The Sacred Rocks of Meteora

Undoubtedly the most spectacular natural wonders we encountered on our 1997 dream trip to Greece were the monastic mountain retreats sometimes known as the Sacred Rocks of Meteora. Relics of an ancient river bed in the foothills of the Pindos mountain range in central Greece, a cluster of super jumbo-sized boulders became hide-away homes for medieval monks. Teetering like darkened bowling pins behind a pair of sleepy villages, they were called Meteora because they looked like meteors suspended above the landscape. Greek Orthodox monks clambered somehow to the tops of these huge rock faces to escape annihilation by invaders. As many as 14 mountain top communities were founded, access being made mostly by ingenious hoisting mechanisms. Half a dozen only remain operative today.
We visited two of them on a memorable late October morning with snowflakes falling on a steeply curving mountain access road.

Our seasoned tour bus driver, we learned after alighting close to one of the mighty rockbound monastic structures, had never encountered snow in that area. Given the scarily steep and curvy roadway, we were so glad that he kept a steady hand on the wheel.
Our first stop allowed us to see St. Stephen’s Monastery, the most accessible of these remote retreats, where instead of steps visitors could simply cross a small bridge to reach the entrance.

We did not go inside but wandered outside, marveling at the solidity of this sprawling structure nowadays occupied by a small community of nuns.
Other still occupied hill top monasteries spotted along the roadway were known as the Monastery of Varlaam, the Monastery of Rousanou, the Monastery of St. Nicholas Anapausas and the Holy Trinity Monastery.

A lung-challenging 250-step climb up the sheer mountain face took us to the cozy confines of the Great Meteoron Monastery, the largest of the group. Ladies were warned to wear skirts that covered their knees. One who tried ignoring the command had to be lent one from a supply closet before being admitted.


Monks sometimes boarded suspended cable cars to move between sections of the monastery.







A byzantine chapel inside displayed richly coloured tableaus depicting the most horrendous forms of martyrdom experienced by the saints of early Christendom.

We couldn’t help wondering whether they served to inspire monks to stay and pray or to run away and take their chances elsewhere.

Touring Greek Historic Sites

Embarking on a 1997 bus tour of Greece, itself a novel experience for us inveterate drive-yourself travellers, proved interesting and unexpectedly pleasant. It was a nicely compatible group, mostly from the United States, plus seven Canadians, four Australians, a family from India, and a few young people from Malaysia. Our hostess guide was Stella, a vivacious Greek lady with a unique background as a teacher with degrees in architectural history and English literature. From her we gained a whole new appreciation for the incredibly diverse impact of Greek culture upon modern civilization.

The spectacular Corinth Canal, one of our first highlights, allows shipping between the Peloponnese peninsula and the Greek mainland.


Another destination was the imposing base of the ancient Mycenae civilization dating from about the 15th century BC.


Other notable sites visited along the way included Olympia where the first Olympic Games were held. One of our tour group insisted on walking the entire course while most of us clustered close to the entrance way.

Of all the historically important sites we visited, one of the most awesome to behold was Delphi, revered by the ancients as the centre of the world and home of the supreme oracle to which both the mighty and the multitudes flocked for enigmatic guidance.

Perched high among the crags of Mount Parnassos, the site is inspiring in its lofty grandeur.
Proud remnants of the Temples of Apollo and Athena stir the soul with imaginings of the thousands who journeyed to this remote and frightening mountainside to worship ancient deities.
This is classic earthquake country. It is said the messages of the Delphic Oracle were expressed in the garbled mouthings of maidens swooning from volcanic vapours rising in mountainside caverns.

It took a council of elders to analyze what these meant and they, like so many modern committees, usually produced an interpretation capable of supporting opposite views on any particular issue.

Fans of public speaking venues had to be overwhelmed at Epidaurus where phenomenal acoustics rendered the softest whispers to be heard throughout this huge amphitheatre.

Athens and Its Environs

Our 1997 tour of glorious Greece began on a sunny October day with a splendid walkabout taking us through city streets to the heights of its three most prominent hills.

At the outset, we came upon a quaintly costumed changing of the guard ritual outside the Greek parliament buildings, and a nearby protest demonstration. It was just like home! The protestors were unionists staging what purported to be a one-day general strike. Police outnumbered protestors and, judging by the steady surge of Athenian traffic, not too many residents took much notice.
A finely crafted statue stood at the edge of a commercial area, but without an identifying inscription.

Athens, like many great cities, is dominated by its hills. The Acropolis, of course, crowned by the ruins of the majestic Parthenon, is most central and awe-inspiring either up close or from afar. Lycabettus Hill, a narrow pinnacle of rock, reached on its steepest slope by a funicular, offers a panoramic view of the capital.

Another, known as the Hill of the Muses, offers a closer view of the Parthenon which, after surviving more than two millennia, was partially destroyed by Venetian cannons firing from that vantage point. The Parthenon, otherwise known as the ancient Temple of Athena Parthenos, was then being used by occupying Turkish forces as an armoury.

A unique feature of the Athenian urban landscape is the almost total absence of skyscrapers. Guides told us they are banned to preserve the dominance of the ancient ruins. A handful of high rises did break through during lapses in bureaucratic vigilance due, one suspects, to the cunning artifices of some wily public affairs lobbyist.

While in Athens, we took advantage of two extra excursions laid on by our Trafalgar Tours hosts. The first was a bus tour which began badly with a horrendous rainstorm that continued until reaching our destination. Happily, as we reached Cape Sunion, storm clouds moved swiftly away to allow brilliant sunshine to show off the glorious Temple of Poseidon, one of the best preserved ancient ruins in all of Greece.
Dramatically situated on the coastal cliffs overlooking the Aegean Sea, the Temple dates back to 444 BC. Today, all that remains is a series of gleaming white marble columns, standing proudly atop the cape. Only 16 of the original 34 Doric columns remain, one of which is famously inscribed with the name Lord Byron.
Colourful indoors entertainment greeted us in a delightful Greek folk music cabaret on the shores of Athens’ port city of Piraeus.

Festivities began with a serving of liquid refreshments, inevitably including a taste of ouzo – some of it furtively shared with a garden plant.




Costumed waiters tended our tables while entertainers performed colourful Greek folk dances.

A beaming bouzouki player was for us the star musical attraction.

Winning The Big One

What a great feeling that was! Capturing the grand prize – a Trip for Two to Europe – was a dream come true back in the winter of 1997. It was the National Press Club’s European Union Night, an annual social highlight for me and my wife Madeline. In more than 30 years as a Press Club member, a big win like this had never before come along.

The prize: two Business Class tickets on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to Amsterdam and any Common market country and return. Just one catch: travel would be according to the availability of space at the time of booking, and limited to low season periods – in April/97, between Oct. 15 and Dec. 15/97, or between Jan. 15 and March 15/98.

Official occasion for this prize draw was to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome which created what used to be called the Common Market, now known as the European Union. By 1997, this multi-cultural, multi-national economic entity comprised just 15 member countries: Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. Its membership rose in later years to 28 until Britain’s “Brexit” decision this year to drop out.

Flight tickets only being covered for our trip, the choice of destination was easy. What EC country was farthest away from Canada? Greece. We’d been to half a dozen European countries before then, but had never gone that far. A little checking confirmed that a stopover in Amsterdam would be quite OK. So that’s what we did – 16 days in Greece plus one week in the Netherlands and Belgium. As for timing, mid-October to mid-November was the best we could get. Given helpful advice by CAA travel consultant Cheri Rice, we opted for two British-based Trafalagar Tours Best of Greece features, a one-week bus tour plus a one-week Aegean cruise. Costs were not exorbitant, and proved to be good value indeed.

Travelling in effect as standby passengers, we couldn’t get flight confirmation until a few days before departure, so we booked into Athens two days before our scheduled bus tour. This worked out fine, giving us time on our own to stroll about the busy streets and absorb the sometimes smoggy atmosphere of the ancient Greek capital. A taximan unexpectedly greeted us at the airport and drove us free of charge to our hotel. There, our tour coordinator, London-born Samantha, told us about walking routes that kept us busy for the few days we had in the city.

Within sight of our hotel were not only the magnificent Acropolis crowned by the famed Parthenon but also some Roman temple ruins. We walked everywhere, relishing the opportunity to see an ancient city still thriving with vibrant commercial activity in its Plaka business centre and milling tourists clambering over widespread historic sites.

Bye Bye To Plastic

It says here in Google: Plastic bags were invented as an alternative to paper grocery bags in the late 1970s to protect trees and prevent clear-cutting of our forests. Plastic bags are a by-product of natural gas extraction and provide an environmental solution to the burn off of this gas during the refining process.
Now, there’s quite a twist to the virtually universal view that plastic products are ruining the environment, and urgent steps are needed to minimize their use.

plastic waste

plastic waste

Plastic bag use in supermarkets earned my wrath some decades ago when I composed this little commentary as a newspaper contribution, regrettably rejected for publication:

In the Bag … Please!

Does anyone remember going to the store in the B.P. era (Before Plastic)?
We used to do all our food and necessaries buying at the neighbourhood general store, except when we went to the butcher shop for sausages and liver and other good meat stuffs, or to the fish shop for cod or halibut or whatever. We carried home the groceries in small paper bags, the fish covered in wax paper and the meat wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with a string.
The more ancient among us can recall going off to the store bearing our own containers to be filled with various provisions. Flour and sugar were poured out from 100-pound sacks or bins hidden behind the counter. Empty glass milk bottles were refilled after the store keeper made sure they were whistle clean. Containers were presented for buying measured quantities of beans and peas and other dry products. Going to the store was always an adventure for the younger family members.
Buying a jug or bottle of molasses was the biggest treat of all. The store keeper pumped it out of a huge puncheon that looked 200 years old. We got a chance to taste the runny stuff at the top of the bottle on the way home. Then when we got there, we’d get a spoonful spread on thick home-made bread. Yep, them were the good old days!
Lots of things have changed since the dingy but comfortable old grocery stores gave way to today’s glossy, efficient but woefully impersonal supermarkets. Most everything one needs is pre-packaged. Glass milk bottles have given way to plastic bags. And molasses comes only by the carton.
Supermarkets used to give customers big sturdy paper bags for carrying their groceries to the car or the bus stop. Then plastic came increasingly into vogue. Many stores now use it exclusively, but some continue to offer a choice.
In our neighbourhood emporium, the checkout routine goes something like this:
The cashier – for some reason it’s always a young lady – checks the order through promptly and passes it on to a much younger stacker -invariably a callow boy gaining his first experience in putting anything whatever into a bag.
“Paper or plastic?” the stacker asks, clutching a fistful of the paper-thin plastic variety.
“Neither, thank you.”
The kid looks up in open disbelief to find himself handed a couple of cloth bags. Nodding in bewilderment, he lays the cloth things aside and stuffs the first purchase item into a plastic bag.
“Use the cloth bags, please”.
“Oh,” with an uncomprehending half-grin. “Oh, yeah.” He picks up a cloth bag in one hand, clutches the plastic bag and contents in the other, and drops them inside.
“No, we don’t want the plastic bag.”
“Huh! Oh, yeah. Sure.” All too unsurely, the plastic bag is removed and reluctantly disposed of.

canvass shopping bag

canvass shopping bag

Left to his own devices, the kid proceeds to bag the purchases on a first-come first-stuffed basis, regardless of size, shape, weight, volume or racial origin.
If grapes come through first – grapes go in the bottom of the bag. Dish detergent next – plunk it on top of the grapes. A package of sausages next. It can go on the detergent. The assembly line must go on.
The cloth bags that environmental awareness has produced are of sturdy make and usually capacious size. They can readily hold a pretty sizeable load. When they’re allowed to. But not if the standard supermarket stacker can help it.
In his eyes, no bag is made to carry more than three, and preferably two, items. Given a purchase of eight items, cloth bags are burdened with two each, whereupon the lad, sighing with great relief, reaches for the treasured plastic to make up the balance in proper manner. By this time, customer patience has worn too thin to raise further objection, so the plastic stays.
There’s one small consolation. It can at least be used to hold all the other plastic bags the supermarket blessed us with before. We can drop them off at the recycle bin to be made into more plastic bags the supermarket will need to keep the busy little stacker happy.
Oh where oh where are the molasses jugs of yester year?

Colourful Mementoes of Marseilles

Traipsing around such an exotic city as the French Mediterranean port of Marseilles was an exciting prospect when I arrived there for a World Fishing Exhibition in 1975. One of my first impressions, however, was a little consternation on entering the tiny bathroom of my hotel room. In addition to the customary wash basin and toilet there appeared a toilet-like structure which I had never seen before. There was, moreover, a supply of cloth-like paper sheets nearby, with no sign of customary toilet paper. It was my first introduction to a bidet.
My hotel was located far from the port’s waterfront so, when free time opened up for some sight seeing, I set out on a very long walk through the city, marvelling at the bright colours and the sheer variety of dwellings, business houses and factories along the way. Despite a general awareness of Marseilles’ reputation as a sometimes dangerous place, it was a peaceful and trouble free jaunt yielding nothing more bothersome than a part of sore feet.
The old port I finally reached was a delightful spectacle, rich in the pageantry of shipping, bustling trades people, awesomely aromatic cafes and restaurants, and handsome artistic and historical treasures. After touring the waterfront and snapping a few pictures, I treated myself to a sumptuous mid day serving of bouillabaisse, featuring an intriguing array of seafood delicacies. What else could one do at a world fisheries exhibition?

Sandy but mainly rocky beaches beckoned for hundreds of sun worshipping tourists, though few seemed to bother swimming.

Guarding the port is the centuries-old Fort Saint-Jean, which stands at the harbour entrance.

A very un-French sounding Snack Bar was a convenient setting for relaxing exhibition patrons.



Notable works of art discovered in my wanderings included a striking triumphal arch and, on a busy roadway, a glorious replica of Michelangelo’s iconic statue of David.

Books Are For Reading …. NOW

Why do we stack a lot of books at home but never get around to reading them? You maybe don’t do this but some of us do, and I’m one of them. One could say that mystery surrounds this lamentable failing – mysteries, actually – that addiction to successions of finely written tales of murder, intrigue and whodunits by such masters and mistresses of the genre as Robert Goddard, Quintin Jardine, Anne Perry, Ian Rankin, Elizabeth George, Peter Robinson, and the like. Frequenting public libraries bulging with such goodies for the crime-obsessed took over reading hours all too fully, leaving scant opportunity to sample the literary riches here at home. Lately, a touch of reform has finally set in, and I’ve actually pulled a few off the shelf, learning swiftly and not a little shamefully, how very much I’d missed.

Our ill-sorted library goes heavy on Newfoundland books, many read but others long intended but not yet actually explored. Until lately when, spurred by so much reminiscence about the Great War a century ago.

Kevin Major brought home in No Man’s Land the stirring experiences of Newfoundlanders, especially at ill-fated Beaumont Hamel in 1916. A Blue Puttee At War by Sydney Frost is a master work, authentically detailing the wartime exploits of Newfoundland soldiers.

Michael Winter brilliantly reflected on those same experiences in Into the Blizzard: Walking the Fields of the Newfoundland Dead.

A.J. Stacey`s A Soldier’s Story traced one man’s experiences throughout the conflict.

Joan Sullivan’s In the Field tapped into similar themes.


Other Newfoundland-based reading highlights have ranged from Alan Doyle’s entertaining recollections from his musical career, Where I Belong and A Newfoundlander in Canada toMichael Crummeys’stirring novel Sweetland about one man’s struggle against resettlement of remote outports.

But I have yet to get into his imaginative and much praised family saga Galore.


One book I very much wanted to read, and finally did, was Grace Sparkes: Blazing a Trail to Independence by Mary Beth-Wright. While I greatly enjoyed stories of this Newfoundland icon’s exploits in journalism, politics and education, I lamented its occasional editorial lapses.


Of all the Newfoundlandia, I was most impressed and highly gratified by the superlative account by Greg Malone in Don’t Tell the Newfoundlanders of the conspiratorial British and Canadian machinations behind Newfoundland’s entry into Confederation. Thoroughly documented at last was the shocking storyline that everyone who lived through that era firmly believed to be the case but could never find proper evidence.

My journalistic friend Bren Walsh tried his best to unravel the true story in his 1985 book More Than A Poor Majority but access to adequate records was denied him.

A lot more invaluable reading riches remain on my still too overloaded To Do List!

World Fishing Exhibition in Marseilles

Of all the places I might ever have expected to see when I was a mid-level communications guy in Ottawa, the rough and ready Mediterranean port of Marseilles, France, was never likely to be it. Thus it was with utter astonishment and no little excitement that I found myself flying out there with a few other Canadian fisheries folks to attend a World Fishing Exhibition in May 1975. I had mostly to thank for this rare opportunity my new boss, Ken Lucas, Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Fisheries and Marine Service, Environment Canada. I had started work as his Chief of Information Services in January, after completing a six month French training course, and managing participation in fisheries exhibits was part of my job.
Getting involved in international fisheries exhibitions was an important way of promoting measures Canada was taking to prepare for the extension of territorial limits over fishing activities on the continental shelf. Law of the Sea deliberations would usher in this new era of fisheries management with the establishment of a 200 mile limit in the following year. Fisheries and Marine undertook, in cooperation with the province of Nova Scotia, to host a World Fishing Exhibition in 1977 in Halifax, and needed to see how it was organized at the 1975 Exhibition taking place in Marseilles.
Ray Mills from the Nova Scotia government, Frank King from Federal Fisheries in Halifax and I joined forces to outline plans and answer questions about the 1977 event. Nova Scotia’s Minister of Fisheries and the Mayors of Halifax and Dartmouth also attended. Canada’s exhibit included three dimensional representations of the ocean floors around our coasts, illustrating the extent of our continental shelf.
One of the feature presentations at the exhibition was a selection of films on fisheries subjects, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that one of them was a film I had been closely involved with during its production. When I mentioned this, I was asked to speak about it and, with great trepidation, found myself doing so in French. While I had emerged from training at the top level in December, it was a nerve-wracking experience but I somehow managed to get through it without too much anguish. Perhaps it helped that I was still sporting a thick black beard which I had cultivated during the French course.
During the exhibition, I spent some enjoyable time with Fishing News International magazine editor Peter Hjul and his colleagues, a most interesting group. Peter had provided his readers with extensive coverage of the 1973 FAO Conference on Fishery Management and Development in Vancouver. He was accompanied in Marseilles by staff members who reported on fisheries activities at various world centres. One of them was impressively multi-lingual but spoke English in the unmistakable dialect of a London cockney. Another told me he was soon leaving to take on a new job doing fisheries training in the Seychelles, and he sent me a postcard from there later.

Whaling and Wandering in London

The Thames of London, even though it’s a whole lot cleaner than it used to be, is hardly a habitat for great whales, yet there is a lot of talk about them when nations around the world send delegates to meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Formed in 1946 to provide for the conservation and management of whale stocks, the commission has its headquarters in Impington, a village near Cambridge in England. Canada is one of some 88 member countries. Only a few countries engage in whaling today but it remains a highly emotional subject.
A Canadian delegation took an active part in IWC deliberations in London in June 1935, and I attended, mainly to gauge the nature and extent of controversy then surrounding this issue. Delegate discussions dealt largely with scientific studies of whale populations and the impact of whaling operations in that period.

Federal fisheries policies at the time focused on conservation concerns, seeking to ensure the protection of whale stocks, but with growing awareness of campaigns by anti-whaling interests.

Several outspoken opponents of whaling attended the meeting and used every opportunity to present their views. One notable individual was a New Zealand scientist, Dr. Paul Spong, who began whale research at the Vancouver Aquarium, primarily focused on a killer whale named Skana, and became a leading Greenpeace activist. What I did not expect was hearing the highly biased views of some American government officials whose anti-whaling sentiments proved even more extreme than those of protest groups.

Lancaster House interior

Lancaster House interior

Officials at Canada House on Trafalgar Square, particularly Press Officer Don Peacock, provided helpful support to me and other Fisheries staff attending the IWC meeting. Canadian High Commissioner Barry Mawhinney led a group of us at a stately reception held at Lancaster House in St. James Park, tendered by the British Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

For the IWC meeting, I stayed within walking distance at St. Ermin’s Hotel on Caxton Street, a most impressive building. Almost across the street I discovered another imposing structure, bearing identification as New Scotland Yard. After the meeting, I had to settle for less grandiose accommodations at the Athenaeum Hotel.

Sight seeing in London, meanwhile, was an entirely enjoyable experience, partly accompanied by Fishing News International editor Peter Hjul whom I had met two years previously at an international fisheries conference in Vancouver. One locale he made sure to show me was London’s famous Billingsgate Fish Market. He also welcomed me to his office and on a tour of Fleet Street, then still a thriving journalistic centre.

I also had the pleasure of spending time with my good friend Cy Fox who was then on the staff of Reuters News agency on Fleet Street, and sporting a G.K. Chesterton moustache.

Places of interest I visited during my stay included Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tate Gallery, The Tower of London, and many more.

Remembering ICNAF at Edinburgh

One of the most satisfying experiences of my career in federal government communications was also one of the rarest: doing media relations at an overseas international conference. The event was the annual meeting of the International Commission for Northwest Atlantic Fisheries (ICNAF), taking place in Scotland’s capital city, Edinburgh in June 1975.

Deliberations focused on the impact of Law of the Sea negotiations which resulted a year or so later in establishment of the 200 mile limit of national jurisdiction over fisheries and marine resources. I was there to handle communications for Environment Canada’s Fisheries and Marine Service, predecessor of today’s Fisheries and Oceans Department. Some 18 countries having some involvement in the then thriving fisheries of the Northwest Atlantic were members of ICNAF.
Federal fisheries representatives – Dr. Art May, Dr. Mike Sheppard, Bob Applebaum are some whom I remember – took a leading role in the discussions. Promoting Canada’s interests in international fisheries had been a dominant theme of government policy since Law of the Sea deliberations began in the early 1970s. Fisheries Minister Jack Davis had hosted in Vancouver in 1973 a 10-day FAO Technical Conference on Fishery Management and Development, and I was there as a Press Officer.

Our Canadian group stayed at Edinburgh’s hospitable George Hotel where we found a most enjoyable custom of allowing guests to take their refreshments after hours in the open lounge. Socializing so comfortably after long days of serious negotiating was an unexpected boon. The rafters rang often with song, much stimulated by the spirited talents of Art May and his songstress wife Sonya.

My first impression of Edinburgh came aboard a bus taking us from Prestwick Airport into the city when watching two little girls talking to their obviously Pakistani parents in the thickest Scottish accents one could imagine. A plethora of Scottish speech and no small quantities of Scotch liquor served to lighten the task of supporting media coverage of an important international event. In between business meetings, delegates were treated to several receptions, one of which was hosted at Edinburgh city chambers by the Lord Provost and members of the Edinburgh district council. A particularly enjoyable reception came from a Scotch whisky organization, serving top rated malt whisky in stylish wine glasses – with neither ice nor soda to mar the taste. Never much of a Scotch fan (leaning usually toward rye in those days), I was amazed how smooth and flavorful all of them were.

Leading Canadian reporters attending the conference were Tom Earle, CBC; John Hay, Canadian Press; Peter Calamai, Southam Press; and David MacDonald, FP Publications. Others included Pat Massey, Reuters; Peter Hjul, Fishing News International; and Spike Noel, World Fishing Magazine.
A cherished memento of that experience was this letter dated June 24, 1975, addressed to Hon. Romeo LeBlanc, Minister of State for Fisheries, from Tom Earle, London Correspondent for CBC Radio News:
“On behalf of John Hay of Canadian Press London Bureau and myself, I want to say how much we appreciated the help given to us at the ICNAF Conference by Nix Wadden, your Chief of Information Branch. His professional assistance, rendered at all times, helped us a great deal.”