1 : a long wandering or voyage usually marked by many changes of fortune
2 : an intellectual or spiritual wandering or quest
Last winter, as Rhett and I were poring over Grecian charts and pilot books planning our cruising for the summer, we thought of the Ionian Islands (those west of the Greek mainland and in the Ionian Sea) merely as stepping stones to our dream destination: the “real” Greek islands of the Aegean. However, early in our Ionian sailing, on a still and sultry night moored in a marina next to a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, a 20-something English mariner and dreamer stopped to admire Hazel James. Although not an ancient mariner, he was a mariner. Sailors worth their salt can tell a long-haul ocean cruiser from a Mediterranean island-hopper in an instant. It’s half the design of the boat, and half how she’s rigged and the equipment she carries on deck (or lack thereof). Although young, he clearly had some sea miles and quickly asked if “we crossed” in her (crossed the Atlantic). When I said I did so last year, his English-accented reply: “Brilliant!” He was working on a crewed charter boat in the Ionian (as opposed to a un-crewed “bare boat”). As he told us about some of his favorite anchorages, islands, and villages in the Ionian, Rhett and I jotted furiously in our notebooks as there’s nothing like local intelligence from a like-mind. When he finished his enumeration and asked of our plans, we replied that our goal was to get to the Corinth Canal quickly and into the Aegean, his reply and counsel: “Don’t rush the Ionian.”
Frankly, when he offered his thoughts on that night, we listened but took his recommendation with a grain of salt as we thought he was (understandably) showing pride for his adopted cruising grounds. However, now that we’re into the Aegean and reflecting on our stern wake and our odyssey through the Ionian, we realize the wisdom of his advice.
Historical and Mythical Context
As form follows function, much of history follows geography. Zooming out the aperture for one moment, the strategic location of the Ionian Greek islands becomes clear.
The Ionian derives its name from the goddess Io. Io was a priestess of Zeus’s wife Hera and for a for a short time a mistress to Zeus. Inevitably there was conflict when Hera discovered Zeus was deceiving her and, fearing what Hera in her wrath might do, he changed Io into a white cow. Not to be outdone, Hera sent a gadfly [horsefly] to torment the unfortunate Io, who plunged into the sea to rid herself of the stinging pest—hence the Ionian Sea.Rod and Lucinda Heikell, Greek Waters Pilot
Located at the gateway to the Adriatic Sea (to the north), control of the Heptanese was key to controlling trade in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thus, since the 1400s, the Heptanese have been under the control of the Normans, Genoese, Italy (the Republic of Venice), French, and English, before joining Greece in 1864. Given that background, the Ionian Islands have much of an Italianate feel and architecture, as compared to Mainland and Eastern Greece.
The Ionian doesn’t look like sun-baked rock and whitewashed houses of Greek travel brochures, they focus on the Aegean for their pictures. While still mountainous, the Heptanese are much more green, lush, and wooded—set against a dramatic backdrop of the barren mountains of Albania and Mainland Greece.
After our nine-day passage from Gaeta, Italy and a quiet night at anchor on the north end of Corfu, we entered Benitses Marina, about midway down the sickle-shaped island of Corfu. It was a pleasant little marina with a family atmosphere and the nicest staff who would do anything for you.
Also—and critical for someone whose been at sea for a week plus—the town of Benitses was lined with tavernas. I suppose you could be crass and just say “restaurant,” but that would lose the essence. There’s something unique about the ambiance of the ubiquitous Greek taverna: the umbrellas, the shady trees, the stringed lights, the cats rubbing against your legs (Sunny’s favorite part), the waitstaff so interested in where you’re from and how you got here, and—regardless of whether you are there for a coffee or a full meal—the food, the food, the food.
Rhett’s best friend, the “Rhett and Dan Whisperer” Maria is full-blooded Italian. She’s got something like 50 first-cousins and was amazed when she brought Rhett to a family holiday years ago and the family accepted her. (Hey, who needs friends when you have 50 cousins?) Long story short, although of German descent, Rhett classifies herself as “adopted Italian.” So one night in Benitses while capping off a meal with baklava, I offhandedly said that I preferred the Greek food to the Italian food. Rhett looked at me like I had taken the Lord’s name in vain and was going straight to hell. After much discussion, we finally agreed that it’s not a competition and there’s no right answer. The Greek food is so simple and there’s very little variety in the menu from one taverna to the other. However, it’s the flavors and the spices that make the simplicity so special.
Also in Benitses, Rhett celebrated a birthday!
Albania (it is a country you know)
In all honesty, if you would have told me something about Albania a year ago I would have given you a vague nod and scratched my chin with my thumb and forefinger to make it look like I understood you. Meanwhile, I would have been thinking, Is it a country? A region of several countries? A state within a country? If you would have then called my bluff and pulled out an unlabeled globe and asked me to point to Albania, I’d be lost. However, for us not only was the major port city of Sarande, Albania an easy 15 mile sail from Corfu, Albania is also outside the European Union and visiting there, and stamping out and back into the EU, would give us a chance to reset some immigration and customs particulars.
We went in to the country with very few expectations and came away with a high regard. The communist dictator Enver Hoxha (pronounced ho-JA) ruled the country with an iron fist from World War II until his death in 1985. It’s a complicated history…
Under Hoxha’s 41-year rule, Albania became a one-party communist state. His government rebuilt the country, which was left in ruins after World War II, building Albania’s first railway line, raising the adult literacy rate from 5–15% to more than 90%, wiping out epidemics, electrifying the country and leading Albania towards agricultural independence. To implement his radical program Hoxha used brutal tactics. His government outlawed travelling abroad and private proprietorship. He implemented state atheism and closed or converted to secular uses all of Albania’s religious facilities. His government imprisoned, executed, or exiled thousands of landowners, rural clan leaders, Muslim and Christian clerics, peasants who resisted collectivization, and disloyal party officials.Wikipedia
…yes, increasing literacy rates from 10 to 90%, but at what cost?
In addition Hoxha was paranoid of a capitalist invasion and oversaw the building of innumerable bunkers across the landscape as defense. There are communist-era stories of all able-bodied adults having compulsory military service (a month a year), and spending that time sitting in a bunker with a rifle.
The highlight of our Albanian visit was a day excursion with our hired guide Demir. In addition to being a guide, he was a teacher and took such pride in his country. We booked Demir through an Albanian agent we used to help us with entry formalities into the country. Although our agent Agim was excellent and assured us that Demir was the best, as we prepared for the day, we had no idea what to expect. However, when Demir pulled up in his black Mercedes and we poured ourselves into its plush leather seats and reveled in the air conditioning, we knew it was going to be a great day (and that communism had truly fallen). Demir first took us to a castle overlooking the city of Sarande to get our bearings and squint and try to see our girl Hazel.
As we looked across the strait to Corfu, I asked Demir about defections during the communist era. To me, it didn’t look that far to Corfu. Swimmable by a strong swimmer so motivated, easy in a small boat. While Demir was a young boy when communism fell, he knew lots of stories from his elders. He said that not only did the strait bristle with searchlights and boats guarding against defection, it was made clear by the government that if you did defect, your entire family remaining in Albania would be immediately and severely punished for your actions.
Demir, then took us to the Blue Eye, a spring that literally springs from the ground at a rate of 4,800 gallons per second (a typical home swimming pool is 10,000-20,000 gallons).
After lunch at a friend’s restaurant, Demir took us to the ruins of the city of Butrint. According to classical mythology, the city was founded by exiles from Troy after Troy fell at the end of the Trojan War (as chronicled in Homer’s Iliad). The ruins were amazing and the lack of crowds (as compared with Pompeii for instance) gave the site an unmistakeable reverence.
Deeper into the Ionian
From Albania, we made an overnight sail southward to the town of Preveza, Greece and re-entered the EU. In addition to the amazing marina at Preveza (whose bathrooms and showers rivaled a hotel’s) our tour of Nikopolis and its museum was the highlight. Julius Caesar was assassinated by Roman senators in 44 BC for fear that he was becoming too powerful, too imperious and threatening the Roman republic (as memorialized in Shakespeare’s classic tragedy). However, instead of a return to stability after the assassination, the republic was plunged into a decade of intermittent civil war. Finally, in 31 BC Octavian’s naval forces met Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s in the waters off Preveza. After Octavian routed Mark Antony and Cleopatra, he founded the city of Nikopolis to commentate his victory. Ironically, although Julius Caesar’s assassination was meant to preclude the Roman republic becoming an empire (ruled by one emperor), after Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat, Octavian (a.k.a., Caesar Augustus) founded the Roman Empire and reigned as it’s first emperor.
It’s (Still Mostly) Greek to Me
Although French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, etc. can be a challenge for us monolingual English speakers, at least we’re all using the same 26 letter alphabet. However Greek is a whole different story. Most mornings I’ve been trying to spend 10 minutes or so learning my 24 Greek letters and pronunciations of each. While I’ve gotten pretty good with the capital letters, the small letters give me fits—especially when, in real-life scenarios, they are in different fonts. Why do this, you ask? Well, for starters, our word “Alphabet” comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet: Alpha and Beta—that’s reason enough for me.
While trying to sound out a Greek word in Greek script is a bit of a fool’s errand (since you just end up with a rough pronunciation of a foreign word that you do not know), I find that when walking town docks and marinas, it’s fun to try to sound out boat names. It’s a thrill when I figure one out…
The Sailing in the Ionian
In advance of entering Greek waters we had heard that the sailing in the Ionian was quite mild whereas it blows hard in the Aegean (especially in July and August). These forewarnings have borne themselves out for us. In the Ionian, we found ourselves having to motor more than we’d like (which for me is motoring at all). However, as I write this post about the Ionian while in the Aegean, I’m hunkered in Hazel’s saloon while she rides to anchor in a protected anchorages with the winds gusting to 25 knots.
Here are some good videos of the sailing and mooring in the Ionian…
Brotherhood of Creepy Loners
By this point in our Ionian voyaging Rhett had departed for the US and it was just Sunny and me aboard Hazel.
While anchored off the tiny and uninhabited island of Formíkoula, I finally met someone who didn’t think I was a creepy loner. That was the good news. The not so good news is that he himself was a creepy loner. The “he” being my now good friend Antonio aboard Creuza de mä (Genoese local dialect for “Path to the sea”).
While the entire subject of this post is journeys and destinations, here’s that broader theme condensed into a morning.
On what would be my last morning at Formíkoula, Sunny and I went for a sunrise circumnavigation of the tiny island in Lil’ Dinghy (about 20 minutes of earnest rowing, we took an hour or so poking into little bays and caves). As we rowed along, I noticed that the wind was uncharacteristically brisk for early morning in the Ionian when it is typically dead calm. As we neared Hazel at the completion of our row, I resolved to get sailing as soon as possible and try to capitalize on that wind for the short 5-10 mile sail to One House Bay on Atikos Island. Now typically whatever wind there is in Ionian doesn’t start blowing until midday so my tactic was a little risky, but all I was risking was a becalm and potentially motoring for a bit. I prepped Hazel for sail, made some granola and dried fruit that I’d eat while sailing, pulled the anchor and, on our way out of the anchorage, sailed by Creuza de mä and bade caio! and Fair Winds and Following Seas to Antonio.
While the sail started well enough, soon enough we were becalmed. I was a bit hacked off at myself for departing into what had the good chance of being a becalm and was seriously thinking of throwing in the towel motoring the rest of the way to Atikos Island, when I looked down and beheld the most beautiful manta ray. Clearly something I never would have seen had I just been motoring along. The manta spent 15 minutes or so circumscribing lazy circles around Hazel. Now that I think of it, if I would have had wind and been sailing along, perhaps I would have caught a glimpse of the manta but it would have been a much shorter encounter.
One House Bay
I had heard rumored that, although stunning, One House Bay was a popular destination for charter sailors and I shouldn’t expect much privacy or solitude. While that advice was correct, I happily noted that a lot of the boats visited the somewhat exposed bay for the day but in late afternoon departed for more secure overnight anchorages, leaving much more room for the rest of us who overnighted there.
Sunny and I discovered some trails behind the one house of One House Bay and the strenuous uphill hiking rewarded us with some excellent views of the party scene below.
Further on, on our hike we saw some interesting things…
If you’re like me you spend a lot of your waking hours thinking about how life is just a series of “Far Side” cartoons. I loved the depth that Gary Larson could plumb in one single panel. Years ago Colleen gave me the four-volume complete works of Gary Larson for Christmas. An ever so thoughtful present and it occupied a prized scatological place in our home for years.
So, when hiking on the narrow seldom-used path and we happened upon a spider web literally blocking the way, and the spider wrapping its prize of all prizes…
…I was immediately reminded of this Gary Larson panel…
We carefully walked around the deserving spider and I hope that he or she ate like a king for days.
As we passed the spider and I was chuckling about the image of The Far Side cartoon in my head, I started thinking about my thinking, which got me thinking about my recent, rather dark, post My Worst Self Living My Best Life, and this thinking brought me back to another Far Side image…
At the top of the trail (and top of the mountain) we found a ruined homestead complete with a disused well. It was amazing to think that there’d be enough hydrostatic pressure high above sea level to keep a well filled in arid Greece.
Of course this got me wondering that if I put Sunny down for safekeeping and peered deep into the well, lost my balance and fell in, would Sunny run back to the bay to find the nearest humans and bark excitedly at them? If so, would the humans reply to Sunny, “Τι είναι το Sunny; Έχει πέσει ο κύριός σας σε πηγάδι και χρειάζεται βοήθεια;” (which transliterates into English as, “What is it Sunny? Has your master fallen down a well and needs help?”
Back aboard Hazel in One House Bay, I had another interesting sighting. Or, should I go with the plural and say interesting sightings? After our hike and a swim, Sunny and I were both cooled down and ready for a well-deserved nap. It was also midafternoon and the bay was packed, mostly with charter boats but there were a few of us private cruisers scattered around. Before lying down on the saloon berth, I gave one last look through the portlights to make sure no other boats were drifting too close. I noticed a new private sailing cruiser charging into the bay “French style” (that is, coming in at speed and clearly ready to bump a few elbows to make room to anchor). It appeared to be a husband and wife on board, or maybe male/female partners. He was at the helm and she on the foredeck ready to lower the anchor—a typical configuration for a crew of two preparing to anchor. However, what to my prudish American eyes should appear, but she looks to be topless. The boat was aways off so I chalked this up to a misperception from tired eyes. I busied myself with something else for a minute and looked again at the approaching yacht. Yup, as expected, French ensign flying off the transom. I looked to the boat’s foredeck and did a double-take (or, should I say, a double-take of a double-take). Yup, she was riding proud on the bow like a nautical Lady Godiva.
I decided if she could do that midday in a crowded anchorage I no choice but to partially embrace my creepy loner-ness. I grabbed my good camera and snapped on its telephoto lens. I call it my “good” camera to differentiate it from my phone’s camera (obviously, the “good” is not any commentary on the ethicality of the pictures taken with it).
In retrospect, it wasn’t my most crisp picture. I took the photo surreptitiously from below decks. (A full embrace of my creepy loner-ness would have freed me to take the picture from above decks but, surprisingly, even I have my limits.) Taking the photo through Hazel’s open portlight meant that I was shooting through both the fly screen of the portlight and the lifeline netting around her gunwales. That’s OK though, I think a little fuzzy and blurry adds some art to the shot. (Think about it: there’d be no mystique in a crystal-clear picture of bigfoot.)
There’s a funny PS to this story…
If you note, the boat has a rather distinctive blue stripe. Rhett and I often comment that when cruising, you just sort of keep running into some boats in different anchorages. To wit, just the other day I was in the Aegean (weeks after my aforementioned sighting and a hundred-plus miles from One House Bay) enjoying a quiet anchorage when a very similar looking boat starts—once again—charging in. Hmmmm, woman on deck, blue stripe at the top of the hull, looks like a guy at the helm, French tricolor flying off the transom—could it be? Too far off to tell what she was (or wasn’t) wearing north of the equator. As the boat hove closer, my initial hopes of a double-exposure were dashed. (Or, should I say a double, double-exposure?) It was the same boat alright, and same crew, but she was clothed. (Perhaps too much sun in tender areas?) However, as they slid past us and deeper into the anchorage and I got a good look at the helmsman, I saw all of him. Yup, naked as the eyes of a clown. While he was at the ship’s wheel, his tiller was plainly visible. I started to reach for the camera, but my better angels prevailed—even I have my limits.
The Odyssey to Odysseus’ Home
In talking to a Greek couple on the beach at One House Bay, they kept talking about an island that sounded to my ear like “eh-THA-ka” (clearly three syllables). While intrigued with their description of the beautiful island, I finally had to stop them and ask about the name because I had never “heard” of it. After a bit of back and forth, I said, “Oh! Ithaca” (pronouncing it “ITH-ahka” in one long syllable as an American would pronounce Ithaca, New York). Of course when I said “Ithaca” they looked at me like I had two heads and had no idea what I was saying.
Odysseus, a key figure in Homer’s Iliad and the eponym of Homer’s Odyssey (let’s call it the sequel to the Iliad), ruled the Kingdom of Ithaca. While that all sounds neat and tidy—a Kingdom of Ithaca and an island of Ithaca—it isn’t. Assuming Odysseus was a real person (likely but not totally positive), he would have lived in the Mycenaean Era, 1550-1200 BC (a long time ago) and while there’s some pretty good evidence that the Kingdom of Ithaca comprised several islands and Odysseus’ castle and home was on today’s Ithaca, it’s not totally proven. From learning more, I also get the sense there’s a lot of local pride with amateur and professional archeologists searching for evidence that “their” island is the real home of Odysseus.
Anyway, I’m sticking with Ithaca and was excited when I made landfall there. My first night was in a rather remote anchorage and the next morning I motored four miles in a dead calm to the town of Vathi.
In researching Vathi I discovered that there was a trail starting in the town to the supposed cave of the nymphs described in the Odyssey:
and at the head of the harbor is a slender-leaved oliveThe Odyssey, Book 13, Homer
and near by it a lovely and murky cave
sacred to the nymphs called Naiads.
Within are kraters and amphoras
of stone, where bees lay up stores of honey.
Inside, too, are massive stone looms and there the nymphs
weave sea-purple cloth, a wonder to see.
The water flows unceasingly. The cave has two gates,
the one from the north, a path for men to descend,
while the other, toward the south, is divine. Men do not
enter by this one, but it is rather a path for immortals.
I wanted to learn more about Homer and Odysseus and so connected with a guide, teacher, and archeologist Spyros Couvaras. I called Spyros on a Sunday morning and, since it was in the middle of the big Greek heat wave, agreed to meet at the “Homer’s School” at 6 o’clock that evening. I would arrive via taxi (about 20 minutes from Vathi, he would come on his scooter). As we hung up I thought, Hmmm Homer’s School, I wonder what it is? Immediately I pictured…
That evening while the light was still good but the day’s heat was mitigating, the taxi dropped me off at some ruins in the middle of nowhere and sped off. After a few desolate minutes, wondering if I was in the right place and if I might have my own odyssey trying to get back to Hazel, a cheery guy drives up in an old scooter and says, “Are you Dahniel?”
Spyros dismounted, shook my hand and patted Sunny’s head. He was wearing a light blue linen collared shirt and plaid shorts. His hair was cut short but thick—the classic black, and salt and pepper of the 50-something Greek. Although he occasionally smoked, he carefully saved his cigarette butts rather than sullying this hallowed ground with them. He wore sturdy walking shoes and his legs were curiously and recently scratched. (I’d learn later from thorned bushes that tend to grow at archeological sites.) He asked me a few introductory questions to understand what I wanted to learn from our time together and was thrilled when I told him I had read the Iliad and Odyssey. I was quick to point out though that I only understood portions of them—he chuckled. Spyros motioned to a picnic table with benches and we sat and he started with a little talk. To aid his descriptions he pulled out a well-used timeline that I found immensely helpful.
The stories of the Iliad (i.e., the Trojan War, “Ilium” is another name for the city-state of Troy) and the Odyssey took place during the Mycenaean period (1550-1200 BC). From 1200 to 800 BC there was a Greek Dark Age of which we know very little. Homer is guessed to have lived around 600 BC (the early Archaic period) but the Iliad and Odyssey were not written down until later in the Archaic period (around 600 BC).
Spyros then walked me around Homer’s School which is thought by many to have been Odysseus’ castle. After the ten year Trojan War, Odysseus spent another ten years trying to get back here. (Why so long? You ask. Spoiler alert: Poseidon was royally pissed that Odysseus blinded his son Polyphemus, a cyclops.) Even if this site wasn’t Odysseus’ home, there’s pretty good evidence that Homer used the location when composing the Odyssey as the descriptions from the epic poem and archeologists’ interpretations of the ruins closely match.
Also, there’s legend that when Homer was orally teaching his works to other poets, he did so at this location (thus Homer’s School).
Having Spyros as my guide was invaluable. While I would have stumbled around thinking, Well these big rocks are interesting. Spyros told the stories about what was likely located where and how it all fit together. He also didn’t shy away from the mystery surrounding the location, the controversies, and what we still don’t know.
After touring the ruins, we sat again at the picnic table and Spyros pulled out the timeline once again and proceeded to tell me about the, “Problems with Homer.” I thought to myself, Well that’s easy: drinks too much Duff beer, overweight, bad husband and father, gets in trouble with his boss Mr. Burns—and the list goes on. No, what Spyros meant were the the mysteries surrounding Homer.
First, in almost all art forms, the art evolves over generations and generations. Spyros told me to think of simple cave paintings evolving to two-dimensional Egyptian drawings and Medieval paintings, then finally to the three-dimensional realistic perspective of the Renaissance. However, while Homer is recognized as one of the most revered and influential authors in history, we don’t have evidence any any substantive authors preceded him. Did they exist and Homer learned from them but their oral works were lost? Was Homer just that far advanced and that much of an genius? What a beautiful mystery.
Second, between the Iliad and Odyssey, there are nearly 30,000 lines. As comparison, a Shakespeare play has 2,000 to 4,000 lines (of course memorization of these lines are shared by multiple actors). How is it then that a Homer could compose and memorize and transmit to others the rough quantity of ten Shakespeare plays. The enigma heightens the intrigue.
The sun was now well below the horizon and it was getting dark. As a last stop, Spyros wanted to take me to the little museum in the nearby village of Stavros where I could also get a good taverna dinner and a taxi back to the town of Vathi and Hazel. Spyros motioned to the back of his scooter for Sunny and me and said, “We better keep moving, the lights on my scooter don’t work.”
Cephalonia and Departing the Ionian
From the east coast of Ithaca, Sunny and I then made a 10-15 mile day sail south, down the east coast of Ithaca and then west to the island of Cephalonia. In my previous post I had recommended the book and movie Corelli’s Mandolin/Captain Corelli’s Mandolin as further reading/watching for those interested in Ionian Greece recent history. The plot takes place on the island of Cephalonia.
Sunny and I rented a car for a day on Cephalonia and had a grand time exploring the island.
When I’m in a cave, it’s fascinating to think about how slowly stalactites (the ones that descend from the ceiling) and stalagmites (ascending from the floor) grow. The average stalactite grows at a rate of a tenth of a millimeter per year (the fastest at 3 millimeters per year). The size of this cave and the length of its stalactites and stalagmites, combined with those growth rates, puts the age of this cave—and our brief time on earth—all in perspective.
From Cephalonia we had a 100+ nautical mile sail to the city of Corinth and the Corinth Canal, our gateway to the Aegean Sea. (I’ll highlight that sail in a subsequent post.) After a couple days on Cephalonia I noted that the weather forecasts showed an upcoming westerly blow (blowing from the west to the east), perfect for a downwind “sleigh ride” through the Gulf of Corinth. We set sail from Cephalonia in the afternoon, trying to time our arrival in Corinth for the next afternoon (sailing nonstop through the night).
As we exited the Ionian Sea and entered the Gulf of Patras on our way toward the Gulf of Corinth, I looked back at the sun setting into the Ionian islands and felt a pang of loss but smiled through the mourning. I was sad about this period of my life in this place being over. Our friend’s words echoed in my head, Whatever you do, don’t rush this Ionian. How right he was.
Would I ever return, or is the last time I’ll ever see the Heptanese? Sure, sometime in the future I might fly over them and high above look down as if a god; I might “sail” on a fast-ferry through them, covering our two months here in two hours; but would I ever return to sail its waters on our boat on our terms? I smiled about what I had expierenced. At sea level, I’d learned about the history and people of this part of the world. Far below the sunny surface, I’d learned a deeper lesson that the odyssey is the destination.
Fair winds and following seas!