Some people collect stamps, others pick up fridge magnets from the places they visit. Me? I collect canals. True you can’t bring them home and put them on the mantelpiece, but they’ve given me some great memories that don’t just sit collecting dust for years to come.
Watching the ‘mules’ that hold ships steady as they inch through the locks in Panama, seeing great cargo ships apparently ‘floating’ on sand in Suez, climbing over a mountain on the Main-Danube Canal in Germany, peeking into people’s back gardens from the Kiel Canal, also in Germany.
And then there is the Corinth Canal in Greece. At just under four miles from end to end, it’s the shortest canal ocean cruisers can traverse and probably the least known – or it was until October, when Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines’ Braemar made history by becoming the largest ship ever to transit the waterway.
The origins of the canal date back almost 2,000 years to the ancient Greeks, who had an idea to cut a channel through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth so ships could sail from one side of the Aegean Sea to the other without having to go all the way around the Peloponnese – but they never did anything.
Roman emperor Julius Caesar also considered building a canal but was assassinated before he had a chance to put his plan into action. So, it was down to Emperor Nero to get the ball rolling in 67AD. Some 6,000 slaves and prisoners of the Roman empire were put to work on the project but a year later Nero committed suicide, so it all came to a grinding halt again.
The workers had managed to cut about a tenth of the way through the isthmus but more importantly they left a relief, believed to represent Nero as the Roman god Hercules, to mark their efforts. I got a quick glimpse of it when I ticked Corinth off my must-do list three years ago.
The Greeks were inspired to resurrect the project after Suez opened in 1869 but it took another 13 years before construction started. A French company was hired to do it, presumably because Ferdinand de Lesseps, the man behind Suez, was French so they were deemed experts when it came to canals.
They weren’t. The company went bust, so construction was put in the hands of the Greek company and finally, another 11 years later, it was completed.
By the time it opened on 25th July 1893, some 11 million cubic metres of earth and stone had been cut out of the isthmus, turning the Peloponnese, which had been connected to the Greek mainland, into an island.
The Corinth Canal is the most striking of all the ocean canals – enclosed on both sides by near-vertical rocky cliffs that tower 300 feet above the sea and just 81 feet wide at the water’s surface.
Given Braemar is almost 74 feet wide, it really was a case of ‘breathe in’ during the hour and a half transit. No wonder Captain Jozo Glavic said it was the biggest achievement in his career and one he will never forget.
I doubt the passengers will either. They were all out on deck as Braemar squeezed through. “Everyone was amazed at how close we were to the sides,” said Captain Glavic. “It was breathtaking to witness… to be part of making history.”
In case you missed this year’s record-breaking transit and have not been quick enough to grab a room for a repeat performance in 2021, Braemar will be going through the Corinth Canal again in 2022 as part of a 25 night Greek Islands round-trip voyage from Southampton.
The canal is the highlight, but the rest of the itinerary is pretty fab. A stop in the Maltese capital of Valletta, which has one of the most beautiful ports in the Mediterranean, a visit to the stunning Lindos acropolis in Rhodes, a chance to eat out during an overnight stay in Patras and a visit ancient Olympia from Katakolon, and much more.
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Trains, plains and a cruise on Muse
The evening before I was due to pen this month’s column, I happened to see Michael Portillo’s programme on Australia’s Indian Pacific Railroad. What an amazing journey.
Stretching some 2,704 miles from Perth to Sydney, it takes you along a 300-mile stretch of dead straight track, traverses the treacherous Nullarbor Plain – a vast flat area about the size of England and Scotland with no water, few roads and no trees (hence the name, which comes from the Latin ‘nullus arbor’), and where summer temperatures soar to 50 degrees centigrade.
The journey includes short stops to explore Cook (population: four!) and Kalgoorlie, a town founded during Australia’s 1893 gold rush that mines the precious metal to this day, and also a quick whizz around Adelaide, a great city I’ve got well acquainted with over the past three years as my daughter is at university there.
Why am I telling you this? Well it turns out ROL Cruise has put together a fabulous holiday that pairs three nights on the Indian Pacific train with an 18 night voyage from Sydney to Singapore on Silversea’s luxurious Silver Muse that calls into Cairns for the Great Barrier Reef and Komodo Island in Indonesia, home of the eponymous dragons, among a raft of other great ports.
- Blue Horizons
- Jane Archer