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Month: October 2020

Paxos – Limestone and Little Villages

Paxos – Limestone and Little Villages

Paxos and Antipaxos, together called Paxoi, are the smallest island group in the Ionian, just south of Corfu. On September the 7th we sailed to Lakka, a small village on the northern end of Paxos. We knew Lakka is a popular anchorage, so we wanted to be there early in the afternoon in order to secure a place. We had some mayhem along the way, however, so we didn’t arrive until 7 pm – the bay looked absolutely packed as I was looking through my binoculars, but we sailed closer to have a look. After all, there’s always room for an optimist – and there was! In fact, more than ten boats came after us, and somehow they all managed to squeeze in.

There sure were a lot of boats! The large, protected bay of Lakka is only about 3 metres deep, so you get by with very little anchor chain. And once you’ve stayed for a while, you get used to being close to other boats and it no longer bothers you. But we’ve heard stories about sudden strong winds turning the place into total chaos – anchor chains crossing and wrapping together, boats dragging and taking other boats with them. In a crowded place the “chain reaction” happens quickly, and the only way to save your boat is to get your anchor up as quickly as possible, and get to the open sea, where there’s always room. Fortunately, the forecast for the next few days was very benign, so we had no worries.

Lakka is a very pretty little village. There’s a row of seaside restaurants, and a few more in the narrow streets and small squares behind. There are small boutiques and a good little supermarket – the owner was pleased to see Finnish customers, and told us that he likes to watch ski jumping on TV every winter! He was also an enthusiastic traveller, and had visited the Scandinavian countries many times.

The anchorage was full of buzz in the evenings, as people headed into town for dinner. The town quay was full of rubber dinghies! Lakka seemed to be a particular favourite among charter and flotilla boats, who Med-moored at the town quay. It was nice to see so many charter tourists as well as customers in the many restaurants, because the travel industry in Greece has suffered greatly during the corona spring and early summer. In the Ionian islands in particular, that rely on tourism, the situation had been severe, and everyone was trying to make the best of it now that they had the chance. We had slightly contradictory feelings about the busy, crowded tourist towns – it was great for the local economy, of course, but a bit awkward for us, because we had lived the last six months in almost total seclusion.

We dinghied around the northern tip of Paxos. The limestone cliffs had petrified into fantastic shapes. There were small caves, deserted sandy beaches and rugged rocks. The water was incredibly clear and turquoise, and you could see the bottom more than 10 metres deep.

After a few leisurely days in Lakka, we pulled up our anchor and sailed down the western coast of Paxos. We wanted to see the the great stone walls and caves, frequented by tourist boats many times a day.

At the famous Blue Cave we encountered two of these big boats. One of them turned the disco speakers on while inside the cave, as loud as can be – we really hoped they had a defibrillator on board! But the caves were magnificent.

Then we anchored for a few nights in the small bay of Mongonissi, at the southern end of Paxos. It was a tranquil, pleasant place with a couple of restaurants on the beach. One had the best pizza we’ve had in the whole of Mediterranean, with very authentic Italian taste. The bay seemed to be popular with day boaters.

Gaios, Paxos

From Mongonissi we made a day trip on our dinghy to Gaios, about a mile away. Gaios is the main town of Paxos. It’s built along a canal of sorts, formed by the island of Agios Nikolaos. The little town has a very Venetian air with small squares, churches and cafes, all bordering the canal. The sides of the canal are packed with boats. In the evening, when the ferry traffic stops, cruising boats can moor at the town quay.

The views along the canal were very pretty.

The quaint little streets are full of tourist paraphernalia, but a little further on you will find more peaceful and scruffy neighbourhoods.

Now it was time to leave Paxos behind. On September the 15th we sailed back to the mainland. The next morning we would read a hair-raising weather forecast, but as yet we were blissfully ignorant. What do you think was on its way to Greece? Next time I’ll tell you.

Castle Tour Continues – Corfu

Castle Tour Continues – Corfu

Our sailing journey had taken us from one Venetian castle to the next, from Lefkada to Vonitsa and then to Parga, which I wrote about in my last post. Now we continued towards Corfu, the northernmost of the Greek Ionian islands.

We spent one night along the way in a randomly chosen little bay, and arrived in the anchorage outside Corfu Old Town, also known as Kerkyra, on August the 29th. This town, like Parga and Vonitsa, is protected by a dominant castle. The large fortress fills an entire promontory, where the whole city of Corfu was located during the Byzantine era. The Venetians built a new fortress, and added a huge moat to divide it from the mainland and the newer part of the city, also surrounded by great stone walls. This fortress was able to repulse three major Ottoman attacks in the 16th and 18th centuries. Today the fortified town is a Unesco World Heritage site*.

Corfu has a very Italian, or Venetian, atmosphere – or you could call it European or Mediterranean. It’s not typically Greek, that’s what I’m trying to say, at least based on the little glimpse we’ve seen of Greece so far. Because the town grew inside city walls, it’s very compact and maze-like. The houses are tall and colourful. They open up to the narrow streets with archways filled with little shops, cafes and restaurants. Many buildings are carefully restored, some are decayed in a very picturesque way. This coexistence of polished and worn is so natural and beautiful, that we’ve seldom felt so much at home as we did here. And as a largely pedestrian town, it’s very cosy because there’s no traffic noise. In Corfu town you hear footsteps echoing from the stone walls, people chattering, music from the restaurants and the loud chirping of the huge flocks of swallows that fill the sky above the city.

As the dusk fell, we meandered through the town, enjoying the velvet warm evening in the lively narrow streets and squares. In Finland this last weekend of August is traditionally celebrated with candles and fireworks as the end of the holiday season, as well as the end of the sailing season, and called the “Venetian weekend” – what could be a better way to celebrate the Venetian weekend than in an old Venetian town! We weren’t ready to end our sailing season yet, though – why, we had just barely begun after spending two months on the boatyard!

In the Town Hall square we sat down for a glass of wine and to observe the busy life around us – families enjoying their dinner, tourists looking for a place to dine, boys playing football on the town hall stairs. Soon we noticed a restaurant in one corner of the square, that was absolutely packed, with several people waiting outside for a table. It must be a good place, we figured – and we were not disappointed!

Our favourite restaurant on the right.

We spent almost a week in Corfu, anchoring in the bay. Every hour or so a party boat would sail through the anchorage, with flashing disco lights and loud music, but otherwise it was a pleasant place to stay.

In front of the castle there was a handsome selection of anchored superyachts. These two were our personal favourites.

We went on a dinghy ride into the moat that separates the castle from the city. It’s full of small fishing boats, and on the shore there seemed to be a number of do-it-yourself summer cottages leaning against the great city wall.

Not far from the fishing harbour, there’s the park and palace of Mon Repos. The palace, that today houses an archaeological museum, is the birth home of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, born here in 1921. We photographed the palace from the sea on our way back south.

Now our tour of Venetian castles was over – for a while, anyway, as we are quite certain we will find more soon enough! We headed towards the island of Paxos, south of Corfu. More about Paxos in the next post!

* Other Unesco sites we have visited along our sailing journey: the Malbork Castle in Poland, the monastery of le Mont-Saint-Michel in France, the famous pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and beautiful Porto in Portugal.

Castle to Castle – Parga

Castle to Castle – Parga

The Ionian islands of Greece were part of the Venetian Republic for more than four hundred years. Venice conquered the islands one by one – Corfu in 1383, Zakynthos about a century later, Kefalonia and Ithaca around 1500 and finally Lefkada in 1718. The Venetians and Ottomans fought over the territory for many centuries, but unlike the rest of Greece, the Ionian islands escaped the Ottoman rule. Corfu, as the bulwark against the Ottoman empire became one of the most fortified places in Europe.

Napoleon conquered the thousand-year-old Republic of Venice in 1797, and the islands became a part of France. The British, however, captured the southern Ionian islands in 1809-10 and besieged the northern islands that were under French rule. In 1815 the islands were turned into the United States of the Ionian Islands under British rule.

During our journey, we had passed the Venetian castle of Santa Maura in Lefkada. Then we had visited the Vonitsa castle in the Ambracian gulf. As we continued our sailing trip past Preveza and into the open sea, we could sail from one castle to the next – we would find some of the finest Venetians castles in Parga and Corfu.

We had a great upwind sail north from Preveza, until the wind died. We motored for a while and reached a nice anchorage called Two Rock Bay, on the Greek mainland opposite the island of Paxos. It’s a beautiful place with some great snorkeling – definitely worth its own blog post – and we stopped there for a couple of nights. Then we continued to Parga.

A little chapel built in a crevice of a rock wall
Sailboats on the Ionian coast

The Greek coastline is very rugged and monumental around here. The limestone cliffs fall vertically into the turquoise sea, and you can see tiny white beaches and caves everywhere. The shores are unapproachable in most places, with big rocks like pointy teeth. There are very few protected anchorages, but outside the town of Parga there’s a big bay with a large anchorage and a long, sandy beach. We arrived there early in the afternoon on August the 25th, and found plenty of space to anchor. By evening the whole bay was full of boats, paragliding chutes, speedboats towing water skiers and all sorts of inflatable objects full of bouncing and screaming tourists. It was a very lively anchorage!

We launched our dinghy, rounded the cape of Parga with the castle on top, and visited the pretty town. The colourful houses seem to be piled on top of each other on the steep hill below the castle. A stone wall borders the water front, and outside small fishing boats swing in their moorings. You can swim to the small island of Panagia, with a small white chapel. We didn’t find a dedicated landing spot for our dinghy, so we just pulled it up on the beach and slipped into the hustle and bustle of the town

There was quite a lot more hustle and bustle than we were used to, having spent a rather quiet spring and summer because of the corona restrictions. It actually felt a little scary to walk among the hoards of tourists on the narrow streets, where waiters and shopkeepers were competing for customers. After a pizza dinner, we were happy to return to the peace and quiet of our boat, albeit in the middle of a crowded anchorage.

The next day we climbed up to the castle hill. Here, just like in Vonitsa, we found no information about the history of the place – just the meandering stone walls, towers and loopholes, and buildings resembling gunpowder cellars or dungeons. Spread across the grass here and there were bronze cannons. There’s so much more ancient history to be found everywhere in Greece for anyone to pay much attention to these fairly recent structures. Coming from a country with very little in the way of built history, it feels strange, but at least we could have the stronghold almost entirely to ourselves. And the views over the town, the anchorage, and the Ionian sea were spectacular!

I did some research on my own, and learned that the castle was originally built by the Normans in the 11th century. Back in those days these Viking settlers of Normandy seemed to be all over the Mediterranean, occupying much of southern Italy and Sicily (in this blog post you can read about our visit to a Norman city of Cefalú in Sicily) and spreading with them military innovations and Romanesque architecture, among other things. The Ottomans tried to capture the area from the 15th century onwards, and that’s when the castle was rebuilt by the Venetians – several times, actually, since they had to fight the Ottomans many times during the centuries. The British sold Parga with its citadel to Ali Pasha, an independent Ottoman ruler, in 1819. He built a harem and a Turkish bath within the castle walls.

From Parga we sailed northwards, to Corfu. More about that next time!