Strictly speaking, we didn’t really do a lot of cruising in England, as the main reasons for going there were to see relatives, earn some money, and to catch up on some of the cultural activities which tend to be a bit limited in the places we’ve been. In any event, the first step was to work our way up the Channel to London, where we were to spend the northern winter of 1985-86.
Our UK landfall, following our passage from Ireland, was the famous old port of Falmouth. We waited for several days in the Crosshaven River for a gap in the gales which were a feature of the northern “summer”, crossed the Irish Sea and then sailed as quickly as possible round Land’s End and the Lizard. Land’s End was impressive, with a big swell pounding on the offshore rocks, and the Lizard might have been too, only we couldn’t see it for the fog. We’ve done very little sailing in fog, and I find it the most alarming meteorological circumstance of all, but Norma seems remarkably phlegmatic about it. Between the Lizard and Falmouth lie the notorious Manacle rocks, which have sunk many a ship, so we used a lot of care and the satnav to grope our way into the excellent harbour.
Falmouth and our next port of call, Dartmouth, were splendid places, with room to anchor and a low hassle factor. Falmouth encloses is a big expanse of water, but like many UK harbours is very shallow over large areas. The town is pretty, and good for boat bits; we got a new Suzuki 4 there, trading in our very sick Suzuki 2 and selling our Mercury 10, which was much too big. The new outboard is fantastic, and will plane our 3 metre inflatable two-up. The Fastnet race was again beset by a gale while we were there (the one we had rushed to avoid), and most of the cruiser-racers sensibly pulled out. But the British maxi, Drum, dropped her keel right outside Falmouth, and we followed the whole rescue operation (which included extracting some half a dozen of the crew from the inverted vessel) on the VHF. Lion of New Zealand pulled in with a ripped Kevlar main, and we went over for a chat – we had last spoken to Peter Blake when they passed us in mid-Atlantic and they picked up on our conversation with our friends on Goose.
Sailing this coast is a less pleasurable venture than we are used to. The weather, for one thing, is fundamentally unsuited to the activity (just as it is for cricket), and it’s hard to see why it’s caught on at all! The maritime traditions of the English are hard won. The Channel is swept by high and fast-moving tides which govern every movement, the whole area is packed with vessels large and small, and the numerous authorities extract their pounds of flesh at every turn. Nowhere else in the world have we been required to pay simply to enter a harbour and swing to our own anchor – but it’s routine here. And it’s very expensive to tie up, although there’s often no choice in the more crowded places. The Solent area is famous for sailing, of course, but we found the yachtsmen there to be snooty to the point of offensiveness at times – we had some fun trying to get some of them to return our waves (’but have we been introduced”?) The extent to which class consciousness is still redolent here was a surprise, and all yachtsmen are “upper class” by definition. I think they think Australians are not! However, that said, there were certainly lots of places where we were made to feel welcome, but these were more likely to be little fishing villages, or places such as Gravesend, a filthy industrial port near Tilbury at the mouth of the Thames, where the sailors (of tiny boats) were “working class”.
Channel cruising became less attractive the further east we went. We are not enamoured of rafting six abreast alongside dirty town walls, or of big and impersonal marinas. Some of the rivers, such as Beaulieu, are beautiful, but they are packed solid with boats and anchoring in them is impossible (or illegal, in most cases). Marinas and visitors’ mooring buoys are expensive – we paid $12 a night for tying between piles at Beaulieu, and by the end of a weekend we were in the middle of a block of about 100 boats, with five tied each side of us.
If we had to sail in the Channel all the time, we wouldn’t sail at all. The numerous ships we could come to terms with – they stick pretty closely to charted lanes. But the generally poor visibility and the tides make sailing a trial, one big problem being that unless you want to make a series of offshore detours, the headlands have to be cut very close to get inside the tidal races (which are ferocious, even in good conditions). But we couldn’t see many of these headlands until within a mile or two. And the timing is critical, because if the tide’s against you, you’re darn near stationary. I spent hours working out when to leave a place, sometimes over a bar, in order to get to the headlands at the right times and finally arrive at the next bar at a time which would allow us into the harbour. The locals are very much into sailing schools, evening classes, Yachtmaster qualifications and all that, and I came to see why they are good on theory – the best place to do all that working out is back home in the warm.
The foggiest conditions we encountered were coming round into the Thames Estuary, and we were forced to anchor for a couple of days nearly two miles off Margate (scraping our keel on the bottom at low tide). But we finally made it up the Thames, and it was very exciting to motor up that historic river with the tide and tie up in the shadow of Tower Bridge, waiting for the lock gates to open to let us into St Katherine’s Dock. This is where we had booked a berth for the winter.
St Katherine’s is a lovely spot, and very convenient for all that London has to offer, the only theoretical catch being that you’re not supposed to live aboard. Several locals do, however, and we were given the nod that as a “visiting” boat, we’d be OK.
We have been good tourists, doing all the sights of London, and we have absolutely wallowed in music, for which London is perhaps the world’s greatest city. It took us about a fortnight to sort out what was going on, such is the extraordinary variety of attractions, and now we are routinely taking in two or three outings a week. This is not as expensive as it sounds, as not only are seats at even the grander venues far less expensive than anywhere else we’ve been, but also there are scores of churches, halls and the like which lay on regular concerts of top quality at very small cost, or free. And for plays, there are matinees and standbys which suit our relaxed time constraints.
Our first concert was of choral music by the early English composer Tallis, with a big choir (the “Tallis Scholars”), the programme including the amazing “Spem in Alium”, a 40 part piece needing a score the size of a newspaper. We then went to a pair of masques, a peculiarly English form of entertainment, written and played originally for Charles I at huge expense at just the time when Cromwell was upsetting the natives with talk of regal extravagance. Having booked early we sat in the front row about where Charles would have sat, in the very building where the performances were put on for him, Banqueting House in Whitehall, with a ceiling painted by Rubens also in fulsome praise of his king. Charles even walked to his death on the scaffold through one of the windows near which we sat.
In various forms of transport we have toured much of the British Isles, as postcard-pretty as ever, even in winter. For a couple of weeks, in the depths of winter, we went up to Scotland, to stay in the Highlands with the Scottish side of the family. The weather, paradoxically, was glorious – clear blue skies and no wind, although freezing cold of course. We covered a huge mileage on the roads, particularly up and down the west coast, where I have not been since childhood.
But this is our last winter in northern Europe! It was the coldest February for 200 years, and we were iced in solid for several weeks. It is nearing mid-April as I write; we were supposed to be out of the dock by the end of March, but it is blowing 35-45 knots in the Channel, the temperature is about 5 degrees and near-freezing at night, and we have just had a flurry of sleet. As soon as is prudent we will sail back to the Southampton area, then in early May head for the north-west corner of Spain and get back to some “proper” cruising. But at least we are not as broke as we were, as I had a good contract to write a book for the British Medical Association. We are hugely looking forward to at least a summer-winter-summer in the Mediterranean, with all that historic sea has to offer.
It was still bitterly cold as we made our way out of the Thames Estuary in April. We cleaned and antifouled the boat’s bottom between tides at the Kentish port of Ramsgate, leaning up against a wall in a 40-knot gale, praying the rain would hold off enough to get the paint on and dry. From there we day-sailed down the Channel to the famous Hamble River, where there are some surprisingly cheap visitors’ pile berths opposite a quite pleasant yacht club.
The problem sailing west down-Channel is that you can’t win. The prevailing wind is sou-west. So, if you do the ungentlemanly thing and beat to windward, you still have to have a favourable tide, (otherwise you don’t get anywhere in these waters), which means that the tide is against the wind and the seas are horrible. So, we spent a lot of time in various ports waiting for easterlies, which are very rare at that time of the year and, moreover, bring fog. We did some pretty dodgy groping in very thick fog in the Solent. At one time I reassured Norma, “at least we’re out of the shipping channel”, when out of the fog loomed an unexpected buoy which showed we’d just been swept right across the channel by the tide. We never intend to sail those waters again, but if we had to, a radar would be essential.
In the Hamble we met again with Peter Blake. While we had been pottering around southern England he had raced successfully round the whole world!
We crossed the Channel to Cherbourg, an immense but now quiet commercial harbour with an enormous and very expensive marina. Cherbourg was of course the major supply port for the D-Day invasion, once it was liberated. It is not a particularly attractive city, but it was great to feel “foreign” again, and revel in the food shops. Norma is not the sort to be overwhelmed by the choice of foodstuffs in a supermarket, but this did happen there, I think for the first time ever! We were getting rather punch-drunk about marina costs by this time, so only stayed long enough to stock up on marvellous French food and duty-free booze before pressing on to the Channel Islands, which were not on our original itinerary but turned out to be a worthwhile stop.
The Channel Islands are not part of the United Kingdom but do have self-governing status, recognising the Queen as Head of State in her capacity as Duke of Normandy. The liberal tax laws make it a tax haven for the British, and there is a lot of money floating around, reminiscent (as in other ways) of Bermuda. The islands were occupied by the Germans during WW2, and there are several fascinating reminders of their presence including massive block towers and a quite extraordinary underground hospital, with miles (it seemed that way) of tunnels carved out of the granite by slave labour, now cold, dank, and full of ghosts. The German wounded were shipped there from the mainland, especially after the invasion.
Our first stop was at Alderney, very quiet and beautiful, with a big harbour which looks great on the chart but in fact is prone to swell because the second of the intended two huge breakwaters was never built. At the time of the Napoleonic wars, it was intended that it would be the British answer to Cherbourg, but peace came before the harbour was finished. We sat out one of the regular gales, which sent waves crashing over the huge existing wall, and the swell rolled in from the unguarded north.
We also stayed at Guernsey for a while, another lovely island with some gorgeous walking, but the harbour at St Peter Port was absolutely crammed. Visitors join the Great European Raft-up, a traumatic performance because the tides, which govern every movement, don’t stick to working hours, so boats are coming and going all night, with much banging, shouting and untangling of lines.
We look forward to some quieter places, tired as we are of rafts of boats tying themselves to our floating home, and invading (usually friendlily enough, admittedly) our space and privacy.
The day-sail south to the coast of Brittany promised to be a pleasant one, but sure enough, half way there the fog clamped down, and the satnav went into one of its blank periods (several hours). Frankly, I’ve never felt so lost and vulnerable. The cross-track component of the tidal stream was anything between four and six knots, and we were heading for a ferocious coast, armed with millions of black and spiky rocks, and the whistle buoy we were aiming for was inaudible because, as it turned out, it was so calm the bellows weren’t squishing any air. Just as I was deciding to anchor miles off and wait, Norma’s eagle eyes spotted a lighthouse and buoy about two miles downstream from where we hoped we were, and we were just able to motor against the tide back to the entrance to the Treguier river. We then wound our way up to this typically enchanting Breton town. This whole performance turned out to be pretty standard for the area: fog, tides, and too crowded to anchor, but with lovely little towns as the prize for endeavour.
The little towns of Brittany are indeed a fair reward for the traumas of getting to them. And the level of officiousness of the officials is very low – yachts don’t even need to fly a Q flag entering France. However, at Morlaix we were presented with a massive bill for “navigation tax”, imposed, it seems, on Australian, New Zealand and South African boats only. Anything to do with the Pacific nuclear testing dispute, we wondered? Anyway, we told the official we couldn’t afford France at that rate and were going to Spain – in practice, no-one else bothered us during the weeks we were in Brittany.
After all this tide-ripped rock-hopping, it was a great relief navigationally finally to leave pretty Brittany and sail into the open sea of the Bay of Biscay.
On the first day of the passage we had light headwinds but could lay the course, then nothing much for half a day, then a real screamer right up our tail, so we made good time to La Coruna, a very pleasant port in north-west Spain, the region known as Galicia. Here we started “real” cruising again: we could anchor at last, and the area is indented by a series of lovely fjord-like “rias”, which are drowned river valleys. Inland, bus trips took us to villages which are truly of the “old” Spain, and we paid a memorable visit to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the end of a route of pilgrimage since the 11th century. The Baroque facade of the cathedral overlooks one of the loveliest, mystical old cities in Europe. We were extraordinarily lucky to catch the swinging of the immense incense burner, the botafumeiro, which is hung by rope from the sky-high dome of the transept and swung by a team of men until its dramatic arc reaches the very eaves of the cathedral.
We worked our way round Cape Finisterre and down to Portugal, where we entered at Viana de Castelo. This is a gorgeous little town, packed with typically ornate Portuguese buildings, exuberantly ornate architecture and the brilliant blue tiles which are so much a feature of the buildings in this country. But the officials wouldn’t let us anchor in the harbour, so we had to lie alongside a filthy wall with no steps, which meant that we still had to use the dinghy to get ashore at low tide.
Further south on the coast of Portugal we anchored in the commercial port of Leixoes in order to visit Oporto and the port wine lodges. In Oporto, jumbled old dwellings spill down the steep hillside to the Douro River, where the port lodges are very generous with their “tastings”. In Leixoes we met a generous Portuguese family who took us and some other friends on a tour of the countryside of northern Portugal, where sleepy towns – once of great importance to the old kingdoms – now nestle in the hills among the vineyards.
In both Oporto and Lisbon it is possible to a boat up the respective rivers and tie up near the centre of town, but this is usually a dirty and noisy option, and for Lisbon we again preferred to anchor at the head of the river, this time at the quite pleasant fishing port of Cascais, on the touristy Estoril coast, and take the convenient public transport into the city. Along the way stands a huge monument to the amazing Portuguese explorer-navigators, the spacemen of their day, and one of the most beautiful monasteries we have ever seen, a classic of the Portuguese Renaissance. Lisbon itself is too shambolic, noisy and packed with traffic to be truly enjoyable – keeping the cars out of the maze-like centre would be an improvement.
Once around Cape St Vincent we headed east again, along the noticeably warmer Algarve coast along southern Portugal. There were some good anchorages and one huge and impersonal (and exceptionally officious) marina, Vilamoura. After that we were happy to get back to Spain, at the river town of Ayamonte, anchoring in the River Guadiana which defines the border and failing to find any official very interested in our presence. A little further along, we anchored in the River Huelva, out of which Columbus sailed in 1492. Having been to the Bahamas, where he ended that voyage, we felt that we were in the presence of the ghosts of seamen long gone.
As expected, the wind switched off along this coast, so we motored most of the way to Cadiz, where we moored at a friendly yacht club (with a swimming pool!) near the mouth of the Guadalete River, which runs through Jerez and the other sherry towns. Cadiz has been flattened by so many invaders that there’s no such thing as an “old” city, and what there is now is rather uninspiring. Just south of Cadiz is Cape Trafalgar, and we re-read the story of Nelson as we sailed slowly by, thinking of the remains of the men-o’-war beneath our keel and marvelling at the seamanship which allowed these combatants to fight and sail at the same time.
We arrived at Gibraltar at night, which we normally try to avoid. Indeed, we found the mixture of lights very confusing, confounded by several brightly-lit ships anchored off the port. Customs directed us to a berth at one of the marinas, but the next morning we moved out to the anchorage to the north of the runway. This is quite well protected and perfectly acceptable, although a fair run in the dinghy round to the marina and ashore. It’s one of those anchorages the officials and the marinas would love to stop you using, but don’t know how to. Gibraltar is a very impressive rock, indeed, but the town itself is a scruffy place. Norma reckoned the monkeys were more friendly than the locals. However, it is a good place to get yacht gear, albeit very far from being comparable to Fort Lauderdale, which is what the local yachting guide claims!
Beyond Gibraltar, and at last into the Mediterranean, some 30 miles up the Spanish coast we came to our berth for the 1986-87 northern winter. This was at the good marina near the pleasant town of Estepona, on the western fringe of the Costa del Sol and having thus not lost its character. Norma stayed on the boat until Christmas, while I flew to England to write a book for the BMA. By mid-February the whole equipe was together again, hoping to leave in March and reach as far as Venice on our way to southern Greece by the end of the 1987 season.
We left Estepona on April Fool’s day 1987, about two months before the Old Med Hands start moving, and battled our way east to Ibiza via the various anchorages on the south Spanish mainland. The land was heating up by this time, but the water was still very cold, so the afternoon sea breezes were truly ferocious, kicking up the seething white water so typical of any real wind in the Mediterranean. The choppy seas were steep, too, our first exposure to this feature of the Med, which makes it near impossible to get to windward without a lot of very wet drama.
We sailed over to the Balearic Islands, and first to Ibiza, a pleasant town on a pretty island. The marinas were horrendously expensive but we anchored out for a few days in the harbour, expecting at any time to be told to move. From there we sailed on to Mallorca, and we spent a good while at Palma, which much to our surprise we liked a great deal – one place which has made the most of tourism, absorbing it without losing its character. Tourism has been of positive benefit, and the city fathers have used the foreign funds well. Thus, the old buildings are well restored, the streets are clean, and the people easy to deal with.
We stayed a couple of weeks in Palma, and with friends made several trips throughout the island. A highlight was Valdemossa, where Chopin and George Sands spent a winter in a monastery, a fact which is exploited for all it is worth by the locals. We had long been puzzled by pictures showing two different pianos supposedly used by Chopin there – we were highly amused to find out that one was a borrowed one he was forced to use for almost all the time, his own one having been held up in Spanish Customs! Nothing changes . . . . According to Sands’ book a rotten time was had by all, but they had a lovely view from their “cell”.
There is a good marina there, not cheap but good value by European standards and a lot safer than being tied up to the sea wall, where boats were being cast off by happy ex-disco revellers as a late-night prank. Throughout Spain (as we had found in Central America) Norma’s excellent Spanish made a huge difference, but we were soon to lose this advantage.
We spent a while at Andraix, an excellent anchorage at the west end of Mallorca, waiting out weather. This was associated with northerly winds, although here they are called Mistrals. Every wind has its own name in the Mediterranean, giving it supernatural overtones and wrapping it in folklore, but we preferred to rely on the basic physics of the weather – not that it makes forecasting any easier in these waters! By this time, we were sick of the constant cold wind, and headed south and east rather than visit Menorca, as planned. We were sorry about that, because it looked good in the cruising guides.
And so we sailed to Cagliari, at the southern end of Sardinia. There we faced the need for Italian paperwork including insurance. Third party insurance is mandatory in Italy – we are not insured at all, but secured the legal minimum requirements up the street at half the rate we were quoted in London.
From a tiny deserted harbour nearby we did a little walking into the foothills, and regretted that we could not do more exploring of the mountains of the south – wild and woolly would be a clichéd but apt description. The north end of Sardinia is meant to be lovely, but we were still chasing the sun and pressed on south-east to Sicily.
We couldn’t lay the north-west corner of Sicily, so diverted to the tiny island of Ustica, which some believe to have been the real “bag of winds” island of Ulysses. In the Odyssey it is described as hanging suspended in the air, and amazingly that’s just how it did look, looming rockily green out of a veil of sea mist. The harbour was minute, and the taciturn fishermen not all that keen on effete foreign yachts taking up space, so south we sailed on to Palermo.
Palermo was once the crossroads of western civilisation, but it is now a dreadful demonstration of what things could be like if that civilisation fails: streets seething with anarchic traffic and piled with rotting garbage, the city’s gorgeous baroque buildings in sad decay, black and peeling, wooden shutters drunkenly askew over blind blank windows.
The Sicilians fulfil every stereotype, even to the worship of the dead. We visited some extraordinary catacombs, where until quite recently – less than 100 years ago – people were deposited in underground galleries and propped upright fully dressed in their best clothes, their bodies having been desiccated by drying out on a sort of king-sized barbecue. Some of the more recent had been embalmed as well, and looked – well, not alive, but not really dead either, if you get my meaning. Children there were too, some in their own part of the catacombs, and some as part of whole family groups – mum, dad and the kids, all propped up there for ever, dressed for a day on the town. We spent time with the priest in charge, and were very interested to learn that he had been an Italian soldier in WW2 who was transported to a prison camp in Australia.
Through the Straits of Messina we were back into Odyssey mode, reading aloud about the terrors of Scylla and Charybdis as we warily skirted the vast and undoubtedly impressive whirlpools. Ashore, we were getting on fine with the country, but were getting tired of the cramped and dirty fishing harbours there is no way of avoiding. By the time we reached the heel of Italy we were noting that there was still time to turn back and head for the Caribbean that season! But we had never quit so far, and things did look up markedly in the Adriatic. For one thing, the weather got a lot warmer at last; and, for another, Yugoslavia turned out to offer really lovely cruising. We hadn’t seen decent anchorages for so long, and we had practically forgotten what it was like to swing peacefully to our own hook. There are hundreds of good places along the Yugoslav coast, many off completely deserted shores or very attractive and unspoilt little towns. But we had to move quickly north, hoping to reach Venice before the worst of the tourist rush.
Venice fulfilled all our expectations. We were there for three weeks, one at three different moorings, and the other two just wandering round the lagoon, where we found anchorages – still with the city on the skyline – which we would swear were among the most peaceful in Europe! Initially, we spent a night at the marina right across from St Mark’s Square, a dreamlike position, but it was being refurbished so we were kicked out the next morning. We then spent two nights at the public (free!) mooring piles nearby, right under the beautiful church of the Santa Maria della Salute, again with a staggering close view of the city, but the position is essentially untenable in the washes kicked up by the very heavy water traffic. So we moved down to a very quiet yacht club marina at the east end of the main island for a few days.
We took in all the sights, walked Venice from end to end and generally revelled in the place. We enjoyed plenty of music, of course, although in typically shambolic Italian fashion it was hard to find out what was happening in advance and make sensible plans. But we did hear Vivaldi played in Venice, though not in “his church” (as it is known for tourist purposes), the Pieta. And lots of other early music too, including a lovely concert of a capella music (at the Pieta) by a group from Cambridge University. From our various anchorages in the dreamy outer lagoon we visited the other inhabited islands, often taking the dinghy into the canals for shopping at canal-side shops. All in all, this visit was a wonderful experience, one that truly made the summer for us.
The Yugoslav coast we took a lot slower going down, and the anchorages were just as good – but this time very crowded, as the European holiday season was by that time at its peak. The standard of anchoring was as poor as we have ever seen, and in one Bora (a violent katabatic nor-easter which falls off the Yugoslav mountains) no less than five boats dragged on to us as we held firm. We had to slip our (and their) anchor lines to separate the mass of boats, but were able to recover our anchor and chain the next day. We were terribly edgy after that, standing on the foredeck glaring every time a new boat hovered anywhere near us.
Near the southern extremity of Yugoslavia, in the region of Montenegro, we sailed into a markedly more peaceful and extraordinarily beautiful inland sea, the Gulf of Kotor. It had been a military base and was only recently opened to yachts. We hired a car for a day and drove up into the mountains overlooking the gulf, and from which we could just see the border with the still-closed country of Albania.
Sailing south from Yugoslavia all vessels have to stand at least 20 miles off the Albanian coast because of the risk of mines, would you believe! (Shades of Nicaragua, which we had to hold well off in 1983, while the CIA were mining the harbours there). A young German couple we got friendly with, with not a lot of experience, were so worried about this they made an unexpected landfall on the coast of Italy!
Our own landfall, with rather better navigation, was Corfu. We were not very impressed. We found the town to be an interesting and sad contrast to Palma de Mallorca – equally popular with British tourists, but which had been allowed to fall into a seedy shadow of its former glory. However, the green (read, wet in winter) Ionian islands were pleasant, not essentially dissimilar to the Yugoslav coast, and with plenty of deserted anchorages. Things were getting a lot quieter by this time.
From the Ionian Sea to the Aegean we cruised the Gulf of Corinth, which has some charming spots – the villagers there still tread their own grapes by foot – and traversed the Corinth Canal. This cost us about three times as much as the Panama Canal, but is only three miles long. Yachts simply motor though in convoy, with no locks or assistance.
Once in the Saronic Gulf we started to look at potential wintering spots. Most were full by that time or too exposed, and we were getting pretty gloomy about prospects until we came to the harbour where we came to lie, Porto Heli. It is a largish bay, but landlocked, and without the surrounding high hills which make for such gusty conditions in much of the Med. The holding is superb, and there are moorings as well for those that want them. Several boats are left here during the winter, and many are lifted out by crane and stored ashore. A young German looks after the mooring/storage business, and there are one or two other English-speakers. There is little interaction with the local Greek people. As others warned us, we found them not easy to get on with – a gloomy race, we think, slow to smile, much concerned with “face”.
All visitors to Greece seem to fall either into the group who would, or those who wouldn’t, want to return. Among the first have been some of the world’s finest writers – Durrell, Miller, Byron – and it is perhaps the works of these famous Hellenophiles that have raised the expectations of newcomers to unrealistic levels. Our own expectations were never fulfilled, which I readily concede could be our “fault”. We found places that were pretty enough – but not the slices of paradise described by Miller. We came across some pleasant people – but not the paragons of outgoing friendliness and courtesy described by Durrell. We didn’t think much of the food, and the cheaper wines are among the worst in the Mediterranean basin.
It is possible that our perceptions have been shaded by the fact that we have been practically the whole time in the Peloponnese and the islands of the southern Aegean, with only the odd quick trip to the city of Athens. All these southern areas were originally populated by the warlike Dorians, whose chief descendants were the Spartans. Temperamentally totally different to the Athenian Greeks, the Spartans have of course spent much of Greek history at war with the northerners, and in Porto Heli we heard much disparaging comment about “those Athenians”.
Historically aloof, inhospitable and paranoid, the Spartans sound to have been a disciplined but unattractive people, and we thought we recognised many of these features in their 20th century descendants! In Porto Heli, mature women rarely appeared out of their houses, where they are visited by cruising trucks carrying fruit, vegetables and other produce. The harbour-side stroll, so much a feature of Mediterranean life, is a men-only affair. During one of the rare dinners ashore in the only taverna which stayed open all winter, I counted about 25 young Greek men – but only two young women. Boarding a bus, any mature Greek man would resolutely shoulder aside any foreigners or women who might have been waiting there before him. Durrell claims in his book on the Greek islands that the Greeks were the first civilisation to recognize the rights of women, which is a classic example of idealization; in fact, throughout history Greek women have been regarded as citizens only for the purpose of procreation. Greek aspirations, it seems to me, died with Alexander the Great, and the frowning countenances of the southerners reflect gloomy memories of glories long gone.
I was delighted to find that the word “laconic” is derived from the Spartans’ main district, Laconia! The strongest impression we gained from the locals in Porto Heli, where we were the only boat to be lived on all winter, was that they didn’t care whether we were there or not. Which is their prerogative, of course, and suited us well enough – all we wanted was peace and quiet, and that we got.
As we hunker down for the winter we review what we thought of sailing in the Mediterranean so far. Our experiences have been mixed. The actual sailing is mostly unrewarding; the old saw, there’s always too little wind or too much, is right. We’ve had some pleasant afternoon drifts, but nothing lasts for more than an hour or two. The flotilla charterers have their fun in the sea breeze, but their schedules wisely never take them far in a day. There is never a real swell, just a rotten little chop that kicks up in any breeze and hangs on through the next morning’s calm.
Ashore, with the starry exception of Venice and the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia and Greece, we have also had some disappointments. Part of the problem is probably that, rather surprising as it may seem, the people of the Mediterranean basin are not that keen on the sea. (Again, review Ulysses!) The main aim of fishermen in Greece and southern Italy is to make enough money to move ashore for good. Culturally, therefore, we missed the pleasures to be found inland, rather than along the coast, in these ancient empires.
In the superb protection of land-locked Porto Heli we lay at anchor for the whole winter of 1987-88. While there, along with short trips to the UK, I wrote another book for the BMA, heartened by the news that the book of the previous winter (Living With Risk) had won a supposedly prestigious science book prize in Britain.
We left Porto Heli at the beginning of May 1988. We spent a few weeks moving through the Cyclades islands in the Aegean, and were surprised at how barren they were. It was hard for us to see why they have attracted such a devoted following over the years. Some of the harbours and anchorages are good, and there are some attractive little whitewashed villages in most of the foothills. But provisioning and water supplies are constant problems, and we never saw really pretty or dramatic scenery. Lots of rocks and thorns, though.
We found the island people easier to deal with than those on the mainland, but still unforthcoming unless pressed. Except on the tourist islands, the people tend to be either very young or old – the others are off making money in Athens, Germany, the USA or Australia.
The islands differed one from the other more than we had expected. Practically within sight of each other might be one island packed with young tourists and discos and another with nothing but a simple hamlet and no hotels at all. All the islands were bleak, barren and stony, extremely hard going to walk over, although we gave it a good shot on some. I could never describe them as beautiful in the normal sense, although some of the villages had charm, spilling their cubical white dwellings over craggy outcrops like sugar on a rock cake. The classic “touristy” picture is of snow-white (read, glaring in the sun) houses and churches, steep paved alleys, bunches of flowers, and windmills. These spectacular features are all there, but such views are pastiches that cut out the context, which is rugged, dry, and grey.
Our final island in the Cyclades was a big one, Kos, the birthplace of Hippocrates. We unfolded the bikes, fixed the inevitable puncture, and cycled up to the Asklepion, the place of healing, built by and for his disciples (long after his death). We also duly viewed the tree under which it is said that the great man taught, propped up now by a complex of stone struts, but it is about 800 years too young to have been there at the time. From there, cleared out by a surly Customs and Immigration official who made his disapproval very plain, we sailed to Turkey.
Turkey and Greece nearly came to war over seabed rights in the Aegean only last year (1987), the latest round in a series of disputes which – given changing names for the regions – has gone on for thousands of years. The premiers of Greece and Turkey met together very recently; urged for comment by an optimistic press, Ozal pointed out that anyone who hoped for much progress out of one meeting had little understanding of history. It is strange: here we are in south-west Turkey, Muslim (though a “secular” state) and with an Asian feel, yet the ruins we dutifully trot round are of Greek and Roman settlements, the whole Aegean coast having been “Greek” (although often under non-Greek rule) for nearly 3,000 years.
For example, for a while we were anchored in the harbour of what was in ancient times Knidos, one of the capital cities of the ancient world, and (with Kos) one of the two main centres for the healing arts. There is nothing here now but acres of ruins scattered over the rocky hillsides (plus a tiny restaurant and lots of visiting yachts and cruise boats in the windswept harbour), and there is an all-pervading sense of the passage of civilization after civilization, as the limited excavations have uncovered layer on layer of building upon building, temple upon temple.
The people of the area, however, are firmly “Turkish” (from Lydia and Anatolia, taken over by the Persians before Xerxes was surprisingly thumped by the Greeks). Any remaining Greeks were “exchanged” by Ataturk in the twenties, although there are a few ghost towns which the Turks never took over. It is a great relief to see women dressed brightly, rather than in the black which is so typically Mediterranean. They wear patterned blouses and dresses over coloured baggy pants, with white headscarves, and are out and about, working in the fields and with the animals. We have been a long way off the tourist beat – indeed, Turkey as a whole is only now discovering tourism as an industry. We have found the local people to be charming. They look you in the eye, head up, and always with a spoken greeting, very cheerful and outgoing.
We found some lovely areas for cruising, with many (though often terribly deep) good anchorages. Provisioning was, as in Yugoslavia the previous year, better than we had been led to believe, and water was no problem at all. In many bays it is possible to tie bow-to to a tree, and take water directly on to the boat via a hose connected to a pipe which runs constantly, fed from springs high in the hills. The wine was pretty awful, though.
The cost of living, on foreign currency, we found to be very low; it is the only country we have been to where Norma concedes that it is possible to eat out for no more than it would cost on board. And the food is excellent, a mixture of European and Asian (like Turkey as a whole).
The coastal towns we have visited have been small ones, not particularly attractive and no attempt has been made to make them so. The villages we have come across on our walks inland have been exceedingly simple places, but clean in comparison with the third world (if that comparison is fair). The countryside around most of this south-west coast is mostly tree-covered, mountainous, lush and green; being on a windward coast, it rains a lot in the winter, and water is no problem.
The main problem with Turkey is that now it is being discovered. Cruising boats are deserting Greek waters in hordes. There are hundreds of charter boats now sailing in Turkey, many in flotillas that are not too much of a threat because they are supervised by (mostly) competent leaders. However, there are also hundreds of chartered bareboats, which can be truly dangerous, because the anchoring conditions are often very tricky – deep, weedy, gusty winds and so on. On top of that, there are hundreds (again) of big local motorsailors, “gulets” (dubbed “goolies” by Norma), very attractive locally-built wooden boats, out for charter. There are over 300 operating out of Bodrum alone, and a much bigger fleet out of Marmaris.
Anchored in the enclosed harbour of Bodrum we rented a car and took it on an engrossing circuit of Anatolia and up to Istanbul, including every ancient pile of rock on the western seaboard. Because the entire west coast was at various times part of the Persian, Greek and Roman empires, there is a feast of fun and entertainment for amateur ruinologists. The most outstanding site is of course Ephesus, where there has been substantial reconstruction of the more important of the ruined buildings. The most famous one is the library, with its glorious facade; we got there early to beat the tourist rush, and had it to ourselves in the magic of the golden early morning sun, which it was built to catch. Although later in the day Ephesus was thronged with tourists, most of the other sites were very quiet, full of atmosphere and romance.
We did the virtually obligatory trip to the tip of the Gallipoli peninsula. Around Anzac Cove and in the hills for half a mile or so around – as far as the doomed assault force got – there are memorials and countless gravestones. It is all very quiet, with typically a few Australians picking their way through the scrub to places with names like “Scotty’s Mount”, and the atmosphere is ghost-ridden. The most incredible thing to us was the manifest unsuitability of the landing area at Anzac Cove itself. The beach is narrow – just 5 or 10 metres across – backed by steep dunes, then there is a short stretch of scrubby plain before the foothills rise steeply to an escarpment. Up there, the Turkish machine-gunners had a superb field of fire, and the resulting slaughter was inevitable. We have never felt so moved by a memorial (the area is a park, now) or more angry at the pointlessness of it all.
And so on to Istanbul, with its seething traffic, noise, crowding, and manifest city ills. Again, we saw most of the recognized sights, including the Blue Mosque (big, but we have seen much more attractive mosques on a smaller scale) and the Saint Sophia basilica/mosque, now a museum. But for us easily the most memorable complex of buildings was Topkapi, the palace of the Ottoman sultans for hundreds of years, and now a collection of museums. They have beautifully restored part of the enormous labyrinth of the harem, centre of court intrigue, and in another part of the palace Norma was especially fascinated by the kitchen buildings. The pots they used were so enormous that she couldn’t even lift the lids of most of them. In the Treasury there is a display of some of the fabulous jewels of the Ottoman empire, said to rival the Crown Jewels in beauty and value. Well, I don’t know about that, but there were so many egg-sized diamonds and much solid gold to be seen that it was easy to become very ho-hum about yet another slab of magnificence. It is an important place in the world of Islam, and Norma received a dirty glare from some Moslem pilgrims when an irrepressible giggle escaped her on being confronted by a hair of the beard of the Prophet.
Like every other tourist we walked around the famous covered market, but in the central part we found the constant hassling from the stall-holders and shop-keepers very trying, especially those selling carpets. “Carpet touts” are pretty pushy all over Turkey (outside Istanbul, the Turks as a whole are not pushy at all), but in that city they are a real pain in the neck. The trouble is, when a pleasant-looking young man comes and offers help or information you have no idea whether he is being friendly or just trying to sell carpets, souvenirs, or in some cases restaurant meals. We found the best policy was to ignore their entreaties totally, but that’s a bit hard when they are standing in front of you and blocking your way! I lost my temper with a restaurant owner who wanted us to try his fish, wouldn’t take no for an answer and started cross-questioning us as to why we wouldn’t come in, and I shouted at him to leave us alone, not like me at all!
But off the tourist beat the locals were as nice as ever, and where the Turks do their trading in the outer reaches of the enormous market area we were not troubled at all. There is no room in the narrow alleys for even small carts, and most of the heavy wares are carried on the stooped-over backs of specialist porters, who use a sort of cradle strapped to their backs and carry incredible loads, way over 100 kilograms. Many of these men are quite old, with white beards, with a Semitic appearance; this has been a traditional occupation for these people for centuries. Heaven knows what it does to their spines in the long term, although one travel book we read said that no harm results. Personally I doubt it!
We drove on up to have a look at the Black Sea coast, which was surprisingly lovely: green, rolling hillsides, colourful fields, looking very much like the Sussex downs. Then south on to the inland route, climbing through attractive hills to plateau country, with miles and miles of wheat fields. It was harvest time, much of it being done in the traditional manner with scythes and winnowing by hand. Farming is, we observed, very labour-intensive in Turkey; it is not unusual to see one person looking after a single cow as it grazes, and common to see small herds of cows, sheep or goats being led around on strings. The people of the countryside are poor in the sense that they have no money, but they certainly have plenty to eat. Their houses are very simple, mostly wooden dwellings or a mixture of wood and mud brick.
We mostly stayed in small hotels and pensions, all very cheap by European standards, with cleanliness ranging from good to awful. We ate out constantly, on food which was never less than enjoyable and often excellent. Despite also eating from roadside vendor stalls (lunch, on one occasion, was lamb barbecued in strips of innards and cut up into half a loaf of fresh bread – lovely!), we never suffered from any stomach problems. Moslem traditions make for the very clean handling of food.
Turkey would probably justify a whole season on its own, and indeed we regretted not having more seriously considered spending the previous winter there. Fethiye, with its complex of bays, good anchorages and a spellbinding backdrop of cliffs and caves, is very popular in that regard. However, we had to leave after only eight weeks, which included the car trip and also hauling and bottom-painting the boat (in incredible heat) at a yard near Bodrum. We were conscious of a certain ennui – we had had more than enough of sailing in the Mediterranean sea and felt a strong pull west to distant shores, to decent sailing and decent anchorages, fishing, and all the other good maritime things. Also, July and August are no months to sail in the Aegean. The Meltemi, a steady N-NW wind, blows day in and day out at 20 to 35 knots, gusting violently through the anchorages and blowing red dust off the scorched hillsides.
We cleared out from Bodrum, with the usual visits to every conceivable local official, and sailed west, back across the southern Aegean. Faced by headwinds as we approached the southern tip of mainland Greece we called in to a deserted bay – Port Khaio – for a few days, but thereafter “sailed” (that is, motored about half the time) to Malta nonstop. Some of the restrictions on cruising around the Maltese islands have been relaxed, and because the group is such an obvious stopping place en route from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, many more yachts are calling.
We arrived off Valletta Harbour during the morning of July 27, 1988. Having been warned that it was a requirement to do so, we called Valletta Port Control on Channel 12 advising our approach; overseen by supreme bureaucrats, every movement by a yacht inside and in the vicinity of the harbour had to be so advised, although the number of vessels using the port is clearly a small fraction of what it was in the past.
The approach to the harbour, and the entrance, is exceedingly spectacular, because we were overlooked from all sides by forts of every shape and size. It is easily the most highly fortified place we have ever seen. The buildings are all in the same shade of stone, which adds to the impression that the whole of Valletta and the surrounding districts make up one big castle.
Valletta was an interesting city, but exceedingly crowded with tourists, all of whom, like us, looked as though they were suffering from the oppressive heat and would rather be at the beach! There are some lovely old buildings, most of them having had to be rebuilt after the war. But the island itself is just a giant rock pile. Further, it has been extensively quarried for its yellowish stone – “Malta” comes from the old word for honey, melita – and the climate and the absence of topsoil prevents anything of any significance growing. In mid-summer, it looks as though a blowtorch has been waved over it, and there is very little livestock to be seen. Even the goats would find little to eat! The crowding is incredible. Throughout the barren landscape are scattered countless quite large towns, looking from a distance a bit like bunches of bigger versions of the stones which are everywhere, and all marked by a prominent church. This is a very Catholic country, and the population is growing fast. As it is, we have no idea how the island supports itself.
For 16 years after independence Malta had a hard-left government more interested in contacts with nations such as Libya than with the west. A change in government has brought about a change in attitude towards tourists, including those arriving on yachts, and the foreign exchange they bring with them. Malta is a overpopulated island, and the tourist industry it is hoped will bring jobs to those who might hitherto have never been assured of work in Valletta’s enormous harbour and dockyard facilities.
As far as yachts are concerned, there is evidence of a change in attitude – no longer are their owners necessarily seen as capitalist warmongers – but the warming of approach had not filtered down to some of the many officials with whom relationships have to be established. Also, facilities for short-term cruising yachts leave a great deal to be desired.
The first problem was what to do when we arrived, made worse by the fact that it was a Sunday. All space adjacent to a prominent sign reading “Guest Berth” was full up, it turned out later with locally-owned boats permanently kept there. The harbour office is shut at the weekends, and even during the week we never heard the office respond to calls from arriving yachts for advice on where to go. We rafted alongside a Canadian boat at the east end of the dock, and when he left the next day, we moved in to his space.
Come Monday, and the berthing master – the only functionary able to allocate berths, and often away from his office on other duties – told us to stay put where we were.
It became clear the “Guest berth” sign meant nothing in practice: the entire wharf frontage (laughingly called a marina) on the south side of Manoel Island is used by short-term and long-term yachts alike, with the latter having to take the chance that the vacant space he pulls in to will not soon be claimed by its permanent or semipermanent user. Some yachts, accordingly, found themselves being reallocated new berths and having to move almost daily, although this fate did not befall us.
Having to move complicated the already rather painful situation in regard to water and electricity. Again, only one man had sufficient authority to make decisions on who was to be connected to what and when; only available in the mornings, many people found this employee of the municipal authorities a somewhat abrasive character.
The reasons for visiting Malta include seeing the extraordinary fortification of this rocky but strategic group of islands, replenishing stores, and getting things done to and for the yacht. The chandleries are generally well stocked, and the Manoel Island yacht yard able to carry out most repairs. We took an enjoyable ferry ride to the nearby island of Gozo, to see yet more honey-coloured ruins. But in the end, we were not sorry to move on.
From Malta we continued due west to Tunisia. This is a country which is usually missed out by circumnavigators, because for most people it is off the track for a one-way transit of the Mediterranean. East-west (or vice versa) passage-makers stick understandably to the popular shores of the countries of the northern Mediterranean, tracking (as we had done) through the Straits of Messina and the fishing harbours of Italy. This could explain why during our cruise of Tunisian waters, the overwhelming majority of boats hailed from Italian or French ports. We hardly saw any English speakers at all.
But the country is trying hard to attract yachts (and other tourists) to its shores. After several weeks there, our conclusion was that the country is well worth a visit, especially if your tastes run to exotica. But how much you’ll enjoy the actual cruising depends a lot on what you like to do. Among the well contented will be those who like marinas and Mediterranean-style fishing ports, and who are prepared (and prosperous enough) to leave the boat for extended travelling inland. Those who enjoy dropping anchor in peaceful and protected coves will need to find satisfaction elsewhere or in other ways.
We entered Tunisia at Monastir, about half way down the eastern coast of the country, where a set of little islands have been connected by a sea wall in order to enclose a brand new marina. The main obstacle on the approach, and one which is to be found at many places round this coast during the summer, is the tuna netting which extends miles off shore, marked by a large buoy but still hard to see against the setting sun.
Formalities were about par for the course in the eastern Mediterranean, with forms having to be completed for the port captain, port police, immigration authorities and Customs, but the officials were cheerfully friendly and keen to help. They had been worked off their black-soled boots that particular afternoon, as we arrived just after a gang of yachts which had raced from Palermo. All the formalities were conducted in offices or on the wharf, not aboard the boat.
Daily, we took the short walk up to the town of Monastir, past an impressive sandstone fortified monastery, or “ribat”. It is a popular place to make movies. Hard by the ribat is an ugly square box of a building, looking like an aircraft hanger: a peek inside revealed a full-scale mock-up of a Roman temple! The other buildings in the area may or may not be original – it is now very hard to say!
Provisioning in the town is adequate, and nowhere we shopped in the country did we fail to obtain adequate provisions. There is a market, very dependent on what’s growing and going in the countryside: not a lot, in mid-August, when we were there. But basics like potatoes, tomatoes (very ripe ones), onions and pumpkins were all abundant, along with some rather tired lettuce and local spinach. There was no pig meat to be had, of course, in this Moslem country, but chickens and their eggs are massively popular and low-priced, as is excellent goat meat, plus lamb and beef. Typically for the Med, all meat is very fresh, and can be tough unless the cook is familiar with its preparation.
Eating out, Tunisian food is spicy, with lots of chili. The staple is couscous, various stews with semolina, and the snacks freshly cooked by roadside vendors are generally excellent. On the tourist beat, however, the food is bland, even the so-called local dishes; at the more expensive restaurants, the cooking is based on French cuisine.
We had always planned to do some touring round this country, particularly of the south. We looked into hiring a car, but it would have been very expensive and we weren’t at all sure about hotels and the like, so for the first time in our lives we booked a bus tour, for two days away and one night in a hotel, meals and all included.
Among the main “sights” of the tour were the several Roman sites in Tunisia, and because of the lack of earthquakes many of them are in very good condition, having been more damaged in various wars than by natural forces. On the second day we saw a ruined city with an exceptional forum, which was the main square and meeting place, with three magnificent temples in superb condition (for ruins).
On the way the bus regularly stopped at the bigger towns, where we sampled the local delicacies from the roadside vendors. At various times we had: a doughnut filled with hardboiled egg and salad, with chili sauce; french bread stuffed with fish, potatoes and chili; and a thing called “brik a l’oeuf“, apparently unique (it’s in none of Norma’s many books) and absolutely delicious. It is a thin pancake, crisply deep fried, wrapped round a spicy salad and a whole egg which is broken into it and cooks inside – Norma had no idea how or why the egg doesn’t run out first, and had to try making her own later. Things like that were far more tasty than the bland stuff they turn on for bus tours (like ours) at the restaurants and hotels.
A major target on the first day of the trip was a village called Matmata, which like others in the sunbaked area is mostly comprised of underground dwellings which the people have dug out in the sandstone of the hills in order to get away from the summer heat and the winter cold. We had lunch in one such place, now converted into a hotel. We went in down a tunnel, which took us to a central pit, open to the sky. Off this large hole in the ground led more tunnels and cave-like rooms. From a distance, the landscape looks pitted with craters, which are the tops of these central excavations; a few years ago that’s all there was to be seen, but the seething tourist activity at Matmata, and the money this has brought, has led to the building of several above-ground houses, which sort of spoils the effect.
Also, like most “houses” in the south (and in the tradition of Islam), these are ugly, dumpy structures, like blockhouses which haven’t even been finished properly. Centuries ago, all these people lived in tents. Many, the Bedouins, still do – but those who have moved into more solid homes have made no effort to make them attractive in any way.
As intended, we did see a lot of desert! Probably the most impressive was an enormous, dry, salt lake, flat and brown as far as the horizon in all directions, almost like being at sea, except that mirages shimmered in the direction of the sun. Not even Bedouins or their camels could survive out there. On the edge of this expanse are two big collections of oases, attractive hordes of palm trees under the shade of which other plants are cultivated, such as potatoes, chilis, okra and so on. Water springs from underground, and in this arid country it is strange to hear its sound as it is channelled from place to place by a system of ditches and sluice gates.
Being on a bus trip, by definition we were on the tourist beat; but even so, as we walked (usually on our own, as the other passengers went on organised little excursions on camels and horsedrawn carriages) round the markets and back streets of the towns and villages we were able to get a bit of a feel for the way of life in the near-desert. The villagers live a basic existence, to say the least, in their simple houses – we could see very little furniture, and most people seemed to sleep outside on mats and blankets. The village houses are often grouped into little squares, presumably containing families, with a central courtyard and surrounded by a blank and forbidding wall.
The local people seemed friendly enough, and the children all waved and said “bonjour” (French is the second language here). But the older women are all heavily veiled, although this is no longer compulsory, and turn their heads away if you look at them. The guide insisted that in Tunisia huge steps have been taken towards female emancipation, but from my reading of the history of Islam, it will take more than a few government decrees to change attitudes ingrained over centuries. All in all, we were pleased we did this trip, as we could not have got near the Sahara at reasonable cost otherwise, but it will be some time before we take another bus tour! We got taken only to the more “touristy” places, got fed some pretty terrible meals, and had to put up with some heavy smokers in the bus.
From Monastir we sailed the few miles past Sousse, a huge commercial harbour, to Port El Kantoui, the first of the marinas built as one of a series of planned tourist developments. It has a long way to go before being finished, as we found when touching bottom about half-way into the basin, groping around looking for a berth in what had become a screaming afternoon sou-easter, which as it happen blows straight in the entrance. The El Kantaoui development, Tunisia’s answer to Spain’s Puerto Banus, is nicely done, with attractive buildings of a reasonable height, not overwhelming. It is, of course, entirely artificial: typical Tunisia, it is not! Surprisingly, we found it quieter than Monastir, perhaps because the comparatively up-market and established restaurants did not find it necessary to blare loud music from outside speakers in order to attract customers. There is no local town, and a ride into the port of Sousse is required to see anything of the real world or buy stores which include anything much in the way of fresh produce.
From El Kantaoui we sailed north to the port of Kelibia, which had been well spoken of by the few we had met who had been there: quiet and friendly, they said. Well, August is no time to be cruising anywhere in the Mediterranean, so it was probably not surprising that the wharf newly set aside for the use of yachts was crammed, with a crazy mixture of stern-to mooring, the great Med raft-up alongside, and long lines cobwebbed to an adjacent wharf. A typically European situation, we thought, but not one which made for peaceful days and nights.
There is a village with basics just up the way, and a bigger town a couple of miles further. The local people come to the port for the evening walkabout, whole families, and a row of stalls caters for their snack needs including our favourite, the brik a l’oeuf. A favourite game in Kelibia is moving the boats around, and when we found one morning that we would have to move because a ferry was coming, we decided at short notice to sail to Sidi Bou Said, in the Bay of Tunis, around Cape Bon.
Sidi Bou Said is the place to be seen in Tunisia, we were told. On the top of the hill behind the marina is an enchanting little Moorish village, all white with blue trim, now a centre for tourist-oriented crafts and a target for bus tours. Beyond this “old” part is a new town with the usual supply of stores and an idiosyncratic approach to the selling of liquor. Hard spirits and expensive wine can be obtained at any time, but ordinary wine and beer can only be bought from a tucked-away shop after four in the afternoon. We were conscious, not for the first time in the country, that ex-President Bourguiba’s efforts to ease the strictures of Islam have met with patchy acceptance over the years.
We did a day trip into the city of Tunis from here. It was a Sunday, which is a weekend holiday day, so despite this being a Moslem country most of the shops were shut. But that didn’t matter, we weren’t there for the shopping, and we had a much more relaxed wander through the market areas than usual because most of the stalls and little shops were closed up and we were free from the incessant hassling which normally accompanies a stroll through these areas. And we could see the decorated arches of the souks (the covered market areas), with pretty painted decorations – and masses of horrifically exposed electrical wiring! These people, like so many in the Third World, live dangerous lives by western standards!
The main target of this trip was the national museum of Tunisia, the Bardo, which is famous for its collection of mosaics from the many Roman ruins in the country. To get there we had first to find the bus station and establish which was the correct bus; having done this, we joined the vague mob of people waiting for the same bus. When it arrived, we were involved in the most extraordinarily vicious scramble to get on, during which I felt wriggling fingers exploring a pocket in which I had some money. I slapped that hand down, and as it turned out there was plenty of room on the bus anyway! We have since learnt that this unseemly scramble is normal. They can keep it.
The Bardo was well worth the visit. It is an old palace, with masses of Islamic decoration almost worthy of the Alhambra, and the Roman mosaics were staggering, among the most interesting being those that depicted all aspects of Roman life. The mosaics are exceptionally good in this country because wherever else the Romans settled they painted the walls of their houses; here, they used mosaics for all their decoration, walls and floors.
We left early one morning for what turned out to be a tough sail against the common north-west wind, not assisted by the current swirling around Cape Farina, finally reaching the harbour at Bizerta late that evening. We anchored in the spacious reaches of the outer harbour, despite the entreaties – and, within a few minutes, the apoplectic waving – of a fat man in an amateur admiral’s hat, standing at the end of the wharf of the Club Nautique. Having for so long looked forward to lying once more to our own anchor, we were glad to hear from a German boat already doing so that to stay where we were would be “no problem”.
Bizerta is a fine town for taking on provisions, the main reason we were there at all. All stores are available within an easy walk of the harbour beach, and the market, Norma found, was an exceptionally good one. The fish were of a size and quality we had not seen since the markets of Spain and Portugal, and the meat we bought there was among the best we had sampled in the Mediterranean. It was a bit of a shock to our sensitive souls, however, to have a chicken killed and plucked before our very eyes, especially as we had asked – wholly illogically – for one of the dead ones on the counter.
We had been intending to leave Tunisia from Bizerta, but a prolonged period of westerly winds set in which would have meant an awful passage – the Mediterranean Sea being what it is – to our next destination, Gibraltar. One day, it seemed that we had the change were waiting for; but once on our way, the weatherfax map showed a new set of fronts approaching, and so we called unexpectedly into the “last” port in Tunisia, Tabarka, only five miles or so from the border with Algeria.
During that day we had sailed along the north coast of Tunisia, which is very pretty indeed: green and wooded hills, with golden sandy beaches between bunches of rocky cliffs. All completely deserted, as far as we could see. The approach to Tabarka was attractive, too, with a Genoese fort set high on a little island which forms part of the protection for the harbour. We arrived to this unscheduled port late in the evening, and although tired and hungry we then had to go through the runaround with the officials, particularly bureaucratic here, perhaps because of the proximity to the border with Algeria. But, as usual, they were pleasant enough as individuals.
Tabarka is quite an isolated place, very “Tunisian”, which tends to mean block-like houses, rubbish strewn everywhere, and smells of all kinds. (Especially in the harbour, as it happened, into which the town sewer runs, although they were in the process of diverting it – to a nearby beach). Sure enough, the westerlies set in again, blowing red dust all over us, and Norma continued to battle with the problem of keeping the boat stocked with enough for a week or ten days at sea, with daily doubt as to when we would actually be going!
In these more isolated, non-touristy areas the Moslem faith is stronger, and I had my own battle getting some wine and beer, drinking which the faith officially forbids. These beverages are only sold from an unmarked hideaway in a back street, for just about an hour a day, and there was an indescribable scrum of the most scruffy and villainous-looking Arabs fighting to get service at the tiny counter before the booze ran out. Wine was pretty awful rosé, with no choice. The problem was to get my hands on any of it at all, and I used my elbows and feet to keep my place in what we would laughingly call a queue. The local men surreptitiously stuffed their purchases into zipper bags or under their other shopping, and I saw one fellow stick a whole lot of bottles of beer into the waistband of his trousers. I felt as if I was buying bootleg liquor during Prohibition!
The people in these northern regions are mostly Berbers, generally pale skinned, and in Tabarka the women were dressed in very colourful patterned clothes, often interwoven with gold and silver threads, and very few were wearing the white shrouds and veil which are so common further south. They also sell carved animals at the handicraft stalls at the market – elsewhere in the Moslem world any depiction of the human or animal form is strictly forbidden.
We left the shores of Tunisia, most interesting and mainly enjoyable as the country had been, conscious that the cruising offered was not the cruising we most enjoy. “Anchorages” are mostly good for lunch stops only, although there are some holes in the sandy and tidal southern part of the coastline where shoal-draft yachts could find all-round protection. The all-pervading presence of armed officialdom made us uneasy, and the paperwork required when entering each and every port was a pain. Those who, unlike us, enjoy being parked in crowded full-service marinas which could really be anywhere in the world, will have a much better time than we did.
The prevailing wind along the north coast of Africa is an easterly, driven by the Saharan low, and after the persistent frontal westerlies had finally ceased we had a good sail for the 700 miles or so to Gibraltar. The only problems were hordes of ships and, as we approached the Rock, lots of floating rubbish and then solid fog!
Gibraltar is still a good place to stock up, and we loaded basic provisions to keep us for the best part of a year, because many things are very expensive – or impossible to get – in the Caribbean. It has taken us many years to be able to face up to big purchases, but when long-distance cruising the principle must be that when things you’ll eventually need are available at reasonable cost now, then buy lots of them now!
Again we were held up for a long time by persistently bad weather, one of the secrets of successful and happy cruising being the willingness to wait for good conditions. As it happened, this willingness led us to call unexpectedly into another Arab port, Tangier, in Morocco. This was a much more pleasant and cleaner place than we had expected, with many ornate buildings from old French colonial days, some open squares in the “new” town, and a maze-like walled old town (the “medina”, with the “casbah”). Many of the men were dressed in a sort of robe, like a monk’s habit, with a peaked hood, and the women’s clothes were very colourful, with some lovely long dresses in glossy fabrics. Big straw hats were common, and the women in from the country for the market had red-and-white striped skirts and white shawls. The hassle factor was surprisingly low.
A second year of cruising in the Mediterranean has not changed our opinion that sailing here is not always enjoyable, and we are pleased to be heading for distant horizons again. European countries and their people can be enchanting. But if we return for more travelling here, it will be in a camper van. As I write in the middle of October, we are sitting out a series of cold fronts, but plan to move soon to the Canary Islands. From there, as soon as prudent (the north Atlantic hurricane season is generally regarded as being over by about mid-November) we sail for Antigua, then down the Antilles to Venezuela. This will be all new ground for us and it will feel good to be back in the tropics.