Transiting the Corinth Canal and the road to Athens

One could be mistaken for landing on another planet. The rocky, barren, inhospitable landscapes of Greece’s Cyclades Islands and her wind-swept seas could not exist in greater contrast to the calming green and aqua blue beauty of the western Ionian Islands we were recently care freely cruising.

The infamous Meltemi summer prevailing wind has quickly taught us who is boss around these parts. Whilst we patiently sit out our first Meltemi ‘blow’ – these past three days and nights have seen winds gusting to 45 knots (80 km/ph) in the port alone and the forecast does not show it easing up for a few days yet. Making our way here to Tinos Island, we were caught out sailing in similar winds and accompanying angry seas. Whilst we made it to the port unscathed, we knew it was best to wait for an improved weather window before making our next move to nearby Mykonos.

A perfect opportunity to catch up on the blog! Our passage through the vast Greek countryside and waterways that lay between the Ionians and Cyclades Island groups – from Delphi to the Corinth Canal and Athens – form the focus of this next post.

Upon reaching the southern Ionian Islands off Greece’s west coast, there are two distinct paths one must choose when tracking an easterly direction across Greece. Boats can head south around the Peloponnese Peninsular or across the top of this landmass through the Patras and Corinthian Gulfs and via the 120-year-old Corinth Canal.

Quite some time earlier we had decided we’d take the Corinth Canal route, as we wished to visit Athens and also ideally this would pop us out at the top of the Cyclades Islands where we would benefit from the (intense) prevailing northerly wind to sail and explore this region. We were almost dissuaded from heading to the Corinth at the last hour, as we heard first hand accounts of yachts being charged upwards of 700 euro to transit the canal. Though that had been two years ago, so we called, researched, calculated and took the chance that we wouldn’t be swindled as these poor yachties had obviously been in the past.

For future cruisers reading this blog – as we did other blogs when researching – we were charged 230 euro for our 44’ catamaran (though width did not incur an extra fee). Better than 700 euro I guess, but still the world’s most expensive canal to transit based on cost per kilometre.

Besides the Corinth Canal itself, a highlight of this journey was passing under one of the country’s proudest modern-day engineering achievements – the Rio-Antirio Bridge. Spanning 2,252 metres with four towering pylon supports, the bridge stands as the world’s longest cable-stayed suspended deck. At a cost of 630 million euro, it officially opened on time and on budget, just one week before the 2004 Athens Olympics. Its impressive design was in consideration that it lays on a difficult site – an active tectonic plate and given that the Peloponnese Peninsular is moving away from the mainland a few millimetres each year. To avoid the risk of a wayward ship crashing into its deck, there was 24-hour passage control of the bridge where we were required to report our ETA and directed which portion of the bridge to pass under. The sinking afternoon sun cast a warming hue on the mighty bridge deck and cables and made for a dramatic silhouette once the Rio-Antirio came between us.

Shortly after the underpass we anchored outside Navpaktos and its tiny medieval harbour. Barely making a mention in the pilot guidebook, this buzzing little spot had more bars than we could count and was a gem find along the otherwise bleary string of towns in the Gulf.

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The first day departing Zakinthos had been a long sailing day with excellent following winds. So much so that we’d sailed past several possible anchorages and covered almost one-third of the distance. Yet our sailing transit toward the Corinth Canal was to be short lived. The following few days were glassed out and breathless, bringing with it a heat wave in the mid 30s. There was no option but to motor for the next three days.

Surprisingly, what one would expect to be a busy body of water, we could count on just two hands the number of other yachts and ships on the water each day. Once moving onto the northern side of the Corinth Gulf the scenery was interesting, though increasingly more barren, and wildlife sightings included a pod of dolphins and a Loggerhead turtle that surfaced beside our anchored boat. I was naughty and jumped in the water with a mask, snorkel and the Go Pro camera. But it was getting dark, the water was murky, and Mr. Loggerhead dived out of there as soon as he heard me coming. Bumma.

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Regardless of the extent of your knowledge or passion for history or old rocks, one cannot help but be captivated by the mind-blogging past of Delphi, high in the mountains above the Corinthian Gulf. Before Christianity was introduced to the Greeks, their beliefs were of mythical Gods and their powers. King of the Gods Zeus, and his various siblings and offspring (love children of different mothers) such as Poseidon, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo and Hercules are names today instilled in culture, arts, music and literature of Western civilisation.

The legend goes that Zeus released two eagles at opposite ends of the world and where they met must be the center of the universe. That site was above Delphi and became a sacred location whereby multiple elaborate temples and shines were constructed for worship and offerings to demigods, most importantly Apollo and the Delphic oracle. To stand on the same ground that civilisation existed 1,600 years BEFORE Christ, or 3,600 years before our time was incomprehensible. Whilst mostly a pile of organised rocks that were buried after centuries of earthquakes and attacks, what was once there was still recognisable and colossal in scope.

The painstaking detail and staggering craftsmanship that rounded out the magnificence of this ancient site, or what remained, were delicately displayed at the adjacent Delphi Museum. After wandering in awe around the expansive ruins, the museum’s treasures and antiquities completed the image of a grand site of such significance to Greek history. The black and white photos of French archeologists recovering intact marble statues from the site back in 1890s were fascinating and you could almost feel their jubilation. That day was the first of many history lessons and it’s impossible not to be captivated by the incredible past of this country. As the t-shirt states – it all began in Greece!

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No less than five times this past month we have pulled up to moor or anchor in the exact same location as the mega motor yacht, A and A, that almost pinned us in by his anchor chain in Fiscardo, Kefalonia Island. Given there had been a few stern words between skippers in Fiscardo, we found it ironic and amusing that A and A was the one yacht we’d seen the most lately. So who would we pull up behind and follow through the Corinth Canal – yep you guessed it!

The six kilometer long, hand-dug Corinth Canal was originally opened in 1893 with the intentions of creating an integral Mediterranean trading route and cutting several hundred kilometers off the alternative travel route down around the Peloponnese Peninsular. During its operation, the canal had seen closures for up to four years at a time following landslips on its steep limestone walls – mostly due to seismic activity or wartime attacks. Given its width of only 25 meters and the burgeoning size of commercial trading vessels, it was now mostly utilised as a tourist route for visiting yachts and pleasure craft.

After announcing our arrival at the western entrance via VHF and waiting only about a half hour, we joined our convoy of six boats through the canal. Our Corinth passage was truly a scenic and rare experience.

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I relished the trip with a birdeye’s view from the bosons’ chair atop the mast. Despite a rocking boat that resulted in the top of the mast swinging a little extra, with my legs wrapped tightly around the mast for balance, I still managed a few photos and Go Pro shots from the elevated angle. Yet still only about one-third of the way up the 45-metre high canal walls.
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After a couple of days anchored off Aigina Island in the Saronic Gulf, our approach to Athens was through the busiest waterway we’d seen on our AIS tracking plotter (below). We even watched a submarine surface and stealthily cruise behind us in the military exercise grounds.

Five marinas lined the waterfront spanning Piraeus Port and Athens. After receiving a very good offer via email from the Athens Marina (formally Faliro), we chose to berth there over the more frequented Zea Marina. Athens Marina was purpose built for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games so yachts could berth alongside the Peace and Friendship Stadium – utilised for basketball competition during the Games.

Long since past its original purpose, this marina was isolated, offered basic facilities and no additional marina-related businesses. Though it suited us as security was good, nearby public transport was efficient once we navigated our way around, plus there was peace and quiet in an otherwise hectically busy city. The only regular noise was that of helicopters landing and taking off from the helipad 100 meters away, collecting or disembarking guests of the mega yachts berthed nearby. We also had our first ‘mini tanker’ diesel fuel up whilst alongside at the marina – that’s service for you.

Despite the immense urban sprawl, sweltering summer heat, traffic snarls, grubbiness and graffiti that appeared on every reachable wall surface in most districts, Athens was an intriguing city of contrasts. Apart from the goliath Acropolis reining supreme above – the peppering of ancient temples, monuments, historic sporting venues and churches throughout the city are dwarfed by an unattractive assembly of commercial and residential blocks.

Today Athens is home to almost four million people, or one-third of the country’s population. The youth of Greece have long flocked there in search of work from sleepy regional centers where industry is limited or islands impacted by a significantly seasonal tourism trade. Despite its ancient relics and turbulent past and present, the city exudes a youthful vibe in the numerous alcoves and alleyways where dimly lit bars hummed with music and conversation.

Much to mum’s delight we opted for the red hop-on hop-off tourist bus to get around the city and suburbs. Given the heat of the day and spread of historical sites, a breezy open-air double decker bus was a relatively effortless option to explore, with commentary provided along the way. First stop was the iconic Acropolis and Parthenon – said to be the Western world’s most important ancient monument. Mike and I had stood on the same rocks exactly 12 years before. Back in 2002 we were broke backpackers, having just had our stolen passports replaced at our respective embassies in Athens. Being too stingy to pay the entry fee at the time, we’d snuck through a gap in the fence. If only I had a digital photo from that occasion to compare. The scaffolding covered the same end of the Parthenon back then also – perhaps it was now a permanent fixture to support the heavy structure from further deterioration.

Our bus next dropped us at the Syntagma Square Parliament buildings where, along with an intimate crowd, we watched the hourly changing of guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider.  Their funny march was quite a sight and had us all captivated. As we headed off down the street we too were skipping, kicking and pointing our toes! After a long, hot afternoon of sightseeing, dinner followed at the pedestrian Plaka District – a Turkish quarter and Athen’s oldest neighbourhood.

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The next afternoon we set out to do it all over again, visiting the National Archeological Museum – one of the world’s best collections. The museum was filled with various statues of Greece’s many mythical Gods, heroes and decorative facades found around the country, many dating from 7,000 BC. Along with intricate gold, jewels and votive burial gifts exhumed from the ancient graves of aristocrats and royalty.

One exhibit was of the Antikythera shipwreck, found by divers off the island of Symi. Ancient wooden trade ships such as that were used to transport art and antiquities for sale in Italy. First items from the wreck were recovered in 1900 and then a second attempt made in 1976. There was little found of the ship itself, although several marble statues were recovered from the seafloor, some of which were partially buried in the sand. The portion of marble enveloped in sand was preserved whilst the remainder exposed to marine organisms had corroded – leaving behind an eerie shadow of these once grandeur sculptures.

The final evening in Athens was wandering around Monastiraki markets, Byzantine-era churches, antique stores, tourist wares and exclusive access to a rooftop patio to sip Mythos beers overlooking the afternoon sunbathed Acropolis.                     

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Much was said, written and reported on Athens’ readiness for the 2004 Summer Olympics Games. When the time came, Athens was indeed ready even though there was some paint still drying and plants being planted. Unfortunately, nine years on, evidence of the haste to be ready for the big event was now emerging. Dad has had plenty of experience in construction and quickly noted some obvious problems. Notwithstanding the problems with the Greek economy that have seen drastic reductions in public spending, he pointed out, and in dad’s words: “evidence of huge disparities in concrete quality evident by surface and other concrete pours breaking up from a combination of poor concrete batching, probably non-existing slump testing and the failure to manage compaction testing of the base fill. That now saw significant depressions appearing with the hot-mix top surface crumbling where water is allowed to pond and seep into the sub surface. Also were disparities of up to +-50mm over 10 meters where the road or car park surface meets the curb.”

We saw numerous abandoned and weed infested car parks, walkways and other spaces that during the Olympics would have seen tens of thousands of people heading to or from their venue. This included the car park adjacent to our marina that was each night used as a burnout and drag strip for local hoons. When compared to the wonderful legacies left to the communities and visitors by the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics, Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, the London 2012 Summer Olympics and even back as far as the Brisbane Expo ’88; Greece’s legacies, appear to have been largely underutilized. And the level of decay we saw during our short visit suggested there may be no remedy and the decay will continue unabated until demolition of some venues may be the only option.

Yet one obvious legacy of the Games is the metro and tram public transport systems. While heavily vandalised and many stations outside the tourist areas were in poor condition, the trains and trams were widely used by locals. Though it appears that very few people to pay to ride, as we often didn’t due to broken ticket machines and no turnstiles to block entry without a valid ticket. The lack of passenger fare income has most likely added to the country’s multi billion-dollar debt, money that will never be recouped as originally budgeted by the developer.

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After three nights there, we set out from Athens Marina on a windy 25-knot morning enroute for our last anchorage on the Greece mainland – Cape Sounion. Already benefiting from the now prevailing northerly winds, we sailed a beam reach the entire four-hour journey southeast. Unfortunately an error of judgment became an expensive lesson partway through the trip, when with increasing gusts, furling away the gennekar and incorrectly trying to unload wind, it was caught on a mast spreader. And amidst ear-splitting noise and slapping was sadly shredded beyond repair. Not a fun experience! Given the sail were six or seven years old and of an older design and material, dad was anticipating to have it surveyed at the end of the summer in Turkey. Instead he promptly has a new gennekar on order from our friends at One Sails in Croatia – to be couriered in a few weeks time. Given the strong winds we are now experiencing in the Cyclades, it will stay safely tucked away for ‘lighter’ wind days of up to 18 knots. Though we are not anticipating those days anytime soon.

Once anchored, the wind at Cape Sounion continued to howl all night, though with a well dug-in anchor we could sleep somewhat soundly under the watchful eye of Poseidon’s temple. Poseidon, God of the ocean, was gifted a fitting vantage point to watch out over his often volatile and angry Meltemi whipped seas. That next morning, we dinghy’d over for a quick walk around the 444 BC-built temple before plunging out into the Cyclades – Greece’s most iconic islands and her gusty seas. And that’s where we currently sit – pinned in an island port by the most consistent and strongest of Meltemi blows. I think we all underestimated what was in store for us out here.

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