We touched the Halkidiki on Sithonia, the middle ‘finger’ of the three peninsulas that make up Halkidiki. The entrance to Porto Koufo was difficult to determine, but once in, opened out into a large natural harbour. We found it tricky to anchor as there were boats established already and only the deeper areas were left. Ashore we found a curious memorial to a Chinook helicopter that had crashed nearby in September 2004. A stone plinth echoing the shape of the tail plane had the names of the crew, their photographs and a dedication with English translation. There was quite an impressive list of passengers including a Patriarch of the Orthodox Church. We thought it bore a creepy similarity to the Mull of Kintyre Chinook crash in 1994. Behind the memorial there is a scrap helicopter that bears no obvious relation to anything!
Here in Porto Koufo we also stumbled upon ‘El Capitain’ supermarket. Guarded at the door, wearing a dusty singlet and shorts was El Capitain himself, a tall man with twinkly blue eyes and good English. He proudly showed us his “Friends’ Book”. Dating back over the years there were comments and sketches from previous appreciative ‘friends’ who had visited his restaurant or his ‘supermarket’. His ‘supermarket’ took our breath and our words away, I could only look around in amazement at the apparently disorganised, dusty and diverse layout; old tin cooking utensils vied with hard back books which looked like they’d come from the equivalent of the Folio Society, ancient, bashed packets of condoms stacked side by side with yellowing boxes of cotton reels and a token selection of tins were scattered amongst the paper towels and fertilizer, wicks and wine.
On the east side of Sithonia are the Dhiaporos Islands. This is the prettiest of places, an enclosed shallow sea, clear blues and turquoises, bordered by sandy tree lined beaches. The island has some buildings apart from the in your face, look at my elaborate house, my stone paved walls and drive and hey, I’ve got my own chapel/shrine so I’ll be alright lawyer from Thessaloniki who, apparently, had done some ‘dirty business’ to get this past the planners. For the most part houses blended in and the landscape thank goodness retained the upper hand. There were HUGE fish circling under Selkie Dancer which gave me a big fright as I was looking for our anchor of which I found no trace. Only when we raised it and it came up complete with its own little mud caked island did I understand why.
We moved on to Pirkadhikia where, to Andy’s surprise and delight, he recognised another Oyster 406. This turned out to be Rapaz and after seeing all her Turkish additions and improvements, generously shown to us by Alan and Sally, we have serious Oyster envy. Her bimini was wide and generous making the cockpit seem much larger and the swim ladder included a platform and treads on the rungs. We now intend to winter Selkie Dancer in Turkey and take advantage of their workmanship – we have the photographs!
After a few more days exploring we had another dawn departure and a good 45 minutes of sailing down the coast of Akti Peninsula. Sadly the rest of the day was a motor although there were a few excitements en route to keep us awake! This is the holiest of Greek places, a semi autonomous monastic republic with Mount Athos impressive and dominating its southern tip. So holy that it was always accompanied by a little halo of white cloud. Wherever we have been since we can find Mt Athos by its halo! Motoring down, looking into sun was not the best and it seemed quite bland until, as day came on and the light altered we got the monastery bug, a little different from the ‘pub legs’ game played with children on long boring journeys. We began to pick them out, at first one by one and then into the hundreds or so it seemed; monasteries and hermits’ places revealed themselves and it got really interesting. Hermits and holy people have always sought high inaccessible places; I suppose to prove their dedication, to be alone, to contemplate and to be nearer to God. But as Andy said it posed more questions than answers. How did people travel from one to another or get there in the first place? How do they get their supplies? We did see solar panels and cultivated pieces of land. Some we could see had roads, identified by the clouds of dust kicked up by the occasional vehicle; others only had mule tracks and NO WOMEN ARE ALLOWED! The story goes that The Virgin Mary visited here and blessed it; it is considered her garden and is dedicated to her so, as no other woman can better her, they are not allowed. We had to be sure to keep a mile off the coast. The Lonely Planet says “Today, women are still banned, hens are tolerated for their eggs, beards are no longer mandatory, and eunuchs are not readily available”. Brussels has bristled at this but got nowhere trying to change the ways of the last thousand years. I can imagine how peaceful a visit and retreat with the monks might be amongst nature most green, craggy and beautiful.
Around the bottom of the peninsula our monastery spotting was interrupted by a sighting of what we think were Risso’s Dolphins, three of them lazily rolling near the surface. Then we had a pod of common dolphins and later an exciting encounter with 3 Minke whales, I think on reflection they were Rorquals. On we went on our long journey eying the clouds ahead and sure enough a squall associated with a nearby thunderstorm hit us. We dropped anchor off Limenaria in Thasos.
We are in Kavalla, a working living town, unmanned cars triple parked by the pedestrian crossing, palms and pines, a bit rough at the edges, a bit tatty but comfortable with itself and the people reflect all of this. It has a different feel, Turkish and Arabic sounds in the music, the corn sellers are back, there is a magnificent aqueduct towering above the signpost declaring Κωνσταντινούπολη. We are close to Turkey here. Hotel Imaret dominates the harbour with its eight lead capped domes. Originally this was a project of Mohammed Ali a man with a fascinating history. He was born here, an Albanian and rose by crafty works and marriage into the governor of the town’s family to become Pasha of Egypt. I have seen a photograph of him and he looks a delightful, intelligent old rogue. We visited his home which has been beautifully preserved and you can read a comment by a Turkish visitor at the end of this piece. We sat in the garden where his mother is buried and drank delicious cool white wine under the pine trees in an arbour overlooking the sea. The Imaret was built as a place of education, now it is intriguing to peep through the doors and windows into a haven of calm and luxury of the hotel it has become. He was enlightened but also nepotistic and expansionist when he could get away with it. I digress, if you want to learn more refer to John Julius Norwich ‘The Middle Sea’ where he tells how having married a Kavalla lady who bore him five children that, ‘an assortment of other ladies bore him the other ninety’!!
This was also a place, like Thessaloniki, where Greeks from Anatolia came in the exchange of populations in 1923. You can see this mixed heritage reflected in the faces and bodies of the population - blondes and blue eyes. One evening we stumbled, as one does, upon an ‘event’. High up in the narrow streets of the old Panagia area of the port we were constantly pressing our bodies close to the walls to make way for taxis moving up the hill, people were labouring up the narrow streets towards the Kastro and we moved with them and found ourselves in an open air theatre crowded with people and a buzz of expectation. A ladder claimed centre stage while someone fiddled with lights and projectors. Soon a lady replaced the ladder and gabbled into the microphone, the audience for the most part did not lose breath and continued their conversations then two young boys kicked off proceedings with a break dance and the programme commenced, mostly girls! Little girls in tutus, in pink, with wings, on points, the inevitable one departing the stage in the opposite direction to her companions or getting lost mid dance while gulls wheeled overhead busy with their own dance, wings uplit by stage lights.
Sitting in the Square
In the square shaded by tall trees sit the old people, men for the most part, they sit for ages in the shade and chat the day away. People come and go – two very young lads are handing out Jehovah Witness leaflets and get a lot of abuse from a very small, woman in traditional black, beak nose, no teeth and sharp chin underneath her sun hat, a typical witch profile. I asked the lads what she was objecting to and they said she wanted things to remain as in her parents’ time. At a table nearby a group are talking loudly having a happy argument although to listen you would think they were really falling out. But they can do this AND talk to someone on their mobile simultaneously. Little boys on bikes chase pigeons; it is the school holidays, out for the long hot summer. A small round orthodox priest bearded, gum chewing and with his black robes pinned back to ease his walking, moves greeting people as he goes. It is a place of constant movement here in the square.
In the evening walking up the ‘shopping street’ we stumble upon another ‘event’. The rich tones of Greek orthodox chanting are coming out of the main church. Outside, flanking the entrance and on either side of a red carpet and up the steps are represented the army, the navy; air force, scouts and traditional societies. The costumes of the women are richly printed scarves, long over dresses with either an under dress or loose trousers and a thick shawl that ties around the waist. The inside of the church, richly decorated as ever with wall paintings, icons, shining brass chandeliers is full but still has a capacity for more as people file past the image of St Paul, the town’s protector, with their candles and prayers. All I’m aware of now is the immense heat, crush of bodies the smell of incense and the constant flapping of fans. Most of the congregation are ladies although I think I would rather call it an audience, it has that theatrical feel. They are well dressed ladies of a certain age, busy looking down to see who is there and what they are wearing. A woman asks if I am ‘ξένος’ foreigner and is proud to share her countries traditions. The navy nurse looks like she’s come straight out of South Pacific (white hat perched at a jaunty angle on a froth of blonde curls). An IMPORTANT man comes down the aisle slowly so all can see him, beaming from side to side as he goes. He walks over to the Patriarch (I’m imagining that’s him, with the long grey beard and the biggest black hat) and shakes his hand and on he goes down the line of lesser priests until he takes his place at the front. There is coming and going from the hidden places behind the altar and two priests come out dipping and swinging their censers in a dance first toward the altar then the phalanx of priests, to the altar again and now up the aisle distributing their smoky perfumed blessing into the congregation who cross themselves madly as they pass. On either side black clad men intone their chant into microphones, it’s getting oppressive so we leave and join the crowd who are waiting to see the parade and we wait and there’s the usual false start, the jockeying for position, the band strike up a few notes, drowning out the singing only to fall silent - is it all going to begin? No the singing rises up once again. Cars swing by bearing more IMPORTANT people who seem to have come too late for the service but in time to be seen in the parade. There is a lot of shaking hands with the police, I wonder if they are politicians. I have just read that priests are paid by the state – no wonder so many have turned out for the service! When they finally process I am awed by the numbers and by the glittering richness of gold and jewels that shine out from their mitres.
The island just south of Kavalla is Thasos. In ancient times it was rich in gold and marble, now there are offshore oil rigs so it continues with a rich tradition of natural resources. Thick green forests cover most of the land. The island was colonized by the Parians (themselves famous for their marble) and was once ruled by Egypt. The main town, Limenas, is an amazing snapshot of layers of history. We just had to go and see the lewd figure of Silenus, carved by one of the old gates to the city (early 5th century BC). There are many of these gates and sections of wall left. Silenus is a Dionysian figure, a mischief maker, a merry maker, a clown and a jester all rolled into one and in this carving he is portrayed naked bar his boots, long hair tied back in a pony tail, a flagon of wine in his hand and a rather obvious erection, he’s off for a night on the town and determined to indulge in all the pleasures of the flesh. It does look however as if, over the years and as sensitivities change that it has been chipped off and reinstated – ouch! There are theatres and odeons, market places and sanctuaries, basilicas and churches a plenty – we will explore more in August.
Mary arrived and after a first evening in Kavalla we set off and did a circumnavigation of Thasos. We got stuck in the south east corner at Alyki for four days with a strong Meltemi blowing through. It was a pretty lovely place to be stuck – it had tavernas, a mini market and was the sight of yet more Sancturies, ancient dewellings basilicas and most impressively the ancient marble quarries. The end of the island has almost been chipped and quarried away it is very shallow, bounded only by slightly higher marble rim at the edge. So it looks like a glorious, luxurious mint green bath you can see how they drilled and split the marble and loaded it onto ships and barges. They left the base of a column or two behind. McGilgrist says, ‘Seneca mockingly observes the fashion for using Thasian marble to line swimming-pools and baths in houses around Rome, it is the stone from here to which he is referring - Lucky Romans I say!
After the first day we weren’t all able to get ashore together as we wanted someone to remain on the boat, but with our new electric outboard, Mary and I were able to get ashore. On Sunday (day 4) we had a brainwave, we would get a takeaway. So off to the taverna we went and came back triumphant bearing Moussaka and Pork Chops, salads and bread washed down by the house retsina - it was delicious.
We popped out of Alyki on day five and flew fast down wind and around the corner to Limenaria where we dropped anchor for lunch and swim then another lovely sail, past the oil rigs to Ormos Elevtherion and the town of Nea Peramos. We had been here the week before as it is here that we are going to take the boat out of the water for the month we are at home.
We have christened our chosen anchorage POLITICIAN’S WIFE’S HOUSE BAY. We had noted this lovely house sitting in lush green gardens – walled kitchen gardens to the side and decorative shady hedges over steps down to the sand. Hanging vines or wisteria dropping over dark cool verandas and as night came we watched as lights went on and off – a lamp with a red shade spreading a romantic glow came on momentarily, figures moved languidly on the terrace.
The next day Mary and I braved the Barrel Jellyfish – here they were white and ghostly – pellucid. On one morning they were like a squadron in echelon, purposefully moving over to the shallower water, on some unknown mission but – what do jelly fish eat? They are beautiful with large slowly pulsing domed heads , skinny little tendrils of legs escaping from lacy knickerbockers. Later we were to see the same but blue, sometimes a rich cobalt or navy. Also very striking but not very stinging we were assured.
Back to THE POLITICIAN’S WIFE’S HOUSE where we got into conversation with the wife, the sister in law and the mother, they were wearing strange blue plastic paddles on their hands which turned out to be a way of curing bingo/bat wings if you exercise in the sea with them. They were very friendly – we have been asked to come up to the house next time! She told me THE POLITICIAN visits Edinburgh a great deal – that set us going – what for? To discuss with Alec Salmond independence issues, the offshore oil business, cultural links? We left with a gift of biscuits, fresh out of the oven and smelling of orange, to have with our coffee.
We said what a lovely house she had and she said sadly that they lived in Athens and only rarely got here. There were retainers taking care of their garden. Rather like us I thought with Bob and Maeve, our kind neighbours at home, trying to make some order in our garden.
Now it is time to return to see children, grand children and the garden - but first read this inscription at the base of a monument in Kavalla and note the date. .
“Now that the wars are ending I wish you all to be happy with peace. From now on let all mortals live as one people in harmony for the sake of common progress. Consider the world as your own country with the laws being common and where the best will rule, irrelevantly of their race or origin. I do not divide people into Greeks and barbarians like some short minded men do. I am not concerned with the origin of the citizens, not with their race. I judge them only with one criterion, that is virtue. For me every good foreigner is a Greek and every bad Greek is worse than a barbarian. If ever differences arise, you must not resort to arms, instead you should try to solve them peacefully. In the case of need I myself will stand as a mediator. You should not consider God as a domineering Ruler, but as a Common Father of all, so that your conduct may resemble that of brothers in a family. On my behalf I consider you all, whites and blacks, as equal and I would not wish for you to be mere citizens of my commonwealth but also participants and partners. As far as it is within my power, I will do my best so that all I promise becomes true. Keep the oath we so eagerly took tonight, as a Contract of Love”
Alexander the Great’s oath, taken at the Symposium of all Commonwealth Nations at Opida City in 324BC
And here is an entry from the visitor’s book on the day of our visit at the house of Mohammed Ali
Signed, xxxx from Turkey
Some more 2013 Photos
Selkie Dancer off Dhiaporos
Two of a kind - Selkie Dancer meets Rapaz
Mohammed Ali’s House in Kavalla
Church Parade underway at last
Leaving an energy platform astern
Alyki before the Meltemi
Alyki during the Meltemi !
Jinti spots an unwelcome visitor
A Barrel Jellyfish - pretty with only a very small sting - or so we are told!
Seen in the Harem