May 2002 : Greece



Yassas from Perdika

Emerging from the Suez Canal out into the Mediterranean was an exciting and welcome prospect – though somewhat dampened by the reality of finding it an insipid green colour, lumpy and with wind on the nose! The Med. is a milestone – a new era in our voyage, which we contemplated with all sorts of mixed feelings. On the one hand we felt relieved and enthusiastic at the immediate prospect of spending time in an easier environment – in countries with a more familiar culture, after so long – eight months since we arrived in Indonesia – in strange, unfamiliar and sometimes difficult cultures. On the other hand, rather perversely we feel regret that the most exotic sights are probably now behind us. The prospect of our return home is looming closer, and while we are tremendously looking forward to our arrival, the thought of settling down and staying put is quite unnerving. We will be sad to leave the cruising lifestyle - the weaning process has already begun as the ‘fleet’ of yachts which travelled up the Red Sea together in daily radio contact and became so bonded by the experience, has dispersed to different locations around the Med. That experience of shared endeavour is very special, but it will nevertheless be a relief not to be constantly battling the elements.

With so much to see in the Med. and less than three months to track the 3,000 miles direct from east to west, the planning was not easy. Our most extravagant plans had us going off to investigate Lebanon and then on to Cyprus, before arriving in Greece. However, reality, and our late exit from the Red Sea meant that modifications had to be made and we headed straight for Rhodes. Planning the Greek phase was just as tricky – so many islands, so much history.

We knew we were well and truly back in Europe before we had even berthed in Rhodes. As we approached the main harbour at night, the coastline shone out in an extravagence of lights the bright intensity of which we have not seen since Australia. The town of Rhodes, though swamped by tourism is very magnificent with its medieval walled city topped off by the palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of St John. We enjoyed the abundance of tavernas where eating is obviously a social event rather than simply a basic fuelling necessity. We marvelled at the simple availability of things we needed – for the boat and for ourselves. It was strange to be in a place where not only the visitors but also the locals are European. A performance of the Verdi Requiem - part of the Rhodes Music Festival – seemed an essentially very European event.

Next stop was Astypalaia – chosen on two counts - being in the right general direction, and its absence from our Lonely Planet guidebook. It was everything we could have hoped for. We were almost the only visitors to the idyllic little town - an artlessly charming warren of steps, streets and alleyways flanked by dazzling white houses all with their blue windows and doors, climbing up a hill past a row of half a dozen windmills to a ruined Venetian castle – the quintessential Aegean island. It was a brilliant place for Chris to spend his birthday – his first ashore in three years. It seemed such a clever discovery we talked about buying one of the dilapidated properties there as a hideaway! Probably we shouldn’t have told you about it!

Next – Naxos - the largest and supposedly the greenest of the Cyclades. We were slightly aghast to find the waterfront of the ‘Chora’ (main town) lined solidly with tourist bars and tavernas. However, it took no time at all to find ourselves on our own, climbing up through a multi-dimensional maze of streets, alleys, steps, archways and tunnels – a real labyrinth – of quaint white houses of all shapes and sizes, up to the twelfth century Venetian castle, containing the small but grander villas of the island’s former Italian overlords. A car trip into the country confirmed its greeness as we meandered our way through a series of rural and rustic villages, a fifth century Byzantine church and an unfinished ancient Greek statue lying around in the marble quarrying area.

The next town was even older – Delos – sometime spiritual capital of the Ancient Greek world. A tiny barren island, it was hard to imagine a population of 30,000 living there in 90 BC. The enormous site of ruins was astounding, particularly the once swanky area of villas with their pillars, mosaics, fountains and statues. The whole site was covered in a profusion of wild flowers – a magical experience.

The next phase was a nostalgia trip. Heading westwards, our next destination was the little fishing port of Perdika, on the island of Aegina in the Saronic Gulf. Neither of us had very distinct memories of the village – we named our boat for the spirit of sailing we encountered there nine years ago, rather than for the village itself. However, we are relieved to report that we haven’t inadvertently named our boat after a dump! Perdika is a quaint fishing village which is popular as an outing for Greek holidaymakers. Its dual personality – fishing and fish restaurants - seems to meld happily, to create an unspoilt and laid-back ambience. Sad to say, although one or two locals noticed the name of our boat, none seemed at all curious. Whoever was in charge of organising our civic welcome had obviously slipped up! Then on to Galaxhidi in the Gulf of Corinth – which we visited by land on the same holiday, and found more inspiration amongst the small fleet of liveaboard cruisers berthed there. It is always a worry when returning to a magical memory that the reality can’t measure up – but this problem certainly didn’t arise in Galaxhidi. The little town is even more delightful than we had remembered. Gorgeous Italianate villas along the front, climbing gently up a low hill topped by the domed cathedral – all in washed out Tuscan colours. This could be another contender for ‘our second home’! Between these two memories, the Corinth Canal – both extremely expensive and extremely impressive - only 25 metres wide, and 7-8 metres deep – but up to 250 feet high with sheer sides hewn out of the rock 110 years ago. It is only 3.2 miles long so the experience doesn’t last very long – especially with two knots of current going our way.

This month has been both relaxing and refreshing – a complete change of pace. We are relishing the long days - warm sunny evenings are a delightful luxury after short tropical days with a brief sunset at 6pm sharp. Initially we found the climate rather cold, but are now hardening up and should be able to cope with summer in the Med! Life in Europe is so easy. Everywhere is clean and organised, and things work. Refuelling and obtaining water are routine and simple. Food shopping is a delight – and you can buy alcohol! We have been working diligently on acquiring the taste for Retsina - with some success! Rather fortunately we seem to have chosen the perfect time to visit Greece – very pleasant and benign weather, few tourists and the spectacular profusion of wild flowers.

However, lest you might think we are having it too easy, we have still had some elements to battle and problems to solve. The Med. must contain more rubbish than any waters we have yet sailed in. En route from Egypt our propellor was fouled on two nights running – never having happened before in nearly three years. Each time we had to stop the boat while heroic Chris plunged into the water, mid ocean in the middle of the night, to investigate and pull off sheets of thick plastic. A few days ago in the Gulf of Corinth we left a protected anchorage to set off for what we expected would be a gentle sail for the day, but found ourselves, as we rounded a headland, facing over 25 knots of headwinds and boisterous seas which we were quite unprepared for. Then the shackle holding up the main sail broke, sending the sail flapping down. Having made a temporary fix of that problem, the clew of the genoa then tore out, leaving the sail violently flogging. Anchoring has been another problem, with indifferent holding in many places. On one occasion it took seven attempts to feel sure that the anchor was firmly set – quite important as the wind was howling at 30 knots at the time! We have been facing the terrors of the ‘Med moor’ – for non-sailors, this is a method of mooring the boat at right angles to a quay. The technique ideally requires someone on the helm, someone handling the anchor and a third person at the other end of the boat to throw lines ashore – but there are only two of us, and when there is no one ashore to catch the lines it becomes quite tricky! We haven’t fouled up yet, but it must be only a matter of time. Finally the dread Euro has made its appearance in our lives. Whether its introduction in Greece has put prices up we can’t say, but we are horrified at the cost of everything. This easy life comes at quite a price.

We are currently in the tiny medieval harbour of Navpaktos – ancient Lepanto - in the Gulf of Corinth, waiting for a forecast suitable for our next passage – to Italy and a family reunion. We have been here longer than planned (strong headwinds as usual!), but it is a captivating and picturesque place to be, dominated by yet another centuries-old hill-top castle. All creature comforts are available, including what might well be the best restaurant in Greece. The square overlooking the harbour and shaded by a giant plane tree is a mellow place for an evening drink. Yesterday, in a quest to find where we might obtain diesel, Chris approached a group of very ethnic looking fishermen checking over their nets, only to find that two of them are actually professional computer people! An excellent English speaker, one of them ordered our fuel on his mobile phone, which arrived in half an hour! We have found the Greeks to be generally reserved and not prone to gushy superficial gestures to complete strangers – they must after all be used to visitors over the centuries. However, in any substantive dealings, they could not have been more charming or helpful. We are developing a serious reluctance to leave.