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 mantlepiece 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 the 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’s 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.”