24 August 2009 | Trizonia, Gulf of Corinth
Bonnie and Rick
It is impossible to capture the beauty of the Ionian sea in words- even our photographs do not seem to do it justice. The short journey from Nidri to Syvota took us through one of the loveliest stretches of water I have ever seen. As we left the anchorage, the heat-haze that typically blurs the outlines of distant points was less pronounced than usual and the dramatic mountain peaks of mainland Greece looked deceptively close. We sailed past the islands of Scorpios (the Onassis' private island, which we had "circumnavigated" on a daysail in June with our Swedish friends Guy and Pia) and into the channel between Meganisi and Lefkada. The forest greens of cyprus cedars and pines and the dustier green of the olive trees on the shores of the islands contrasted dramatically with the intense blue of the sea. It would have been the perfect day for a sail, if only we'd had some wind. At least Syvota was just around the corner, so we didn't have to burn much diesel to get there.
We had the misfortune to arrive in Syvota on the peak holiday weekend of the summer, which coincides with the Greek Feast of the Assumption and Italian Ferragosto. Syvota must be a magical place in the off-season, but our view of its charms was obstructed by the crowds and the mayhem in the anchorage, so we saw no reason to linger. Late Sunday morning, we pulled the anchor (breathing a large sigh of relief when the windlass performed beautifully) and pointed the bow toward the mountainous silhouette of Ithaca- or Ithaki, as it is called here. A few hours later, we anchored Aisling in the deep inlet off the town of Vathi. The anchorage is very well-protected, but when a catabatic wind swept down off the mountains and blew at about Force 5 until sunset, we were glad that our anchor was well dug-in. We crossed our fingers that everyone else's was too!
Ithaca has captured the imaginations of the young and the old for millenia. The mythical home of Odysseus, it is an island of breathtaking natural beauty, sparsely populated and surprisingly unexploited by tourism. There is, of course, much debate over the true location of ancient Ithaca and numerous other sites described in the Odyssey. Perhaps the Ithaca of the Odyssey was not the place we know as Ithaca today-- perhaps Odysseus himself was a mythical character rather than an historic figure-- perhaps even the poet Homer never really existed. But why spoil the fun? Imagining Odysseus finally returning home to Penelope really adds to the fun of a visit to Ithaca, so we'll cast our lot with the believers.
Although relatively new, having been rebuilt after a major earthquake in 1953, Vathi is a very pretty town. On Monday morning, we dinghied ashore for a run along the narrow, eucalyptus-shaded lane that follows the water to a little beach just inside the mouth of the harbour. A few dozen people were swimming and lounging on the beach under the diligent supervision of a young and beautiful lifeguard. A battered old fishing boat bobbed in the water by the sea wall. After running back to the town, we were so hot and sweaty that we immediately changed into our bathing suits and took the dinghy back to the beach. Floating on my back in the warm salty water, staring up at an old fort and a terraced olive grove, was one of life's perfect little moments.
Ithaca is a small island with a length of less than 30 km. With motorbikes available for hire at only 15 euros a day, we decided to do some exploring. The task of driving fell to Rick, but even as a passenger I had to give my inner scaredy-cat a firm talking to before I could relax and enjoy the ride. As we negotiated the sharp switchbacks beside breathtaking views down the coast and across the channel to Cephalonia, we passed several of the small roadside shrines that mark the sites of previous fatal accidents. Rick drove slowly and carefully, recalling an email from our friend Jean Francois Bourley, who warned that the asphalt on these roads becomes as slick as oil in the intense summer heat. Unlike the majority of Greek bikers, we chose to wear helmets, but they are unlikely to be of much help if we go over the edge!
Our first stop was at the "Cave of the Nymphs" which is purported to be the location where the Phaeceans left the sleeping Odysseus when they delivered him safely home to Ithaca after his ten years of trials and tribulations. Entering the cave is no longer permitted, so we continued on, climbing (about 1800 meters vertical) to an old monastery that , according to our Blue Guide, was restored with the help of a grant from Aristotle Onassis and Maria Callas. It is again undergoing some renovations but the setting is lovely, with an old tower overlooking the coastline, goats roaming the bushes along the headland and a beautiful garden in the interior courtyard. A sign on the gate says "Please close the door because the goats come inside" in Greek, English, Italian and German. As we continued toward the next village in search of water, we encountered a roadside farm and a large herd of goats unconcernedly rambling along the centre line of the road. Eventually, we reached the village of Anogi, where we found a small establishment whose three tables were occupied by a group of young people playing backgammon and sharing platters of delicious-looking home cooked french fries. The stolid and stout elderly proprietress spokes no English, but luckily I had recently learned the Greek word for water (nero). We sat outside and downed 1.5 liters of water in a few minutes while soaking up the ambience of the small village square. How much better our experience would be if only we could speak the Greek language!
We made a lunch stop at Stavros, where we chose the busiest taverna and had a delicious meal of briam (roasted vegetables in olive oil) with soft bread and tzatziki, a decadently sinful saganaki and (I had to do it) a plate of those home cooked french fries. Good restaurants are not as easy to find in this part of the world as you might think, but the chances of getting a good meal seems to improve as you get further off the beaten track. After visiting the small church in the town square, we continued on to Frikes, a small waterside village tucked under towering cliffs and then to Kioni, where the anchorage is obviously the preferred choice of the rich and famous of the yachting set. Near Kioni, we found a small beach with fantastically clear water, so we changed into our bathing suits in the bushes and cooled off with a swim.
By this time, our bottoms were getting a bit sore, but who could resist following a sign that pointed to an archaeological site called the School of Homer? To reach the site, we had to bump along a rugged dirt track, and when we reached the site we were equally as alone as we would have been in the back country of Nova Scotia. The cicadas were chirping wildly in the olive trees and the heat was intense as we explored the ruins, which have obviously undergone some recent excavations. Certain sections were under plexiglass. We were unable to find any good information explaining the history of the site, but I later found an internet reference claiming that examples of Linear B writing (an ancient precursor of the Greek alphabet) were found here.
Finally, we climbed to Exogi , a Venetian village high on the northwest side of the island, where standing on the wall was truly a "king of the castle" experience. By then we really were getting tired, so we decided to head back to Vathi. Along the way, we stopped once again for water at an old general store with glass-fronted wooden display cases. Stepping through the door was like stepping back half a century in time-- I'm sure some of the inventory on the shelves was older than me! After such a wonderful day, it was a bit disconcerting to return to Vathi and find that two boats had parked on either side of our dinghy, completely blocking it in. It was obvious we'd be waiting a while to get back to Aisling, so we crossed the road to have a drink at the Yacht club. It's a beautiful spot; the shady courtyard has tables circling a large pool that is connected to the harbour. The fish were plentiful here, eating treats from the patrons. Back at the dingy, with a little help from the staff of the charter company, Rick was able to get the boats pushed aside and squeak through so we could head back to Aisling.
The next morning, we took advantage of the few hours left on the bike rental to explore the southern part of the island. Unfortunately, the only available map had some serious limitations, so we never did find the road to Pigi Aretoussas, but we did have an interesting drive through the vineyards and olive groves in the valley, visited Alaikomes (previously thought to be the site of the castle of Odysseus) and followed a half-ton truck loaded with grapes up the hill to Filiatro before returning the bike to the rental agency. Seeing a young man riding in the back of the pick-up trucks with the grapes reminded me of the long-forgotten pleasure of riding in the back of my uncle Donald's truck as a child. Watching a young woman on a motorbike scoot down the hill with her hair streaming behind her, I felt a surge of envy and wondered if we have lost a little freedom in our quest for absolute safety.
On Thursday, we motored around to Kaminia, a gorgeous anchorage with room for only a handful of boats. We were fortunate that a charter boat was just lifting anchor when we arrived, so we were able to slide into its place. The warm , clear water made for great swimming and snorkelling, with visibility of about 20 meters and lots of colourful fish. It seemed like the perfect anchorage until the swell began to roll in at around 4 p.m. After a restless, sleep, we returned to Vathi in the morning and spent the day doing some cleaning tasks and preparing for our departure to Mesalonghi the next day. It's time for us to start gradually making our way toward the Aegean, but the Ionian will be tough to beat as a cruising ground!
Rick's notes for Cruisers:
Syvota on Lefkada is small and deep except near the town. It is well protected from all but the katabatic winds. We anchored in 25' and thick mud with good holding. I recommend you resist the urge to leave the boat in the late afternoon so you can "protect your swing room" . There are a couple of small groceries ashore and the harbour is a base for two charter fleets so there may be services to support those as well.
Vathi on Ithaca is also well protected except a sea can build up from the NE winds that arrive each evening. There is lots of room and we anchored in 17' with good holding in mud. Lots of small supermarkets and vegetable stands plus block ice is available from the butcher in the square. There is a fuel (1.13 euros/L) dock here that also sells water at .035/L.
Kamina is small and tight and it was difficult to get the anchor to bite although we were successful after a few tries. The water is deep. We anchored in 50'. There is a shallower spot further in but a sign written in paint on the rock said "Swimming Area, No Anchoring within 150m of shore, signed Port Police). The harbour is protected from all but the East. There were light winds from the NE when we were there and the swell managed to find its way around the point and was amplified by the narrowing harbour. A German boat took a line ashore in a small cove and med moored stern to the rock face.