Saturday, 29 June 2013

When the pressure is off

Enki at anchor (furthest out) in Aliki, on Thasos
You'd think that with the VP engine running at full capacity again (Alex plugged in the new sensor, the red flashing light and alarm disappeared and it was business as usual),  all would be sweetness and light aboard Enki. Just one plate of grilled octopus after another, is what you're thinking, and top up the ouzo while you're at it.

That would be to forget that human beings are every bit as unreliable as machines. They too break down unexpectedly after hours of faultless running. They too need to be pulled apart, cleaned and put back together again.

Alex works on - and fixes - the Tohatsu 5 hp outboard
We ought to have had a blissful time in Thasos. But we almost left the island on different vessels. That had nothing to do with Thasos, which has everything we go out of our way to find - peaceful, sandy anchorages, a rich ancient history full of surprises and a quiet port with room to manoeuvre. I'd go there again in a flash.

At Aliki, on Thasos, an entire headland of marble was quarried away before Jesus was born

How they hoisted Thasos marble onto ships in the old days

The rounded stone is what remains of an ancient hoist

But after all the energy we expended to get north, we cleared out of Thasos after only three days, bound for the monastic coastline underneath Mt Athos and the Sinthonia peninsula beyond that.

Mt Athos, seen from the anchorage in Aliki

Monasteries (above and below)  on east side of Athos peninsula

I won't say we were looking for spiritual cleansing. That would be far too romantic. But we had to leave the bad air behind us, that's for sure.

We ducked into this bay to shelter from a squall on the way up to Thasos port

Approach to cape below Mt Athos
We found what we were looking for in fresh north-easterly winds and confused, rolly seas along the east coast and around the bottom of the Athos peninsula. Distraction by sailing. Tried and true method of clearing your head. By the time we cleared the notorious cape under Mt Athos, we'd been joined by a school of pint-sized dolphins. They travelled east with us for several miles, criss-crossing under the hull, leaping and diving as the boat rode the swell and the wind like a spirit set free. We slipped into a quiet anchorage behind Dhiaporos Island, up in the gulf of Sinthonia, 12 hours after leaving Thasos.

Marble sculpture in Thasos museum

I mention all this because neither our pictures of Thasos, nor those of Mt Athos and its monasteries, tell the whole story. In time, the pictures will become the only story we'll remember. We'll have forgotten the emotional gales. I think of that when I read the blurbs in museums (there is a particularly fine museum in Thasos). What do we really know about these people? What can a wall or a shrine, a bust or a pot, or even a skeleton, for that matter, tell me about their feelings for each other? For feelings, I have to go back to literature which is why I keep going back to literature.

I walked up the hill above Thasos port very early in the morning, leaving Alex to sleep. He needed his sleep, as much as I needed to walk. From the theatre, which is being restored, I walked on to the medieval fortress (another one built over ancient ruins by the Genovese), and looked out to the island of Samothrace in the east, and to the north, to the mountains of Thrace. Below me was Enki, and Alex, in the "new" harbour, one of the many unfinished projects which we have seen in each place we go.

Thasos port - Enki is parked just behind the red ferry
Further up, on the way to the acropolis, I met a French woman called Manuela who was directing two men who were digging dirt from a trench between two walls on the site of an ancient sanctuary of Athena. It wasn't easy to find men who would work in this heat, she said, but they'd made an early start, had brought an umbrella and they would knock off at 2pm, as people do. They would dig down to the foundations, about 2 metres, she guessed. Why? She wanted to know how old the wall was. It was not as old as others had thought, she suspected. She explained her theory to me.  It had to do with slits in walls and men firing arrows. It was important to her to know about this wall. You could see it in her eyes. She loved her work.

Hot dirty work in the sanctuary of Athena

Manuela (an "architect of excavation") suggested I walk back to the town via a staircase of ancient marble which dropped down off the acropolis and then follow the city walls. I could go through any of several gates.

Ancient steps leading down to Thasos town from the acropolis

Gate of Silene - or so I think
In the 5th century BC, 20,000 people lived in this city on Thasos, more than the island's entire population today. They mined gold, traded slaves, married and raised children, goats and sheep, and built walls and harbours and temples as if their lives depended on it, which they did. I trod on their stones, and could only imagine their emotional gales.

Our story on Thasos, our blow-out, was a follow-on from other stories, the same kinds of stories people have been telling to and about each other for millenia - of my impatient nature, sharp tongue and weak grasp of sequential thinking, of Alex's stern, broad shoulders on which falls the full weight of practical problem-solving on the boat and of his back which stiffens at any suggestion of that weight being too much, of our not speaking Greek and of Greeks not understanding our expectations .... and more, all of which add up to a sense of not being in control. Of being vulnerable. All at sea.

Pan in his shrine on the acropolis above Thasos port

Pan is the god of...panic. Here he is, still set in stone as he's been for 2500 years, in an olive grove above Thasos. The point of doing what we're doing at this time of our life is to step beyond our known world, and in doing so, stave off stagnation, that curse of middle age. Don't panic.

There's a point - and at Thasos we reached such a point - when you understand that you've been torn and patched a few times too many, and that your emotional fabric doesn't have as much give as it once did. You don't want to put it under too much strain, you don't want it to tear. You don't want that at all. You've got to treat each other kindly, especially when you're at sea, and wait for the next plate of octopus, which will come.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Settling on Limnos

A calm sea and no wind on a night passage from Lesvos to Limnos
A year ago, I hardly knew one side of the Aegean sea from the other. I couldn't have told you which group of islands were the Dodecanese, which the Cyclades and which the Sporades. Now I know a bit more. I know that a Greek island's position, and the strength of winds and currents in its vicinity, pretty much speak for the course of its history.

Much of Limnos is barren and rocky
The ferry is in and out again within the hour
For thousands of years Limnos was an important stepping stone in the middle of the north Aegean for seafarers (traders and warmongers). It's the closest Greek island to the Dardenelles peninsula which guards the entrance from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea. We Australians and New Zealanders know Limnos (if we do) for Moudros harbour where the Allied fleet launched its disastrous 1915 campaign to take the Dardanelles from the Turks.

The military cemetery in east Moudros glorifies the criminal waste of young boys' lives
We made our way up to Limnos from Oinoussa in one huge step. and have been tied up at the quay in Myrina, the only town of any size on the island, for a few days now, waiting to go north again.

Myrina harbour from the south
View of the town from the fortress

Enki is the biggest yacht on the dock in this shot
Myrina in late June is full of holidaying Greek families, and a sprinkling of others like ourselves - many Australians, as it turns out. People come here to slow down. There are a few good beaches right in town with clean sand and well-secured umbrellas planted evenly along it. There's no doof-doof music, the blight of the Mediterranean along with weed on the seabed (more of that later). At night, the pace is easy.

Enki is moored mid-town
The townspeople come out to play at about 9 pm, when the sun goes down. They push babystrollers, sit in tavernas drinking ouzo or beer, or on benches chatting and laughing. No-one is rowdy, except maybe the older children fooling around on their bikes. It's not until midnight when everyone seems to go home to bed. A floodlit fortress circles the rocky headland which protects the harbour from the prevailing northerlies. It gives the town's nightlife a kind of anchor.

The town is in the lee of the northerlies - and the fortress
North of the harbour, the fortress overlooks beach cafes

Platy beach, about 2 km from town
Aside from low-key tourism and low-key military activity (the Greek airforce command is based on Limnos), there are some vineyards on the island, brick-making, a bit of animal husbandry and of course fishing, but the rest is a mystery to us. How do people make ends meet here? How do people make ends meet anywhere in Greece in 2013?

Main street Myrina

Mary and Andrew Dervidis
We've had dinner tonight with Mary Dervidis and her husband Andrew (left). They kindly took delivery of our spare part - Cathy and Ian of Sea Cloud met them first, and passed us along to them. Mary was born on Limnos, and emigrated with her family to Sydney in the mid '50s, along with half the island, as she tells it. Some people went to South Africa, some to America, and Germany, but most people emigrated to Australia, hoping for a better life. People's faces light up when they learn where we are from. Australia is a kind of satellite suburb of Limnos. Limnos is a satellite suburb of Athens. And Athens is what now? The capital of a down-graded developed country, I read in today's news.

Standard issue fishing boat
Throw yourself back a few thousand years though, and Limnos was at the leading edge of early Bronze Age civilisation.  It's probably not easy for latter-day Limneans to accept that their island's influence peaked between 3000 and 2000 BC, but the evidence is there on the east coast where what's left of retaining walls, paved roads, drains, wells, mansions, public buildings, squares and smaller private houses of the large urban settlement of ancient Poliochni attests to its importance. In its heyday (which lasted for 1000 years) Poliochni was as sophisticated as Troy, which it faced, 40 miles across the water on the west coast of Asia Minor (now Turkey).

Poliochni, early Bronze Age town

A deep well in Poliochni

See this oblong space (at right)? Notice the terraces along the edge of it? Well, the Italian archeologists who excavated the site from the 1930s to the 1950s have decided that this is the earliest example of a municipal debating chamber in European history. Poliochni, they say, was the first "city" in Europe with a basic social and civic structure. You might see a pile of stones, and we did too, after driving across Limnos's barren landscape, but when you let your imagination go wild, those drystone walls start to look quite exciting.

Bronze Age terracotta colander

Poliochni pottery
The next day we popped by the museum in Myrina. It's a gem, housed in an old Ottoman building with large windows looking straight out to the sparkling sea. Inside the cases are objects which simply cannot be, and are never, exhibited in small town museums in the new world - terracotta pots circa 4000 BC,  exquisite marble carvings circa 500 BC, ancient Greek mortgage documents carved into stone tablets, rows of metal tools (Limnos was famous for its metalworkers) and jewellery, the kinds of things we modern humans still keep around the house to make our lives more productive, more comfortable and more pleasurable. 

I have some sailing stories too. Perhaps I should give these more play, but once we're tied up in port suddenly the sea retreats and the land and its clamour blots out what happens on the water. I'll save them for the next post.

That's Mt Athos in the distance

Friday, 14 June 2013

The colour comes back

Enki in Mandraki port on Oinoussa island

This is more like it. Our first "Greek" Greek island, the kind they sell in the brochures, where the blues of the sea and sky are just right, the hillsides steep and barren, the fishing fleet cheerful and toy-sized, and nothing is in a hurry except the north-west wind.

View from the deck, with Chios in the distance

We pulled into Mandraki harbour on Oinoussa island just after breakfast. Three yachts were alongside the quay, and by evening we were five. Full-up. The water's so clear under our rudder that I can watch schools of tiny fish swimming by. We're only 10 nautical miles  from the dirty, abandoned municipal "marina" where we spent the previous two nights in Chios, but it feels much further. We're on our way north again. That's what counts most.

On shore, no-one took any notice of our arrival. Oinoussa, a chip off the north-eastern side of Chios, doesn't do tourism per se. Boy racers on 2-stroke motorbikes were tearing up the flat straight next to the quay.  In counterpoint to their frenzy, a man sat on the stone steps next to his tiny boat, whacking his morning catch of calamari. A woman in black leggings worked her way down a very broad set of front steps with a broom. I admired her industry until I realised she was probably staff.  There are quite a few large houses overlooking Mandraki harbour and now that I've got a better idea of who lives on this island I don't expect their mistresses do much sweeping of steps.

Mr Leon Lemos, shipping magnate, sir

Oinoussa is where Greek families with names like Pateras and Lemos, originally come from - families which own a huge chunk of Europe's shipping tonnage. The shipping magnates run their operations from Athens, New York and London and it's only in summer time that they come "home". The village has a locked up feel at the moment - almost that of a gated community. Nobody was looking for our business. We simply weren't of interest. Not family.

There's a smart nautical museum in town which gives you a  picture of how the Oinoussan shipping families built their  fortunes . It wasn't easy to get inside, mind you. We had to rustle up the man with the key who'd taken an early mark (to find a Greek museum with its door open during "opening hours" is something of a miracle). The museum contains models and paintings of the ships which have belonged to, or still belong, to Oinoussian shipping companies. They started with sail, were quick to pick the shift to steam, and still seem to be ahead of the game. They've built a lot of ships (mostly in the US), and lost a lot too. Apparently they are risk-takers, the men from Oinoussa.

Like racehorses - but better earners
What we lingered longest over was a fabulous collection of miniature model ships made in the late 18th and early 19th century by French prisoners of war who were kept in shackles by the English on hulks at Portsmouth. What ingenuity human beings possess for keeping insanity at bay in conditions of extreme deprivation. The prisoners' model ships, the gift of one Antonis S. Lemos, are incongruously exhibited with pairs of duelling pistols and other elegant- looking weaponry as well as a few pottery dishes dating from around 1600 BC. A man with money can spend it on what takes his fancy, and there need be no explanation of the latter.

Models built by French POWs in late 18th cent

Vodia machine (right), rare specimen in Greece
Talking of such things, you'll be wondering about our engine - maybe. Well, the Volvo man from Athens left us in the lurch. Completely. On Sunday night, when we realised he was never coming to Mytilene, we got talking to a local yachtsman, George, from Alternative Sailing,  who put us onto Dimitri, a local (unauthorised) Volvo mechanic who came on board, gave us a better idea of what might be wrong, and then, via George, pointed us in the direction of a Volvo dealer with a Vodia machine. We sailed south 55 miles. I can't say more. It was all very fraught. We stand by our opinion that the east Aegean islands are a black hole for Volvo service.

The fault is in the turbo. We need a new charge air pressure sensor. We'll order that from the UK, and pick it up where we can. Meanwhile, we can use the engine., albeit not at full capacity. To my mind, the diagnosis hardly warranted the kind of anxiety we threw at the situation, but then we weren't to know that, were we?

This beach near Emboreios will be covered in bodies soon

Forest fires destroyed a lot of the mastic trees on Chios in August 2012

Young mastic trees

Mastic (front left) and olives cover south Chios
We had missed Chios on our way north. I'm glad we had a chance to see it after all. It's where Homer was born. Not much sign of Homeric fighting spirit on the island these days. Chios town felt more desperate than Mytilene, its waterfront bars far too empty for comfort.

The tourist draw is  in the south where mastic shrubs grow wild amongst the olives. Mastic is a chewy substance with medicinal properties which I've managed to live in total ignorance of until now - though I recognise it as the origin of the word masticate. It's made from resin which weeps from the mastic shrub when its bark is cut. "Tears of Chios" is another name for it (kind of proprietary). It's been in use for 2500 years for a variety of ailments (Google it) but the Ottoman sultans  prized it as a breath freshener for the girls in the harem, and were prepared to pay over the odds for it. So the mastic-producing villages of Chios - a kind of cartel -  were heavily fortified to keep their chewy gold out of the hands of robbers. From a distance places like Mesta and Olympic are almost indistinguishable from the rocky, scrubby landscape. Inside the villages, people must have lived in almost complete darkness. Their houses let in only a smidgeon of light because the laneways were so narrow and interconnected at both street and roof level. Prosperity at a price.

Wide street in Mesta

Getting a bit tight in Mesta

This isn't a set-up - Olympi resident

Everything to scale - a tiny church in Olympi

Decorative plasterwork in Pyrgi 
I liked the rustic plasterwork on houses and churches at Pyrgi, another of the mastic villages. The motifs and their execution are not especially fine or complex, but to my eye they are as striking as, say, a strong Marrimekko print or a piece of Tongan tapa cloth. Some modern houses at Emboreios, a tiny port a stone's throw from Pyrgi, had the traditional stencil work applied to their new plaster. I liked that too.

We were almost on our own as we wandered through these curious medieval villages. We remembered being in Provence in early summer, and almost drowning in the torrent of tourists rushing through similar cobbled streets. The trickle of visitors to the eastern Sporades islands in mid-June is something to both be grateful for, and to puzzle over.