Thursday, 21 August 2014

Greek wrap, with Sicilian chaser

We grew fonder of Levkas town each time we returned there, but it was almost a relief to leave the Greek side of the Ionion.

Stepping aboard from Levkas town quay

Back with the shopping

Claudia tracking Enki at the top of the east coast of Ithaca 

We spent far too much time motoring. That's because what wind there is around the Ionian islands  tends to come at about 3 or 4 in the afternoon, too late to be useful. There are so many boats competing for water space in the height of summer that if you're not settled at anchor before midday, you'll be sucking in your fenders, so to speak, or skirting around anchorages desperately looking for depths under 20 m and (heaven help us) a patch of sand. Enki's Rocna anchor is helpless in the face of a thick pelt of Mediterranean weed, something we've had cause to remember several times in the past few weeks.

We found the sand this time - on the second time in this bay we failed to anchor

DIY beauty regime

Check those scores - the smile says it all

But then again, why would you forfeit an afternoon's sailing if you can breeze into port just before sunset? Finding a park shouldn't ever be problem - you do it just the way you would in Rome or Genoa. Find the gap - a hint of a gap will do - and shove the boat into reverse. The other guy will loosen his lines to make space for you. Or if it's one of those exquisite little turquoise coves we're talking about, just drop the pick. Anywhere there's water will do. This is close? Are you serious? All right, we'll raft up to our friend over there. No, make that three of us. My other friend is coming in too. It's too windy to raft up? Of course it's windy. We should know. We've been out in it. We're hungry now. We're going ashore for dinner. If the anchor drags, someone will let us know. Those worrywarts who stand on their bow, frowns on their faces, and shake their heads at us, will shout or do that funny whistle thing. But we're Italian. We like a bit of melodrama. This is how we go sailing.

Thank goodness, in a way, for the Italians. I won't say they drove us out - it was time for us to make a decision about moving on (or not). It was becoming tempting to stay in Greece for another season. We know people who've spent decades there. Greece in any month other than August is sailing heaven. It's not just about the islands and the gulfs, it's also the Greeks. They're so relaxed. Too relaxed for their own good, of course.

A reservation is needed for dinner by the water in Port Kioni

This was not our last Greek salad - quite

The Greeks like to think of themselves as sea-faring people. The sea has its own demands, and people on boats have certain needs. The Greeks understand that. With few exceptions, they're very flexible. Rules are for other people. That's what makes the Germans cross. Greeks pay no attention to EU rules, except when it suits them to. You wish at times they were more consistent, less ambiguous in the way they manage their "assets" - in general terms, their sunshine and their water, but in immediate terms their town quays, their popular anchorages and their many small harbours and marinas, including the ones they built almost to completion with EU money but never got around to finishing.

The town quay at Vathi, Ithaca

The man and his job

Town quay at Port Kioni, Ithaca

In theory, for example, a yacht should pay to tie up to a town quay. In practice, people often pay nothing. Port police will take your money if you make the effort to find them but if you don't, they rarely come calling. If you make the mistake of calling too frequently, you sense their confusion and displeasure. What is the point, they seem to ask? You could call them lazy, and sometimes we have. But more often they make us smile. They're on a watery wave-length. You worry about them, and wonder if they will ever get the hang of what's expected of them. But then you say to yourselves, we had a great time in Greece, didn't we? We could get used to Greece. Lots of people do.

Concierge, Syracuse
So now we're in Sicily which plays to different rules again. You might remember that our previous visit to Sicily was a nightmare from start to finish. It was all about the engine, stupid. We've tried to forget most of what happened to us in Milazzo and Messina, and if we can help it, we won't be revisiting those towns. Our port of entry to Italy is Syracuse on Sicily's south-east corner. It was also our port of departure in 2012 once the engine was finally fixed and our bank account had been lightened by many thousands of euros. The town was beautiful then, but we couldn't stay - we were out of Schengen time - so we told ourselves we'd come back one day.

We made the crossing from Levkas to Syracuse in fresh north-westerly winds, which looked good on paper but we missed charts showing the beam swell. Novices. So we had a rocky, boisterous ride. Fast, but uncomfortable. This was Claudia's first night passage - we were two nights at sea. She was great. She made bread, got up in the night, slept better than either of us, and generally survived in great shape - she will mention queasiness, but it was nothing in the scheme of things. A born sailor.

Crossing the Ionian (and below)

We've checked into Italy with an agent - Guiseppe, from the Luise group. It seemed a tad indulgent, but we have no regrets, and would recommend the man and the agency. Professional on all levels, and the bill surprised us. Pleasurably so.

Our spot in the Grand Harbour anchorage, Syracuse

Promenade, Ortigia old town, Syracuse

View of the anchorage from the old town

We're at anchor in the Grand Harbour, as it's called. The big bay. A wonderful place to be, although not so much in a fresh southerly when a serious fetch builds across the bay. There have been quite a few luxury motor vessels keeping us company as we bounce about. Every captain needs a secure anchorage in a fresh wind, whether he's got 15 meters or 200 metres in his care. The Grand Harbor has been sheltering boats since the Corinthians founded the city in the 7th century BC, and maybe longer.

Sunday fun in the water in Grand Harbour

Some people have bigger boats than others

We've got no plans to leave Syracuse soon. Maybe in a week. We've got lots more to feast on. I could be talking about the food - the market in particular - but not just. Everything about Ortiga, the old town of Syracuse, charms us. Alex has been in a photo-taking frenzy. You can see why. All the photos below are taken in the old town of Syracuse, the isthmus called Ortigia. Claudia dreams of being stranded here.

Sunday, 10 August 2014


Mainland anchorage called O. Vatha, opposite Levkas 

August is crazy time. Special conditions apply. Everyone knows this. Sanity demands that you park your boat in a marina, damn the cost, and wait out these four weeks somewhere cool and grey.  I've dreamed of Ireland in August, or Wales perhaps. Brittany wouldn't be bad either.

Caught napping

This is our third August in the Med, and perhaps our last. We know now that lots of European cruisers don't stay with their boats in August. We've met them at Gouvia marina, handing over a month's berthing fees, charged at high season rates. No regrets. They'll be back to sail again in September when the heat is less gruelling and the crowds are starting to thin.

Dakos salad - rusk, tomato, feta

A long cool espresso - called freddo 

Then there's frozen yoghurt...

On Enki, we take August a day at a time. We travel slowly and at anchor, when the temperature climbs, we pull out the Big Awning. The awning (designed by Alex) supplements the bimini and  gives us shade over the entire cockpit and the aft deck. How lovely to sit in the bean bag, your whole body in shade, a light wind cooling your skin and to read, say, Henry Miller or Proust or Martin Cruz Smith (now, you guess who belongs to which book). Every so often you feel the need to slip into the water. It's clear and cool, with a warm layer on the top by evening. By then it's time for beer and Scrabble.

The wondrous awning

Brew of choice

Camera of choice

There was one more ruin we wanted to see before we left Greece, even though it's August. About seven nautical miles north of Levkas is Preveza, with its busy charter airport and boatyards called Cleopatra and Aktion. It sits at the entrance to the gulf the Romans called Actium, and a short distance to the north of the town are the ruins of Nikopolis. Nikopolis was the city built by the young Roman general Octavian (who is better known as Augustus) after he trounced the much larger fleet of Mark Anthony and his girlfriend Cleopatra  in 31 BC in the gulf of Actium.

The winner writes history

We came down from Corfu on a day which promised breeze and only sporadically delivered, and by 8.30 pm, just as the moon was coming up, were anchored in the shallow bay around from the Preveza town quay. After dinner I crouched on the companionway steps while Alex and Claudia did the dishes  and read out loud to them from Eric Newby's book On the Shores of the Mediterranean. Newby wrote a very nice chapter about visiting marshy, mosquito-ridden Preveza in which he imagined the battle of Actium - which changed the course of the Roman empire.  Neither Preveza nor Mark Antony's troubles had much appeal to his wife Wanda, it seems.

Claudia walks the wall of Nikopolis
I don't think Claudia quite saw the need to go to Nikopolis either, but like Wanda, she is game. We were off the boat early, and on site by 10 am. The heat at that hour was manageable. We would have perhaps been wise to have kept the taxi driver loitering, spent half an hour admiring the exquisite Byzantine mosaic floors which are all that remain of early Christian churches built by cashed-up bishops during the Nikopolis's second period of prosperity and then got our bodies back to the boat. But instead we believed the taxi driver's casual advice that there were "lots of taxis and buses" passing by on that road, and chose to walk on around the walls to the small theatre (Odeon) and after that, follow a dirt road past the necropolis, duck through a corn field and head towards the large theatre. From there, we said, we'd take a taxi or bus to the museum, about 3 km back towards Preveza.

Glorious frescoes from 6th century AD approx

Nikopolis Odeon - small theatre - close to restored

Men at work on the Odeon (and below)

There were no taxis or buses.

Country dwellers

Short cut from the necropolis to the main road

We waited in a shady roadside cafe until the situation became obvious. Then we walked to the museum.

Card games at the crossroads cafe

Now, a museum is somewhere I'll always give the benefit of the doubt. But as we were walking - and there was no footpath, just a very narrow verge and a white line between us and the on-coming traffic  - I wondered what kind of archeological museum would be so far from the site. There's actually not a lot of Octavian's Nikopolis left to see, and I had a sinking feeling that the same might be the case at the museum, should it even be open.

Masterpiece of the Nikopolis museum
Greece does this to you though. It lets you down, and then boom, SURPRISE. There it was, a few hundred metres from the Lidl supermarket, on a stretch of double-carriage road you might kindly call light industrial - a new air-conditioned Euromoney museum with a carpark and foyer built to cater for coach loads of Nikopolis tourists.

They weren't there. Just us, and a bit later, an Indian family wandered in. Everyone else, I guess, was in the water.

Nikopolis was a big and pretty important trading centre but Visigoths and vandals and wars have reduced most of it to rubble. The museum curators have done a lot with very little. Sometimes a little is enough. One great marble bas relief, an elaborately carved sarcophagus (Assos, the perfect post-card harbour we saw on Cephalonia, was a centre of excellent coffin-making), a pile of silver coins, a few amphora, some glass phials and gold leaf, a bust with her nose bashed in, stone tablets (stelae) with proclamations chiseled letter by letter. The ancient roll call is by now very familiar to us. But still we find ourselves gazing intently into each cabinet, comparing and admiring and adding from each museum more "treasure" to our mental collection of ancient beauties.

We're now looking ahead at weather coming across the Ionian, wanting a bit of wind, preferably from the north, to sail to the east coast of Sicily. We take with us from Greece a new and successfully installed 4kg Candy washing machine.

Now that was a hot job.

You had to be there

It can be done!