Saturday, July 31, 2010

Athens, day 1, the Agora

Athens is a treasure for all of the Western world since this is where it all began. One could spends months or years in Athens absorbing the history and enjoying the contemporary scene. However, for ordinary folk such as Jan and I three days was quite enough. We suffered from 'wonder fatigue.' After a while one marvel just blurs into another. The first sign of wonder fatigue is when all of the ancient clay pots start to look alike.

Our stay started with a jarring note. We booked into the Chic Hotel in the Omonia district at a ridiculous rate of 60 euros per night for a 4 star hotel. The Omonia is a gritty neighborhood roughly equivalent to Times Square in New York. Walking back too late at night we had to dodge homeless settling down to sleep in store fronts, but we were never threatened. I jokingly asked the night clerk if there were going to be any demonstrations. She said, "yes, tomorrow in Omonia Square." There was also a general strike called to protest pension reform. We had to go! There were loud loudspeakers, militant anthems, strident speeches (in Greek), and waving red flags with numerous hammer and sickle signs of the local KKE. It was all so quaint and reminded me of my hippie days in the 60's during the anti-war protests. We did not want to stick around for the rough stuff, so we hiked down Athina Street about a mile to the Agora.

The Agora was roughly downtown Athens during the Classical period and Roman occupation. Before that it was a cemetery for ancient Athenians. It carried on into the Christian era but then was abandoned for centuries. Later it became a slum of modern Athens. The quarter was razed and excavated in the 1950's with the assistance of the American Rockfeller Institute. The Agora today is about 100 acres of lovingly excavated ruins. These are undoubtedly the very grounds that Socrates walked and shopped (agora means market). Somewhere within these grounds the very foundations of our society were argued and codified.

The pictures show some typical ruins, a very beautiful clay pot perfect after 2600 years, the temple of Hephestus, and Jan hanging with Athena at the site's wonderful museum. We explored an ancient Greek Orthodox Church. Finally there is a view of the Acropolis from the Agora. This was the skyline the Athenians saw every day and it must have influenced their world view in 430 BC. That was the year they voted to make war with Sparta and started the centuries of decline.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Sami, Kefalonia, Greece

Sami is probably the ideal yacht port on Kefalonia. It is located on a deep inlet on the middle of the eastern shore. All the ferries come here. The harbor is tight and deep. There is a good swimming beach about 50 meters away with a hot fresh water shower, and best of all, it has the cleanest public toilets I have ever seen on two continents.

Kefalonia is large and again the best way to see it is by motor car or motor bike. Team Zubenel rented both. Jillian drove, I navigated, Jane and Jan rode shot gun. Philip and Alexander trailed behind on a motor bike. First stop was the 'Cave of the Nymphs' a water filled cave where Pan was said to have spurned some nymph. The lighting was spectacular. I hope the pic can do it justice. Then on to a mountain taverna for lunch. The picture shows all of team Zubenel. The young waitress was just as impressive as as the delicious food. She spoke colloquial American English. We asked her where she learned it, and she said school and TV. We invited her to America, and I hope she makes it.

Just down the hill from the taverna on the western shore of Kefalonia was Myrtos Beech which is said to be one of the top beeches in the world. It's a nice beech and the picture shows its grandeur. But after the Caribbean and Florida, all I can say is that Mytros is one of the best PEBBLE beeches in the world.

The highlight of the day was the town of Assos. Assos is a small village on the western shore of Kefalonia. It has an incredible anchorage that is off the cruising guide for some reason and a mysterious 'Castle of Assos.' The castle is high on promontory guarding the anchorage. A steep 1.8 kilometer hike is required to see it. The castle was built by the Venetians in the 15th century to suppress pirates. It was abandoned by them soon afterwards when the Venetians conquered Lefkada and move military operations there. The castle was used by the locals off and on for centuries, usually as a prison. It was finally completely abandoned in 1955. When Jan and I got to the top there was no ranger station, no vendors, no water, and not even commemorative plaques. My first thought was that the Junior League could turn this place into a world class tourist stop.

The drive included the usual breath taking vistas that I have described in previous posts. The picture is a view of Ithaca from eastern Kefalonia.

Sadly we had to leave the Zubenel. We took the large ferry to Patros on the mainland. (see pic) I am sure that the scenery would have been spectacular, but the summer haze obscured the view. We did get see the low lands of Mesaloggi off to the north, and I saluted Lord Byron and all of the Hellenophiles that died there for Greece's independence in 1838. Then it was off the ferry and on to the bus to Athens.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Agnostoli, Kefalonia, Greece

After Fiscardo, Zubenel motor sailed around the northern tip of Kefalonia, down the long western edge and around into the capitol of the island, Agnostoli, on the SE corner. It was a long 40 miles. The sail was wonderful; Agnostoli, less so. It is a large sprawling town. The architecture is bland since every building dates from the devastating earthquake of 1953. Shopping is good. It is said to be the most Italianate of the Greek cities so we all had pizza. The pizza was very good, but just pizza. Pictured is Alexander, our 13 year old mate from France and very good guy, with Agnostoli in the background. Also pictured is an iconic structure for the town. It is an aid to navigation in the shape of a temple and built by Charles Napier in the 18th century. It also had to be rebuilt after one of earthquakes. At the top of the picture please note wind turbines that crown the peaks of Kefalonia. These are very disconcerting considering the scenery, but that is progress I guess. Being Greece. about a quarter of the wind mills did not turn.

Fiscardo, Kefalonia, Greece

Fiscardo in a small port at the northern tip of the island of Kefalonia. Presumably it was once a fishing village, but now it is a yachting destination. With the small but very deep anchorage surrounded by cliffs and the town quay lined with tavernas, it's no wonder why this port is prime stop on the tour.

The Zubenel anchored in 30 feet of crystal clear water and took lines ashore to tie off to some sturdy pines. To get ashore you could just pull the dingy along or just jump for it. Then there was a very pleasant half mile walk into town through the woods. It was a lovely stop.


The island of Kefallonia has several spellings, Kafalonia and the Latinized Cephalonia as well as the Cyrillic version that I won't attempt. Greece seems quite loose about spelling. I came to suspect that the restaurants would deliberate misspell some of the items on the menu to provide local color (such as 'ceese pie' and 'draught bear') Most Americans are familiar with Cephalonia through the best seller and movie "Captain Corelli's Mandolin." The movie stars Nicholas Cage and Penolope Cruz and focuses on the Nazi atrocity committed against the Italian army in 1943 when 3000 men of the Italian 11th Mountain Division were executed. The book focuses more on the efforts of Communist partisans fighting against the Nazi's and then on into the 1950's. The Communist party remains strong and team Zubenel saw many KKE offices through out the Ionian Islands.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Ithaca, the mountain

In the last post I said that Ithaca was empty, but it is also a beautiful mountain top that sticks right up 800 meters out of the Ionian Sea. One of the high lights of the trip was the day team Zubenel rented a car for a tour about the island.

The roads are narrow and high up on the cliffs. Often there is not even a guard rail. On one side is a vertical cliff up and on the other side a plunge straight down into the turquoise sea. The sensation was a bit like flying in a small air plane, and I have to confess to being dizzy at times and occasionally terrified.

We set out from Vathy and the first stop was Alakomenes, a ruin that is one of the many claimed castles of Ulysses. It is now a goat station, but 3,000 years ago it would have been a wonderful place to defend. Then we were on to the mountain town of Starvos and the near by Bay of Polis.

On the way to Frikes which is a ferry stop and small port we took a detour to see the ruins called the School of Homer. It had a neat well in a small cave and was a significant site of Mycenaean culture. Frikes was overrun with day trippers that had just gotten off the tour boat, so we went on to Kioni. This is a beautiful little town with streets so narrow, Philip had to back the car out of town. We climbed up the eastern face of Mount Nirito to the old capital of Anogi. The road from here to the Kartharon monastary is both breathtaking and breath holding. Walking a tight rope about a half a mile high is the only metaphor I can think of to describe the trip.

The Kartharon monastary (Greek Orthodox) was equally spectacular. It is remote, wind swept and perched about 500 meters high with views all around. It was deserted so we let ourselves in to look around. The chapel was small but very holy. There were icons everywhere including one of a steam ship. I can only imagine the amount of incense that has been burned here for hundreds of years. Jan and I lit a candle and said a prayer for White Pepper team member Robert. If a prayer from Kartharon can not get through, nothing can.

By the time we got back to Vathy no one could say very much. I think that each of us knew that that we had just had one of the very special days in our lives. I hope the pictures can give impression of the this special place--Ithaca.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Ithaca is Empty

Yacht Zubenel with Jan and I as crew sailed into Vathy, the capital of the island of Ithaca, Greece. Never have I ever been in such a lovey spot that is so underinhabited! We entered the Gulf of Molo with its lovely blue water and lush green mountains sloping into the sea and there was not a sign of human habitation anywhere. Finally we turned into the inner bay and the small town of Vathy was visible with several hundred houses. The bay is a natural deep harbor protected on all sides. In fact Vathy means deep in Greek. A few cannons on the hillside would have made the place impregnable, but in fact the town was not even established until 1700 when the Venetians cleared this area of pirates. We tied up stern to at the quay. It was late afternoon which is siesta time in Greece. Walking about the empty streets gave me a post Rapture feeling. By 8:30 the town was humming.

As many as 15,000 people lived on Ithaca during British dominion between 1800 and 1860. Only 3,000 people inhabit the island now. It was during this period that Lord Byron stopped at Ithaca on the way to his untimely death across the Inland Sea at Mesologgi in 1824. He said then "If I could own Ithaca, I would bury all my books and live here forever." It is easy to understand why he said it.

The island has lost population steadily since then. Earthquakes plague these islands which helps explain the lack of significant archeological site such as temples. A devastating earthquake in 1953 knocked down alost every building on Ithaca. Worse, it discouraged the population who left in droves and have not returned. Jan spoke to the waitress at the taverna. She was a Greek American who had come back to help out her sister at the restaurant. She was from Brooklyn. She said the summers were good, but when the tourists leave in the winter it was so lonely and boring that she was going back to NY.

It seems likely to me that more people lived here in Mycenean times 3000 years ago when Ulysses was king than live here today.

I will post more on how lovely this place is later and I promise to add pictures when we get back to the USA next week.