SAILING IN THE AEGEAN
“Sailing in the Aegean” by Claire Stephens
SAILING IN THE AEGEAN
Our departure point was Samos - a large Greek island facing the famous archaeological site of Ephesus on the Turkish coast, and itself the site of two and a half thousand years of Greek civilization. The ancient city of Samos was founded around 1000 B.C.; in the sixth century B.C. the city developed into a major naval power. Recent archaeological excavations have unearthed numerous sites, including an ancient aqueduct. More recent constructions include a 16th century castle and church, as well as modern amenities including a busy airport.
Our 47-foot Beneteau - the Paralos (named after a figure in Greek
mythology) - turned out to be a handsome white and green sailing yacht with four streamlined cabins, two tiny bathrooms, as well as a galley and saloon, capable of sleeping two when the saloon table was converted into a bed. Our skipper, a co-resident of Greece and Los Angeles, fluent in English, joined us in Samos, and after dealing with all of the administrative formalities, stocking up on food supplies, and getting to know the other crew members, we were off! Our crew numbered four Europeans (Greek, German and Belgian) as well as this Canadian, and included one person who had never sailed before.
Some of us met for the first time on the boat - this kind of encounter can pose short-term personality challenges or lead to lifelong friendships.
And so our ten-day adventure began. As our comfort level with the water and the boat increased, our land-based habits wore off. Clothing became very simple, hairdryers were set aside, and we started eating our meals on Greek time: dinner at 11 p.m. is not unusual.
The pleasures of a sailing holiday at sea are innumerable: the sensation of the warm wind and salty spray on your skin as the boat races through the water; the freedom to move from one place to another, discovering uncharted beauty as you go; the pleasure of drinks on board at sunset, before you walk onto "terra firma" for dinner in a taverna; coming back after dinner and gazing at a star-filled sky with galaxies that you have never seen before; and being gently rocked to sleep by the waves lapping at the boat, all your cares left behind on shore.
The first night was spent moored at the dock in Pythagorios, the major port on Samos and birthplace of the famous mathematician Pythagoras, whose statue, complete with triangle in hand, dominates the end of the main dock.
Dinner was served in a taverna literally on the beach, the tables leaning precariously toward the water. We slept fitfully, woken by noises from local bars and motorcycles passing by. We decided to keep the evening port moorings to a minimum on this trip, and to drop anchor, whenever possible, in quiet bays or inlets. This proved to be one of the best decisions of the voyage.
The next day, we cast off, with great excitement and with excellent winds, and sailed, for some three hours, to the tiny island of Arki. The pleasure of moving with the wind on the water was mesmerizing, bringing about a sense of perfect disconnect from the "real" world. A cloudless blue sky, a deep blue sea, the occasional boat passing by, islands sighted in the haze – all cast a magic spell on the body and the mind.
At Arki, we moored in the tiny port of Porto Agusta, which looks like
the perfect postcard from a Greek island. Here, people are friendly and three small tavernas compete with each other. That evening, we found a table in one of the tavernas, drawn by the bouzouki music and spontaneous singing. A sumptous dinner of fresh fish (overpriced in Athens, and rarely available on the bigger islands), grilled octopus, fried squid, Greek salad and local wine, was accompanied by music and dancing into the wee hours. The passion and energy of the local Greeks dancing for hours would have put Zorba to shame!
The next morning took us to the nearby, hidden Marathi Bay for the
perfect swim and snorkelling. A quiet breakfast on board, of rolls and Greek coffee, was followed by preparations for the long sail to the island of Kalimnos, the southernmost point of our trip.
The sail to Kalimnos took seven hours, in steady north-west winds, passing by the large and imposing island of Leros, with its fortress, windmills and villages. I was at the helm throughout: seven hours is probably the maximum that one can sail comfortably in a single day.
We moored at Vathis, a medium-sized yacht port on the eastern side of
Kalimnos, just in time for the evening festivities in honour of the
Feast of the Assumption of Santa Maria. The entire town had dressed up for the occasion, all generations were out of doors, preparing for the late evening meal on tressle tables by the port. Children flew balloons, a live - and very loud - band held sway over the festivities, and souflaki were served to all. It was truly a huge town party! I waited in a queue to use the public phone to call Canada, but couldn''t be heard owing to all the background noise and music. At midnight, four explosions of dynamite (officially illegal) replaced the traditional fireworks, giving us all the impression that a bomb had gone off! The joie de vivre lasted late into the night.
Kalimnos, like the other islands that we visited, is on the front line of the Greek sea border with Turkey. Given the history of Turkish occupation, as well as the more recent conflict and tensions between the two countries, one can sense the anti-Turkish sentiment in many of these islands. In addition, these waters designate the south-eastern border of Europe. Local residents told us how Kurdish, Iraqui, and Iranian asylum-seekers cross the waters on Turkish boats, or even Sea-Jets, and land on Kalimnos and other islands, where they are taken over by the Greek authorities.
The noisy night at Vathis made us crave quieter climes. The next day, we sailed half an hour north into a hidden, fjord-like bay, with steep cliffs rising dramatically from the deep water, leading us to Paleonissos, the unexpected high-spot of our trip. The bay was fragrant with the smell of thyme and oregano growing wild on the cliffs, the water grew very calm (although still remarkably deep); the only sounds to be heard were the wind, the goat-bells and the roosters crowing from halfway up the cliffs.
There was one jetty and a very primitive taverna by the beach.
Within minutes, Nicos, a former sponge diver, and self-appointed leader of this tiny, perfect kingdom, motored out to meet us. Kalimnos is reputed for its natural sponges and used to be the main source of livelihood for this island, until competition from Florida became a serious issue - exacerbated,
according to Nico, by the devastating effects of the Chernobyl rains on sponge life in the Aegean. Nicos had dived for sponges for 35 years, connected to life only by a head mask and an oxygen cord. Many of his colleagues had died; accidents continued to happen among the now reduced population of sponge divers. He now took it upon himself to welcome incoming yachts to his idyllic bay and to organize their moorings, all in exchange for a long conversation, accompanied by a glass of wine and a cigarette.
Later in the afternoon, Nicos hosted us in his tiny taverna, which consisted of a propane-gas fed stove, a refrigerator powered by a generator, and a bed under the trees. A couple of tables were planted by the beach, shaded by fir trees, overlooking the bay. We feasted on fried aubergines, squid, octopus and tiny fried fish, with succulent local figs for dessert.
Ouzo and white wine flowed in abundance. Then Nicos brought out his bazouki and sang us songs of the Aegean and of the island. The lunch lasted some four hours. We left, with local sponges from his treasure-trove, as gifts.
Those who could still muster a walk, rather than a siesta, explored the goat paths up to the village, which now houses five people, all from Nicos'' extended family. This included a visit to the family church, whose caretaker showed us a highly valuable and ancient icon, kept well hidden to avoid theft. A little further, an old woman was baking bread rolls in a traditional outdoor oven and shared the warm bread with us. No telephones, no electricity, no roads: this was a tiny kingdom, hidden among the bays and cliffs. One day, all this will change, as some developer claims this
haven for a hotel or a Club Med. But in the meantime, it was our privilege to have discovered a bit of paradise.
The next morning, after the most peaceful of nights, we reluctantly
hoisted the anchor and headed north to the small island of Lipsi, a sail of about five hours. Two sightings of dolphins along the way turned the trip into magic, especially when six of them came alongside the boat and playfully darted in and out of our path. Seeing dolphins while sailing is a good omen: a blessing from the seas.
We moored in the port of Lipsi, with its illuminated modern church
dominating the view. Lipsi is a fairly new port, obviously built with the recent infusion of European Union funds, reflected in the large number of EU flags flying next to those of Greece. The local beach was unremarkable, but the town became more appealing on finding a local fish taverna, with tables by the sea, in which to dine. We ordered ouzo and feasted on a huge fresh sea-bream.
The next day''s sail took us from Lipsi to the sacred island of Patmos, the highlight of our trip. The winds between Lipsi and Patmos were the strongest of the trip and we revelled in the speed (up to 9 knots) and the heeling of the boat. Spray flew over the deck and we crowded together as ballast on one side of the boat, as if we were racing. This was sailing at its best!
After about three hours, the island of Patmos appeared on the horizon. We felt a sense of awe - Patmos is the most revered and spiritual island of Greece. This island has been under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Church for centuries, defying even the Turkish occupation. Around 95 A.D., St. John the Divine (or John the Evangelist) was banished to Patmos by the Roman Emperor Domitian. Held for over two years in a cave (which one can still visit), St. John "heard the voice of God" which "instructed him to write a great book" - the New Testament Revelations or the Apocalypse. Many believe that St. John also wrote the fourth Gospel and the three Epistles of the New Testament. Over time, St. John became the teacher of the island which, in turn, became Christian. As a religious and spiritual centre, Patmos is among the quieter islands of Greece: the heart of the island is the monastery, and there are few nightclubs or bars that stay open late.
In Patmos, we moored in the large port of Skala and, despite our
fatigue, took a taxi to the hilltop "chora" (village) for dinner where we were rewarded by a spectacular view of the port and bay, and by an excellent meal in a rooftop garden taverna.
The next morning saw us return to the "chora", visiting the Monastery
Church (with icons dating back to the eleventh century) as well as its Museum, which features an El Greco painting of St. John and manuscripts going back to the sixth century. The monastery library is one of the best in Greece,with 900 codices, 2000 printed volumes and 13,000 manuscripts and papers.
The imposing Monastery, with its five chapels and Byzantine defensive
walls, dominates the entire village.
A young man, a candidate for the monkhood, gave us a guided tour of the main chapel in English. His genuine emotion and reverence for this historic site,so meaningful to Christians of all denominations, communicated itself to us.
We saw a display of relics, including the chains that had held St.
John captive. The monastery itself is closed to tourists, but we were able to visit the belfry and battlements that dominate the village hilltop.
We wandered through the village streets, constructed obliquely in order to confuse invading pirates. The atmosphere on Patmos is unique, reminiscent of the Holy Land. Remarkable natural beauty, majestic Orthodox-Byzantine architecture, and the mystery of the Revelations are embeded in the very stones. Over the centuries, religious figures including the Prophet Elias, have made this island their retreat.
On the other side of the hilltop village lies the Convent of the
Anunciation.. An 83-year old nun showed us the exquisite lace
Creations which she makes and sells for the convent in which she has spent 53 years of her life. She invited us back to Patmos at Easter, when the village puts on all its finery, pilgrims come from all over the world, and the festivities last a week.
The mystery of Patmos had enveloped us. We left Patmos with regret and set sail on the return path to Samos. En route, on the tiny island of Aspronisi, a hidden lagoon of Caribbean turquoise invited us to drop anchor and revel in the warm, shallow waters.
The next island was Agathonissi, and from there it was only three hours sail back to Samos. For one last night, we watched the incredible array of stars from the boat, and felt the waves rock us gently to sleep. As the wind rose, the skipper slept on deck, in case the anchor came adrift.
The next morning felt unreal. We packed, moored in the harbour, and
checked out the boat. The owner came on board to sail it, single-handed, back to Athens - a 25-hour non-stop journey. There, another fortunate crew would embark on the Paralos to discover the beauty and mystery of the Greek islands.
Although the next two nights were spent in a four-star hotel in Samos, directly overlooking the ancient Greek ruins, it was hard to adjust to life on land again. The sense of freedom that comes with sailing was gone. The ten-day trip had been an unforgettable experience - the sights, the tastes, the smells, a total regeneration of body and soul, in a mythical setting.
For those seeking a true get-away, sailing in Greece offers the ideal
vacation - a mixture of history, cultural exploration and adventure.
It''s no exaggeration when the Greek travel posters say: "The sea is Greece and
Greece is the sea".
Boats can be hired bareboat or with a skipper. No matter how well you
sail, a Greek skipper will be more familiar with local navigation and sailing
conditions. If you''re lucky, the skipper will also know about the
hidden inlets, bays and ports, offering spectacular views, excellent swimming
and snorkelling, as well as tasty local food and wine in tiny tavernas,
which you will never find in any guidebook.
Costs vary widely, but are normally in the range of US$100 - $160 per person per day on a four-cabin boat (accomodating up to eight people), including the
skipper fees. Insurance is extra. Food costs are moderate (US$10 - 20 per
day), especially if you cook on board or dine in local tavernas.
Direct flights to Greece are through Olympic Airlines or Delta.
Otherwise, connections can be made through major European
www.Olympic Yacht Charters.com