Greeting from Central Med
07 July 2011 | Sardinia
Mid July 2011
Greetings from the central Mediterranean:
Some places where you sail, and then try to write about end up sounding like musings on geography, a topic for which North American are often maligned for their limited knowledge. In describing other places it’s the history that brings it to life. Eastern or central Mediterranean history appears ripe with anomalies and modern day Croatia is full of historic contradictions. I think to really appreciate the late Roman Empire when it resurged as a Christian empire under Constantine in Asia then the story really begins in Dalmatia (as Croatia was known to the Romans) with Emperor Diocletian. Born of rather ignoble parentage in Dalmatia, he is an example of how in times of real stress (the Roman Empire was very clearly crumbling) that the military can take on the form of a meritocracy. Diocletian was sort of the Colin Powell of his day, who was acknowledged emperor first by the Roman Army. He removes Rome as the Capital of the empire, sets up the rule of four (4 co-emperors), changes the tax system, initiates the biggest building program in world history (or as Monty Python put it “What did the Romans ever do for us?”) He then decides to retire (not really an option in the past for Roman emperors) and builds a palace the size of six football pitches near the important city of Solana in modern day Croatia. After retirement he lives in his palace on the Dalmatian coast for over a decade. His retirement palace then becomes Split, a city which makes it through to modern times with all the foundations of his original palace in tact. Diocletian sets the stage for Constantine, who is sort of York’s home town boy, as he is stationed in York when he becames co-emperor shortly after Diocletian’s rule. Constantine adopts Christianity as state religion makes Constantinople the real capital of Rome and that schism in the Christian world remains a core issue to this day. The recent wars here in the Balkans in the nineties (known in Croatia as the Homeland War) can attest to that grand divide with the Serbians being orthodox Christians and the Croatians Catholic Christians. One of the most interesting and little known facts in Croatian history is that long before Martin Luther, the Croatians were using a Croatian (non-Latin) bible and some people suggest that this identification was the main impetus why the Turks were unable to subjugates large swathes of the Dalmatian coast (although I doubt the Venetians would agree with that hypothesis.)
With regards to geography, we have sailed further north -- above the Arctic Circle if you count an afternoon on a replica Viking long boat. This is the furthest north I have skippered a boat or sailed Mary Ann. We’re on a parallel with the Bay of Fundy and the furthest north I’ve sailed as proper crew was Block Island, Rhode Island, which is several hundred miles south of our recent wanderings in the Adriatic.
The contrasts in Croatia ranged from hundreds of quiet remote anchorages with crystal clear water; numerous medieval towns mostly built of beautiful white marble with marble paved streets; a stunning series of water falls (which provided the world’s second hydroelectric system just after Niagara Falls); five world heritage sites; stunning Roman ruins, a coastline with hundreds of cove-strewn islands and cities the like of Split, Trogir and Dubrovnik.
Recently we’ve been working our way west. Being time millionaires we don’t have too many schedules to fuss with but one time frame with which you must comply is the seasonal appearance of revolving tropical storms, known variously by the names: hurricanes, cyclones or typhoons. Since we plan to spend the next hurricane-free time in the Caribbean we have to start our way west as we have about 4800 miles to cover (a fifth of the earth’s diameter). We have begun the most trying part of this plan – getting across the Med. The Atlantic is a doddle due to a tropical phenomenon know as the trade winds, but the Med has winds in all directions, all strengths, complete with expensive marinas when you have to wait for better conditions. We’re working our way across Italy with reasonably cooperative winds thus far, at least not often contrary winds. Cruising highlights have been the cetaceans.. Mary Ann was visited by a pod of dolphins who cavorted around us for about forty-five minutes, and then off the coast of northern Sicily we had a close encounter with a pod of five Risso’s dolphins. They are about the size of pilot whales and are rather rare. One of our last stops was the island of Vulcano, which is about 15 miles from Stromboli. The crater still smokes and hot sulphurous water boils up in the sea for a salty hot tub effect. We took a mud bath in a hot grey mud pool but somehow I am not convinced that the smell of rotten eggs is particularly therapeutic.
Thus far a big challenge has been to keep the carbon footprint to a minimum, i.e. not using the engine too much. When we are favoured by the wind gods we try to just keep going but lately there’s been little wind at all. There is also the complication of having a lovely old sailboat which I bought as a mere lad of 37, so time out for maintenance is a factor, this time a leaky water tank and a leaky transmission seal. We thought Palermo would be a good place to get some of this work done, as it has ¾ of a million people, is the capital of the largest island in the Med and Julia could pursue the historic sites while the chief engineer worked. The only wrinkle in our plans was the unforeseen holiday of Santa Rosaria with fantastic fireworks, a stunning parade but workshops all shut down for four days. On the bright side the pizza is cheap and delicious, I am a fan of Marsala and Julia is getting private guided tours of some amazing palazzos.
From here we’re off to Sardinia then Algeria, Morocco and Gibraltar. An old friend and sailing buddy Mark is flying to Spain to meet us for the leg to the Canaries. Murphy likes the Italians’ generally dog-friendly attitudes. We’re looking forward to North Africa and Mary Ann’s first sail in the Atlantic.
John, Julia and Murphy