July 2018 : Back to Greece

Yassas from Aremiti in Crete at the end of our travels in the Aegean.We started the month anchored off the little town of Datca as we were drawing towards the end of the Turkish phase of our cruise. Our weather in June had been so easy and benign we hardly had to consider it at all and we set off from Datca again, in very quiet conditions to run along the southern side of the Datca Peninsula. While the trip involved no sailing at all, the views were superb and very nostalgic. At one stage we had in sight all at the same time seven Greek islands – in an arc from the north: Kos, Yiali, Nisyros, Tilos, Khalki, Rhodes and round to Symi - all of which we visited last year. After 20 miles we entered the ancient port of Knidos situated strategically, with its twin harbours, right at the western tip of the peninsular - awesome to enter a port created around 2,400 years ago, with the ruins of the extensive town set out all around.

On the following day there was plenty of wind and we enjoyed a fast and furious sail the 24 miles across to Bodrum. The marina at Bodrum was hyper-smart, exorbitantly expensive and not really for the likes of us. Our lovely little Aremiti looked like an alien being, surrounded and overwhelmed by the vast number of obscenely huge yachts of the wealthy Turkish yachting fraternity. However, we unexpectedly found favour with the Marina Operations Manager who, bizarrely, also owns an old Westerly. No Westerly owners discount though! There is an army of staff - assistance is provided by two marineros for every arrival and departure – one to deal with ropes from the pontoon, the other in a dinghy to take off the laid line and nudge you round – presumably the main objective being to prevent damage to the expensive expanse of white fibreglass all around - possibly in view of the questionable manouevring skills of their owners.

Unfortunately the great Castle of St Peter dominating the harbour and the Underwater Archaeological Museum, the sites we particularly wanted to see, were both currently closed for extensive renovation - very disappointing. The next best thing was the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus (Bodrum) – one of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World – or what is left of it. Much of it was apparently purloined for use in building the castle, other pieces are in the British Museum!

As we hadn’t needed to use the contingency time we’d allowed for adverse conditions, we decided to use a couple of spare days on a trip inland to visit Pamukkale. The weather at this point was excessively hot, so the idea of five hours in an air-conditioned bus was in itself quite appealing – and it was a bus far superior to anything run by National Express! Pamukkale combines two major sights – first the natural wonder of the travertine terraces and cascades of stalactites created by calcium-rich water dripping down a hillside from hot springs. We wandered slowly up the path through the terraces – barefoot as required, taking occasional dips in the shallow pools – and dodging the hordes of other visitors – mainly Russian (as has been the case at all the sights we have visited). The remains of the ancient city of Hierapolis are immediately above the terraces – founded as a thermal spa in the second century BC. The highlight of this was the extraordinarily ornate and grand Roman theatre.

We brought our Turkish cruise to a close in Bodrum - sensing that we were getting into the most over-crowded part of the coast. We increasingly observed settlements of regimented utilitarian holiday villages despoiling the coastline and the numbers of large yachts and gulets seemed to be increasing. Time for something different.

Having gone through the clearing out formalities in Bodrum, we spent an illicit final night in Turkey in a bay just five miles off the islands of Kos and Pserimos. Not an especially gorgeous anchorage, the strong winds were not conducive to swimming or relaxing.

Our plan was to spend the next couple of weeks saying a leisurely farewell to a few favourite Greek Aegean islands. We had started pining for Greece, which we are very fond of for its light-heartedness and charm, its church bells – and even its hopelessness. We especially love the music – which seems absent from Turkish culture in our experience.

Our first stop – six miles on and into Greece, was a scenic anchorage on the southern end of Pserimos where we enjoyed a coffee and a swim – bet you can’t guess what colour the water was! It was a joy to see the busy and purposeful looking Greek ferries charging around from island to island. It had a feel of coming home.

After another short but excellent sail we entered the huge harbour of Pothia in Kalymnos. We remembered this island fondly from last year for its combination of hard ruggedness and mellowness – both visually and in its atmosphere. We had been particularly captivated by its musical tradition – there had been a feast day last time we were here giving rise to much music. We spent our first evening sitting in the cockpit, berthed on the town quay, absorbing the mellowness of the town spreading itself around the harbour and up the surrounding hillside in gentle muted colours. We loved the feeling of romance engendered by ferries tearing into the harbour disgorging their hordes of passenger - and making all the yachts on the quay dance violently around. And then, to cap it all, we observed signs of a musical performance being set up at a taverna not 30 yards away – where we discovered that a large christening party was about to arrive – at 10pm! The passionate traditional music was magical, encompassing so many of our feelings about Greece - and we didn’t mind that it went on way into the small hours.

However, our love of Greece took a bit of a knock the following morning as we embarked on the clearing in formalities. This process took 3 ½ hours of Kafkaesque procedures conducted by a young Coast Guard officer. We can only assume that this was his first day on the job. Worrying that he was armed! The Turkish procedures might take as long, or longer, but at least they always offer tea.

After another night of music – this time involving the swirling Kalymnos violin, we moved on to Astypalaia – an excellent sail of 40 miles. This was our third visit to this quintessential Greek Cycladean island – bright white houses with blue woodwork straggling uphill from the skala (port area), past the windmills to the chora (capital), topped by a Venetian castle with blue domed chapels within its walls. Our particular mission here was to return to the castle, equipped with appropriate tools for retrieving a favourite earring Julia dropped between floorboards on our last visit 3 years ago!

However, having planned to stay for two or three days, this all suddenly changed. Both wakeful in the middle of the night, we checked the forecasts, and discovered that a meltemi (very strong wind from the north) was due to arrive in the eastern Aegean in a couple of days. We had allowed ourselves contingency time to ensure that we would arrive in Crete in time to catch flights back to the UK for a brief visit but there wasn’t enough to guarantee this. From our experience of the past two years, when we have been held up by meltemis for a whole week at a time, we decided with heavy hearts that we could not afford the time to bask much longer in these idyllic islands and would have to press on to get ahead of the weather. So, leaving the castle still harbouring its unknown jewel, we moved on the next day.

Anafi is another top favourite island of ours, which we reached after another excellent sail of 34 miles - albeit a bit harder on the wind and more boisterous than the forecast. The wind was blowing hard and not very welcomingly off the southern side of the island, but as we arrived off the tiny port we suddenly found ourselves in a different world of peace and tranquillity, complete with yellow beach and sparkling water – paradise! Anafi is a magical little mini-Cycladean island – about 15 miles to the east of Santorini – and a million miles from it in atmosphere. Among our top memories of this little gem of an island was the fabulous fish soup served in Popy’s taverna – the like of which we have never subsequently encountered. With no time to waste, having first enjoyed a swim – possibly our last off the boat in the Aegean - we went ashore and headed straight for the taverna to order the soup, which takes some time to prepare. We were astonished and thrilled that Popy and her daughter Nektaria remembered us from three years ago – big hugs all round – a very happy return!

We walked up to the chora for a drink and a stroll around the pristine and quaint little town. Although it obviously runs on tourism, its appearance is utterly unspoilt - and as lovely as we remember it. Sadly on returning to the harbour a couple of hours later, the atmosphere had completely changed – Nektaria’s favourite cat had just been run over and killed and she was distracted and distraught. Our meal was ready for us and every bit as delicious as we recalled, but Nektaria was inconsolable – so sad. We wished we could have stayed longer, but the forecast still had the meltemi in prospect.

Overnight the anchorage became somewhat rolly and waking in the early hours, we decided we might as well depart immediately with the prospect of making landfall after the nearly 90 mile passage in daylight. We expected a boisterous sail with a forecast of stronger winds than the previous day. However the wind remained a perfect 15 knots on a close reach and we enjoyed a much faster than expected passage – we were ecstatic. We encountered very little shipping during the trip, but one experience was somewhat nerve-wracking as a tanker crossed our path only a third of a mile ahead of us, at the same time as a fast ferry was hurtling towards us at 30 knots heading for the gap rather slowly opening up between the stern of the tanker and us.

Our feelings of satisfaction were initially replaced by a sense of anti-climax on arrival at the port of Rethymno in Crete. We had wintered the boat here three years ago, but hadn’t quite remembered the decrepitude of the marina and – in comparison with the islands – more ordinary dusty town. The culture shock from the pristine waters and sparkling villages we had just arrived from was a little brutal, especially as we had had to rush away with less time than planned for our Aegean islands farewell tour.

However, we quickly started getting into the spirit of Rethymno – at least the marina was only one tenth of the cost of Bodrum. One serendipitous consequence of our earlier than planned arrival was a meeting with old friends. We first met Peter and Sally at an anchorage on the Algarve when we were both heading into the Mediterranean and have kept in touch ever since. They sold their boat a couple of years ago and bought a property on Crete. Our original plans meant that we’d have missed them as they were about to go home – but instead we enjoyed some very splendid hospitality. Having been cruising sailors themselves, they knew exactly what we would most appreciate: showers, laundry, swimming pool and visit to the out of town Lidl – as well of course as their very good company!

Another use of our extra time in Crete was a trip to Santorini. Three years ago we had taken Aremiti through the caldera of Santorini, but been unable to find anywhere suitable to leave the boat to get ashore. This seemed an ideal opportunity to rectify the omission so we booked ourselves on a tourist trip. The fast catamaran travelling up to 34 knots, took just over three hours to cover more or less the same passage as ours from Anafi which had taken nearly 15 hours! However, Santorini turned out to be not really for us …First stop was the ‘village’ of Oia – a very upmarket and tasteful straggle of brilliant white boutique hotels and chi chi shops, with awesome views out over the caldera. The capital – Fira – was less lovely and desperately crowded - three cruise ships had by now arrived. Strolling the little streets was like shuffling along in the queue to board a flight. The interior of the island seemed very built up with a lot more construction going on. The renowned Santorini vines looked parched and miserable. The final stop was at one of the famed black sand beaches – which we had envisaged as a beauty spot, but turned out to be acres of sunbeds and umbrellas so densely packed that we couldn’t actually see the sea – though the sea itself was surprisingly and delightfully clear and refreshing. Perhaps the whistle-stop tour didn’t give us enough time to savour the delights of Santorini – but maybe we should have left our memories of Santorini as they were!

Meantime, Rethymno gradually reminded us of its charms – the Venetian harbour and castle, the medieval Ottoman old town – and even the fishermen who are drawn to the marina pontoons every evening. But it was desperately hot and we were looking forward to the cool English climate (!)

Now, after a brief – and very hot - visit home, we are about to embark on the second half of this summer’s cruise – which is going to be the opposite of the first half. No more short, leisurely passages between idyllic anchorages - we’re about to set off west at a fast pace. We have been hardened up a little by the tougher passages through the Greek islands which were something of a wake-up call after our leisurely pottering and are looking forward to the prospect of some real passage making…

Wish us luck!

Julia, Chris and Aremiti