Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Heading for Spain

Leaving the Bay of Toulon

Early morning saw us making our way out of the Bay of Toulon, dipping our ensign as we gave way to a French destroyer and received a blast of acknowledgement in return.
It was very tempting to stop along the French coast at this time of year (September) with the weather still warm and the crowds thinning out, but we were on a mission so we had to be content with views of the lovely coastline.

Well it was a 27 hour journey to Palamos, our first port in Spain, and of course the winds were stronger than expected, but at least they were from the north and we got to SAIL most of the way.
The sheltered marina was a very welcome sight, and the Spanish voices over the VHF were a welcome sound - we were last in Spain in October, 2012.

Palamos Marina

Palamos is a pleasant coastal town, and we made the most of the dramatic drop in the cost of food and drinks.                                                                                                                                  
Well-stocked wine store in Palamos
Fully recovered, we set off on the forty nautical mile run to Barcelona, or more accurately,  the Premia de Mar Marina, a much more affordable option a few kilometres north of the city. Our second reason for putting in at Premia was an even more important one - a reunion with some more of our cruising family from Monastir - the lovely Laura, the equally lovely Olivier, and their totally adorable new baby, Mae.

Weird twisty clouds, but the weather stayed fine

Laura, Olivier and Mae

Baby Mae takes the helm
 See you for the next blog in the amazing city of Barcelona!

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Bay of Toulon

Common Sense anchored off St Mandrier

One of the very best things about the cruising life is the community of cruisers, a remarkably diverse group who travel the world or their own bit of coast, united by their love of boats and exploring. When Common Sense wintered in Monastir, Tunisia in 2012-13, we were fortunate to be berthed on Ponton Deux with seven French yachts (sorry Laurent - six French and one Belgian!) where we made some wonderful friends and shared memorable experiences exploring Roman ruins around Tunisia, learning to negotiate in the markets, cooking and eating great food, and eventually, sailing away in company.

It's hard to say goodbye when it's time to part ways, but there's always a chance that you'll meet again somewhere - an isolated bay, a fishing harbour, the next marina ... This has happened to us many times, especially with this lively bunch from Monastir. So it was with great delight and anticipation that we headed out towards the Bay of Toulon, intending to meet up with Seed and Guy and their children Francesca and Diego from Sailing Yacht Skaf .

We sailed into the magnificent bay with its naval vessels, fishing fleet and rickety oyster farms. Toulon itself is to starboard as you enter, but we headed to the other shore to the quieter village of  St Mandrier, sending off a quick text to Seed before settling in for the night. Early next morning, just as I'd put the coffee on, we were delighted to see Guy on the dock with his familiar grin and two bags of fresh warm croissants. He guided us around the bay to anchor in mud at the bottom of their street. "Are we allowed to anchor here?"  we asked. Guy gave a classic Gallic shrug and said the words we would hear frequently over the next few days, "We are French..."

Oyster farms on the Bay of Toulon

Ancient church and monastery

For the next few days, Guy took us touring his town and the surrounding countryside - the view from the mountains where you could see the very spot where Cousteau and Gagnan tested the first SCUBA gear; a beautiful old  Medieval church fully restored by a local  priest; the wonderful Toulon markets, reached by ferry.  What a market it is!  Fruit, vegetables, nuts, dried fruits, meats, breads, fresh seafood…. The tables went on and on, as did the fussy French customers sniffing, poking and tasting everything. Food is much too important to make do with second best!

Toulon market



















Guy was in a big buying mood, with meals planned for us, and also for his other guests. Seed and Guy open their house to everyone -  international students, couch-surfers, Air BnB guests and cruising blow-ins like us, so you're never quite sure who will show up at the evening meal. It's a cosmopolitan affair with much miming, loose translation, copious wine and laughter. They are not cruising the world at the moment so, as Seed explained, "It is important for the world to come to us!"

Guy is a remarkable man, unique and irrepressible.  He is a retired French Fire Service officer, who has had an exciting career which included being blown up twice (as he tells it, “One time, BOOM! 30 metres I went!”)

Guy - philosopher, historian, story teller

It was Guy who excitedly told Terry once about his theory of Mediterranean Man – he says he has more in common with a Tunisian fisherman or Syracusa market gardener than a German auto worker.  The Mediterranean is different, he says, as people are looking for quality in their lives rather than things.  His house is an unfinished project of unapproved additions and quirks.  He says that his whole neighbourhood is the same and if the Council wants to stick their noses in they will have to prosecute a thousand people, so they don’t!  Life with Guy and Seed and their family is never dull – every day is met full on, with something to be done, some project or adventure.  He says, if you stop, you might as well be dead.

On our final night, he cooked a paella that was simply the best we had ever had (after a day-long quest for the "right" mussels).  The paella skills apparently come down from pirate ancestors in Mallorca.

And then it's time for us to sail on, with many promises to keep in touch and to meet up again. We are on a bit of a schedule, trying to get to Cartagena by the end of September so we can catch a train back to Italy to meet up with our Australian friends.
And we all know what happens when you try to cruise to a schedule...

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Leaving Italy for France: Bormes-les-Mimosas (Terry)

Not the way we had anticipated an entry to the French Riviera…
At about 2am, motoring along quite happily in light airs, we suddenly had no forward progress.  Engine running, no sound of clogged anything.  I raced below and checked the engine bay.  Front fine.  Checked the rear – the prop shaft was not turning and there were three hunks of metal, that once were drive shaft bolts, in the well.  The three had sheared off completely, leaving their stubs in the engine side.
The passage started out well...

Oh well, it is a sailboat.  However, there was no wind so we bobbed about for a while until a tiny breath of air came along and we began to make progress.  Common Sense needs about 15 knots of wind to make a decent way, and this was 6-to-8-to-10, if that.  We crawled along at about 2-4 knots.  By midday, we had reached St Tropez, or the bay entrance.  I wouldn’t go in without an exit possibility, as I didn’t want to get caught in there with no way of manoeuvring.  We rang the marina/s there to see if a tow was possible but nobody had any clue – the one guy who did have a towing service reported back to the marina that he couldn’t tow a yacht because he only had a dinghy.  This is a towing service?

We continued on past St Tropez to Bormes, where our friends on Scarlett had hauled out earlier in the year.  Phone calls to the marina confirmed that they had a place and once in the marina they could tow or push but they were forbidden to do so outside the marina confines.
On we went, with poled-out genoa and winged main at 4 to 5 knots with the wind behind.  We reached the marina entrance on 7pm and dropped the sails in the fairway.  The marinero hooked up alongside, smiled and said “I drive, you steer.”  It was a wonderful reception as we ghosted to a side-on tie with 3 marineros waiting to take our lines.  17 hours on the wheel, coaxing everything possible out of the boat and we were both very tired.  We didn’t even care that French Riviera in August meant €86 a night!
Finding every bit of wind we could...

It was a superb marina, with great staff and facilities.  Room for 950 boats!!  And it was near full, although we were told by the mechanic who came to fix our shaft that in two weeks it would empty until next season.A word on the mechanic.  He is located in a group of 4 shops just outside the haulout area.  Something simple like ‘Marine Services’.  He was on the boat midday-ish next morning  He looked at the damage, looked at me and said “no problem.”  You can’t imagine how much that cheered us up, as we thought we might even be looking at a haulout (maybe €1,200) to even work on it.  He started to pull the shaft out immediately and then ran into a small issue – he needed about an inch more clearance.  No problem.  I put on the tank we had recently purchased in Palermo and went under, twisted and pulled the prop, stuck my head up and he said “enough – I have it.” The tank just paid for itself in one dive!

Off he went, with the housing.  Next day, he was back.  He had drilled out the 3 snapped bolts, machined up 4 new bolts (US threads, not EU!) and was ready to refit.  Brilliant.  All done an hour later and I said how much?  He said $250 which seemed mightily fair to us.  Off we went to the ATM to get it.  Great workmanship.We had no inclination to move off our side-tie and into a stern-to so we didn’t tell the marina we were fixed just yet...

Amongst the delights of any seaside town in France ...

We wandered off to see what delights Bormes held and discovered a great bar alongside the Petanque rinks.  A litre of Paulaner for €13.  Well, French Riviera in the high season, you just pay up and drink in the atmosphere.  At 7pm, the rinks were suddenly invaded by about 30 players, in pairs, for what we discovered was the nightly championship among the holiday makers.  Great fun all round.

Evening boules next to the bar

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Genoa and Milan

We arrived in Genoa to the sobering sight of the cruise ship Costa Concordia in a purpose-built slip in the process of being broken up.  Some weeks earlier, we sailed past the rocks she went onto in Giglio, the result of one man’s arrogant idiocy and chest-beating attempts to impress his current paramour.  He has been tried and found guilty and sentenced to 16 years in prison for the crime he committed, which killed 32 people.  He remains free until his appeals are exhausted. S.O.B.
Around the corner from there was a massive cruise liner, and just as we came into the lagoon, she began to move out.  Not a lot of room there so Terry steered off to a holding basin and let her go out then moved on in to Porto Turistico de Genoa.

Costa Concordia wreck

And a fine marina this is, too.  In the best of traditions, you step off the boat and you are in town, on the maritime boardwalk with its tourist attractions, African hustlers trying to “sell” you the information that the Aquarium, which you can see, is where you can see it, a huge pirate ship replica and endless bars, cafes and boutiques. It seems that many waterfront planners believe that people on boats do nothing but eat out, drink and shop! It is usually much easier to find a pair of fancy sandals than a laundry, supermarket or chandler. However, it was just a short walk into town to find everything we needed, including the great cafes, bars, restaurants, specialty shops and markets that no respectable Italian city would be without. There is an excellent maritime museum that takes you on a journey through the whole history of Mediterranean navigation, including maps and instruments from the great age of European exploration and conquest.

Columbus and Vespucci

Genoa is full of signs of its past wealth. There are extraordinary buildings and streetscapes, mostly from the heady days of empire between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Amongst many other historic ventures, the great voyages of Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci set off from here, and there are monuments and artefacts dedicated to both. Also a prominent part of the cityscape are the grand palazzos of the wealthy merchants, many of which are now museums. A stroll down Via Garibaldi, a street along the high ground overlooking the harbour, is a must. The palazzos here house fabulous furniture and artworks, including many works by Flemish painters, collected during the 17th century when Genoa had a very active trade with Flanders.

Magnificent inlaid furniture

A very rude Flemish painting - see if you can see why?

Besides its excellent maritime museum and its palazzos, one of the highlights of the city is its cathedral, San Lorenzo. Like several other churches, the cathedral claims to house the Holy Grail. This one is a rather unlikely green glass dish, sitting alongside various bones, nails and splinters of wood (from the True Cross) in their precious gold and silver reliquaries.
All gold and silver.   $$$$$$$$

As we were walking around the train station one afternoon, we happened to see that Milan was on the boards.  So next morning, early, it was off first class for a look at Italy’s capital of fashion and design.

1st Class in Trenitalia
And there it all was – the famous names in jewellery, shoes, clothing, homewares – exclusive boutiques with a single rack of clothes and the most intimidating salespersons I’ve ever seen (don’t put your foot through the door unless it’s wearing Manolo Blahniks...). Luxury cars and beautiful people are everywhere.

This is how you do a classy shopping mall

Sadly, there is a six-month waiting list to view Milan’s greatest treasure, Leonardo’s Last Supper, but we did find a good alternative:

Of the many Last Suppers we've seen, this one had the best supper....
The cathedral in Milan provides quite a contrast to Genova’s. The outside is an incredibly ornate confection in white marble, with every possible surface carved in saints, angels, demons and imaginary creatures of all kinds. The inside must have been the inspiration for the Dwarf kingdom of Moria in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, with its massive grey columns and soaring Gothic arches. A trip to the roof is essential for amazing views of the saints close up, and the panorama of the city all around.

The roof of the Cathedral

St Bartholemew, martyred by being flayed alive
The Mines of Moria?

Unfortunately we were not so impressed with Italian rail on the return journey.  We couldn’t locate the platform for our 18:10 departing train and were rushing up and down looking for it. None of the uniformed personnel had any idea why it wasn’t on the boards until finally we found one who said “cancelled” and directed us to a regional train on the far end platform.  It was a real struggle to get to it as it was ready to leave, and Carol had a hard time making the distance. We settled in to a not-first-class pair of seats, with no access to refreshments, sorely needed after our busy day and not available in second-class.  As a regional train, first was not an option. After many more stops than the express to Genoa would have made, we finally arrived and got water and food. Terry’s attempts to get a refund resulted in unhelpful “help” and a maddening website loop. It was a great day out nevertheless.
Milan's most famous gourmet store

So, back to Genoa for re-stocking and preparing to leave Italy at last. Our plan was to pay brief visits to friends in Toulon, Barcelona and St Carles, arriving at our winter port of Cartagena by the end of September. From there, we planned to travel back to Italy for a catch up with Australian friends in Positano. As all cruisers know, plans are one thing; the reality of weather, sea and boats can often be quite another…

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Porto Venere and on to Genoa

After an uneventful motor-sail, Porto Venere was a welcome sight for a rest and a swim. The anchor dug in and held nicely in the mud in quite deep water, about forty feet. Although it looks a bit exposed on the chart, the anchorage was calm and sheltered from the moderate swell outside – the only disturbances were the occasional wakes of fishing boats. The water was lovely and clear.
Porto Venere (Port Venus – the port of love?) is a picturesque town with a hill-top castle and tall, narrow buildings in yellows, creams and terracotta pink – probably another place where property owners were taxed according to their frontage. We weren’t staying long, and Terry wasn’t keen to drag out the dinghy, so I paddled my kayak in to shore for a coffee, some fresh bread and a bit of a look around. It seemed a friendly little town, with just a smattering of accommodation for tourists, a restaurant overlooking the fishing harbour (with good coffee, like everywhere in Italy) and a row of shops with a mix of boutique and basic. This usually means that the town experiences a tourist-fueled summer high season, then reverts to sleepy fishing village come October.

I walked up the hill for a look at the castle, and was pleasantly surprised to find a plaque commemorating Lord Byron’s swim from here to Lerici. Another of his favourite haunts. Like Hemingway in the following century, Byron has left a trail of legends along the route of his travels – manly feats, romances and epic drinking binges commemorated in plaques and tour guide commentaries throughout the Med. The view from the castle walls takes in the harbour and Isola Palmaria to the south, but also the steep, rugged coast and the much wilder sea to the west of the promontory.

The low rumble of thunder interrupted our sleep that night. The squall was over quickly and there were no immediate concerns, but weather reports promised more of the same in the coming days so we decided to head directly for Genoa. We motored through the narrow St Pietro Channel, then found a brief bit of assistance from the wind which promptly swung around to the north – on our nose. It wasn’t the pleasantest of trips, with a headwind and swell on the beam, but it is a spectacular part of the Italian coast with the famous Cinque Terre villages nestled amongst the steep cliffs that rise abruptly from the deep ocean. Conditions settled down enough for us to enjoy a mid-ocean swim, and we arrived in Marina Porto Antico at about 18.30, in good time for a sunset beer.
Sunburst as we leave Porto Venere


Tuesday, 6 October 2015



What a beautiful city! After its loss of power to rival Florence during the 13th century, and a devastating plague that wiped out two thirds of its citizens, Siena became one of those cities locked in time – in this case a Medieval hilltop city with a great deal of its gothic heritage still intact. You cannot look around anywhere without spying an ancient pointed arch window, a decorative bronze hitching post, some old carved cornerstone that has stood there for hundreds of years. It is like an organic growth, with new structures propping up the old, trendy shops within ancient stone facades and mysterious bricked in doors, boarded-up basements and tacked-on roof-top rooms that I’m sure have their own stories to tell.

Always look up - cornices in Siena's oldest pharmacy

Siena’s museums, churches and palazzos are rich in the iconography of pre-Renaissance art: so many Madonnas with strangely adult Christ-child; saints suffering the most grisly fates with calm, beatific expressions – St Sebastian stuck full of arrows, St Lorenzo roasted over hot coals, St Agnes bearing her severed breasts on a platter; crucifixions and resurrections. They are beautifully decorative in deep blues and gold leaf (if you don’t look too closely at what is happening) but very formulaic. After a while, the images blur into a kind of code, a very useful thing for non-literate people to learn the scriptures. I’m just thankful that Giotto, Raphael and the others eventually arrived on the scene, bringing a more naturalistic, human perspective to art.
From Medieval...
to Renaissance

The Cathedral is a spectacular construction in green, white and red marble with massive striped columns supporting the Duomo. In typical Gothic style, every niche, corner, projection and surface is ornately carved – you can spend hours discovering characterful faces and strange creatures looming down at you amongst the typical religious tableaux. Off to one side is a beautiful library showcasing illuminated manuscripts and music, and painted with vivid frescoes on each wall panel. My favourite shows a fleet of ships about to be pounded by a typical Mediterranean squall – clearly some things never change!

The library

Impending storm

And the middle ages live on, not just in the buildings and artworks, but deep in the culture of the Sienese themselves. All paths lead to the huge sloping piazza known simply as Il Campo, where the famous horse race, the Palio, takes place twice a year. 12 of the 17 Contrade  (rotational) or districts compete, with lots of ritual and pageantry surrounding the mad race (of about one minute’s duration) around the perimeter of the Campo. We accidentally timed it perfectly for the week before the Palio, so we got to see a lot of the build-up without the price hike in accommodation that accompanies the actual event. To see it, you can choose between the crush of the central enclosure, or paying 400 euros to watch from a café on the outside of the course. Each Contrada has its own colours, symbols, church, heroes and bitter rival amongst the others. One man told us that is possible to marry outside your Contrada, but – he shook his head and performed an Italian gesture suggesting dire tragedy – there are always difficulties.  Romeo and Juliet of the Palio? You begin life being baptised twice – once in church and then again in the fountain of your Contrada. It is all surprisingly contagious. After a couple of days we felt a real allegiance to Civetta (the owl), the district where our apartment was located, and I couldn’t resist buying the appropriate red, black and white scarf, and feeling that we were in “enemy territory” when walking through Leocorna (Unicorns), Civetta’s traditional rival Contrada.
Flags of the different contrade
Old engraving of the Palio
Monte di Paschi
Bank ledgers from the 17th century

And of course Terry had to do a pilgrimage to Monte dei Paschi di Siena – the world’s oldest bank still in operation. Its charter, dated 1472, was on display in the archive, along with ancient ledgers, seals and other quite fascinating artefacts, including a loan document for a loan to Napoleon. And of course the narrow streets are full of great restaurants and cafes, artisan ceramics and textiles, interesting shops and the delightful Sienese themselves – elegantly dressed and animated as they make their evening passegiata.
Watching it all go by - with Aperol spritz, of course

This Prosciutteria had three underground levels of cured hams, a restaurant, and a dusty wine vault



Very expensive hand made shoes
And one final highlight before we took the train back to Pisa - a concert of Italian opera classics with all the passion and expressiveness you would expect from a real diva!

Back to Marina di Pisa to plan the next stage - on to Porto Venere, then to Genoa.
(These pictures don't quite fit in anywhere, I just wanted to share them :)
Ancient gardens
Philosopher resorts to lowest form of argument

Bizarre reliquaries


A dog always seems to upstage the dignitaries