So with our revised courses set for the Corinth Canal we left Vathi at just after 7 in the morning on the 17th. Our first stop was to be in the harbour of Mesolongion on the north side of the Gulf of Patras about 40 miles, or 8 hours, from Ithaca.
We left Vathi in rather damp and overcast weather and it never really brightened up. The ‘highlight’ of an otherwise uneventful crossing was that I actually managed to fly the Chute again for just under an hour. We arrived in Mesolongion at just before 3 pm.
Mesolongion is a rather isolated place on the edge of the mud banks and salt flats that fringe this coast. Its claim to fame is that Lord Byron died here in 1824 whilst trying to assist the Greeks in their War of Independence from Turkey. The harbour is a large ‘lagoon’ of sorts reached via a narrow channel about 1 mile long. The town is about a kilometre inland from the harbour but is not a must see destination by any stretch of the imagination. There is a statue to him in town but apparently little else. The harbour itself is rather desolate with a commercial quay in one corner and a small but rather tired looking marina in the other. However, it is a safe anchorage for the night a convenient ‘day passage’ from Ithaca, and surprisingly picturesque in the evening!
We plan to be off first thing in the morning for 35 mile trip into the Gulf of Corinth to the island of Trizonia off the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth.
We left the anchorage in Port Atheni on Meganisi early on Monday morning in order to reach Vathi on the island of Ithaca just after lunch, so avoiding some afternoon adverse winds.
Our 20 mile trip across started in flat calm conditions but by mid morning we had sailable winds from behind us and so I dragged out the Cruising Chute and gave it an airing. But that was all it got, the wind took one look at it and dropped away to nothing! Once the Chute was down the wind picked up from the port bow and we actually sailed under plain sails for the last hour or so until we reached Vathi.
Vathi is the main port on Ithaca and is at the head of a large sheltered bay on the east side of the island. It has a Town Quay but you can also anchor in the bay, which is what we did. Our intention was to spend a day or so here waiting for an opportunity to move south when the wind changed. Unfortunately, when it did change it would have got us down to the bottom of the Peloponnese just in time to meet a blow coming from the east. This would have kept us hiding down there for who knows how long waiting for more favourable winds. So on Wednesday we decided that heading south was not an option and that we would instead use the Corinth Canal again. This is not a cheap option but we wouldn’t be spending money on diesel motoring round the Peloponnese, apparently it is 135 miles shorter! We also wouldn’t have the aggravation of waiting for possible ‘weather windows’. Instead we’ll spend a couple of days exploring the Gulfs of Patras and Corinth.
So we had 3 night anchored off Vathi. As with most towns in the area it suffered badly in the earthquake in 1953 and so is fairly ‘new’. It is quite a big town and is spread around the bay and the brightly painted make it very picturesque. It is pretty busy with yachts and is a regular haunt of charter fleets heading for the apparently free Town Quay. The town is quite lively and there are numerous tavernas along the quaysides and more in the side streets. In amongst these are a lot of boutique type tourist shops, in addition to the odd bakery, fruit and veg shop and even a small chandler. It is a busy place and seems to come alive in the evening. We had dinner ashore on Monday and had a wander around town on Tuesday before a leisurely dinner and drinks. On Wednesday we stocked up on fresh food and I visited the Archaeological Museum. Ithaca was the home of Odysseus and ruins above Port Polis on the west coast are the remains of his palace. The museum though is a small affair displaying pottery and some coins found at various sites around the island but it was free and an interesting way to spend 20 minutes.
Our stay in Vathi was pleasant despite the uncertainty with the weather and our sudden change of plans. However; it does mean that when we arrive in the Cyclades our first island will now be Kithnos. This will put us almost a week ahead of ‘schedule’ but will mean missing Milos, Sifnos and Serifos. On the plus side, we may get to catch up with ‘Scarlett’.
We hung around in Lakka for an extra weekend so as to arrive in Lefkas on Monday, 7 May, hoping for an engineer’s visit on Tuesday morning to assess our generator problems, until this was fixed we would be pretty much stuck in Lefkas, the last service area for a few hundred miles …… hence Languishing in Lefkas!
We had an uneventful passage from Lakka and arrived off Lefkas at about 2.45pm, as planned giving us 15 minutes to hang around waiting for the swing bridge between Lefkas and the mainland to open at 3pm.
Once through the bridge our next challenge was finding somewhere to tie up. There is a long Town Quay but it is ‘infested’ with charter boats and this early in the season there are still a lot without charterers. Our first attempt was to anchor but the holding was dubious and there was no room to swing. We ended up tying back to what was effectively an overflow town quay on a causeway leading out of town to the swing bridge, in amongst a load of unchartered charter boats. It transpired that although technically public by Wednesday the ‘Charter Company’ made it quite clear we were not welcome. Rather than push the point, on Thursday, we moved to a now vacant spot on the Town Quay for the rest of our stay at €10 per night …. mercifully we didn’t need to even think about using Lefkas Marina at €82 per night!!!
The generator problem was a not simple one and we were very grateful for the attentions of the engineer from Contract Yacht Services. Unlike Engineers from certain service companys in the UK, Panos arrived exactly when he said he would and, although it took three days of elimination, testing and phone calls to Fischer Panda in Athens, he finally identified a temperature sensor as the villain of the piece. Prior to that he found, and replaced, a leaking exhaust hose (jubilee clip probably never tightened correctly in the first place) and a burned out electrical connector (badly fitted originally). Neither of which were easy to find and neither affected the original problem. He also took the outboard and serviced that. Not our cheapest week as we also had to fill up with diesel but we now have a generator, our tender and 400 litres of fuel so are set for a summer of anchoring in isolated, hopefully, charter boat free bays.
We did have a few evenings to kill in Lefkas and found a number of very pleasant tavernas to indulge our newly rekindled hunger for Saganaki, grilled cheese, generally accompanied by a half litre of white wine and sometimes a meal. On two of these evenings we got caught in torrential rain showers, and so had to shelter in tavernas ….
Lefkas is far from picturesque or even quaint. One of the victims of the ’51 earthquake it is now a mixture of old buildings which survived, rebuilt ones finished in wriggly tin and new concrete ones. There is definitely a tourist feel to the place but there is life not involving tourists. Lefkas is a working town, heavily centred on the charter market as evidenced by the very high ‘Chandlers per Square Mile’ figure! It is lively without being overly busy and, under less traumatic circumstances, would have made a pleasant stop over.
But now, fully functional again, we are resuming our passage south. Valeria will go to the market tomorrow as I get the boat ready for sea and we plan to be away before the afternoon wind sets in!
After our swift passage to Paxos we decided to hang around for a few days and spend my birthday in Lakka.
Having settled in we had a series of suprises, one nice, the others not so much. First we discovered that some friends from Roccella were here, Jim and Karen in Mai Tai had arrived a few days earlier. We spent an evening with them before they set off again. That was the nice suprise.
The not so nice ones were mechanical. The generator still won’t run properly. The leaking salt water impeller which I had fixed in Roccella was likely only the symptom and not the actual problem as it appears the exhaust cooling water is not getting through to the exhaust, causing it to over heat. We have arranged for repairs in Lefkas but now have to annoy the anchorage every day running an engine to top up the batteries.
And being anchored, we need our Tender to get ashore. The out board engine has decided to pack up and I think it is the carburettor float valve is stuck. Not so difficult to fix if you have the spare gaskets …… which I don’t. But we’re off to Lefkas so in the mean time I can row, having glued the rowlock back on which decided to fall off just as I needed it.
So, my birthday started with loads of texts from friends and relatives. I then rowed us ashore as we were in search of Paxos Olive Oil, once exclusively sold by Harrods. We found the Olive Oilery but it was deserted and so sat and drank wine and used the WiFi at a bar over looking the anchorage for lunch. They were only serving omlettes and toast so I decided to save my self for my birthday BBQ, and a quick turi pitta (phonetic Greek for cheese pasty) from the baker on the way to the Olive Oilery on our second attempt at a purchase. Whilst in the bakery we asked if the lady knew when the Oilery might be open. She pointed to a guy chatting in the street, “That’s Antonis” (the Oiler). Don’t you just love tiny villages! So we have 5 litres of Paxos Olive Oil!
It was then back to the boat for the Birthday BBQ; nice big home made burgers and a couple of steaks ……… and some salad, because I am so healthy ……..
At this point, under more favourable mechanical conditions we would probably have set off south again as the wind turned around to the north. However; we now needed to be in Lefkas on Monday, arriving after all the Charter boats had left. So we planned an early start on Monday. As it turned this was a good plan as the weather over the weekend worsened progressively ending up with 30 knot winds and lots of rain on Sunday night.
Lakka was a pleasant stop over for our first visit of the year. The town is small, quaint and we could have enjoyably visited on a daily basis, outboard and weather permitting. Maybe another visit in September as we return to Roccella?
For our last few days in Florence we bought a pair of 3 day ‘Firenze Cards’. These were quite expensive and so we were determined to get the maximum use of them, although I am not sure that it is actually possible to see everything worth seeing in three days, but we tried. The challenge is that there is so much there and so little time to appreciate it all!
Our guest house, Affittacamere Nel Cuore qDi Firenze, was right alongside the Palazzo Vecchio, home to the Medici family, and as such was really centrally placed for seeing the sights.
Although chilly it was really pleasant wandering around between our chosen destinations. It was also unexpectedly crowded, in March; what it would be like in the height of the tourist season I shudder to imagine. Florence is generally quite expensive but it is a University town so there are cheaper alternatives, the Central Market for one and near our guest house a series of ‘street food’ restaurants that sold enormous meat sandwiches.
The Medicis originally came to Florence from a small Tuscan village, Cafaggiolo, in the 12th century and made their money in banking. Cosimo went to work for his dad at the family bank which, by the 15th century, had branches all over Europe. This made it the bank of choice for the Papacy; local churches could easily find a Medici Bank to pay their contributions into and get it transferred to Rome! Early in his political career Cosimo was banished from Florence in 1434. He left and took his bank with him, as you do. This resulted in other financiers and artists seeking patronage following him to Venice. His banishment lasted for all of a year after which he was asked to come back, with his bank!
In 1737 the last Grand Duke of Medici descent died without an heir ending 300 years of family rule. In that time the Medici sponsored virtually every Italian scientist, artist, architect or philosopher you have ever heard of and most of the ones you haven’t; as a result the city is pretty magnificent.
Palazzo Richardo Medici
Santa Maria Novela
Santa Maria Novella
Almost every building is spectacularly decorated, with a heavy emphasis on painted ceilings; we needed neck braces after three days of looking up!
Florence Cathedral, Il Duomo
The only ‘disappointment’ was the Duomo. Externally it is a magnificent building but internally it is relatively plain, being free should have given us a clue, and we could have given it a miss and not missed a lot. The saving grace were the extensive Roman ruins in the crypt. There is a Duomo Museum which is more interesting than the actual Duomo itself!
La SS Annunziata di Firenze
The Medici weren’t the only wealthy bankers in Florence. The Pitti family were pretty well off too and had a small place, sorry palace, on the south bank of the Arno. The Pitti and Medici were not the best of friends and the Pitti were amongst those who banished Cosimo.
Almost every room was magnificently painted with ceilings to match, each one more spectacular than the last.
This is one wall and the ceiling, painted. The top of the wall is where the two spotlights sit.
The Church and Convent of Santa Croce was built in what was a poor area of Florence and is below the level of the River Arno; it floods dramatically, with water height reaching 5 metres or more.
Michaelangelo’s ‘David’ in the Academia was magnificent. We didn’t find the rest of the museum so impressive, but then we’re not art historians.
So far I think Florence was the most impressive Italian city we have visited. Rome the most historic, Venice the most romantic (I proposed to Valeria there) and Pisa the most iconic, but Florence is the one we would definitely return to. There is still so much to see.
We took the train from Florence to La Spezia, a 2 hour journey and then got the local coastal train which allows you to hop on and off at each village which are about 5 minutes apart on the train. The five villages of Cinque Terra from west to east are Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore; we started at Monterosso.
Monterosso is a large village in 2 parts; the northern end around the harbour is pretty uninspiring but a walk south from the station takes you into the older part of town. Quaint enough but nothing to grab our imagination!
The remaining villages are fairly quaint, and have a pretty unique character but they are far from the isolated havens of picturesque tranquillity they once were or the brochures would have you believe they still are. Certainly, Monterosso and, finally, Riomaggiore, being the closest to ‘civilisation’ are perhaps the least inspiring of the five.
Corniglia, the central village of the 5, is perched high above the coast without its own harbour. It is the most isolated and least spoilt of the villages and is all narrow winding streets and alleyways, which are never far from terraces with great views along the coast.
Vernazza and Manorolo are the most colourfully painted of the villages (think Tobermoray in Italian) and Manorolo has the most ‘interesting’ harbour.
In the case of Manorolo the term ‘harbour’ is rather ambitious. It is more of a rock pool with a very steep slip way, and a crane to lift boats the 20 or so metres up the cliff to avoid using the slip way!
By the time we got to Riomaggiore we were well and truly Cinque Terra’d out. That this is the least attractive of the five probably didn’t help, but again, the views were good.
Over all we were somewhat underwhelmed; but then we have seen many quaint, picturesque villages in our travels and fully admit to being spoilt. The area is a hiking destination and there are a series of trails, totalling I think 35 km, (all closed when we visited) along the coast linking the villages. The advice is to spend a week in the area, with a day or so in each village to get to know each one. I think that a good days walk with stunning views and an evening enjoying the local cuisine in a quaint fishing village is the way to see the area, ‘binging’ all 5 in a few hours is not. Unfortunately, for us it was a long day and a little bit of an anti climax!
On Wednesday, 21st, we took a bus tour from Florence through the Tuscan countryside south of the city to nearby Siena, on the way visiting the villages of Monteriggioni and San Gimignano and having a wine tasting lunch.
San Gimignano is a small, picturesque, walled town with a castle on top of the hill. This was a typical bus tour flying visit with just an hour scheduled. San Gimignano was famous for it’s tower houses, most of which are gone, but the height of the tower indicated the wealth of the family concerned. There were some 72 towers once, now down to just 13 remaining. The village was apparently founded by the Etruscans, rather than the Romans. Our guide told us the Etruscans built on hill tops but the Romans favoured rivers!
Moneriggioni is a large castle with a village inside it. It was built by the Sienese in the 13 century as a defence against the Florentine Medici and was reputed to be impregnable, until 1554. The Medicis laid siege to the castle and in typically Medici style deployed their powerful and exceptionally large ‘Seige Wallet‘. They simply bribed someone to leave the castle gates unlocked – and then Monteriggioni wasn’t so impregnable after all!
After leaving Monteriggioni we were taken to a local vineyard for lunch and a wine tasting; the almost obligatory attempt to flog very expensive wine and obscenely expensive Balsamic Vinegar to a bus load of tourists. The vinegar was really good, the price not so much and we were introduced to various varieties of Chianti, but I am afraid it was lost on Valeria and I; we liked the red but not the white so much ….. Philistines!
Siena was our final, and longest, stop. Legend has it that the city was founded by the sons of Remus, co founder of Rome. This is supposedly why Siena and Rome use the wolf suckling two children as their ‘badge’; apparently both the stories about the founder and the badge are just myths.
The high lights of the visit were the main square, the Piazza del Campo. They hold a horse race around the square twice a year and scenes from ‘Quantum of Solace’ were filmed there.
The real attraction though is the Cathedral; The Duomo di Siena. It is magnificently decorated. We were told by our guide that the interior of the Duomo was more impressive than that of Florence’s much larger version; having now seen both we can confirm she was right. It is magnificent, the Reading Room doubly so, and photographs simply can’t do it justice.
It was a full day and nice to get out to see a bit of the surrounding area. Tuscany, or the bit we saw from the bus windows is very picturesque and the villages and towns are quaint. Siena probably has more to offer than our 3 hours there afforded us, but if nothing else the Duomo was well worth the visit!
Tuesday, the 20th, was our first full day in Florence and we went for a wander to get our bearings.
Although Florence is a maze of narrow streets these suddenly open out into large piazzas allowing you to actually stand back and see the monumental architecture, not always possible in other places! Once you get your bearings navigating between the churches and palaces is not too difficult.
Without our Firenze Card at this point we decided to head for the free stuff, of which there is not a lot. The most obvious is the Piazzale Michaelangelo on the south bank of the river offering spectacular views across the city. There is also the Abbey of San Minato al Monte above the Piazzale. The facade is impressive but the interior not so much. We also followed a recommendation for a restaurant and had dinner in the Trattoria La Casalinga – the meals were great and the fillet steak was excellent!
So with an better idea of what to see and where to see it we decided to take Wednesday and Thursday to see some of the countryside around Florence and then dedicate the weekend to seeing the city itself.
We left Lugano on Monday, 19th March on the train to Florence having planned a week in an Air B&B guest house in the centre of town. We knew there was a lot to see there but now, having done it, realise that is a massive understatement.
We bought ourselves Firenze Cards, which are 72 hour passes giving access to all the museums and monuments and each one was grander than the last. But I get ahead of myself.
We arrived on Monday afternoon and with our planned bus stop programmed into Google Maps set off from the train station …. into a building site; the bus stop was under a large pile of bricks! We managed to find the temporary stop and then caught the small electric shuttle bus that runs around the tiny back streets of the city. These buses might be environmentally friendly, but they are the most uncomfortable vehicles in existence. They have elliptical wheels, no suspension and run on cobbled streets. It dropped us off a short walk from our Air B&B, on the top floor of a building right alongside the Palazzo Vecchio. It was quirky place but ideal for our needs and it was entirely central.
With 7 days in town and the Firenze Card only lasting 3 days we decided to reconnoitre on Tuesday, take a bus tour into the Tuscan countryside on Wednesday, and on Thursday, the best forecast weather, a day trip on the train to Cinqueterra, 5 coastal villages in a National Park near La Spezia. On Friday, Saturday and Sunday we would ‘do’ Florence on the Firenze Card before catching the over night bus back to Roccella.
Our last day in Lugano was Sunday, 18th March. The weather was chilly and overcast but not raining and Marco and Soraia took us out for the day again, this time headed up into the Alps, well the Alpine foot hills, above Locarno.
We drove up the Maggia valley leading north from the shore of Lake Maggiore at Locarno and followed it up above the snow line, passing through Cevio towards Val Bavona. The valley seems to have old stone built villages every 1 or 2 km along its entire length.
Originally working villages they are now predominantly holiday homes, but at the top of the valley we found a working farm selling goats cheese (an honesty box and an open fridge!) On the way back down we found a nice restaurant, the Grotto Baloi in Fontana, for a simple lunch of Polenta and Cheese. Valeria was just happy with the roaring log fire!
From there we drove back down the valley to Locarno on the shores of Lake Maggiore and stopped for a wander around town before returning to Lugano.
Marco and Soraia treated us to another great day out in the magnificent countryside where they live. Despite being overcast and a bit damp Valeria loved it because she hadn’t seen snow for, oh, about 2 weeks!!
But, sadly, this was our last day here; on Monday we catch the train south again to Florence. It’s been fantastic to spend time with Marco and Soraia again and they made our first, fleeting, visit to Switzerland a great experience.