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