We had been in Greece for nearly three months before I started writing this blog even though I had been intending to write it contemporaneously before the potency of the experience started to fade. However, struggled to find the motivation to get started. After the novelty of crossing the Indian Ocean (our first ocean crossing), and the exotic and adventurous experiences in Madagascar, Tanzania, and Egypt and the Suez Canal, and the surprise of Cyprus, Greece somehow seemed so, well, ordinary. The prospect of writing a tourist-type blog about a holiday in Greece had left me with writer’s block. There is no doubt though that Aegean Sea and its islands are beautiful and it is easy to see why the Greek islands are a popular holiday destination.
The passage from Cyprus to Rhodes in Greece was anything but ordinary. It was a relatively short one at 250nm but it was quite demanding. The wind conditions were very changeable, from not enough to too much, requiring a lot of fiddling with the sails which became frustrating and tiring. On the first day we had a big rolling swell with just over 20 knots of wind which put lots of water over the boat and made for noisy sleeping conditions. By early afternoon of the second day, we were motoring but still in enough swell to make the motion very unpleasant. We were inundated with nasty small biting flies- I had ever experienced anything like it. We got on the job with various weapons and managed to kill them all, and thank goodness no more arrived. The morning of the third day, July 1st, saw us nervously looking for a berth at the town quay in Rhodes. I say nervously because now we were in the Med where “Med mooring” is the name of the game if you go into the harbours. This basically means dropping the anchor and reversing into usually very tight spaces in between other boats that are already tied up. It requires good judgement about just when to drop the anchor and then lines have to be secured to the dock quickly. Like most things, it just takes a bit of practice, but practicing in front of an audience (other yachties always watch new boats coming into harbour) with a boat that does not steer at all well in reverse (especially if there is a cross wind) is not something that we were looking forward to. The Rhodes town quay was very full that morning and despite trying to contact the harbour master several times by radio, we were not able to arrange a spot, so we ended up taking the easier option of the marina, where we were able to berth side on and the marina yardsman was on hand to take the lines (phew!).
For our three months in Greece, we had decided to stay in the Aegean Sea- which is the sea between the east coast of Greece and the west coast of Turkey. The strong northerly wind (called the meltemi) that races down the middle of the Aegean during the summer makes sailing in this area quite challenging, and at times frustrating as you wait out a few days of a big blow. We adopted the strategy of going north along the eastern side of the Aegean through the Dodencanese Islands and then the Eastern Sporades which kept us on the edge of the meltemi, but still going north against it on the days when it was lighter. Then we spent some time around the Khalkidhiki Peninsula in the north of Greece before heading south (now with the wind behind us – yahoo!) along the western side of the Aegean through the Northern Sporades, the Gulf of Volos, and the east coast of Evia Island. We nipped around to the mainland to pick up our friend Leonie who had come to spend time with us, took in a couple of the Cyclades Islands with her and then tucked into the island of Aegina, just south of Athens to wait out some wind, and for Leonie to catch her ferry to Athens. Our last week or so was spent hopping east through the Cyclades and Dodencanese Islands taking us towards Turkey, our next destination. We visited 27 Greek islands, and close to 50 anchorages in total. Rather than bore you with a blow by blow description, this blog with hopefully give you an overall impression and also a sense of some of the highlights for us.
The north (the Sporades and Khalkidhiki Peninsula) was much greener and definitely prettier than the barren islands of the Cyclades (which includes the infamous Mykinos) and some of the Dodecanese. The islands are all similar though in that there are guest houses and resorts along the beach and dotted up in the hills; tavernas, coffee shops and ice creameries lining the beach; and on the beach (often stony rather than sandy) are the ubiquitous matching sunbeds, umbrellas, and usually a changing booth. Phil has dubbed the sunbeds “drying racks” as they are somewhat reminiscent of the fish drying racks all through Africa. In one place we even saw rails set up to allow a wheelchair to be rolled down into the water. Some of the islands have other points of interest such as old castles, ancient ruins, open air entertainment, museums, or an important place in Greek history.
The first anchorage for us that really looked like something out of a picture postcard was Panteli Beach on Leros. We arrived there after a long and frustrating 12 hour sail during which we had wind from 23 kts down to 1 kt and in variable directions. Although we thought we would wait until the morning to go ashore, the shore was beckoning, and wow! was it ever worth the effort: pristine white buildings all along the shore and dotted up the steep hill which was adorned by an old castle lit up at night. The pretty tavernas and restaurants placed their tables right up to the water’s edge along the beach. It absolutely dripped with romance, and left a lasting impression as a magical setting which would have to be one of our favourites.
We were enchanted over and over by the pretty (and impeccably clean) streets on many of the islands. We loved the winding cobblestoned lanes, festooned with bouganvillia, plumbago and oleander, and often with coloured chairs and cushions tucked into nooks where locals would sit and chat in the late afternoon. We climbed our way to the top of many a steep hill through these laneways to visit old castles and fortresses, important for the defence of each island, and for superb views of our anchorage and the sparkling Aegean Sea beyond.
Greece is of course steeped in history and we certainly got a good dose of it. We visited Kos, the birthplace of Hippocrates, recognized as the father of modern medicine with his conviction that disease was not caused by the gods but rather by a natural process.
Pythagoras, another well known Greek scientist, philosopher and religious teacher was born on Samos, a lovely island which we very much enjoyed. We also visited the island of Lemnos, which we learned was the launching place for the Gallipoli campaign where supply bases, field hospitals, soldiers’ rest camps and other military infrastructure was installed. Ships gathered in the harbor at Moudhros and the ANZACS disembarked for Gallipoli from here.
The aptly named street leading to the Aust and NZ military cemetery – the street sign was a surprisingly emotional sight
We had a lovely experience of serendipity on the small island Nisos Oinoussa, in the Eastern Sporades close to Turkey. We were anchored at Mandraki, a charming and seemingly well resourced village. There were lots of statues around the harbor area including a very cute one of an older woman waving the fishermen goodbye with her handkerchief. Apparently, this village was the home of Costa Lemos, the richest Greek shipping magnate. Here we caught up with Vicky and Nick, an English couple who we had met briefly in Samos. We decided to have dinner together at a local taverna and Vicky suggested sundowners on their boat beforehand. There had been a bottle of champagne in our fridge since Phil was in Kenya and we had been saving it to share with others. We decided to take it over to Vicky and Nick’s boat. Now there is a bit of a back story to this particular bottle. Phil had helped out some friends (Mandy and Brett) when Brett had some kind of seizure in the middle of the night in Kilifi Creek, Kenya. Phil was awake and heard Mandy on the phone talking to another boat, sounding quite distressed. As our dinghy was not in the water and the two boats were close, Phil swam over to offer assistance. Brett ended up being taken by ambulance to hospital where no apparent cause of the seizure could be found. Brett and Mandy gave Phil this rather nice bottle of champagne as a thank you. So here we are some six months later sitting on Vicky and Nick’s boat in Greece relaying the story as we shared the champagne with them. Would you believe that the two couples know each other, as they had met in the Med a few years previously? Unbelievable!
Phil, Vicki and Nick- cheers Brett and Mandy; I loved this statue of a Greek woman waving off the fishing fleet; Mandraki village
We caught up with Vicky and Nick again on Lesvos, still in the Eastern Sporades when we shared an anchorage and spent an enjoyable day together visiting a Roman aquaduct, followed by a very long lunch back at our anchorage.
We spent a further week on Lesvos – it is such a beautiful island with lots of points of interest, and it was certainly a highlight for us. We hired bicycles and rode out into the country in search of an Olive Oil Museum (which was closed!) and managed an impromptu visit to a goat farmer to watch him hand milking the goats.
We visited a petrified forest at Sigri where we saw some magnificent petrified tree roots and tree trunks still in their original positions, and even a petrified tree trunk in the shallows near the shore. The associated museum had fabulous examples of petrified fruits, leaves and seeds, as well as fossils.
Petrified tree root system; Phil with petrified tree trunks on the shore and in the shallows
We had read that one of the prettiest streets in the world could be found in Mythimnia (Molyvos) on Lesvos and after having walked down it a few times, we would have to agree. The first guitar player in written history, Arion, was apparently born in Molyvos which has become a gathering place for poets, painters and intellectuals. It was in Mythimnia that we had some lovely interactions with a couple of older Greek women – one of them inviting us into her house, after finding us poring over Google maps outside her lounge room window, and the other blowing me a kiss as I bought some items at a supermarket.
Two of the most impressive castles that we saw were also on Lesvos. Mythimnia Castle or fortress was founded in the Byzantine period and passed through the hands of the Venetians, Catalans and Ottomans, each carrying out modifications and repairs. Mytilene Castle, is one of the largest in the Eastern Mediterranean, was also founded in the Byzantine period and came into the hands of a Genoan family, before being partially destroyed by an earthquake. The Ottomans subsequently had a large influence overseeing alterations and additions, until Lesvos became part of the Greek state. This was a very impressive site, where the different architecture of the various residents was apparent, and there was an extensive underground storage areas.
The Khalkidhiki Peninsula in the north of the Aegean Sea was another highlight. The Greek cruising pilot describes this like a hand reaching into the Aegean with three small peninsulas forming the fingers. The most eastern of these, Akti Peninsula is a fascinating place. The communities on Akti, comprised entirely of male monks, have lived for more than 10 centuries almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world. Monastries and hermit huts are scattered over the peninsula, many built in simply impossible places. There is a 500 m exclusion zone for all vessels around the peninsula and a yacht with women on board is not allowed within 1 mile. It is possible for men to visit Akti but a permit must first be obtained. We had a great sail around the cape and up the western coast, anchoring for the night at an island just off the north of the peninsula.
The middle of the three fingers, Sinthonia Peninsula, was simple gorgeous: heavily wooded and dense with trees, mainly pines but also oak and olives. Dimitriaki Bay was a spectacular anchorage with trees and grass right down to water edge.
Porto Koufo is another anchorage on Sinthonia worth mentioning as it has the reputation as being one of the most magnificent natural harbours in the Med. It was quite dramatic sailing into it as the relatively narrow rocky entrance opens into a reasonable sized harbor surrounded by hills covered in trees. All our senses were delighted as we sailed in because we had a little rain on approach which meant we could smell the pine trees as we sailed along. Sinthonia Peninsula is obviously a popular area for Greek holiday makers and it’s easy to see how many aspects of Australian life would have appealed to the Greek migrants. It is clear that they like the great outdoors just as much as we do – camping, boating, fishing, swimming, lazing on beach (no surf though). The Greeks will sunbake absolutely anywhere- on pebbly beaches, on big rocks around the headlands – we even came across a few locals sunbaking on a concrete dinghy dock! They were well set up with their own sun beds and umbrella.
Skopelos in the Northern Sporades is one of the islands where a number of scenes from the movie Mamma Mia was filmed, the most memorable being Meryl Streep (as Donna) singing “Winner takes it all” to Pierce Brosnan (as Sam) with the little church of Agios Ioannis perched way up on the rocks in the background. While not a big fan of the movie, I loved the stage show and we just had to visit that church. We were anchored on the other side of the island and as we didn’t want to do a corny Mamma Mia tour, we decided to walk. It was a 16 km return trip through some wonderful scenery and we found figs, grapes, almonds, and blackberries growing wild along the way to supplement our packed lunch. The views were spectacular and the tiny church was very cute.
Skiros, another of the Northern Sporades, was an interesting island to visit. The old part of the main town, also called Skiros, was much like many of the Greek islands – white houses, winding cobblestone streets, great views and oh yes, a castle on the hill. The Faltaits Museum housed in the residence of the local Faldai family includes treasures such as 14th century books by intellectuals like Voltaire, and the original proclamation of the Greek revolution against the Ottomans written by members of a secret society. Skiros has a ferry service (like many of the Greek islands) but this one has a celebratory ritual when it docks for the final time at the end of each day. As it approaches the dock, the theme song from “1001 Space Odyssey” is blasted out around the harbour, with the final bars of the song timed to play just as the ferry has turned around and is reversing into the dock. Then they play a bit of the theme song from the TV show “The Love Boat” as the ferry completes its docking. This ritual is well known and many people gather in the bars and along the shore to enjoy the festive atmosphere that it creates. It was a lot of fun!
Our time in Greece was rounded off by a visit from our friend Leonie, who came to spend two weeks with us. Porto Rafti which is just south east of Athens airport made for a convenient pick up spot, and it was exciting to have her arrive after her visit having been planned for some time. But the weather Gods had not read our program and so there was not as much champagne sailing as we had hoped. On our first sail out of Port Rafti on our way to Batsi on Andros Island, was a boisterous start and so Leonie retired to a bunk down below. Just as well as we had an unexpected squall which took us by surprise with 40 knots or so, and resulted in a very large tear in our genoa (large headsail) as we were trying to furl it (ie., wind it in). We subsequently discovered that although the sail was only 8 years old, the material was of such poor quality that it had deteriorated badly. On the up side, Batsi was a pleasant town with pretty streets and stone walkways so it was a nice place in which to lick our wounds and recover. We took a bus over to the main town of Andros to visit the lighthouse there, reputed to be one of Greece’s most beautiful lighthouses. The catch is that in order to actually see the lighthouse from the shore, one must cross a precarious looking stone bridge. It was worth it though, as you can see from the photos.
We managed to visit a couple of other pretty islands before the weather forecast had us heading to Aegina (large island just south of Athens) for cover. On the way there, we did have a day of champagne sailing from Ormos Passalimani (a bay on the end of the peninsula south east of Athens) to Sounion where we visited the Temple of Poseidon- a magnificent sight located on a headland.
For the rest of Leonie’s time we based ourselves in Aegina. The Pistachio Festival happened to be on so there was quite a deal of activity in the town which provided us with good entertainment, given that the wind prevented any more sailing. It was lovely to just hang out together in a pretty location. Ferry services on some islands in the area had been suspended due to the conditions, but fortunately, some of the Aegina ferries were unaffected and Leonie was able to get back to Athens for her onward flight to France to visit a friend and then her daughter who had just moved to Paris.
Leonie and I at the Temple of Aphia; Yes – it’s a pistachio cake of Aegina; pretty street scene, Aegina
Our 90 day Greek visa was running out so on our way to Turkey we hopped across a couple more islands. Paros was the bookend to the magical early anchorage on Leros. We had a diamond of a day in the anchorage at Ormos Ay Ioannou. The harbour area there is just drop dead gorgeous so we whiled away some time enjoying coffee and a chat to Dutch couple who were at the next table. We explored the remains of Venetian castle, and strolled through gorgeous lanes. A swim with a G and T was the perfect way to recover from the hot afternoon walk to the lighthouse before having a sunset dinner in the cockpit. A gorgeous end to our time in Greece.