Chapter 18: Greece

Published online 23.10.2000. Photos will follow shortly!

Greece falls naturally into 3 separate sections: the Ionian islands, the mainland and the Aegean islands. Of the islands I feel that the Ionian are the loveliest cruising ground. They are green and pleasant, and the winds are often good for sailing, whereas in the Aegean the winds can be absolutely crazy. The meltemi starts to blow from the north without any warning (the barograph continues its straight line) and the abundance of islands causes confused seas. The wind can be stronger in the lee of the islands (in Crete it can blow 3 times harder on the south coast than on the north) and with the waves running round each end of the island and then being whipped by this accelerated wind, the sea becomes chaotic.

This does not mean that the many Aegean islands should not be visited. They are charming too, although in the late summer and autumn they are very brown and dry. Just be prepared to spend a day or two in harbor waiting for the Force 10 to subside and then to motor on the next day in flat calm. Itís not always like that, but it can be and should be taken into calculation in the planning. We actually felt that we benefited from the enforced reduction of our planned tour, as we had a chance to get to know the islands that we did visit.

Apart from this difference in the climate, the Ionian islands also have a completely different style of buildings. Some were never Turkish-occupied but all the islands have been Italian at some stage in their history. The buildings reflect more the Italian influence just across the Ionian sea. Elsewhere in Greece the Turkish influence is noticeable in food and architecture - not that the Greeks would like to consider themselves in any way influenced by the Turks, whom they consider their enemies. (The Turks do not seem to share this view).

Islands always seem more laid back than mainland areas, and on the Greek islands you can encounter some really gentle rural people. Time has stood still for many, the farms are often too small for investments into modern machinery and the traditional farming methods can still be observed. Donkeys still have their place in the work scene and can often be seen dozing in the midday heat, having finished a dayís work that started before dawn.

The main town of the Ionian islands is Kerkyra on Corfu. Founded in 734 BC the town is rich in history and there are plenty of historical buildings to visit. The marina at Gouvia just outside Kerkyra is in a state of permanent incompletion, but has nevertheless been in use for many years. There are plenty of attractive anchorages and public harbors in the Ionian islands, and many of the bays are deeply cut and offer good shelter, such as the Vlikho Bay on Lefkas. The wide variety of anchorages and fishing harbors make the area a pleasant cruising area. The islands are fertile and the climate is favorable and a trip into the hilly inland reveals rough grazing pastures for sheep and goats, and cornfields and olive groves.

The Ionian islands have been affected by earthquakes, the most notable in recent times having taken place in 1953. The town of Lefkas was badly damaged and now has a temporary atmosphere about it, but other towns have retained their attractiveness. The same earthquake put an end to the operation of the sea mills on Kefallinia, that ran by sea water surging along a rocky cut.

On entering the Gulf of Patras you go over the site where the sea battle of Lepanto was fought. You can go into the harbor of Navpaktos, a tiny walled harbor on the northern shore of the Gulf of Patras where the Turkish naval forces had gathered before the battle. This harbor gets crowded in summer but if you arrive from an anchorage during the morning when other boats are leaving you can get one of the few places. The town rises steeply behind the harbor and is crowned with a castle and town wall that afford a splendid view over the Gulf of Corinth.

Of course one of the big attractions of Greece are the archeological sites of ancient Greece. As with the Roman sites in Italy, wherever an area has remained well-populated, the ancient sites have been used as a quarry for subsequent buildings or have been carried off to the museums in the worldís capitals. As a result many of the sites are now only foundations. This is one of the big disappointments of a visit to a major site such as Delphi, which can be visited from Galaxhidi in the Gulf of Corinth. After paying a sizeable entrance fee, one stands in front of a series of foundations, each marked "here stood...". The rest is left to oneís imagination. Fortunately one building has been re-erected, it is the Treasury of the Athenians, and in the museum on the site there is an artistís impression of what Delphi looked like in antique times. It is still worth a visit, for the museum and simply for the mystic site up in the hills. Particularly on a hazy morning one can picture the notables coming to consult the oracle, pausing on the way and looking out over the olive trees in the plains below.

It is an impressive trip to go through the Corinth Canal. The sheer sides just permit a passenger liner through and its an awe-inspiring view to gaze up at the bridges high above. The fee is calculated according to the net tonnage of the boat. Many sailing boats have no net tonnage in their papers, and the fee is calculated by the canal authorities. It used to be difficult to ask in advance how much it would be. Since 1994 however yachts are put into the following categories:

LOA up to 10m = 10 net tons 14,691 Drachmas

LOA 10 - 15 m = 10 - 20 net tons 33,571 Drachmas

LOA over 15 m = 20 - 50 net tons 52,215 Drachmas

100 Gr. Dr. = approx. 0.50 US $ so boats up to 10m pay about 75 Dollars.

Payment is made at the eastern end.

The approach to Athens on a typical summer day might not meet your expectations. If you hope to see the sun shining on the Acropolis as you sail closer, then you must arrive just after a summer thunderstorm. Otherwise it will be shrouded in the smog that hangs over Athens. We were lucky, and visited the Parthenon in brilliant sunshine. It is being extensively restored with funds from the EU and here enough is still standing to be able to get an impression of its immensity.

If you are interested in remains from ancient Greece, be patient until you reach Turkey. Here are extensive sites from the Greek Empire that have not suffered such plundering.

Nevertheless Athens, like any capital, is a fascinating place, bursting at the seams and full of noisy traffic. Itís easy to get around by bus, which has a single price that has to be paid in exact money on entering as the driver can give no change. To stop the bus you almost have to throw yourself in front of it, so that the driver knows you want to get on. There is a lot to see, particularly the Archeological Museum and the changing of the guard. The royal guard or evzones are not only dressed in a very exotic uniform, completely unlike any of our traditional uniforms, but they also have a completely different way of marching. They can be seen at the grave of the unknown soldier or at the barracks.

And when you are hot, tired and thirsty from all the sightseeing you can retreat to the former royal gardens that are now a public park. They are a haven for cats that appear stealthily from behind every tree or lie curled up under the bushes. They are accepted there and you will even find signs asking visitors to be kind to them and not to feed them unsuitable food. The Greeks love cats and beautiful calendars of Greece are printed every year that have cats in the foreground of the sights. It is not typical for the Mediterranean people to be kind to animals. Is this a relic from the Greek contact with Egypt, where animals generally and cats in particular were revered?

Sailing around the Aegean islands you will soon realize that some are big tourist attractions and some are remote and very quiet, and you can alternate according to your mood. The islands live from tourism and agriculture. Sheep and goats abound, and so do donkeys, those patient animals that will stand for ages in the shade where they have been "parked", until itís time to leave. You will find them still very much a part of day to day life in rural areas particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The Aegean islands are always pictured on the tourist brochures with the windmills with their white sails. The best place to see these mills is in Crete in the summer. Crete is mountainous and on one high plateau, the Lasithi plateau, there are literally hundreds of the windmills that pump up the water for irrigation. Out of season when the windmills are not in use, the sails are packed away and the picturesque effect is gone.

Itís a nice trip along the northern shore of Crete. The harbors are spaced for day sailing and the little towns are pretty. At the eastern end is the shallow lagoon of Spinalonga with several anchorages and warm water for swimming or windsurfing. Crete has something to offer for everyone: walking in the mountains, wining and dining in the restaurants, souvenir-shopping (for instance, colorful embroidery), folklore and plenty of archeology. The "culture vultures" can visit Knossos for the day from Heraklion, where the unique remains of the palace of the Minoan culture have been partly restored by the archeologist Sir Arthur Evans. His restoration work has met with a lot of criticism and is controversial but it makes the palace easier to recognize as such. There is so much still unknown about the sudden collapse of the Minoan empire about 1375 BC and the various theories put forward leave plenty of room for speculation.

One theory proposed suggested that the terrific eruption of the volcanic island Santorini to the north had caused the abrupt end to the Minoan culture but subsequent dating has shown that this eruption took place some 100 years earlier and there is no evidence in Crete that the culture was blotted out by waves or volcanic ash. Whether the cause or not, the eruption must have been tremendous as it blew half of the island of Santorini away, leaving an enormous crater rim breached in several places by the sea, with the whitewashed town of Thera clinging to the cliff top. Unfortunately the crater is so deep that there is nowhere to anchor and as the northern part of the rim is the low part it is not sheltered from the meltemi. It is far more reassuring to leave the boat safe in the harbor of Heraklion and take the hydrofoil ferry across for the day.

Rhodes deserves separate mention. The island changed hands very frequently, not only in early history. Even in this century it was first Turkish and then Italian before it became part of Greece. Throughout its history it has been an important trading center and there are buildings and remains from many different periods. The town of Rhodes itself is mainly characterized by the Knights of St. John, who came to Rhodes from Cyprus in 1309. The town is surrounded by a medieval town wall. The Grand Masterís Palace was rebuilt by the Italians after the First World War according to the existing old engravings and is a splendid building now housing the museum. The old hospital built by the Knights still stands and is now used as the archeological museum. While the island was part of the Ottoman empire, mosques were built or churches converted to mosques, but they are no longer in use. The enmity between the neighbors Greece and Turkey has drawn a distinct cultural line despite the proximity of the islands to the Turkish mainland. The most remote Greek island is Kastellorizon, a small island about 100 miles from the nearest Greek island but only half a mile off the South Turkish shore. Due to its special situation it can be visited during a cruise in Turkey without going through the formalities of checking in and out.

The Peloponnese are more densely populated towards the protected waters to the north (Gulf of Patras and Gulf of Corinth). The three peninsulas in the south are rural, with rugged scenery. The central peninsula, Mani, is still very remote and the population is now decreasing as the young people are looking for work in more productive areas, leaving little villages occupied only by the old. A distinctive feature of the area are the square defensive towers in every village, a left-over from centuries of family feuds. Cape Taínaron at the southern tip was reputed as the entrance to the underworld, where Herakles descended and encountered Cerberus. Apart from visits to Olympia and Sparta, the Peloponnese is largely ignored by the tourists and is not as crowded as some of the main tourist attractions such as Naxos.

Wine is drunk widely in Greece, and the demand is met by local production. Both white and red wines are made and there are particular wines that are not found elsewhere. The retsina is a white wine with a strong resin flavor and in Samos a sweet Muscat is produced. Greece also has good beer. Brewing was introduced from Germany by King Otto I, who came from Bavaria. Ouzo is a well-known aniseed schnapps, which on Crete has the Turkish name raki. Greek cooking uses a lot of olive oil and garlic. The most common meat is lamb and vegetables include aubergine, courgettes, peppers, green beans, tomatoes and okra. Squid or octopus are frequently on the menu and hors-díoeuvres nearly always include sheepís cheese and vine-leaves stuffed with rice. It is common practice to be invited into the kitchen to select the main course, a custom which is of great advantage to the visitor who does not speak Greek! Coffee is made as in Turkey and should be sipped carefully to avoid drinking the grounds.

Coffee plays an important role in the Greek way of life. Little cafés can be found in every village and they serve as the meeting-house where local news is exchanged and political discussions lasting for hours involve all the guests. It is not even necessary to order a drink, many locals drop in just to chat. As a result, the waiter may not come to take your order until you wave him over. So do not feel ignored if you sit down and nothing happens. In the summer these cafés have tiny tables out of doors, frequently under the shade of a large tree. In his book "Bitter Lemons" about his years in Cyprus, Lawrence Durrell describes how he is warned by the local priest against the "tree of idleness", as whoever sits in the shade of the tree in the morning will still be there in the afternoon and not get any work done all day!

The Greeks are good at celebrating and take every opportunity to sing and dance. If you are lucky, you may find a bouzouki-player in a bar and a group of men who will dance together in a spontaneous celebration. Of course Greek dancing is put on for tourists, but it is always a particular pleasure to chance upon a celebration, where the local people are celebrating for themselves.

© Dianne Reichart 1997