Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Survival of the species

Someone had plans for a hotel on the southwest coast of Kea

This country we've been floating around for the past two months is both pathetic and sublime. Above, you see the pathetic side - shells of incomplete houses and hotels, ruins of the written-off Greek economy.  These photos were taken off Kea island, just south of Evia, but we've seen aborted developments all over the place - on main streets, along beaches, on bare islands and forested hillsides.  On the north coast of Limnos we drove past an empty resort. It was a big spread, sealed roads and drainage built to last, probably with generous contributions from the EU, but no-one was coming to stay in the foreseeable future. The caved-in roof of the reception/admin centre was open to the birds. Somewhere along the track, close to completion, the money had dried up.

Close the resort, the roof is leaking (not to mention the savings account)
Archeologists dig where they can in Eretria town which is built over the ancient site
You rarely see any sign of life or machinery around these house-shells. They are not works in progress but works put off for a better time. Perhaps there won't be a better time, though when your history is measured in millennia and your towns built on top of temples and agora and houses with mosaic floors laid down in 800 BC, it's maybe easier to be philosophical about interrupted building schedules. Still, to my new world eyes, the raw concrete reminds me of other ruins. Places with no windows and no roofs, like the houses and churches in Kayakoy which we visited last autumn, one of those sad places where in 1923 Greek citizens of the recently-buried Ottoman empire were ordered to pack up their belongings and go "home"- the Asia Minor Catastophe, as the Greeks call it (the Turks talk of the popuation exchange, which is so much more clinical).

The ghostly houses of Kayakoy
In Eretria we met a gregarious fellow called Takis who told us his own story of failed development.  Ten townhouses built, not one of them sold. He runs a waterfront cafe/bar now with the help of his pretty young Cuban wife, and a tall muscular son from a previous marriage. Takis's whole family was hanging out at the cafe at one time or another - his father  drinking and playing cards with friends at one table, his mother chatting to his sister at another, his little daughters riding on their trainer wheels around the legs of strolling locals then darting back for a cuddle with daddy. "Family is the alpha and the omega," Takis said with an orator's flourish. He has masses of cousins in Melbourne, some of them wealthy men, but for the moment he has no thought of leaving the country. Someone's got to stay and fight, he said, with a wide smile. A less desperate-looking man it would be hard to find.

Aphrodite and Eros in the Eretria museum

He proffered a novel solution to the Greek meltdown. "We Greeks, we gave the world mathematics and theatre. I'd like to say to Mrs Merkel, why can't you think of us like you do the animals that people give money for?" You mean endangered species, I asked? "Yes, yes, like the panda," he said. "Why not? I have people say to me, oh you are Greek... you have the light. We do, but we don't have the money to pay for electricity."


The Greeks gave us theatre - Eretria's is still to be excavated

Yesterday I followed with great difficulty a convoluted story that an officer at the port authority in Piraeus was telling me about a departure tax I needed to pay before we could be stamped out of the port.  It made no sense. Nothing like this was required last year, I told him. Well, this year things have changed. Greece needs the money to pay for him to do all the paperwork he has to do (he showed me a large wad of papers under the counter, presumably something to do with yachts coming into the harbour to spend, in our case, 52 euros a night for a berth). I struggled to follow him, but eventually understood that the tax office was a kilometre from the marina (he gave me a map), and there I should hand over my departure tax of.....88 cents. The office was open Monday to Friday, but only until 2.30 pm.  I couldn't just pay him directly? No. There was a special form. Small steps towards solvency one might argue, but oh, how counter-productive.

Ahead of us in the queue to enter Zea marina - Shamrock V

Boat at the bottom of the holiday house on Aegina

And pathetic. You think these big guys are waiting in line to pay the taxman 88 cents?

Back to the sublime though. Sunset over the haunted houses of Kea island.  Ditto, sailing across the Saronic gulf in the dusky light which wraps around the landscape from about six o'lock. Ditto, waking on Sunday morning in the U-shaped harbour of Korfos to church bells ringing and calm waters dotted with little fishing dinghies. 

Sun setting behind Kea

Early evening light is so soft

Korfos harbour (and below)

The finger is messy but healing. The stifling heat (someone just turned up the temperature) is more than reason to lie low for a few weeks and come out to play again when the fingertip is waterproofed (skin would be good) and the anchorages have emptied out a bit. First we take Athens...

The taxman has always been with us - item from Eretria museum

Monday, 22 July 2013

Sport for the gods

Dusk in the gulf of Volos, looking towards the Pelion range 
One of the few things I am indisputably better at than Alex is typing. It's a small matter but hey, sometimes it's useful. Touch typing makes thinking on a keyboard faster, but as a baseline you need 10 operational fingers.

Right now I have nine. One is out of play for a few weeks, sidelined by a bloody close encounter with 10mm galvanised steel anchor chain. You don't need to know more. Sympathy declined. It's a basic boating rule that even - or especially - in a tricky situation (which this was, in the infamously unreadable approach to the Khalkis bridge over the Evia channel), you keep your hands clear of the anchor and/or chain. I accept the blame and pain.

But we are in Greece where, prompted by the deeply suggestive Greek geography and language, snatches of remembered myth about the crowd on Mt  Olympus float readily to the surface of the mind, and I often find myself wondering if the various plot twists in Enki's summer two-hander are providing sufficient amusement for the gods... yet.

I am sitting with my right hand resting above my heart (thanks to the back-up medical team on Sea Cloud for their advice), and typing with one finger. Alex is now in charge of everything requiring two hands and contact with water. Surprisingly, that does leave a few things for me to do on the boat - I can still lower and raise the anchor with the foot-operated deck button, for example. Now I sense your confusion. So why did she need to have her hand near....as I said, no need to know too much. We have had a few problems this season with the fabulous new bow roller, and we will get it modified over the winter. Alex's back agrees.

Kkalkis bridge, looking from the north side
Perhaps there should be a teeshirt: I PASSED THROUGH KHALKIS. On paper the Evia Channel looks a doddle, the obvious route north or south in the summer when the prevailing meltemi wind is blowing dogs off chains (how many times have I heard that lately, and each time it makes me smile). The first I heard of the Khalkis bridge, which crosses the channel at the town of that name, was in Thasos, from a woman on a Swiss boat which was heading the same way. She said the bridge would be an "adventure". That was news to me.

Evia island. from the channel north of Khalkis

I'd wanted to go south via the Evia channel because I've been reading a book on and off for a year or more called Travelling Heroes, byBritish historian Robin Lane Fox. It's a bit dense, but the heroes in question are Greeks who lived on Evia in the 8th century BC and took their culture and gods as far west as Italy and as far east as Lebanon (using the modern names for these places). The two most important city-states of the seven on Evia were Khalkis and Eretria. I wanted to at least pass by these towns, knowing they were well beyond their prime, but still, the waterway and the mountains don't change over two or three millenia, do they?

Fishing village in O. Vathoudhi, gulf of Volos

Lighthouse on Aryironisis in the Trikeri channel
From Skopelos we headed west towards the gulf of Volos, and parked ourselves for a couple of days beneath the beautiful wooded slopes of the Trikeri peninsula. How strange it is to be sizing up an anchorage on the basis of depths and wind direction and to learn from the cruising guide that such and such a place which you have just decided to leave in your wake was where Achilles supposedly launched his fleet to set out for Troy ("the wind is blowing straight in from the south east, it may die, but there's better shelter a bit further on and we have time..."- so goes our standard pre-anchoring blether, with Achilles counting for nothing in this instance).

The gulf of Volos sits to the north of Evia, so we followed the wind down pretty much, and the sailing has been amongst the best so far, with relatively flat water and fine strong breezes.

Lazy sailing with reefed genoa and 7 knots is plenty fast
Then came Khalkis where we made a bit of hash of things, I ended up looking like a vampire, as Alex said, we were befriended by a big strong single-hander called Gene, originally from Odessa but now from Brooklyn, NYC,  and yes, it was an adventure, that bridge.

Rafted up to Lariella, and Capt Gene, on the quay at Khalkis

Freighter comes through open bridge from south
In brief, it's a sliding bridge 25 m wide, crossing a gap only 39 m wide between the island of Evia and the mainland. It opens once every 24 hours, sometimes less often, always at night, and only when the tide is slack. It seems to be a black art judging slack tide at Khalkis. The currents in the channel are strong and at Khalkis they run up to 7 knots and change direction at will. There is no tide chart and nobody will tell you how deep the water is at the quayside because it changes all the time. To go through by boat, you must be in Khalkis in time to register and pay the toll before 9 pm and then you must find somewhere safe to anchor or tie up your boat until you are called to go through. There's hardly anywhere that fits the description safe for a boat with Enki's draft of 2.5 m; luckily we met Gene and rafted up to Lariella. She was in 2.1 m at the quay but on her other side the depth was 3.5m, deep enough for us. The moon was full, and the water level dropped further, and bottomed at 3.2 m beneath Enki. We were called by the port authority at 3 am, went through at 3.45 am and were anchored again in the big shallow bay on the south side by 4.15 am.

Freighter goes south before us and yacht waits for quay berth

The Khalkis bridge the next morning from the south anchorage

The suspension bridge a little further south has air space galore
Should you ever be in Khalkis in summer on a Saturday night, you should know that they party hard right on the quay. When we let off our lines, we could barely hear what Gene was saying to us from a metre away.

Enki anchored off the beach in Eretria harbour
Now we are anchored off Eretria inside the ancient harbour that the travelling heroes built. It is Monday, and tomorrow the museum will be open. Must be open! Last night we sat in a restaurant next to the car ferries which come in and out every 20 minutes. The octopus was very good. My finger was expertly dressed by the in-house pharmacist, and life was, is, not dull.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Skopelos pick-me-up

A late arrival scurries into the harbour in late evening

The yacht parking is right beneath the chora
A bell chimes four times. Doesn't matter which bell - Skopelos is supposed to have 120 churches, so it's anyone's guess what or who's swinging the rope. The heartbeat of Skopelos has slowed to resting pace. Four o'clock in the afternoon is hot. We're both down below. The town (and Alex) is sleeping off lunch, but traffic is busy in the harbour. Enki does a jiggly dance with her neighbours on the town quay as yet another out-sized ferry throws its wake against the breakwater.  I listen out for the run of anchor chain - who's going out? who's coming in? - and wonder why the ferries seem to pile up on each other in the afternoon rather than spreading out their schedules over the day.


A super-yacht called Barbie

His summer job
The crowds who swirl off the ferry and lounge with their beers and iced coffees in harbour front cafes are probably not thick enough to carry their owners through the lean months. It's pointed out to me that there are many fewer Greek motor boats out on the water than in the fat years because their owners can no longer afford to pay for fuel (and their taxes, one presumes), and I see that it's true. But summer is summer. She plays her part, no matter what the state of the economy, and throws her gaudy colours over those dreary well-chewed bones. For a couple of months, Greeks (and other Europeans, for that matter) can allow themselves to forget the mess they've got themselves in. And who would begrudge them the respite after six consecutive years of recession?

The bride wore white too

Life is....

Old Skopelos was a ship-building and trading town
Yesterday at the Folklore Museum, the young man staffing the place told me that when he wanted to come to Skopelos last February (to interview surviving friends and relatives of a dead poet) he couldn't. No boats at all going to Skopelos, nor indeed to Skiathos or Alonissos - no money in it for the boat companies, he was told. So the island is cut off in the winter? How do people survive? A century ago, or more, this was a big shipbuilding centre, but that's all long gone. How do people make ends meet when the tourists are gone? He doesn't know. "We Greeks have proverb," he tells me. "We always say that no year is as good as last year." He smiles sweetly.

These look like permanent residents to me

The young man, whose name is Ilias, is a post-grad student in Athens. He came to Skopelos two weeks ago to open up the museum, and when he leaves at the end of summer it will close again. I tell him about the closed museums we've encountered, and ask if it's normal. He looks at me as though I'm crazy. "No, it's not normal. But three or four years ago, all the museum employees were sacked." Like the government shutting down the national broadcaster and sacking its 2500 journalists? "You heard about that?" He seems surprised. Ominously, I'm told the next employees for the chop are in health and education. What then for Greece?

I have so many questions for Ilias, and for anyone else who will pause long enough to talk. But there aren't many. It's not just that I don't speak Greek, but living on a boat, as we do, we occupy a funny kind of nowhere land. As the world around us sees it, we're on holiday. "Don't be so pedantic," an Englishman jokes with Alex who is pulling on lines trying to straighten up Enki's stern against the wall of the town quay. "You're on holiday." It would be pedantic to argue the point, so we laugh at ourselves with him.

The Sunsail flotilla came to town on Friday night

Intimacy 2013 style

But really, we're not here on holiday like the people who are renting rooms or houses in the town, and those who are chartering yachts. We watch them, the families and the very young, the groups of friends and the new couples, and remember how bearable the lightness of being "out of the office" for a couple of weeks or, better still, a month was. But that was another life (and pertinently, it was pre-24/7 availability). So what is it exactly that we are doing now? Travelling, I guess. It was to be blue-water sailing, but we got diverted. So easily done in the Mediterranean.

Mojitos on the terrace

Skopelos is a fine place to linger in, and we've done that - given Alex's back a rest from the contortions which, even on a boat stacked with electric aids, are unavoidable when you're anchoring and mooring. He's looking fine now. Ready to move on. One more evening on the terrace above the film-set church, sipping mojitos (a cocktail fervently recommended by Sea Cloud) and looking over the pearly sea between Skopelos and Alonissos. One more night in the taverna at the end of the quay, drinking in the "live Greek music". You'd almost think we were on holiday!

So modern - wifi skyping with Barb at Planatos cafe