May Day, Preveza

Vasco da Gama
Ian Strathcarron
Sun 3 May 2009 08:30


The day did not start well.  I went to the shower block with my scales for a weigh-in, which is a custom  when we are shore based.  As I went in I saw a face, wrinkled like an old prune, and surrounded by a shock of white straw hair, then realised  I was looking at my own reflection.  At  the weigh-in I saw that I had put on a pound since Corfu, no doubt as a result of eating too many Greek pastries, so that was another reason for mild depression.  Then we discovered that everything was closed for the May Day holiday and we were marooned in the Cleopatra Marina, which has been built on the other side of the harbour from Preveza, only accessible via a tunnel.  Oh and the sky was full of heavy dark clouds and it was windy and cold.

We had arrived the night before after a good day’s sailing from Paxos.  Preveza is at the mouth of a huge inland lake.  There is a flat plain where the town and we were, but in the background, on either side, towering mountains of Greece and Albania.  In ancient times this was the sight of the Roman colony of Actium, and it was here, in 31 BC, that one of the most famous sea battles in history took place, between Octavian and Mark Anthony.   Mark Anthony and Cleopatra sailed here from Alexandria with a fleet of 230 warships.  On land they had an army of over 100,000 men.  However they were outmanoeuvered by Octavian and Agrippa who had 400 lighter, faster ships and a similar-sized  land army of better trained men.  In the heat of the battle, when things were going badly for Mark Anthony, Cleopatra ordered her squadron of 60 ships to escape from the battle and sail back towards Egypt.  Seeing this, Anthony, in Shakespeare’s words, “Claps on his sea wing, and like a doting mallard, Leaving the fight in height, flies after her”.  This disgraceful action (for a Roman), leaving his men to doom and death,  brought on the inevitable tragic aftermath, of Anthony and Cleopatra’s suicides in Alexandria, as Octavian and his army, the conquerors , marched in.

Returning to our own, fortunately less dramatic, history, we decided to make an attempt to reach Preveza somehow, as we were only planning to spend one day  there, and Ian wanted to go ashore as the town had been visited by Byron in 1809 on his way to see Ali Pasha, the mad despot who ruled the area (it was then part of Albania) on behalf of the Turks.  We talked to the very nice man who seemed to run the Marina and he agreed to take us there in a minibus, which he did, through the tunnel.   In Preveza, which has an attractive waterfront, full of restaurants with terraces overlooking the lake, everything was indeed closed.  We walked up into the old town, where there were a few crumbling buildings which might have been there in Byron’s day, and came across a massive fortification which were the walls of a Venetian castle.  No buses were running so we took a taxi to visit Nicopolis, 8 km from Preveza.

After his victory,  Octavian ordered that a new city should be built, on the site where his land army had been based.  The city was named Nicopolis (Victory City).  The city flourished as long as the Roman Empire survived, but it was sacked and destroyed by invading Goths at the end of the 4th Century.  Part  of the city was rebuilt by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century,  and visiting the site now is an extraordinary experience and we are surprised it is not more well known.  The area it covers measures about 10 miles by 5 miles, on a beautiful site at the edge of the lake.  Justinian’s red brick walls surround fields containing broken marble columns, half built stone houses outside which sheep are grazing, miles of stone walls with steps carved into them every few yards, which must have been for sentries, several ruined temples,  two amphitheatres and a stadium.  The city once had 30,000 inhabitants but all that’s left of it is a romantic ruin in overgrown countryside.

Yesterday was a much brighter day.  We sailed  south out of Preveza and our route was between the island of Levkas and the mainland, through a canal which was first built by the Phoenicians about 700 years BC.  The landscape was the most beautiful we have sailed through anywhere – tree covered hills,  brilliant sea, hot sun and enough wind to be powered slowly by both sails.  We dropped anchor in an anchorage called One House Bay,  on a small island called Nisi Atokos, where there is just one house and a tiny church, which is where we are this morning.