Mekong TrailsFrom the north of Thailand to the Mekong river, spiritual Luang Prabang, Pakse, Paksong and the stunning archaeological ruins of Siem Reap
There are a million cats foot loose and fancy free in the Cyclades. Each island has a flotilla of them drifting up and down the village lanes or lurking expectantly at quay side. They are a mellow lot not given to hissy fits or unpleasant behavior. If there was a Scarface Claw in the pack I never saw him. Cafe owners aren’t keen on them but no one locks up at night without leaving a bowl or two out for the cats. I thought they were cute but I suspect that they regarded me as a sucker!
Our maritime perambulations have taken us to every Island worthy of the name. Well perhaps not so many but from the nightly confines of my bat cave it seems that way. Now the contemporary equivalent of sextant, dividers and slide rule are pointing us towards Athens by way of Mikonos, party central of the Cyclades. Unfortunately for us the jet set has occupied the high ground at Mikonos. Scruffy sailboaties are banished to the industrial port from where it is a 3km hike into town. There is a public taxi boat but it fails to show at the appointed time and I’m sus that it is cahoots with the rapacious cabbies who are circling the marina like a school of sharks
It is too early in the season at Mikonos for the beautiful people but the boutiques are buzzing with happy young Asian holiday makers. Petite ladies with slight frames draped in the pastels of the latest Hellenistic fashions pose for young men weighted down by oversized cameras. This would be quaint and even romantic if there weren’t so many doing the same thing in the same places but no one seems to mind. These folk are here for things that we are not, so its an easy decision to head off to Paros via the archaeological sanctuary of Delos.
At Delos the sun is hot and the day bright. Its time to rig the ‘Bimini’ and break out the wet suits. We go ashore by dinghy to view the stunning 3000 year old Ionian era ruins. It is a truly inspiring spot with its ancient marble columns, mosaic frescoes, theatre and monumental ruins afloat in a sea of wildflowers. There are regular day cruises to Delos from Mikonos but the privilege of arriving up by sailboat would be hard to beat.
I’m happy to report that Paros, Tinos and Siros all have cats waiting to smooge gullible landlubbers into parting with tasty nibbles. Of course cats aside there are many other interesting things for travellers who might stop over. Parikia the capital of Paros has both Venetian and Byzantine influences and a spectacular 4th century Byzantium church at nearby Panayia Katapoliani. Tinos has a bevy of picturesque mountain villages and a myriad of spectacular decorated dove cotes. It takes little effort and minimal expense to get out and about on the islands by rental car to discover these things and more. Over the past few weeks it has dawned on us that kids don’t live in these villages. Only old people are left now that the younger folk have gone off to Athens and the future of rural villages looks bleak.
Siros is the historic capital of the Cyclades. In the main centre of Ermouli the streets are literally paved with marble and the neighbour hood of Vaporia has grand Venetian houses dating from the era when Ermouli was the ship building centre of the Adriatic. Its a busy place spot but has a quayside mooring to die for. Just back up to the quay and drop your gangplank at any cafe that takes your fancy. Wait staff will bring your coffee and croissant to the boat. Its a lollygaggers paradise.
Our sea legs are so well developed by the time that the Albatross gets a sniff of home port that we are reluctant to leave her. The exceptional Radu and Adrianna have another charter to organise and we have other fish to fry.
Something has come adrift with the legs I use for landlubbering. The quay is too stable and I’m feeling queasy.
The Albatross is owned and exclusively operated by Radu and Adriana of Bluewater Sailing based in Athens http://www.sailboatchartergreece.com/
A nasty southerly wind has driven the Albatross off to Naxos. Ha! But we are not on it having opted instead for the fast ferry from Ios down to Thira. Radu and Adrianna are repositioning the boat up to Naxos where we plan to catch up with them in 3 days time. I know that at least 3 of us are feeling pretty smug about the way that the ferry is demolishing the 2 metre waves on the run down to Santorini. This is the way to get about if you dont have the time or constitution for smaller boats. There are lots of happy holiday makers on the ferry, perhaps too many rushing about with selfie-sticks for my comfort but Santorini is a hot spot and the world is beating a path to its watery door.
Arrival in the caldera is a weird experience. Glacier like cascades of blindingly white buildings tumble down the steep volcanic cliffs into the bay where iceberg size cruise liners are discharging hordes of penguins on to a flotilla of busy little boats. If true that would definitely be weird but these are really folk like us having arrived by sea and keen to get up the hill to the shops and discos. Well perhaps not entirely like us since we don’t plan to shop and are too old to party. Arrival at the port is a marvellous occasion and I am left marvelling at how quickly the Greeks can get 500 people and 50 trucks off the vessel. Truth to tell I’m dumfounded that the whole process of disembarkation-embarkation can be completed in 20 minutes when back home this would take at least 3 hours on a calm day.
There is a definite commercial purpose to all this hustle because Thira is ‘the’ cash cow of the Cyclades.
The months of July and August bring up to four million tourists to Thira and the local economy is keen to celebrate that good fortune. So too are the designer clothing label and brand fashion houses, uncle Tom Cobbly and just about everyone who can get their hands on something to sell. There are no 10AM opening hours and long lunch breaks here. On Thira you can shop till you drop in the weirdest looking retail strip this side of Hobbiton.
Our plans are to walk not shop and the 9km caldera rim trail is an obvious candidate. Initially we are hounded by regiments of selfi-stick weilding Asians but when the shops peter out so do they. Its a relief to get away from the white blancmange of hotels and azure infinity pools. The trial is easy going and the scenery is stunning but by the end of the 8th km I was ready to trade my boots for a cold drink. There are cold drinks aplenty on Thira but water for the myriad infinity pools and all the tourism infrastructure has to come to the island by tanker from Crete. This is an ironic twist given that the tsunami which swamped Crete and destroyed the Minoan civilisation 3,600 years ago originated from the eruption of the Thira volcano.
An endless procession of water tankers prowl the narrow streets and lanes of Thira. I imagine then driven by grinning Cretean’s making regular stops at the local branch of the Bank of Crete. As for us we are off to the bountiful Island of Naxos where water is plentiful and the spring hills are covered in wildflowers.
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Radu is too much of a gentleman to ask why we spend more time off his boat than on it. He is a bit sus that our enthusiasm for the wastery parts of the trip may be tempered by our desire to get off into the hills as soon as the gangplank hits the quay.. I don’t blame him. The Albatross is a fine boat and both he and Adrianna are fine hosts and excellent sailors. However our tales of daring do in the hills just dont seem to be cutting his mustard. This is particularly so since they ‘outed’ us cafe-ing it up on Kythnos when our declared intention had been a 10km walk. Now he greets us with a wry smile if we dont turn up at the gangplank footsore, bramble scratched, exhausted and sunburnt.
Over the course of the week we are heading for the Islands of Kythnos, Serifos, Sithnos, Milos, Foligandros and Ios. A significant part of the Greek economy must be dependent on these islands. I’m deeply worried that this is a lost opportunity because the next 5 islands on our route all end in ‘os’. This means that I’ll be keeping a lonley vigil outside the quayside cafes until some bloke sends his missus along to open up around 10am. Rental car outfits are the exception. You only have to rattle the door of a seemingly abandoned rental car agency and a woman will appear out of nowhere and rent you a car. The same hard working lass will be there regardless of what time you return it but dont think for a moment that your credit card will be legal tender.
Greece likes its cash economy far too much for the comfort of its EU creditors. In my uninformed pre trip euphoria I thought to load quite many Euros onto my ‘one smart card’. How dumb was that in an economy where hoteliers whisper cash deals that would make wotif.com gag. I was so incensed about this that I started insisting on receipts from restaraunts and hotels. Care to guess who went hungry and cold as a result of that rush of blood to the head. Not only that but I had to suffer the scorn of my travelling companions for attempting to upset the rythym of the Cyclades informal economy. The gentleman curator at a local museum summed up the issue for us. When the EU gave them all that money a decade ago who ever thought that they would want it back!
Usually we have been on the watery bits for 3-5 hrs per day. Mostly the passages have been calm with just the occasional hour or two of terror. Wind has a funny affect on water. It piles the sea up and behaves rudely by pushing the boat about and trying to upend it. All this is great fun for the sailors in our party but not amusing for the landlubbers. In spite of this we have mysteriously acquired some thing called ‘sea legs’ and are mostly taking all this in our stride. The island sleepovers have been idylic and our pattern of PM arrival, stroll to the rental car agency, excursion to the interior for a 2-3 hour trek before dinner at some cozy taverna has worked out perfectly for our jolly party of Jack and Jill ‘Tars’. It has been good to get all this walking nonsense out of the way so that we can behave in a totally hedonistic way at our next stop over on Thira, also known as Santorini. I’m in great anticipation about this and not only becase of the islands gender. The explosion of Thira in archacic times radically changed Mediterranean civilization and created one of the most scenic volcanic landscapes in the world.
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Mariners talk in riddles. This is a kind of short hand to ensure that landlubbers have no idea what is going on… For example if we want to be lashed by salt spray we sit in the ‘cockpit’, personal ablutions are not conducted on the ‘poop deck’ but in a ‘head’ and at night we are tossed about like Greek salad in a hobbit sized hole called a ‘cabin’. On the subject of cabins I’m told that the term POSH, which I thought described folk who lived higher on the hog than I, is really a term coined by 19th century colonial travellers on passage to India. I now suspect that I may have more in common with these folk than I realised when I signed up for this cruise. My ‘cabin’ seems to be on the starboard side of the boat next to the ‘head’. I don’t yet know if this is a good thing.
So far the cruise has produced a few surprises but i’m told that yesterdays lurching about in something called a ‘confused sea’ wasn’t really a challenge. I’m reserving my judgement about that. The surprises have all come from the landlubbery bits. Firstly we learned that Greek Islands are mostly masculine. Anything with a name that ends in ‘os’ is male. There are plenty lot of them. This is probably why nothing much happens until 10AM and might account for the parlous state of the Greek economy. On the other hand islands which have names that end in ‘a’ or ‘i’ are mostly ‘female’ and this was self evident on our stop off at the lovely island of Kea
Kea doesn’t appeal to the selfi-stick set. It has no party scene nor cruise ship clutter. This is the spot where Athenians go for a summer weekend and where visiting landlubbers like us can get out and about along the Islands stunning network of historic footpaths From the picturesque port of Korissia it is a short taxi ride up to the old town of Ioulida with its labryinth winding lanes and white plastered buildings. The trails that start here once linked the ancient city states of Kea and are today maintained for walkers like ourselves. Most are flagstoned with carefully paved steps and periodic water points at springs and cisterns. On the day of our visit the trail sides were brilliant with poppies and a myriad wild flowers. We set out around the contours following donkey paths to ‘Lion Rock’ and beyond to the high point and stunning views south towards our next port on Kythnos. Down in the port the ‘Albatross’ was a distant reminder that landlubbers who come to spots like Kea in small boats better pack their sea legs along with their hiking boots.
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Twenty knots seems like a decent breeze to a non sailer like me. Decent enough set our 50ft yacht on a 15 degree heel and give me a touch of the queezies. This wasnt quite the mental picture that I had of sail boat cruising in the Greek Cyclades and that whacking great container ship bearing down on us is far too close for comfort. I’m about to start screaming “Hey Big Boy….. Power gives way to sail” when our Romanian skipper Rado puts the helm over and we live to sail another day.
I don’t quiet understand how I ended up in this predicament. I like the sea best when viewed from 30,000 ft and this particular sea looked picture perfect from that altitude on the flight from Istanbul to Athens. Now that I’m at sea level dealing with white knuckles and white caps the whole enterprise seems more fraught than it did 6 months ago from the comfort of a Siberian Dacha. I knew that discarded glossy travel magazine with the back to front alphabet and spectacular pictures of sun bleached islands would get me into trouble.
Of course Russians aren’t the only folk susceptable to pictures of warm places, especially places with stunning white and turquoise villages perched on cliffs above sandy beaches and azure bays . When our buddies offered us a spot on a 21 day skipperd charter out of Athens it seemed like a perfect opportunity to loll about doing absolutely nothing useful with a few friends. On embarkation day at the marina in Athens this all seemed to be such a good idea. The sun was hot, the sky blue, the sea calm and last weeks nasty snowladed Adriatic storm was a distant memory. Our charter operators Adriana and Radu were set to unleash the ‘Albatross’ from her mooring and we were keen to be off and so were we.
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