Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Halkidiki, Thessaloniki, Meteora

Nea Skioni
Certainly three of my favorite places. The Halkidiki may have to revert to "once was" as a favorite place. Much of it is now too crowded during the height of the "season" to retain its old charm. Thessaloniki is still one of my favorite cities and in some ways better than I remember it from the last time we were here twenty years ago. And Meteora is one of the great "bucket list" sites, as visually and culturally appealing as anywhere in Europe.

We've been in Saloniki (Thessaloniki) for a week now and it been a great visit. Who says you can never go home again? This city was my home for about a year and my destination for many visits later on. It hasn't changed all that much. Visually its much the same. 

Thessaloniki city front
The people seem more western and the atmosphere in some areas of town is more chic. Its probably cleaner than is was in the eighties and somehow the traffic doesn't seem so bad. The old daily easter egg hunt for a parking spot seems a little easier. The down side is that the Greek economic difficulties are very apparent in many of the commercial portions of the city. There are many, many closed shops and empty store fronts. But to me Saloniki has always been a busy,  bustling and attractive city by the bay with a rich history and a sweet people and that remains.  I've had some very good times here and Janet had visited before with me in about 1990 and liked it as well. The marina at Aretsou is nice, very well protected and very quiet even though there are plenty of tavernas on the street above us and the evening volta takes in the marina until at least ten every night.
At Thessaloniki Marina
To catch you up on our progress to this point, we left Nea Marmaris in  company with First Light III on another motor voyage (no wind) across the gulf between Sithonia and Kassandra and around the south cape of Kassandra up to the village of Nea Skioni. It was nice to see that the southern portions of Kassandra (south of Paliouri) were as lovely and unspoiled as they have ever been and that our old dive spots were still  isolated and lovely. Nea Skioni proved to be a nice fishing village with some tourism that did not detract from the charm of the place. We had some nice meals and prowled the waterfront. Bernie and Di got in some bike riding.
Nea Mouldounia
We spent two nights in Nea Skioni and pushed north to Nea Mouldounia and that town was a disappointment. Its suffered dramatically from the Greek economic problems, the tourist scene was not that attractive and the place was depressing. We left without regret for the final motor north to Thessaloniki.  
New paint
For those of you who are cruising the Aegean or contemplating the act I have to throw in a few words about Heikell's "Greek Waters Pilot" on Thessaloniki. I have a lot of respect for Heikell and his publications. They're  very useful. But his write up on Saloniki is just plain wrong, way wrong, and he should correct his book. I don't know when he was here, probably long ago, but his "first impressions" bare no resemblance to the city or the waterfront to be found today. If you're reading Heikell and writing off Saloniki because of his statements you're doing yourself a disservice and should reconsider. Contact me if you wish, I'll hazard to say I know this place far better than Heikell.
Thessaloniki from near the upper walls
……..anyway, we arrived in the marina at Aretsou without difficulty, got a nice secure berth with First Light III nearby and settled in for exploring old haunts, renewing old friendships, and a little land travel. We rented a car and did a little exploring trying, without too much difficulty, to find our way around after twenty years away. Getting lost in Thessaloniki was always fun. Ultimately, if you go down hill you hit the sea. If you go up hill you reach the castle walls. In between, well, enjoy the city.
Enroute to Meteora
Next day we drove down to Vergina to tour the new museum built directly into the tumulus over the grave site of Phillip the 2nd, Alexander the Great's father. The unmolested tomb was discovered back in the 80s and the goodies within have made for a spectacular display. From Vergina we continued south into Thessaly to Meteora and found a really nice hotel in the village of Kastria. 
A four room suite for 50 EU
 If you remember the old James Bond movie "For Your Eyes Only" the monasteries at Meteora figured prominently in the movie. They are spectacularly beautiful 15th century buildings set on rock pinnacles far above the villages below. Until recent times most were only reachable by rope hoists or wooden ladders up the rocks. Now there are decent stairways cut into the rock approaches and its just a matter of placing one foot ahead of the other until you reach the entrances. And its well worth the climbs. The views above and below are world class. 

Views at Meteora
The monasteries themselves are lovely orthodox style masonry with tile roofs and spectacular over hangs. The interior decoration of the churches within the monasteries are wonderful and give an idea of what might have been commonly found in the even older orthodox churches had the iconoclasts not had their way.
Orthodox interior decoration
We spent a good afternoon and a comfortable night in our very small but very nice hotel and explored around the next morning before driving the two and half hours back to Saloniki. Anyone contemplating a little land travel in Greece should make Meteora a priority. Its a great place.
Megalos Meteora monastery
Bernie and Di had family show up the next day as planned. Their son Simon and his girl friend Noelia were eager to get going south for the Sporades so we said goodbye to them for a awhile and took to meeting up with old Greek friends from too long ago. We visited with George Kizas who still owns the Villas Kiza where I lived back in the eighties. 
With George at Villas Kiza
We spent time on the boat and in the Halkidiki with the family of Vassilis Zavalis who was a good friend who died twenty years ago. We have always stayed in touch and we had a nice afternoon with four generations of the family. We've driven around the city getting semi-lost and having nice meals in view spots over the bay. We visited the very excellent archeological and Byzantine museums. The only  surprise, and it wasn't really a surprise, I'd heard about it, was the level of development south towards the Halkidiki from Thessalonki. What used to be a a rural two lane road is now a four to eight lane super highway with stop and go traffic on the weekends. The sleepy villages near where I used to live are unrecognizable with multi-story development being the rule. I used to have a nice ocean view from my pad. No more, the view is completely blocked by new construction. That's life. Much of the good stuff still remains and its been a great visit.

Zavalis family
We're shoving off early tomorrow morning, heading south. We'll spend a night in Nea Skioni and see more Greek friends and then head for the Sporades and we'll back in the islands, man. We plan to meet up with Bernie and Di and start the final phase to this years plan.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Return to the Halkidiki

Main, stay'sl and genoa
We left Myrina with a forecast for good sailing conditions on the forty mile 'passage' up to the tip of the Athos Peninsula. The forecast was spot on and we had a close reach on starboard tack all the way in company with First Light III. Since we actually 'sail' a relatively small percentage of our time in the Aegean I'll try to attach some proof. 

Any of these photos can be viewed full size by clicking on the image.

Mount Athos on the starboard bow
Mt. Athos rises directly out of the sea to about 6700' as a giant pyramid of granite and marble. Very beautiful! And its just the tip of the peninsula which belongs to the Greek Orthodox church and is entirely inhabited by monks of several communities living in spectacular monasteries dating back to the ninth century. 
Monastic settlement on the south wall of the mountain
No women have ever been allowed on Athos since that time. Special permissions are required for any visit. When I first flew over this area on some low levels in the eighties it was obvious the monasteries were at least in a state of deep limbo and probably decay. There were fallen in walls and buildings were deserted. It was possible to believe this place might cease to exist in another hundred years. 

Views along the coast of Athos
But the opposite has occurred. Now everywhere there is new construction and old buildings have been repaired. Where there was once no evidence of modern life, no vehicles, no sign of electrification, and no roads there are now solar panels visible above monasteries and a few vehicles on real roads. There's been a lot of construction of all kinds and its obviously a viable and growing society. Its all very interesting but most of all the monasteries and the peninsula itself are spectacularly beautiful. Vessels are required to stay at least 500 meters off shore. Our winds had died immediately in the lee of the mountain so we dropped sail and motored up the coast to an anchorage north of the regulated portion of the peninsula and spent the night.

Next day was flat calm so we motored over to the middle peninsula, Sithonia, and spent a night anchored in the bay of Dhmitriaki which was scenic, quiet and uncrowded. I was a good start to a long awaited revisit to the Halkidiki.

Motoring along Sithonia
I'd have to do some real searching to find out when I was last here, probably the early '90s.This area is the three peninsulas which jut out into the NW Aegean from the mainland of northern Greece. They are, from west to east, Kassandra, Sithonia and Athos. Its an exceptionally beautiful place, mountainous and wooded with some of  the best beaches in the Med.  I first came here in 1981 when I was flying out of Thessaloniki. There was little development and with any effort at all you could have a lovely spot all to yourself. Over the years it has changed of course and now those deserted beaches are occupied by crowds of eastern European tourists. Its not a long drive from Bulgaria or what was Yugoslavia and now that those people have some money and freedom to travel they do it.

Southern tip of Sithonia
So Sithonia is much more developed and those lovely spots are mostly occupied by hoards of eastern European beach campers. Its still a beautiful place of course and Porto Koufos, a spectacular anchorage on the SW corner,  is not over developed yet.
Janet's birthday cake
The taverna that I used to enjoy in Porto Koufos   is still there, much enhanced of course, and with some competition, but still one of the very best sea food tavernas anywhere. We used it to celebrate Janet's birthday with Bernie and Di (of First Light III) and had a nice dinner.
Grilled sardines, fried mussels, Greek yogurt, Greek salad, mousaka, bread and wine, for four.
The dinner scene
Now we're in Nea Marmaris after three nights in Porto Koufos. We'll be here two nights and then move over to Kassandra and start the leg up towards Thessaloniki. Nea Marmaras is OK but there's a reason I remember nothing of it from years past, there's not much outstanding to remember. And for the first time this trip we've encountered a place totally devoted to tourism and in the heat of the battle. The 'season' is in full swing and these folks are trying to make their bucks, or euros, while they can and they're already getting tired of the whole scene. They're a little jaded and I have a feeling they won't be their friendly laid back selves again until the 1st of September when the 'season' seems to come to a very immediate conclusion.
Nea Marmaras Harbor
Tomorrow we head east to Kassandra and a port around the SW tip of the peninsula called Nea Skioni. Should be a nice spot.

Love to all,
Bill and Janet
SV Airstream

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Laid Back In Limnos

Laid back in the town of Myrina on the island of Limnos for nine days to be exact. And it has been very nice. Things  started out very well with a great sail from Molivos on Lesvos. Sixty miles of 12-18 knot breeze just forward of the beam. Sunny cloudless skies. One meter seas. 7-8 knots most of the way with Otto the autopilot steering while I trimmed and Janet offered refreshments. The 150%  genoa was reefed down to about 135 just for comfort. Otto even caught one partially following sea just right and we saw over 11 knots. It is great fun when we actually get good sailing conditions in the Aegean.
Myrina Harbor from the castle
We really didn't know exactly what to expect from Myrina, the main town on Limnos. We stern tied to the quay and checked in the with the harbor police, who were nice as always, and liked the place from the gitgo. While Myrina may not have quite the beauty of Molivos or the the bustle of Mytilene it does have the usual rugged castle seven hundred feet above the harbor and it does have tavernas and shops lining the waterfront. 
Airstream, 3rd from the left
What it does not have is traffic noise from the main drag and disco music into the early hours. There is no main drag and there are no clubs. It is a picturesque Greek fishing village with a modest tourist industry, mostly Greek tourism, and enough foreign influence to make things easy for us farangs. And that pretty much goes for the entire island of Limnos. Myrina is as cosmopolitan as it gets and there are deserted beaches, nice deserted beaches, and an occasional small resort. 
Janet on the castle wall
Most of the place is either completely undeveloped  or small scale agriculture. Why the olive culture that exists on Lesvos just sixty miles to the SE is not in place here I do not understand. But there is some wheat in the interior and some viniculture. The local whites are good and very inexpensive.
The water front, Myrina
We planned on meeting here with Bernie and Di from First Light III and they arrived about three hours before us having come in from Babakale in Turkey. We've been circling in more or less the same circles since Vanuatu in 2009 and it's always very nice to have their company again. We celebrated Di's birthday at a classic waterfront taverna. 
Birthday dinner with Bernie and Di
 We rented a cheap car and toured the island for a day. It's mostly grassy almost treeless rolling hills with a few small villages and the agriculture I mentioned. There are a couple well excavated archeological sites which take the island history back at least to three thousand BC. And a mere 98 years ago the big central bay of the island, Mouldros Bay, was used for the staging point for the  disastrous  Gallipoli campaign. There's a very nicely kept war cemetery for 887 of the more than 36,000 allied dead from that  debacle. 
From 3000 BC, at least
But mostly we've just relaxed and enjoyed. I've got a few boat projects done. We hike to the top of the castle every morning to get our hearts started and enjoy the view. We wander the streets and nose into the shops. It's in the 80s  during the day and the 70s at night, clear and sunny. The volta, which is the classic evening Greek walk about,  is very strong. From about 9  to 11 PM everyone is out for a stroll along the waterfront checking out everybody else. It's a lovely custom. There's good food, good wine and ice cream at every corner, almost.
Street scene in Myrina
It has been blowing hard out of the north, a classic Aegean meltime, but by tomorrow its suppose to calm down to 16-20 knots and clock around to the NE. It'll be dinner tonight with Bernie and Di and another couple from NZL. We're planning on being outta here early heading for the Halkidiki and the trident of peninsulas which form the coast of Greece in the NW Aegean. Wish us a great sail!

Love to all,
Bill & Janet

Monday, July 1, 2013


There are 14 million olive trees and 90,643 Lesbians on the island of Lesvos. 14 million olive trees by a count of the EU which is apparently trying to convince the Lesbians not to cut them down by offering a Euro a tree to keep them, or so we're told. The Lesbian number is according to the 2001 Greek census that seems to be the latest available information. Even by the very high standard of Aegean islands Lesvos is  beautiful. It's the third largest island in the Aegean and has a rugged and mountainous aspect  with endless olive groves in the lower terrain and  pine forest where the olives no longer can be grown.
Lesvos, approach to Mytilene
Of course every citizen of Lesvos is, by definition,  a Lesbian. And the term came to be applied to women loving women from the poetry of Sappho, the  Greek poetess born about 612BC on Lesvos who's lyric love poetry was considered the greatest ever by the ancients. Only fragments remain but much of it was directed towards other women, thus the origin of the term. An example:

'Godlike the man who
sits at her side, who
watches and catches
that laughter
which(softly), tears me
to tatters: nothing is
left of me, each time
I see her,
….tongue numbed; arms, legs
melting, on fire; drum
drumming in ears; head-
lights gone black.'

Good stuff!  I always kinda wanted to be a Lesbian.
Roman floor mosaic, Mytilene
And the island is exceptionally beautiful. We left Ayvalik, Turkey and two hours later were being  whistled over to the customs dock in Mylilene the capitol of Lesvos, to officially check into Greece. The check in was easy and although there is a marina in Mytilene it has little to offer so we went up to the city quay and stern tied as planned. Mytilene is bustling and busy, a college town, a bit of a tourist mecca and an ancient city of renown.
The quay at Mytilene
 The quay was noisy with the main traffic of the city passing by and the trendiest bars and clubs on the island lining the wharf. But it also has its charms. The architecture is lovely and old mansions line the city front. There are a couple outstanding and rather unusual Orthodox churches and the very usual massive castle with  its history of multiple occupations and reincarnations from Hellenic to Persian to Byzantine to Ottoman. People are friendly and gracious and very helpful. For instance, I wanted a spare alternator belt after changing out belts at 1000 hours as recommended by Yanmar. No such animal available, apparently. But the guy in a dive shop near the quay who spoke just a little more English than my very rudimentary Greek put me on the back of his motorcycle and off we went into the hills of the city to a shop where just about every belt for any engine ever made was hanging from the ceiling. This was great fun for all concerned and one more little reason why I've always loved the Greeks.
Agios Therapon, post baroque Orthodox!
We rented a car for a day and drove around the NE third of the island just sight seeing. Roads were better than expected and it was a lovely drive. We reconnoitered the town of Molivos (or Mithimna) that we planned on for a next destination. We picked up a young guy hitch hiking who is a PHD candidate at the university and who's English was good enough to tell us about the EU's EuroPark program, obviously his passion. We had good ice cream in the cafes and gyros off the street.
Gyros over Burger King any day
Mytilene was pretty nice but Molivos is better. In fact, Molivos may be one of our favorite towns from anywhere, anytime. It's a gorgeous example of a Greek-Turkish-Greek coastal mountain village with another rugged castle at its peak. 
Molivos from the quay
There are a few vehicle roads in town but most is foot traffic only and the terrain is so nearly vertical that almost all dwellings have a spectacular view out over the Aegean. If you keep going up hill you reach the castle. If you keep going down you reach the sea and the port. In between you can enjoy being  lost in a maze of steep cobble stone sidewalk-streets.

Street scenes, Molivos
 There are tourist shops and some low key tourism but in this case it just adds to the variety of the town. There's a historic preservation act in place, we're told, and I hope it stays in effect. The buildings are all native stone, some white washed , and there are many with overhanging Turkish balconies. We've had lovely meals with a great view over the bay at every restaurant and we've walked 'streets' that we might not be able to find again. It's all quite lovely. 

Janet gets her cat 'fix' at Molivos
 Years ago I used to think about retiring to a village on some Greek island and although that was pretty much a pipe dream, and although I'm pretty happy where we're at, if that ever happens, Molivos might be the place.
Molivos harbor view from the Castle
But tomorrow may be the day we move on. The weather rules and it's been blowing pretty much on the nose, the NW, for our next destination, the island of Limnos. Tomorrow the winds are supposed to veer around to the NNE for a day or so and then fill in again stronger from the NW later in the week. So we plan on being outta here at day break for the sixty mile trip to Limnos. Pretty scary actually, we haven't been out of sight of land in quite a while. Wish us a great sail.
Airstream at Molivos
Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream