice little taverna along the coastal road and had a decent lunch before wandering over to the nearby beach for a bit of a lie about and maybe even a nap. It was a bit quieter there due to being a wee bit out of the town so we pretty much spent the rest of the afternoon there on the sand.

After a while we started back towards town, taking a detour to go via Malia Port. the little harbour along the way. We thought we'd maybe see a few old Greek fishing boats there but it's all gone modern now. Well, except for a few derelict looking bits of harbour machinery. Wandering back towards twon we spotted an old, ruined windmill and what looked like a very run down and abandoned water park.

Back in town we had a bit of a wander around to remind ourselves of the place and ended up down at sea again, looking out at the little island offshore with its obligatory wee white church. After that we found the bus stop, waiting over a hour for one to show up, and headed back to Hersonissos. You can see all of the pictures taken on this visit to Malia here.

An Island In The SunAn Island In The Sun

Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal SkullWe went to see the long-awaited fourth movie in the Indiana Jones series - Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.
The story is set in the Cold War era of 1957 with the Russians seeking to learn the arcane secrets of the universe. When their agents track a young man (Shia LaBeouf) carrying a coded message from a Professor Oxley (John Hurt) to Professor Henry "Indiana" Jones (Harrison Ford), they know they're onto something big.

Led by the thoroughly nasty Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett), the Russkies follow Jones and the young man, Mutt, to Peru. With Oxley's message decoded, Indiana and Mutt follow the trail to discover a legendary skull made of a single piece of crystal quartz and a possible clue to the whereabouts of Akator, also known as El Dorado, the City of Gold.

Of course, Spalko and her thugs aren't far behind and our heroes are captured and discover that they also have Oxley and Mutt's mother (Karen Allen), who turns out to be an old flame of Indiana's. The Russians believe the skull to be an alien artifact of great psychic significance and a source of immense knowledge. And so the fun begins with Indie and good guys escaping with the skull and trying to find out the secret of Akator while preventing the Russians from getting hold of it again.

Sure it was nice to see Harrison Ford back in the role of Indiana Jones and goodness knows we've waited long enough for this movie to get made. However, even with Steven Spielberg directing and a reasonably decent cast, this movie just doesn't live up to the reputation of the previous ones.

Can't really fault the cast. Ford is on form as Henry Jones, Blanchett is the archetypal bad guy (or gal), Hurt does his best bewildered professor bit as usual and even LeBeouf doesn't overdo it. Even Ray Winstone, playing a duplicitous character of no real import, manages to downplay his normal cockney barrow-boy image and do a decent bit of role -playing. To be honest we'd expect a bit of over-acting in an Indie movie but it's the unlikely stunts and action scenes that make it look bad - a sword fight taking place on two moving vehicles over rough terrain, using a snake as a rope, surviving a nuclear blast inside a fridge, a boat going over three waterfalls without anyone getting a scratch, etc.

I can't say it was bad as it thunders along at a decent if unlikely pace but it is by far the weakest Indie movie in the series. Even the plot involving crystal skulls, Russians, Incan treasure and aliens wasn't so bad either but it was so underwhelming after the big build-up it got and a 19-year wait. Wouldn't recommend it as a DVD purchase but it's worth a rental just to see Indiana Jones ride again, possibly for the last time. I don't imagine Harrison Ford will don the fedora and bull-whip again but young Mr. LeBeouf may well be being groomed as his successor. We can but wait and see but hopefully it won't take so long or suck so much next time.

Genre:Action, Adventure, Fantasy
My Rating: 6/10

Iron Man

Iron ManYet another Marvel Comics superhero takes to the big screen in Iron Man…

When brilliant technologist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) takes over his father's business empire, he does it with serious relish. Aided by his father's former partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), he takes the company from strength to strength whilst also living the life of a super-rich playboy.

However, a media stunt in the Middle East goes seriously wrong and he's badly wounded and captured by terrorists. With shrapnel moving inexorably nearer his heart and forced to work for the terrorists, designing and building them weapons, he instead builds himself a powered iron suit and escapes.

Realising the error of building weapons for anyone that can pay, and finding out that Obadiah has been selling arms to the terrorists, he shuts down his weapons plants and focusses on his new power supply and better designs for the suit. However that doesn't sit well with Obadiah, who doesn't care who gets hurt while he makes a buck and that's when things start to get nasty.

Iron Man was a character born out of the Cold War arms race during the 1960s with Tony Stark being modelled on brilliant industrialist and playboy Howard Hughes. Iron Man was a comic I read avidly as a boy and never would I have thought of casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark. Nothing he's ever done would make me think of him in a super-hero role but in this, he's brilliant. He plays Stark exactly as he should be - a brilliant engineer and millionaire playboy and it works perfectly.

It was nice to see Jeff Bridges, even it did take a while to recognise him with no hair (got it from the voice), as partner turned bad guy Obadiah Stane. Bridges plays the role very well as Stark's mentor turned power-crazed monster and, while Stark plays the field of starlets and models, his long suffering and silently adoring PA Pepper Potts is played pretty well by Gwyneth Paltrow.

All that aside the tale has all the usual elements that make an American action movie work - great visual effects, good battle scenes, bad guys that are both stupid and can't shoot and an arch baddie, or even two in this one. The technological gadgets are excellent as well; you'll believe a man can fly, or at least he can if he has rockets in his boots. The love interest between Stark and Potts is sideline material but it adds both amusing and tender moments to the mix.

Iron Man the movie is definitely up there with the best of the comic book conversions and well worth seeing if that kind of movie is your thing.

Genre: Action, Science Fiction
My Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Crete - Kritsa and Lato

With our visit to Mochlos cut short by the public holiday, we headed back towards Aghios Nikolaos and stopped off on the way at a little place called Festos Beach for something else to eat. There wasn't much there but a little hotel and café and a little beach but it looked pleasant enough to stop for a while. We had some real food to stave of the hunger pangs and then a wander around for a bit before deciding to head inland towards the village of Kritsa and, if time allowed, the archaeological site at Lato.

LatoThe Ruins of Lato

Kritsa is about 10km West of Aghios Nikolaos and is supposedly one the most picturesque villages on the island. Built on a hill and surrounded by olive groves, it certainly looks the part - all nice little white houses spread round the hill but it didn't grab us as interesting enough to stop. Maybe it was too late in the afternoon or a side effect of the public holiday but it seemed a bit on the quiet side so we opted to head out to Lato and see what it was like.

The narrow road from Kritsa to Lato feels like a long and winding one but we eventually got there with me worrying a bit about having enough fuel to get back to Hersonissos. Anyway, the road ends at Lato and as with Gournia earlier in the the day, it was closed for the holiday but luckily the gates had been left open.

The city of Lato was built in a fairly defensible position overlooking the Gulf of Mirabello and between two peaks. The ruins date back to the Dorian period, about the fourth or fifth century B.C., although it was probably built earlier than that and in its day, it was one of the most powerful cities on the island. The ruins are spread over terraces on the hillside and include walls, houses, a theatre, a temple and shops and the views out over the gulf and down to the modern city of Aghios Nikolaos are excellent.

LatoThe Ruins of Lato

Lato is one of the best excavated Greek cities on Crete and the ruins are impressive by any standard so it's well worth visiting. It is however not Minoan, which means it doesn't get as much tourist traffic as the more popular archaeological sites like Knossos, Malia or Phaestos so it's a much quieter place. There were a few other people around while we were there but it is very quiet, the most noise coming from the bells tied to the goats that you can see climbing around on the hillside. It's a bit of a clamber but you can climb almost all the way to the top of one of the peaks and get a really good view but take care, the drop on one side is precipitous.

Our hired car was due back that night so after a good wander around the city and a bit of a rest, we headed back to the modern world. Tomorrow. we planned to get the bus to Malia.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Crete - Mochlos

After an hour or so wandering around the ruins of Gournia we headed East for the little village of Mochlos, also called Mokhlos or Mohlos,which Lorna said had one of the view accessible beaches on that part of the coast. Mochlos is located about 5km off and below the main road and it's a fairly steep road down to it but the drive is pleasant enough.

Mochlos IslandMochlos Island

Mochlos' claim to fame here is not for the village or its nice wee bay but for the little island of the same name just offshore with its archaeological site of an ancient Minoan settlement. All there seems to be there now though is the little white church of Agios Nikolaos. However, we weren't there for the ruins as we'd just done that at Gournia and all we wanted to do here was to laze by the sea and have a bit of lunch. Boy were we to be disappointed…

It was May 1st and that's a big public holiday on Crete so, for the same reason that Gournia was closed, Mochlos was absolutely packed with Cretan families. The village was full of cars so finding a parking spot took ages and bear in mind that these wee streets are only wide enough for one car at a time. Okay we got parked and then went on the hunt for some lunch but that too was a waste of time as everywhere was full of munching Greeks. Not normally a problem but these guys know how to enjoy a meal and with lots of large tables full, the restaurant staff were really under pressure.

Useful ContainerUseful Container

We gave trying to get lunch and bought some drinks and a snack from a little shop and then headed for the seaside. Which brings me to the other revelation - Mochlos has no beach or at least we couldn't find it easily enough so we ended up sitting on the rocky foreshore for a while. It wasn't so bad and we had a wander around the village, which is quite nice, for a while but ended up heading for Kritsa and Lato as an alternative diversion for the rest of the day.

So if you happen to find yourself on Crete on May 1st, then be aware that anywhere you go might either be closed or full of locals enjoying a well-earned break themselves.