Thursday, December 04, 2008

Around Greece in 7 Days - The Peloponnese

Having crossed the Corinth Canal we entered the Peloponnese, a remarkable part of Greece with a history of over 5000 years and a profusion of ancient and medieval sites and monuments. The landscape is dominated by forested mountains and the economy relies on rural produce such as the olive, the vine, citrus fruits and honey.
The first Olympic Games originated in the region and it is where the modern Greek revolution began and ended with an independent Greek state.

We had fine views over the Saronic Gulf during our drive down the eastern coast of the Peloponnese on our way to Nea Epidaurus. There is little cultivation in the coastal strip just Aleppo pines and maquis interspersed with olive groves. The harbour at Nea Epidaurus is one in which we may stay next year. Our room with its balcony in the Hotel Marilena overlooked the sea and the islands to the northeast. The accommodation was inexpensive and comfortable and we eat supper of homemade burgers and chips at the adjoining Taverna Ta Kymata on the beach.

In the cool of the morning and with few other tourists through the sweet fragrance of pines on a hillside below Mount Arahneo emerged the magnificent 3rd century theatre of Epidaurus, the most celebrated and complete ancient theatre in Greece. It is a miracle of architecture built with limestone with the semi circular auditorium 114 metres across at the front arranged around a circular stage. The 55 tiers of seating (the top 21 being a Roman addition) are divided into blocks by 36 staircases. The near perfect acoustics are such that a whisper from the stage can be heard by the person in the 14,000 audience most remote from the stage. Miggy was here over 25 years ago and actually helped make the scenery for and watched ancient Greek drama here. The theatre is a place that will remain vivid in our memories for a long time.

The road from Epidaurus toward Nafplio passes through vineyards and age old olive groves with the mountains looming hazily in the distance. Nafplio with the huge Venetian fortresses of Palamidi and Akronafplia, the island fortress of Bourtzi, its marble pavements, neoclassical buildings and wooden balconies with cascading bougainvillaea is the most elegant town in Greece. After enduring many sieges during the struggle between the Venetians and the Turks and occupation by both, the town was the first capital of liberated Greece from 1829 to 1834. The first Greek parliament (Vouli) was held in the Vouleftiko mosque!

The site of Mycenae was inhabited as far back as the 3rd millennium BC although the remains today reflect early citadel architecture of the Mycenaean or late bronze age from 1700 to 1100BC. Only the ruling class inhabited the hilltop palace, the townspeople living outside the walls. The city was abandoned in 1200BC after disruption and a devastating fire. Much of the complex is remarkably intact considering how long ago it was abandoned and the Mycenaeans buildings were clearly technologically advanced with stone walls in the lower storey and timber framing in as many as two storeys above. The defensive ‘Cyclopean’ walls enclosing the town are constructed with enormous boulders and measure up to 14 metres thick. How these early peoples transported stones of this size and weight from the quarry to this site let alone how they hoisted them in to place in the walls is a feat of unimaginable proportions that has been attributed with some justification to the mythical Cyclops.

The 13th century carved ‘Lion gate’, the main monumental entrance is exquisite for its age. Mycenaean rulers were entombed, along with weapons and enough food and drink to last the journey to the underworld, in grave circles and later in ‘Tholos’ (‘beehive’) tombs examples of which can be seen within and nearby the walled town.

Mycenae was the most powerful city state in Greece until 1100BC and its destruction by fire. The House of Atreus who ruled here had an interesting if not macabre history: King Atreus slaughtered his Brother Thyestes’s children and fed them to him, for which outrage the gods laid a curse on Atreus and his descendants. Thyestes surviving daughter, Pelopia, bore her own father a son, Aigisthos murdered Atreus and restored Thyestes to the throne of Mycenae but Atreus also had an heir, Agamemnon, who seized power. Agamemnon raised a fleet to punish the Trojan Paris who had stolen his brother’s wife, Helen (of Troy fame). He sacrificed his daughter to obtain a favourable wind. When he returned he was murdered by his wife, Klytemnestra, and her lover, - none other than Aigistros. The murderous pair was then disposed of by Agamemnon’s children, Orestes and Elektra. And we think we have family feuds!

Githio, an unremarkable seaside resort looking tired at the end of the season, was once the naval base for Sparta. Linked to the seafront by a causeway lies the islet of Marathonisi, thought to be Homer’s Kranai Island where Paris of Troy and Helen spent their first night together. Githio is also the western gateway to the ‘Mani’, an extraordinary if not unique region on and around the middle peninsular at the south of the Peloponnese. The barren, rocky ‘Inner Mani’ occupies the peninsular itself whilst the more fertile and quite beautiful ‘Outer Mani’ lies to the north. Both are dominated by the dramatic 2400 metre limestone summits of the Taygetus Mountain range densely clad in black pine and fir on the lower slopes.

Feuding between Maniot clans over inadequate land was rife and once started could last for months or years although they agreed truces every now and then to tend to the crops. The fortified ‘tower’ houses characteristic of this area were built so that clansmen could fire at each other, raising them up to five storeys so as to be able to catapult rocks onto opponent’s roofs. Villages full of such houses, now desolate and strangely quiet, are scattered throughout the ‘Inner Mani’ nestled among acres of abandoned terracing where crops, probably vines or olives, used to grow. The population fled from their homes in 1920 to settle in the United States. Why no one seems to know but could it be famine due to crop failure?

Vatheia at the southernmost extremity of the peninsular is typical of the neglect and decay but rich Athenians and, perhaps, Americans of Maniot descent are returning to restore the famous towers, some as hunting lodges for the brief autumn shoot of quail and turtle dove. Mani’s main town, Aeropolis, is delightful. We had coffee there accompanied by a light, crispy, doughnutty thing with feta cheese which was absolutely scrumptious.

Lunch of delicious whitebait and Greek salad outside in the rain on the waterfront at Koroni, one of the ‘eyes of Venice’ was delightful. The stepped streets of the town, lying below the 13th century Venetian castle and the houses with their wrought iron balconies have changed little since the town’s origin in 1830.

Our base for the night, Methoni, is the other ‘eye of Venice’, named as such for the protection afforded to Venice against hostile Ottoman fleets entering the Adriatic from the east. The walls of the rambling Venetian castle at Methoni, later modified by
the Turks and the French, enclose the remains of two hamams, a Venetian church and minaret bases. The Turks however had the final say by building a fort on the islet of Bourzi beyond the Venetian sea gate.

Surprisingly on an island just south of the town Greece’s first lighthouse was built in 1896 by order of Queen Victoria of England!

We spent an uncomfortable night in Methoni due to Mosquito attack but the Hotel Castello was clean and inexpensive. Supper at the ‘Klimateria’ restaurant was of typical Greek cuisine and excellent and we enjoyed a nightcap in the ‘local’ down the road. Although the Pub was packed with mostly young people drinking, the drunkenness that is prevalent in the UK was not apparent.

The Geek Revolution and the 1821 to 1831 War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire were fought in the Peloponnese and so modern Greece grew from the battlefields of this region. Independence was decided at Pylos at the naval battle of Navarino, the town’s former name. A fleet of 27 Russian, French and English ships entered Navarino Bay where the Ottoman fleet of 89 ships lay at anchor. The intention was merely to intimidate the Ottomans into leaving the Bay but the allied fleet was fired upon and a full scale battle ensued. By nightfall three quarters of the Ottoman fleet was sunk with negligible allied casualties. Greek independence followed. The bay of Navarino now looks a beautiful, safe and sheltered place to anchor!

The Peloponnese has a varied landscape dominated by forested mountains between which the fertile river valleys and plains host cultivation of all kinds including citrus trees and vegetables and fruits. Olive groves abound around Kalamata and the south west of the region and the west coast between Methoni in the south and Patra in the north is given to tourism and boasts some of the Mediterranean’s finest beaches. Ancient archaeological sites are profuse the most renowned of which, Olympia, lies at the confluence of the rivers Alfeios and Kladeos in the pine and cypress clad foothills of the Folios Mountains in the Eleia (Ilia) region.

A religious sanctuary on the site of Olympia flourished since Mycenaean times and there are indications that Games were being held on the site in 1000BC. In 776BC the leader of the Eleians, Iphotos, rededicated the Games to Zeus and named the site Olympia after the god’s abode on Mount Olympus. This date marks the first Olympiad and from then on every four years Pan-Hellenic contests were held attracting athletes from all the Greek city states. During the games the Olympic Truce, still honoured in the modern Games, was in force and all hostilities between states were suspended.

The stadium where the Games were held was 212.5 metres long by 28.5 metres wide. The 45,000 spectators sat on raised grass terracing all round and the stone exedra (enclosure) of the Hellanodikai or Judges opposite the altar to the goddess Demeter Chamyne are still evident. Women were not allowed to take part in or watch the Games, perhaps because the men competed naked! The Romans took control of the Games, which included sprinting, wrestling, boxing and equestrian events, until they were banned by the Christians as being pagan in 393AD. The institution of the Olympic Games had flourished for twelve centuries and had made a brilliant contribution to the history and development of sport.

Fifteen centuries later in 1896 the Games were revived in their birthplace, Greece and since then every four years a torch bearer starts out from Olympia bearing the sacred flame to the venue of the Games, the next of which, fittingly, is of course London.

The monuments or remains thereof at Olympia, both Greek and Roman, dating from as early as the 6th century BC are truly impressive and survive in such completeness as to give a good idea of the grandeur of the buildings and the form of the layout of the entire complex. The 5th century BC Temple of Zeus, the centrepiece of the site, with its massive Doric columns some standing and some laying where they collapsed as a result of an earthquake is magnificent and the various Gymnasia where the athletes trained are of enormous proportion. The Council House where the athletes swore the oath before the Games and the Guesthouses are all quite outstanding. Even the Roman Emperor Nero’s enormous house, built for the single year that he competed here and won every event by cheating, impresses.

Achaia, the extreme north western region of the Peloponnese, embraced Christianity earlier than the remainder of Greece and the Apostle St Andrew preached and was martyred in the capital, Patras.

As well as its fine beaches, the west coast of Achaia in the vicinity of Kalogria and its lagoons ranks as one of Europe’s largest wetlands. Rare wildlife abounds there and areas of sand dunes support Aleppo pine and valonea oaks. The area is clearly extremely fertile and, as well as a wide variety of salad and vegetables, gourds and pumpkin are plentiful.

The 13th century AD Frankish Chlemousti Castle was on a hill overlooking the plain around Kalogria and the port of Killini. A good view can be had from the castle ramparts of the surrounding area and as far as the Ionian Islands.

Patras, the capital of the Peloponnese and Greece’s third city and second port is no beauty and had no interest for us so we bypassed it on a magnificent motorway that ran mostly through tunnels. We emerged from the end of one of these tunnels to see the magnificent Rion-Andirrion suspension bridge completed in 2004. This impressive structure is the longest cable stayed bridge in the world at 2.252 metres. The narrow straight over which the bridge spans and the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth is a windy place that we will have to negotiate next spring.

The final leg of our 2000 mile tour of mainland Greece found us driving along the west coast the Sterea Ellada overlooking the beautiful Ionian Islands. We lunched on the waterfront at Astakos. On the lagoon entering Lefkas the first of the Flamingos welcomed us back to our winter home.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Greece in 7 Days - The Northwest

The first day of our excursion to the Greek mainland took us north to the Epirus region where mythology has it that the Gates of Hades were situated at the confluence of the Rivers Acheron and Kokytos. It is said that Haron, the ferryman, waited for the souls and, after they paid him some coins for the ride, they were allowed to enter Pluto’s kingdom. So, as the song goes, don’t pay the ferryman!

Ali Pasha, an Albanian by birth, rebuilt Ioannina, Epirus’s principal town, in 1815 during the Ottoman rule and the Pasha mosque, now a museum, still stands within the walls of the fortress. Pasha was a great administrator but a murderer nonetheless and, having great ambition to form a Greco-Albanian state and gain independence from his overlords, he received his just reward by losing his own life at the hands of the Sultan.

Plentiful olive groves and citrus orchards fill the lush plains south of the Pindos Mountains and there are many trout farms along the river valley. Steep narrow roads and hairpin bends took us into this range that stretches from the west coast eastward to Macedonia and to the Albanian border in the north. The Pindos includes two National parks, Greece’s second highest mountain at 2640m and the world’s second deepest canyon, the Vikos gorge.

It was the Vikos gorge and the area of the Zagoria that we had particularly wanted to see. Some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery can be found here and clinging to the pine forested hillsides some 46 traditional Zagorian villages survive with their houses constructed with local stone walls and roof coverings.

In Monodendri, south of the Vikos Gorge, we ate traditional cheese and spinach pie for lunch after which we drove upward to Beloi and then walked through the dense aromatic bushes of the maquis, where hung mistletoe, among the grazing cows to the very edge of a sheer precipice falling to the river in the Gorge 1500 metres below. The view over the Gorge was stunning and there was silence up there broken only by the faint whisper of the breeze, cow bells and the calls of the Vlach shepherds in the valleys below. The shepherds are a dying breed however as the villagers, especially the younger generation, prefer to earn their living from tourism.

European brown bears, wolves, roe deer and wild boar can be found here but they are wary of man having been persecuted by farmers and goatherds for hundreds of years. They are protected now but, needless to say, we saw none. We did however glimpse eagles and other birds of prey, perhaps Egyptian vultures, circling in the thermals.

Memorable and distinctive features of the Zagoria are the early eighteenth century arched packhorse bridges. We saw fine examples of single span and three span bridges near the village of Kipoi. The steep pathways are ridged so that the mules and horses could find a foothold.

Our haven for the night was Megalo Papigko, one of the finest traditional villages at the northern end of the Gorge with impressive views along the Gorge. The old lady at the Taverna Killiopi welcomed us with open arms and kisses. The bed was hard but the supper of spicy pork and local wine was delicious.

If our welcome at the Taverna was warm then our departure was torrid with the old lady in tears. After a good breakfast we drove down from the village with the sun rising through the Gorge. The foothills were ablaze with extraordinarily vivid autumnal colour from the vast variety of deciduous trees intermingled with the dark evergreen pine, the invigorating smell of which pervaded the air. Now we know the origin of ‘the burning bush’. Swathes of wild cyclamen and crocus, from the stamen of which comes saffron, and the odd wild orchid adorn the grassy slopes to complete the rich and vibrant picture.

The lower slopes of the Pindos Mountains to the south are a popular ski centre with its principal resort of Metsovo, once a small village occupied by the Vlach shepherds. The place became one of the region’s most important centres having been granted tax privileges in Ottoman times for guarding the nearby strategic Katara pass that crosses the Pindos. Local merchants invested their new found wealth in the town and continue to do so today by providing grants and endowments to support the local craftspeople.

The sight of the natural sandstone towers of Meteora rising out of the Thessaly plain is extraordinary. The fact that these pinnacles, some of which are 700 metres high, have monasteries on the top of them is unbelievable but true. Caves within the rocks provided safe refuge for hermits during the 10th century AD and from the 14th century AD monks built twenty four monasteries perched on high hoping to see God more clearly through the thin blue air of the summits and, dwelling there in total isolation and privation, to achieve lives of Christian perfection! The communities reached their peak in the 17th century, the monasteries being richly endowed by prominent Greek Christian families but by the 19th century fortunes were reversed and most had fallen into ruin. In the 1920’s stairs were cut to make the remaining six inhabited monasteries more accessible and today a religious revival is taking place financed in part by the hordes of tourists clambering over the buildings.

How these edifices built in the first place is astonishing. It seems that the rocks were scaled by means of scaffolding lashed to a series of timbers wedged into the crevices. These structures were replaced later by incredibly long ladders although visitors and goods could be hauled up by block and tackle in nets swinging giddily with the threat of the rope slipping round the capstan or breaking to plunge the passenger to his death on the ground hundreds of metres below. Nets are still used today for goods and building materials but the capstan is driven by electric motor!

We visited two of the monasteries or should I say one monastery and one convent. The convent of Rousanou founded in the 13th century by St Barbara and, standing on a precipitous rock and occupied by fourteen nuns, was rebuilt in its present form in the 16th century. Its church of the Metamorphosis is renowned for its horrific frescoes showing sinners in hell being eaten by lions. The nuns craft beautiful lacework, tapestry and embroidery, paint icons, keep bees and produce honey and candles there from.

The monastery of Varlaam, now housing seven monks, was founded in the early 16th century, the rock having first been inhabited by hermits in 1350. Apart from an interesting church and a treasury of significant wealth, the monastery is renowned for its outsized cask made in the 16th century to hold 13,000 litres of wine or nearly enough to keep us going for about 50 years!

A long drive through the fertile plains of Thessaly, birthplace of the Centaurs, cultivated almost wholly with cotton, took us to a late and unplanned stop at Lamia and to the only accommodation available in this non tourist area, an expensive hotel. The redeeming features were that the luxurious room had a huge comfortable bed, BBC World TV and an ensuite bathroom with a bath! The hotel did not have a restaurant however and there was no Taverna nearby. There was a Carrefour supermarket next door, however, where we bought half a roast chicken and a couple of hot vegetable dishes from their deli counter, two plastic plates and sets of stainless steel cutlery which we took back to our room to eat washed down with a bottle of reasonable good local wine all for a total of €16.

After a typical continental buffet breakfast we joined the Athens motorway and drove through olive groves and cherry orchards along the coast overlooking the Island of Evvia, Greece’s second largest island of which we saw little through the mist. We cut westward inland through rolling hills and fertile valleys to Mount Parnassus which at 2457 metres dominates the region of Sterea Ellada. The Mountain, the lower slopes of which are covered with Cephalonian fir, is the international symbol of poetry and the mythological home of the Muses and the god Apollo.

Views over the azure sea and rock strewn foreshore of the Gulf of Corinth from the fragrant Aleppo pine and heather covered slopes of the Gerania hills heralded our imminent arrival at the impressive Corinth canal. Rather than risk sailing round the dreaded Cape Matapan, the southernmost point of the Peloponnese, the ancients would beach their boats, drag them six kilometres across the isthmus here on a paved slipway and relaunch them on the other side. Next spring we will avoid the feared cape not by dragging Bella over the isthmus but by sailing through the canal that they have conveniently built for us! Nero started construction in 1st Century AD but the 23 metre wide cutting through the sandstone was only completed between 1882 and 1893. What a mammoth task it must have been to dig this volume of sandstone without the use of today’s machines. One marvels at it but I wonder where they dumped all the spoil!

Ancient Corinth, built by the Romans circa 46AD, prospered from its position on the trade route between the Saronic and Corinthian Gulfs, the shortest way between the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic and Italy. With a population of three quarters of a million it was Greece’s largest Roman city and it gained a reputation for immoral living which St Paul criticised in 52AD. The site was closed for the day when we arrived in the early afternoon either because of winter hours or because staff hadn’t turned up for work! We don’t know which to believe of the two stories given to us! We were able to get reasonably close glimpses of three of the major elements of the town from outside the perimeter fence – the Theatre, the striking temple of Apollo and the marble paved Lechaion Way that linked the town with its sea port. The Bema or platform where St Paul was accused of sacrilege by the Jews of Corinth was also apparent.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Annual Cruising Round-Up

The highlight of our season was undoubtedly sailing into the heart of Venice to the very jaws of the Grand Canal just a cable or so from Piazza San Marco. We had set our heart on doing this during our honeymoon there some fourteen years ago.

To this end we left our winter base at Monastir, Tunisia at the beginning of March and watched the weather very carefully as we sailed to Malta and Gozo, the east coast of Sicily and the toe and heel of Italy. We then cruised through the Dalmatian Islands via the Istrian peninsular to and from Venice, dropping into Montenegro and Corfu on our way to our 2008/2009 winter base of Lefkas in the Ionian Islands.

Our statistics for the season compared with the two previous years since we left the UK are as follows:

Distance logged - 2400NM
Ave speed - 5.22 Knots
Under canvas - 15%
Motoring/motor sailing - 85%
Days at sea making passage - 48%

We have enjoyed the season immensely visiting some beautiful and interesting cruising grounds and places. In hindsight, however, we found 2400 miles in a season of seven months on the water without a break a little ambitious. We think that next year will revert to having a summer break in the UK to avoid the heat, crowds and expense of high season and also the meltemi!

The percentage time spent under canvas this year was significantly reduced compared with previous years for two reasons. Sailing northwestward up the Adriatic one tends to motor in the morning calms to avoid the afternoon fresh to strong northwesterlies in the afternoon. Our southeastward travel down the Adriatic during the crowded high season dictated that we arrive at our destination, be it anchorage, town quay or marina, by the early afternoon to ensure getting a berth. The dilemma here is that the sea breeze does not kick in until after midday and so the calm or very light breeze of the morning again severely limited the possibility of good quality sailing.

A bonus this year has been the opportunity to anchor in beautiful sheltered bays and harbours on many more occasions than in the past. We lay to our hook on 98 of the 204 times that we moored. We were limited to about ten consecutive nights at anchor by the amount of water we carry. Our average daily usage for drinking (inc. Tea and coffee), cooking, washing up (we don’t use salt water) and cleaning teeth is around 30 litres. We use solar deck showers having filled the bags at the previous watering hole.

The principal difficulties that we have experienced during our travels this year have been:
Getting camping gaz refills in Italy and Croatia
Lack of internet access in Croatia particularly WiFi
Expensive marinas, quays and cost of living generally in Croatia
Overcrowded moorings during the July and August mania

The benefits and pleasure of sailing to Venice and cruising Maltese, Sicilian, Croatian and Montenegrin waters has far outweighed these difficulties and we have no regrets whatsoever about our choice of destination, fond memories of which will stay with us forever.

We are astounded at the number of national ensign we have seen this season now standing at 54 from countries as diverse as Cuba, Sierra Leone, Lithuania, The Marshall islands, Japan and the Yemen. The British are in the Adriatic but in small numbers and most them are based in Croatian marinas rather than transiting as we were. We felt we had little social contact during the year as a result of the dearth of likeminded cruising folk of all nationalities except, of course, when we sailed in company for a week in the Sibenik archipelago with our Lymington friends Ted and Iris Watts and later when other friends from Lymington, Peter and Karen Mills, joined us on board Bella for eight days in the Dubrovnik area.

The large number of super and mega yachts, both sail and power, and some a lot smaller fly the Red Ensign with not a soul on board capable of understanding let alone speaking English. We have never considered the red Ensign as a flag of convenience but apparently Europeans are buying their yachts in England and registering them there to take advantage of our comparatively low rate of VAT.

We are now settling in to our winter base of Lefkas on the mountainous but lush Ionian Island of the same name which is separated from the mainland by a 23 metre wide canal and has been separated by a narrow waterway in one form or another since the 7th century BC. Lefkas town is a clean working town which, because of the constant threat of earthquake the last major event being in 2004, has buildings that are built generally no more than two storeys with masonry walls in the ground storey and timber framed and timber or corrugated iron clad in the first storey. Many have lovely wooden balconies covered with vines or Mediterranean flowers. The churches, and there are many of them, are small and ornate internally with earthquake resistant freestanding iron framed rather than masonry bell towers. It has all the amenities and facilities we could wish for within a short walk or, at most, a five minute bicycle ride from the sheltered marina. We like Lefkas and its clean, friendly atmosphere. People smile a lot here.

We have bought second hand bikes and are cycling every day, weather permitting, for exercise and convenience. The wildlife on the salt lagoons around Lefkas town is amazing with Dalmatian pelicans, storks, flamingos, egret, coots, pintails, kingfishers and more.

There will be a social life for us here in the marina as there are over seventy liveaboards in around forty boats based here for the winter. Some live here permanently with houses ashore, some have made this marina their permanent base but still reside in UK and others like us are just passing through. The majority of people are British but there are three Swedish couples and a single Swedish chap, one Belgians couples (Yannes and Agni on ‘Dushi’ already known to us), two German couples, a French couple with two children and a Dutch couple. We have already met many of these people and a pontoon party helped break the ice. Our friends from Lymington, Peter and Ruth Austin are here as are friends we met in Spain two years ago, Martin and Linda. Miggy volunteered our services to host the radio net once a week.

The weather, with very few exceptions, has been excellent. We are still sitting in the cockpit for lunch most days in a temperature of 24°C. The thought of the cold weather in the UK sends shivers down our spines but we are looking forward tremendously to seeing family and friends over the Christmas period.

Until then, Yassas

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Montenegro to Lefkas

We started the 175 mile passage from Budva, Montenegro to Gouvia marina, Corfu at 0930 and arrived 33 hours later having not sailed an inch. The distance through the water was 190 miles meaning that we suffered an average of nearly half a knot of adverse tide. Who says there’s no tide in the Mediterranean?

Miggy trailed her fishing line but apart from the ‘big one that got away’ she didn’t catch a thing. We glimpsed Albania as dawn broke before we were enveloped in dense fog, or was it smog, for an hour or so. As the fog cleared we saw a large school of Dolphins circling and Tuna jumping, both feeding on their small fish prey. We tentatively sailed through former minefields, now considered ‘not dangerous to surface navigation’, along the arid mountainous Albanian coast until we reached the north east tip of the contrastingly luxuriant green island of Corfu. At this point Albania is only a mile from Corfu. With its relatively recent Democracy and political stability Albania is opening up to tourism. Yachts are returning to Albanian waters and yachtsmen report fair but cumbersome formalities and friendly and welcoming people. The Authorities’ main concern is drug running and stowaways.

The temperature in Corfu was lower than we had in Croatia and Montenegro but the humidity was much higher making life quite uncomfortable. A little after our arrival the heavens opened and we had a dramatic thunder storm which lasted for an hour or two. In fact the weather was poor from then for a further two weeks during which we had rain, thunderstorms and cool temperatures sometimes low enough to abandon the shorts and T shirts for trousers and fleeces! We have had two weeks of rain in these lush green islands and still they charge us €3 to €5 for 200 litres of water. It is almost cheaper to buy the bottled stuff.

Formalities in the marina were handled by a rather disinterested young man. He had a laugh at Miggy’s port documentation form which she had translated into Greek. In fact she had merely transposed letters from the Latin alphabet to the Greek alphabet. The words were, of course, meaningless. Miggy later translated the port documentation using the Yachtsman’s Ten Language Dictionary and the phrase book and the Port Police lady was impressed! The cost of the marina at 34€ was twice what we had expected. It was surprising to find that it was high season until the end of September.

We are used to being on the flight path to airport runways but never before have we been within 20 metres of the taxiway from an aircraft’s stand to the runway. The seaplane from Corfu to Lefkas, Patras, Brindisi and other places is based at Gouvia Marina. We had 10 kilos of laundry done for 24€. Miggy was ecstatic not to have had to wash all that by hand.

Customs procedures, as we thought them to be, were carried out by three people doing one persons job but they were happy and welcoming. We had to pay £35 which included an entry tax and our Traffic Document (DEKPA). We discovered on leaving Corfu that these people were not the Customs but the Port Police and that we were actually persona non grata. We were told to try to clear Customs at our next port of call. We tried this at Gaios on the island of Paxos but the Officer waved us away when he learnt that we and the boat were British!

We have finally found out where all the Brits hang out. It is here in Corfu. There are some who have annual contracts, some who, like us, are passing through and some who have been here for years and who, looking at the state of their boats, will never move again. Some have moved base from marinas in Croatia here to Corfu because of the inhibitive expense of Croatia.

The Ionian Islands are the greenest and most luxuriant of all Greek archipelagos. Corfu, the most northerly Island, is the most verdant of all with one of the highest winter rainfalls in Greece. It is mountainous in the north with pine and cypress clad slopes interspersed with the silver grey of olive sloping down to the waters’ edge. Cows graze and much of Corfu’s plentiful produce grows on the fertile plains in the south.

Corfu is the fabled home of the Phaeacians who ferried Odysseus home to Ithaka in the 13th century BC. The desire for Corfu’s independence from the Corinthians who colonised the island from the 8th to the 5th century BC involved the Athenians and the Spartans and led circuitously to the Peloponnesian war that was in effect the demise of Athens and classical Greece. The Romans holidayed here during from the 3rd century BC until the 8th century AD when the Byzantines took power until the 11th century. After three hundred years in the wilderness the Venetians ruled until the end of the 18th century. The French had a go for seventeen years until the British took over for 50years and introduced cricket, croquet, ginger beer and fruit cake. Corfu finally ceded to Greece in 1864.

The fact that the monsoon arrived as soon as we set foot in Corfu town may have clouded our opinion of the place. In the two and a half years that we have been travelling around the Mediterranean, however, we have visited many interesting and beautiful towns and cities among which Corfu town does not rank.

The legacy of the Venetians, the French and the British is evidenced in some fine architecture but the buildings are grimy and in disrepair. The Old Venetian fortress that would have been subject to continual restoration and repair in any other town or city is neglected and actually partly collapsed. The stucco surfaces of The Palace of St Michael and St George built by the British and the home of the Greek royal family for a short time and of the French built Liston whose colonnades now house expensive cafes are grimy black as if the edifices were situated in the Welsh valleys. Even the cricket pitch has the indignity of being surrounded on three sides by car parks. The maze of narrow alleyways over which Corfiot housewives hang their washing from the balconies and the shady cobbled squares are picturesque but the buildings need far-reaching renovation. We did all the sightseeing prescribed including climbing to the top turret of the Old Fortress and then returned to the Marina where we had a very good Greek cuisine meal at a reasonable price.

A rare but wonderful and exhilarating reach from the marina at Corfu took us to Ormiskos Valtou hear Igoumenitsa on the mainland shore. We anchored in this secluded and picturesque bay for three nights. A tiny Belgian yacht called Dushi with Yannis and Agni on board that was beside us in the Marina also came in to the bay later on. The thunder roared and the rain poured and it blew up to 30 knots but we were secure and happy; that is until our anchor dragged after three mighty gusts hits us. The mud we had dropped our anchor on was soft and not the sticky stuff that holds well. We moved into a little more shelter and were fine from then on.

Herds of goats were heralded by their beautifully toned bells, herons flew from rock to tree and back to rock and the fish jumped high. This was a wonderfully natural and tranquil place.

Our next destination was Gaios on the island of Paxos. We were happy to see that Yannic and Agni on Dushi were of like mind.

The islands of Paxos and its tiny partner Antipaxos form the smallest archipelago of the Ionian Island group. Paxos is an island of endless olive groves and Antipaxos is one large vineyard. There are 2500 inhabitants on the islands but they are invaded by 200,000 visitors during the summer months mostly arriving by boat from Corfu and Parga on the mainland. Homer was the first to refer to Paxos and thereafter its history is much the same as that of Corfu except that the Turks managed to invade twice during the 16th century.

Gaios waterfront is pictographic with its multi coloured 19th century buildings with Venetian fashion shutters and balconies. Behind are the historic narrow streets with their cafes, tavernas and shops. It is a sleepy place, except when invaded by the tourist boats, and the atmosphere is sociable and, I guess, ‘Greek’.

During our forty mile trip from Gaios to the Gulf of Amvrika amongst thunderstorms we passed Preveza, the winter storage ashore Mecca for those not wintering aboard. The Amvrika Gulf is an extensive and virtually landlocked sea surrounded by impressive distant mountains. It had little to offer us, however, with cloudy water and unsheltered anchorages.

Vonitsa waterfront is attractive but nothing particularly special. We walked around the town which is relatively modern and clearly tourist orientated. The tourists have gone home now, however, and the place looks forlorn and feels lifeless. Even the Venetian fort on top of the hill, in the course of renovation with EU money, was closed. We moored amongst a number of other Brits and Germans waiting to be lifted out of the water at Preveza. There are British and German boat gypsies here as well because there is no payment for berthing.

We arrived at the entrance to the narrow ship canal that has separated Lefkas Island from the mainland since antiquity on time for the road bridge to open which it duly did. A German yacht, last in the queue, typically went through first! Why do they have this towel bagging mentality and always want to be first and to be where you are? The entrance is narrow with a sand bar extending from the western point which I had erroneously ignored when fixing my waypoint. Luckily Miggy had spotted another yacht going behind the bar so we are still afloat! On our way down the canal we saw a varied selection of bird life including, to our utter amazement, Pelicans.

Faint memories of happy weeks of sailing here some thirty years ago came back to me as we made our way to Nidri on the east coast of Lefkas Island. We moored to the crowded town quay squeezed into one of the two vacant spaces. The quay and the wrongly named Tranquil Bay were crammed with yachts most of which were British flagged or on charter and the waterfront was wall to wall restaurants and Tavernas. The smell of bad cooking oil and drains is rife. It is all particularly disillusioning for me as I recall a small town with a quay occupied by just a few yachts and a bay that reflected its name of Tranquil. Still Miggy was ecstatic that she managed to find a good, inexpensive laundry.

We were pleased to leave the quay and wend our way through the crowd of anchored yachts to the large but sheltered Vlikho Bay just a mile or so away where we anchored, waiting to take up our berth in Lefkas Marina. We didn’t want to get there until the end of September as the high season rates of €34 a night applies until then. This Bay, which is really just an extension of the parking lot for Nidri, was relatively crowded when we arrived and got more so as the day wore on. Ultimately a flotilla of 12 Jaguar 27’s parked very close to us. These are the very yachts that we used to sail here nearly thirty years ago and I seem to recall that ‘Andros’ anchored very near us was the yacht we had on one trip.

We have booked flights to arrive back in the UK on the 16th December and to return to Athens on the 29th January 2008. This wasn’t easy as Easyjet made an error with our online booking and confirmed and took payment for a booking for flights they had previously told us were full. Thus, although we have successfully booked a flight home, we paid twice for it. The airline considered this to be our error and no amount of argument would convince them otherwise. They would not give a refund and so we have had to settle for a credit against further flights. Bring back Stavros! Anyway we look forward very much to seeing family and friends whilst we are at home.

We are pleased to have arrived at our winter base after a season of seven months during which we have travelled over 2500 miles. Our address at Lefkas Marina from the 1st October will be:

Lefkas Marina S.A.
Lefkas East Shore 31 100

Our mobile Greek number is +30 6955948709

For those early risers Miggy’s dulcet tones will be heard on BBC Radio Solent at around 0635 on Wednesday the 22nd October 2008.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Croatia revisited and Montenegro discovered

The romance of Venice seventy five miles behind us, entry formalities in Pula, Croatia were made difficult by the fact that the official who carried out our exit formalities at 0600 on the day of our departure to Venice had, in fact, entered rather than exited us! Complications were further compounded when immigration police discovered Miggy’s birthplace of Karachi and questioned her parentage. The Croats are not particularly keen on Muslims.

The Croats are not particularly keen on foreigners is general including the Italians who flock to the Dalmatian Islands in their thousands in craft of all types during July and August. We were told by many yachties and Croatian marina staff that they take every marina and town quay berth and crowd the anchorages without a thought for anybody else on the water. We were also told that the noise they make is deafening and antisocial and certainly not conducive to sleep.

In fact, despite the fact that we took steps to ensure that we secured our berth for the night, we did not experience serious overcrowding neither did we find the Italians any more antisocial than other nationals. Apart from the Austrians, it was the crews on yachts of a British flotilla that we found most disruptive and inconsiderate and it was the ‘lads’ from the Czech Republic that were the noisiest of all.

The strategy mentioned in the previous paragraph for ensuring a berth for the night was to arrive at our destination in the early afternoon. The dilemma here is that the sea breeze does not kick in until after midday and so the calm or very light breeze of the morning severely limited the possibility of good quality sailing.

During our month’s voyage back through the Dalmatian Islands we revisited many of our favourite towns and anchorages from before and we called in to a few places that were new to us.

Drevnik Veli on the Island of the same name is a delightful little harbour with a sheltered anchorage for no more than four or five yachts. During our stroll around this small town we noticed that there are many dilapidated or, indeed ruined houses amongst those still inhabited. The front facade of the church stands intact although the front section has been demolished and a new facade built further back. We are told that the ruins were Serbian occupied buildings before the war thirteen years ago. The peace treaty declared that Serbian homes in Croatia would remain in Serbian ownership untouched awaiting their possible return. Of course the Serbians would not be welcome in Croatia so they have not returned and the buildings have become dilapidated.

Vis, the main settlement on the island of Vis is a charming little place that has played its part in history. It was founded by the Greeks and later ruled by the Romans, the Byzantines and from 1420, the Venetians. It played a crucial part in World War 11 when Marshall Tito used the Island as a base for coordinating partisan military operations and met partisans, the Yugoslavian government and the allies in ‘Tito’s cave’.

Our Journal reads ‘We sailed into heaven today where one or two yachts were anchored in the secluded bay of Uvala Gradina at the western end of Otok Korcula. An Italian charter flotilla of six large yachts joined us together with many other charter yachts performing anchoring rituals never to be seen in the pages of Yachting Monthly. Later in the evening this beautiful bay with its oak, pine and cypress clad slopes plunging into the crystal clear turquoise water became a cacophonous hell. We discovered that one can turn hell back into heaven with a long dose of 5,000,000 candle power of halogen and a few carefully chosen words of Italian or English, it matters not’.

As we approached Luka Mali Lago on the Island of Lastovo a forest fire broke out at the top of the hill overlooking our anchorage. Flames shot heavenward accompanied by black smoke and nearby aerials were threatened. Fortunately there was no significant wind to fan the flames and spread the area of the fire too extensively. Three water carrying aircraft put on an exceptionally skilful and daring display for over an hour to quell the flames, which they did with great success.

We hired a ‘quad bike’ to have a look around Otok Lastovo. Our daredevil ride took us around the coast of Luka Veli Lago and its hotel and small marina packed with Italians hopefully waiting for good weather to go home and then on to Ubli, the ferry port and customs point. Ubli is a ghost town left by the military when they moved off the island a few years ago, prior to which it was closed to tourists. We then drove over the hills, some of which were nearly too much for our poor old bike, to Lastovo where we looked at the 12th century church of St Blaise, a small church from the fourteenth century and a sixteenth century loggia. Lack of tourism has helped preserve these and other monuments including Roman villas. A drive downhill found us in the nearly landlocked inlet of Zaklopatica which is now surrounded by restaurants and private houses and thus totally spoiled from the idyllic setting that must have existed not many years ago.

On the way along the north coast of Otok Mljet, perhaps our favourite of all the Dalmatian Islands, we anchored in the virtually landlocked Luka Prozura, a most charming bay with a village and a few holiday homes and no cars.

Whilst having a rare and extremely good value meal ashore at the Konoba Barba a lady joined us at the table because she thought we were American. She was Slovenian from Ljubljana and we became friendly with Barbara and Dusan Rogelj and their 12 year old son, Lovrenc. We were honoured to be invited to eat with them on the balcony of the apartment in which they were holidaying and they told us many stories of the problems of the former Yugoslavia and its later transformation into the many democratic republics that exist today.

Long standing friends from Lymington, Peter and Karen Mills, joined us at Dubrovnik and we spent a very pleasant few days with them cruising the Southern Dalmatian islands. On the way to Cavtat, where Peter and Karen were to leave us, we sailed right up to the harbour of the walled city of Dubrovnik and that was an exceptional experience.

To moor at the town quay at Cavtat costs just under £50 per night and there are no showers. The quay is dominated by super yachts. In high season the Italians bring their 70m mega yachts here and it would have been impossible for us to berth. The Harbourmaster reckons that this will be the ‘Portofino’ of Croatia in the not too far distant future and that the likes of us will not be able to afford to step onto the quay let alone berth there! Tom Cruise was here last week on a super yacht ketch moored just along from us. Peter and Karen kindly treated us to supper in the restaurant frequented by Abramavic and other rich and famous people. I doubt that they will hang photos of us outside their doors however!

Reports of high berthing prices and of a ‘police state’ had put us off visiting Montenegro but our minds were changed when a kind fellow yachtsman phoned us from Kotor and told us that the place was wonderful and that prices were reasonable.

Montenegro’s Adriatic ‘fjord’, the Boka Kotorska, consisting of three large gulfs linked with narrow channels, is rugged and spectacular being surrounded by mountains up to 1700m tall. After clearing customs and immigration very efficiently and cordially at the port of Zelenika (they even gave us a Montenegrin courtesy flag within the price of our week Vignette of 67€) we berthed on the quay at the historic town of Herceg Novi. The town was founded in 1382 by the King of Bosnia, Stjepan Tvrtko 1 and has had a bloody history since being attacked and besieged on numerous occasions until it was fortified in the 15th century by the Duke of Hum. Many rulers since then including the Turks, Venetians, Spaniards, Russians, French and Austrians have left evidence of their occupation in the form of well camouflaged fortifications and public buildings and the old town, despite having been severely damaged by an earthquake in 1979, lives on in splendour and beauty.

The town of Kotor appears at first sight nondescript if not ugly with a derelict hotel and sixties high rise concrete office block. Raising one’s eyes to the slopes of the Lovcen Mountain towering above the town, however, one will see the fort of St. Ivan 260 metres up with defensive walls zigzagging down to the old town at sea level. The town probably dates from the 3rd century BC and has been destroyed and rebuilt many times since. The fort and walls and the majority of the town’s building date from the Venetian occupation during the 15th to 18th centuries. The 15th century Clock Tower, the cathedral of St Tryphon and the tiny church of St Luke’s together with fine Venetian palaces line narrow streets and alleyways paved with pink and white stone polished by the soles of countless feet.

Also on the banks of the Boka Kotorska continued stands Perast, a former flourishing port and home to great sailors. Peter the Great sent his Russian Naval officers to study here. Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site the town, lacking the resources for restoration, is somewhat dilapidated.

A few hundred metres offshore from Perast are the tiny Islands of Sv. Djordje and Gospa od Skrpjela. On Sv. Djordje where stood an influential 16thcentury Benedictine Monastery now stands a small church and a walled garden. Gospa od Skrpjela is artificial having been formed, it is said, by the inhabitants of Perast filling captured pirate ships with stones and sinking them on the reef.

The twenty mile sail along the rocky Montenegrin coast took us to Budva. Despite being the centre of Montenegrin tourism and the myriad of holidaymakers that go with it, Budva’s minuscule walled old town dating from Illyrian times and developed by the Venetians, Austrians, Russians, French and latterly the Austro-Hungarian monarchy is utterly enchanting.

The Montenegrin people appear calmer and less demanding than their Croatian counterparts and their greeting of ‘welcome to Montenegro’ is far preferable to the Croat ‘Now you must pay’. The cost of living would appear to be about two thirds of that in Croatia.

It is mid September and time to leave the Adriatic and head south to our winter base of Lefkas in the Greek Ionian Islands. We are due there on the 1st of October and on the way will visit Corfu and various ports and anchorages in the Northern Ionian.

Our Greek telephone number is 0030 6955948709