The Mediterranean Sea
Spain again, and Gibraltar
On 3 September 1986, as night fell, we sailed up the River Guadiana, which is the border between Portugal and Spain. The latter was to our starboard side, and we anchored just past a ferry dock at the town of Ayamonte. We dined on tuna stew, having caught a nice little one on the way in.
In the morning, in fine and warm weather, we went ashore via a rather dirty fishing boat basin in an attempt to clear in with Spanish officialdom. We gave up, having not found the office of the port captain. We walked into the town, very crowded but not shambolic like Portugal, with better supplies and a good market. There were some pretty squares, trimmed with beautiful ceramic seating places. Back at the anchorage I was asked for medical advice by the crew of the only other boat there, seeing a possible clavicle fracture, but probably not. Reassurance was enough for the time being.
The night was uncomfortable, with choppy waters when the wind was against the tide, so we pulled out the next morning, again cautiously wending our way through the river's mouth, with some advice from a fishing boat on the way.
A little further along the Spanish coast, we anchored in the River Huelva. This was another rather complex river entry, up the other side of a long sand spit parallel with the mainland, but because the river is a major port, the channel was well marked. We found a pleasant anchorage a little way up the river, off a beach, near the town of Palos de la Frontera.
This is the town out of which Christopher Columbus sailed in La Santa Maria on 3 August 1492, leaving for the first of his voyages across the Atlantic. He made landfall on an island in the Bahamas. Having quite recently spent months in the Bahamas, where he ended that passage, we felt that we were in the presence of the ghosts of seamen long gone.
This was only an overnight rest stop, and we were away early the next morning to cross the big Golfo de Cadiz. It was a misty, windless day, and we motored the whole way to the mouth of yet another river, the Guadalete, just across the smaller Bahia Cadiz from the city. On its way there, the river's path has run down through Jerez and the other sherry towns.
There is a yacht club a short way up the river, the Real Club Nautico del Puerto de Santa Maria, and although not inexpensive they had all facilities and made us very welcome. The little town was enchanting, with lots of cafe/restaurants and amazing shops for cooked seafood called marisquerias. There were no tourists, and by Spanish standards very quiet. We had a look at the local church and its baroque portal, and an old castle with a plaque commemorating the birth nearby of Columbus.
Back at the club we wallowed in its marvellous swimming pool, a luxury we had not experienced since leaving Australia. We made good friends with American doctor and nurse Jim and Margaret Wall, in a Valiant 40 "The Loon" (an American bird). They were also intending to spend the winter in the marina at Estepona, which they had already done the previous year.
Because we were going to spend at least the winter in Spain we visited the local Maritime Police office to formally "enter" the country, which was a friendly and quick process.
We took a rather rickety old ferry over to Cadiz, which has been flattened by so many invaders that there’s really no such thing as an “old” city, and what we experienced was a rather dirty and uninspiring metropolis. The cathedra looked tatty and was shut, but we found an enchanting small church, partly underground, with three paintings by Goya in the dome.
In continuing hot weather we took a bus ride, firstly visiting Jerez. This was disappointing, so we soon took another bus to Arcos de la Frontera. This, in great contrast, was a lovely little town. It lies on the ridge of a hill on top of a cliff, with a castle and two churches overlooking the cultivated valley of the upper reaches of the Guadalete. Grapevines were growing in wide, rolling fields, while sunflower and sugarcane crops were going into hibernation. The big sherry bodegas were in contrast with the smaller, very up-market ones down in Puerto de Santa Maria, such as Osborne and Terry.
We walked the village and climbed to the top of a bell tower for lovely all-round views. The shining white walls of the dwellings confirmed it was one of the "pueblos blancos". We had a long Spanish-style lunch in a restaurant run by a friendly English-speaking couple, and then worked our way back to Puerto and a swim in the pool.
We left early the next morning for a long day's motorsail to Gibraltar, accompanied for a while by Loon. We both took a wide detour out to the west from Cadiz, Loon a bit further out than us, to avoid the shoals that extend a mile or two out to sea. Around mid-day we were motor-sailing past Cabo Trafalgar, and we re-read the story of Nelson and the battle as we sailed by, thinking of the remains of the men-o’-war beneath our keel and marvelling at the skill and seamanship which allowed these combatants to fight and sail at the same time.
By early evening we were rounding Cape Tarifa, the northern gate to the Mediterranean, with Africa in sight to the south; we could see the cliffs of Sidi Masa, the southern location of the Pillars of Hercules. At 8:30pm local time, by now dark, we entered the Bay of Gibraltar (or Bay of Algeciras, depending on your position on the matter), and very cautiously edged up through a confusing mass of lights, mostly from anchored ships and others from the land. We finally tied up at the Customs dock and obtained quick and easy clearance. The Customs officer advised us to go over and take any open berth in the Marina Bay complex and work things out in the morning.
Rain came in overnight, easing to drizzle. We checked in with the marina office, but it was too expensive for us. So, after fuelling up, we went out and round the end of the airfield runway and anchored among other cruising yachts in the popular roadstead. We then launched the dinghy and returned to the marina complex, specifically the helpful Sheppards Marina, and took a walk around the town. Our first impressions - to be confirmed later - were of a rather scruffy place. We had anticipated something like Bermuda - but it definitely was not! It was very much a base for the British armed services, and we were familiar with the look of service families when shopping in the town. Tourism was just becoming popular, but there were just a few British tourists around when we were there.
But some mail at last caught up with us, although the Coruna packages and slide photos had not appeared (and never did). Around the marina we caught up with a few cruisers that we had come across as long ago as when in Bermuda. We shopped in a good supermarket and were able to take the trolley down to the dinghy, super convenient.
We visited the excellent Gibraltar museum that afternoon, and the next day took the cable car up the Rock. We communed with the rock apes, which we - and especially Norma - found appealing, tame and friendly. We walked through the "batteries", the tunnels built into the rock which were built to hold gunnery to combat invaders from the land side; just a short introduction to the 30 miles of tunnelling! After lunch we walked down, enjoying the view from the truly impressive Rock, and visited the Homage Tower, a keep-like structure part of a Moorish castle, with some good museum pieces.
Inevitably, back at the marina, there was a lot more socialising; Gibraltar is such a crossroad meeting-place for long-distance yacht voyagers that it's easy to cross paths again with old friends and make new ones.
After six days getting organised we took a five-hour sail to our destination for the winter, the Puerto Deportivo Estepona. We were directed into a good berth by friendly Antonio, who complimented me on my boat-handling! We signed in to the marina office and paid for our stay to the end of March 1987.
We wandered around the many restaurants and small supermercados in the complex, and it all seemed very pleasant - as did the classic Andalusian town. There were many white houses, cars kept to the main roads, and many cobbled streets were confined to pedestrians. The shops and market looked promising, with better prices than we had seen in Spain earlier and in Portugal. We took the evening "paseo" round the marina. Over the next few days we did more settling in, catching up with friends we had made along the way - including Jim and Margaret from Loon - and getting friendly with others who were to be our - and especially Norma's - neighbours for a long time.
On 23 September I flew out to England to live with my mother for a while and to to make some money by writing a book. Norma was to stay aboard until Christmas. The first thing she did after I had left was to visit Loon and have a cheering-up glass of wine with Margaret.
Norma then got into an amazing program of doing up the boat. She washed and painted the whole interior, including taking up the floorboards and painting the bilge and cleaning out all the lockers before repainting them. She also rubbed down and re-did all the exterior varnish, a big and fiddly job.
She washed, patched up or remade all the canvas covers and the interior upholstery, using the sailmaker's sewing machine we carried aboard, and made (and sold) several national courtesy flags for other boats. She spend good social time with friends, of course, including Jim and Margaret, Tom and Sylvia of Diphda, and Bill and Eileen in Aurora among others. Less welcome were some uncomfortable visits from predatory single males, mostly locals, a matter for discussion with another woman living aboard by herself.
The weather she faced was very varied. She was regularly faced by the west Mediterranean Levanter wind, an easterly blowing across from Africa. This can be strong and persistent, and she and all the others had to maintain careful attention to the mooring lines. In mid-October there was a violent storm at night, the rainfall from which caused flooding and the collapse of part of the coastal roadway into town.
In much of her spare time she did plenty of walking, before flying to England in mid-December for Christmas with the relations.
She returned at the end of January with the flu but very pleased to be "home". In February I rejoined her, having completed my contract with the BMA by the submission of a manuscript for a book on the perception and analysis of risk, to be titled "Living with Risk".
A short land tour of southern Spain
Once together again on our yacht, we set out on a program of more refurbishing and maintenance. But first, however, we embarked on some touring in southern Spain.
For the first week of this we were joined by my brother-in-law, Tony Price, and we rented a noisy little shoebox of a car, a Seat Panda - but an acceptable and cheap transport. We started off with a day's visit to Gibraltar and Algeciras and then headed up into the region of the pueblos blancos. Then, via the gorgeously spectacular Ronda, sitting among lovely hillsides in the morning light, to the city of Sevilla. We walked round the large and imposing cathedral, the old "Jewish" quarter, and the pretty Plaza de Espana. We revisited Arcos de la Frontera to show this lovely place to Tony, and returned to Ronda for some different views. Back to the coast we dropped into Marbella, with its tourist reputation but surprisingly attractive old part of town.
We dropped Tony back to Malaga airport but kept the little car for some more touring a little further afield on our own. The first stop was at Cordoba, and walked through the ancient mosque. Its amazing feature includes the cathedral that's sort of inserted into it, with a fit that works surprisingly well. There's beautiful walks through the older parts of the city, which we explored before setting off for unimpressive Jaen. On the way we drove through miles and miles of olive groves, and meandered on our way to Granada.
We stopped outside the city to view the Alhambra from an adjacent hill, and then drove down to the cathedral. Its hard to view outside, but its interior is huge and very impressive, with some beautiful features. There were few tourists there, unlike the Alhambra and the Moorish glories of Alcazar, which were packed. Finally we visited the 9-13th century castle of Alcazaba, with superb views from its western watchtower.
Back in Estepona we got stuck into more maintenance, and then took the boat out from the marina and sailed down to Gibraltar to pick up and fit a collection of boat gear at the helpful and well-equipped Sheppards Marina. Notably, I had ordered from England and now installed a gadget I had been wanting for a long time, a Furuno weatherfax, which picks up and prints weather maps from anywhere in the world. I was already very committed to learning about and forecasting weather, and the new 'fax made this much more efficient a process. We also collected a new three-bladed propeller, the specs for which I had discussed with a propeller manufacturer at a boat show in London. One stainless wire strand in a lower shroud had fractured, so I got two new ones made up to fit later. We sailed back after a couple of busy and useful days in Gib.
By this time we were counting down the final days of our winter stay, and had the boat hauled out at the slipway in our marina. We cleaned and painted the hull and fitted the new prop. As the month of March ran out the persistent winds that had been blowing appeared to ease, and on the morning of the 30th we waved to friends, pulled out, and sailed away.
But, err, we didn't. Outside the marina the wind was blowing at least 25 knots from the east, with a rotten little chop. So we turned round and came back in. "Here comes the boat with the weatherfax!", came the cry.
But after another calm night we did actually keep going after leaving, with not enough wind to sail but only a low swell. The plan at this point was to harbour-hop along the south coast of Spain. We would try to move as quickly as possible, allowing that the weather was likely to be changeable at this time of the year, with passing cold fronts trailing down from depressions to the north. It was still about two months before Old Med Hands would usually start to move. What we had not appreciated - quite apart from the changeable weather - was that while the land was beginning to heat up at this time, the water was still very cold. This meant that the afternoon sea breezes could be truly ferocious, kicking up the very choppy white water so typical of any real wind in the Mediterranean.
As it was, however, after leaving for the second time we motored most of the way to our first harbour along the way, Benalmadena , where a massive new marina was being planned. We simply tied up at a convenient wharf in the open harbour for an overnight stop. The next day we had a great sail with a fair wind initially, but the wind shifted to a sea breeze and the sea became horribly rough and rolly - what we were to confirm were typical Mediterranean conditions.
We spent the night in Motril harbour; the entrance had been very hard to see and the wind was rising to 30 knots, so we were relieved to anchor near a small yacht club marina. Otherwise, it was just a commercial harbour.
The wind died overnight but the weatherfax indicated that the cold front was not yet through. We sailed out into heavy left-over seas and the wind built up again into a full gale, so we diverted into the harbour at Adra to sit it out. This was another artificial harbour protected by a sea wall, big enough to take a ship or two, but with plenty of room for us to anchor. The 'fax told us there was a deep depression in Biscay, with a cold front moving through where we were. It got worse, with rain and black skies, and the barometer bottomed out at 997 MB. Snow had fallen on the hills behind the town!
After a couple of nights of wind and rain, with some improvement we took a walk into the town; a typical working-class Spanish coastal town, cheap shops, a good market. We got to know the handful of cruising yachts that had also pulled in for shelter. We stayed two more night waiting for the weather to clear, and the forecast was good, so we left for a day sail that took us to the harbour at the big town of Almeria. We anchored off the Club del Mar, with a view of the Alcazaba and the stony brown hills rising up behind the town.
Soon ashore, we walked through the old part of town and up to the Alcazaba (which in Spanish means a Moorish fortification). This was a highly impressive fort with outstanding views over the town, the harbour and the arid hills. The original stronghold was built by the Phoenicians, and the Arabs rebuilt it into the fortress. The cannon balls are a memorial of the taking of the fort by Christian armies in the 15th century.
In the town there was a modern shopping centre with a good supermarket, all very non-tourist Spain. The main street was lined with neatly-trimmed leafy trees.
In an old part of the outskirts, people were still living in cave houses.
The night was a bit disturbed, with a swell still rolling in and a noisy VHF constantly broadcasting the yabbering between, we assumed, fishing boats.
Once away, our first landmark was impressively high and notorious Cabo de Gata, the local Cape Horn, marking another corner turned on our passage round southern Spain. We rounded it under power in glassy calm, and turned up to the north-east, still following the coast. In no wind we were motoring well, very pleased with the much improved performance under power granted us by our new propeller. Our target was Garrucha, open to to the south, with another entrance through breakwaters very hard to make out from seawards. There was a central pier where some yachts were tied up, but it was crowded and looked dangerously rolly, so we anchored just away from some moorings. Unsurprisingly it was a restless night, and we pulled out early the next morning into a persisting southerly swell.
Further up the coast in hot and still conditions we came to an unexpectedly beautiful and peaceful little marina, Puerto Mazarron. We got a genuine welcome from the marina manager at the clubhouse; there were no tourists, few visiting boats and the marina - in the very early stages of its construction - was not yet in any guides. We refuelled, topped up the water, and did some maintenance in warm, peaceful conditions. We got friendly with a British couple who had over-wintered there.
The Balearic Islands
It became calm and settled after a pleasant three days, and as the marina boss commented, "everybody says they're going!" We motored out from behind the little island outside the port, along to Cape Palos and sailed away from the Iberian peninsula for the first time for nearly a year. We crossed many shipping lanes off the coast at one of these maritime crossroads and headed away from the land to the north-east and into the relatively open Mediterranean Sea. It got windy in the afternoon and into the clear night but calmed down in the early morning, still enough to sail. It was an unexpected pleasure to be able to make sail all night - rare in the Med!
Arriving at the archipelago of the Balearic Islands, we first anchored in a bay in the little private island of Isla San Espalmador (aka Formentera). This was about mid-day, and we enjoyed a peaceful afternoon in the sun, with just a curving beach and low scrub around us. We relished a good Rioja with dinner, celebrating what seemed to be a return to island cruising.
Espalmador is adjacent to Ibiza to the north, and it was a short sail up to Ibiza harbour. On final approach to the harbour, we had a terrific view of the fortifications around the old city and the cathedral.
We anchored near the fishing harbour; there were plenty of marinas, but we knew they were expensive, some five times as much as along the Costa del Sol. No-one else was at anchor, and we didn't know whether it was allowed, but we were not bothered by officialdom during the two nights we were there. The town was pleasant, featuring spectacular old town walls and a cathedral at the top of a hill overlooking all. We walked around some touristy areas and visited the quite good tourist office - not that there were many tourists here at that time.
There was a lovely old market building of classical looks and a beautiful gateway leading up to the old town and the cathedral with its great view of the harbour, the town and the foothills around. An archeological museum showed well-displayed findings from many ages, including Punic (Carthaginian) and Roman. We did some shopping at the super-market on the way back to the boat.
The day we left, we arranged to meet Aurora at an wide-open bay a little further east along the coast, Cala San Vicente. It was good to catch up with our friends Bill and Eileen, and had a great lunch, but there was a swell rolling in and the holding in fine sand was poor. We moved to the east side of the bay, which was better, but it was a restless night.
We left early for the short run to the island of Mallorca, sailing nicely in generally light winds, and across the big Bay of Palma in the late afternoon. This was the Thursday before Easter, and there were dozens of dinghies and small yachts racing in the bay including, we learnt, one being sailed by the king of Spain and his daughter. There were also several naval ships at anchor, including the US aircraft carrier Nimitz. We pulled into a marina at C'an Pastilla, on the eastern side of the bay across from Palma, and rafted up with a rather scruffy boat that was for sale.
There we caught up with another pair of very good friends, Don and Jan on Passages, whom we had first met on the ICW and several times since. We had drinks and dinner with them. On Good Friday we motored to the head of the bay to the Puerto de Palma de Mallorca in calm conditions and to the Club de Mar marina in the Puerto Pi commercial centre. We were shown to a berth on one of the wide stone piers. Aurora was also in the marina, of course. The marina was not cheap but was good value by European standards and a lot safer than being tied up to the city's seafront wall, which was free, but where boats were prone to being cast off by happy ex-disco revellers as a late-night prank.
We took an afternoon walk into the town along the waterfront promenade. We immediately noted some lovely buildings, and thought that Palma was a much more attractive city than we had expected. At the other side of the port sits the cathedral, sitting high in the old town and overlooking a beautiful water park. We took a look at the old town, very quiet, narrow streets, brown and grey buildings with ornate doorways, balconies and windows. Many had huge overhanging eaves over shady alleys.
It was cool the next morning, pleasant for another walk into the town to check for mail, nothing much, and picked up some tourist literature at the tourist office - about as "helpful" as usual. In the evening we were picked up by Don and Jan, and taken to an out-of-town restaurant in a beautifully converted windmill. All the original machinery was in place. A great place and evening, but not so much the food.
Easter Sunday was busy. We walked first to the cathedral, and caught the end of the Easter mass along with the packed congregation. The Gothic cathedral is huge, with slim pillars and high stained-glass windows. It is of an unusually open plan, with no screens, and the chapels all around the interior were especially lit for Easter, an unusual treat.
On leaving we heard bells, so we followed the sounds and caught the end of a procession entering the church of Santa Eulalia, accompanied by holy statues, local bands and young men in donkey outfits. The mass turned out to be for many children's first communion, with all the families watching, and event the youngest dressed up in local costume.
We next visited the church of St Francis, this time nearly empty because of competing events, to see its beautiful 14th century cloisters in the adjoining monastery. They enclosed an asymmetrical quad, with two layers of slim columns, Gothic trimmings, flowers spilling over from the upper cloister. Further into the old town we looked into a convent and a 10th century Arab bath-house in remarkable condition.
We made our way down to the park and lake under the cathedral and caught the end of a performance by a cheerful folk singing group. We had an outstanding lunch at Agustin's tapa bar: squid stuffed with crab, a superb kebab, mussels with mayonnaise, Mallorcan live stew, bread and beer. In the evening we went to a performance of the Mikado by a visiting British group: great fun and a good performance, but most of the small audience were ex-pat Brits.
The weather became cool and misty, but we continued chasing the Easter festivities and went to another performance of Mallorcan music and dance, of high standard.
With Don and Jan in their little old Fiat we went off for a tour of the island. We first went to Valdemossa, and specifically the Carthusian monastery where Chopin and George Sand had spent a winter. We had long been puzzled by pictures showing the 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”.
The beautiful buildings overlooked an outstanding view down the valley from little patios outside the monastery cells. We had lunch overlooking the cliffs of the north coast and then took a long drive east along a narrow winding road through the craggy, rocky mountains of the north, with the occasional view down a gorge to the sea. We went as far as Pollenca and Cape Formentor at the north-east corner and returned to Palma via the straight, smooth main road through the centre of the island, pointing out the scores of windmills. We dined at our favourite tapa bar, Agustin's again.
After a week we were well settled in, waiting for mail (proofs of my book) socialising with friends and making new ones all the time. There was yet more musical and folkloric events all over the town, part of a world folk dance festival, we learnt.
We walked up to the top of the big hill behind the town to Bellver castle for the Bellver Festival. We saw a mock wedding ceremony, hammed by players in clown costumes. In another extraordinary performance people were shut in small chicken-wire cages, while mimers dressed as clowns played out mini-dramas. We could make nothing of it, but learnt that the colourful dancing associated with the performance was called "Ball de Bot".
The proofs of my book finally arrived, having had to be picked up at Customs at the airport. Then, after another couple of days waiting for some wet and windy weather to clear, we sailed out from almost three enjoyable weeks in Palma and around the west end of the island to the port of Andraitx.
Sure enough our shadow was already there, and we had drinks aboard Aurora before dinner. Bill was already getting every possible weather forecast for the whole Mediterranean while planning their passage east, while attempting to make countless phone calls NY-style.
We joined the other anchored yachts crowded into the inner part of the harbour, beyond the marina. It was a quiet anchorage in the conditions, although we thought it would get pretty rough in a westerly. We started what would become a long friendship with Chris (a Professor of Geology) and Darlene in Denali, anchored next to us.
It was a very attractive harbour, surrounded by steep hillsides with a fishing village on the dockside - the main town of Andraitx is further up the valley, inland. With Bill and Eileen we rented a little Renault 5, primarily to get back to Palma for mail but also to take another trip up to lovely Valdemossa in beautiful weather (for a change, as it happens - the man on the fuel dock was not the only one complaining about "frio"). The cold and persistent wind was primarily from the north and north-west, falling down from the Pyrenees and French Alps. Here, this wind is called the Mistral or the Tramontane.
Every wind has its own name in the Mediterranean (we had complained about the Levanter in Estepona), giving them supernatural overtones and wrapping them in folklore, but we preferred to rely on the basic physics of the weather – not that it makes forecasting any easier in these waters!
Aurora and Denali sailed away, and the following day, after a pleasant week in Andraitx, we went back to sea, destination Sardinia. Our original plan, formulated months before we had come to understand the Mediterranean weather patterns, had been to sail from Mallorca to Menorca and maybe then on up to Corsica, but the persistently changeable and generally windy and wet conditions had us wanting to get south and for more of the warm Med weather we had been seeking. We were sorry to miss out on Menorca, because it looked good in the cruising guides.
It was clear and calm when we left on May 7 for our two-night passage to Sardinia, but we weren't able to sail until the afternoon sea breeze came in as we passed round the south of the island. The southern tip of Mallorca is Cap Salinas, so named because it is backed by several kilometres of salt flats, which we could see from the boat. As we sailed away from the island we were back to motoring as the sun went down and that continued for most of the night. In the morning a good northerly came in, along with some confused Med swells, but it died by mid-day. We were visited by migrating redstarts and a swallow, who dropped in for a rest. One was happy to sit on my head. Over the second night it was much the same, wind coming and going, sails up and down - sailing in the Mediterranean is often very busy, and you don't get much sleep at night!
In the afternoon of the third day we pulled into Puerto di Teulada, a simple harbour behind a big harbour wall poking out into a bay right at the southern end of Sardinia. In the outer part of the bay we passed several US Navy landing craft and some other official-looking craft, but behind the sea wall it was a splendid little harbour with no apparent purpose, save that it was in a military area. There were no other yachts there, just a few small fishing boats.
After a quiet and calm night we took a walk ashore, and observed that the sea wall must have been originally planned to take large commercial vessels, but the lights and bollards were by then neglected and derelict. The wind was howling from the east by afternoon, but we were well protected. We walked up into the wild countryside up behind the harbour, through rocky hillsides, very wild, brown and scrubby, with pretty little wildflowers.
After a second night we sailed away for Cagliari. Sailing round Capo di Pula we could see the remains of a Roman amphitheatre and other ruins just up from the beach.
During this short passage the benighted Navico wheelpilot, which we had bought new in the UK and given trouble ever since, completely stripped its gears. We replaced it with our old Shipmate pilot and hoped it would hang in there for the rest of the voyaging. As far as possible we only used it for motoring, because it was very heavy on the battery.
Approaching Cagliari harbour we came across Aurora coming out, and Bill of course gave us lots of good advice! Cagliari is an ancient city, with lots of ruins from Punic, Carthaginian and Roman times. These would have been interesting, but we were only intending to make a brief stop on our way to Sicily.
We anchored off the yacht club in the eastern corner of the harbour; the club officials were happy with that and told us that the only prohibited anchorage was around the naval area in the inner harbour. In quite hot weather - for a change, at last - we walked into the town to sign in at the Capitanaria di Porto for formal entry into Italy and to obtain the mandatory third-party ("civil responsibility") insurance required for Italian waters. We paid also for a two-month cruising permit.
We walked up into the old town through an impressive arch, passing many craft stalls run by black-clad old ladies, some with colourful head-dresses and aprons. We had a good but quite expensive (by Spanish standards) lunch at a small restaurant: ravioli with cheese, salsicchia con funghi. We saw more of the old town the next day, but it was a frustrating visit: the cathedral, the archeological museum and the Roman amphitheatre were all shut. The town itself looked seedy, with grey and peeling walls.
Back at the boat we were then told we could not anchor out, this was forbidden everywhere, and we must tie up with other visiting yachts on the main Capitanaria pier. Preparing to move from our peaceful anchorage we found that our anchor was fouled on a massive chain, and it was a heavy task to winch the whole bundle up and untangle the anchor.
By the time we were tied up at the pier the skies were quite clear and it was warm when out of the strong nor-wester that blew all day. After a good forecast and optimistic weather maps on the 'fax we slipped our lines early next morning for another overnighter on our way to Sicily.
It started calm but then enough SW wind came in to sail. It then backed into the south east, more or less the way we wanted to go. This wind built during the day, and come the night we were banging into well-developed short, choppy seas in a night lit only by stars. It became clear that we were not going to be able to lay the north-west corner of Sicily on our starboard tack, so we decided to make instead for the tiny island of Isola Ustica, about 30 miles north of Palermo. Soon after 5:00 pm, under a blue sky, we caught our first sight of the island. This was exciting, because in his story of Ulysses' travels and adventures in the Mediterranean, the Odyssey, Homer has Ulysses approaching the island - for the first time - from the west. He has Ulysses recalling:
"We made our landfall on Aiolia (Aeolus) Island, domain of Aiolos Hippotades, the wind king, dear to the gods who never die - an isle adrift upon the sea, ringed round with brazen ramparts on a sheer cliffside."
It is indeed a solitary and steep-to island. "Adrift" is normally understood as meaning floating around on the sea, but what does appear when the island looms up on a fair day out of the blue sky and haze of the Mediterranean is that it is suspended in the air, clear of the horizon. And that's exactly how it looked to us that May evening, just as Homer said to have done through the eyes of Ulysses.
Through an opening in the cliffs we sailed into the tiny harbour. There was nowhere obvious to go, so we tied up on a wharf the inner side of the harbour wall. A passenger hydrofoil came in soon after us, and this was clearly a big event for the islanders, who came down to the town wharf in little cars. The town itself was very quiet; the hotel and restaurants were all shut and shuttered.
We stayed by ourselves all night, apart from some swell coming in with a passing front and change of wind direction, and Norma rearranging the fenders! It was still peaceful in the morning, and Norma did a big clothes wash and, as usual, hung it all up in the rigging to dry. We topped up with fuel and water.
But then the commotion began: the fishing fleet returned, and we were on their wharf. The fishermen started moving us around as they were trying to get alongside, with a typically Sicilian air: not unfriendly but quiet, glum, apparently emotionless. They simply didn't react when we tried to communicate. Anyway, with some regret because we had been looking forward to a walk round the island, we untied the boat and moved out of the harbour, the washing still flying proudly from the rigging.
Homer writes that when Ulysses asked Aiolos for his leave to sail, and asked for provisioning, "he stinted nothing, adding a bull's hide sewn from neck to tail into a mighty bag, bottling storm winds; for Zeus had long ago made Aiolos warden of winds, to rouse or calm at will". After starting well, on the tenth day of their voyage back to the island of Ithaca, in western Greece, the wind died. Ulysses, "weary to the bone", fell asleep. The impatient crew of the becalmed vessel thought at the time it might be a good idea to open the bag of winds ("crack that bag") and sail home. They untied the bag and got their wind all right: "Then every wind roared into hurricane; the ships went pitching west with many cries; our land was lost . . . the rough gale blew the ships and rueful crews clear back to Aiolia". King Aiolos was showed no sympathy: "Take yourself out of this island, creeping thing - no law, no wisdom, lays it on me now to help a man the blessed gods detest - out!"
Fortunately we were not aiming for a 10-day voyage, but only over to Sicily. Outside the little harbour we had a light nor'easter and a lovely sail with our colourful lightweight headsail down to the city of Palermo, on the north coast of mainland Sicily. It then became windless and humid only as we crossed the Golfo di Palermo. White clouds were drooping over the craggy mountains behind the city, all contributing to an impressive approach.
Into Palermo, and there was nowhere obvious to go, except that there appeared to be a harbour for yachts separate from the big ship and ferry docks. Anchoring was obviously not an option. As we were motoring slowly down past the line of marinas and got to the inner end, we got a call and wave from the shore, and were guided into a berth at the Yacht Club del Mediterraneo. The club secretary arrived on a moped, and nominated a reasonable charge including power and water. Friendly and helpful, he entertained us for coffee on his own boat. There was a fair bit of rubbish floating in the harbour, but we were expecting that, and looked forward to exploring the city the next day.
Palermo has been playing an important role in history throughout much of its existence; it is over 2,700 years old. It lies on the northwest coast of the island of Sicily, and was once one of the the crossroads of western civilisation, founded by the Phoenicians, conquered by the Romans, taken over by the Arab Saracens and rebuilt by the Normans in the 11th and 12 centuries. More recently it has become notorious as the power centre of the Mafia in Sicily.
Our first impressions were negative, perceiving that the city could be a dreadful demonstration of what things could be like if that civilisation was ever to fail. Our first thoughts on entering the town were that the garbage situation was out of control: all the roadside garbage cans and bins were full, so piles were building up at short intervals all along every road and alley. We did see later some attempts to burn the piles as they lay. The traffic was anarchic, the several parks and squares looking scruffy and unattended.
But then came the Palermo paradox: the facades of the public buildings, and most of the large private ones, were fundamentally beautiful. The central crossroads (right) have gorgeously curved facades. The 1575 fountain in the Piazza Pretoria (below) sits by the old Senate of Palermo, the centre of civic power. There is grandeur in the architecture but a feeling of sadness now. A contemporary commentator writes: "Birds did not sing, people did not laugh - at least, not in my presence". Precisely, we could only agree. Cleaned up, the city would clearly have been truly beautiful.
But, getting closer, we could see that the decorated facades were peeling and decayed. Old palaces were converted into apartment slums, wooden shutters were drunkenly askew over blind blank windows; blinded beauty, we wrote in the log. At the Amex (for mail) and tourist offices we were served by bored but pretty girls, gloomy with grey clothes, green and blue eyes signs of Norman genes.
There were some massive theatres - including the Teatro Massimo - in the area of the main road intersection, decorated with baroque statues and architecture, crumbling black. The interiors of the churches, such as the Palatine Chapel, were still displaying marvellous golden mosaics.
We walked down to the market - "colourful" was certainly the word. The Palermo market has always been famous. The vendors were all shouting, Arab style. There were large and good displays of typical Mediterranean small fish and more interesting large swordfish. Cheerful (by Sicilian standards ) groups of men were disjointing and butchering animals with hatchets. The alleyways around were all festooned with washing.
Bill and Eileen in Aurora had found a spot in the small enclosed inner harbour right in the city, and they came round for evening drinks. We had a long discussion about our experiences and reactions to Palermo!
They had come into an inner harbour, beyond where our marina was, tied up to a wharf in the heart of the city. We had never seen such filthy water in our lives! It was absolutely black, and although it did not smell as bad as a cesspool, it certainly looked like one. But we laughed about it all, and they did enjoy being right in the centre of things and talking to the locals - Eileen was of Sicilian heritage and spoke good Italian.
Over the next few days we often came across them, like us, with Michelin guide in hand to navigate the complicated streets.
Our explorations took us to the Palatine chapel, with its interior shining with golden mosaics and topped by an exceptional carved wood ceiling. Its decorations were a mixture of Alhambra-style Arab figuring and Christian pictures. The altar was glittering, flanked by marble columns and carved candelabras. Outside, there were some lovely and quite simple columned cloisters, very peaceful.
Nearby was the church of San Giovanni degli Erimiti, partly now in ruins. It was built in 1132 in a Moorish style, with pink domes. It was adjoined by a pretty 13th century cloister, a bit on the scruffy side.
We did have one particularly interesting wander. Michelin suggested we should visit some catacombs in the outer western part of the city. After passing the cathedral we entered what was clearly a poorer part of town, and an old lady hailed us. "Stop!" And to Norma, "please take off your necklace!" She told us where we were heading was not safe, but she would get her son to guide us. And so he did, ducking through lots of alleyways where we would undoubtedly have got lost. This all helped to give us a much kinder feeling about the people here, and we came to find that the Sicilian's glum appearance would usually turn easily into helpful smiles.
And thus we came to the Catacombe dei Cappucini under the church and convent of the Capuchins. The origin of this unusual, if not unique, "burial" space was in the 16th century, when the church ran out of space for the burial of monks. Instead, they began to excavated crypts underneath it. In 1599 they mummified brother Silvestro de Gubbio and placed him down in the new catacombs.
Over the centuries benefactors expressed a wish to be buried there too, and it became a status symbol to be entombed into the Capuchin catacombs. In their wills, local luminaries would ask to be preserved in certain clothes, or even to have their clothes changed at regular intervals. Priests wore their clerical vestments, others were clothed according to the contemporary fashion. Relatives would visit to pray with and for the deceased, whose body would be maintained in a presentable condition. In such a way the Sicilians have become known as worshippers of the dead.
By ourselves we walked the whole length of the catacombs. We saw that some bodies are better preserved than others. Some are set in poses; for example, two children are presented sitting together in a rocking chair. Many bodies were laid out on large drying grids to speed desiccation, and the grids are still there.
Sections of the catacombs became dedicated for different groups, including lay men, women, virgins, children, professional people, monks and priests. The last cleric to be entombed here was Brother Riccardo of Palermo, in 1871 but other famous people were still interred. The family groups are incredibly touching, despite also being macabre.
The catacombs were officially closed in 1880 but tourists continued to visit. The last burials are from the 1920s. One of the last of all to end up there was the lovely little girl Rosaria Lombardo, then nearly two years old, whose body is still remarkably intact. Lying in a catafalque in the centre of a little chapel of her own, frankly she looks like she is asleep. Her body was preserved through a complex embalming procedure only recently identified.
We spent time with the priest in charge at the entry doors. He spoke good English, and we were very interested to learn that he had been an Italian soldier in WW2 who was transported to a prison camp in Australia. He was similarly pleased to welcome Australian visitors.
The weather had become windy and wet, so we did a little more exploring, including a visit to the Palazzo Abatellis. This holds the regional art gallery, which holds a fine and well-displayed collection of medieval religious art. There was a wonderful 15th century fresco, "The Triumph of Death", which seemed appropriate in Palermo! Also lovely was a marble bust of Eleanor of Aragon, its calm pose reminiscent of la Gioconda.
During our stay in Palermo our attitude to the city underwent a gradual change. We could no longer regard it as a dirty place with ruined buildings and grumpy people, but one of the most interesting places we had ever visited, with - often rather hidden - enclaves of beautiful medieval art and highly decorated baroque buildings. The people responded well to efforts at communication, and while we would not miss the more dismal aspects of the city we would miss it and hoped that it would be rebuilt to reflect its history, culture and architecture.
We sailed out in reasonable weather with a sea breeze, and after a day's sail rounded in to the harbour at the old town of Cefalu. It lies on a peninsula, with the harbour on the east side. In the centre of the peninsula rises a steep hill, topped with a bastion; down nearer the water stands a huge cathedral in what looked like the centre of the city. There was nowhere obvious to anchor with suitable protection, and we ended up rafted with Aurora alongside a long new wharf in the centre of the harbour.
We went into the town the next morning and found it a pretty place, clean, and aiming for more tourists - which helped to make the locals very friendly. Cobbled streets with diamond-shaped inlays carried only little. local cars The cathedral was very old, with a Norman base, under renovation, so only the altar area was accessible. As in Palermo, the altar was backed by magnificent golden mosaics. In the old part of town was set an ancient Roman laundry with a running stream, little pools and rubbing stones; all very practical and used by the local people until recently. In the afternoon we walked up the "Rocca" behind the town, the site of a settlement in Roman times. There were lovely views over the sea, the town and the cathedral, whose towers rise out of the densely-packed tiled roofs. The top of the rock was another world, verdant, flowers everywhere, quiet.
The harbour is wide open to the east, and a swell came in that made our berth very uncomfortable. Closely followed by Aurora we left early after the second night in a miserable dawn, wet, with squally winds from the west. The decks were covered in red Saharan dust. In the early afternoon we came to the harbour on the east side of the very prominent Capo d'Orlando. We had been told about this but it was not in our cruising guide. We were motioned into a good spot near an iron wharf in the NW corner, with only a small swell rolling in from the east. We anchored stern-to to the wharf to face the swell.
Then came the drama. First, a whole lot of local fisherman came down to the wharf to fish and chat. Then a big fishing boat came alongside, telling us that they were sheltering from the threatened Scirocco wind. Another fishing boat joined us on the other side. Then came heavy rain and a strong and gusty sou-wester. We pulled ourselves out away from the wharf a bit. It was all getting too much for us, when a small fishing boat handed us a great load of prawns "because we were Australian"! The wind and rain continued to built in the night, but was from the west, from which the harbour was sheltered.
At crack of dawn the fishing boats started moving out, and one of them deposited a coat of black carbon from their exhaust when they started the motor. We decided to make another precipitate departure, but of course our anchor rode was crossed by another from a fishing boat. We managed to get disentangled, with the aid of quite clear water, and got straight into cleaning the decks as we motored out of the harbour.
In the early afternoon we rounded another very prominent cape and the town of Milazzo. We tied up at a street-side wharf, for the first time bow-to with a stern anchor, which became our favourite method for the "Mediterranean moor". We found that the boat maneuvering was easier, and it was much more private for us in the cockpit. There was good shopping at the supermarket, and drinks again on Aurora. None of us were deliberately seeking to cruise "together", but we were good friends who shared anchorages simply because were going the same direction at about the same speed.
We were both off early the next morning under a murky sky and in flat calm. We soon came across the amazing sight of the swordfishing boats of Messina, called feluccas. Two or three men were standing on a lookout tower about 25 metres high, and an immensely long bowsprit, or gangplank, was the place from which the fish were speared. The vessels looked fearfully unstable, and I sure wouldn't have wanted to be up there with the spotters.
The swordfish season runs from about May to August. The story is that the fishermen on the long gangplank pray to the virgin saint and, following the directions of the lookout man, hurl a harpoon with a long fishing line to catch the fish. After a struggle, the fishermen pull the fish on board and thank God and the Saints for having helped them in their battle against this giant of the sea.
Bill in Aurora was in sight and in steady contact, and sure enough he drew our attention to these extraordinary craft, just in case we hadn't. On another issue altogether, Bill's main obsession at this time was his inability to get local technicians to fix his refrigeration. In true New York style, he complained, "I give these people the money and they still don't fix the fridge!".
During the morning we passed under the high cables connecting Cape Peloro at the north-east tip of Sicily with mainland Italy, at the northern end of the Stretto di Messina. Transiting the strait has to be an exciting prospect for any sailor, with its strong tidal streams, eddies and whirlpools at the northern end. This is one of the only places in the Mediterranean where there is any marked tidal action, which made it alarming for early Mediterranean navigators unused to such movements. In addition, there is a steady southward surface current because the Ionian Sea, to the north, is colder and more saline than the Tyrrhenian to the south. However, we had near-perfect conditions as we motored through the narrowest part of the strait. When the wind blows from the south, we learnt from our sailing guide, the seas can be truly malicious and "no place for a yacht to be".
Just across the strait from Cape Peloro, on mainland Italy, sits a cliff-faced rock about which Circe had plenty of advice for Ulysses. She warned him that in the middle of this cliff is a dim cave and it is here that Scylla dwells, huge and monstrous. "Her legs -and there are twelve - are like great tentacles, unjointed, and upon her serpent necks are borne six heads like nightmares of ferocity, with triple serried rows of fangs and deep gullets of black death." Normally, she said, Scylla lived on swordfish and other large fish. But, she warned, "no ship's company can claim to have passed her without loss and grief; she takes, from every ship, one man for every gullet".
However, she advised him nevertheless to hold a course close to the rock, because otherwise he and his ship would be sucked down to the depths by the bottomless whirlpools overseen by Charybdis, "dire gorge of the salt sea tide", on the other side of the strait. Circe had told him to look for a tongue of land on which grew "a great wild fig tree in full leaf, and beneath it great Charybdis sucks down the dark waters". Nothing could save them if that happened. This threat was more to be feared than Scylla, because the risk was the loss of the vessel and all the men, rather than just a few of the crew.
Thus, Ulysses had no choice but to hold Scylla's rock close by; and as foretold, "Scylla made her strike, whisking six of my best men from the ship. I happened to glance aft at ship and oarsmen and caught sight of their arms and legs, dangling high overhead. . . She ate them as they shrieked there, in her den".
He urged his crew to row as fast as they could down the eastern shores, and thus came safely past the "funnel of the maelstrom" of Charybdis and into the calmer waters to the south.
For ourselves, we did sail down the western side, daring Charybdis to swallow us, but although we certainly saw some overfalls off Cape Peloro and smooth whirlpools to the south of it, they were not of a nature to offer much of a threat. We read The Odyssey as we sailed along, and read a few appropriate pieces to Aurora over the radio.
We passed Messina on the western side and then Reggio Calabria to the east, holding the mainland to port as we rounded the tip-toe of Italy. We had been told that there was a possible anchorage just past the prominent lighthouse on Capo dell'Armi, but had no other details. We came to see what looked like a harbour wall, and went cautiously round it in shallow water to see, opened up in front of us, a massive ship harbour enclosed by high concrete walls. But no ships to be seen, just a couple of Scandinavian yachts tied to an inner wall. We did the same. There was ample space!
We relaxed in this sanctuary of peace after a busy and often turbulent ten days, in beautiful hot conditions. The spacious harbour was adjacent to a disused oil and gas plant, and was itself unused as well, apart from a handful of small fishing boats that came and went. There were clearly plans for its further development, and huge numbers of concrete blocks lay all around and into the surrounding scrub. We and the other yachties surmised that someone had ordered a crew to cast concrete blocks, but no-one had told them to stop! Italian government was pouring funds into Calabria in order to hasten its development, but much of the money was being diverted into Mafia projects with no secure future, and we guessed that this was one of them. We joined the Scandinavian crews for a barbeque that night.
In what seemed to be summer at last, and we did some spring cleaning of the boat, particularly washing off the oil on the topsides we had accumulated in all those small Sicilian harbours. We walked into the quiet little village of Melito to the east. Many houses were empty, and decaying churches sat on the hillsides. The whole village had never really been completed. But there were smart new fields of citrus and vine with spray irrigation, and some healthy-looking compact farms. We bought some local food from a friendly old lady in one of the two shops.
The next day we took a longer walk along the beach to the west, to the larger village of Saline, with some more shops - and we came across a supermarket hidden behind some empty oil storage tanks on the way back, we assumed originally intended for the oil plant.
After four peaceful and productive days we sailed out eastwards in changeable weather and wind for an overnighter to Crotone, on the ball of the foot of Italy. There were lots of ships around this corner of the Med, which made life busy as the winds shifted and we kept switching from motor to sail. Rounding Capo Colonna to the north we encountered a northerly gale, most unpleasant and very wet. A typical longish and sleepless sail in the Mediterranean, in other words.
In the Porto Vecchio at Crotone, as the gale died away, we tied bow-to to the visitor's yacht quay next to Alegria, the boat owned by our new Danish friends Lise and Flemming. Our cruising guide told us that this was the worst harbour for yachts in Italy, but there are no other harbours of refuge anywhere near in this remote corner of Italy. In any event, we found it a perfectly adequate place, with efforts being made to clean it up and reasonable shops in the town. I soon had a medical call to look after an English yachty's injured leg.
After a couple of nights we motor-sailed for a day in calm weather across the Golfo di Taranto, between the toe and heel of Italy, and to the harbour at Capo S Maria di Leuca, at the very tip of Italy's heel. We tied alongside the inner wall of the breakwater, but moved to anchor when the fishing boats started coming in. The harbour is wide open to the west, and at Norma's suggestion we laid out a stern anchor to keep us head on to any swell - a very good idea, as it turned out, because sure enough the wind did come in and would have rolled us out of bed if we'd lain sideways.
Norma was having trouble with biliary colic in the morning, but this was no harbour to sit out sickness, and we were early away for a reasonable sail to Otranto, where we tied up next to Alegria, bow-to to a NW-facing wall. It was an easy walk into the attractive old walled town. This reached by climbing steps up through the bastion and into the collection of small shops. There was a little Byzantine church, and a cathedral with a highly impressive mosaic floor.
There was more to explore in Otranto, including an impressive castle, but at this stage in our Mediterranean voyaging we were simply making tracks as quickly as practically possible to reach Yugoslavia and our prime target of Venice, at the head of the Adriatic. We got the folding bikes reassembled and went for a short ride the third afternoon. This got us to a better shopping area and more interesting food.
We left a pretty narrow slot when we backed out of the tightly-packed harbour wall - a common observation when cruising the Med - and had a flat calm motor the whole way to the major harbour of Brindisi. The big port is a fair way inland, past the outer breakwater walls and extensive commercials docks, and finally through the narrow Canale Pigonati to the wall along the face of the town. Flemming again took our lines and we tied up alongside Alegria. (Flemming and I had earlier found that we were both chess players, something we always on the lookout for.) We were moored right by the end of the Via Appia, marked by a Roman column at the top of a high, wide range of steps.
With them, we watched the evening passegiata - families, men in suits, kids and all others - and we joined them later with gelati di passegio ashore along the waterfront walk, delightful.
Brindisi has been a major port for thousands of years. Over its long history, the city has played an important role in trade and culture, due to its strategic position on the Italian peninsula and its connections to Rome's eastern provinces.
In the face of a good forecast the next morning we left with Alegria, with them sailing to Yugoslavia and us to move a bit further up eastern Italy before crossing over The Adriatic. By mid-day we were boiling along in a fantastic sail, going so well in a southerly of up to 30 knots that we decided to skip our next scheduled port of call of Villanova and press on to Monopoli.
This turned out to be an attractive and "genuine" harbour, a good stop of its kind. We moored bow-to in the inner part of the harbour wall, with only a short space available for cruising yachts. However, we were the only one there. We had a great position, right by the castle of Carlo V. We were the only cruising yacht (see our mast in the photo below). A Russian ship was tied up opposite us and another was in the outer harbour, along with fleets of blue-painted fishing boats. We were intrigued later to find that the Russian ship was unloading olive oil - talk about coals to Newcastle! We thought the oil was probably from Spain, to be sold later as genuine Italian.
After a calm night some overcast cleared to a hot and sunny day, with a warm scirocco wind from the south-east. The old town was quite a surprise: it held a market with excellent produce (except for the typical scrappy Med fish), and was on the route through to the "new" town, with good shops of all kinds. The people, as we had already found in these east-coast Italian ports, were cheerfully friendly once contact was established, and very helpful with directions. We thought that this might be because they had very few tourists!
We took a bus to Bari, the large, modern city that is the commercial and administrative centre of Apulia (Puglia). The description in our cruising guide of yachting facilities had made it, for us, an unattractive sailing destination, and a bus trip would show us a bit of the local country. The ride in was along the coast road via the small towns of Polignano and Mola to the bus terminal in the centre of the city. Bari has a reputation for petty crime, including the snatching of handbags by scooter riders, and we got several friendly warnings from local people. The main reason for the visit was business, as we had to get to the Amex agent for mail and money. This time we did get stacks of mail, including items that had been forwarded from the UK, Gibraltar and even Palma de Mallorca! We found the return bus stop with difficulty, and it was a hot ride back. Along the way we passed many small farms and several limestone "trullis" with their conical roofing, typical of Puglia, mostly being used for storage.
Walking back to the boat we enjoyed good Italian gelati on the hottest day so far this summer. We still had to stay a while longer, to deal with the masses of correspondence that now needed attention. We further explored the very original-looking old town, where fishermen's families still lived in tightly packed lines of houses in narrow streets and alleyways. Little plazas were hung about with flowers. A bas-relief sculpture on the nearby castle wall depicted a dead fisherman being carried ashore.
In earlier planning our intention had been to continue up the east coast of Italy to Venice, then sail south down the coast of Yugoslavia. However, although the Italian people were friendly and well-meaning, and the food good, we were getting tired of moving from one noisy crowded harbour to another, and we yearned for a return to peace and quiet, lying to our anchor in a protected bay. Such, we had learnt, were in abundance across the Adriatic.
So, after a typically noisy night, with fishermen coming and going, we cast off and headed out across the Adriatic, sailing for Korcula in Yugoslavia.
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.
The Aegean Sea
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.