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Aisling I
A Glimpse of Cephalonia
09/16/2011, Vlicho Bay

According to Wikipedia, there are over a million olive trees on the small island of Cephalonia (aka Kefallonia). That's about 3333 olive trees per square mile and over 25 olive trees for every person. I suppose if you ran the same statistics for spruce trees in Nova Scotia you would come up with equally large numbers, but somehow, to a Canadian, the concept of a million olive trees has a magic that even 10 million spruce trees couldn't begin to match.

We almost missed the whole thing. After two unsuccessful attempts to get our anchor set in the rocky little bay at Euphemia, Rick was threatening to head for Ithaci. On our third attempt, we finally managed to get dug into a little patch of sand just off the breakwater. Then, before we'd even flipped the tab of a near-beer, we'd become the preferred party destination for the neighborhood wasps. With Aisling rocking back and forth like a roly-poly in the swell, this wouldn't be our favourite anchorage ever, but at least we weren't planning on spending a lot of time aboard.

Euphemia is a sleepy little place that doesn't even rate an entry in our Lonely Planet guidebook. Predictably, there is a "Captain Corelli''s café, (this being the area where the book and the movie were set), as well as several tavernas, a bakery, a few small supermarkets and happily, a motorbike rental agency. We paid 25 euros a day to rent a bike, which was double what we would have paid in a larger town, but at least it was a good-sized one with a comfortable seat.

A sign in the shop warns us sternly that wearing a helmet is required by law, and failure to do so could result in an immediate fine of up to 350 euros. As Canadians, we accept helmets as a part of life when you ride a bike, but the Greeks are defiant. Driving bare-headed seems to be the norm and we aren't at all surprised to see a carefree young man steering with one hand while having an animated conversation on a cellphone; his helmet dangling by its strap from the handlebar. One might think that the sheer number of roadside shrines around here would give him pause for thought, but apparently not.

Since Cephalonia is only about an eighth of the size of Prince Edward Island, distances are short. Still, the 33 km to Fiscardo is a long ride as we slowly navigate the sharp switchbacks and steep grades. The reward is the spectacular scenery, with limestone cliffs and cedar forests plunging down to water of intense and varying shades of blue and turquoise. We stop at a lay-by overlooking Myrtos Beach (billed as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world) and literally gasp at the beauty.

When we finally reach Fiskardo, it is a bit of a disappointment. Having read Rod Heikell's charming description of the village, which was the only one to remain unharmed by the 1953 earthquake that devastated the island, I was expecting something quaint and authentic. There are clearly more tourists than Greeks here, and the quay is crammed with souvenir shops on land and charter boats on the water, but the pastel colours of the houses make an attractive backdrop.

We decide not to linger, and instead head back toward Assos, where a Venetian fortress looms over a tiny town that seems to have flowers dripping from every wall and balcony. I never tire of bougainvillea and here they have multiple varieties (magenta, pink, white and peach) as well as oleander, trumpet vine, hibiscus and a thriving array of other garden blooms. We settle in the shade at Platanos taverna for lunch and share plates of briam and Cephalonian meat pie. "This briam is not as good as mine" says Rick, then catches himself and says "or I should say, it's not as good as the briam we've had elsewhere". It's true that the briam is not as good as the recipe he makes at home, but the meat pie is delicious, chunks of meat mixed with rice and herbs (and cinnamon?) and covered with a flaky crust. When we pay our bill, we ask if the service charges are included. "No" says the owner. "On September 1st the tax on food was increased from 13% to 23%. We are worried that this is very bad for business, so we decided to give up our service charge". These are tough times for Greece.

The view from the fortress is said to be fantastic, but our time is marching by and we have other places to see. Onward to Argostoli, the capital of the island, population roughly 10,000. On the outskirts, we pause to look inside a small church, and find painters at work, carefully restoring the ornate gilt that highlights the artwork and moldings. We peek under one of the sheets of plastic and find a painting of Agia Marina, with little gold and silver votive plaques portraying various body parts lined up underneath. We continue along a eucalyptus-shaded road into the town, which is a bustling spot, with an attractive square and a busy waterfront. We pause for a "freddo cappuccino" and wonder who owns the huge yacht with a helicopter on deck that is docked on the waterfront. Later, we read the blog of our friends Sandra and Chris on Deep Blue (see their blog here Deep Blue )and learn that the Emir of Qatar is in town.

The strong cappuccino keeps us on our toes for the drive across the island toward Sami. Even though we have climbed high into the hills, it is so hot that at times we feel like the vent of a raging furnace is blowing heated air over us. In places the hillsides have been ravaged by fire. But we also pass through fertile valleys, where huge bunches of grapes drip from vines. Perhaps these are the robola grapes used to the highly-regarded wine of Cephalonia.

Next stop is the massive, 2 million year old Drogarati cave, where we are the only visitors. We creep down the slippery steps to the huge cavern, where the huge stalactites are illuminated by lights that are causing a gradual erosion. The damage is obvious, but the cave is magnificent; an unforgettable experience. No photos allowed, and although Rick, true to form, snapped one anyway (without a flash) it didn't really come out so we'll have to leave it to your imagination.

We continue on to the nearby Melissani cave, with its subterranean lake. Apparently, back in the 1950s, some scientists put dye into the water of a stream that disappeared underground near Argostoli and the dye reappeared in this lake, indicating that the water traverses the island underground and emerges here. We walk down a steep carpeted ramp toward the lake, which has an intense blue colour when viewed from the ramp but is less dramatic close-up (perhaps because we have not visited between the recommended hours of noon and 2 p.m.).

An oarsman helps us into a wooden rowboat, where we are soon joined by a Greek family with a teen-age daughter who is clearly delighted by the lake. As the oarsman slowly paddles us around the lake, I can't shake the feeling that I am on a Disneyworld ride, and the song "It's a Small World" plays and replays in my head for the rest of the afternoon. Our Lonely Planet had been right to suggest that the lake is over-rated, but if we hadn't checked it out for ourselves, how would we have known?

After a quick drive through Sami, we arrive back in Euphemia before sunset and return the motorbike to the shop. Leftover pasta for dinner and an early bedtime seem a bit of a let-down after such a fantastic day. Cephalonia is clearly worthy of a longer visit at a more relaxed pace, but we are happy to have had at least a glimpse of it. Next stop Ithaci!

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Gulf of Corinth Reprise..back to Galaxidhi and Trizonia
09/05/2011, Cephalonia

Our quality of life took a big bump upward when we moved onto the town dock in Galaxadhi. By pulling in alongside the covered pavilion (which, back in the days when Galaxadhi was landlocked, provided a shady spot for the unloading of goods from ships) we eliminated the need to lay out a stern anchor. What luxury to be able to simply step ashore, instead of having to climb into the dinghy or down the anchor! With unlimited fresh water available, we washed down the decks, did all our laundry and filled both our water tanks (75 gallons each) to the brim.

Our 5 euro water fee was collected by "Tommy", a town character, who seems to spend much of his day hanging around in the shade of the pavilion and managing the comings and goings at the dock. Tommy was running a bit amok on the day we arrived, arguing loadly in Greek with other men at the dock and generally making a bit of a nuisance of himself. When Rick eventually checked in with the Port Police, they politely suggested that next time, we should not pay the water fee to Tommy. We have no idea whether our money eventually made its way into the right hands, but in any case the police took our word for it and we didn't have to pay twice.

It's always easier to meet people when we're at a dock. If we'd stayed at anchor in the old harbour, we might have had to wait until we arrived in Marina di Ragusa to meet American-Italians Ni and Krissie. Having had no one but each other for company for over two weeks, we gratefully accepted when they invited us onboard their Dolphin catamaran Finalmente for drinks that evening.

Cruisers on catamarans live very well. Compared to Aisling, Finalmente is like a floating palace! What a treat to settle in on the circular settee, sipping wine, eating snacks and trading cruising tales with Ni and Krissie in air conditioned comfort. Within half an hour, we felt like we'd known them for years. As we talked about destinations in Sicily, Ni pulled out a remote control and began flipping through photos on a large-screen TV on the opposite wall. Among the other lovely sights, we saw the smiling faces of our friends Chris and Sandra! Ni and Chrissie also hail from the same hometown as Bill and Angela Chapman, who will also be wintering at Marina di Ragusa. I predict there will be some merry parties at the dock.

The next day, we finally paid a visit to Galaxidhi's nautical museum, where we felt right at home among the displays of old compasses, sextants, lead lines, logs and nautical paintings. Later, I took a long walk through the town and the shady park, taking photos and lamenting the fact that we would likely never return to this lovely place. Looking at an apparently deserted old house, I imagined buying and renovating it. We could have a garden with pomegranates and lime trees, plant herbs and geraniums in pots and maybe have a grape arbour like Louis and Martha's. Our family and friends would come and visit (because we would have real beds for them to sleep in) and we would serve them briam, crusty bread and local wine at our kitchen table. I would run or walk in the park every day, and lose five pounds. I would learn to speak Greek. Of course, this will never happen. We have too many other places that we want to visit, but it is fun to dream.

Eating out is very affordable here. Even though we chronically over-order and often return to the boat with a bag of leftovers, our dinner bills rarely exceed 30 euros. Consequently, we have been eating out far more often than usual and this, in combination with the wine we usually drink with these meals, is probably the direct cause of the afore-mentioned five pounds. For our last night in Galaxadhi, we decided to try the restaurant "Barca Maritsa" (recommended by Lonely Planet, and they are rarely wrong). As a change from the usual Greek fare we had seafood risotto, which was absolutely delicious. No leftovers from that meal!

Although we generally like to explore new places, the choices for anchorages in the gulf of Corinth are not abundant. Early the next morning, we headed off to Trizonia, the only inhabited island in the Gulf and another place we had visited two years ago. Krissie and Ni, who had left Galaxadhi the day before us, were already anchored off the wharf, and within an hour we had made plans to take our dinghies out to a nearby island beach for some snorkelling. An otherwise delightful afternoon was rudely interrupted by the rumble of thunder in the distance, and we dashed back to the boats just in time to close the hatches. By early evening the storm had blown over and we were able to have drinks in our cockpit and enjoy the glorious views on all sides.

If we'd gone fishing like the South African family beside us at the dock, we might have had fresh octopus for dinner!

Instead, we walked around to the village with Chrissie and Ni, and had dinner at the tharotaverna. The waterfront was a buzz of activity, with wedding guests snapping photos as a bride and groom departed on a well-decorated private ferry. Otherwise, nothing much had changed on Trizonia since our last visit. Billy the Greek was even still serving drinks and entertaining the guests at the Poseidon. He greeted us like long-lost friends and, although Rick was initially sceptical about whether he really did remember us, I suspect they don't see too many Canadians in Trizonia. In fact, Billy told us the only Canadians to arrive since we'd left were two Canada Geese! He was no longer wearing the cast with "FU" written in bold letters on it and seemed to be a bit mellower this time.

The next morning, Rick threw off the dock lines before I was even out of bed, and by mid-morning we were flying along the Gulf of Patras under full sail, with our knot meter showing speeds of up to 8.5 knots as we approached the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world. With 25 knots of wind almost directly behind us, we had a great ride, but I was very grateful that we were not travelling in the opposite direction. The current gave us a push for another hour, and by mid-afternoon we were anchored off Messalonghi. I'm embarrassed to report that, for the second time in a row, we opted not to go ashore, and were content to sit on deck with fizzy fruit drinks and a big tub of peanuts, watching the sun set as turtles swam by and fish jumped around the boat. When the crescent moon was well above the horizon, we decided to turn in early and rest up for an early departure. Cephalonia, we're on the way!

Cruisers Notes:
Anchor off the old harbour in 16-30' on sand and weed with good holding. There is a water tap in the old harbour at the end of the pier with the small boats. Basic provisions ashore on the main street . The best bread is in the bakery in the square, as is the best fruit and veggie shop. There is a small laundry near the square, but prices are high (25 euros to wash and dry a 5 kilo load).

We spent 2 nights on the dock in the new harbour, where electricity and water are available for 5 euros each per day in addition to Port Police fees of 15 euros per night. The mini market by the quay may be the best one in the town. There is bus service from the square to both Navpaktos (west) and to Itea / Delphi (east). Delphi is definitely worth touring, though we only saw Navpaktos through pictures.

The last time we stopped in Galaxidi, we had a very nice meal at Georges taverna / art gallery , right on the old harbour (the only one), where George's sister Mina explained how to cook Octopus (boil in sea water).

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Returning Through the Corinth Canal
09/02/2011, Galaxidhi

Our carbon footprint must be up to size 13EEE with the amount of motoring we are doing lately...over 12 hours from Poros to Galaxidi, all of it accompanied by the throb of the "iron jenny". There was hardly a breath of wind between Poros and the Corinth canal, and not much more in the Gulf of Corinth.

About four hours out of Poros, we finally got around to reviewing the information in the Imray pilot, and found Rod Heikell's note saying the canal is closed between 0600-1800 on Tuesdays. Aisling must have the luck of the Irish (even though there's not a single Irishman aboard) because on this particular Tuesday, they were letting traffic through. We arrived at the eastern end of the canal shortly after mid-day and were relieved to be told we would have only a short wait. Within half an hour, the bridge submerged and away we went!

We'd already come through here two years fact, if we'd waited just one more day we would have transited on the identical date. This time, I got to take the was a big adrenalin rush to steer through a passage that is only 80 feet wide with the current boosting our speed to about 7.5 knots and the walls rising roughly 300 feet above us at the mid-point.

As we passed under the bridge, a bungee jumper was just taking a leap. Talk about adrenalin rushes! If you know of someone who jumped over the canal at 1.20 p.m. on Tuesday August 30th and wants a picture to prove it, tell him to get in touch with us!

We had a few uneasy moments when we emerged from the canal and realized that they had not yet submerged the bridge on the western end, but after a quick VHF exchange with the tower ("OK Captain!! OK!!") we finally saw it sinking. It felt like we had just emerged from a flume ride, but we still had about six hours of sailing left to do. With lots of daylight hours still ahead, we decided to continue on to Galaxidhi, which had been one of our favourite stops when we came through the Gulf of Corinth in 2009. As we pulled into the anchorage in the old harbour at 7.30 in the evening, I wondered aloud whether the old saying "You can never go back" would prove true. I'm happy to report that the view from the anchorage is as pretty as ever, even though we spent our first night hanging on for dear life in a big swell and our second night sitting out a spectacular thunder and lightning storm. As an indication of how much one's perspective changes after a couple of weeks without access to fresh water, we were actually delighted when the downpour arrived and washed the salt off our rigging. More on Galaxidhi in our next posting. Right now, I've got some stainless steel that needs polishing!

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Ithaki Reprise

A lot of water has passed under the hull since we wrote our blog about Cephalonia. From Efemia, we'd made a quick hop to Vathi on the island of Ithaki, the legendary home of Odysseus and a place we'd really enjoyed visiting in 2009.

Link to Aisling's Ithaci blog 2009

As we made our approach to Vathi, sailboats were literally pouring out of the mouth of the harbor. We counted 51, most of which seemed to be charter boats. Although it isn't unusual for charter boats to travel in large flotillas in the Ionian, we still aren't sure why so many departed simultaneously. It may have had something to do with the Vathi Port Police who, for reasons that remain mysterious to us, were not allowing anyone to anchor in the outer reaches of the harbor. I won't get into the details of how long it took to find a spot that all of us (the Port Police, me and Rick) could agree on.

Ni and Krissy on Finalmente had arrived in Vathi the previous day and had rented a car, so the next morning we hopped into their back seat for a quick tour of the southern part of the island. On our way out of Vathi, we stopped at the "Cave of the Nymphs", where local lure claims that the sleeping Odysseus was dropped by the Phaeacians when they returned him to Ithaca. In 2009, we'd tried to visit the cave and found it locked. Since then, the gate had been pried open, probably without the knowledge of local officialdom.

It was a sadly neglected and horribly dangerous place, with vandalized stalactites and a rusty lift hanging over a seemingly bottomless pit. We had come prepared with flashlights (never go ashore without one) but the beams couldn't penetrate the depths. All we saw was a bat.

After seeing a Greek man (the sole other visitor) come within a whisker of death by tripping at the edge of the pit, we retreated to the car. If any tourists have been reported missing on the island of Ithaci lately, someone should send a search team to the bottom of the Cave of the Nymphs.

We spent the rest of the morning driving through back roads and hiking along thorny country paths, half-heartedly searching for some of the Homeric sites mentioned in our Blue Guide. We saw no evidence of Eumaios or his swine, but time spent wandering through an olive grove with views of the sea can't be considered wasted. The olive trees were ancient, huge and knarled, many surrounded by the remains of circular stone walls.

Of course, there's always a grimy side. An abandoned truck looked almost as old as the olive trees. And obviously some graffiti artists had been out hiking too.

The car rental agency's clock was ticking, so we headed back to Vathi, topping off the morning with "freddocino" (cold cappuccino) on the waterfront. Walking through some of the shops in the town, we met an elderly Greek man who took great pride in showing us a photo of the boat he had sailed up the St. Lawrence river in. We visited a small church, with a lovely but damaged ceiling medallion of "Christ Pantocrator" (Christ Almighty). We've seen more beautiful ones, but this one was interesting because it had "Pantocrator" written in Greek letters across the top.

Then, instead of going back to the waterfront for lunch, we found a small taverna on a back street, where the food was inexpensive and delicious. We've finally realized that the best meals are generally found in out-of-the way places, where local residents congregate and English is not spoken.

We'd planned to hang out in Vathi for a while, but the Port Police were still making a real nuisance of themselves. As more and more boats were directed into the small designated anchoring area on the east side of the harbour, the conditions were becoming a bit too cozy. Rick has recently resolved not to tell others that they are anchoring too close for comfort, but can't seem to stop himself from pacing and fretting. Even though he doesn't speak to anyone directly, he stands on deck, stares, and mutters things under his breath like "Come on buddy, you're not going to anchor there are you?" After two days of this he'd had enough, so we decided to move on to "One House Bay", which Ni and Krissy had described as idyllic. Unfortunately, on that day at least, it would have been better described as "Twenty Boat Bay". So much for things getting quieter in September!

Instead of trying to squeeze in, we continued on to Nidri on the island of Lefkada. Once again we were back in familiar territory. As we set our anchor in Tranquil Bay (which was surprisingly uncrowded) we remembered our friend Jaap greeting us there two years before, gesturing at the expansive view and asking us "How do you like my garden?" Nidri may be crowded and overly-developed, but for as long as we stayed, we'd be looking at a millionaire's view in all directions. It was great to be back!

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