Saturday, September 13, 2008

Notes on Greece sailing trip

Travel tales -- unless you're a Paul Theroux or a Bruce Chatwin or a Henry Miller, etc. etc. -- are like dreams: no one REALLY wants to hear them. The best tellings come out in dribs and drabs, detail by detail over a lifetime of recounting. So I'll keep it short. Pictures here.

I chose to go to Greece on somewhat of a whim -- an email from a stranger in NYC about a sailing opportunity in the Greek islands. I'll give you a few highlights but not everything here. I won't talk about my traveling companions much but can tell you I learned from them and am grateful. I learned that I'd rather travel alone. No indictment implied, just the certaintly that I'm at my best with companions who, like me, have an insatiable curiousity about others, about history, politics, literature and who can talk all night with passion and yet know exactly when to enjoy the silence.


  • Greece in early September is hot. HOT HOT HOT HOT. The kind of hot that makes your face sweat and rivulets run down your back.
  • Athens is sprawling and not terribly pleasant, with pockets of wonderfulness. The view of the Acropolis is everything it's made out to be: indelibly memorable and not to be missed at night.

  • We took a bus across Greece to the Ionian and it was fine. One bathroom stop in 5 hours -- loved that! The bus station in Athens is like bus stations the world over: sad and dirty and fume-filled and confusing but this one had stray dogs to look at and the best coffee we had in Greece, bar none.
  • In the tiny town of Vounitsa, we had to ask for a ride from a stranger who had wild hair and was covered in grease (ha). He turned out to be educated, bright and sanguine and a lovely man who drove us 14 kilometers and refused our money when we reached our port town.
  • Our sailboat at Vounakis on the Ionian Sea was lined up with twenty or thirty or forty cookie-cutter boats and I didn't -- and never did -- feel its soul. I'm spoiled by a lifetime of learning appreciation for the "authentic" from my parents and carried with me an unfortunate sense of loathing for the fiberglass, everything-automatic, overly electronically-equipped vessel.
  • Our one night in the port was a blast. After the rest of the crew (who had rented a car for the ride to Vounakis) left us (E. and I) I befriended two chaps from Manchester on a nearby boat who were finishing their own adventure (as part of a flotilla of sailboats -- something I'd not heard of). We spent most of the night with them, met the rest of their friendly flotilla-mates and generally drank too much and had more fun than I've had in nearly a year. Cheers, Philip and Patrick from Manchester -- and thank you.
  • Our crew was eclectic and generally kind. Our conversations (for the 3 nights I spent on the boat) were completely forgettable. No books, no politics, no poetry.
  • We got in some sailing and it was great. We averaged a paltry 3 knots, unfortunately, and had to motor, mostly, to our first stop, at the beautiful island of Meganisi.
  • Swimming was a highlight: the water was warm and clear and an otherworldly blue (cobalt and seaglass green). Unfortunately, it was too warm for me (not refreshing, really) and the amazing cobalt blue reminded me of 2000 Flushes from my childhood.
  • I left the boat at the island of Paxos (where I also left my heart). I needed to go to Corfu (had always had a thing in my head for the island) and the crew was experiencing some dissent and I was too hot and needed some downtime. I figured this out after a hot hike up the highest hill to a lighthouse that I couldn't access (Greek Army/Navy, I was told). I had meandered up, up, up and found myself gazing at the ancient olive trees and the winding paths and zigzagging stone walls and felt an incredible peace for the first time since leaving New York.
  • Corfu. I felt very much at home there, despite the heat. It's an amazing place, with an Old Town like most Old Towns that charmed immediately. Our hotel, Hotel Astron, was perfect: not too expensive but newly renovated with a cool marble lobby and even cooler room looking out to the sea and the New Fort. I highly recommend it.
  • A highlight of Corfu for me was a solitary afternoon. I decided to visit Kanoni, mentioned in The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller which I had been re-reading (or trying to). Another was a late night of wine and music near the top of the New Fort with a couple of local boys.
  • After 2 nights in Corfu, we flew back to Athens to start our long trip home. We had a scary time in the taxi on the way from the airport to our hotel near the Acropolis: the car died, right in the middle of a tunnel, with a blind turn behind us, motorcycles and Mac trucks whizzing by at 90 miles an hour. I really thought there was a good chance we'd be killed. But we weren't.
  • The flight from Athens to JFK is an appalling 10.5 hours. I can't recommend Delta for a trip this long (horrible in-flight entertainment, so-so food, expensive drinks).
  • Finally, I don't know that I'll ever set foot in Athens again but plan to (god willing) return to both Corfu and Paxos in the off season one day soon. Yassou!

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