Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Sporades

If you wish to protect endangered species and establish a Maritime Park to do so you have to be serious about regulating the use of the area and policing it. The only such Park in Greece, the Northern Sporades National Maritime Park, established to protect the endangered Mediterranean Monk Seal and other species, is not so regulated or policed.
After a good sail from Ay Efstratios we dropped anchor in the deceptively idyllic landlocked bay of Planitis on the island of Kira Panayia or Pelagos.  It is no wonder that the last monk seal seen in the area was 15 years ago considering the far from clean water we found in Planitis and the behaviour of large motor cruisers who open their garage doors and disgorge jet skis to buzz around like a swarm of flies for hours on end disturbing not only the wildlife but everything else in the surrounding area including us. It is a shame that someone has not invented a bloody great fly swat that can eliminate these vermin with one swipe.
Not a glimpse of the whales and dolphins that are supposed to be here in their numbers but we did have the pleasure of seeing the rare Eleanor's falcon, one of apparently 80 species of bird in the Park and the goats were entertaining.
The Seal Rescue Centre at Steni Vala on the eastern coast of Alonnisos, a delightful little port and village, with which we fell in love, is a derelict hut that probably died at the same time as the last monk seal.

Alonnisos, along with the other Islands of the Sporades, has a lush landscape and undulating pine clad mountains contrasting vividly with the barren and arid rocky islands groups such as the Cyclades. Abundant springs and rivers water the fertile fields and orchards of the interior of the islands to create agricultural self sufficiency and wealth. Tourism has flourished since the 1960's when the rich and famous came, some in their yachts, to savour the deserted beaches of Skiathos, Skopelos and Alonnisos.  Now the Sporades, Skiathos in particular, have to cope with plane loads of holidaymakers and the likes of us poor yachties!
The Islands are known to have been colonised by the Minoans as far back as 1600BC who introduced vine and olive cultivation. Being further north and west than the other Aegean island groups there is perceptible evidence of the long Venetian occupation.

Patitiri, the capital of and ferry terminal for Alonnisos, replaces the former Chora, now a pretty village clinging to the hillside above the town. We berthed by lunchtime but by the early evening two lady Port Police officers told us to move from our berth to make way for some large motor yachts. Somewhat upset at this and in the absence of an alternative comfortable berth we decided to travel the 7 miles to Limin Skopelou on the island of Skopelos where we were fortunate to find a comfortable berth in what can be an overcrowded port. Said motor yachts came in to Skopelos the next day. Our guess was that one was carrying some Nob or the other and that the other three were guard boats.
The Port Police at Patitiri did us a favour in prompting our move to Skopelou as at about 0400 all hell let loose with gale force winds and 55 knot gusts. We are sure that our berth at Patitiri would have been untenable in these conditions.  There was great activity among the crews of the many yachts berthed here securing extra shore lines, deploying additional fenders and taking up on anchors or rushing about with varying degrees of disfunctionality. We were fine with 40 metres of scope out in 5 metres of sticky mud although our aft boarding plank which was stowed at 45° to the horizontal blew vertical toward the boat and took out a blade from Wendy, the wind generator. Wendy was upset at missing one of her best chances to pump 10 to 15 amps an hour into our batteries that she literally threw a wobbly to the extent that she was about to shake herself and the boat to bits until we managed to calm her by disabling her rotation. When the wind died we admitted her to hospital and made her blade assembly complete with the spare that we carry.
Skopelos town, small as it is, has 123 churches or chapels within its boundaries. Sporadhan town houses with flower filled wooden balconies and fish tail slate tiled roofs line the maze of narrow cobbled streets intricately inlaid with sea pebbles and shells. We like the place. We retraced the steps, literally, up to three chapels and the ruins of the Venetian castle that Miggy had taken 25 years ago.

Despite a goodly breeze and a forecast of locally F6 which we thought would be east of us we had a great sail to Loutraki on the west coast of Skopelos which became a bit lively with strong gusts and big wind shifts. We berthed stern to on the visitor's pontoon and watched a Sunsail flotilla tie up on the other side under the skilled instruction and expertise of the young flotilla leader. This guy really knew what he was doing. Not a half an hour after his flock were secure the pontoon on which we were all moored came adrift from the shore. Not to a great extent did it move as it was held to the sea bed by chains and our anchors but enough for the Port Police officer to order us to move. So for the second time in a few days move we did, not to elsewhere in the harbour as we did not favour the alternatives, but to Skiathos town just 6 miles across the water.
The anchorage at Skiathos is limited by the restricted area under the flight path to the airport runway which was just half a mile from us. The town quay and pontoon are extremely busy with a melee of charter yachts, large motor cruisers and day trip boats so we are pleased to be away from it all in relative peace and to observe the mooring frolics. At night however our peace was shattered by a disco kind enough to share their 'music' with us and everybody else in the northern hemisphere until 0530. We would have preferred it had they kept their cacophony to themselves! Skiathos town is a pretty place with its cobbled streets and fine mansions but it has been overcome by tourism with all the baggage that entails. How so many tourists can be packed into such a small island defies belief but they come in their thousands each day by endless ferry movements and aircraft.
What a difference a day can make! From the noise and bustle of Skiathos town just five hours later we found ourselves moored to the quay in the only hamlet on the island of Palaio Trikeri or Virgin Trikeri measuring less than 2 miles long by 1 mile wide. We can find no explanation as to where the Virgin bit came from but the island does have 70,000 of the estimated 150,000,000 olive trees growing in Greece. So perhaps it is something to do with olives. It is an idyllic and typically Greek place with small balconied houses fronting the waterfront of the tiny bay. A few rather smart holiday villas are dotted amongst the pine and eucalyptus on the hillsides and there are two Tavernas. A tractor is the only motorised vehicle on the Island. There is not even a motor scooter, the land borne equivalent of the Jet Ski, which, being rampant and utterly irritating in this Country, should be dealt with the by the aforementioned swat.
We have enjoyed our short stay in the Sporades Islands. Despite some setbacks, Steni Vala on Alonnisos, Skopelos and the tiny Island of Palaio Trikeri have given us great pleasure.

With the season passing so swiftly we now, in the middle of July, move on to the Island of Evvoia about which we shall blog in due course.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

North Eastern Aegean

The wind was fair for our sail from Patmos to Samos and sail we did for a lot of the voyage in winds just forward of the beam ranging from five to twenty knots necessitating a good deal of sail changing. It was good to have what was at times a romping sail. Despite our fears to the contrary the sailing this season going north against the supposed prevailing northerly winds has, surprisingly, been some of the best of our entire trip.
Samos, the southernmost of the North Aegean Islands, an island with high peaks and verdant valleys, is renowned for its Muscat wine and as the birthplace of many mathematicians and philosophers. In fact the main port, Pithagorio, as the name suggests, is named after Pythagoras who was born here in 580BC. The town is built on the ruins of the ancient capital of the island and the present day jetty is built on the foundations to the ancient breakwater.  Now it is a very popular tourist destination as the numerous restaurants and bars along the harbour front and the mass of non Greeks frequenting them shows.

Just outside Pithagorio lies Eupalinos's tunnel, a 1000m long aqueduct built in 529 to 524BC to provide ancient Samos with water. It remained in use until this century but perhaps the most remarkable fact is that so accurate was the surveying that when the work crews met having begun from opposite sides of the mountain there was nil vertical error.
To break the journey between Samos and the islands to the north we anchored for the night at a bay on the Turkish coast. On the face of it Sarpadere Limani appears to be a pleasant enough anchorage with good holding on a sandy bottom although open to the south west. In fact when the north westerly breeze set in we were invaded by a plague of flies. So many of them did we swat below decks that Bella resembled a 'Garibaldi' factory. It is a place to avoid at all cost!
Once again we had some good sailing during the 32 mile trip to the tiny island of Oinoussa passing the large Greek island of Chios to port and the Turkish mainland to starboard. We had decided not to call in at Chios, although this verdant yet mountainous Island is reputed to be one of the most beautiful in the Aegean, as the facilities for yachts are not good. Chios's main claim to fame, apart from being the birthplace of Homer, is the production of mastic from the mastic bush in twenty fortified 14th to 15th century settlements, or mastichochoria, in the south of the Island. This bush that grows nowhere else in the world secretes a resin or gum that, before the advent of petroleum based products, formed the basis of paints, cosmetics and medicines. Now this mastic is the 'chew' in all the gum chewed quite disgustingly throughout the world and spat out to foul our pavements.
A lovely statue of a mermaid grasping a ship welcomes one to Mandraki harbour on the island of Oinoussa. The tiny islets that protect the harbour from the ravages of the southerly winter storms both have monasteries built atop them.  We presented our papers to the Port Police which were duly stamped many times in many places and an invoice in quadruplet issued for our mooring fees of about €6 per day. It seems that there has been a change in policy about stamping the DEKPA (permit to sail in Greek waters). Last year we were told that a stamp on the document about once a month would suffice but now it appears that every Port Police officer in the land wants to have a go.
The modest island of Oinoussa is an appealing, peaceful place that was home to some of the wealthiest Greek ship owners. Their impressive mansions and the houses of ship captains line the waterfront and the hillside village. Peaceful the island is at this time of year but apparently all changes from the 15th July to the 15th August when the rich and famous Greeks descend to escape the heat of the mainland. Oinoussa is one of the ten wealthiest territories in the whole of Greece.
Our landfall on Lesvos, Greece's third largest island was at Plomario, an agreeable, bustling hillside town that gained its wealth as a major shipbuilding centre in the 19th century. The shipbuilders have left and today the town claims to be the Ouzo capital of Greece with five distilleries producing exceptional Ouzo with an alcohol content of between 38% and 48%. The accepted minimum for a quality product is 44%! Ouzo is the Greek version of a spirit found throughout the Mediterranean. The residue of grape skins left from wine pressing is boiled in a copper still to make a distillate originally called raki, the Turkish name for the spirit. The raki is flavoured with star anise or fennel. Lesvos, the birthplace of the 7th century BC poet Sappho, continues to support itself with fishing, ouzo production and olive farming. Tourism supplements rather than dominates these traditional industries. The 11 million olive trees on the Island are reputed to be the most productive oil bearing trees in Greece. The olives are cured for eating, pressed for oil or further crushed for oil for soap. Even the remaining pulp is used as a fertilizer.  

The saga of DEKPA stamping continued with a Greek Kiwi Port Police officer assuring us that the document should be stamped just once a month and that those who have insisted otherwise are young inexperienced officers who did not know the law or practice.

We were just one of three yachts in Plomario harbour and are moored stern to amongst small fishing caigues. It all seems very Greek after the crush of yachts further south. This appears to be a cruising ground for the few privately owned yachts straying north rather than a charter playground.
Mitilini, the capital of the island, had little to offer us but there are an amazing number of young local people in the town, a good number of the girls being very attractive and showing a lot of leg.  

Yet again we had a cracking sail all the way from Mitilini to the anchorage at Turkish Camlik Koyu within the Ayvalik 'Lake'. Dolphins accompanied us for a good part of the journey as did the ever present Yelkouan Shearwaters expertly gliding so close to the water surface.
They do have a bit of trouble landing and taking off however both operations being far from graceful. The landing takes the form of an ungainly plop into the ocean accompanied by a good deal of spray and the taking off involves a lot of 'peddling' and rapid wing flapping before getting airborne.

We dropped the hook in Camlik Koyu which is virtually landlocked but very much more developed than described in the pilot book. We moved to the nearby much more pleasant and equally well sheltered anchorage at Kumru Koyu.
Ayvalik town was one of the many on the Aegean coast populated by the Greeks until the population exchange in 1923 and many Greek stone buildings remain but it prospered in the 19th century with the production of olive oil, soap, wine and salt. There is an extensive Thursday market including a vast fruit and vegetable marketplace where we stocked up on superb quality produce. It is a pleasant working town where tourism is in its infancy. We had a beer in a cafe on the pavement served in tea mugs so it didn't resemble alcohol! Ayvalik sits on the shore of a virtually landlocked lake the only entrance to which is a narrow, shallow buoyed channel and the small marina is remarkably full of small Turkish yachts and very few visitors. One of the joys of sailing in this part of the Aegean is the lack of yachts, particularly the charter yachts and gullets that plague the harbours and anchorages further south and east.
Four baby swallows being fed in their nest amused us. It seemed that the parents feeding regime is neither selective nor fair, the chick hollering loudest and pushing hardest winning out on every occasion. Perhaps we are being unfair and there is a rotation but perhaps also it is a case of the survival of the strongest. No doubt Darwin, or to be more accurate Wallace who actually did the research and wrote the paper could tell us. It seems that Darwin did recognise Wallace in the early publication of the 'theory' but that his name disappeared as time progressed. One of the baby swallows flew out of the nest or more likely fell considering the cramped conditions. It caused great consternation to the adults and it took them some time and expertise in persuasion and demonstration to guide the bemused and, we guess somewhat frightened, chick back into the fold.
We slipped our mooring lines for the last time from a Turkish dock at about 0730 for the 26 mile sail to Mithymna on the north coast of Lesvos. Turkey is a special place and its people and their hospitality, the scenery and the way of life we will miss greatly. We will carry fond memories with us forever. Dolphins in the buoyed channel from Ayvalik Lake to the open sea came to say farewell.
A vast Byzantine castle, later modified by the Genoese, perched high on a hill marks the picturesque town on Mithymna or Molyvos whose houses hang on the steep slopes below. Prior to the population exchange in 1923 over a third of the inhabitants were Muslim landed gentry who graced the town with many fine three storey mansions and a dozen street fountains some of which retain their ornate Arabic inscriptions in stone. The main streets are cobbled and steep but totally shaded being, unusually, covered with vines. In fact antiquity Mithymna was renowned for its vineyards. The town is popular with tourists who flock to the many restaurants and it is a haunt for artists perhaps in the wake of the 7th century BC poet Arion who was born here. Legend has it that Achilles besieged the town until the king's daughter fell in love with him and opened the gates though he slayed her for her treachery!
The harbour, surrounded by Tavernas and bars, is a pleasant if a bit rolly place to be.
A short hop along the north coast of Lesvos took us to Sigri the on the westernmost tip of the Island and our departure place for striking west across the Aegean.

The western half of Lesvos, in stark contrast to the green and fertile east, is dry and barren. This may be because of the weather or past deforestation or perhaps the fact that the region is volcanic. The area around Sigri has been declared a European Geopark because of its 'petrified forest'.
Yes, trees have been turned to stone where they stand having been buried by volcanic ash and basalt for 20 million years! Little Sigri town has a world class Natural History Museum focusing very much on volcanic action and the petrified remains of plant life of the distant past. The exhibits are quite extraordinary. Sigri town is not picturesque but it is functional and pleasant. Greek life goes on as it has for years without the interference of the tourist; for the moment that is!

The anchorage at Sigri is well protected and peaceful. That is as long as one manages to get the yacht into the anchorage in the first place!
Having made our northing since the beginning of May we now strike out westward toward the Sporades Island breaking the journey about half way at the tiny barren volcanic island of Ay Efstratios.  The Island suffered a catastrophic earthquake in 1968 in which many lives were lost. It has a population of less than 500 most of whom live in the one fishing hamlet situated on the western coast. Ruins of collapsed houses of the former hillside village remain as a poignant reminder and the hamlet has been rebuilt wisely with single storey construction in the valley below. There is the look of determination yet happiness on the faces of the local people, not many of whom are aged. Ay Efstratios is a thoroughly agreeable place and we are glad to have decided at the last moment to include the Island, the most northerly Greek island that we shall visit, in our travels.