Swept Away HR46 at anchor Second Wind at anchor Northern Exposure at anchor

Sunday, June 23, 2013, in Corfu, Greece

Hi all. We’re in Corfu, on the Ionian side of Greece. Last week, we were in Orikum, Albania.

We’d given ourselves a day to visit the Vlore area in Albania, but the one it turned out to be was a Sunday, a quiet day in most countries. My instinct told me that it wasn’t that we’d be sacrificing a workday in a booming commercial metropolis, so it might not matter much. We engaged a taxi and asked for a ride up to the mountains.

One problem we discovered was that our taxi driver spoke no English. We were saved by a limited ability to communicate in Italian on his part and mine. The taxi was ordinary but achingly well-cared for, with blankets on all of the seats and makeshift sun covers on the dashboard. I hoped that the lack of seat beats in the vehicle wouldn't be part of a future forensic investigation as I pondered the various flowered shrines along the edge of the mountain road.

The road snaked back and forth as it made its way up the mountain. Packs of goats and sometimes cows or a mule strode about independently. The car struggled to keep moving forward in the vertical climb.

Pine trees underneath us in the gorge looked like dollhouse toys. Our driver pointed out an odd-looking tree that he called a “flag tree”. Indeed, there was a sign, in Albanian and English, identifying this tourist attraction. Though it had an unusual, windswept shape, it wasn't clear if that name was because of its species, or because some time someone had draped a flag across it, or some other reason. I discovered later that it got its name because of its shape, because it resembled the Albanian symbol of a double-headed eagle. It didn’t.

At or near the top of the mountain was a place labeled Panorama, and indeed several cars were parked in the lot with their inhabitants milling about nearby. Our taxi pulled up at moderate speed and stopped quickly only a meter or two before what appeared to me to be a precipitous drop. In that moment, I scanned my recent memory to recall whether I’d actually witnessed the brakes functioning on this car. After all, up until now, we’d been going uphill, and the car’s challenge had been to keep moving. We would have come to a halt in a hurry on the way up if only the driver had stopped flooring the gas pedal.

This time, the brakes worked, to my relief. We walked around, taking in the vista and peering down onto a lovely pristine beach of colors that could merit a spot in a Club Med poster. In their quest to generate some tourism for this admittedly lovely and overlooked corner of the Adriatic, the area is referred to as the Albanian Riviera.

Down the mountain, our taxi deposited us at a restaurant, which would provide the only access we’d have to Albanian cuisine. The patio was redolent of a busy grill and the surrounding pines also providing coolness and décor. Children wandered around the patio, looking at a bird painstakingly climbing a tree, or fondling a half-dozen chicks who were strutting around, oblivious to their probable destiny in adolescence.

We shared plates of pickled cabbage and olive-oil-drizzled feta cheese, followed by grilled meats that included lamb and pork. Jack was the most adventurous of the group and ordered grilled goat. The meat was cut in a way that all of our meals resembled Chinese spare ribs in shape. The accompanying sauté of vegetables was buttery and delicious. We sipped a very drinkable Albanian table wine. At the end of our meal, the server presented us with a complementary dessert called asude, a gelatinous sweet confection drizzled with honey. It seemed kind of Turkish to me.

Our taxi man waited patiently for us, first at a table with a meal, and then in the taxi until we returned. Then we headed to our next destination, a Roman amphitheater that sits inside an active military base.

We’d already noticed that Albania had built concrete military emplacements with the same enthusiasm as Apple builds tablets. They line the barrier island off of Orikum harbor. They dot the countryside. But they formed a necklace facing the sea once we’d entered the gate into the military complex. Emplacements intact. Emplacements without their lids. Lids overturned.

We rode by spare-looking buildings that might have been barracks and down a road into less-built grounds. A family picnicking under a tree had left their car in the center of the small road, and had to move it so that we could continue to pass. They’d apparently assumed that nobody would be driving by for the duration of their outing. We finally arrived at the ruin.

It’s not well-excavated, but this was definitely a Roman theater, and a large one at that. There are no signs in any language and few mentions of this site in any place I could query online. So we scampered around a bit, trundled back to the taxi, and continued with our day. We stopped briefly at a small grocery store in town, but we were still quite well-stocked onboard, so our purchases were minimal. Jack and Sammie picked up some wine and ended up with some souvenir Albanian lek coins.

We paid our bill and arranged for our departure formalities, assured that someone would stop by with our papers in the evening. The copies of the documents we received had been produced on carbon paper. When nobody came by to process our departure, we learned that we’d have to stop in the morning in Vlore to clear out. On a one-day sail, this delay would be a real inconvenience, but we’d already decided on an overnight sail to Greece, and a short one at that.

In the morning, we were tied up at the commercial dock, awaiting our agent who would help us through. On one side of us was a large, battered ferry boat, and on the other a tug. Soon, the formalities were over and we were off.

Our decision to sail overnight was due to the location of the marina in Corfu compared to the harbor in which we’d need to complete the formalities of entry. We remembered from our previous visit that we’d need to take a bus from the marina to the city, and we knew that Lefkada’s port police were right in the town adjacent to the marina. We also thought that we could leverage our guests’ visit better with an overnight trip to the far point of our itinerary and then a slow mosey back to Corfu and their transport to Athens.

The weather forecast was for very light winds, although with a lot of time in hand, we did manage to sail for about one-third of the time if a smaller fraction of the miles. The overnight trip included no drama at all: two-hour watches for each of us, a starry windless night, no waves, and few other vessels in our path. Sunset showed us a fiery ball becoming a fiery dot, with its opposite arriving at sunrise. Morning was hazy, and the horizon cleared while we waited for the floating bridge to open to squeeze us into the ancient manmade canal that separates Lefkas from the mainland of Greece. We got the boat ready for port, and tiptoed in through the tiny channel that leads to Lefkada Marina.

While the rest of the crew got the boat cleaned up after being at sea, I checked us in with the marina staff. When I asked about clearing in, she said, “Well, first you go to that building across the street” and pointed, “And then you visit that building over there. It’s very easy.”

I won’t describe the grueling process we underwent to get our passports stamped to validate our return to the Schengen region of the European Union. Instead, I’ll simply state here that if you are seeking a vacation in a rustic land, the best place to achieve that is inside the Greek immigration bureaucracy.

After our excessively urban experiences of checking into Greece, we set out to have an island experience in the Ionian. We left Lefkas Marina and carefully navigated the channel that led to the southern islands. Our destination was the island of Meganisi. It was a calm day but we still managed to sail on the flat sea, past the Aristotle Onassis island of Skorpios, past ferries bustling visitors by and cruise ships shuttling from one lovely Mediterranean port to another. There would always be a 200-300-foot yacht somewhere in sight, the highest mega-yacht density per day sail we had encountered since Sardinia.

We anchored in deep water in Abelike, a place surrounded by sharp hills, green brush, and a small area built out with a restaurant or two, each tempting visitors with a dinghy dock. But our first task was to take a swim in the clear water. Even I went in, only my third dunk in about eight seasons of Mediterranean sailing.

At lunchtime, we piled into the dinghy and motored ashore. We liked the dock on the right, and tied up. The path on the right was landscaped with oleander and well-groomed olive trees and took us to a newly renovated place, with a bar area and mesh chairs that all seemed to face the turquoise sea. It was almost out of place to be in such a lovely structure in such a rustic setting.

In the evening, we motored back to the marina and shoreside air-conditioned comfort. The next day we began our trip to Corfu, where our guests would fly to Athens and the next leg of their journey. This time, the winds were calmer, and our few attempts to sail were brief.

The midpoint of our journey was Lakka, on the island of Paxos. The bottom of the harbor looks as though someone drew a line across its entrance. The sea side of the line was painted in deep blue, and the harbor was turquoise and clear to the bottom. We anchored, secured the boat, and dinghied ashore.

Again, we found a restaurant that looked surprisingly cosmopolitan for a place that was otherwise undeveloped. Granted, the season brings dozens of boats daily and nightly for a meal and a frappé or ouzo ashore. Our meal was lovely, overshadowed only by the stunning view of the harbor from our table.

In the evening, we docked at the gigantic Gouvia Marina in Corfu, had another late dinner of cold mezes, and indulged ashore at our first venture into our favorite Greek ice cream, Dodoni.

In the morning, we checked in at the marina and took a bus to Corfu Town, about five miles away from where we were. We got our bearings at the end of the bus route, and picked up a walking tour proposed by one of my guidebooks. Our first stop was a large square overlooking the Town Hall.

This building began its existence as a Venetian loggia (of which there are many in Corfu), and was converted into a theater in 1720. Around the façade are carved portraits. In the front, the central notable is wearing a lion-shaped wig or hat; on the back, the central figure is a lion, the symbol of Venice.

Across from this building were some houses of indeterminate age, although a good guess would calculate centuries of use. Some were better-restored than others, maybe because some are in use as vacation homes for visitors. Indeed, draped over the wrought-iron Italianate balcony overlooking the gracious Town Hall was a towel printed with the Spiderman logo. Or maybe Spiderman had climbed up there.

After a short visit at the Catholic Church of Ayios Iakovos (San Giacomo), we continued to the Campiello. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a neighborhood of narrow, winding streets now filled with tourist-enticing cafés and shops. Electrical and other wiring snakes across buildings that were constructed centuries ago.

We made our way to the signature church and indeed the signature sight of Corfu, the Church of St. Spyridon. Built in 1596, the patron saint of Corfu is still there, his remains in a reliquary, visible to sightseers and the devout in a small chapel. Today, a disproportionate number of men on the island are named Spiros.

While we were there, an unending line of onlookers entered the chapel, and at one point the priest sang out a prayer and opened the reliquary for all to see. I was in the main chapel at the time, although Sammie and Jack reported on the unveiling to us later. All I remember is the somber, minor-chord prayer sung that sounded as if on this Saturday morning I was really at a bar mitzvah.

A walk in Corfu needs to end in the Liston, built by the French under Napoleon. Part of Corfu’s charm is that in the same sweep of a glance, you can see a French loggia, Venetian iron balconies, and all of it overlooking a British cricket ground. We had a break nearby, and then went off to lunch in a bougainvillea-shaded terrace overlooking Theotoki Square.

On our second full day in town, we explored the rest of the island. Spiros (of the aptly named Spiros Tours) picked us up in a comfortable, air-conditioned van. We’d done our due diligence and gotten a second price on a half-day tour. Little did we know that Spiros from Tours Corfu and Spiros from Spiros were one and the same person. So much for our second opinion.

Spiros turned out to be a blessing, no matter who employed him. He took us first to Achilleion, a palace, built in the 19th century for Empress Elizabeth of Austria as a way to escape from life at court and her philandering husband Emperor Franz Joseph. She’d lost her beloved son Archduke Rudolph to a mysterious murder and named the place for Achilles somehow in his honor. She, too, was assassinated, by an Italian anarchist. Kaiser Wilhelm II bought the place after her death, and lived there until the outbreak of World War I, when he obviously had better things to do.

If you saw the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only, you traveled with him up the nearby winding roads and glimpsed the inside of this palace, which was at the time a casino and played a casino in the film. The interior of the palace is overdone to perfection, with each surface papered, painted or carved. Ceilings are covered with frescos, and the iron rail climbing the grand staircase contains figures of men instead of posts intermittently. Life-sized coats of arms hung from the ceiling supports. Lawrence Durrell famously called it “a monstrous building.” The architectural style has been said to vary from pseudo-Renaissance, to pseudo-Byzantine, to pseudo Pompeian. All critics agree on the phrase “bad taste”, but I found it appealing, like eating chocolate icing without bothering with the cake.

We drove around the island and through the Ropa Valley in the interior, with green scrub and floral oleander all around, punctuated by fig and lemon trees, olive trees and groves, grape vines and orchards, and pointy cypress in the distance wherever we went. We looked across the water to Pontikinisi or Mouse Island, a lovely rock with a legend. It is said that this island was once the ship of Odysseus, turned to stone by an irate Poseidon. Nearby, a ruined pier now covered with sunbathers once was the dock for Kaiser Wilhelm’s yacht; from there he’d be carried up the mountain to the Achilleion Palace.

Another one of Kaiser Wilhelm’s favorite haunts is a mountain overlook now called Kaiser’s Throne at Pelakas. Among its charms is the ability to watch the sunset and the entire island from a single spot.

The roads seemed nearly too thin for a single vehicle, with frequent switchbacks for climbing, but we often needed to pull aside when another car came barreling up the other direction or slow down quickly to avoid a pedestrian where there was never a sidewalk. Everyone was always cordial, but I wondered whether I’d ever leave my house if I lived around there.

Behind the beaches of Palaiokastritsa is the hilltop village of Lakones. This village was originally set in a remote location that was not visible at all from the sea, in an effort to avoid the attention of pirates. The newer buildings (and undoubtedly the festive happy-hour summer lighting) have eliminated this military advantage in exchange for a capitalistic one.

Spiros called ahead for us to a restaurant for us to have lunch. This restaurant was perched high on a mountainside above the road, and if that wasn’t enough, we took an elevator to the main floor of the restaurant, and then were escorted up a flight of steps to a terrace upon which we were the only patrons. The view of the beach and headlands off of the shoreline well below us was stunning.

Jack and Sammie will go on to Athens tomorrow, and we’ll return to Lefkas. We hope you're all doing well and that summer has begun. Write to us when you get a chance.

Love, Karen (and Art)