Tag Archives: Archaeology

Northern Spain – The Caves at Altimira

Santillana del Mar in the rain

“I visited the Cave of Altamira while traveling in Europe with two friends in 1968.  Once inside, I was of course in awe, not only of the age of the paintings, but also of the delicacy and skill with which they had been executed. I think we tend to look down on our distant ancestors as primitive and stupid, but cave paintings like those at Altamira remind us that they were not.”                         Susan (Washington) – Blogger

On the final morning of our visit to Santillana del Mar the weather proved to be a disappointment, I could hear rain on the window as I started to stir and when I did the weather check I could only report back that the sky was grey and it was drizzling.

At breakfast our host confirmed the worst and informed us that the forecast was gloomy all day so we decided that it was probably a good day to go and do something undercover and perhaps visit a museum.

After breakfast we settled up and said goodbye and took the road out of Santillana Del Mar and then followed signposts to the Altamira museum on the edge of the town.   I wasn’t expecting a great deal to be honest so was surprised to find a very big car park and a large building built into the hills.  I was about to learn about something else that I was completely unaware of – Cantabria is the richest region in the world in archaeological sites from the Upper Paleolithic period (that’s the Stone Age to you and me).  The most significant cave painting site is the cave of Altamira, dating from about 16,000 to 9000 BC and declared, with another nine Cantabrian caves, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Well, you learn something new every day it seems!

Altimira cave painting

Around thirteen thousand years ago a rockfall sealed the cave entrance preserving its contents until its eventual discovery which was caused by a nearby tree falling and disturbing the fallen rocks.  The really good bit about the story is that it wasn’t discovered by Howard Carter, Tony Robinson or Indiana Jones but by a nine year old girl who came across them while playing in the hills above the town in 1879.  Her father was an amateur archaeologist called Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola and he was led by his daughter to discover the cave’s drawings. The cave was excavated by Sautuola and archaeologist Juan Vilanova y Piera from the University of Madrid, resulting in a much acclaimed publication in 1880 which interpreted the paintings as Paleolithic in origin.

So well preserved were the paintings however that there ensued an argument about authenticity and some believed the whole thing to be a hoax and it wasn’t until 1902 that they were eventually accepted as genuine.

We paid the modest entrance fee of €2.40 and went into the museum, which turned out to be a real treasure with interesting displays about the Stone Age, or the Paleolithic period if you prefer, with the highlight of the visit being a full size recreation of the original cave and its precious paintings.  Today it is only possible to see this copy because the actual cave is now closed to vistors.  During the 1960s and 1970s, the paintings were being damaged by the damp breath of large numbers of visitors and smoke from Fortuna cigarettes and Altamira was completely closed to the public in 1977, and reopened with only very limited access in 1982.


Very few visitors are allowed in per day, resulting in a three-year waiting list.  It would be nice to go into the actual cave but actually the replica allows a more comfortable view of the polychrome paintings of the main hall of the cave, as well as a selection of minor works and also includes some sculptures of human faces that cannot be accessed in the real thing.

And, let me tell you, these people were really good painters.  The artists used charcoal and ochre or haematite to create the images, often scratching or diluting these dyes to produce variances in intensity and creating an impression of remarkable and sophisticated contrasts and they also exploited the natural contours in the cave walls to give a three-dimensional effect to their subjects.

The painted ceiling is the most impressive feature showing a herd of bison in different poses, two horses, a large doe and a wild boar.  Other images include horses, goats and hand prints created from the artist placing his hand on the cave wall and spraying paint over it leaving a negative image of his palm.

Numerous other caves in northern Spain contain palaeolithic art but none is as advanced or as famous as Altamira.

The entrance to the real cave is not so impressive however…

Entrance to the cave of Altamira


Kos, Cruise Ships and Ancient Archaeological Sites

Costa Atlantica Cruise Ship at Kos Harbour Greece

Our plan today was to do some sightseeing in the city and so after a self prepared authentic  Greek breakfast on the balcony of the room we left the Hotel Santa Marina and walked again to the seafront and the road into the city.

Unfortunately today a massive cruise ship was moored up, ugly, monstrous and completely incongruous, dwarfing the city and the castle and spoiling the view of the harbour and the sea front, an eleven-deck eyesore soaring above the harbour and resembling a block of 1970s council flats, no style or charm, just a floating unattractive leviathan.  These loathsome giants spoil everywhere they visit; Santorini has become a crowded  nightmare, Dubrovnik is overwhelmed, Venice is sinking under the weight of tens of thousands of people.  I hate these cruise ships not least because I immediately knew that it would unleash hoards of cruisers swarming from the ship for a quick culture break in between continuous gluttony at the all day, all you can eat on board troughs.

This one was the Costa Atlantica (from the same fleet as Costa Concordia which sank off the coast of Italy in January 2012) and unlucky for us because this was its first ever visit to Kos.  It is three hundred metres long, over fifty metres high and weighs a massive eighty-six thousand tonnes, it has one thousand and fifty-seven cabins and over two-thousand passengers all of whom were discharging onto the quay side.

In the Colossus of Rhodes, Henry Miller wrote prophetically: “I began to get the feel of it, what Greece was, what it had been, what it will always be even with the misfortune of being overrun by tourists.” Well, he would have shocked today because this was quite unlike the Greece that he knew in 1939 as all these people descended on the old town centre to ram-raid the jewellery shops and plunder the boutiques but to bring little benefit to the rest of the local economy by stopping for lunch or a beer.

Lawrence Durrell would have been shocked as well because in his guide to the Greek Islands (1978) he had this to say about Kos: “Today the little town is on the scruffy side….it remains an unspoilt backwater where the visitor will find good beaches, unsophisticated but clean little hotels and cool breezes even in mid-summer.”  I felt glad that he never saw this cruise liner!

Then and now…

Kos Castle 1983  Kos Castle 2012

Actually, I was finding it all quite different from my first visit to Kos so we went first to the castle of the Knights of St John because I felt sure that a seven hundred year old medieval castle couldn’t have changed so very much in thirty years.  The castle was once surrounded by a moat with one entrance over a stone bridge and it was over this bridge that we entered the grey castle walls with its stout towers and impregnable defences and went inside to the ruins of this once great defensive bastion. In its day this was a formidable construction and the Knights successfully defended it for two-hundred years before being chased out by the Ottoman Turks to take up residence on the island of Malta instead.

Despite being a bit tidier than I remember with the brown grass cut shorter it wasn’t any different at all and we walked around the walls of the outer fortress and through the maze of ruins in the centre and that really was about all there was to see.  I was surprised by the amount of ancient columns and statues but I was to find out about this soon and I will return to it later.

Then and now, I reprise my dad’s pose of 1983…

Ivan Petcher Kos Castle 1983  Kos Castle 2012

Because I know that Kim doesn’t find this sort of thing especially thrilling I was careful not to stay here too long and we left by the bridge and walked once more through Hippocrates’ Square and out the other side to the Ancient Greek Agora.

This ancient site was revealed by a massive earthquake in 1933 which levelled the town and opened up its hidden secrets and was then excavated by the Italians who ran things in Kos and the rest of the Dodecanese at that time.  Kim declined to join me as I walked among the fallen columns and splintered stones and so I made a circuit of the ruins by myself.  It was an interesting site but not really very much left to see – there would have been more but the Knights of St. John used it as a convenient open cast quarry for their own little castle building project which suddenly explained all the columns and statues in the castle.  This was a place where you had to use your imagination.

Reunited with Kim we stopped for a drink in a shady pavement bar and while I tried to tell her about what she had missed she explained very clearly to me her views on archaeological ruins (unsuitable for publication).  I tried to explain the difference between Greek and Roman but it was all as pointless as her explaining to me the difference between a Pandora bracelet and a Tiffany necklace.

I was determined to prove my point however and talked her into one last ancient site which I promised wasn’t too far away.  This was the Roman (as opposed to the Greek) Agora and we walked through toppled columns and stones which littered the ground and on to the Roman theatre or Odeon.  To be honest it was much like any Roman theatre but what interested me was how much this had changed in the intervening years between my visits.  In 1983 the marble stones were cracked and broken but these were now restored and the stage columns were ragged stumps which had now been rebuilt because the place is now used again for public performances.

Kos Roman Theatre 1983  Roman Theatre Kos 2012

I privately conceded to myself that three archaeological sites in one morning was a bit of a result but I knew that any more would test Kim’s patience to the limit so we now left this part of the city and walked back to the seafront for lunch.

Sorrento, A Visit to Pompeii, Victim of Vesuvius

76 Pompeii

“Pompeii is no longer a buried city. It is a city of hundreds and hundreds of roofless houses, and a tangled maze of streets where one could easily get lost, without a guide, and have to sleep in some ghostly palace that had known no living tenant since that awful November night of eighteen centuries ago.”  Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

The next day we were back on the road, this time with a trip to the ancient city of Pompeii  so after breakfast and picking up our lovingly prepared packed lunches in their brown paper bags we waited for the coach to arrive to drive us there.

The site of Pompeii is a ruined and part buried Roman city near Naples in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the commune of Pompeii.  It is part of a larger Vesuvius National Park and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO twenty years after our visit in 1997.  It is the most popular and most visited tourist attraction in Italy with two and a half million visitors a year and I have now been lucky enough to visit the famous excavation twice.  The first time was with dad on this visit to Italy and the second time was nearly thirty years later with my son Jonathan in 2004.

It was only a shortish drive to the historical site and we arrived in the late morning and after going through the entrance gates waited just inside by the souvenir shops to be joined by our guide for the day.  It was a warm day already and when she arrived she was under the shade of an umbrella, which she subsequently used as a means of group identification and we set off into the ruined city.

At the time of the eruption the city is estimated to have had approximately twenty thousand inhabitants but Pompeii, along with nearby Herculaneum, was completely buried and destroyed, during a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two days beginning on 24th  August 79.  The volcano buried the City under a layer of ash and pumice many metres deep and it was lost for nearly one thousand seven hundred years before its accidental rediscovery in 1748.  Since then, its excavation has provided a detailed insight into the life of a city in an area in which many wealthy Romans had their holiday villas at the height of the Roman Empire.

  Pompeii Vesuvius Italy

At around one o’clock in the afternoon on August 24th, Vesuvius, which had been dormant for centuries, began spewing ash and volcanic stone thousands of meters into the sky.  When it reached the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, the top of the cloud flattened leading the Roman historian Pliny the Younger, who was observing from a safe distance across the Bay of Naples to describe it as resembling a stone pine tree.

For people in Pompeii, who had no idea what was about to happen, the bad news was that the prevailing winds were blowing towards the south-east which caused the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city and the area surrounding it and the residents were covered in up to twelve different layers of ash, pumice and soil.

According to Pliny the volcano burst open with an ear splitting crack and then smoke, mud, flames and burning stones spewed from the summit of the mountain, sending a rain of ash and rock through the surrounding countryside.  The mud seeped down the sides of Vesuvius, swallowing nearby farms, orchards and villas and basically anything else unfortunate enough to be in the way.  Adding to the destruction were poisonous vapours that accompanied the falling debris and it was these fumes that first caused deliriousness in their victims, and then suffocated them.

Pompeii victims plaster casts of the dead

There is no doubt that Pompeii is a fabulous place to visit with many marvellous houses and buildings and so big that it is impossible to do it all in one day and it is an interesting fact that today visitors can actually only see one third of the site that was open for viewing in 1976.

We saw the Roman Forum and the administrative buildings, the public baths, the brothels, the shopping centres and the outdoor theatres.  Most of the priceless exhibits have been removed of course to the museum in Naples but there were some copies of the most famous and there are still wall frescoes and paintings to admire.  In 1860 an archaeologist called Fontana found some of the famous erotic frescoes and, due to the strict modesty prevalent during his time, quickly reburied them in an early attempt at archaeological censorship in case anyone should be offended.

Even then there were some rooms that women visitors were not allowed to enter just in case the paintings caused offence but the men were allowed to go in and once inside the guide explained in more detail that this was actually because the impressively large penis on one particular statue had been broken off so many times by excitable female visitors that they had had to be prohibited from entering this building. I don’t know whether that was true or not!

“It was a quaint and curious pastime, wandering through this old silent city of the dead–lounging through utterly deserted streets where thousands and thousands of human beings once bought and sold, and walked and rode, and made the place resound with the noise and confusion of traffic and pleasure.”Mark Twain

For the first time ever in a foreign country this was a truly excellent experience and simply one of the best places possible to visit.  I had chosen Italy for the holiday because I had studied Italian history at University, written my thesis on the nineteenth century Piedmontese Prime Minister Massimo d’Azeglio and had taught myself to read Italian to study his autobiographical notes.  I had acquired a passion for the place and now at last I was here and Pompeii was just absolutely wonderful.


Sorrento, The Circumvesuviana and Italians at Ticket Offices

Circumvesuviana pompeii

“Lemon trees, like Italians, seem to be happiest when they are touching each other” –  D H Lawrence

Jonathan had a rather disturbed night and developed a fever and I had to keep him supplied with damp wet towels to cool him down.  He was no better by morning of course so I had to go to breakfast alone and then attempt to get a refund on the planned visit to the Roman antiquities.  The holiday representative wanted all sorts of paperwork filling in and a doctor’s certificate as evidence and so I concluded that it was just too much trouble and wrote the money off.

Jonathan was poorly most of the morning but by about eleven o’clock he was beginning to feel better and the fever disappeared and he declared himself fit enough to get up and walk into town.  We walked along the rather untidy main road of Corso Italia and in the Piazza Tasso we stopped again for a drink at the Bar Ercolano and I had a beer and Jonathan had some more lemonade.

For a Sunday morning in October Sorrento seemed unexpectedly busy and was full of people coming and going to church, filling the squares and cafés with colour and noisy chatter and there was certainly no let up in the volume of traffic roaring through the narrow streets in the inappropriate way to which we had become accustomed.  After only half an hour or so his health had improved so dramatically that we decided to go to Pompeii after all but with the coach trip long gone we agreed to alternatively use the Circumvesuviana.

Sorrento Courtyard

The train station was back along the Corso Italia about a kilometre from the hotel and we arrived with about six minutes to spare before the next scheduled train and with only one man at the ticket window this seemed comfortable.  But for some reason the man had obviously emptied his piggy bank and was buying a ticket with a pile of one cent coins and it was taking an age to count them all out.

“At every ticket window customers were gesticulating wildly.  They didn’t seem to be so much buying tickets as pouring out their troubles to the… weary looking me seated behind each window.  It is amazing how much emotion the Italians invest in even the simplest transaction”                                                             Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’

This was similar to the nightmare of getting behind a woman at the supermarket check out who insists on trying to find the right change in the hidden depths of her handbag and the six minutes, along with my tissue paper thin patience, started to evaporate.  Eventually the ticket clerk could sense my building irritation and anxiety and fearful that I would burst asked the nuisance customer to move to one side while I purchased our tickets in the more conventional way of using a bank note and we caught the train with just a few seconds to spare.

The Circumvesuviana is an electrified narrow-gauge railway that runs throughout the Sorrentine peninsula and we enjoyed a very scenic journey as the line passed through many tunnels and over several bridges.  After half an hour we arrived at the station of Pompeii Scavi, which was only a hundred metres from the entrance to the excavations.  You have to hand it to the Romans, they thought of everything, even down to building this great city so close to a convenient railway line.  Compare this to the French, for example, Calais station, if you have ever been there, is miles out away from the town!

The site of Pompeii is a buried and ruined Roman city near Naples and is part of the larger Vesuvius National Park that was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997 twenty years after my first visit.  It is the most popular and easily the most visited tourist attraction in Italy with two and a half million visitors a year and I have now been lucky enough to visit the famous excavation twice.

But twenty years on it was different, everywhere seemed tidier and a little more sterile, there were more fences and it was smaller too because in 1976 visitors could visit three times as much of the excavations as they can today.  Once through the entrance gates we avoided the attention of the official guides who were touting for business and relying on the free leaflet that was given away with the tickets we made our way into the ruins.  It was hot but not unpleasant and we followed the indicated route in the little guide.

Sorrento Italy

Spain, The Aqueduct of Segovia

“Here were churches, castles, and medieval walls standing sharp in the evening light, but all dwarfed by that extraordinary phenomenon of masonry, the Roman aqueduct, which overshadowed the whole…’The Aqueduct’, said the farmer, pointing with his whip, in case by chance I had failed to notice it.” – Laurie Lee

When we had retired to bed the previous night there had been a clear sky so it was disappointing to wake up to the sound of falling rain and on opening the shutters a full examination of the weather revealed overcast skies and a rather soggy, looking sorry for itself, Ávila.  But it was still early so we closed the shutters and slept on for an hour and hoped that it would improve.  Sadly this was not to be and when we went down for breakfast it looked certain that this was going to be an umbrella sort of day.

Earlier in the year in Krakow Sue had overdone the alcohol one night and gone to bed feeling unwell but she was at least sufficiently recovered the next day to make it for breakfast but this morning Christine had had so much wine the previous night that she couldn’t face even a cup of tea let alone the fried eggs, tortilla and bacon and she excused herself from the breakfast room as soon as the plates were loaded up and started arriving at the table. The rest of us carried on and had another excellent meal and chatted like Methodist abolitionists about the evils of drink.

Even after we had finished breakfast an hour later she hadn’t begun to improve but although she was clearly unwell she decided that she would still accompany us on the planned drive to Segovia about sixty kilometers away and we all assured her that the fresh air would do her good and she was certain to start feeling better sometime soon.

Segovia Spain

It was still raining when we left the hotel and walked through the damp streets to the underground car park where we picked up the car and squeezed ourselves into the inadequate seats of the BMW but as we drove out of the city it started to brighten up a little and the rain thankfully eased off.  To avoid the toll we took the national highway rather than the motorway option and this being a Sunday morning the road was almost completely empty and it was an easy journey.

To the south of the highway was the Sierra de Guadarrama and on the highest mountain in the whole range, the Peñalara, we could see snow covering the top of its two thousand, one hundred metre peak.  The approach to Segovia was spectacular and still some way out of the city we could see it rising from the plain on a convenient outcrop of rock with a spectacular mountain backdrop and the Cathedral and the Alcázar reaching dramatically into the grey sky.  The road dropped into the city and we found a convenient underground car park close to the Roman aqueduct.

The aqueduct is the most recognised and famous historical symbol of Segovia. It is the largest Roman structure still standing in Spain and was built at the end of first to the early second century AD by the Romans during their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula to bring water from the Río Frío about eighteen kilometres away and requiring an elevated section in its final kilometer from the Sierra de Guadarrama to the walls of the old town. This elevated section is supported by an engineering achievement of one hundred and sixty-six arches and one hundred and twenty pillars constructed on two levels. It is twenty eight metres high and constructed with over twenty thousand large, rough-hewn granite blocks, which are joined without mortar or clamps and have remained in place for two thousand years.

In the Plaza de Azeguego directly below the final, highest and most impressive section of the aqueduct there was a lot of activity as a band played and men in flamenco sombreros and black capes danced with local women and some of the locals and the tourist joined in.  We weren’t sure what it was all about but it looked good fun and everyone was enjoying themselves despite the gloomy weather.   We liked the Aqueduct and looked all round it from every possible angle.  It is one of those structures that make you appreciate just how brilliant the Romans were.  The fifteenth century professor at the University of Salamanca, Marineus, made the claim that ‘we should have no doubt that whatever memorable thing we come across in Spain is due to the Romans’ and although, six hundred years later, this can no longer possibly be true at the time it was probably a very fair assessment.

Greece, Two Almost Similar Days in Lindos

The next day after breakfast we took the advice of our helpful neighbours and took the bus to Pefkas which turned out to be an unremarkable little place but as promised it did have a very nice beach.  There were a few sun beds and umbrellas at €8 a time but also plenty of space left over for blanket people like us.   The sea was nice and deeper than Lindos so swimming was better and if I had had room in my luggage for a snorkel I am certain there would have been plenty of fish to watch.

It was a nice spot with a cool breeze and the sound of gentle lapping waves but, as I have explained before, we are not really beach people and two hours is generally more than enough.  We have never owned up to this to each other but I suspect we are both secretly hoping that the other one will be the first to say the magic words ‘shall we pack up then and go and have a drink?’ and certainly there has never really been any debate on this matter that I can ever remember.  And so it was today and as boredom levels began to rise we packed up and strolled back to the bus stop stopping on the way in the centre for a Mythos.

Like most places on Rhodes, and indeed Lindos, there were some restaurants and tavernas and they all had unnecessary pictures of the food on display boards outside.  I really don’t like that and I don’t see the point of it either.  Surely most people know what a chicken kebab looks like and if they want to see a picture of a moussaka they can see that every week in Tesco or Morrissons?  And what’s more the pictures don’t generally look like what you are likely to get anyway so I find it all a bit distasteful and common.  But then again Rhodes is an airport island and there were quite a lot of football shirts and tattoo people wandering about and sadly they probably welcomed this sort of assistance with making dining selections.

The amount of tattoos on display here was incredible and almost as many women as men with decorated bodies proudly showing them off.  Personally I cannot understand why anyone, unless they are a Maori, would want to disfigure themselves in this way but here on Rhodes it seemed as though they were almost in the majority.

We caught the ten past two bus back to Lindos and once back at the Chrysa Studios Kim declared it too hot to do anything except enjoy the air conditioned room so I sat on the terrace for a while and then worried that I might be missing something in the village went for a walk to find some streets that we might have overlooked so far.

As I walked around the corkscrew lanes and became confused in the maze of alleys I found myself at the beginning of the path to the Acropolis so although we were planning to visit tomorrow, just out of curiosity I walked to the top to see how much it was going to cost.  It was quite a climb and the well worn path was slippery and precipitous but at least I had had a practice ahead of  tomorrow.

On the next day we had slipped completely into routine and we did the same things over again.  First we had breakfast on the terrace and because we had liked the beach at Pefkas in preference to Lindos we caught the bus there for a second time.  Two hours on the beach, a drink at the same bar and the ten past two bus back to Lindos.

For the afternoon we did plan something different and the visit to the Acropolis.  We had waited until Sunday because sometimes museums and archaeological sites are free on the Sabbath so we thought it was worth the wait until the last day in Lindos.  When the time came to tackle the steps and the walk Kim declared herself too hot and tired and probably not all that bothered about seeing it anyway, so I had to go alone and when I got there was disappointed to find that you do have to pay on a Sunday after all.

The walk and the climb to the entrance to the site actually turned out to be the easy bit because once inside there was an energy sapping ascent up an endless steep stone staircase, like climbing into the sky with a sheer drop on each side to the entrance to the medieval fortress which was built by the Knights of Saint John in the fourteenth century to defend the island against the Ottoman Turks.

There were some good views from the top and I imagined myself as medieval knight on lookout duty staring out to the horizon looking for trouble.  I walked first through the foundations and the towers of the castle and the Byzantine church and then to the very top and the ancient Acropolis itself, the Doric Temple of Athena Lindia, the Propylaea of the Sanctuary, a huge staircase and a Hellenistic Stoa and finally the remains of a Roman Temple.  Although hundreds of people visit this place every day four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon turned out to be a very good time to go indeed because there were no more than a dozen or so people here right now so it was easy to walk around and admire the ruins undisturbed.

They are ruins of course but some of the buildings and columns have been restored and in the twentieth century there was a lot of archaeological and restoration work carried out by the Italians when they were in control here between the two world wars.

I used to think that reinterpretation and restoration was rather a shame but am now persuaded by Henry Miller who wrote of the the reconstruction and interpretation of theMinoan Palace at Knossos on Crete: “There has been much controversy about the aesthetics of Sir Arthur Evans’s work of restoration.  I find myself unable to come to any conclusion about it; I accepted it as a fact.  However Knossos may have looked in the past, however it may look in the future, this one which Evans has created is the only one I shall ever know.  I am grateful to him for what he did…” Substitute Italians for Arthur Evans and he could easily have been talking about the Acropolis at Lindos.

Unfortunately some of the work they carried out wasn’t that good and as well as incorrectly reinterpreting some of the construction they also used poor quality materials and a lot of the reinforced concrete they used has begun to fail leading to even worse damage than they tried to rectify and most of this work is having to be done again at great cost under the supervision of the Greek Ministry of Culture.

It was still very hot and the walk had made me hungry and thirsty so I bought some pizza and beer and went back to the apartment where Kim was just about planning her shopping trip to the silver workshop having taken a couple of days to make up her mind which piece of jewellery she was going to buy.

In the evening we finally broke with routine and instead of Kamariko and the irritating waiter we found an alternative restaurant with a roof top terrace and we enjoyed a lazy meal in a cool breeze without waiter interruption and with free sweets and complimentary ouzo.  This was our last night in Lindos, we had enjoyed it but we were ready to move on back to Rhodes town and over Metaxa on the balcony we reflected on our four days and made our plans for the next day.

Coach Trip – USA National Parks, Mesa Verde National Park and Cortez

There was a later start today because there wasn’t so much travelling to be done because we were spending the day at the nearby Mesa Verde National Park not far from the east of the city.  So there was time to enjoy breakfast and look around the Main Street in daylight.

Mesa Verde National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that features numerous ruins of homes and villages built by the ancient Pueblo people. It is best known for several spectacular cliff dwellings which are structures built within caves and under outcroppings in cliffs, including the Cliff Palace, which is thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America.  This unique treasure remained undiscovered for six hundred years until on a snowy December day in 1888, while two ranchers were searching Mesa Verde’s canyons for stray cattle, they unexpectedly came upon Cliff Palace for the first time since it had been abandoned. They returned the following year and found an additional one hundred and eighty two immaculate cliff dwellings and a collection of priceless ancient relics.

The Spanish term Mesa Verde translates into English as green table but as we took the short journey along a featureless highway and an arid landscape this seemed a bit unlikely but then we entered the park and there was a sudden transformation and as we climbed to the top of the plateau there were noticeably more trees and vegetation.  This place had once been even more fertile and about one thousand four hundred years ago, long before Europeans came to North America, a group of people living in the Four Corners region chose Mesa Verde for their home.

For more than seven hundred years they and their descendants lived and flourished here, eventually building the elaborate stone communities in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls. Then, in the late thirteenth century, in the span of just a generation or two, they left their homes and moved away and no one really knows why.  The reason for their sudden departure about 1275 remains completely unexplained but theories range from crop failures due to a succession of droughts to hostilities with foreign tribes from the North that drove them away.

Immediately after the discovery a lot of damage was done to the buildings and looting of the relics by souvenir hunters and archaeological collectors with some dubious methods of operation and although many of the removed items are safe in museums, in order to remove the valuable items walls were broken down, floors were opened and kivas, which were subterranean chambers used for religious purposes, were thoughtlessly vandalised.   At the Cliff Palace great openings were broken through the front of the ruin and beams were used for firewood and all of the roofs were destroyed.

As concern grew over the archaeological well being of the ruins, and those in other nearby sites, the area was declared a National Park on June 29th, 1906.  Unfortunately most of the damage had already been done by this time and accurate archaeological information from the site has subsequently been limited due to these previous unauthorised archaeological expeditions.

It’s a bit late of course but understandably the park officials are a bit wary about things going missing now so it is only possible to visit the sites accompanied by an official ranger guide.  At the visitor centre we were joined by the man that was going to show us around the park and the buildings and we set off into the site.  He was an amusing tour guide and he kept us entertained with little stories all day as he moved us from site to site and at each one passed us over to a site specific expert to explain about the buildings.

Although Pueblo people lived here for seven hundred years it was during the last two hundred, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, that they constructed and lived in these impressive dwellings and let’s not forget that this was the same time as most people in Europe were still living in mud huts!  First of all we saw the Cliff Palace which is the largest and best-known of the cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and has two hundred and twenty identified rooms and twenty three kivas.  Next we went to Square Tower House which has a four storey tower which is the tallest structure in Mesa Verde and gives the site its name and finally we visited the very well preserved Spruce Tree House where the ruins include a kiva with a restored roof which we were able to enter.

In addition to the cliff dwellings there are a great many mesa-top ruins that we were able to visit and explore for ourselves and there was plenty of time at the end of the official tour to take a good look around these and spend time in the park museum as well.  This was a truly magnificent place, and also enlightening because it is easy to forget that European migrants were not the first people in North America by any stretch of the imagination and what went before here clearly belonged to what was at that time a sophisticated and superior civilization.  Brought up on TV westerns that invariably portrayed the Indians as savage redskins I was pleased to go through this revisionist experience.

When we left the site we drove back to Cortez across the Indian reservation and noticed that as we approached the entrance that the verges of the road were heavily littered with beer cans and empty liquor bottles and we discovered that this is because, as on most reservations, alcohol is illegal.  The white settlers and pioneers didn’t do a great deal of good for the Native Americans and one of the worst things that they did was to introduce them to alcohol because when colonists suddenly made large quantities of distilled spirits available, they had little time to develop legal, moral and social procedures to regulate its use.

Traders naturally found that providing free alcohol during trading sessions gave them quite a considerable advantage in their negotiations with the local people and this period therefore may have been responsible for the prevalence of alcohol abuse among Native Americans today.  Early demand, no regulation and strong encouragement helped form a tradition of heavy alcohol use passed down from generation to generation, which has led to the current high level of alcohol related problems amongst native Americans.

Some anthropologists believe that Native Americans have a genetic susceptibility to alcohol, although this has never been proven, but the reason why they drink more at any one time could be because with alcohol being illegal on the reservations, Native Americans drink a large amount in a short space of time before they return to their homes.  Judging by the state of the road verges they must drink all the way back before they jettison the evidence just as they arrive at the entrance to the reservation to avoid detection.

I mention all this because later that night we had a first hand demonstration of the effect on a Native American of too much drink.  After evening meal we sat in a busy bar and were joined at our table by a couple from the reservation visiting town for a Sunday big night out.  He was already drunk and his objective was clearly to become completely and thoroughly paralytic.  He was amiable enough and we enjoyed a few minutes of conversation, although this was mainly with his wife who remained lucid throughout, and we talked about our holiday and they were most interested to know about England and specifically London.

As he became more inebriated his volume control broke and although she worked hard not to get him too excited he started to become a bit of a nuisance.  When the waitress came by he insisted on buying us all a drink and then the subject turned to firearms, ‘What sort of a gun have you got?’ he asked and we explained to him that we don’t generally carry six shooters in England (unless you live in Nottingham) and he seemed genuinely surprised, ‘I’ve got a gun!’ he proudly announced and drew back his immaculate buckskin jacket to reveal a colt 45 sitting snugly in a holster under his arm.  OMG!  The hairs on the back of my neck stiffened and I was all rendered completely speechless.  It was all a bit surreal and scary, we were sitting with a pissed up Indian warrior with a loaded pistol.  I don’t know if he was supposed to be on the loose in town with a sidearm, I suspect not, because very shortly after this his wife bundled him away and out of the door and I for one was glad that he had gone!

We had a couple of beers to steady our nerves and then walked cautiously back to the motel keeping an observant eye out for our dangerous new friend.  There was no need really I’m sure because he would have been sleeping off one hell of a hangover and probably wouldn’t surface much before sundown the next day.

The postcard images were all originally purchased in 1995 on the Coach Trip. The Promotional leaflet images are also all 1995 originals.