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Monday, September 21, 2009

Wind, wind and more wind

The Greek Islands are notorious for the seasonal meltemi wind that starts in about May and reaches its peak in August – height of the sailing season.  Before we went to Greece we watched weather patterns, read other cruisers’ blogs and studied the guide books.  But whatever we did, there was no avoiding the fact that the meltemi is a persistent summer wind you can’t avoid.
We did discover that are some places that are less affected by the meltemi than others.  The sailing was vigorous at times and we certainly appreciated the inner forestay we had put on in Turkey. 
Some of the worst winds we had came in late July when we were due to pick up the Crawfords from Tinos.  We’d picked up Tina Hamilton there the week before and had a real bash upwind to get to the harbour.  As we successfully docked – after three attempts in gusty winds – a neighbouring yachtie came and took our lines.  “you look a bit windswept,” he said, obviously noticing our stand on end hair and salt encrusted faces.  “Yeap – 35 knots,” we replied.  He laughed and said we were lucky – they’d had 42 knots the day before.
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The day Diane, James, Harrison and Sophie Craford were due to arrive was another typical meltemi and it was just too hard to motor north so we ran off down to Mykonos.  Thank goodness for cellphones – we texted and they stayed on the ferry for another bouncy hour.  Diane was looking quite pale when they finally arrived!
We had a great week with them.  Diane and I have been friends since journalism school in 1977….although we knew each other before then from our Hamilton school days.  It’s a friendship that has survived living in different countries most of our lives.  Whenever we do meet up we always pick up exactly where we left off.   After a few days in Mykonos and Delos we headed down to Paros before dropping them in Naxos for the ferry back to Athens.
We then headed back to Paros to pick up Chick and Pete Anderson who were flying in from Athens, due mid afternoon.  Once again thank goodness for cellphones – they texted to say their plane had turned back with engine trouble and they were on the late ferry.  They eventually arrived at 11pm…..tired and hungry. 
We headed around to Naxos with them as it is one of our favourite islands and had a few days there before running with the meltemi behind us down to the Small Cyclades.  We’d been there the year before with German sailing friends Katrin and Frank who assured us it was always sheltered from the meltemi.  Once again they were right – it was so calm and peaceful down there.
Our time in the Small Cyclades was magical.  The islands of Schinoussa and Koufanissi are probably what the busy Cyclades islands of Santorini and Mykonos were like before the crowds arrived. 
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On Schinoussa we went ashore one day and stumbled across a Greek man crushing grapes by hand to make wine.  The island is very agricultural but cultivation is quite primitive.
 We also went to Amorgos which is another of our favourite islands, the highlight here being the amazing monastery build into the side of a rocky hillside.  Then it was back up to Naxos.
 We had a week before Del Bissell was flying into Paros so we headed to Sifnos which was a gorgeous island.  With its terraced hillsides it was quite different from the rest of the Cyclades.  We enjoyed exploring it by bus and staying in some lovely bays.              DSC_0739                                 DSC_0683

With Del we sailed from Paros to Amorgos and then onto Kos where daughter Rebecca flew in from London.  We then set off for Turkey where Del and Rebecca were doing a horse trek in the Cappadocia region.  It was wonderful having them on board and we had some very relaxing days.  End of the season again for us!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The magical mastic villages

We stumbled across the mastic villages on the Aegean Island of Chios quite by chance.  We’d never heard of them but they turned out to be a highlight of our 2009 season in the beautiful Greek Islands.  The name mastic comes from a tree that grows prolifically on Chios and the villagers have, for centuries, cultivated them.
Not far off the Turkish coast, Chios was a good spot to take a break after sailing from the northern Sporades in mid July down to Mykonos in the Cyclades where we were meeting friends. 
Leaving Skiros in the northern Sporades with a brisk meltemi, we had a wonderful sail to the tiny island of Psara where we anchored overnight.  Psara has a tragic history being one of the first islands to revolt against the neighbouring Turks.   But in June 1894 the Turks landed and massacred the entire population. 
Next day we headed to Chios and spent one night anchored in the south west bay of Salagona.  While there we went ashore and got talking to a local who told us we must visit the mastic villages.  He gave us a sketchy description of them which triggered our curiosity.  Getting there wasn’t easy though and he told us to head around to Emborios on the south east from where we could catch a bus.            DSC_0134             DSC_0110
There were buses – one a day!  We were determined and walked until we found a hotel which had car hire so we booked one for the next day.  That night an Australian yacht turned up in the anchorage and we got chatting and discovered they were also interested in touring so we teamed up – making the cheap Greek car hire even cheaper.
We headed off not really knowing what to expect and were pleasantly surprised.  The mastic villages of Mesta and Pyrgi were built inland to protect the inhabitants from pirate raids and allow safe cultivation of the precious mastic tree.  The mastic, which grows in incredibly inhospitable conditions, produces a resin which is used for medicinal purposes, confectionary, drinks and chewing gum. 
Residents in the mastic villages were spared during the Greek War of Independence (1821/22) when invading Turks murdered 25,000 islanders and enslaved a further 47,000. The Sultan of the time believed that the resin from the mastic tree was an aphrodisiac…ensuring its cultivation under Turkish occupation and the survival of the people who grew it.
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The villages are unique in Greece in that they are hand decorated with some amazing artwork.  This is done by etching the surface with ash then whitewashing it.  No two buildings are alike.
The first mastic village we visited was like a rabbit warren – a maze of winding streets built inside high walls with lookout turrets all designed to deter pirates.  The theory being that if pirates did find the village they would then get lost inside the walls.
The next was more open but built in a valley almost hidden from view.   We had a wonderful day exploring two of the three mastic villages at leisure.  They were surprisingly non touristy and the locals were incredibly friendly.  It was an absolute delight to visit them.
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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Northern Greece 2009

Mamma Mia was calling and so were the Sporade Islands.  It was in these beautiful northern Greek Islands that the movie was filmed.  We’d seen it one wet and miserable day in Colchester in the UK and decided we just had to visit. 
Northern Greece was a real surprise.  We only went as it seemed a sensible place to head after Gallipoli and then work our way south with the wind behind us.  We didn’t expect to fall in love with the uncrowded anchorages and remote islands quite so much and wished we’d had more time.  As it was we lingered far longer than the few weeks we had initially set aside.
Our first stop in northern Greece was Samothraki – a beautiful island with an intriguing history thanks to its pre Greek inhabitants, the Kabeiri.  They built an astonishing temple/city on the north coast and we biked there one hot day and enjoyed exploring the ruins.  One of the statues taken from this historic site was the Winged Victory of Samothrace which is now on show at the Louvre.
From Samothraki we headed to Thasos, another equally remote and non touristy island.  We particularly enjoyed the trip we took by ancient bus into a remote mountain village and had a delicious lunch of goat on a spit.  The beaches on Samothraki were wonderful- crushed marble – but it was still too cold to swim being only early May!  But we made up for the lack of swimming by biking miles each day and exploring.
The Halkidiki is a three pronged peninsula that just down from mainland Greece.  The easternmost prong is Akti, commonly known as Mt Athos – with no road access from the mainland it is essentially a water access men only “island”.  Home to dozens of monasteries precariously perched on seemingly inaccessible hillsides…it’s an astonishing place. 
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Women are not allowed anywhere near the island – until recently even female animals weren’t allowed (until they realised it was the female of the species that produces goods like eggs, milk etc!!!).   Boats with women on are meant to stay several miles offshore but we figured we weren’t going to get shot at!  Anchoring is impossible due to weather so we just sailed on by and headed for the much more welcoming Sinthonian Peninsula.
As we pulled in to the harbour we were met by a local who took our mooring lines and told us we could stay as long as we liked for free.  “We welcome visitors,” he said. And stay we did, enjoying this place immensely.
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From there it was a lovely downhill run to the Sporades – Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos, Peristeri, Pelagos and Skiros.  We absolutely loved the beautiful Sporades.
We spent most time on beautiful Alonnisos….a very non touristy island.  It was here that David’s first grandchild Harry was born arriving at a very sociable hour for us…..4pm Greek time.  We wet Harry’s head in fine style starting with ouzo, moving to beer and red wine and finishing with a bottle of bubbly.  Then we rowed back to Bandit across a busy harbour in the dark….hmmmm!  Responsible grandparents we think not.
The best thing about the Sporades is they miss the Meltemi – it doesn’t seem to get this far west.  Winds are generally light and temperatures warm.  Not many cruising boats get up this far so it is very uncrowded and there are some beautiful anchorages.   We reluctantly left in mid July as we had friends coming to the Cyclades.