Sunday, 29 May 2011

Forget The Headlines And Enjoy The Islands

Anyone thinking about a holiday to Greece this summer should not be deterred by the screaming headlines of economic catastrophe and political incompetence that dominate any discussion of this country. Yes, the financial situation is dire. Yes, the entire economic structure of the country needs to be reformed. And yes, the political leadership of all the parties seems incapable and/or unwilling to deal with the problem.

But the would-be tourists should also remember that Greece is the alpha and omega of contradictions. There can be angry demonstrations in the city’s main square while countless coffee shops in a nearby square are filled to bursting with people engaging in the main Greek national activities of drinking coffee, smoking, and discussing at high volume everything from the state of their relations with the opposite sex (bad) to the state of economy (even worse). The only point of agreement on the economy is that “It’s not our fault!” The arrow of guilt usually swings in the direction of the Northern Europeans (especially Germany), the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund (Now we know how they make their decisions!), their own politicians (despite the fact that one of these defamed politicians probably gave a job in the tax office to one of the speaker’s relatives), and an assortment of hedge fund managers and global bankers.

The Dodecanese islands (the 12 islands) where we went sailing with our American friends Ken and Stephanie MacLean are even further removed from the confusion that seems to hang like a cloud over much of Athens. These islands stretch roughly from Rhodes northward close to the Turkish coast and include Simi, Telos, Nisiros, Kos, Pserimos, Kalimnos, Leros, Patmos, Lipsi, and the small islets of Arki and Marathi. We arrived in Kos on a beautiful, sunny day with plenty of wind for good sailing. After checking in at the Kos marina we met up with our old friend from Turkey, Noyan Bulugan, who would provide invaluable help with the boat.

The Aegean Sea around these islands offers some of the finest sailing to be found anywhere. Tucked away on the southeastern side of the Aegean they avoid the strong meltemi winds that make sailing in the Cyclades and other Aegean islands such a struggle later in the summer. The prevailing wind in the Dodecanese is northwest, and usually can be counted on to blow around 20 - 25 miles per hour in the afternoons. There is no fog, tides are almost non-existent, the water is crystal clear, and there is very little rain to interfere with a sailing holiday. In addition to the sailing there are interesting islands and small, sparsely populated bays to visit within a short day’s sail. With the exception of Rhodes these islands are relatively free from the worst of the mass tourism development that has infected a few other Greek islands, and they have been able to preserve much of the charm and tranquility of traditional island life. While there is ferry service among the major towns on the Dodecanese the best way to enjoy the islands is on a small boat where you can stop in secluded bays and the smaller towns.

We decided to go north from Kos and take advantage of the good northwest wind that comes down the channel between Turkey, Kos and Kalimnos. The wind picked up to 25 knots as we beat up the channel, and even our fairly old charter sail boat was making good time. Our first stop was on the Turkish side of the channel in a small town near where I used to have a house. The town of Gümüşlük is tucked inside a fairly well protected bay and is the site of the ancient city of Myndos. Even though much of the once-pristine area surrounding Gümüșlük has been covered with brutal holiday development the town itself has escaped the worst of the damage. The only change is that visitors now have their choice of several good fish restaurants along the waterfront instead of the one or two that were open when I used to live in the area. The only downside to the town is that prices have soared, especially when compared with prices on the nearby Greek islands. A decent fish dinner in Gümüşlük was more than three times the price of an even better meal just a few miles away on Leros.

Morning In Gumusluk
After spending the following morning strolling around the town and visiting the ruins of Myndos we headed back to the Greek side of the channel to the bay at Paleonissos which, at the peak season, might have at most three or four other boats. This time of year there was one other boat and it left soon after we arrived. Until very recently the area around Paleonissos had no electricity, no roads, and – mercifully --  no cell phone connection. Electricity and a road have now been brought to the bay, and two houses are under construction. Still, it’s hard to call it crowded, and other than a few children swimming at the head of the bay our only company was a small herd of goats wandering around the steep hills.
Paleonissos At Rush Hour

An Early Season Swim

By the time we had a swim and lunch it was about 2:30 and we set off for the next island, Leros. The narrow entrance to the main harbor on Leros is cut between two high cliffs, but once through this opening the harbor opens into a large, well protected bay. If you have been banging about with stiff Aegean winds and choppy seas it is a welcome relief to sail into the calm waters of the bay.

Waterfront in Lakki
The small marina in the main town of Lakki was unusually busy for this time of year because the Italy/Greece yacht race had stopped there. Nonetheless our old friend Vassilis found us a space and went so far as to put a ‘Reserved’ sign on the spot lest anyone else think of tying up there. Leros has close historical ties to Italy, and remains a very popular tourist destination for Italians, many of whom have bought homes on the island. The island has a bit of a checkered reputation for many Greeks, but it has become one of our favorite islands and has one of the best restaurants in the entire Dodecanese. More on Leros later.

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