A Greek Odyssey Our Journey to Ithaca

7/15/2008

By Liz Tosoni

Paros Island, Greece
38 22N, 20 42E

The Odyssey, written by Homer around 1000 B.C., describes the Greek warrior Odysseus’ long journey home to Ithaca after his attack on Troy on the west coast of present-day Turkey. It wasn’t a cheery journey; in fact, it was about delays and obstructions and messy deaths. The captain disliked the grey sea and fickle winds, the toil of shipboard life, the distances, the inconveniences, the dangers. The crew was complaining and fearful.

Our Greek Odyssey was regaled with some glorious sunrises

Luckily, our own Greek Odyssey aboard Feel Free wasn’t quite so bad! It was however, defined by gales and squalls, thunderstorms and lightning, cold weather, pelting rain, a few flat calm no-wind days, some glorious sunrises and a few exhilarating sails. We got gale warning after gale warning (34-40 knots of wind) from the soft-spoken Greek woman on the weather channel, and we came to believe that it was just part of life in this part of the world. We got so frustrated that sometimes I wanted to scream at her: Enough of your gale warnings! How about some good news?

Every evening we studied the charts and Pilot carefully to determine which was the next closest “hidey hole.” We hunkered down for two or three days in some places, under the lugubrious grey sky, waiting for the next break in the weather, making use of the time by exploring on shore whenever possible. We couldn’t help but laugh when, upon arrival at one port with winds howling, some young guys keen to help us with our lines and newly arrived from the Ukraine to do a 10 day sail on a charter boat, gave us a weather tip: “Of course as you know, the wind always dies at 7 p.m.”


Every evening we studied the charts and Pilot carefully to determine which was the next closest “hidey hole” where we could anchor or tie up safely

Thankfully, once we got past the eastern and central parts of the Aegean, into the Saronic and eastern Peloponnesus, things started to calm down a bit and become more livable. The Aegean Sea divides Europe from Asia and in ancient days, without modern navigational equipment, merchants moved eastward, island to island, between the two continents, making use of the predictable and consistent north winds in the summer months, and then returned in the spring or fall with the light northerlies or southerlies. We could well understand that because of the fierce winter winds in the Aegean some ancient states actually forbade traders to cross the sea during winter months.

Because the scores of isles are scattered haphazardly throughout the Aegean Sea, the next one is always just a day sail away and depending on the wind direction, you can choose one that allows comfortable sailing. Since the last missive from Paros island, we stopped at a few more -- Siros, Kithnos and Poros -- each with its own charms. We were disappointed to miss many of the “must sees” like Santorini, Mykonos, and Delos, but such is life for sailors with a schedule.

We hunkered down for two or three days
in some places, under grey skies

We needed to make a choice about our route once we got to the western Aegean- sail around the south end of the Peloponnesus peninsula, or head northwest and through the Corinth Canal. Although the canal is costly considering its short length, we chose it as it would allow us to enjoy the lovely anchorages and harbors in the Gulfs of Corinth and Patras, plus, we figured by going further north, we’d have a better slant on the wind and the distance would be shorter once we made our way across the Ionian Sea to Italy and then Malta, our haulout destination for the season.

Arriving on the Peloponnesus coast was like arriving in another country. Gone was the barren, dry, scrubby, rocky landscape. Instead we found mountains, some of them snow capped, greenery as far as the eye could see, and terraced hillsides. On shore, flowering trees and wildflowers smothered the countryside, stunning crimson poppies and bright cheerful daisies accented the scenery.

We left Feel Free safely tied up in the marina in the town of Itea and took bus trips to see some of the sights

The Corinth Canal, which divides mainland Greece from the Peloponnesus (and effectively makes it an island), is an engineering marvel. Amazingly, in ancient times, ships were dragged across the isthmus on a paved road. Various Greek and Roman rulers tried to work out schemes to pierce the isthmus for a canal, and Nero actually used 6,000 Jews to start digging but didn’t even get to the rock before being diverted.

The present canal was started by the French in 1882 and finished by the Greeks 11 years later. It’s as if a giant came and sliced the limestone with a knife; it’s 3.2 miles long, 81 feet wide and 250 feet above sea level at the highest point. There are two hydraulic bridges crossing the canal near each end and three bridges, a railway bridge and two road bridges cross it. For us, despite the 198 Euro fee, which was about $300, (it cost less to go through the 80-mile Suez Canal) it was a thrill to pass through this man-made wonder -- another milestone as we inch our way across the seas.


Chart of the Corinth Canal (in French), which divides mainland
Greece from Peloponnesus and effectively makes it an island

It also lifted our spirits to be in the Gulf of Corinth. Weather improved, blue skies appeared, seas were flat, towns were lovely, people friendly. Marinas were free. This is the case all over Greece. The infrastructure is there and you are free to tie up but there is no water or electricity and no management. A strange phenomenon but perfect for us. We left Feel Free in the marina in the town of Itea and took bus trips to see some of the sights.

Delphi was just half an hour away. The bus took us through a sea of olive trees, possibly the finest grove in all of Greece, then climbed the precipitous hills, through hairpin turns to the modern touristy village of Delphi overhanging a gorge. From there it was a 10 minute walk to the stupendous setting. The ancients chose the site well (“location, location, location!”) amidst ravines, rocky bluffs and sheer cliffs on the side of Mount Parnassus, calling it the navel of the earth.


It lifted our spirits to be in the Gulf of Corinth

People flocked there from all over Greece, bearing lavish gifts in the hopes of receiving answers from the oracles to their questions relating to the fate of a war, journey, marriage or business enterprise. Regrettably, Tom, despite his persistent pestering of the site attendants, failed to get any weather or stock tips.

And of course we couldn’t sail through Greece without visiting the Acropolis (“city on the hill”) and so we did. As it turned out, the day we went happened to fall on our 20th anniversary. Again we were blown away by the grandeur of the monuments of old and the incredible power of politics and religion that inspired them. The famous Parthenon (439 B.C.) was originally dedicated to the goddess Athena, protector of the city. Later, in Christian times, it became a church to the Virgin Mary, and later yet was converted to a mosque by the Turks. In 1687, serving as a powder magazine, it was shelled by the Venetians.


Tom at the Treasury building at Delphi

We sailed in flat seas to lovely little Trizonia Island on a sunny April morning with light winds from the south that strengthened from the west upon our arrival. Along the way, our view from the cockpit was of the distant snow-capped peaks, and closer to the shores of the Gulf, lush, green hills punctuated by the distinctive, darker green elongated fir trees of the region, like giant exclamation marks on the land. There is a small marina (again, not managed) in the tiny fishing hamlet with a surprising number of boats, some left unattended, others wintering over with crew aboard.

Water was available so we spent a day filling tanks, doing laundry, scrubbing decks. Poseidon’s Taverna had a wifi connection so in the evening we relaxed with a glass of ouzo and some calamari while catching up on email and, of course, checking weather sites.


Laundry day aboard Feel Free, anchored at Trizonia Island

With 12 to 15 knots of northeast wind we had comfortable sailing under the Andirrion Bridge and then on to our next stop, Misalonghi, via a narrow channel in a marsh, and stick houses on either side. A young student we met told us that there’s an old story every Greek knows: When God made the world, he gave everything a country could possibly need or want to Greece, because one day he plans to retire there. We were beginning to see what he meant as days got longer, temperatures increased and winds abated.

Another body of water was put in Feel Free’s wake as she departed Misalonghi and entered the Ionian Sea, chugging along on a grey listless day, with a glassy sea and barometer high. Ithaca appeared out of the haze like a mirage, then as a smudge on the horizon. Finally, there was the reality of the island and the wide, welcoming harbor of Vathi opened up.


Ithaca’s wide, welcoming harbor, Vathi, seen from a trail on shore

After safely coming alongside yet another freely available concrete quay, we chatted with French neighbors Serge and Caroline, a retired couple on the vessel Hiva Oa. We learned that they have spent the last 25 years off and on, cruising the Med, and have decided to spend the rest of their lives in Greece. “Each island is so different from the next,” Caroline said. “You must spend at least one year exploring each one.” We considered ourselves fortunate to have these “residents” share their local and extensive knowledge about Greek culture and the nearby ancient Homeric trails.

And then, how fitting it was to go below, tidy up, and come across the poem Ithaca by Constantine P. Cavafy (1911) which had been given to us in Thailand years earlier by friends Mike and Marguerite Welch. Their boat happens to be called Ithaca.


It was a thrill to pass through this man made wonder --
the Corinth Canal -- another milestone as we inch our way across the seas

"When you start on your journey to Ithaca, then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit

 

 

 

 

 

 


Flowering trees, wildflowers, and crimson poppies
covered the countryside

You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long,
that the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!

 

 

 

 


Delphi, where ancients chose the site well amidst
ravines, rocky bluffs, and sheer cliffs on the side of Mount Parnassos,
and called it the navel of the earth

Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother- of- pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The famous Parthenon, built in 439 B.C.,
still stands over Athens.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.


Here at the Acropolis, we were overwhelmed by the grandeur of the monuments
and the incredible power of politics and religion that inspired them.