If you read our previous post, you will remember we were poised to pass through the Corinth Canal, an east-west oriented waterway 6.4 kilometers (4.0 miles) in length. The eastern end comes out in the Saronic Gulf, near Athens. Further east is the Aegean Sea with her world-famous, island littered cruising grounds. Look at the map below – Point A shows where we were 10 days ago, Point B is where we hope to be in another 10 days. Utilizing the Corinth Canal means we could go in nearly a straight line from one wonderful cruising playground to another while eliminating the added risks associated with the greater distance and more open-water navigation required for going below the Peloponnese. Besides, canals and their roles throughout history and across societies are fascinating, as I hope to illustrate.
Corinth Canal History – For over 2000 years, rulers in the area now known as Greece had envisioned a waterway that would cut across the isthmus of Corinth and allow for easy navigation between the Ionian and Aegean Seas. Once built, the canal would save about 140 nautical miles over the journey around the Peloponnese. Several proposals for such a waterway were put forth, the first known in the 7th century BC. The first construction project began in 67 AD but the effort was abandoned when Emperor Nero, who was the visionary who initiated the work, died. Their total effort amounted to having dug a total of 700 meters, approximately a tenth of the total distance across the isthmus. The project that would culminate in completion was begun in April of 1882 and the canal was used for the first time on October 28, 1893.
Today, the canal is used primarily by tourist cruises and private boats since it is too narrow for commercial ships. The single channel is 8 meters deep and 24.6 meters wide. Groups of boats travel in a single direction at a time, due to the narrowness of the channel. Each boat wishing to transit calls the canal operator with details on their boat and which direction (eastbound or westbound) they intend to travel. The operator groups boats together and directs them regarding where to wait, when to begin transit and how to pay the tariff. The canal closes for 12 hours each week to perform regular maintenance. The high walls are composed of limestone and erosion is a continual challenge.
We had heard the wind influence in the canal can be significant. The land both to the north and south of the Gulf of Corinth quickly climbs to several thousand feet. When you add long, hot days warming the rocky landscape and large cool bodies of water nearby, you have all the makings for high winds, as you read how we experienced a lot of this in our previous post. Given the narrowness of the channel, we were hoping our morning passage would mean less wind. We certainly didn’t want to be pushed into the canal walls. Luckily, the winds were uncommonly light as we got the call from the Canal Operator that we were clear to follow the boat named, ‘Catamaran’ who had just turned around after transiting the canal in the westbound direction. I guess this was one of the many tour boats that offer trips along this historic waterway. We had been circling outside the breakwaters on the western end of the canal after having requested an eastbound transit about an hour earlier. It was about noon when we pushed the throttle forward and passed through the breakwaters and toward the lowered roadway.
Within an hour, we had made it to the eastern end and tied up along the Canal Authority’s dock to pay our transit fee. Tom learned we could fill up with diesel from a mini tanker that can drive up to the dock; it seemed like a no-brainer to take advantage of the convenience since we were already tied alongside the dock. This practice is quite common in Greece, but it certainly feels odd to have your gas station come to you!
By 1 pm, we were casting off and heading out to explore the sights of the Saronic Gulf. First stop, Korfos, a mellow bay only 12 nm away. We had left early that same morning and going through the canal was cool but quite stressful so we were ready to drop the anchor and chill for the afternoon! Getting to this point had been a big accomplishment and we wanted to recognize that with a cooling swim and some well deserved relaxation!
In the morning, we moved on to Epidavros, an area rich with ancient sites. It was not even a week ago that we had visited Delphi and now, it seems, we had stumbled upon another archeological site, this one referred to as the cradle of medicine. We had read that one of the best examples of an ancient Greek amphitheater was in the hills outside of Epidavros so we would embark the following morning to make our way inland. However, our first day here would be spent locally in both old and new Epidavros.
As we explored on shore, we learned that another ancient amphitheater existed between these two towns. We also read about a portion of Old Epidavros which was now underwater but which could be viewed by snorkeling in the shallow water covering what had been the town’s waterfront marketplace. Of course we would take our dinghy from our anchorage in New Epidavros over to old town – this is something we couldn’t miss. Wow – we stumbled upon these special places almost by accident.
Early on our second day in Epidavros, we hopped on a bus bound for the archeological site called, ‘The Sanctuary of Aslepios at Epidaurus’. Not only could we walk around this huge and acoustically perfect amphitheater, but we also learned that this location was a vast site of temples, hospital buildings, dormitory style residences, baths and more, all devoted to healing. Much of the site had been constructed between the 6th and the 4th centuries BC.
The theatre is the best preserved monument in the Sanctuary of Asklepios, in the foothills outside of Epidavros. This was erected at the end of the 4th century B.C and excavated in 1881.
The Sanctuary is the earliest organized sanatorium and is significant for its association with the history of medicine, providing evidence of the transition from belief in divine healing to the science of medicine. Initially, in the 2nd millennium BCE it was a site of ceremonial healing practices with curative associations that were later enriched through the cults of Apollo Maleatas in the 8th century BCE and then by Asklepios in the 6th century BCE. The Sanctuary of the two gods was developed into the single most important therapeutic center of the ancient world. These practices were subsequently spread to the rest of the Greco-Roman world and the Sanctuary thus became the cradle of medicine.
Among the facilities of the classical period are buildings that represent all the functions of the Sanctuary, including healing cults and rituals, library, baths, sports, accommodation, hospital and theatre.– World Heritage Collection UNESCO web page
We spent several hours here and left speechless. We live near Boston where ‘very old architecture’ is a couple hundred years. It is so hard for Americans to grasp ‘ancient’ without repeated exposure to incredible sites like Delphi, Epidavros and Asklepios. We felt saturated by the flood of information we had been exposed to. We picked up our anchor and headed for a remote island!
Before we settled in for the night, we made a quick stop off the southern shore of the tiny island of Thorussa (seen on the left in the photo below). There was supposedly a ship wreck that you could see in 20 meters of water and it conveniently had a mooring buoy for boats to tie off to. The still shots didn’t come out well so when we produce a video of our experience here, I’ll link to it.
We motored a few miles along the southern shore of the somewhat larger island of Agistri and found a cove we hoped could accommodate us for the night. It would take some work, but it was stunning and we were up for a challenge. We wanted to get tucked in on the western side of this cove to have maximum protection from expected afternoon/evening winds. We dropped our anchor in 11 meters of water and backed toward the corner of the cove. Tom was ready with stern lines so I held the boat in place once the anchor was securely holding by keeping our engine in reverse with a moderate throttle. Tom got one line tied onto a shore-side rock and the other, he looped over a bollard placed along a rough stairway going up the back of the cove.
We had the cove to ourselves for most of our two-night stay. The snorkeling was tremendous, making our afternoon activity of underwater exploration an easy choice – we would fondly recall this spot in the weeks to come. Around the corner from the main cove, there was a make-shift rock landing that had a simple ladder affixed to it. This was basically serving as a small dock which allowed people access to a lovely swimming hole. A group of young adults were jumping from the cliffs surrounding this water access point. We would later learn this was called a ‘beach’ by the locals even though there was not a grain of sand or a pebble to be had! The appeal was obvious; however, the marketers should come up with something other than ‘beach’ as the attraction classification!
The second day in this anchorage was my birthday so we decided to visit the only restaurant in the tiny township up the hill from the cove that evening. The winds had been high all day and by early evening, we had a bit of a swell coming into the cove. Because we were pointed out of the cove, it wasn’t that uncomfortable on the boat. However, getting off the boat might be difficult. We didn’t want to leave the dinghy out near the ‘dock’ with the ladder because it would be pushed against the rocks the entire time we were on shore. Instead, we would to try to scale the steep rock-face that one of our stern lines was tied to. I had put on my favorite dress and put my shoes in my zippered bag … I would need to get off quickly in between swells. I perched on the dinghy’s bow and Tom took me up next to the cliff. I quickly grabbed hold of some of the rocks and he pulled back away. I couldn’t hold myself and my foot was slipping. I didn’t want to slip straight down the set of rocks so I pushed myself backwards as I let go and fell flat on my back in the deep water. I went completely under, back-pack and all. Tom quickly grabbed my arm and got me back into the dinghy. Uggh. We quickly made our way back to Sea Rose and I pulled everything out of my backpack to make sure nothing was water damaged. Amazingly, very little water got into the pack’s compartment so our electronics were alive for another day! I, however, was deflated and embarrassed. Since my husband is a very sweet person, he gently encouraged me to dry off and change clothes so we could try another approach. He would take me over to the stone dock and leave me with a bag containing a change of clothes for him. He would take the dinghy back to Sea Rose then swim over to the landing, change into his dry clothes then walk with me up to the restaurant.
Wouldn’t you know that the restaurant is closed one night a week … tonight! Now it was Tom’s turn to be deflated. However, I was so impressed with his attempts to make my birthday dinner special that I tried to get him laughing as I thanked him for the effort. Dinner out was not going to happen! We walked back down the hill and onto the rock landing. Tom changed back into his wet swimsuit and jumped in for the short swim back to get the dinghy. Back on the boat, we opened the best bottle of wine we had on board and pulled together a simple dinner. It was a memorable birthday spent with my favorite person in the world! Thank you, Tom, for making life fun.
We got an early start the next morning to make our way down to the island of Poros, which sits less than a kilometer off the mainland of the Peloponnese. What a great number of boats we found scattered through the many anchorages near Poros and along the waterfront docks which surround this cute and bustling town onfthe same name. We found a service to do our laundry and good markets to restock our fresh food. We anchored off the main town for our first night in the area – we had a birthday dinner to go ashore for after-all!
Our time in the Saronic Gulf was nearing an end. We had friends we would meet on the island of Mykonos, roughly 80 miles east, in less than a week so we would enjoy one more day near Poros before hopping through some of the Cyclades Islands on our way to Mykonos. We picked our laundry up early then relocated to a cove called ‘Russian Bay’. Today was our 27th wedding anniversary and we would do something we seldom let ourselves do – we would go to a beach-bar to relax in lounge chairs, sip cold adult beverages and not do anything else except chat. Aaaahhhhh!
In the early evening hours, we hiked up the hill behind the cove that we had relocated Sea Rose to. The view from the hilltop was beautiful and the breeze refreshing. We watched boat after boat sail around the headlands toward the town of Poros.
We departed just after sun-up the next day. The sooner we got started, the less intense the sea state would be. However, the channel between the island of Poros and the Peloponnese Peninsula is narrow, shallow and crowded – a passage best done with sunlight.
We were in open waters by 8 am and would soon pass out of the Saronic Gulf and into the Cycladic Island group. Although we only got a taste of the treasures scattered throughout this part of Greece, we will always think back fondly on our time in the Saronic Island Group.