Visiting Ancient Aptera in Crete


The site of Ancient Aptera is in western Crete, not far from Khania, high up on a plateau with beautiful views towards Souda Bay. It’s an interesting site because it has such a wide range of buildings reflecting the fact that it has been occupied since Minoan times, though most of the site that is accessible today seems to be Roman.

From the Classical Greek period onward it was a city right through the Hellenic period of the Roman occupation. Indeed the monastery of Agios Ioannis Theologos (pictured above) was occupied right up until the 1960s. In the courtyard of the monastery, rather incongruously, is a pile of stone cannonballs:

Cannon balls

One of the most impressive things to see on the site are the Roman cisterns, designed and built so well that they are still remarkably well-preserved. The cistern openings do not give a true idea of the size of the underground cisterns themselves.

Cistern heads


Cistern 2There’s no sign of water anywhere on the site today, so it is hard to imagine how there was sufficient water in the past to store in the cisterns and to feed the Roman baths below. In amongst the baths are other buildings whose purpose is difficult to make out from the remains:






On the wall of one of these buildings is a stone block with chisel marks on it. I am not sure but I think it may be Minoan, as it reminds me of blocks with similar markings that I have seen at Knossos.


On its own on a promontory overlooking the bay itself is a Turkish fort, unfortunately fenced off so that I can’t get closer to have a look inside.


To the rear of the site is are the remains of a small amphitheatre, probably Greek:


and this may be a Greek temple with niches to hold statues of gods:


Finally, I found one of the most evocative parts of the site the remains of a Roman villa, strewn with the debris of its columns. There was a particular atmosphere on this spot and I seemed to get a sense what it must have been like for the people who lived there with its views looking south towards the White Mountains.

Roman Villa

Today the site is extremely hot under the scorching midday Cretan sun and there’s very little shade to provide any relief.

Sun dried flower

Our friend Vasily moves into self-employment

In two earlier posts I talked about how we came to know a young Belarusian man (Our friend Vasily –  early contacts) and then how we brought him to England for a week (Adventures of a Belarusian beekeeper in England). Now I would like to bring the story up to date.



He transformed the old railway wagon, that we had first seen as a rusting hulk, into a superb beehive transporter, with an almost luxurious interior:



This has enabled him to move his bees round the countryside in the short season in Belarus to maximise pollen gathering opportunities. He also invested in a motorised centrifuge which means he can handle more efficiently the honey extraction from his increased number of hives.



Wax production from the hives has also increased and he was able to get hold of better quality wax foundation to use in the hive frames:





But there was an even bigger spin-off from his involvement in our projects which at the time we hadn’t foreseen. Vasily came with us to buy sapling fruit trees for the community orchard we tried to establish in the nearby village of Golovchitsy. I wrote about that frustrating experience too in a very early post on this blog (see Planting orchards in Belarus).

The grower we bought our saplings from was based in the town of Kalinkovichi and Vasily’s visits there with us and subsequent discussions with the owner led him to take an interest in orchards and growing fruit trees. As a result of doing a lot of research on the internet, he taught himself how to do his own grafting and the care and maintenance of fruit trees. Starting small on the land at his dacha, he decided to produce his own saplings from grafts, but quickly realised that if he were to do this on a commercial scale, it would require more land.

It was this realisation which determined him to move from his job in a state enterprise to working for himself. It was an enormous step for a young man with family responsibilities and in a country with few models of entrepreneurial activity. Indeed where the very word businessman has negative connotations and implies something between spiv and con man

He spent a long time negotiating with the local council to obtain a suitable plot of land that he could use for his fruit tree nursery, as the Belarusian government is not in favour of private ownership of land. Eventually he succeeded in getting the piece of land he wanted and he planned to plant it with saplings in the spring.

After a snowy winter (we are now in 2013), the nearby river Pripyat flooded and his dacha was inundated, so everything had to be dug out.


After that he started to set up fence posts to enclose his new plot of land with a chain link fence. But spring set in early and suddenly he found that everything was beginning to shoot and he had to stop the fence work in order to plant the saplings. Then back to finishing the fence, and by now the first dry periods were starting so that the saplings need watering. Fortunately there is water nearby, but he still has to use his tractor to fill a big water-trailer. It’s a never-ending job throughout the spring and summer.


In total he managed to plant 600 trees: there were more but he had entrusted them to a friend, only to find that sweet-toothed hares had been gnawing their barks and they had died. He told us that he didn’t sleep for three nights after finding out about that.

Once it got warmer the bees became active once again. So he moved backwards and forwards between his new plot of land and his dacha, looking after the trees and doing all his beekeeping work as well, checking the hives, catching swarms, centrifuging the honey. Last year was an exceptional one for honey: his bees produced over two and a half tonnes, a record amount. It was so much that he ran out of containers to store it in and had to borrow containers from beekeeping friends.

Then there was the plot of land at the dacha to look after, potatoes and vegetables to plant, and his tractor and other equipment to maintain. After long hours of work he was dropping with tiredness at the end of the day.

It is a privilege to be his friend and we are really proud to see how he has grown since we first met him. We look forward to seeing how his small business develops in the coming years. His success has been some consolation for some of the other sustainable livelihood projects that we attempted unsuccessfully to get off the ground in Belarus.


Our friend Vasily – adventures of a Belarusian beekeeper in England

In an earlier post (Our friend Vasily – early contacts) I wrote about how we got to know a very enterprising young man and his family in Belarus, as part of our sustainable development project. So in this post I will describe what we did next to help him develop his own business.

My wife and I thought hard about how best to support him. Eventually, it struck us that because he was so adept at learning new skills and absorbing information, exposure to beekeeping in this country might stimulate new ideas and encourage him in his business venture.

He was very receptive to the idea, so we put together a programme of visits and activities to make sure that he got the most out of his trip. Probably the most difficult aspect was persuading the British Embassy in Minsk to give him a visa. However, after the usual bureaucratic nightmare which surrounds anything to do with visas (whatever the country), dates were agreed, the visa obtained and his flight booked.

Vasily stayed with us for a week and it was like we were seeing our own country through fresh eyes. I will never forget the look of astonishment on his face when we passed Stonehenge. His curiosity was endless, he never stopped asking questions. Why are the roads so twisty? Why can’t you walk anywhere you like in the countryside? Why don’t we grow vegetables in our garden? One of the big trips we planned involved meeting up with a beekeeper, who was very involved in beekeeping circles at county level. So we visited his apiary one day:

Vasily & Ken

Vasily & Ken

Vasily was interested in everything and spent a long time looking at all aspects of his hives, down to how the wooden frames were jointed and the size and structure of the wax foundation sheets. They shared their concerns about the damage done to hives by the Varoa mite which came to Belarus via Russia some years before it hit the UK. Their conversation certainly stretched my Russian technical vocabulary, as Vasily spoke no English.

On another day we went with Ken to visit Buckfast Abbey, home of one of Vasily’s beekeeper heroes, the Benedictine monk Brother Adam, a world authority on bees and bee breeding. Unfortunately, the Abbey’s beekeeper was out on the day we went down there, but we saw some of the hives at the Abbey. Then from Ken’s local knowledge we were also able to visit one particular apiary out on Dartmoor which involved a tricky manoeuvre on a gated bridge over a fast flowing stream.

Buckfast Abbey apiary

Buckfast Abbey apiary

On the way back we stopped off at a large beekeeping supplier’s: it was like an Aladdin’s cave for Vasily, containing many things which he had seen on the internet and in magazines, but not been able to get in Belarus. We also visited a honey producer who in his 70s was still singlehandedly looking after over 300 hives. To get the volume of honey he produced he had to manhandle these hives onto a truck which he placed at key places on Dartmoor that were best for heather honey. Vasily was very impressed at his energy and vitality.

On another occasion we took Vasily to visit our friends who run a dairy farm and he was fascinated to see the amount of equipment that Paul used and particularly the milking parlour:




Vasily was like a sponge taking in everything he saw, including things we just take for granted, such as a bird feeder:


and a metal bench next to a favourite beauty spot (which he was very keen to try to make when he got back home):


Seeing him holding a piece of Old Man’s Beard in the shot reminds me that he also took an enormous interest in our trees and plants, many of which he had not come across before.

I had told him about our friends who make cider the traditional way using an old- fashioned cider press. I had documented the process in photographs from a cider pressing day a month or so earlier and then took him to see what the press looked like:

IMG_0682Of course, we had to take him to see our local carnival:


and, finally, the day before he left we went down to Lyme Regis where he told us that this was the first time he had ever seen the sea:


Review of 2013 posts

Looking at my WordPress stats for last year, I was surprised to find that 4 out of my top 5 most visited posts were actually written in 2012. Perhaps my writing is getting worse!

My posts on Byzantium and Istanbul are still popular, but I am really pleased that the post on my visit to Montaigne’s Tower has been popular too. I really enjoyed my visit to the estate at St Michel de Montaigne and writing the post using many of the record shots of my visit.

I was also surprised to find that while I wrote 70 posts in my first year, I only wrote about 30 last year. I will try to blog more often this year– providing I can find something interesting to blog about.

So the top 5 blog posts in 2013 were:

  1. Islamic art and the mosques of Istanbul
  2. Byzantine Imperial Mosaics
  3. Reading the world – visiting Montaigne’s Tower
  4. And then they came to the holy city of Byzantium – Haghia Sophia 3
  5. Mystras: last outpost of Byzantium  – the Palaces of the Despots

Happy 2014!