The imagination of a child is multicoloured, magical and leaves a permanent record for the adult to rewind. At least, that is how my memory works. I started reading proper books at seven years of age and my child-imagination lit the stories into a wonder-world of pictures. One of the first books I read was Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals and, from that moment on, Greece was etched onto my brain. Corfu. To me it was a place I could only dream of. I was 31 before I got there. My twin sons were 11 years old. That was 1988.
Corfu in 1988 was relatively quiet. I had taken my young family to the place Durrell had lived and I was besotted with Greece immediately. The smell of sage, olives and woodsmoke added a new dimension to the sights and sounds. I ran into the hills and immersed myself in a world that matched my childhood imagination. The Corfiots treated us as if we were locals and I have since discovered this is how Greeks are. Once a Greek is your friend, you have a friend for life. I have returned to this country of 6000 islands many, many times since.
In 1993 I discovered the Northern Sporades. Skiathos gave me a new perspective on islands. Rich forests of fir trees, sparkling streams with turtles and sunny glades with hoopoes. I took a trip on the Flying Dolphin via Skopelos to Alónnisos. I had but a few hours so drank a beer in Patitiri and wandered up the Donkey Track. It was a wild place and I vowed I would return. In 2000 I passed Alónnisos again on a day trip from Skopelos to Kyra Panagia. The crumbling monastery looked the worse for wear, and the old olive press was ankle deep in crushed olive stones. Looking at Alónnisos from the boat in the evening I could make out tracks and the odd vehicle, and I renewed my vow to return. No sea sparkles like the Aegean and no vessel evokes so much heart aching joy as a Greek fishing boat returning after dark. 24 years after my first brief visit I returned.
Alónnisos. Old Ikos. In all my travels in Greece, never have I found a place where everything I adore comes together as it does here. That it sits in the Northern Sporades Marine Park indicates how rich and diverse it is. I have now visited four times in three years and have never been disappointed yet. I have written other posts about the island’s wildlife, and will write another about my last visit, but for now I want to view the island from the very thing that makes them such – the sea.
Inevitably, one has to travel the Sporades by boat or you would never get beyond Skiathos. In Patitiri on Alónnisos I found my ‘favourite boat in the whole world’, to quote my granddaughter. This is the Gorgona who comes with the added bonus of my friend, Captain Pakis. They are an inseparable couple, and when you see the beauty of this boat it is obvious why.
The Gorgona was built in 1977 on Syros Island, the capital of the Cyclades, by the master builder Mavrikos. This boat yard is now run by his son. This was also the year my twin sons were born, so in 2019 she is 42 years of age, as are they. She is built of traditional construction in wood, and of a design called ‘trehantiri’. This name comes from the Byzantine Greek ‘trohantiras’ which translates as curved-bow-stem. Pakis assures me it is the most seaworthy type, built to master the capricious weather of the Aegean Sea. This ancient hull type (with a length-to-width ratio of 3:1) has hardly altered at all from 17th Century. The only real change was the introduction of diesel engines in the 1920’s which made sails a secondary form of locomotion. The curved stern allows trehantiris to lift with a following sea and weather any storm. Most traditional fishing boats are of this type.
Gorgona is a classic example of a trehantiri. She is 17m/54ft long, sports a freshly painted blue and white finish, with brick red bow post, tiller, and bulwark tops. There is a gangplank to the stern which, even when pulled in, she wears like a happy-dog’s tail. Her mast hints that she could be sailed, but her main power comes from an aspirated Mercedes 225bhp diesel engine, and an auxiliary Mercedes 86bhp diesel. She is capable of doing a steady 8 knots.
If you are staying on Alónnisos you will see the Gorgona. She seems to sit high in the water which makes her look extremely buoyant. Her trehantiri lines can play tricks on your eyes. She can seem long, short, wide, stocky and sleek, but never unattractive and always exudes confidence. She is a boat to feel safe on. There is not an unfriendly line on her. Gorgona is a kindly lady, and pretty with it, so the fact that Pakis bought her in 1999 and they have ‘been a loving couple for 20 years now’ is no surprise.
A voyage on the Gorgona has to be part of any holiday to Alónnisos. Captain Pakis makes regular excursions to the nearby island of Kyra Panagia where that once dilapidated monastery has now undergone a rebirth, and looks almost new. He never leaves uncomfortably early, with 10:00 being a very civilised departure time. Pakis has the art of talking to everyone, not at a group. This makes the voyage a personal experience where you, Pakis and the Gorgona become one big family for the whole day.
Leaving Patitiri starts with hauling the Gorgona forward on her anchor chain, a roar of the big engine and a gentle chug out of the harbour. Once clear of the breakwater she is steered towards the NE and is soon quietly making way at that steady 8 knots. As she passes Votsi, Captain Pakis delivers his Lady into the hands of his first mate, and welcomes everyone aboard. There follows a narrative of the origins of the islands. He is eclectic in his views covering the accepted scientific theory and, with a cheeky grin and sparkling eyes, the far more colourful myth of two giants skimming stones into the sea. I will not steal my friend’s thunder, because Pakis tells the stories far better than I could. In five trips I have never been bored with his narrative as it adjusts to his passengers. Every question is answered; every answer is beautifully constructed. His voice is one of a practised orator and holds an audience’s attention. It is something that is hardwired into a Greek’s DNA; one can easily imagine Pakis transported to ancient Athens holding court amongst robed philosophers.
Passing through the straits between Alónnisos and Peristera is a gentle affair, as the sea is inevitably calm, blue and sparkling in the sun. It is here my own mind turns to natural history, so as Pakis narrates, I look at the cliffs and the sea. Here you will see shags and yellow-legged gulls on any trip. Above the cliffs there is every chance to see common and Alpine swifts, red-rumped swallows, ravens and hooded crows, buzzards and kestrels, and best of all the island’s speciality, the enigmatic Eleonora’s falcon. This rakish bird of prey migrates from its winter quarters in Madagascar to breed on the islands of the Marine Park. They nest high on the cliffs in loose colonies, and Pakis knows a single tree above the Blue Cave where, without fail, a bird will be sitting. In spring or early autumn the dapper brown and white yelkouan shearwaters will be flying between the islands in large groups. They will feed in the deeper ocean beyond the straits, where they sit an large rafts of well over a hundred birds.
As the Gorgona passes Cape Paliofanaro, the northernmost point of Peristera, she enters the deeper, more open sea. There is a more maritime feel to her relentless progress now, but the trehantiri lines mean that she doesn’t pitch and yaw like lesser boats, and thus carries her charges safely into the deep waters. It is here you are most likely to see striped or common dolphins breach and race Gorgona’s bow-wave – sometimes briefly, sometimes putting on a longer show. Pakis now explains how the Marine Park came into being and points out the islands scattered about before you, mixing natural history, ecology and Greek myth into a greedily consumed teaching session. Kyra Panagia, steep and craggy Gioura, flat and distant Psathoura with her lighthouse, and secretive and protected Piperi where Mediterranean monk seals can breed without disturbance.
You may see a monk seal, Monachus monachus, but they are elusive and I have yet to see one. Even the now legendary ‘Billy’ who frequents Alónnisos’s beaches has a habit of turning up at places I have just left. Suffice to say, it is Monachus I want to see, so more visits will be made. After all my second novel is called Yiannis and the seal so perhaps I am destined to find one. Monachus is still very rare, but there is a slow rise in their once diminished population with recent youngsters reported from as far away as Madeira. However, there are probably no more than 500 breeding adults in the world, and perhaps up to 700 all told. Perhaps. The Marine Park remains their Eastern Mediterranean stronghold, so it is imperative the Northern Sporades keeps this unique habitat as pristine as possible. Captain Pakis and the Gorgona is the greatest advertisement to keep this necessity to the fore – a traditional boat plying protected seas with a captain who has called this place his home for a lifetime.
As the Gorgona sails below the fantastic, twisted strata of the Kyra Panagia cliffs, more falcons can be seen above the cliffs and the monastery slowly comes into view. First the yellow flag of the Greek Orthodox Church, then an array of solar panels, then there it is, high on its vantage point above its small, protected harbour. The climb to the monastery is up a steep flight of steps, then a haul along goat tracks to the large front door. Captain Pakis talks his clients through the history of the place and explains how the monks organised themselves here. This monastery comes under the auspices of Mount Athos. This mighty, independent peninsula with its 20 monasteries can be seen looming on the horizon on clear days. Mount Athos itself is 2033m high (6670’) making it visible from the whole Marine Park.
The slopes down to the harbour smell of wild sage and thyme, and the makis hides calling Sardinian warblers who scold the returning group as they carefully pick their way back to the steps, and back to the patiently waiting Gorgona. She bobs gently on glass-clear water as her children enjoy a swim and the small crew prepare food. Nothing compares to a lunch of freshly prepared rice, vegetables, Greek bread and wine whilst floating on a wooden icon in clear water. The residue of the food is scattered onto the sea and a myriad of fish swirl and school to intercept rice and corn and bread.
The voyage back is under a lazy afternoon sky, the breeze cooling hot bodies and gentle chatter shows the magic has worked. It is on the return journey I have seen huge tuna feeding on small fish under the Kyra Panagia cliffs. The surface boiled as fish leapt for their lives, then great, dark backs rose as the tuna chased down their prey. Gulls and shags picked off any unfortunate escapees. Across the deep water towards home it is possible to see a larger seabird, the Scopoli’s shearwater. This species is usually seen in ones or twos, is much bigger than the yelkouan, and has noticeably downward curving wings. To the east you may make out Skyros, the largest island of the group, as the Gorgona sails safely into the straits once more, perhaps with a dolphin or two for company.
A final pause to swim and see the wrecked boat in Peristera’s Vasiliko Bay and the sun dips as Captain Pakis points his Gorgona’s bow towards home. Again, a dolphin may pop up on the approach Patitiri, as the breeze brings the scents of herbs from the sun-hot slopes. The Old Town looks like a scattering of sugar cubes up on the hill as Gorgona comes home for a rest.
I have deliberately left out a lot of detail from what is a wonderful journey. I’ve tried to focus on the Gorgona. I suppose that name translates as ‘Mermaid’ in English, but in Greek it means so much more. It touches the old legends of Titans and Gods, Heroes and Olympic battles. Suffice to say, Captain Pakis’s Gorgona is a joy to behold and a joy to sail with. I have often seen her steadily making way down the strait from high on the Alónnisos hills. Her wake is straight and her bows steady. By moonlight she nods softly at her mooring, creaking gently as the stars make their own journeys overhead: Aries, the Pilates, Casiopia and all the others placed there by the Olympian gods. The Gorgona is the epitome of Greece’s prowess as a maritime nation and is probably the most photographed boat in the Northern Sporades. And so she should be. She is, after all ‘my favourite boat in the whole world’.