In this post I reminisce about my travels to the Ionian islands off the west cost of Greece, which inspired my latest novel, and I send my love to all those affected by the Medicane (Mediterranean hurricane) Storm Ianosthat affected the area a week ago.
Back in the early 2000s, I spent a lot of time sailing in the Ionian Sea. This was not as extravagant as it sounds. My husband and I purchased a share in a small refurbished sailing yacht, (sadly in the days before digital photography and smart phones, so apologies for the lack of photos!) Our share entitled us to six weeks aboard each year. It cost us just £3,000, and a few years later we sold it on for exactly the same sum.
The Idyllic Ionian Islands
From my first trip to Kefalonia in the summer of 2000, I adored the beautiful islands, their big-hearted people, and their idyllic climate, with its clear blue skies and sunshine every day. As a sailor who prefers calm waters, I appreciated that there was just enough warm wind for gentle sailing from around 10am until the dependable “five o’clock blow”, which gave you just enough puff to get you into the harbour of your choice for the night.
Several years after selling our boat share, I attended a writers’ retreat run by Jessica Bell at the excellent Hotel Nostos on Ithaca, and was amused when its proprietor Nicki Anagnostatos apologised to her guests for the presence of a few tiny clouds in the azure sky.
Ithaca was just one of the islands we’d sailed to. Our yacht was based in Nidri on Lefkas, and we also sailed to Meganisi, Kefalonia, many smaller islands, and occasionally to the mainland.
Not So Safe Harbour
One year, on arrival, we passed a small private marina full of boats that looked as if they’d been in the seafaring equivalent of a motorway pile-up. The marina belonged to a sailing school, and at first we assumed either teachers or pupils or both were shockingly inept. Then we discovered a spring storm had hurtled across the islands not long before our arrival, wrecking everything in its path.
We found it hard to believe that such freak weather could affect what we’d come to regard as a haven, until we experienced it at first hand.
Storm over Asos
A year or two later, after mooring our yacht in the beautiful horseshoe-shaped harbour at Asos on Kefalonia, having sailed calmly across from Lefkas, we were awoken at 2am by howling gales rocking our boat vigorously from side to side. Ropes and chains were rattling all around us, amid frantic shouts in Greek, English and other languages.
Peering up through the hatch to see what was going on, we discovered a storm in full force. The larger boats were moving out to anchor in the middle of the bay, away from anything that could damage their sides, while the smaller boats like ours were advised to turn ninety degrees to park sideways on to the harbour wall, rather than nose or tail on as was the usual practice to allow more boats to access the town. That way we could secure both ends of the boat to dry land, and reduce the chances of crashing into neighbouring vessels.
Still our boat rolled, and first thing in the morning we fled to the town to rent a room till the winds had dropped. In this very sheltered bay, nestling at the bottom of steep cliffs, it was still beach weather, and the storm will have made no difference to holidaymakers staying on land. But it was several days before the water was safe enough for us to leave.
Storms were not the only weather extremes that have affected the Ionian islands over the years. On Kefalonia, we were conscious of the legacy of the devastating earthquake of 1953 – 7.3 on the RIchter Scale. The quake changed the face of the island destroying numerous buildings, many of which still lie in ruins, and causing some settlements to be abandoned forever. (Read more about the history of the earthquake here.)
So while it’s true that whenever we went to the Greek islands we expected idyllic weather, the ghosts of past natural catastrophes were always with us and with the residents of the islands.
Inspiration for a Novel
The latent threat beneath the idyllic weather inspired the latest novel in my Sophie Sayers Village Mysteries series, Murder Your Darlings. It’s set on a small fictitious island just off the tip of Ithaca. An old windmill damaged by the 1953 earthquake is the scene of the mysterious disappearance of a famous romantic novelist, Marina Milanese. When a summer storm prevents the police from reaching the island, Sophie and her fellow guests must solve the mystery themselves – not easy, when just about everyone on the island, including Sophie herself, is deemed to have a motive to murder Marina Milanese.
Return to Ithaca
This summer a natural phenomenon of a different kind has ruled out travel to the Greek islands for many of us, but I’m hoping that once the storm that is Covid-19 has passed, we’ll be returning to the Ionian islands to continue our love affair with them. If you’ve never been, add them to your bucket list for post-Covid holidays. You’ll be glad you did – and you’ll be helping the islanders rebuild their economy, for the benefit of us all.