Spring was another case of wrong weather, if we thought last year was odd this year was not only odder but a truly painful plan spoiler. We launched and ran south to Vathi on Meganisi and sat in the marina for almost a week suffering a persistent thunderstorm. Okay, we like Vathi but not so much that we want to pay marina fees for days. It eventually cleared, of course it did, weather always changes and we were confident that summer had arrived.
So off we went to a Moody Owners Association meeting across in Nidri and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves with old friends and new for a three day mini festival that ended in Kalamos. But the weather wasn't being kind just yet. We skipped through Petalus for a couple of nights then crossed to another Vathi (on Ithaca) in a calm that had us motoring the whole way despite a forecast that promised a useable wind. Then in Vathi we suffered a few days of far too much wind with all that entailed for arriving and departing yachts: yachts crossing anchor rodes, all sideways and so on. Entertaining; but we were glad to be firmly tied to the quayside even though we had to pay (and got nothing for our money!). We planned to hire a car and look around Odysseus's kingdom but never had a day clear enough of bad weather to feel safe leaving the boat.
Okay, on to Poros which did give us a little bit of sailing but not for more than an hour. But Poros is great and we walked over the hill to the town a couple of times. There we met a waitress who was a qualified lawyer but earned more money as a waitress: something is wrong with Greece!
The plan was to sail to Zakinthos and then to Argostoli just to try and salvage something from a summer cruise that was nothing more than visiting places we'd been so many times before. And the forecast said: No Wind. After a while the idea of motoring for hours to each of those places turned us off and we turned around and headed to Sami which is another favourite place. Here we caught up with a fellow Moody couple and a friendly Scot and had a couple of pleasant evenings.
And then again, the weather turned bad. This time thunderstorms and rain for biggest part of another week. After that back to Nidri for a Chinese then finally a good sail to Varko, for a couple of nights, then Paleros, Vathi and home.
So: a pretty frustrating cruise in strange weather around places we'd been so many times before. We sat on the boat in the yard and decided that in the autumn we would do something different: we would sail for just a week around the Gulf of Amvrikikos, which would give us flat water and good afternoon winds, and then take a hire car around the ancient and not-so-ancient sites on the Peloponnese.
Amvrikikos is always worth a visit. Many people will sail around from Preveza to Bonitsa and spend a few happy days there exploring the town and the Venetian castle. We always anchor behind Koukouvista island and take the dinghy ashore then walk up to town. One great thing about this gulf is the predictability of the afternoon wind which blows from the west so after a couple of nights we headed east running before the afternoon wind to one of our favourite anchorages beneath Sparto (thus we discovered Greece has not only Sparta but also Sparti and Sparto!). It’s not a great place to swim because, like most of the gulf, the water is turbid green pea soup full of particles, but the view and the isolation is worth the trek.
We left early next day, not because we like leaving early, but because we knew the wind would turn on around noon and we had to travel west. All the way back towards Bonitsa. We wanted to visit what was for us a new venue: Koronisia. So we swung northwards at first with the intention of taking another look at Menidhion which we had visited all those years ago, but then realised time was against us and turned westward. We swung around the Vouvalos islands (also worth a visit and an overnight stay but watch out for the thousands of mosquitoes) and headed north to the town.
Koronisia has been on our list of places to visit ever since we heard they had dredged the entrance to make it possible for yachts to go there. Sailing Holidays had run shallow draught Jaguar flotillas into the town (and around the gulf) but no longer did so. We found the harbour has a new pontoon with electricity and water, which presumably the town had paid for, and found it festooned with seemingly local owner’s boats with nowhere for a visitor to tie up. Doesn’t this defeat the object of building the pontoon? So we had no option but to turn south and go back to Bonitsa: Koronisia’s loss was their gain I suppose, but we felt cheated.
After that it was back to a night off Preveza and then a haul-out next day and get ready for part two of our Autumn odyssey.
If all you want to read about is sailing then you should stop here. Last year (2017) we had discovered how much the Peloponnese has to offer in the way of history stretching all the way back to the bronze age: 3500 years ago. The age of Helen and Paris and Homer’s Trojan war story: the Iliad. This year we wanted to visit some of the sites we’d missed then. So we hired a car.
I should say that what follows is an amalgam of two years travelling around the peninsula. Last year I stayed pure to the brief and only wrote about sailing but since then we’ve talked to so many people who have expressed an interest in doing what we’ve done and taking a week off sailing to explore that it seems well worth the effort to describe here some of the things we found on offer.
I was seduced when I stood on Agamemnon’s palace in Mycenae and looked at the view he would have seen (well… ish).
There’s a book that was recommended to us and I’m passing it on: ‘Greece: Peloponnese. Andrew Bostok. ISBN-13 978 1 78477 011 2’.
Tolo / Navplio / Epidaurus / Mycenae
Mystras / Mani / Limoni
Gythion / Diros caves
Diakopto Railway (to Kalavryta) / Corinth canal / Ancient Corinth
Kalavryta / Cave of lakes
Navplio / Astros / Tiryns
Mystras / Monemvasia / Targetas mountain road
Pylos / Nestor’s palace / Ancient Messene
Today Navplio is a large cosmopolitan tourist city still dominated by Palamidi: the Venetian castle that seems to float above the town particularly at night. In 2017 we stayed in Tolo, which is definitely not worth a visit, then went to Navplio for a day and climbed the 999 steps from the road to the castle, not because we are masochists, but because we didn’t know we could have driven up the hill. Looking over the parapet down to the sea we found Aristotle Onassis’s old favourite yacht Christina anchored in the bay; she’s a converted WW2 Canadian frigate and featured in the seductions of Callas and the Kennedy sisters. Later we checked to see if we could charter the vessel for a week and found that if we sold everything, house car boat etc, we were still about $600k short. So instead we took a boat ride to the fort in the bay and a tourist train around the town then collapsed with exhaustion.
From Tolo we took a day trip in our car to Epidaurus where there is the most remarkable example of a Greek theatre. Epidaurus theatre, built in the 4th century B.C. is famous for its acoustics, it seats 14,000 people and every one of them can hear a whisper made from the stage. Tour guides love to demonstrate this by arranging their clients around the seats then saying something is a hushed voice so, of course, we had a go too: I sat on the top tier and Ann stood on the sweet spot in the centre of the stage and said something memorable which I’ve forgotten. But it worked.
On the way north from Navplio we veered east and visited Mycenae. At the time I knew very little about the Mycenaean civilisation but that changed rapidly. The idea that this was the palace complex of Agamemnon – the mythical king who was the brother-in-law of Helen from Sparta who became Helen of Troy – somehow captured my imagination. So did the fact that here was the remains of a palace from 1,500 B.C., until then I’d thought that only Egypt had such ancient monuments. If you, like me, are tickled by the idea of such deep history have a look at Bettany Hughes series of programmes called “Ancient Worlds” which you can view on youtube.com. Entry to the palace complex is through the Lion Gate at the end of walls made of blocks so large the ancients thought only cyclopeans would have been capable of moving them. The museum has a good display of pottery and linear B tablets (the third oldest written language).
In 2018 we came back and stayed in Navplio itself, just out of town along the beach road. We wanted to visit another palace that dates from the Mycenaean era: Tiryns. But this time we were disappointed, it’s very difficult to get any sense of this as a royal dwelling. It also sits on a flat plane (now much closer to the sea than when it was built) so lacks the grandeur of hilltop Mycenae. So, to get a better flavour, we visited the Archaeological museum back in Navplio where all of the finds from Tiryns are on display. Of special note is the suit of bronze armour and a helmet that would do justice to a Spartan hoplite together with fresco and intricate beadwork. The Mycenaean civilisation disappeared from history a thousand years or so before the Greek classical period began so I guess we’re lucky that the sites survived well enough for us to get a sense of that time.
In 2017 we went to Mystras so, in 2018, we went to Mystras again. Compared to Mycenae Mystras is modern (around 1250 A.D.) which I find a little ironic since it’s situated just down the road from Sparta. It comprises layer after layer of churches and monasteries built up the side of the Targetas mountain above the Eurotas plain and is capped with a Frankish castle. The whole lot was razed by the Russians in 1770 after which most of the holy places were restored. It’s a stiff climb but rewarding if you enjoy this historical period and many of the churches still have frescoed walls.
In 2017 we drove around the Mani from Mystras. It’s a long drive, taking most of the day, but worth it for the strange landscape and villages of towers, reminiscent of Tuscan towns from the renaissance. When we were there the landscape was burned, charred, cindered and we couldn’t decide if this was deliberate or an accident. Here and there was a burned bone but thankfully not a complete skeleton.
In contrast in 2018 I was seduced by Greek history and particularly the Spartans so we just went for a walk up the Targetas mountain where the Spartans used to leave their sickly babies to see if they were tough enough to survive. We didn’t find any. Just lots of cuddly millipedes. But next day we jumped in the car and drove up and over the top, through the tunnels and around the hairpins towards Kalamata to get a sense of where the Spartans would march into Messene looking to capture slaves [watch Bettany Hughes on Sparta]. The Mycenaean Sparta of Helen was a thousand years before the classical warrior Sparta of Thermopylae and the Peloponnese wars with Athens.
Monemvasia is another ‘must see’. It’s often described as Greece’s Rock of Gibraltar since it rises straight out of the sea. On the slopes is the town and on the plateau the remains of churches and a castle. The Byzantines, Ottomans and Venetians have all had dominion over this place throughout its history. Another site that takes its toll on visitors; unlike the real Gibraltar there’s no cable car to get you to the top.
Next in 2017 we moved to Gythion – translated as the Land of Gods – where the indefatigable Paris spent his first night with Helen of Sparta having just run off with her from her husband Menelaus. Thus, we are told by Homer, began the ten years of war with Troy. But for us Gythion was a base to go and visit the Diros caves which are well worth a visit if you like seeing your caves from a small boat.
But in 2018 we drove the Targetas mountain road in search of another palace. North of Pylos is the so-called palace of Nestor (yes another one of those kings who, with Menelaus and Agamemnon went after Helen. All this for a woman? Did king Menelaus really only have one?) We had heard that this is the best preserved of all the Mycenaean palaces which actually disappointed us, we expected better than Mycenae itself but all we got was the layout of the walls on another flat site. I think you have to go and perhaps our mistake was not stopping at the museum (up the road in the next town). Another mistake was following our satnav which took us through every tiny village street between Kalamata and the site. If you go just follow the coast road from Kalamata until you see the signs. Ok, time for an opinion: if you are in the area of either Nestor’s palace or Tiryns but can’t make time for Mycenae go and see them. On the other hand bust a gut to get to Mycenae in preference to the others.
To finish our 2017 tour we went to see the Corinth canal which we’d been trying to sail through for years (some unkind friend remarked that he’d never seen it from above!) and then ancient Corinth. Nero had tried digging a canal with a golden shovel apparently; maybe he’s still at it. The canal needed Nobel’s dynamite in order to blast through the rock across the isthmus. It opened in 1893.
Nearby Corinth is a really large site but since the Romans had razed it to the ground everything you see there now is Roman with the sole exception of Apollo’s temple. Still well worth a visit though. And, of course, we had to do the Diakopto rack railway which runs from the seaside town of Diakopto, just down the road, up the steep valley of Vouraikos to Kalavryta. And because the museum describing the atrocities in 1943 was closed on Monday we had to begin there in 2018.
The Nazis murdered 600 Greek partisans in Kalavryta and there is a hillside monument to their memory and a museum describing the barbaric act.
We finished 2018 by visiting Messene from Pylos. At the height of the Spartan rule of the Eurotas valley and the surrounding area Messene provided a ready source of helots (slaves) and food but later, with help from the Thebans they finally overthrew hundreds of years of Spartan domination. The ruined city today is huge spanning many kilometres and walking around on a hot day requires a ready water bottle – take one with you there was no shop when we were there. And the city as it is frozen in time must be many years later than the classical Greek period, in fact the Romans were here too. Worth a visit, if only to get the scale of a later Greek/Roman town in this area.
So that was it. After Pylos (a lovely little port with some great restaurants) we headed home picking up the motorway at Patras (Greek motorways are so good now – as far as they go) and back to Preveza to wrap up Aderyn Glas for the winter then off home.
Everything here is copyright (c) David Berry 2018
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