Friday, July 18, 2014

Corfu Considered

Its a quiet morning in the anchorage at Platerias. There are a few scattered clouds over the mountains surrounding the village and a cool breeze off the deep bay. By this afternoon it will be hot but there will still be the breeze and it will still be quiet and lovely. 

On the quay at Platerias
Platerias is not to be found in the Lonely Planet guide to Greece. Even though that thing seemingly most desired by Lonely Planet readers, a good beach, is very much in evidence at the head of the bay. There is some tourism here, to the level that some services are better than what might be expected from what was once an old fashioned fishing village, but the place is essentially for yachties and those tourists who can read between the lines and maybe have a map. Sometime in the last twenty years the local peers  decided to invest a bunch of money, probably EU money, in a modern quay and harbor facilities. As a result we are stern tied to a broad, well made and well maintained concrete quay with a rock wall to seaward. The view is lovely. Everything works if you want water or shore power or fuel. And the town is still friendly even in the heart of the "season" when folks are starting to get burned out on "guests" in their towns.
Platerias Harbor
Just a few miles to the west the view is of the island of Corfu, certainly one of the best known tourist destinations in Greece if not the world. We just arrived from there yesterday. The contrast is striking. Corfu is a big island and a comparatively complicated place. We liked it, but we got lucky in my opinion,  and started off in Corfu at the very best of places.
The "Old Fortress" Corfu
For a yachtie that very best of places in Corfu is Mandraki Harbor just under the northern walls of the Old Fortress in Corfu Town. The massive fortress sits on on high peninsula over the bay and the walls extend directly into the sea at most points. Beneath the north walls is a narrow quay and the harbor is built out from that point. It is not a large place but its run by the Corfu Sailing Club and they have a clear idea of what every yachtie wants. 
Entrance to Mandraki Harbor
That includes good shelter for the boat, a world class atmosphere (where else are you tied up against the wall of a Byzantine, then Venetian fortress that has withstood every assault for the last seven hundred years) a great view, fine restaurant, nice little beach, showers, fuel, water and shore power. All for 40 EU a day.
At Mandraki Harbor
 And to exit the club you walk up stone stairways and ramps through multiple massive stone archways into the inner keep of the fortress. From there over the multiple moats and  quadruple walls into the heart of the Old City of Corfu Town itself. And the Old Town portion of the city is charming.

Entrance to the Corfu Sailing Club
Old Town Corfu seems to be more a miniature, quieter, cleaner Rome than any other city. The Italian influence evident elsewhere in the Ionian is very strong. The architecture of the city is a wonderful mix of French arcades topped by Italianate shuttered facades and tile roofs. Throw in a couple English neoclassical palaces and you have a beautiful city.
Corfu from the fortress
The fortress from Corfu
 There are really good restaurants, especially Italian restaurants. There is great ice cream. We had a Janet's  birthday dinner at 'la Cucina' that was memorably excellent. We had every morning coffees and snacks at a lovely cafe along the esplanade. This was civilization at its best. We give Mandraki Harbor and old town in Corfu an A+.

Street Scenes, Old Town Corfu
We rented a car for a day and drove around much of the northern part of the island. The island itself is mountainous with a rugged and much indented coastline that is very beautiful. Unfortunately almost that entire coast is covered with beach resorts, most of the rather tick tacky variety. If you drive the coastal road you will never be out of a rather continuous crowded strip mall like arrangement of small resorts and tourist conveniences of some sort. However, turn inland onto a secondary road and make one more turn onto any country lane and you very quickly enter an entirely different world.

Corfu Island village
The villages become Greek mountain villages with only a very occasional villa for the more adventurous soul. The views out over the island and the sea are spectacular. The 'roads' are narrow, very steep to and not for the entirely faint hearted. Its a part of the island probably much less than one percent of the "all inclusive"  fly in, fly out tourist ever sees.

Inland drive, Corfu
So what  is Corfu? Its certainly one of the most traveled places in Greece. Its physically very beautiful but much of that beauty is spoiled by less than beautiful development. Its a place where, if you're stuck in Manchester or Frankfort and want to get the hell out to somewhere, you can get a cheap charter flight and a package deal for a few days on a beach. For a yachtie the few out anchorages are very crowded and the one big marina, Gouvia, is not convenient to anything interesting. However, Mandraki Harbor is a very excellent spot to be and the Old Town of Corfu is not to be missed.
Mandraki Harbor
Would I visit Corfu as tourist? Yes, but I'd get a good pension in old town and rent a car to see the island. For a yachtie its definitely worth the trip and we highly recommend Mandraki Harbor.

So for today we are relaxing in Platerias. Tomorrow we'll probably head back to Port Gaios on Paxos Island which was our anchorage previous to Corfu. Port Gaios is one of those spots we visited twenty five years ago on a bare boat charter. 
Moon over Port Gaios
Its still pretty but greatly changed and much more developed. Its now on the season circuit for day trippers from Corfu and every afternoon about six trip boats disgorge maybe a couple thousand trippers to wander the waterfront for about two hours and then be gone. We'll spend one more night there and then be gone ourselves.

Quayside taverna, Port Gaios
So since the last blog update we have left Meganisi and gone north to Levkas through the Levkas canal. And I will add "without incident" because when we went  up the canal twenty-five years ago we ran aground twice! We spent a night at the marina in Levkas which was nice enough and the town of Levkas was actually very nice, busy and bustling, but for real and very sweet.
Girl bouzuoki band in Levkas, very sweet
We made the thirty mile motor job up to Port Gaios in Paxos easily in flat calm conditions. And the twenty-five mile motor job to Mandraki Harbor in Corfu in equally glassy calm weather.

Ionian morning, another Cape Horn moment
So we've almost entirely avoided the prevailing northerly winds in the Adriatic that, if they move into the Ionian, can make progress northwards a real pain. We're headed south now, which should be equally easy and within a few days we'll be in Preveza preparing to haul out the boat and go home.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet
SV Airstream

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ionian "Holiday"

One good way to get a wry laugh out of most cruisers is to inquire about or comment on their "holiday". You will most likely be informed that it is not a holiday, it is a way of life, for better or worse. So it is with considerable trepidation and with fingers crossed, wood knocked on, etc, that I say this time in the the Ionian Islands has approached "holiday" status. 

Sami quay, very international
And like a lot of "holidays" some of it has become rather a blur. I'll dig out the logbook….on recommendation of some English cruisers we went from Agios Andreas to Sami on Cephalonia rather than Euphimia, from there on to Kioni on Ithaki, Sivota on Cephalonia, then Nea Thilia off Meganisi, Spartochori, Ormos Abelike, and now back to Spartochori on Meganisi.
The harbor at Sami, Cephalonia
We did a bare boat charter here twenty-five years ago, our first bare boat charter actually. And we loved the Ionians. As we expected, some things have changed. There are about a gazillion more boats in the area than twenty-five years ago. The bay at Sivota we sailed out of in 1992 had one small "hotel" with a few rooms and one little taverna. Sunsail had a little wooden quay. Now its still a beautiful place but the shore is lined with tavernas and shops and I counted over a hundred boats at the quay.
The quay at Sivolta
Where we once pretty much had anywhere we wanted to ourselves we now were rather amazed to have a lovely anchorage in the channel between Meganisi and Nea Thilia without another boat in sight for the night. Most any Ionian anchorage mentioned in Rod Heikell's "Greek Waters Pilot", the bible for sailing Greek waters including the Ionian, is certainly occupied and often crowded. However, with a little research and  use of the Mark1A eyeball it is possible to find places not mentioned in Heikell. And there are cynics who feel that's exactly what he has in mind. You really wanna solitude, you find it yourself. 
Kioni, Ithaki
This afternoon we're back in Spartochori on Meganisi, one of the few places we've visited twice on this trip. Babis, the proprietor of Tavena Porto Spilia, is about as professional as they get and has a good taverna in a beautiful and unspoiled location with free electricity,  water, showers and good fast internet. Just eat a meal at his taverna and he's a friend for life. His docks are well maintained and the friendliness is genuine. As a result, Babis and Company seem to be doing very well. Good guys do win out in the long run. 
The view from Spartochori
We've been kind of alternating between anchoring out and being at some quay for the night. We haven't paid any dockage fees since Patras nor have we seen a port authority. Yesterday evening, for the first time this year, we had to move the boat because of a wind shift that put us in a nasty position too close to a rocky shoreline. A mile away in a tiny  cove we anchored again, stern tied to shore and had a quiet night with some other boats who had done the same. 
Passage making, Ionian style
Tonight we'll enjoy a good taverna meal. Janet has taken off for a hike up the hill to the village of Spartochori, which is a gem, and I'm slaving away over a hot laptop. Tomorrow we'll make a major move, ten miles at least, through the Levkas canal up to Levkas town and we may actually be in a marina for the night. Either the town quay or the marina will get a few Euros out of us and I'll have to do the right thing and check in with the port authorities for once. Next day we plan on a true passage, by Ionian standards, of thirty-five miles up to Paxoi Island. And the next day up to Corfu where, thanks to a tip from SV Rozinante, we have confirmed reservations at Mandraki Marina which should be very nice. Thank you Skip and Bobby. 

In the village, Kioni
So it will be goodbye to this kind of inland sea formed by  Levkas, Cephalonia, Ithaki and the other Ionian Islands. Any good vista will reveal a scene not unlike Puget Sound on a sunny summer day. There are boats underway where ever one looks and  a rugged,  much indented coastline with mountains all around. If the mountains aren't  quite so high,  the water is warmer. The sun can be a little oppressive at max heating, but you're not likely to encounter any foggy stuff. 

Janet above Spartochori
We've been quite lucky with no nasty noserly winds to fight and few charter boats have threatened our anchorages. I've had to break out the "anchor thief" only once to escape an anchor laid across our chain. Although we've done little sailing we have had great swimming in wonderfully clear waters. We've had warm days and cool nights and blue skies every day.  Although it is  much more traveled than it once was this is  still a wonderful area and just maybe its our favorite island group in Greece.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Back in the Islands

Ionian Islands that is, where Janet and I did a bareboat charter in 1991.  This evening, the 1st of July 2014,  we're at Ormos Agia Andreas, a beautiful anchorage at the very southern extremity of Ithaki (Ithaca), the legendary home of Odysseus. There are three other boats anchored here and a few goats ashore. The narrow bay is enclosed by mountainous terrain, limestone cliffs covered with what a Californian would think of as Manzanita and Madrone. No sign of civilization, ancient or modern. Tomorrow we plan on moving just five miles west to the island of Cephalonia. This may get posted from a hamlet called Agios Eufimia where the internet should be a little more usable.
That's Janet, the beach at Agias Andreas
The plan is to work our way northwards through the Ionians to Corfu and then back down the mainland coast to Parga and to Preveza where we'll haul the boat out for storage on the 28th. We'll have a few more days in Cephalonia and Ithaki and then make the major passage, another five miles or so,  up to Levkas and Meganisi. After passing through the Levkas canal its about forty miles to Corfu with nice stops to be made in Paxoi and Anti-Paxoi. Neither of us has been to Corfu before and we hear mixed reports. Very touristy but still worth the visit seems to be the consensus.
Passage to Ithaki, this isn't Cape Horn.
Our last blog post was from Galaxidhi in the Gulf of Corinth. We motored from there westwards towards the Gulf of Patras passing under the  spectacular Rion-Andirrion suspension bridge connecting mainland Greece with the Peloponnesos. A few miles south of the bridge lies the city of Patras, third largest city in Greece and a place neither of us had ever visited. 

Bridges, even really BIG, HIGH bridges make me nervous
And Patras was rather a surprise in several ways. The city is a big college town and forty thousand students make a difference in the waterfront scene which was very chic and fashionable. The clubs near the marina were full of young people who did not appear to be starving art students. The city is modern and bustling if not architecturally interesting. We took a day trip to a cogwheel (actually rack and pinion) narrow gauge railway up into the mountains through a spectacular gorge. We rented a car and drove the one hundred and twenty km down to ancient Olympia. Bill and Richard Bernard, friends who are crewing with  Mark and Dorothy of Pua' ena went along. They are new to Greece and Greek driving techniques. Since I pretty quickly fall into compliance with the local driving customs (like a bat out of hell,  to quote Janet) maybe they were a little, shall we say,  shocked, naaa……….Anyway it was a good trip and Olympia is a spectacular site with a great new museum. 

Olympia agora
The ancient games were held here from somewhere in the eighth century BC. They were officially recorded since around 776 BC and held regularly until abolished by the Roman emperor Theodosis in  394 AD as part of a campaign against 'pagan' religious observances. More than a thousand years of athletic and religious history here. The site was pretty much wiped out by huge quakes in 551 and 552 AD. It wasn't re-discovered by the modern world until 1877 when excavations began. Today its a lovely quiet place with spectacular ruins amongst the olive trees. It is well marked and easy to understand and the big new museum is one of the best we've seen. If you are traveling a little around Greece Olympia should be high on your list to see.
Temple of Olympian Zeus, the pillars lie as they fell in 551AD
We spent four days enjoying Patras and socializing, Pacific style,  with Pua' ena. That's the main thing we miss from the Pacific and SE Asia. There everyone is pretty tight and the yachtie community feeling is very strong. Here in the Med most people are on a holiday much closer to home and the need for companionship is less. In the Pacific its a way of life, for better or worse, not a holiday, and people are involved with each other.    

Richard Bernard, Mark & Dorothy Hazlett, yours truly and Bill Bernard
 On the 29th we pushed off for Mesolongion and Pua' ena headed for Italy. They plan on shipping the boat from Genoa to Florida. We spent two nights at the marina in Mesolongion which had nice facilities. The town itself is principally known for being the place where Lord Byron died of malaria in 1824 during the Greek war for independence. Decent enough place with an interesting city center cafe scene but not somewhere to linger. And from there, after a nearly flat calm thirty five mile passage we're here, Ithaki.

Sunrise departing Mesolongion
We loved the Ionian Islands in years past. We hear they have gotten a lot more crowded but with a little luck we can still find places to enjoy a little serenity,  if not solitude. Please stay tuned.

Love to all,
Bill & Janet