Tuesday, June 24, 2014

To Athens and Beyond

Athens sprawling beneath the Acropolis
Thirty-three years ago, almost to the day, I first stepped out of the cockpit into the  heat of an Athenian afternoon.  It was really really  hot and there was a white haze.  I thought, "This is NOT western Europe!" The tarmac was like an oven . The old airport at Athens was a pit. Customs and immigration was chaos,  the cab ride to the hotel  death defying. I loved the place. And I've loved it ever since. Of course I've refined that "love" statement over the years to include Greece as a whole and many places there to be found. I usually qualify that by saying I don't really like Athens and that Thessaloniki is a much better city. But  we hadn't seen the place in over twenty years. The five days in Athens this year was actually better than I expected and maybe I do like Athens, after all these years.
At the quay, Poros
We got into Piraeus, the port city for Athens, after a thirty mile motor job up from Poros across the Saronic Gulf in flat calm conditions. There is a lot,  the most we've seen since Singapore, of shipping around the port but we had no problems entering the Zea Marina in Piraeus and getting comfortably situated. Poros had been nice enough for an evening stay. Kind of a pleasant holiday place for Athenians but one night was enough. Zea Marina is very decent and if not actually luxurious it is also not nearly as expensive as most big city marinas around the world.
Hazard to navigation, Saronic Gulf
Our plan was to stay three days and do the usual tourist stuff. We did our three days of that, the acropolis, the National Archeological Museum (redone on 2009 and now quite wonderful), the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, the changing of the guard at Syntagma Square, etc. All very nice to do again after twenty years.
The Parthanon
Temple of Poseidon, Sounion
Changing of the Guard, Syntagma Square
We did make arrangements with the Royal Hellenic Yacht Club to have lunch at the club. It sits alone on a hill above its marina in Piraeus, old,  posh and elegant. Also very friendly and welcoming to yacht club members around the world. The food was excellent and the setting magnificent.

Lunch at the Royal Hellenic Yacht Club
We also took a couple days to solve a little boat problem that had been getting worse. We'd been getting fresh water slowly accumulating in the bilge. It had gradually become apparent that we had a fresh water leak in our system somewhere. And we had finally eliminated every possible source other than the aft main tank itself. We have another tank and this looked like a problem to be fixed after the end of the season. But I was referred to Motomarin, a marine contractor on the marina property and they were highly recommended by a friend. I had them come look at the tank. Luckily our tanks are not as difficult to get to as on some boats. We decided to pull the tank out the next day and repair or replace as necessary. Next day we pulled the tank in about three hours. 
Out with the old
It was in bad shape. Even 316L stainless can corrode after 29 years and that was the case. They asked me how much time I had and when I wanted a new tank. I said yesterday. They laughed and said tomorrow. That afternoon they had the material and started welding. Next morning the tank was done and we did pressure testing.
About ready to pressure test
In the afternoon we took about three hours to install the new tank. Guess what? No leaks! Wonderful! So these guys were great. Veggetis spoke good English and the other guys improved on my Greek. We had fun and they worked their tails off doing a nice job for us. The cost was 1400 EU which I considered very reasonable for a 316 stainless tank, labor etc.  I highly recommend Motomarin at Zea Marina.
In with the new
 Athens has changed a bit like everything does after a couple decades. I'll go into all that at the end of the year. But we did have a good time and left with a kind of warm fuzzy about the city, something I'd never felt about Athens before.

So now we're in Galaxidhi, a lovely small town on the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth not far from Delphi. We've had absolutely flat calm conditions since motoring out of the Piraeus shipping to the Corinth Canal. We did the canal passage easily. And the canal is a really cool experience. Makes the 206 EU they charged for the passage a little less painful.
Through the Corinth Canal
Exiting the canal we headed to the Nisos Alkonidhes Islands to the north. There we had that rarest of Mediterranean experiences, an anchorage all to ourselves. Ashore there was a deserted monastery and a very active seagull rookery, thats all. A lovely spot. Next day we motored again in flat calm conditions to our Med tie on the quay here in Galaxhdi, an ice cream cafe directly across from our boat
Sunset in the Nisos Alkonidhes
 The Gulf of Corinth can be rather nasty for boats heading west because the prevailing winds are westerlies funneled into the gulf. We've had none of that so far. The gulf has been like a huge and beautiful alpine lake. Mountains to five thousand feet rise out of the sea all around us. It is quite lovely.
Janet and friend, Galaxihdi
We'll do Delphi today. Galaxidhi is a quiet, pretty town in itself. Tomorrow the plan is to move westwards to an island anchorage called Trizonia, then on to Patras, then Mesolongian (where Byron died in the war for Greek independence) and then into the Ionian.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Gulf of Argos

The Gulf of Argos, or more properly, the "Gulf of the Argolid". The Argolid, legendary home of Jason and the Argonauts. Occupied since neolithic times, since at least 28000 BC. Evidence of early  Minoan type civilization exists back to around 3000 BC. The Mycenaean civilization centered at Mycenae dates to around 1600 BC and from that era till about 1200 BC the Homeric epics date. 

The Cyclopian walls, Mycenae
The themes from The Iliad and The Odyssey may have been first "composed" by Homer in the seven century BC but the history they were based on probably was several hundred years old by that time. Argos was the city-state  rival of Sparta for dominance in the Peloponnesos for almost a thousand years. Sparta, neighbor to the southwest,  ruled Laconia with an iron age fist.  Laconic?Enough? We're on hallowed ground for a history buff. Every square meter of this land has been loved, contested and fought over since western recorded civilization began.

The Lion Gate, Mycenae
And we're in a very, very nice spot. This is Zogeria, a mile wide bay on the northwest tip of the island Spetsai,  just at the entrance from the north  of the Gulf of the Argolid. We came in yesterday from Naphlion intending to spend an evening and decided to make it a couple days. The bay is surrounded by pine covered hills with cicadas buzzing away in the warm breeze. There are a couple white washed chapels on shore, a small unoccupied home in the trees and Peacocks running wild.  There are two other boats anchored out, well off, and the water is absolutely crystal clear. Ashore there are a few souls who have arrived via motor bike to enjoy their Sunday afternoon but its very quiet and very, very relaxing.
Zogeria anchorage, Spetsai
Last night was a little different scene. In the cove just to our west two mega yachts (we're talking 200' power boats)  are stern tied to shore below an elaborate villa in the trees. The tiny chapel  off our bow was the site of a wedding with, we were told, two hundred and fifty guests from the mainland, all ferried over by water taxi, and beyond that below the villa with the yachts was a major set up for dinner, drinks and entertainment for the wedding party. Word of mouth had it we were all invited to observe the wedding and join the party but we didn't really feel comfortable so we sat and watched the fun through binoculars and listened to the band until four in the morning when the fleet of water taxis blasted off back to the mainland. 

The wedding chapel, Zogeria
The plan is to head for Poros next, spend a day there, and then onwards to Zea Marina in Piraeus, the port city for Athens. Since both of us have had enough experience with Athens we'll only be there a day or two. I want to see the new National Archeological Museum which has been completely rebuilt since we last visited more than twenty years ago. Then it will be through the Corinth Canal to the Gulf of Corinth and westwards into the Ionian Sea.

The Corinth canal, by land
From Tinos, where we last updated the blog, we had a short trip over to the Finikas anchorage on the west side of Siros. We had a good spot inside the small harbor and Nikos, the harbormaster, was the very best with everyone. 
Tinos, Finikas anchorage
We stayed a couple days and took the bus over to Eurmoupolis, the "capital" of the Cyclades. We found a busy bustling industrial town, a major ship yard with big dry docks and not a place we'd want to put the boat. We did hike up to the nice 19th century cathedral and enjoyed some nice urban architecture but on the whole weren't that in love with Eurmouplois or Tinos so we pushed off for Kythnos, the next island west, without regret. 

City front, Eurmoupolis
And Kythnos was quite lovely. We had a nice sail over from Tinos. We had a good mooring inside the quay in the tiny port of Loutra with nice neighbors from the US and the UK who had cruised together for years in their Halberg Rasseys.
Loutra port, Kythnos
The port was nice but the chora, the main village, up the hill was especially lovely and unspoiled. We'd take the bus up the hill to the chora, explore around, have lunch and then walk the five K back down to the anchorage. It was our last island in the Cyclades and it was a good farewell. Kythnos is very sweet.

The chora, Kythnos
We had a great sail from Kythnos to Hydra, a 50 mile beam reach fully powered up under main and 150% genoa doing 7-9 knots almost all the way to the island. We looked into the tiny port of Hydra town and it was totally full and soon to be fuller with rafting up flotilla boats so we went into the anchorage of Mandraki and anchored out.

Port of Hydra
Nice spot and just a few K to walk into town. Hydra town is a classic and even with all the tourism from Athens its still nice. One thing they've done is prohibit any wheeled transport, not even bicycles are allowed. You want a ride, you rent a donkey or a horse. Once you get into the back streets away from the harbor area its very sweet. 
Street traffic, Hydra town
The main goal of this trip up the gulf was Naphlion and the Argolid. After a night at Mandraki it was a motor job up the gulf to Naphlion but scenic enough to be enjoyable. Naphlion was for a short time the capitol of modern Greece and has always been, under one name or another, the major port of the Argolid. It has been discovered by modern tourism but its still a nice city and an easy uncrowded place for a yacht to moor. We side tied to the quay and had everything we wanted within a short walk. The main attraction at the town itself is the fortress of Palamidi above.

Naphlion, fortress above
This is relatively new (1711-1714 construction) Venetian and is considered the finest Venetian military architecture in existence. It certainly is impressive and the 999 steps up from the city below   (they claim, we didn't count) provide a way to get your heart started for the morning. The view is spectacular and well worth the climb. I don't even like to think about the effort that went into building the place in a day before mechanization.
View from the fortress
We rented a car and drove up to Mycenae. More fortress of course, this one to 1600 BC, huge 'beehive' tombs and one of my favorite ancient sites anywhere. We drove up to the Corinth Canal. We drove around the Argolid to the site of ancient Epidavros and the excellent Hellenic amphitheater and got a nice feel for the countryside. There are reasons why European civilization flourished so early here. Mainly its such an appealing and human place to exist. The weather is not harsh but not enervating. The terrain is challenging but not impossible and there is always the sea for transport. The land is fertile and was once more so. There is, or was,  abundant timber. Its well watered. Every hilltop is a defensible position. 

Monument to Theodoris Kolokotronis in Naphlion
Humans could exist here and hunt and fish and engage in agriculture and begin to trade their excesses with others. Eventually they had time for a few luxuries,  to engage in a little art and develop some written language. The rest is history.

 Love to all,
Bill & Janet

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

One Damned Island After Another

I'm so confused. Amorgos, Naxos, Santorini, Mykonos, Tinos, Syros, what day is today and do I care? This is tough duty.
Janet at Santorini
Actually it is Tuesday the 3rd of June, 'Happy Birthday' to my Aunt Beth who is ninety today. 

And we're at the Finikas Harbor on the island of Syros. Its a lovely and very quiet spot after the rather bustling time at Tinos and the zoo at Mykonos. Its also an overcast day with light rain showers and its supposed to blow a bit this afternoon, maybe twenty-five to  thirty knots out of the east. Not a bad day to head further west but we haven't seen much of this place yet and we now intend to take a little island tour tomorrow when the light will be better for picture taking. Ermoupolis is the main town on the island, the 'capitol' of the Cyclades,  but not such a good place for yachts. We're securely moored in this tiny harbor with a very efficient harbor master watching over the place. Its a busy time of the week for bare boaters coming out of Athens and the hazards associated with them but we've got competent boats alongside and no worries.
Approach to Naxos
We departed Amorgos, where I last updated this blog, and sailed, yes indeed we had a very nice sail, over to Naxos. That was the first decent sail of the season. The rest has been pretty much motoring. 

Scenes from Naxos
Naxos is a very nice island and Naxos town is a crowned by the usual Venetian castle converted over the centuries into a maze of arched passageway streets overflowing with Bougainvillea and Geraniums. The island is the usual rugged mountainous landscape but also has some fertile inland valleys with real agriculture from wheat to potatoes to vineyards. The interior villages are lovely and unspoiled. There seems to be a whitewashed chapel on every mountain peak. 

Street scenes, Naxos

Naxos inland
We like Naxos and spent six days in the harbor. Including one afternoon where a squall line came through with sustained winds of over thirty-five knots and gusts to fifty-five. This can cause real havoc in a tightly packed "marina" and the scramble was on to get out maximum fenders and extra lines ashore. Despite all the excitement, when it was  over everybody seemed to come through without damage. But there were about four hours of high anxiety. 

Marina gale, Naxos
Naxos was also our point of departure for the ferry to Santorini. There is considerable doubt as to the feasibility of taking a boat that draws eight feet into the one anchorage at Santorini. Since we got engaged there about twenty-five years ago and wanted to have a little return pilgrimage the ferry seemed just the thing to do. We caught the 0715 departure and returned to Naxos that evening and Santorini is still lovely. The main town of Thira is to be avoided as one big tourist trap but you can walk along the edge of the caldera north a few clicks to Imerovigli and further to Oia. Those places are more developed than they used to be but remain  in character and beautiful. 

The caldera from Emirovilgi, Santorini
 The views out over the caldera are what Santorini is all about and they are timeless. We had an excellent lunch and a nice walk and a small but memorable tourist rip-off from a patisserie. All in all it was a good and worth while trip. We'd still recommend Santorini as a place to visit, just stay out of Thira as much as possible.

Lunch, Santorini
Mykonos should probably just be avoided entirely unless you have some specific interest. I was there with a buddy diving many years ago. Janet and I were there a few years later. It was a bit of a zoo then but its completely beyond help now. Its overwhelmed by millions of visitors a year from cruise ships and a constant stream of international flights. The once beautiful town of Mykonos has been engulfed by the modern version of Cycladic architecture. They've retained one stretch of waterfront and dubbed it "little Venice". Its like a fat white tiger in the zoo. Yeah, its real,  but it bears little resemblance to anything you're likely to encounter outside the 'zoo' and has few of the attributes of the wild beast. The "marina" sucks, although "Mathews Taverna" above the marina was actually very good.  There's no reason to ever go back for us and no reason for anyone to go at all except, perhaps, to say they've been to Mykonos.
Like a fat white tiger at the zoo
But from Mykonos it was a short motor up to Tinos and a totally different experience. Tinos is plenty bustling with tourism but its ninety-five percent Greek tourism and the town and the island are for real. The main rational for the Greek travel to Tinos is religious and that is centered around a kind of Greek Orthodox "Lourdes" where pilgrims come to worship and hopefully be cured of their ailments by a sacred icon housed in the cathedral above the town.

Tinos harbor
  This is a big deal and much of the business of the town centers around services for these pilgrims. There's even a carpeted path extending from the waterfront the half mile or so up the steep hill to the cathedral so that pilgrims who decide to crawl on hands and knees, a sign of devotion to the icon, can be a little less battered by the marble street. 

On pilgrimage, Tinos town
And in Tinos, by the way, all the streets are paved with white marble. So Tinos is very Greek, business and religion merged conveniently. A Greek Air Force pilot friend of mine once explained it thus:

"Bill, you know that 99% of all Greeks are Orthodox?"
  "Yeah, Jimmy, I know that."
"But Bill, did you know that only 1% of all Greeks go to church?"
  "I understand Jimmy."

Of course one memorable place in Tinos, only Greek in that it coincides with the well developed Greek sweet tooth, is the Haagen Dazs cafe which just happened to be fifty feet across the quay from our mooring. It is truly a well run and very real Haagen Dazs place and the "Brownie Explosion" I had there very shortly after arrival was a pilgrimage rewarded.
Brownie Explosion
So with some regret we left Tinos for a sixteen mile "passage" over to our present position on Syros. The wind is continuing to build as forecast. There's an occasional light rain shower. I got a hair cut this morning and look pretty darn dashing. Most of the charter boats have left for points east and are out there getting pounded. Janet's working on her photos and we're holed up warm and cozy. Life is good!

Janet's favorite pelican, Tinos

Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream