Monday, 6 June 2011

Rewards Of Leaving The Beaten Track

We checked the chart carefully. We entered the correct coordinates into the GPS. We knew the entrance to Vathi on the island of Kalimnos was just south of the bay of Paleonissos where we had stopped a few days previously. Still, we passed Paleonissos and no sign of the entrance to Vathi. We uttered the cry known to sailors around the world. “It’s got to be here somewhere!” But where exactly?

Finally, a slight crack appeared in the otherwise solid cliff wall. Our first reaction was disbelief. “A seagull couldn’t get in there. How in God’s name is our boat going to fit?” As we got closer the entrance opened up a bit more and we could see what amounts to the fjord of Vathi widening just enough to allow a few boats to tie up – very carefully – to the town quay in front of a couple of tavernas.

The Entrance to Vathi Seen From The Harbor

In addition to the dramatic setting the small town has a very basic boat yard filled with traditional caiques getting ready for the season. These were the classic, heavy wooden ones built to withstand the sometimes heavy winds and nasty chop of the Aegean. The workmanship on these old boats was beautiful and they clearly would be sailing for many more years.

One Of The Traditional Caiques

As Rod Heikell notes in his invaluable guide to the East Aegean, Kalimnos has long been known as the home of sponge fishing although, these days, only a handful of boats leave Kalimnos for sponges as the Mediterranean stocks have been severely depleted. According to Heikell, most of the sponges you see today do not come from Greece, but are shipped in from the Philippines, the Red Sea, and the Caribbean.

Sponge Stall

Nonetheless, towns on the island each have their sponge salesman who will grudgingly admit that while they have a few local sponges most of them are imports. Still, they make nice gifts. In addition to the boat yard and the sponges there were the inevitable goats and gypsies selling strings of huge fresh garlic bulbs. The only thing different about these goats was that they were perched on the side of sheer cliffs, and we had no idea how they got up or down – but they did.

As we made our way out of the ‘fjord’ back toward Kos the next morning I couldn’t help thinking about the changes in Greek and Turkish tourism in recent years. For as long as I can remember Turkey was cheaper than Greece and the unspoiled Turkish coast was a match for any place on the Aegean. Now the situation is reversing. Not only is Turkey becoming more expensive than Greece, but much of the previously unspoiled coast is now vastly overdeveloped. While unspoiled places like the Datca Peninsula with the beautiful bays around Hisaronu or the northwest corner of the country near Troy and the Dardanelles Straits remain pristine much of the rest has been spoiled by thousands of new, identical homes and hideous resort hotels. One reason is that Turkey, unlike Greece, faces huge pressure from a large population that wants access to the lovely coast. While that is understandable, it would be nice if this development could have been done with some sensitivity to the natural environment.

The Dodecanese Island are a special case in that most of them, with the obvious exception of Rhodes and Kos, by accident of geography as much as anything have been spared the worst of holiday development – either domestic or foreign. They are a long ferry ride from the Greek mainland, and only a few of them have airports that can handle international charter flights. We went north from Kos, but could just as well have sailed south to the volcanic island of Nisiros, Telos, or Simi, with stops at some small bays on the southern side of Datca and experienced the same natural beauty and tranquillity.

But these islands are just one part of what Greece has to offer for travellers willing to go even slightly off the beaten track. If the very thought of sailing makes you slightly ill, go to the soaring mountains of northern Greece and visit Metsovo or Ioannina with its lake and palace of Ali Pasha. Or head south to the rugged Peloponnese where you can visit the haunting ruins of the ancient Byzantine city Mistra where the last emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Paleologos was crowned on January 6th, 1449. While the Ionian Islands on the western side of Greece in general are very popular tourist destinations there are a few smaller ones like Ithaca – the home of Odysseus (and my father-in-law’s family) – that have escaped the overdevelopment of their neighbours and retain the traditional island charm and mystique.

The Pindos Mountains Of Northern Greece
In short, the land and seas of Greece have withstood centuries of political and economic mismanagement, and yet this wonderfully varied country continues to offer enough beauty and history for years of exploration.

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