Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Around the Cyclades

Leaving the Corinth Canal gave us the feeling of sailing into a different world. Why we have no idea as the Saronic Gulf was much the same as the Corinth Gulf in that the sea was alike, the mountains were similar and the vegetation unchanged but transiting that narrow isthmus had delivered us into the Aegean Sea and less than two hundred miles from the Orient.

Those tiny seedless grapes that we call currants are grown in Corinth and the word currant derives from the French name for the city.

We spent little time in the Saronic Gulf with just a night in the peaceful anchorage of Korfos, where we were delighted to meet Debbie and Jez who were delivering their new yacht back to their base in Lefkas marina, and a day or two in Poros, a charming town of typically colourful Greek character behind the waterfront facade of tourist restaurants and tat shops.

With just four or five weeks to spend in the Cyclades before the onset of the Meltemi, a strong summer wind, we had to be selective in selecting our route through the twenty five or so main Islands. This group of Islands that derive their name from kyklos, meaning circle, because they surround the sacred island of Delos, are the Greek Islands of everyone’s perception with their villages of white cubic flat roofed houses and twisting cobbled streets clinging to hillsides, windmills and blue domed churches.

It is difficult to reason why Ancient Delos, the political and religious centre of the world around the tenth to eighth centuries BC and a city of some 30,000 people was situated on a rocky barren island measuring just 1.5 km long by 1300m wide. It is in the realms of mythology that one must look for the reason. Every land had refused sanctuary to Leto, who was with child By Zeus, on account of their anticipation of the wrath of Hera, Zeus’s legitimate spouse. Leto found refuge a floating island which Poseidon, taking pity on her, anchored to the seabed. Here on Delos Leto bore Apollo and Artemis. The Apollo cult grew rapidly and people from all over the world descended on Delos to consult the Oracle. The Island grew to become a major port and trading post.

Although the former glory of the temples, stoas (markets), houses and monuments has been eroded by time and pilfering, many are substantially preserved: the five lions guarding the sacred lake, the temple of Apollo, the sanctuary of Dionysos with its huge phallic statues, the theatre, the houses of Masks, Dionysos and Cleopatra named after their impressive mosaics and their ornate statues. It was a real pleasure and privilege to spend time lost in this ancient world particularly without the summer crowds and with the monuments standing in a carpet of multicoloured spring flowers. The wholeness of the site gives a comprehensive picture of how the Ancients lived their lives.

One is no longer permitted to anchor off Delos and so it is to Mykonos marina one has to go and thence by caique the few miles across the water to the ancient city. Nothing could be further from the history and peace of Delos than the frighteningly dire holiday venue of Mykonos. It is an archetypal Greek island town; the one you see on all the postcards and advertisements, complete with windmills and Petros the Pelican, only to be spoiled only by the plethora of souvenir shops, jewellers and so called fashion outlets that line its quaint alleys and the masses of the human race that holiday on this sexually permissive and degenerate island. What the locals make of it heavens knows!

Naxos Island, the largest of the Cyclades is mountainous with Mount Zas at 1004 metres, the highest in the Cyclades, dominating the landscape. Its internal valleys are rich with olive groves and vines and its white villages with their Venetian fortified tower houses clinging to the rocky slopes. We visited a number of these villages including the highest in the Island, Komiaki, the former home of emery miners and now famous for its local liqueur, Kitro, and the atmospheric Aperathos with its fine marble paved streets, once the home of Cretans fleeing from Turkish oppression.

Still the wild spring flowers abound and yellow broom is vibrant on the hillsides.
The Island is most renowned for its fine quality marble that has been used locally and shipped worldwide for over 3000 years. We saw impressive new quarries where the pure white marble face carved into the mountainside glittered like diamond and we visited ancient quarries at Apollon and Flerie where 6th and 7th century BC Kouros or massive statues lay partially sculptured ready to be slid down the rock face on sledges, carted the 11 kilometres to the port by donkey and cart there to be shipped to temples or grand villas in Delos, Delphi, Olympia and further afield where they would have been sculptured to their final exquisite form.

The Kouros at Apollon is 10.5 m long and weighs 30 tonnes and is thought to portray Dionysos and that at Flerie of an unknown man is 8 m long.
Also at Flerie are fresh water springs that were tapped in the 7th century BC to supply fresh water to the Chora (main town) 11 km away in surprisingly sophisticated jointed clay pipes laid underground.

Theseus abandoned Ariadne, who helped him slay the Minotaur and penetrate the labyrinth, in Naxos on his way from Crete to Athens. However she fell in love with Dionysos, the god of the vine, and they lived happily ever after. This doesn’t do anything for the state of the marina which, although secure and run as well by Kostas as he is allowed by his superiors in Athens, is fast deteriorating into uselessness.

The Portara gateway on the isle of Palatia dominating the entrance to Naxos harbour was built in 522BC as the entrance to the uncompleted temple of Apollo.
The old town on a hill above the harbour is delightful and divides distinctly into the Venetian Kastro, once home to the Catholic nobility and the medieval Bourg where the Naxians lived.
The stone flagged twisted alleyways of the Bourg market area are fascinating and picturesque with dense red bougainvillea vivid against the white buildings.

The main gate to the Kastro and the inner walls protecting nineteen palazzi bearing the coats of arms of the noblemen who lived here from AD1207 are all that remain of the Venetian stronghold. Remains of these noble Venetian families are buried beneath marble slabs in the Catholic Cathedral. Many of the present day Naxians are descended from these families and one of them, the Duke of Barozzi, hosted an evening of Naxian folk music and dancing in his family’s palazzo. It was a remarkable evening during which we were entertained by lute, violin, Tzabouna, a Naxian bagpipe made from a complete sheepskin, Toubaki, a sheepskin drum and four wonderful local dancers. All this washed down with copious quantities of local wine and raki, if one is inclined that way!

During the later Turkish occupation the town was famous for its schools and its most famous pupil was the novelist Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek.

The two harbours that we visited on Siros Island, the capital of the Cyclades, could not have been more different. Ermoupolis, an elegant town named after Hermes the god of commerce, is a wealthy town once the major trading port of Greece. The streets are marble paved and the buildings on the waterfront are classic French architecture. The town is built like an amphitheatre around the large harbour with the twin peaks with the Catholic Cathedral of Ano Syros on one and Greek Orthodox Vrontado Cathedral on the other towering over all. Catholicism was introduced to the town by French colonists in the middle ages.

Bella suffered minor damage on the quay at Ermoupolis due to the massive wash created by the fast ferries driven by testosterone rather than seamen, docking nearby. She suffered no damage however as we rode out gale force winds in the calm and shelter of Finikas harbour on the western coast of the island

The Island of Amorgos is renowned for its rocky mountainous landscape and its Byzantine Moni (Monastery) Panagias Chozoviotissas; a massive and spectacular buttressed white building built into and clinging from the rock face of a 180m high cliff. The only thing between the Monastery and the heavens was the eyrie of eagles and their young.
There are only two monks resident nowadays a far cry from the many that must have inhabited the place when it was constructed in 1088. We guess that they must have died off one by one on the exhaustingly long and steep climb up to the front door. We made it with streaming brow and panting breath but were soothed once inside the hallowed confines with water a small glass of plum brandy. Perhaps the brandy was the death of them! The tiny chapel houses the icon of the Virgin Mary by dint of which, it is said, many miracles have happened. One occurred on the day that we visited by way of us living to tell the tale!

Paros Island is extremely fertile with fields of hay already harvested in May and abundant vines and vegetable crops in the valleys and on the coastal plains surrounding the central mountain range. The Island is famous for its fine quality marble some of which was used to build Napoleon Bonaparte’s tomb.

It was on Paros Island that we spent time in one of two idyllic anchorages that we discovered that of Ay Iaonnou. We gasped at the beauty of the place. Great marble and limestone rocks carved by the winds of time formed a natural amphitheatre around secluded beaches and translucent azure water in which we plunged our anchor into the sandy seabed. We were one of only three yachts moored in the bay and the tranquillity was broken only by the sight of a couple, he with his swimming costume on and she with her knickers in place, making love on the beach. Such is young lust!

The other perfect anchorage was the virtually landlocked bay of Fikiadha on Kithnos Island. The sunset over the strip of beach separating us from the bay to the west and the open sea beyond was splendid and the freshly cooked Bonito that Miggy had caught, gutted and filleted on passage that day was excellent.

Miggy later on in the trip caught a four kilo Tuna but having gaffed it and poured a little Gin into its gullet to put it to rest quickly it escaped the gaff with its last flap!

We have had some good sailing in the Cyclades with fresh and, on some occasions strong, favourable winds. We have had to seek shelter three times to escape very strong or gale force winds. Those following in our wake will be pleased to know that all harbours and town quays visited were free with the exception of Naxos Marina where Kostas, who referred to Miggy as ‘Captain of the dock, was so embarrassed at the state of the place that he left it to us to give an amount we thought fit. Water has cost us from nothing to 1 cent a litre and electricity no more than 3€ a day.

Our final port of call before Kos and then Turkey was a beautiful landlocked bay on the south coast of Levitha, a small island that is either the most easterly of the Cyclades the most westerly of the Dodecanese depending upon which source one reads. We have heard that four interrelated families live on the Island and that every so often a son will marry a girl from off the Island to bring fresh blood into the family. It’s just like managing the extensive herd of goats on the Island whose bleats and bells have given us much pleasure in this tranquil place.