Monthly Archives: September 2019

The Shape of Things to Come.

Where did July go?  No, more precisely, where did the summer go?? In the blink of an eye, I moved from frolicking in the waves of the Greek Aegean sea to snuggling in the coziness of a woolly sweater to keep the first autumn chill at bay. Whilst the winter months crawled along with the monotony of a snail’s pace, summer evaporated into thin air, as fleetingly evanescent as a puff of powder.  Poofff… gone.  Only the sweet fragrance of happy memories lingering…  And here we are at the onset of September, my suitcases again packed and ready for another 6-month stint of teaching English in Vietnam.

The secret?  I was busy, too busy!  All my plans for quick last-minute get-togethers with friends before my inevitable return to the Far East melted away under the heat of the summer sun and the excitement of plotting a new adventure for 2020.  One thing is certain: it will involve a boat with – thank goodness – a motor, not sails.  I still have to find my sea legs and learn port from starboard, let alone get to grips with hoisting sails, so we stick to the easier but rather more expensive and less environmentally friendly option.  Not quite a luxury yacht either, just a 30-footer with enough room to accommodate two people not tripping over each other.  I need my own space, I insist! A proper shower room and a modest kitchen with a few mod-cons and a ‘Cooking at Sea Cookery’ book courtesy of my son and his girlfriend.  Sleeping arrangements to be decided with convenience in mind.

The exact travel route remains momentarily rather vague and at the mercy of whimsical British politicians contemplating the fate of Brexit.  Another delay looms on the horizon…  Will we be free to roam the European canals and seas at our leisure or be restricted to the three months granted under a Schengen visa?  Or will we shun continental Europe altogether and explore canals and rivers closer to home?  Of course, I could be smug here and wave my second passport that keeps me within Europe, but I have vowed to stay true to my adopted British nationality and apply for a Shengen visa…  I might as well as my partner in crime has yet to delve into his family history to unearth this all important Irish or other European ancestor…  The pool of ‘pure’ Brits is shrinking by the day!!  Very soon we’ll all have dual nationality…

But we have acquired the vessel!! Tempted by life at sea, or on the water at least, on our brief stopover in La Rochelle a few months ago, a little seed was planted… Probably more in the imagination of my travel companion, who has a fair few sailing and cruising experiences under his belt – admittedly mainly as a passenger about thirty years ago-, but the mere mention of anything remotely resembling ‘adventure’ doesn’t take long to win me over. Six months traversing the waterways with the minimum of boating experience between the two of us sounds too much of a dare to resist. Reaching Base Camp Everest may prove to be the lesser challenge, after all hiking is my forte; yachting and power boating is virgin territory with a rule book and language alien to me.

However, with the optimism of the novice comes the impatience of the rookie. Cautionary tales would have urged us not to rush and to do a little research before jumping in without looking, but when we found a boat of the right size, in the right price bracket and with acceptable provenance it seemed fortune was smiling down on us. It was June, with a whole summer ahead of us to try out the waves, laze on the rivers and learn the ropes and knots of yachting… To speed things up, we decided to forego a survey and instead put money aside for inevitable repairs, and we were swayed to accept a further price reduction in lieu of a sea trial before purchase. Keen to sample a slice of the yachting life before my return to the Far East, the deed was done and money handed over. By end July, we were the proud owners of Pegasus… For now the name remains unchanged, until a more apt epithet tickles our fancy… A few have sprung to mind, none have yet made the cut…

We set a date for the boat to be transferred from the Essex marina – home turf of the previous owner – to a more suitable one in Southern England. As neither of us have any boating qualifications (yet!!), we engage Carol, the local marine engineer, to do the skippering. ‘Maybe just take the boat for a spin nearby first,’ she advises, as Pegasus has been a little landlocked the last few months and could do with stretching her wings before taking on more challenging sea trips. As August emerges, we drive up to inspect our purchase and take proper possession and plan to spend the next day giving the boat a trial run on the River Crouch and then, weather permitting, making the journey to Portsmouth…

Pegasus runs like clockwork, humming and purring to her heart’s content, until pssssss…. A disturbing fizzing noise fills the air and Carol’s ears. ‘Doesn’t sound too good,’ she shakes her head as she uncovers the engine to have a closer look… A water pump gave up the ghost and needs to be replaced before the boat is ready to traverse the seas. Not a major setback, but it means the boat will stay put in Essex for a little longer until repairs have been completed and the weather is again favourable. This time we leave it up to Carol to brave the journey on her own.

‘At least she hasn’t sunk yet!!’ Simon declares when the boat finally, four weeks late, arrives in her ‘home’ marina where she will stay until the start of our venture next spring. Of course, there will be plenty of short journeys to and from marinas on the south coast, and even jaunts to the Isle of Wight, as Simon will spend the winter months getting to grips with skippering essentials and qualifications. I, on the other hand, will do what I do best: teaching English in far flung countries, … as well as learning the ropes of knotting those knots I need to master for mooring the boat.. Just the vocabulary is worth a degree course in itself…

In the meantime, we have definitely been sold on the marina lifestyle: this permanent holiday feeling in the company of like-minded people. Meaning… the adventurous types, not the ones with deep pockets…

Roll on Spring 2020, wherever the wind and Brexit may blow us…

A day in the life of Greece.

24th June 2019

Our resort is located on Sithonia, the middle leg of the triple-pronged peninsula that comprises Halkidiki on the north-east coast of mainland Greece.  Far from overrun by tourists, it is still relatively unknown, a blissful haven of tranquillity, unspoilt beauty and peaceful beaches.  But to fully explore what the area has to offer, having access to wheels is essential.  Public transport is non-existent in Greece, taxi fares exorbitant and free-wheeling on a motorbike best left to those with sufficient experience to handle the roads, traffic and the machine… We opt for the safety of an off-road experience with Greek Adventures: leave the driving to the experts and the fun to us!!!  And in less than a day we cover it all: Greek myths and legends, a dash of more recent history, mountain and hill views and, of course, Greece wouldn’t be Greece without the allure of the endless azure sea and blue skies, pristine secluded beaches and a relentless influx of Europe’s summer yachting community.  Sithonia has it all.

First on our route is Nikiti, a picturesque village nestled among verdant, gentle rolling hills.  Nikiti dates back to a time when pirates raided seaside towns and locals sought refuge and safety inland.  Eventually lack of opportunity turned the place into a ghost town as the younger generation left for bigger cities to find better jobs and prosperity.  Falling in disrepair, Nikiti caught the eye and imagination of entrepreneurial visitors – mainly German and Austrian – who in the 1980s bought up the properties and restored them to former glory and grandeur, carefully preserving the typical Macedonian character: the white-washed walls and red-tiled roofs.  The result is a little gem, brimming with holiday-sun-seeking tourists in summer and quietening down in the cooler winter months.  Unfortunately, we are on a tight schedule to cover as much as possible of what Sithonia has to offer, so we barely get the chance to explore the small community.  We breeze through with a just a brief stop at the bell tower, housing giant ancient bells in the more recently restored tower, and a quick glimpse at the 19th  century Agios Nikitas church.  Making a mental note, ‘Next time!!’.

Onwards we venture, into the mountainous centre of Sithonia.  ‘It’s a less touristy area,’ our driver explains, as he skilfully guides his robust off-roader along the bumps and gullies of a dirt track.  We are heading for the crest of Mount Itamos, or Dragoudeli, to the 24-hour manned fire station overlooking the forested hills. 

At 811 m, it’s the highest point on Sithonia, an ideal spot for surveying the surrounding woodlands for fledgling smoke columns before they become fierce fires that spiral out of control. When the skies are clear, you can spy Mount Olympus to the West on the mainland and Mount Athos to the East. But even on a hazy day, the views are spectacular and very much worth the bouncy ride to the top.  And for those with energy to spare and in need of a break from the beach, there are plenty of hiking tracks here, although at the height of summer they will appeal more to the early birds. By the time we reach the top, the sun is already nearing its zenith, and in spite of the mistiness, it’s far beyond sensible hiking weather…

But this wouldn’t be Greece if there wasn’t at least a bit of myth and legend attached to Mount Itamos and it doesn’t take long for us to be caught up in the mysteries of days long gone.  We may not be atop Mount Olympus, which happens to be only around 150 km away, but it appears the Greek Gods definitely left their mark on Sithonia.  Even the very name ‘Sithonia’ heralds from mythology as it is derived from none other than the name of Poseidon’s son, Sithon. 

Halkidiki, often referred to as Chalkidiki in Greek lore, is rumoured to be the site of an epic battle, fought between the Olympian Gods and the Giants, sons of Gaia (Earth).  The fight didn’t end too well for the colossi, with one of the giants, Egelados, still very much alive but buried under rocks on neighbouring Kassandra, the most westerly of the three-fingered claw.  Every so often he tries to struggle free causing the area to shudder and rumble.  Clearly, Athena – the goddess responsible for throwing the rocks and burying Egelados – was not such a good shot.  Although most of the rocks ‘fell’ on Kassandra, some also landed on Mount Itamos in Sithonia, leaving a landscape dotted with enormous boulders at odds with the rest of the mountain. 

Of course, geologists have their own take on the events.  In their view, the geography of Halkidiki is the product of a volcanic embrace between the geotectonic units of the Vardar-Axios Zone and the Serbo-Macedonian Massif rather than a brutish skirmish between earthy and godly forces.  And as the word for earthquake in Greek is ‘egelados’, they may have a point.  The beautifully weathered and smoothed granite boulders have more likely been deposited on Sithonia as a result of earthquakes or volcanic action…  Just not such a gripping story.

After our short dip into ancient history, our journey continues down the mountain: a pastoral drive through olive groves and vineyards, past freshly shorn sheep sheltering under shady trees.

We skirt the edges of the peninsula, along enticing stretches of beach and rocky coastlines, unfolding a hikers’ paradise too fleeting to absorb through the windscreen of the fast-moving car. It’s impossible to take any decent photographs unless we come to a stop here and there…  I

We briefly pause at a small beachside boatyard, where locals have deserted their tools and vessels to take respite from the heat. Greek siesta in full swing and not a living soul in sight… Of course, these could just be abandoned ships as money has been tight in Greece since the economic bailout crisis and people struggle to make ends meet, let alone pay for costly repairs of their fishing boats. According to our guide, monthly wages have tumbled dramatically and now average around €300. Hardly enough to cover essentials.

Lunchtime beckons and our driver has just got the spot: a traditional Greek family restaurant at the harbour front of the busy fishing village of Porto Koufo. We are way too late to watch the fishermen unload and sell their haul, but right on time to enjoy their catch. And whilst the seafaring folk are hard at rest at home or napping in their boats, we settle down for a bite to eat. Not only is the fresh seafood we order absolutely finger-licking delicious, it is followed by an unexpected large and sumptuous dessert. ‘It’s customary for restaurants to add that little extra,’ our guide explains. ‘It’s a sure way of pleasing and retaining clientele…’ I love the idea of Greek of hospitality, who wouldn’t when faced with a dessert like ours…

Porto Koufo is not just about fresh fish and seafood. Tucked away in a cavernous cove, it is the deepest natural harbour in Greece, its entrance hidden from the Aegean Sea by the curves and curls of sheer rock faces. ‘Don’t venture too far in the water,’ our guide warns, ‘the bottom just drops away once you reach the darker shaded water…’ And to be honest, that part is a mere couple of metres from the narrow strip of beach.

Of course such a ‘secret’ location does not remain secret for ever and the cove and lake were first mentioned by the great Greek historian, Thucydides, in works dating back to almost 500BC. Only a bird’s eye view of the region shows how the entrance to the cove is invisible from the sea, something that caught the eye of the Germans during WWII. They used the cove to station submarines: the lake’s large depth made the u-boats undetectable from the air whilst, at the same time, they could be deployed at sea at short notice.

Today, there is not much evidence of war-mongering in Port Koufo and by lunchtime, many fishing boats have disappeared. With mooring spaces along the harbour vacated during the daytime, yachts and pleasure boats quickly fill the void; time to give sea legs a break and top up on-board supplies. Others save money by dropping anchor just a short distance from shore and make their way to the quayside with small rowing boats or motorised dinghies. Life in the marina is an eclectic mix of luxurious yachting and more budget-conscious sailing fanatics with just one thing in common: a love of life at sea… I think I could do that too… Now there’s a challenge!!!

Great to finally see a bit of real Greek life, just not enough to satisfy my hunger for experiencing different cultures and different ways of life. The trip only whetted my appetite for more… Maybe next year, who knows.