Northern Greece: July 2 2009
We have passed through the meltemi and are in Northern Greece! We tied alongside the Limenas town breakwater on Thassos in a snug, free spot with easy footing on and off Barefeet (read...gangplank not required). Town is merely steps from the boat and we have quickly found the best breakfast spot on the island...Cheers. The Cafe Cheers Bar is run by the super friendly Peter (an expat from England). American style breakfast is tough to find in Greece and Peter's place is a real gem. Additionally, Peter has filled us with great info about the island. Thassos is often referred to as the Emerald Island due to its pine covered hills...and it certainly is spectacular. Amongst the hills are numerous hiking trails...yikes...we will need more time here. June 18 was a bit overcast so we decided to hike and explore. We took a 20 minute bus ride to the town of Panagia...a mountain town that has been called more Baltic than Greek with mountain streams and timber construction homes. From Panagia we followed the trail guide authored by Rose Gruwel and Truus van de Mast. The 11 km hike back to Limenas snaked quietly across mountain ridges with goat and sheep bells tinkling in the distance. A dinner of pizza under a lush grape arbor made a perfect end to the day.
Hugh and Fran arrived like clockwork into Kavala (June 19). Together we ferried back to Thassos, stowed bags and headed out to explore the ancient agora (marketplace). The agora was the center of the ancient town and dated back to the 6th century BC. Ruins hint at the bustle that must have been and are now bordered by the lively town of today. Panagia was worthy of a return trip so off the four of us went in the local bus. The sunny day provided panoramas that had been muted when Chris and Erin had been a couple of days earlier. The Church of the Virgin Mary (built in 1832) was filled with icons, burning oil lanterns and the glass enclosed red and white flag that Richard the Lionhearted carried in the Crusades. How do these things end up where they do?! Dinner was at a seaside taverna tucked on the shady side of the sunset. It was highly recommended by David and Marie (fellow regulars at Cheers) and they did not lead us astray. It was tasty food, good wine and an ocean expanse that could not be beat (June 20).
Sadly, the wind looked good so we hit the road (June 21). David saw us off and we made the short jump to the southern Thassos anchorage of Aliki. Dolphins joined us along the way and played between our hulls. Aliki is known for its marble quarries. The marble is white and was highly prized...ending up in some of the finest buildings of antiquity (for example the Agia Sophia in Istanbul). The quarry was a dinghy landing and a short trail walk from the anchorage. We tramped around the partially broken blocks and needed sunglasses against the white glare. Hugh was like a kid in a candy store amongst all those stones. Back at the anchorage we enjoyed frappes and watched the summer weekend spectacle on the beach. June 22 was a motor to the peninsula of Mount Athos. Mount Athos is also called the "Holy Mountain" and lies on the Atki peninsula. The peninsula is a land unto itself...although geographically part of Greece it is a Theocratic Republic (declared in 1926) and completely self-governing. Circling the peninsula on Barefeet is the closest that Erin or Fran could ever get...in 1060 women were forbidden from setting foot on the peninsula. More recently the edict has been loosened to allow female livestock and fowl...but that is it. Monasteries line the shores and are quite spectacular as they cling to the steep cliffs. There is neither electricity nor roads and telephones are rare. These monks want to be left alone; however, they have made their little piece of the world quite beautiful by employing some of the best painters and carvers over the centuries to beautify their chapels. Or so we have been told. Mist shrouded any clear views but the binoculars helped. A gusty night was spent at anchor off of Ammouliana island where we were treated to a lighting show and Barefeet got a good wash a la Mother Nature.
Porto Koufo was a tiny spot with space at the town pier (June 23). There were cruisers nearby (even an American boat, s/v Alchemy) and Hugh and Fran joined in sundowners at a local taverna. The afternoon floor show was a sight that we had not seen since the East coast of the US. A black lab poised himself as hood ornament as he dinghied back and forth to shore. Every fiber of his being looked to be enjoying the ride. His dinghy to boat leap was quite impressive. Nicely protected here we awaited calmer winds before departing June 25. We made a quick night stop at Nea Moudania with pizza on Barefeet for dinner. Unfortunately, the neighborhood cats jumped aboard after we went to bed and rifled through the garbage in the cockpit. Erin cleaned things up bleary eyed and walked down the docks to distance ourselves from the "catnip." However, the final disposal was cut short when four dogs came howling out of the dark towards her. Hhhhmmmm, the trash remained on the dock until the next morning. Ah well, cats are better than rats...blek! Needless to say we wasted no time getting to Thessaloniki (June 26). We pulled into the Thessaloniki Marina stern-to with no winds (www.thessaloniki-marina.gr or 2310 444 595). This is definitely the big smoke...technically the second largest city in Greece after Athens.
Thessaloniki has many sights of its own to see but it is also a good spot from which to visit outlying areas within Northern Greece. At the top of our list was the tomb of Philip II of Macedon (Alexander the Great's father). Peter alerted us to this historic sight (thanks Peter). Vergina is the site of the spectacular Royal Tomb Museum (approx 1.5 hours southwest of Thessaloniki). The museum is gorgeous. We entered a tomb mound and viewed countless artifacts found within the tomb (excavation began in 1977). Lights were dim until our eyes adjusted but the 3D recreations and in-place dioramas really set the scene (June 27). However, no light was shed upon the possibility that Alexander killed his father in order to take the throne...still a mystery. Closer to home we visited the Museum of Byzantine Culture (June 28). This Thessaloniki museum tracks social history through the Byzantine Empire from its early beginnings in Roman times through to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The masonry of the building was almost as beautiful as the exhibits with carefully placed bricks forming subtle designs and symmetry.
We endeavored a major road trip on June 29 to Meteora. The journey was 3.5 hours each way...with breaks along the way to unfold Hugh from the back seat and get a cold drink. Funny that at one gas station the vending machine only offered water or beer...hhhhmmmmm. Well, the drive was worth it. It was an other worldly sight to see fingers of rock rocket from the surrounding flat plain and be topped by monasteries. Yikes! How did they initially get up there? Myth suggests that monks of the first monastery believe their founder was carried to the top by an eagle. Actually, it sounded rather plausible. We only visited two of the Greek Orthodox monasteries but were spellbound by their beauty and awed by their self-sufficiency. The first one we visited was the Great Meteoron (founded in the 14th century). It is the highest, oldest and largest of the six monasteries at Meteora...and even has an ossia (or sacristy)...the final resting place for the bones of deceased monks. Definitely creepy. Second for us was the Varlaam Monastery which was founded in the 16th century and is easily reached across a bridge...no longer requiring being pulled up via rope basket. Many ostrich eggs decorated the chandeliers in the chapel as a symbol of resurrection an rebirth...they are very big eggs. As we drove through and between the pinnacles we noticed doors inside the rocks. It seems that living on top of a solitary rock is not isolated enough for some...they carved out hermit caves inside the rock face. Maybe it is okay that they are off by themselves?! It was a full day topped off by a lovely dinner at the home of Evy and Athanasios, relatives of friends. We feasted on homemade moussaka, Greek salad and slow cooked meat in a ring of potatoes. Family distilled after dinner liqueur helped with the digestion.
June 30 we four departed via plane for Athens. Unfortunately, the visit was a bit truncated because we all suffered from a 72-hour stomach bug...with staggered start times. Some of us saw more of the capital city than others but it was a great way to end the visit. We peeked at the tiny Aghia Dynamis...a modest Greek Orthodox church located in the corner of a parking garage. However, do not be fooled by its quaintness...it owns all that you see around you in downtown Athens. Chris dusted off his memory and located a delicious grillhouse. Its signature dish is old fashioned paidaka (chargrilled lamb chops). The chops were simply sprinkled with oregano and drizzled with olive oil but they were amazingly flavorful, tender and juicy. Yum! And the location on a sidewalk beside a church was all Greek. July 2 Erin and Chris headed back to Thessaloniki and Hugh and Fran headed back to Boston. It was a fun visit that was difficult to see end. Back in Thessalonkiki Erin and Chris did a quick boat and linen cleaning before Lino and Phyllis arrived on July 3.