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