December, 2014 —
As we come to the end of our first season in the Med, we have spent some time reflecting on the experience. What were the surprises? What places were our favorites that we would recommend to others, both cruisers and non-cruisers?
- Portugal – admittedly not initially on either of our bucket lists as a country to visit, we loved it, especially the people of Portugal, whom we will always remember as the friendliest anywhere. That included every place we went in Portugal. The Portuguese people were friendly, kind and fun. Seemingly everyone in Portugal speaks English. It is taught in school and their television programs are primarily in English so they hear it frequently. That has their English sounding more American than British.
- Spain – The culture, history, and architecture. We became more immersed in the history of the Iberian Peninsula than we expected. It is fascinating. The Muslim architecture including mosques that, when taken over by the Christians had the minaret turned into a steeple and became a cathedral. The orange and olive trees growing everywhere, laden down with fruit!
The history of invasions and religious wars has not changed through the ages. As we watch the current conflicts in the Middle East and Africa it is discouraging and difficult to believe that they will ever be resolved. Have we learned nothing from the past?
- Few Americans – we met three couples from the U.S. that were cruising and enjoyed our time with them, but we were all on different schedules. Otherwise we have passed only one boat with an American flag in four months. We have been surprised to not see more American boats.
- Bilingual – more people are bilingual than we expected. Many love the opportunity to speak English with us. Others make a positive effort to work with us as we stumble through Spanish or French to communicate.
- The mountains across southern France – We had always heard about the beaches of the Cote d’Azur and Riviera, but the mountain backdrop is what creates the natural beauty of the area. Much of the French coast reminds us of New England, especially Maine, with lots of rocky bays and inlets.
- Weather – There is an entire topic! A lot of time is spent monitoring weather, much more so than in the Bahamas or Caribbean. Our advice to others looking to cruise in the Med is – cut your teeth on the Caribbean first! In the Bahamas, a front comes through every six or so days with the winds clocking around, then the cycle starts once again. In addition, Chris Parker holds all of our hands and tells us on a daily basis (both on SSB and email) where and when to move the boat for safety and comfort. To put that in experience, as we started a 24-hour run from the Bahamas to Turks and Caicos another cruiser contacted us, surprised that we were under way. His comment was “How could you go now? Chris Parker didn’t say you could go”.
In the Caribbean, the winds pretty much always blow from the east at 20-25 knots. The winds are generally consistent and, again, Chris Parker is there for us with accurate forecasts on a daily basis. Oh, and did we mention that all of the above is in English?
That brings us to the Mediterranean where all of the above goes out the window. Prevailing winds do not prevail. The wind direction constantly changes by location, season and low pressure system. Much of the time the winds and seas are coming from opposite directions, creating steep and often confused seas. The Golfe du Lion in France, just east of the Spain border, surprisingly is considered one the most dangerous boating areas in the world, with fierce storms called “Mistrals” that can blow up without warning. We found that out through experience! The impact of the Golfe weather spreads all the way east to Corsica and south to the Balearics. Passages should be well planned with a major consideration for weather, and include “plan B” and “plan C” contingency destinations. Keeping a weather watch is imperative. It is recommended that someone always be listening to the VHF radio which is mostly in the local language and checking NAVTEX for weather warnings.
- Harbors – It is often difficult, at least in the western part of the Mediterranean, to find anchorages or harbors that are well protected. Even good marinas are often in harbors that often have at least one exposure that may experience high surge or can not be entered all together during certain conditions. Further, with such variable conditions, what may be comfortable one day may be untenable the next.
The same applies to anchorages only more so. Anchorage options being further limited by other factors such as holding ground, access to shore, and local regulations, to name a few, are few and far between. These are especially the case along the Mediterranean coast of Spain with its largly uninterrupted coast line and steep cliffs. This explains why some cruisers will skip over this area entirely rather than hop from marina to marina incurring the cost of slip fees. For Spain the exception to this is the Balearic Islands which have some of the best protected harbors and anchorages in the Med. From an anchoring standpoint it was a relief to get to France where the coastline is more like New England, with rivers and bays, islands and protected coves. Related to the weather discussion above, it was a surprise that it was so difficult to find good anchorages that were protected from the expected conditions not to mention the unexpected.
- Horta (Azores) – After eleven days at sea most any island would look good, but Horta has a special energy. There are over 300 boats, almost exclusively sailboats, with crews that have all just completed a significant crossing of the Atlantic either going east or west. It is a very bonding experience. Crews leave their mark in paintings on the walls and sidewalks by the piers. While considered good luck, it is also a badge of success.
- Lisbon – Ancient city is full of history and charm. The city is full of fabulous old sections with narrow twisted alleys, and new sections with wide streets and great open spaces due to being rebuilt after the devastating triple catastrophe of an earthquake, fire and tsunami. Lisbon has an abundance of sidewalk restaurants serving the freshest seafood from the Atlantic.
- Seville – (pronounced Sevia) Sexy and vibrant, Seville is still in full swing at midnight with outdoor cafes filled with people of all ages. Even young children are out at midnight. The Cathedral is worth several hours of time. The hand-painted tiles on buildings are beautiful.
- Gibraltar – It was nice to get back to English for a bit and to find products in stores with English on the labels. Walking across the airport runway to go to and from Spain was an experience all its own. The history of the Rock riddled with its miles of tunnels is a great history lesson with all the sieges and attacks.
- Barcelona – High energy; cafes filled day and night; Gaudi architecture; winding narrow cobblestone streets; excellent bus and metro system; museums; music; friendly marina staff.
- Villefranche and Nice, France – Three miles between the towns on the same peninsula, the flower market, fabulous backdrop of the French Alps, museums, very old towns in both areas, cafes, cheeses, wines, baguettes, the picturesque bay in front of Villefranche.
- Calvi, Corsica – Rugged is the word that comes to mind with Calvi. The deep layers of high mountains in every direction; it creates the “purple mountains majesty”.
- Menorca – Spain’s hidden jewel, it has history, architecture, Bermuda’s sophistication, a split Spanish/British presence. It turns out that Britain gave up Menorca to Spain to get Gibraltar.
- Architecture – Old neighborhoods in city after city with 6-7 story high old homes stacked up along very narrow streets, designed narrow to keep the sun out in the hot summers and slow potential attackers. Towns built up the sides of the hills with streets so narrow only a single car can get through, and some streets so steep that they are just made up of stairs, including Lisbon, Villefranche, and Calvi.
- Central markets – Most cities in Spain and France have daily open markets with fresh local produce, fish, cheeses, and olives that are abundant. There are fewer supermarkets, as we know them. Baguette stores are in every neighborhood, like coffee shops in the U.S. Outdoor cafes are everywhere, filled with people day and night.
- Culture – Europeans have a great quality of life. In France there is a push to move the workweek from the current 35 hours to 40 hours. It is getting a lot of pushback. Personal time is highly valued.
- Siesta – in Spain the siesta is still alive and well. Stores close in the middle of the day while families meet at home for the large meal, along with their children, then return to work for a later end of the day. Some businesses are now eliminating the siesta hours, as employees have to commute further to work and mid-day family time is not possible.