Friday, March 13, 2009

Helios Sleeps

Some may say ‘you are so lucky to spend the winter in the dry and warmth of an idyllic Greek island’. They are right we are lucky but the weather is not as tranquil as one might think. In fact it has been downright cold with night time temperatures occasionally reaching 0°C and it has hardly stopped raining and blowing hard since we returned after our Christmas break in the UK. We are told that this winter’s weather is unusual and the snow capped mountains surrounding us are a constant, albeit very spectacular and beautiful, reminder of this.

Some may ask ‘what do you do all day?’ and ‘don’t you get bored lazing around on ‘Bella’ all day?’ The truth is that one can do as little or as much as one wishes. We choose the latter but go about it in a relaxed manner; there are no deadlines.

So what do we do all day? Apart from attending to the myriad jobs on our planned preventative maintenance list and doing the chores that prevail wherever one is, such as shopping, household chores and the like, we like to get to know the locality of our chosen winter home and to explore the wider country in which we are staying. We told of our journey around mainland Greece in our previous blog but what of Lefkas, our Island home.

Lefkas Island rises to about 1000m centrally and the hillsides are covered with Pine, Cypress and Olive. The landscape is lush and green and no wonder as the January average rainfall is 153mm. December, February and March are not much drier and the rain is proper rain, the stuff that monsoons are made of. The volume on the DVD player has to be turned up full to overcome the deafening noise of its hammering on the deck accompanied, as it invariably is, by ear-splitting thunderclaps. Helios sleeps but how cunning and kind of him or perhaps Zeus himself to arrange for all the rainfall when we don’t want to go sailing and leave July with an average rainfall of zero!

A February day that dawned bright and sunny heralded a sightseeing trip into the hills of Lefkas. As the bus climbed the twisted road out of town the views over the small town, its canal and lagoon set against the snow capped mountains of the mainland were superb. Still ascending through small villages we passed through olive groves where the big black fruit was still being harvested and the hillsides and valleys were alive with pink cherry and white almond blossom. Our destination was Karia a small hillside town with its church and bell tower and plane tree shaded terrace overlooking the valley to the east and the mountains of the mainland. One can imagine the place overwhelmed with tourists eating at the tables of the many Tavernas spread across this terrace but today we were amongst Greeks and we eat what they gave us in the only Taverna open; souvlaki, chips and Greek salad and rough local wine and it was good.

We had a day’s holiday by way of an outing to Vasiliki in the south of the Island also by bus. The journey takes about an hour and the scenery is terrific, firstly driving down the east coast of Lefkas to Nidri and Vlikho and then up across the olive and pine clad hills to the fertile valley that leads to Vasiliki on the coast. The views from on high over Vlikho Bay and Nidri to the north and down into the landlocked harbour of Sivota were stunning.

Vasiliki is a town wrapped around a pretty harbour with many waterfront bars and tavernas. It is not only a port for us yachties but also a holiday resort for windsurfers, dinghy sailors and beach lovers alike. Our visit found the place with the holidaymakers gone and we sat one of only three tables occupied for lunch in the only Taverna open in town. We eat royally with Greek salad; little fishes followed by roast chicken and, unusually, roast potatoes in a curry sauce. All this in the warmth of sunshine and washed down with a passable red wine made for a splendid day out.

We described Lefkas town in a previous blog published on the 6th November 2008. Our opinion of the place has not changed, if anything the more we have discovered about the town the more we appreciate it. The shopping is superb with magnificent butchers, bakers and fruit and vegetable stores and there are six good supermarkets, two Greek, the others being overseas chains.

Carnival lasted for the entire final week of February. The final parade through the packed streets of the town was magnificent with imaginative floats including the Kremlin reconstructed. The following day was ‘clean Monday’ when all remaining food in the larder is consumed and the house is spring cleaned for thereafter until orthodox Easter, which is two weeks later than ours, the Greeks are meant to fast by avoiding meat and dairy products. I wonder!

The marina is secure and well managed and Spiros, the manager, and the girls in the Office, Anna and Lisa, are friendly, helpful and efficient. The price of a berth here for six months is not unreasonable at 1500 euros for our 10.5m yacht.

As far as companionship goes, of the forty or so inhabited non Greek flagged boats in the marina the crews of some twenty form the social nucleus of the liveaboards. That equates to about forty people mostly British with a Belgian, New Zealander, South African, two Swedish and a Dutch couple who regularly gather at social events.

There is a wealth of activity to join in with if desired such as Quiz Nights at ‘Chicken Bills’, whose battered fish and chips are just like the real thing, ten pin bowling and the occasional boat jumble. Miggy attends a ‘stretch and tone’, renamed ‘stretch and groan’ session twice a week after which we often cycle the 8 km around the lagoon which is a haven for birdlife. The cycles that we bought second hand when we arrived here have been so useful for getting into town and further afield and for the exercise they give us. We have even managed to sell them for collection just before we leave.

The ladies have a coffee afternoon once a week to gossip about those who are unfortunate enough not to be there! The gentlemen have a ‘stretch and quench’ session on Monday and Wednesday evenings and get into a lot of trouble for being late aboard for their supper. Every Friday evening is designated liveaboard night in the marina bar when people get together over a drink for a chat and a catch up with what’s going on.

We host an interactive radio net on VHF on one morning of the three broadcasts during the week. The broadcast includes slots for medical or other emergency help needed, the weather, those wanting general help or advice, those wishing to sell give away or swop things and the social calendar. We don’t immerse ourselves wholeheartedly in the liveaboard activities but we do join in when it suits us and we have made a number of good friends with whom we would like to keep in touch.

A friend on a neighbouring yacht has been teaching Miggy some Greek. She can decipher the strange alphabet, which is useful as far as road signs are concerned, can understand a little and has a few words and phrases to greet and thank those that we meet. Neal has mastered four words.

On the way back to the UK for the Christmas break and the joy of seeing family and friends we stopped off in Athens, a six hour coach journey from Lefkas along the Gulfs of Patras and Corinth, to see the sights. People either love or hate Athens and I regret to say we are of the latter category. Our opinion was influenced by the riots that were in progress there fired by the youth unemployment in Greece. The streets were swarming with police and there was extensive damage to property, banks were boarded up and cash machines wrecked in Syntagma Square, the location of the Parliament building. At supper we met Oleg, the chief photographer for ‘Reuters (Balkans), who felt as uneasy, if not more so, amongst the rioters than he had in all the conflicts and riots he had covered for the past twenty years. He said that there was real anger and hatred in the faces of the young men involved.

Our long walk from our hotel to the gates of the Acropolis was to no avail as the staff was on strike and barred our access, despite remonstration from us both, thereby denying us our one opportunity to see one of the foremost archaeological remains in the world.

Of the remainder of Athens we were not impressed except for the cramped hillside streets of Athens’ oldest districts of Plaka and Anafiotika nestling beneath the Acropolis, the remarkably intact 440BC temple, Hephaisteion and the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos in the Ancient Agora.

The 2nd century BC ‘Tower of the Winds’ within the ruins of the Roman Agora complex built as a combined weather vane and water clock was fascinating. External friezes on each of the eight facades, which face the cardinal points, portray the eight winds characteristics and the conditions which may prevail as a personality. The gentle westerly wind on the west facing facade is represented by Zephyros, a semi-naked youth scattering flowers whereas Boreas on the north facing facade blows the cold north wind through a large conch shell. In the middle ages the Tower was thought to be the school or prison of Socrates and the Whirling Dervishes used the Tower as a monastery in the mid 18th century.

On a completely different subject the ITrip, a device for playing our IPod wirelessly through an FM radio that we bought in the UK failed after two hours use. Having emailed the manufacturer in the US we were astounded but highly amused to receive the following reply:
‘’Generally we handle returns for our international customers a little differently than for our domestic customers. We assure you that this is our preferred method for handling your return as it will help save you money (shipping costs) and the hassle of having to send the product back to us. It also has the added benefit of helping us to ensure that your unit is truly non-functional. First, destroy your defective product. Yes, really destroy it. A hammer works well for destroying most products however feel free to use whatever tool you are most comfortable with. This can be a great opportunity for you to express yourself creatively and take out some frustrations at the same time. Second, document the destruction. We recommend taking a digital picture of the destroyed unit while it is lying on a printed copy of this email so that the RMA number and other information are visible. Third, send us the pictures. Just reply to this email and attach the digital pictures of the destroyed product on the printed email along with any other pictures that we might enjoy, such as you holding the destroyed product or the town where you live. Of course including the extra pictures is optional but free to include them if you want to’’.
The new ITrip arrived in the post here at Lefkas marina a week later!

We have had ‘Bella’ lifted out of the water for her annual bottom scrub and paint and to make her topsides sparkle for the coming season the start of which, weather permitting, is only a matter of three weeks away. We hope to spend a couple of weeks visiting the other Ionian Island then navigate the Corinth Canal and sail through the Aegean Cyclades Island to arrive on the Turkish coast by mid June. After spending the latter part of July and August in the UK we will make our way slowly south east along the Turkish coast to our 2009/2010 winter base of Finike.

Miggy mentioned to me yesterday evening that at this time last year the swallows were arriving from South Africa. At that very moment a swallow hove into sight and then another and another until flocks of them played around us. They went to their nests under the eaves to await their mates chattering excitedly as if recounting the adventures of their long flight. Perhaps Helios is arising from his slumbers and heralds the onset of spring.