July 2015 : Saronic, Evia Channel and Gulf of Volus

We started the month deep in the Argolic Gulf in the north-east Peloponnese.  Sailing advice for proceeding northwards up the Aegean is not to do it during July and August - which is exactly what we planned to do! The Meltemi (strong wind from the north) is at full strength at this time, so to cope we gave ourselves plenty of time and flexibility to allow for getting stuck from time to time along the way. 

The month started with a period of confusing forecasts of strong winds - which would subsequently be downgraded - but then actually arrive.  Casting around for a good secure anchorage to wait around in we opted for the large but shallow bay of Koiladhia. This was perfect - though it was slightly unnerving to be anchored with only half a metre of water beneath the keel in very strong winds.  We took an instant liking to the village ashore - a proper workaday fishing port dominated by an improbably enormous church, and a large boatyard around the bay.   Every now and then we would catch sight of the resident turtle pottering around the bay, raising its head and flippers out of the water - but unfortunately very camera shy.  Just two very basic tavernas - no menus - the choice of fish was fried or grilled! 

After two or three days we made the short hop to the more sophisticated island of Spetses - a good sail - arriving just as another burst of strong wind arrived.   Uncertain, from our reading of the pilot book, where or whether we'd find a space we turned into the harbour – disconcertingly smaller than we had envisaged, and without space to anchor as planned.  As we bounced around looking for somewhere to go we were beckoned over to a small quay, requiring us quickly to organise ourselves to berth stern to - which was accomplished with style.  Our time on Spetses was sadly brief as we were monitoring a weather window which would allow us to move further north.  The island is exceptionally green, having been reforested with Aleppo pines by a Spetsiote/American benefactor in the early 1900s.   The town is very attractive with some grand old houses, smart cafes and boutiques -most tourists to Spetses are wealthy Greeks.  A number of small boatyards around the harbour are remnants of a long history of boatbuilding.  The island was the home of Bouboulina, celebrated naval commander, heroine of the Greek War of Independence in 1821 - as we learned from visiting her museum.

However, the forecast dictated that we move on, abandoning our plan to visit the island of Hydra, in order to take advantage of a gap in the strong winds for the passage to Cape Sounion.  After an excellent sail across the Saronic Gulf, passing the smog of Athens to the north, the meltemi kicked in again just as we arrived, giving us a short battle straight into 30 knots of wind.  The strong winds continued relentlessly for the next couple of days. There could hardly be a more magnificent and inspiring spot to be kept waiting than under the iconic temple of Poseidon.  We were last there 22 years ago, when we swam ashore to visit the temple but were denied entry for being improperly dressed.  This time we knew better.  When the wind appeared to be dropping, we left to continue northwards, crossing paths with SY Maltese Falcon – an enormous modern square rigger which is apparently, at 88 metres, the largest sailing vessel in the world - though not (we thought) the most beautiful. Our departure was perhaps a little premature - Poseidon had a last laugh, watching us from above, struggling into winds that had not died down as much as we had expected as we rounded the Cape.  

On up into the channel dividing mainland Greece from Evia - the 90 mile long narrow island running up the east coast.  There was no weather at all for this phase, and with its generally unspectacular coastline of hills and nondescript Greek utilitarian concrete architecture, this passage was simply the means of getting to the Sporades.  An exception was Panagia, on the Evia coast, a resort full of Greek families - its utilitarian architecture softened by a curving beach backed by tamarisks lending a dreamy and relaxing atmosphere.  Also tied up at the quay here, we were pleased to meet fellow members of the Ocean Cruising Club.  It was good to swop yarns with other sailors who have sailed in far flung places around the world.

Highlight of the passage up the Evia channel came halfway along at its narrowest point, at the town of Chalchis, where there is a most peculiar tidal regime.  The tide flows into and out of the channel from both north and south, meeting at Chalcis, but arriving from the north an hour and 12 minutes before high water arrives from the south.  This difference produces exceptionally strong tidal currents up to 7-8 knots at springs - which it was when we arrived. 

   
The tide changes every 6 hours or so, as usual, but twice a month there are three day periods when the tide changes up to 14 times a day.  There are two bridges at this point - the latest is a suspension bridge with plenty of room for us to pass beneath.  The other at the very narrowest point in the channel - 40 metres - is a very nondescript low road bridge which has to be opened for vessels to pass through.  Because of the volume of traffic, the bridge is never opened during the day and only once for a short time overnight.  Having booked in and paid the fee, all vessels are given an approximate time for the opening and told to standby on the VHF radio until the Port Authority decides on the exact timing for vessels to pass through.  Each vessel is then called up by name and told to proceed through the bridge in a stately procession in the middle of the night.  Even for aficionados of the Bristol Channel, the disturbed and fast flowing water mid-tide was quite a sight - though the effect lasted less than half a mile on either side.

The northern end of the channel proved to be more attractive than the south, but largely without wind. Just as we were feeling a tad jaded with run-of-the-mill ports and anchorages in the south we arrived into the tiny harbour of Limni.    Some places have instant appeal and we took to Limni immediately.   Passing a pretty pebble beach backed by oleanders, a mix of trees and a chapel high above, we found the harbour well set up for yachts, and water, unusually for a harbour, fit for swimming.  The town, stretched around the bay, was quite delightful - we even found a house we’d like! We stayed on an extra day just because we liked it so much.

From here we rounded the north of Evia and entered the Gulf of Volos.   Here, into the region of Thessaly - an area new to us - we decided to take a break from the boat and go off for a few days of exploration by land.  Today the leading agricultural area of Greece, the Plain of Thessaly was the site of one of the earliest neolithic settlements in Europe.  It was also the site of the battle between the Titans and the Olympians and of much  ancient myth and legend.  Centaurs were said to have inhabited the Pelion Peninsular, notably the healer Chiron – teacher of Achilles.  Jason and Argonauts set off from Volos on their quest for the Golden Fleece.   The region contains two particularly spectacular natural locations – Meteora and the Pelion Peninsular - both of which we decided to explore.

   
 Meteora is an extraordinary area of rock pinnacles some rising over 500 metres from the plain.  As if that wasn't awesome enough, between the 12th and 16th centuries AD Byzantine monks, initially as hermits, gradually created a monastic community with around 20 monasteries built on the tops of these pinnacles - inaccessible refuges from the conquering Turks.   People and goods were hoisted up by ropes, baskets and nets.  Six monasteries remain today - access has been made easier via a road around the site and long flights of steps.  We visited three monasteries, one still inhabited by nuns, another by ancient monks, and each with chapels decorated by stunningly beautiful religious frescoes covering their walls, ceilings and domes.

Meteora was a hard act to follow and we wondered if the Pelion Peninsular might pale by comparison.  No so.  The mountainous peninsular separating the Gulf of Volos from the Aegean, provides stunning views of both.  Unlike so much of Greece, its mountains are thickly forested not only with pine, but also a variety of deciduous trees - oaks, chestnuts, beech - with ferns and springs everywhere - a magical and lovely landscape crossed by numerous cobbled mule tracks. Rustic and unspoilt villages of grey stone houses with built out upper stories, slate roofs and medallion decorations cling precariously to the steep slopes. We visited Makrinitsa, Mouresi,Tsagarda Milies and Vyzitsa - each village square dominated by enormous and aged plane trees shading the tables and chairs of bars and tavernas. One tree shed a branch with a tremendous crash, while we were enjoying a meal, but fortunately no-one happened to be underneath. Sadly we spied no centaurs.

Lest all this sounds just too idyllic, on our return to the boat we (Chris) had to face the problem of blocked heads (toilet) which had occurred just before we left but which we tried not to think about while away.  The job involved taking apart the whole system and removing thick calcium deposits – most of a very unpleasant and smelly day's work.  Just one of the lesser joys of cruising....

Volos is a large industrial port city with a very buzzing waterfront.  A replica Argonaut mooches around the harbour - reminding us of the Matthew in Bristol harbour.  A speciality of Volos is the tsipouradhiko - a restaurant which serves miniature bottles of tsipouro (a strong ouzo) with plates of mezedes.    It's a wonderfully easy way to eat – there is just one decision to make - whether the tsipouro has aniseed or not – after that everything just arrives.  First come water, ice, plates and bread, then the tsipouro shots and plates of mezedes of all types - all delicious.  When you want more, you just order another bottle and it comes with more food.  Brilliant.  We had assumed you'd have to drink yourself under the table to get enough food for a meal – but not so as the tsipouro is drunk with ice and water.  Two bottles come with three plates of food – two rounds is plenty for an evening meal.  It is extremely popular among the locals with the waiters rushing around carrying six or eight plates balanced on their arms. We’re thinking a tsipouradiko might go down well in Bristol!

Continuing slowly towards our destination this month of Skiathos, we explored a few anchorages and ports in the south of the Gulf of Volos, continuing the Pelion experience. The desert island of Pithu was idyllic. Our final stop was alongside a tamarisk-lined quay about a metre from the taverna tables at Agia Kyriaki - an impossibly picturesque fishing port, which seems in the process of being ‘discovered’. Then back out into the Evia Channel again, turning left for the short hop to Skiathos.  

Alongside our adventure has been the much less happy saga of the Greek bail-out crisis, which unfolded in all its twists and turns this month.  We had the Referendum where our random straw poll of waiters, delivery drivers and shop keepers revealed deep depression, despite apparent life going on as normal– bars busy, people chatting and laughing. People told us that whatever the result, things would get worse - and they seem sadly right. The tourist industry, while all too alive in Skiathos, has almost collapsed in some areas with reductions not only in foreign visitors, but more importantly, Greek holiday-makers too. We saw acres of empty tavernas - people just can’t afford to eat out. The general economic decline was obvious when travelling inland, closed factories, showrooms, shops and miles of almost deserted main highways. Personally we have been unaffected by the crisis - ATMs are more generous to us than to the Greeks. Many card machines have mysteriously ‘broken down’ when we try to use cards. But the shops remain stocked and Greece produces wonderful fruits and vegetables. Maybe there is now a new start - but it is depressing that no one seems to have come up with any positive economic ideas.

Julia returned to the UK for a week to see her Mum, leaving Chris anchored off Skiathos town - about 750 metres from the end of the airport runway and even less from three nightclubs which run from midnight to 6am! He has a few jobs but it is swelteringly hot so there is a lot of swimming - and also the opportunity to cultivate his tsipoura habit!