Our trip through the Greek Islands was almost over – one more stop after Amorgos and we would arrive at Kos where we were hoping for a smooth check out of Greece and finally be on our way to Turkey.
We wished we could have stayed longer but the Greek authorities were adamant – we had to leave, despite other European (and other) countries extending visas and visa free periods during Covid-19 uncertainty for people like us.
Our next destination, Levitha, could not have been more different from Amorgos.
Whereas Amorgos was undulating, rambling and dramatic, Levitha was tiny, (9.2 square kilometres), modest, low key and unassuming – and inhabited by just one family, members of which have farmed and fished there since 1820.
There was a diminutive but incredibly sheltered bay where the family have laid seven or eight (easy to pick up and hefty) buoys.
They charge seven Euros a night but if you choose to eat at their little taverna it’s free (we had just had a very late lunch so we didn’t buy a meal. )
We loved walking up to the farmhouse along the well-marked path (paved for a few metres then rocky.)
Once at the farmhouse we were cordially invited in and given icy cold water to drink. We bought some freshly-laid eggs, some hard cheese made on the farm from a mix of sheeps’ and goats’ milk and some beautiful soft goat cheese.
The two brothers were genuinely welcoming and even generously allowed us in to enter their tiny family chapel.
That day happened to mark the birth of my Dad who was born hundred years ago on that day. How he would have loved the reverent atmosphere of that tiny chapel and would have just relished the journey it took to get there. I lit a candle in the little chapel for him, silently giving thanks for inheriting his love of travelling and writing.
On the way to Kos the following day it was a thrill to discover that we were so close to Turkey that we could clearly see houses in the towns along the coastline.
At the last island before turning for Kos, we could see a military installation and an emphatic declaration to the Turks made by a gigantic Greek flag painted on the cliff.
Arriving in Kos we made our way into the harbour, hoping that there would be plenty of space for us to tie up at the town quay. We were surprised to see that there were massive renovations being carried out to the harbour wall and the walkways surrounding it (we learned later that these works were to repair damage caused by a magnitude 6.6 earthquake in July 2017).
Fortunately for us, there was still a space in the shadow of the 14th Century fort that was built by the Knights of St John.
There was quite a breeze blowing (maybe 20 to 25 knots) and this was only the second time we had attempted to do Mediterranean mooring on our own. This entails putting the anchor out and then backing into a tight space with one of you leaping off to tie your lines while the other runs between the anchor and the engines trying to stop the boat hitting anything.
While we were faffing about trying to do this crazy juggling act which really requires four people, two guys from a moored tug appeared and shouted to us to move Sunday away from their boat. This was while we were in the middle of trying to dock. Did they think we were snuggling close to them on purpose?! We were definitely aiming to keep right away from their boat but the wind had other ideas!
Struggling (unsuccessfully) to think what the word for “help” was in Greek “I called back. Please could you help?” In English. Now last time we were undergoing this exercise was in Paros and the lovely port policeman Yiannis helped us without a word from us but not these guys – they just shrugged and went back to their snoozing positions.
Capt’n Birdseye did a magnificent job of leaping on to the dock and giving me instructions on how to keep the boat safe. There were some scary moments though and we felt very upset that our neighbours were so unhelpful!
We hadn’t been there too long before two young port police (both female) arrived to let us know we must go to the port office to check in. I think they had seen the foreign flagged yacht on AIS (Automatic Identification System) and assumed we had come from another country.
So we took our paperwork and once they had seen our transit log and that we had paid our Greek cruising tax (tepai) they were happy.
By the time we had finished at the port police office it was early evening so we decided it would be a good time to explore the town centre.
Kos has had a fascinating history dating back to at least the third millennium BC. It was captured by the Ottoman (modern day Turkey) Empire in 1523 AD and remained under Ottoman rule until 1912 when it became part of the Kingdom of Italy.
When Italy surrendered in 1943, the Germans occupied the island until 1945. In Eleftherias Square, in the centre of Kos, we were able to see reminders of Turkish, Italian and German occupation through the architecture.
In 1946, Kos and the rest of the Dodecanese Islands were finally annexed to Greece.
We wondered why the Islamic crescent on the dome of the old Defterdar Mosque was bent and learned later that it was hit by debris during the earthquake three years previously. The minaret toppled and has not yet been replaced.
After our wander through a very quiet and empty Town centre (due to Corona virus) where we saw a Greek Orthodox Church which had been damaged by the earthquake three years previously, we took a short stroll to the seafront and walked round the outside of the fort.
Unfortunately it had also sustained a little damage in the 2017 earthquake and was temporarily closed.
The following day we were planning to head to Immigration for one last ditch attempt to see if it would be possible to continue to stay in Greece.
We fell asleep thankful that we had managed to find a berth in Kos but feeling slightly apprehensive about what the Greek authorities might throw at us next.
I wrote about falling in love with the Greek island of Amorgos in my last blog but had left the highlight of our short stay – the Monastery of Panagia Hoziviotissa – until I could write about it separately.
This miraculous edifice hangs off the side of an enormous cliff 300 metres above the sea.
First built in 812/813 AD and renovated significantly in 1088, the motive behind its construction was to protect an icon of the Virgin Mary that had been rescued from a religious community in the Holy Land called “Hoziva” or “Koziva”. Legend has it that the icon was cast into the sea and was washed up in Amorgos but historians believe it arrived by boat.
How ever it got there, the icon can still be seen today in the tiny monastery chapel (no photos allowed) along with a chisel that belonged to the master builder who prayed to the Virgin Mary to show him where to build the monastery. The chisel, and a basket of tools were found hammered high up on the rock the next day.
The monastery is not easy to find being visible only from the sea or when you arrive, from the base of the cliff against which it is built. There are no huge billboards or road signs, just a small unassuming board marked “To the Monastery”.
The monastery is 40 meters long but only five meters wide. This extraordinary feat of early engineering has eight floors with 15 monastic cells and 72 different rooms, including the very diminutive chapel.
There was one other car in the car park when we arrived but no sign of anyone else while we clambered up the many hundreds of stone steps. That is, there were no people around but loads of cats!
One decided to guide us up the stairs and sprang her way up the hillside just ahead of us all the way to the top.
As we climbed, other dear little cats and kittens came out to greet us.
Our cat guide showed us the low door we had to pass through to enter the monastery (up more stairs) which led into a cave-like room. In one corner there was another steep staircase leading up to a second solid timber door which when I eventually plucked up courage to go up the stairs, appeared to be locked.
I knocked on the door tentatively- no reply. Then I heard voices and I knocked a little louder. After a few minutes the door swung open and a couple of people were on the other side preparing to make their way out. We pressed ourselves onto a tiny landing where there were two more closed doors and then after the people departed we were welcomed into a narrow chamber and then up another steep set of steps which led to the monastery chapel.
How on earth they would have fitted 15 monks in the chapel at a time I really don’t know but fortunately there are only three residing in the monastery nowadays which means it would be less of a squash during services!
Leading from the chapel was a balcony with the most spectacular view over the blue, blue, Aegean Sea.
From the chapel we were lead through a narrow passageway to a reception room where a monastery representative had put out water, loukoumi (Turkish Delight), and psimeni raki, the traditional drink of Amorgos, a honeyed and spiced spirit reminiscent of Christmas pudding.
We had a very long chat with our host who answered our many questions about monastery life and the history of Panagia Hozoviotissa.
He told us that in the height of the season the monastery could have up to 400 visitors a day but they had received less than 40 guests in the whole of that week. We felt very privileged to have been amongst the latter group.
On our way out we were farewelled by one of the monks and signed the guest book in another long, slim room before descending two flights of stairs to the exit where our cat guides were waiting for us.
Outside they watched curiously as Jonathan stripped off his too-hot long pants (legs must be covered in the monastery) and put his shorts back on.
We left this awe inspiring place marvelling at the ingenuity of the people who built such an incredible and magnificent masterpiece of architecture. It seemed to us that it should definitely be counted as one of the wonders of the world!
When the world seems to shine like you’ve had too much wine
That’s amore” 🎵🎶
Travelling around the fabulous Greek Island of Amorgos in our ultra small hire car, this old song kept playing round and round in my head – only with the word “Amore”(love) substituted by “Amorgos”.
Amorgos, the Easternmost island of the Cyclades group, is truly magnificent and an island so very easy to fall in love with.
Our first stop was the ancient maze-like chora about five kilometres inland from where we were anchored and which rises to 400 metres above sea level.
Dominated by the remains of a 13th Century castle and surrounded by a chain of ancient windmills, the chora is romantic, mysterious and utterly charming.
As we roamed the intricate and deserted (because of Covid 19) network of passages and narrow alleyways, some of which date back to Medieval times, it was easy to imagine that we had gone through a wormhole in space and time and were wandering around in a bygone era.
But soon we were just below the castle at a very modern day coffee shop. Jonathan enjoyed a “proper” Greek coffee served from a little copper pan while I relished my milky but so-strong cappuccino.
The castle remains were just that- remains – but it was amazing to climb to the top and take in the magnificent views this once-grand fortress commanded.
After a long wander round this magical place we set off to drive round the island – first heading North.
The dramatic vistas over the sea and landscape were breathtaking – photos just don’t do them justice!
We arrived in the port of Aegiali in the north of the island in time for our usual late lunch. This village is quite a bit newer than other towns on the island as in the past, settlements were built away from the sea to avoid pirate attacks.
There were a few lovely looking bars, tavernas and other eateries overlooking the ocean and the port. Sadly they were mostly empty of guests. We stopped at one and shared a delicious Greek Salad and a non-traditional hamburger, soaking up the glorious view as we ate.
We carried on with our tour of the island, taking in more glorious views and stopping to take a look at the hilltop village of Tholaria.
Turning south we drove through tiny hamlets and towards a very special destination – the 11th Century Monastery of Panagia Hoziviotissa. More of this truly astonishing place to come in my next blog……
It seemed such a shame to have to leave the wide and beautiful bay of Ormos Agiou Ioannou on Paros after only one night but we had to get out of Greece quickly or possibly face fines for overstaying (even though for two and a half months we were required to stay put because of Covid-19 lockdown).
So we kept on going and headed to a little island called Schoinoussa and anchored in the tiny port of Mersini.
We had a fantastic sail there – made extra special by having a pod of six dolphins accompany us for about half an hour. Such a magical experience, always.
The port at Schoinoussa was really small with just a few tiny fishing boats and a couple of pleasure boats moored, an elderly navy frigate berthed and one other charter yacht anchored. The port might be small but it is regarded as one of the best shelters for small boats in the Aegean.
In a cove nearby, a massive super yacht lay moored Mediterranean style (bow anchor and lines ashore attached to rocks). There was one tender for the staff (there were at least ten) and a separate shiny white tender for the two guests/owners.
On shore were two lovely looking tavernas – we were tempted to go and have a meal at one of them but had already prepared something so we decided to eat on board.
There are only around 250 inhabitants in two towns on this fertile nine square kilometres island but every year it receives thousands of visitors – of the feathered variety – as it is an important migratory station for many birds.
The following day we walked to the tiny Chora (main town) 1.2 kilometres from the port. The area was very rural and the tiny town was surrounded by fields with vegetables growing and sheep and goats grazing.
We stopped for a drink at one of the tavernas and watched the world go by – a fork lift truck making deliveries (the Main Street being too narrow for a van), a man riding a donkey, children playing.
We bought some lovely fresh vegetables grown on the island before walking back on the very pleasant and well-made path to the port.
That afternoon we set off for our next destination – Amorgos. We had been waiting to arrive at this wonderful island (featured in the Luc Besson movie The Big Blue) ever since we had been told about it’s great beauty by a lady who owned a photography shop in Athens.
We arrived in the early evening and were one again the only boat anchored in the lovely harbour.
We were intrigued to discover that there were three entirely separate villages in this one small area – in the south-east corner the port, Katapola, in the middle Rachidi and over the other side, Xilikeratidi.
Once we settled Sunday down we went ashore at Xilikeratidi and walked round to Katapola along the water’s edge. There were very few people about but there were a couple of pretty tavernas open where locals were playing backgammon and others enjoying a catch up with friends.
Wandering through the old part of Katapola we came upon a tiny chapel – Panagia Katapoliani – where a priest and a young boy (we later learnt, his son) singing the evening service together. This little Church, we were told later, was built over a pre-Christian basilica, a temple dedicated to Apollo. It was interesting to see that parts of the temple had been incorporated into the structure of the Church.
We were anxious to explore Amorgos as we had heard so much about it so decided to stay another day and hire a car so we could have a really good look round.
So much to look forward to as the sun went down on another great day in the Greek Islands.
Encouraged by the friendly Port Policeman on the island of Paros – who told us to take our time getting to Kos – we decided to hire a car and tour the island before continuing our journey to check out to go to Turkey.
Before we set off, we were visited by Adonis, a mechanic (organised by our policeman friend) who thankfully managed to cure the knocking noise that had been disturbing us and which was the main reason we had dropped into Paros in the first place.
Adonis cleverly used a magnet to pull out the the float that had become loose in the fuel tank. We thought it was going to be a huge performance – possibly involving draining the fuel tank – so it was a pleasant surprise that it was solved quickly and easily.
We also organised a visit from the fuel truck and had our two, 300 litre diesel tanks filled right up – enough to motor all the way to Turkey and back again (probably twice!)
After all our jobs were completed we headed first for the fashionable holiday location of Naoussa and the big bay this delightful village overlooks – Ormos Agiou Ioannou – as we were thinking of anchoring there for a night after leaving our mooring on the Parikia town wharf.
We hardly met another car all day driving around this beautiful island which we learnt, has been renowned for it’s beautiful white marble since the third century BC.
Some of the all-time great masterpieces were sculpted using Parian marble, for example the Venus de Milo and Hermes. The temple of Athena at Delphi and much later, Napoleon’s tomb, were also constructed from Parian marble. We drove past several quarries – and were fascinated to learn that some are still quarried to this day.
Round the other side of the bay from Naoussa we drove down a rough track to Cape Almyros where there is a lighthouse and a lovely chapel perched high on a cliff.
In the early afternoon we felt a little hungry so we decided to stop in the small fishing port of Piso Livadi where we had the taverna almost to ourselves and enjoyed fresh sardines and a Greek Salad sitting by the quayside.
Before heading home we decided to have a swim and found a deserted cove where we had a lovely but very cool dip.
Back at the quay we happened to meet Michael when he was trying to find a tap so he could wash down his motorboat. Jonathan lent Michael our hose as Michael’s new hose had holes in it and we ended up having a long chat.
It was one of those chance meetings that makes travelling so pleasurable. Michael is a native of the island of Amorgos where he runs a restaurant in the old town (chora) and he divides his time between Amorgos and California where his partner lives, but was currently staying in Paros.
Michael and his girlfriend are huge enthusiasts of the TV series Outlander – set in Bonnie Scotland. It turned out that they had recently visited Scotland to see all the sights and especially the locations where Outlander was filmed.
His enthusiasm for the series didn’t stop there – he has named his boat Outlander!
We told him that we had first heard of his island Amorgos from a lady in an Athens photography shop where we had our boat “business” cards printed. While we were there she offered us a taste of an aperitif/digestif called Rakomelo. Apparently it is a traditional drink of Amorgos and her father had started a Rakomelo cellar door on the island (of course Michael knew them!)
“Ah yes,” Michael said, “that is a very nice drink but homemade is even better and I have some on board Outlander!”
So he took two shot glasses over to his boat and brought back two nips of his homemade equivalent. It was absolutely delicious and tasted of honey, cinnamon, cardamom,cloves and other herbs and spices.
Jonathan said that it reminded him of Christmas cake and Michael told us that his girlfriend calls it “Christmas in a bottle”!
Later we went to eat a gyros at a local cafe and had a very nice chat with the owner while eating our meal and drinking a carafe of wine which was from a wine cask but nevertheless very drinkable. We mentioned this to the proprietor when we were just about to leave and he insisted on giving us another carafe for free! Such a lovely gesture.
As we didn’t have to return the car until lunchtime the following day, we decided to pay a visit to the ancient village of Lefkes, the original capital of Paros, perched on the side of a steep hill.
We had to park the car outside the ancient village (parts of it dating back to the 5th Century AD) and walk down some steps before entering at the top of the village.
There were no other tourists and it was easy to get lost in this beautiful place. Every time we turned a corner another photo opportunity presented itself.
Following the twists and turns down the hill, along narrow passages and winding staircases, we found ourselves on a track (now a hiking trail) dating from the Byzantine era.
We spent a very pleasant couple of hours exploring this charming place but soon it was time to take our hire car back so had a cup of coffee and then we trudged up the hill back to the car park.
Back in Parikia, we dropped off the car and on our way back to Sunday we discovered a row of colourful fishing caiques moored at the quay with fishermen selling the day’s catch.
That night, after we had sailed round to the fantastic anchorage of Ormos Agiou Ioannou which we had visited the previous day by car, we enjoyed delicious freshly cooked fish for our dinner. A perfect end to a memorable stay in Paros.
It was so wonderful to be on the move after two and a half months lockdown in Alimos Marina, Athens, but we didn’t have time to linger and really get to know each of the islands we anchored at as our 90 days Schengen visa period was well and truly over and we had to leave Greece or find an official who could agree to an extension.
On the upside though, our quick trip through the islands has been free of tourists and we have had the luxury of every anchorage virtually to ourselves.
After Serifos, with its stunning chora stretching way up the hill above the anchorage, we headed for another low key but lovely island, Sifnos.
Very little wind was predicted but after an hour of motoring we put the sails up and enjoyed an unexpected and beautiful sail, skimming along at 6.3 knots in around 12 knots winds.
It was glorious, the seas were calm and there was not one other vessel in sight for as far as the eye could see. Just us and the islands!
We had chosen the anchorage at Kamares which had an interesting entrance that reminded us of the “Hole in the Wall” in Langkawi, Malaysia.
On approach all we could see were cliffs and no way through them but once we drew nearer, we could just define a small “fold” in the rocky terrain and locate the narrow entrance.
Once we had anchored up we realised there was a slight but uncomfortable swell and added to that, inexplicably, we just didn’t like “the vibe”. So we motored round to another spot – Ormos Vathi which we were really delighted about as it was definitely our sort of place. .
There were only two other boats in the bay – both Greek flagged – and one was moored stern-to right outside a picturesque sparkling white chapel with the signature domed roof.
Once on land we had a look round the exterior of the chapel (unfortunately it was locked) and walked through an archway to the cutest little beach imaginable with a lovely shady taverna that looked very appealing.
Rather than sit down and order a long cold drink we decided we should go for a walk first, so we followed the coast round to the other side of the bay. On the way there were a handful of other tavernas, a useful looking shop and a number of small holiday homes.
In places the beach completely disappeared and we had to wade through the water as we passed the houses until we reached the broad stretch of sand in front of a very nice looking hotel. Sadly it was all shut down – there were no guests due to Covid-19.
After the hotel there was a series of tiny coves, each with just one or two people in. At one point we climbed up some steps and followed a low cliff path around to yet another small cove.
On the way back we stopped to buy some vegetables and fresh bread before heading to the taverna we spied first for an icy cold beer.
We would have loved to have stayed longer but apart from the visa-free time limit issue, a curious knocking noise had developed which became ultra annoying in the slight swell we were experiencing.
It took us a while to track down the strange knocking sound that reverberated through the starboard hull. Eventually after checking the bilges, lockers and my bathroom cupboard Jonathan realised that the noise was coming from the fuel tank which was right under our bed!
It appeared that the gauge float that measured the amount of fuel left in the tank had come away and was moving with the boat and banging on first on one wall of the tank and then the other.
So we decided to call into Paros, one of the main tourist islands of the Cyclades group where, we hoped, we would find someone who would be able to sort out our problem.
The following day we motor sailed to Paros (the wind was light and intermittent) which took us about four and a half hours. When we arrived we made our first attempt at Mediterranean stern-to mooring. For those who don’t know, there are a few variations of this and the one we were trying to accomplish entails dropping the anchor and then reversing into your “parking space “ and securing lines ashore from the stern (back of the boat).
This process should have been reasonably easy as there weren’t too many boats in the harbour but there was a brisk wind and we ended up being snuggled right up to a speed boat called Tequila. Fortunately the skipper was on board and was prepared to fend off if need be.
The anchoring part (my responsibility) went pretty well and despite the poor holding our trusty new Rochna anchor dug in quickly and well.
We discovered that you really need four people for this manoeuvre – one to steer, one to handle the anchor and two to throw the lines. Hmm we were slightly undermanned. However, Yiannis the Port Policeman (the very nicest, kindest official we have met in Greece) came to the rescue.
He had come to check us out as seeing we were NZ flagged thought we might be trying to enter Greece from another country which wasn’t allowed at that time.
He took the lines, called out instructions and helped us get settled before taking away our documentation to check. In the meantime Konstantinos, our skipper friend on Tequila, helped us put another line out which helped keep us well away from his charge.
When the Yiannis returned with our checked documents he was so helpful and laid back – first he found us someone to look at our tank which was brilliant and then after telling him we had to leave because of our visa situation he said “don’t worry, stay and enjoy Paros – with Covid-19 these are exceptional circumstances.
As Paros was the first Greek island I ever visited and where I first fell in love with Greece – forty years ago when I was in my twenties – I definitely didn’t need a second invitation to stay!
Parikia, the port town, was still recognisable – perhaps a little more built up than my previous visit but as it was so quiet due to Covid-19, the place had reverted to the rather sleepy, laid back, vibe of yesteryear.
The iconic and photogenic windmills still welcome in the ferry passengers and the old town was just as I remembered it – the narrow, cobbled laneways, bougainvillea tumbling from the whitewashed walls of the ancient houses, the chapels and the tavernas. There were rather more clothes and tourist shops but it didn’t seem that different.
One major change was the number of supermarkets and the presence of a deli! There was certainly nothing like that forty years ago. We were very happy to find Branston Pickle and Marmite (the English version of Vegemite) in one of the shops – unheard of even in the largest supermarkets we visited in Athens.
The contrast between tiny, low-key Ormos Vathi, Sifnos and the normally bustling vibe of Parikia in Paros was quite obvious but we felt both were fabulous in their own way and both epitomised all the reasons why we love the Greek Islands!
After an unexpectedly wonderful sail from the unspoilt Greek island of Kythnos we arrived at our next destination – Serifos – in the early afternoon and anchored in a large, completely empty, bay called Ormos Koutsla.
The bay was pretty enough but rather desolate and lonely. There were the remains of iron ore mines and jetties on either side – apparently, the concentration of the ore here causes local magnetic anomalies.
Whether it was the the unusual magnetic disturbances or the slight swell we were experiencing, we felt distinctly uncomfortable and decided to move round to another anchorage – Ormos Livadhiou.
As we motored towards the anchorage the amazing and ancient chora (main town) high up on the hill behind the inhabited coastal strip, gradually came into view.
Perched on the steep hill, the white houses of the chora looked enchanting twinkling in the late afternoon sun.
Apart from one poor old sailing boat that looked as though it had been deserted after a long voyage, Sunday was once again the only yacht in the entire bay.
Later on we took our dinghy in and tied up on the narrow beach next to a taverna – closed but being prepared with hope for guests – sunshades being refurbished, tables being set up etc.
We had a pleasant walk along the quiet seafront fringed with tamarisk trees before returning to Sunday for dinner. A few of the normally buzzing tavernas had a sprinkling of customers but some had none at all. With around 20 per cent of the population being employed in the tourism sector, poor Greece has suffered and will continue to suffer, massively from the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The prospect of visiting the chora rising high up on the hill was exciting but it was an extremely hot day and the thought of toiling up a steep path for hours wasn’t very appealing. So once ashore we asked at a cafe where we could get a taxi and a lovely young man sat us down with a glass of water and called Vangelis the taxi driver for us.
A few minutes later and we were seated in a taxi winding up the hill in comfort. There was a beautiful smell in the taxi – lemony, herby, spicy – the driver must have heard me sniffing the air as he suddenly presented me with a snippet of this good smelling plant. I have no idea what it was but it could possibly be some kind of wild thyme perhaps?
Cars aren’t allowed in the chora so the driver dropped us at the car park below and we spent the next few hours wandering through the beautiful alleyways and stairways.
We climbed right to the top of the hill where the ruins of the castle lie and the ubiquitous whitewashed chapel stood.
Looking down to the bay we could just make out Sunday sitting sedately at anchor below. The view was absolutely stunning.
A profusion of bougainvillea and oleander in bright pinks and purples set against the dazzling, white buildings, the many churches and chapels, the bright blue skies and the blue paintwork of the houses will always be a treasured memory of Greece in general but particularly of the chora on Serifos.
We eventually found our way to the small main square where we sat for a while over a glass of cold beer before taking the beautifully maintained foot path (with lots of stairs) down the hill.
On the way down we heard a violin being tuned and a few bars of an unusual and melancholy melody. Later on that night as we lay in our beds, we could hear the violin again, accompanying a folk singer who appeared to be singing a never-ending tale of love, fighting, adventure and doom.
Eventually, we were serenaded to sleep after a great day exploring the stunningly beautiful chora of Serifos.
Reluctantly we left the lovely island of Poros as we had to start our journey to Kos where we needed to checkout of Greece and travel to Turkey.
Unfortunately all our efforts to extend the 90-day Schengen visa free period had failed and we had been threatened with a 600 Euro fine (each) for overstaying. Despite Greece being desperate to attract tourists back to its shores after Covid-19 the immigration officials appeared immovable on giving an extension or allowing applications for temporary (non working) residents visas.
We were pretty convinced that the Customs/Port Police in Kos would be more relaxed about our “overstay” but realistically we couldn’t afford to hang around.
We had spent 70 days in lockdown and then had to wait another 14 days for our deregistration/export papers to be organised. That left us with six days to enjoy the islands before being liable for the fine.
After motoring all morning and then a lovely couple of hours of sailing in the afternoon we arrived at Kythnos around 4.30 pm and anchored at Ormos Kolona. There were only two other boats anchored there and about three others anchored in Ormos Fikiadha over the other side of a narrow and picturesque sand spit. We felt so fortunate to see the Greek islands without the normal hoards of charter and other boats!
That night we realised why most of the other boats were anchored over the other side of the spit! There was quite an uncomfortable swell which increased as the night wore on. Sunday was groaning and creaking like an old square rigger and kept us awake for ages! When we woke up after a fitful sleep we decided to go and join the other boats over the other side of the sand spit so on went our motors, up went our anchor and we motored round to where it was lovely and calm and had breakfast.
The guidebook told us that Kythnos had a wonderfully picturesque capital (Hora) “with a charming mix of red roofs, narrow streets and Cycladic cube houses” so we decided to try and walk there.
We parked the dinghy on the spit and started our walk following a rough track which took us to a little sandy cove and then up a winding hill past fields, some with herds of goats chomping on whatever was going, and all surrounded by amazing ancient stone walls.
The views of the deep blue sea and the closer crystal clear turquoise waters were enchanting. After about a kilometre and a half we reached a small bay with a tiny chapel and a nice looking and completely empty taverna.
Taking pity on the proprietor we stopped for a quick drink before heading for Hora.
The place was absolutely spotless and the lady running it so kind. She brought us olives, aubergine fritters, white bean dip and flat bread to go with our beer – for no extra cost!
Feeling refreshed we decided to keep walking to Hora – the proprietor thought it was roughly three kilometres but what she didn’t tell us was that it was mostly up hill!
It was a challenging walk but the views were extraordinary and there was loads to see – big hairy goats, a profusion of wild flowers, ancient farming terraces perched precariously on the hills, a sweet donkey, a beautiful horse, the ocean sparkling in the distance, combined with the smell of wild thyme and other herbs to make it a marvellous experience.
Eventually we caught a glimpse of our destination – a mass of intensely white cube-shaped houses, some with red roof tiles – and after another half an hour of walking we reached this delightful little town.
With its narrow passageways, twisting and turning every which way, staircases going in every direction and hardly any signs of life, this ancient village felt quite mysterious and unnerving – it would have been so easy to get lost!
The small town was so photogenic and enchanting. We felt very fortunate to have the place entirely to ourselves!
We sat down to lunch in a shady taverna where again, we were the only guests. The proprietor steered us very firmly towards selecting moussaka and we were glad we did as it was creamy and flavoursome with still intact eggplant and just the right amount of cinnamon in the meat sauce.
Luckily, we did find the one and only taxi and it took us back to the first taverna where the rough track to the spit anchorage started.
We wandered along the last kilometre and a half rather more slowly as by then we were feeling quite tired after trudging around 13 kilometres and the equivalent of 49 flights of stairs!
After the last minute scramble to drop our lines and leave Alimos Marina in Athens, it was such a relief to be heading out towards Poros Island just under thirty nautical miles away from the mainland.
Amazingly we negotiated the tight exit with no really heart stopping moments and we were soon on our way after almost three months of living on Sunday and not being able to leave the marina.
It was such a good feeling gazing at the dark blue waters and feeling the salty air on our faces. Unfortunately there was very little wind so we ended up motoring the whole way but we really didn’t care. It was just so great to stretch our sea legs again and get used the different motion of a catamaran after sailing exclusively on monohulls previously.
After five hours – during which we saw only a couple of other sailing boats and some freighters and ferries – we arrived at Poros.
As it was a public holiday weekend we were expecting the anchorage to be quite crowded but the one we liked from a previous visit in November, Ormos Neorion, only had a few boats at anchor – including one yacht that had been there on our previous visit.
Once we were settled we decided to have our first swim of the year. It was such bliss diving into the crystal clear waters even though it felt very cold!
The following day we took our new dinghy and outboard over to Poros town for their first proper outing. Our Mercury outboard propelled us quickly over to the Centre and once there, we found plenty of spots where we could tie up as there were very few visitors.
We had a wonderful wander round the pretty little town, walking passed the restaurants and tavernas with mostly empty tables and turning up inviting laneways to explore the less touristy parts.
We stopped to look in the tiniest of chapels, browsed the shop windows and bought a pair of shorts for me.
Getting back was a little less smooth. Our new outboard suddenly stopped! It sounded as though it had run out of fuel but there was loads in the tank. Capt’n Birdseye quickly found a switch that should have been in a different position so fortunately we didn’t have to row back!
Back on board we wished that our “Corona bubble” friends on Polykandros were there with us to enjoy the peace and beauty of the anchorage. They were a little behind us in the queue but apparently the completion of their export document was “imminent”so we decided to stay another night hoping for good news the next day.
We had another good day wandering around the town, buying a few things at the chandlers (better stocked than some of the “flash” stores on the mainland) and relaxing in our quiet bay.
Infuriatingly nothing had changed for Polykandros and because we were officially meant to be leaving Greece due to our Schengen 90-day visa-free period being on the point of expiring, we sadly decided we had to press on.
The following day we hauled anchor and headed to our next stop – the dramatic and rugged island of Kithnos. As we departed Poros through the narrow channel to the South we were very taken with how lovely this small town looked from the water.
Again, there was absolutely no wind so we motored for the first few hours.
At one point the water ingress alarm went off in the starboard engine. A quick check and everything looked fine – apparently it has always been a little over sensitive and has a history of causing a hubbub when there was actually nothing wrong!
Very soon after this a lovely breeze started to ripple the ocean surface so we hoisted the sails. The main went up like a dream – after having to haul Bali Hai’s very heavy main up by hand for so long it felt extremely luxurious having a power winch to do the job for us!
The furling headsail came out OK but was stiff and slow – but it had been out of use for three months so who could blame it?!
The sail was absolutely glorious and we were really please and surprised that Sunday cut through the water so well. The winds were light – 11 to 13.5 knots and she averaged around 5.9 knots with a top 6.4 knots which wasn’t bad.
By the time we reached Kithnos in the late afternoon we both felt exhilarated after our first sail since November last year when we had just bought Sunday. It was such a great feeling!
After almost three months stuck in Alimos Marina we have at last broken free and are now sitting at anchor off the island of Poros, just 30 nautical miles from Athens.
We keep pinching ourselves to make sure this isn’t a dream – but it’s true, we really have managed to drop our lines and start “self isolating”(ie live boat life as we do normally!) on Sunday at sea.
The last few weeks have flown pleasantly by but there has been a mixture of anxiety, frustration and disbelief at the ponderous Greek bureaucracy.
Unbelievably, the process of deregistering Sunday (taking her off the Greek register of ships and “exporting” her on paper so we can register her under the New Zealand flag) which we were told would take three weeks, was only completed last Monday – It took an unbelievable eight months!
Unfortunately, we were (apparently) caught up in the process of office digitization (yes just installing computers in 2020!) in some government departments, including the one that deals with marine taxes.
The first stage of deregistering a boat is to ensure that there are no debts attached, that it had been used for the purpose it was nominated for (in this case a charter boat) and that all taxes and other debts owing had been paid.
Our understanding is that certain forms had to be filled out by the owners and a fee paid. Annoyingly, although this paperwork was apparently submitted correctly the department did not process it within the prescribed one month so then the application became out of date and another one had to be submitted. And so on it went!
It seems our sellers had to submit the forms three or four times (can you imagine how frustrating this must have been?). So from the end of October when we paid for the boat, until March 17 when we arrived in Athens, the marine taxation department simply hadn’t processed the required paperwork.
We heard variously that there was a log jam due to the number of new boats for charter arriving, the introduction of computers, staff not knowing how to work said computers, staff not having access to the Internet making the receipt of email information impossible, low staff numbers due to Christmas holidays, and the list went on.
The day after our arrival in Greece the country went into complete lockdown due to Covid-19 and of course, government offices closed.
Fast forward to 12 May when lockdown restrictions were beginning to be lifted. It took another ten days but we were very relieved to hear that on 22 May the first part of the process had at long last been completed. A week later the next stage had been concluded and the following week we would have a meeting with Customs and would be able to receive our boat’s transit log which is essential to have for sailing in Greece. We could then pay the cruising tax (tepai) and be free to go once we had our transit log stamped by the Port Police at Alimos Marina.
In the meantime, despite being in lockdown and working from home, a lovely man from the New Zealand boat registration office processed our application to reflag Sunday in New Zealand, despite the fact we hadn’t yet received the required Greek deregistration certificate.
In stark contrast to the Greek process our friend in New Zealand took all of three days to send us a temporary certificate and then courier the actual certificate to Greece at no extra charge. It arrived on 3 June, the day after our meeting with the Registrar of Shipping (a Commander no less) at the Customs Office.
Fortunately for us the Greek Registrar was lenient – normally the actual certificate of registration is required before a transit log is issued. We were also fortunate to be issued a transit log for eighteen months as initially the Registrar was considering giving us only one month (I think because he knew our 90 days Schengen visa-free period was soon to expire and that we would have to move on quickly to a non- Schengen country.)
Quick thinking on the part of our lawyer saved the day. She pleaded with the Registrar to come and talk to us which he did. He listened to what we said about wanting to stay in Greece if we possibly could (still working on that) and would return as soon as we could if we did have to leave. He also took on board that Sunday was our home and we had no intention of leaving her to fly back to Australia (we couldn’t anyway as there were no flights to Australia at that time!)
The Schengen rules state that you can only stay in the zone for 90 days out of any 180 days. With this in mind, as soon as lockdown restrictions were lifted and government offices reopened, we went to the Immigration Office in Piraeus to seek an extension or better still, to apply for a one-year temporary resident’s visa.
When we arrived we were unceremoniously turned away by a security guard and were handed a piece of paper (naturally, all in Greek). Fortunately Manos, from Zouras Yachts who we had purchased the yacht from, came to visit us that day and was able to translate – he said that we were to enquire by phone.
We called the number and there was a recorded message. As it was all in Greek, we naturally couldn’t understand what the various options were. Fortunately, Manos was again able to translate. There was a website to visit.
We visited the website and found the “contact us” page where there was a box you could type a message in. I dutifully typed in a message explaining that we had been caught in the Covid-19 lockdown and were therefore unable to leave Athens and respectfully asking if we could extend our visa free period or alternatively, apply for a temporary (non working) residents visa.
Infuriatingly before it would upload the message, the site required me to type in a sequence of numbers/letters to prove I wasn’t a “bot” but no matter how many times I typed the sequence it just wouldn’t recognise the combination and allow my message to be submitted.
So I tried to find the correct email address on the website to send the inquiry to and after much searching, found what I thought was the correct address. However, the following morning I received a reply – “Please contact to this email….”. I sent the information to the email provided and the reply I received was “Please follow the link below”. The link had a list of contact details (all in Greek) but no indication as to which address we should use. Argggh!!
Using Google translate and my limited Greek vocabulary I deduced the (hopefully) correct address. Manos kindly translated my email which included a quote from the EU advisory that said people caught in Schengen countries due to Covid-19 should automatically be given extensions. This was sent on 22 May and I’m yet to receive an acknowledgment, let alone a reply!
A few days later our friend Tim from the Kiwi boat Polykandros, was given the name and office address of an official who had the power to extend our stay. So on 27 May, Jonathan and Tim visited her with high expectations.
She was completely disinterested in hearing any extenuating circumstances or that our homes were on board our boats. A call to the Australian Embassy in Athens confirmed that the official was “unmoveable” and they had tried to assist at least 30 or 40 others in the same situation as us.
They returned looking very grim. Basically she said that she couldn’t extend our stay and that we would be fined 600 Euros each for overstaying. Oh and we should leave the country right away by airplane and “go back home”.
From that day, we went all out to get Sunday ready to leave the marina. Now that the shops were open and trades people working, we could get on with all the jobs, big and small, that needed doing – installing our new 33 kilo Rocha anchor and new AGM batteries, plus two new Cristec 90amp chargers; buying a new dinghy and engine; arranging for our EPIRB and radio to be adjusted to show our MMSI (safety identity); buying new life jackets; getting our freezer and fridge checked and regassed; stocking up on provisions etc.
Installing the batteries and chargers was a big job. The electricians took longer than they had anticipated and had to come back the following day to do a couple of other jobs – moving a starting battery nearer to our generator, and installing a new shore power switch. The last jobs to be done and we could leave!
Unfortunately, just after the electricians left our shore power packed up altogether. What a disaster! We were meant to be leaving on the Friday to make way for another catamaran and this was Wednesday night.
On Thursday the electrician came back and spent an hour and a half looking for the fault. He thought that a fuse had blown between the shore power inlet and the electricity board on Sunday.
The following day (Friday, the day we should have left) the electricians drove up and called across to say they had three other jobs and “might” come back later. We were very disappointed and anxious as we were under pressure to leave the berth and couldn’t leave with such a major fault unrectified.
Later that day Jonathan discovered the apprentice had installed the new power plug using the old case that didn’t fit correctly and therefore wasn’t sealed against water ingress. He was justifiably cross and rang the electrician to say so. Although it wasn’t the cause of the fault, it was enough to get the electrician back and in the end, rather than spend a long time looking for a fault he replaced the cable between the shore power inlet and our power board.
Late that evening he finally finished and we were good to go. Our good friends on Polykandros had asked us over for a farewell dinner and as we were running late I went ahead while Jonathan put tools away and cleared up a little.
As I walked down the pier towards Polykandros I spied Lucy and called out to her. She came running to meet me joyously, jumped up for a rub behind her ear and landed back on solid ground. I took my eyes off her for a second to say hi to Nina and Lucy excitedly jumped up again (maybe she smelled the chocolate I was carrying!). As she jumped she hit my right hand and knocked my phone. The phone did a double flip and half pike, landed on the jetty, bounced spectacularly and dived into the water!
The good news is that my phone had recently become difficult to charge and I was planning on replacing it once our boat spending spree was over and we had a bit of “spare” cash. I had also saved the vast majority of my photos on to a hard drive.
I was able to replace my phone at the local shops for a later model with a bigger screen and with the help of my ever patient son, managed to get all my apps back on and everything sorted.
Finally, on Sunday 7 June, we were able to leave Alimos Marina and head for the island of Poros. Tim, skipper of Polykandros came to see us out and after we had let go our forward mooring lines (attached to the marina bed) and about to let go our aft lines, Lucy dog came running up and leapt across onto our electronic gang plank just as I was raising it!
Poor Lucy got the shock of her life when Jonathan picked her up and manhandled back onto the quay. A moment later and we were away!
It was a strange and rather dramatic exit with no time for proper “goodbyes” but we know we will be seeing the Polykandros crew very soon, once their paperwork has been completed.