The Greek islands are scattered on either side of mainland Greece. The Ionian Sea and its islands lie to the west of the Greek mainland, while the Aegean, with its myriad islands, lies to the south and east of the mainland, running east to Turkey and south to Crete.
We made our Greek landfall, May 22, on the Ionian island of Zakynthos, after a lovely 2-day sail from Sicily. We found the Ionians to be a cross between the Virgin Islands and Nova Scotia: many green mountainous masses close together creating beautiful views and easy sailing distances, as in the Virgins; and lovely, pastoral anchorages with rocky, tree-lined shores, like Nova Scotia. Their greenness was an appreciated change from the brown of Spain and the other islands of last season.
Two days after our arrival in the Ionians, on the eve of our 33rd anniversary, we had "The Night From Hell," as we dubbed it. Having been blown out of two anchorages (which had been delightful until the wind blew up instantly from the wrong direction), we spent the night motoring into gale force winds. Finally, at dawn, we sailed into the fjord-like bay of Sivota, on the island of Levkas. It turned out to be a lovely spot, nestled in the cove, surrounded by green mountains, with a few tavernas and services for yachts and nothing else, - quiet, low key and very protected from the wind. It was a good place to finish up chores we had not done at launching.
On our second day there, our friend Klaus, on EBBA (in whose company we had cruised, last season, from the Balearics, to Sardinia, Tunisia and Sicily, and who had been our fearless leader on our night climb of Stromboli), sailed into the harbor, announcing his arrival on his hunting horn. We had a joyous reunion with cold champagne.
One afternoon a German came up to us and said. "We met last year in Formentera." Over dinner with him, we learned of his quest to follow the Odyssey and discover which island really was Odysseus' home. He is convinced it is Lefkas and NOT Ithaca. He showed us a passage describing a harbor, in detail, that easily fits a description of Sivota.
We have now met one boat following the footsteps of St. Paul (The Japanese Grand Banks Trawler) and another following Odysseus. We are only attempting to follow fair winds, we hope, as well as several millennia of history, which seemed to have eluded us in school.
At times, it seemed as if we were just hopping from one reasonably protected anchorage to another, spending days waiting out strong winds in some kind of shelter. In fact, DOVKA visited the green and mountainous Zakynthos; Cephalonia, the largest of the Ionians, rugged and steep to with beautiful pine forests on its east side, which run down to the sea; Levkas, with steep to limestone mountains on the south and salt marshes on the north; the gentle rolling, green slopes of Meganissi; and Ithaca, supposedly the island home of Odysseus, with steep to rocky mountains.
We discovered that motor scooters are the best way to explore the interior of these islands. In Lefkas, we experienced the first of many tiny mountain hamlets, spectacular vistas of mountains and the sea, spring wildflowers everywhere and the odor of wild herbs perfuming the cool, mountain air. On one mountain pass, our way was blocked as an old Greek woman garbed completely in black herded dozens of goats down the road.
Gulf of Corinth
Galaxidhi, a delightful traditional town, was a major port of over 8,000 inhabitants and several hundred sailing ships in the 19th century. A local said his grandmother told him that in the winter, the laid-up sailing ships completely blocked the view across the bay to the town of Itea and the mountain temples of Delphi. After the era of sailing ships passed, most local young men became merchant seamen and drifted off, many to Athens or to the U.S. (many to Astoria, NY) or to Canada. Now, the year round population is about 1,200, but the town is being preserved as it was and renovated. The Athenians make the 2-1/2 hour journey back on weekends, while the overseas folks come back for July and August. The monthly paper's last page is devoted to news of the Astoria clan.
This seems to be the story of many of the towns throughout Greece, especially in the Aegean islands. Old folks people them, as the young go to Athens or emigrate overseas. Backpackers, day-trippers, package tours and yacht charters provide the islanders with summer money for the lonely winters. The young come from the city to work and then return to the city after the tourist season.
Crossing the bay from Galaxidi, we docked at the derelict marina in the port town of Itea. This non-functioning marina was one of many we encountered where the expensive infrastructure had been built with EU money and then the local authorities neglected the final touches needed to make them a commercial entity.
From Itea, we visited Delphi, the center of the world, according to the ancient Greeks. The Delphic Oracle was famous throughout the Greek world. Delphi sits on the side of Mt. Parnassus amidst sheer cliffs and rocky bluffs. The views of the green mountains and ravines are spectacular, as well as the extensive ruins of temples, an amphitheater and stadium. The Greeks certainly knew how to pick their religious sites. These 7,000 ft. mountains still were snowcapped in early June.
On June 12th, we transited the Corinth Canal, which connects the Ionian and the Aegean seas. It is a 3.2 miles long cut, 81 ft wide with a maximum depth of 23 ft. The sheer, white limestone cliffs rise to 250 ft on either side. We paid €105 for the most expensive per mile canal in the world.
The late afternoon sun softly lit the stark, steep cliffs and the cloak of history surrounded DOVKA, as she made her way east. Several thousand years before the canal was dug across the isthmus in the mid 19th century, a paved road existed and ships were pulled across on sleds, from one sea to another. Nero used 6,000 Jews to try to dig a canal, until he was distracted by uprisings in Gaul.
Docked bow-in, on the middle of the town quay with bustling cafes and tavernas lining the waterfront, we watched ferries coming in all day, large groups of passengers trudging by us, many rolling their bags as they made their way to the hotels, others carrying day packs and taking their white bodies to the beach, as well as the large motel motor yachts, with gold chained fat men, made up and mule heeled women and Filipino crew, muscling their way in, to be at the happening place for the weekend.
The daily promenade, viewed from the comfort of our cockpit, was worth the hustle and bustle. But docked by buildings, which protected us from the northerly winds and also blocked any breeze, we found ourselves suffering from the summer heat for the first (not last) time this season.
We stayed three nights in Aegina, so we could collect our airplane tickets to return home at the end of June, for a most important wedding and a family reunion with our boys and their girlfriends. Jonathan had found a Greek travel agent in Boston from whom we bought our tickets. He just happened to be buying a sailboat in Athens. So Yanni hand delivered our tickets and we made a new friend. He now calls us from Boston to ask our advice on outfitting his new boat.
One of the essential joys of cruising life is that our schedule is flexible. We stay where we want for as long as we want and we leave when we are ready to go (weather permitting, of course). We can tie to the town quay and be in the center of activities: sightsee and explore on land, and still come back to our own bed and home for the night. Then, we can quickly sail away and anchor away from the madding crowd, to relish the quiet and the beauty of the sights and sounds of the sea, sky and a rural landscape (macho motorcycles and disco noise is replaced by crowing roosters and goats with clanking bells).
Following a boisterous sail east from Aegina we were in an idyllic anchorage under the temple of Poseidon on the summit of Cape Sounion. It is quite a sight to look up at anytime and see the 5th century BCE, temple of Poseidon, god of the sea, rising 60 meters above the sea.
At sunset we made our pilgrimage to the temple. The golden light of the setting sun bathed the temple, and us. It was a religious experience as the contrasting shadows on the columns grew stronger, the soft pinks dabbed above the dark hills, slowly faded, and the sun sank behind the mountains of Greece.
We spent several days anchored at Cape Sounion, while the meltemi (the strong summer north wind) blew. We then left DOVKA in one of the few Greek marinas, while we returned home to the Washington heat and humidity.
After our return from ten days in the States, we stopped at the Cyclade islands of Kithnos, Syros (and from there ferried to Mykonos and Delos), Paros, Skhinousa, Amorgas, and Levitha. The Cyclades that we visited, were dry, rocky, brown and sparsely populated. Excellent produce is grown for local sale, but these once fertile, forested islands are now barren rock from destruction of the trees and the subsequent erosion over hundreds of years.
Amorgas has a spectacular 13th century monastery built into the sheer cliffs on its southeast side, hundreds of feet above the water. We took our motor scooter to the end of the road and walked for 30 minutes up the path to the spectacular sight of a whitewashed building buttressed against the face of the rock cliffs.
Many islands have a hill town called Chora, which is a hamlet of cluster housing safely tucked high in the mountains to protect the inhabitants from pirates and marauders. The narrow alleys and stairs are only wide enough for people and donkeys. Cars and motorcycles get parked outside.
Some Choras are gray and crumbling as only the old folks remain. Others are sparkling whitewashed boxes tucked together into the mountains. Green bushes of bougainvillea, oleander, jasmine and hibiscus laden with luscious pink and red flowers explode like fireworks out over sparkling whitewashed walls. These, the fertile gardens in little plots by the little houses, and the olive and fir trees planted on the hills around the chora, are in stark contrast to the surrounding brown mountains with small coarse green shrubs.
We headed northeast to Patmos, where St John the Divine wrote the Apolcalypse (whatever that is), and then to Samos, home of Pythagoras, and deliciously green with pine forests and high mountains. Now we are heading south to Leros, Kos, Simi, and then on to Marmaris, Turkey.
In Syros, we were docked next to a young woman who lives on her boat. She and her visiting friend are two of the only three Greek women licensed as professional yacht skippers. We came for a day and stayed a week, becoming fast friends with Angie and Sevie, enjoying their hospitality and the many friends to whom they introduced us.
The morning after dinner at a taverna in Galaxhidi, the owner invited Sid in for morning coffee. A retired Greek, who still lives in Cleveland, invited us for drinks and to tour his renovated ancestral home, which he was now using for six months a year. At one isolated anchorage, we struck up a friendship with a German family touring the Greek Islands in their 15foot inflatable. They camp in the boat and cook ashore. The girls are 6 & 8 and the father, a world-champion decathloner, has a PhD in philosophy. We invited them for a breakfast of french toast, which bridged our language barrier with the little girls.
It seems to take very little to get people to share their ways of doing things, their thoughts and their culture with us. People are willing to go out of their way to be helpful. The only people we have met who do not want to be bothered with any work are the officials we need to deal with in order to properly clear in and out of the ports. It is our responsibility and our liability if we do not get our Greek transit log stamped, but it is very difficult to get them to do their job. Most often, they shoo us away and say do it in the next island.
People want to know from where we come; want to tell us their stories and want to know "Is George Bush really president of the U.S?" They still like Americans. But no one we have met has any predilection for any of our foreign policies. They are afraid of what we might do in the future and do not understand how Americans can be so insular and ignorant of the reality of the rest of the world. We have no answer for them.
Most of the boats are German, English or French, with some Scandinavian, Italian and Austrian. We met one Hungarian flagged steel motor yacht. The owner is a dentist from Eilat, his wife, an artist, and his friend, the former mayor. They do not fly the Israeli flag "out of consideration for our boat neighbors." We enjoyed their company. They had a young man with them who is one of the many undocumented guest workers needed by Israel to replace the lost Arab labor. He is a Slovakian christian who saw no future for himself in Slovakia, so went to Israel on a whim. It was fascinating to talk to him about his life and his view of Israel and the Israelis. We have met few American boats. The one American boat we did meet, luckily, had a computer expert on board and he rescued us when Windows crashed on our laptop!
One English boat we had met at least three times, turned out to be docked several boats down from us in the fourth harbor, when we got an email from British friends of ours, reminding us to look out for their dear friends: these very same people. The couple on another English boat, alongside whom we were docked, stuck in harbor for two days as the wind howled, were interested when we said we came from Virginia. They said their mother did too. Turns out she grew up in tiny Matthews County, VA and their cousin, who had moved back there, is a close friend of friends of ours from there.
The small world cliché really clicked, when Anne Marie, whom we had met when she was visiting the women skippers next to us, was taking us on a tour of the island of Syros. She is a German who has circumnavigated twice, once around the Horn. We were having tea with an American friend of hers, who lives in a tiny hamlet on Syros with her Greek diver husband and runs a pension. She mentioned that some years ago, she had, as guests, a photographer from the Smithsonian with a small group of students. Suddenly, we knew it had to be the same place our friend Mariby had stayed when she came to the Greek Islands to study with a Smithsonian photographer! Trudi remembered our friend, and we were all stunned by the coincidence.
During the last three months, one in Italy and two in Greece, we have anchored in isolated coves, tiny fishing villages, have tied up on the town quays in bustling harbors and noisy tourist destinations. We have had time to learn the Greek alphabet, relish the creamy yogurt, great eggplant dishes, tasty tomatoes and peaches, as well as getting to know a people less chic and sophisticated than the Italians, but even more friendly and helpful. While sailing 1,300 miles, we have stayed in only four marinas but have visited 37 ports and 20 different islands.
This is being written as we motor south in the Aegean, with Turkey to the east and the Greek Dodeconese Islands to our west: mountains of hunks of rocks and barren tundra spreading before us in layers of diminishing depths of gray. Our Greek sojourn is winding down. We plan to enter Turkey at the end of this week.