Guide to SKOPJE



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Greeks humorously call it “the drain” and indeed by contemporary standards it is a rather small waterway: about 6.5 klm long, 16.5 m. wide, 8 m. deep. But it saves some 700-kilometers of circumnavigating the Peloponese and its tricky southern capes allowing a much faster connection of the Aegean to the Ionian Sea. Consequently, shortening navigation distances between the Adriatic, the East Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

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This has been the reason why the way to build it had been sought after for 2.000 years…until a combination of industrialization and the right people in power made its completion possible in the summer of 1893.

Suez – Corinth – Panama – Kasos!
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The work was a proper feat for its age. It took the effort of some 2,500 workers using  cutting-edge original equipment (including explosion-inducing machinery from Nobel’s very own factories in Germany and Italy) under the supervision of expert engineers and architects from all over Europe.
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The modern-age work had already been promoted since the first years of the Greek state by its first governor Ioannis Kapodistrias, but the French engineer selected asked for a tremendous amount of money, hence the plan was rejected. It was the opening of the Suez Canal (1869) that mobilized the Zaimis government to pass a Greek canal-opening law on the same year and to seek for the overseas partners to it. That proved a difficult task time and time again, as a French company, a Hungarian general/engineer and another French company all went bankrupt during the effort! It was the contribution of Greek businessman Andreas Syggros, prominent benefactor to the early state that finally completed the work after 3 years. This was the time of Greece’s first large-scale infrastructure-building under the Trikoupis government (whose railroad system across the then Greek territory largely exists until today).

A few years later, thousands of (now somewhat experienced) Greek workers were hired by the French for the building of the Panama Canal. Reportedly, American SS Ancon, the first ship to cross the Panama Canal upon its inauguration in 1914 was captained by a Greek, one Nikitas Mavrakis, re-named John Constantine by the American shippers. Not accidentally, Mavrakis came from the tiny island of Kasos in the Dodecanese (south-eastern Aegean Islands), birthplace of numerous captains and shipping engineers who served for many decades both in Panama and the Suez Canals.

Earlier attempts that didn’t make it

The last to attempt the opening of the Canal were the Venetians in 15th A.D. Their failure concluded a long line of local and foreign rulers that tried to do the same.

The idea to cut across the narrow strip of land connecting the Peloponese peninsula to mainland Greece dates back to a Corinthian tyrant around 600 b.C. The idea was there but technology was not. Neither did the prosperous merchants of glamorous ancient Corinth like to lose profits made along the “Diolkos” – a stone-laid path built soon after for the passage of ships, which would roll across by aid of slave manpower, wooden rails and horses.

It was not until the times of infamous Roman Emperor Nero, working on “blueprints” by Julius Caesar and Caligula that actual works began. The intensive work of several thousands of slaves came to light during the modern-era construction works, including some 26 test wells 10 meters deep spread along a distance of 3,300 metres.
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Nero’s Canal remains as mapped in 1881

Archaeological excavations in the 1960’s have revealed further finds from ancient times, including the actual Diolkos path, with traces of ship trail still visible today.
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The Canal today
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Even though nowadays the Canal is too short for large freighters and is used mainly for tourist sailboats, every year some 15.000 ships of at least 50 different nationalities sail along the waterway. Works to widen and deepen the canal have recently been undertaken, mainly to re-introduce the passage of large ferry boats from the Piraeus harbor to the popular destinations of the Ionian Sea islands and Italy. Three bridges for vehicles and trains cross over the Canal at the Isthmos location near the modern city of Corinth. Two submersible bridges facilitate navigation on entrance-exit points.
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At a distance of approx. 60 klm from Athens, Isthmos is a popular stop-over for literally millions of people every year. Visitors gaze over the spectacular cliffs to the blue water below, take the necessary photos and … munch at the cult Isthmos souvlaki (shish-kebap).

Furthermore, since the 1950’s a taste of the (equally cult) “Kazinó” tiny soggy baklava pieces in aluminium foil package has been an absolute must for generations of travelers to the popular vacation spots of the Peloponese. Despite the closure of the Kazinó restaurant & pastry shops along the Corinth –Patras motorway (the new by-pass of the early 2000’s moved stop-over restaurants a bit further away), rumor has it that you still can’t escape these old-fashioned sweets: the legendary confectioners still distribute their products in Corinthia region.

A Canal for the adventurous types

Because the Canal is so iconic its setting has been the background for various risky feats. Notably, the 1981 earthquake that shattered the region made a group of motorcyclists organize a spectacular acrobatic cross-over in order to fundraise for the homeless. An actual leap by motorbike was performed in 2010 by an Australian freestyle motocross champion who “flew” from one side to another at 95 meters high at a speed of 125 klm/hr.
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Stand Up paddle board (SUP) athletes cross the Canal every year, as a part of a world championship itinerary. The Canal’s calm waters ease their way along.
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Jet-skiing championships make waters a tad more turbulent.
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Last but not least, the bungee-jumpers
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At Isthmus one can meet up with the proper gang of committed folk. Gear and trainers await the daring – and in case you think you might forget this experience you can have your “dive” recorded on video by the crew.
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Personally I’d rather stick to just the souvlaki/taking photos/gazing waters experience but… as Nero would put it (or ancient Romans anyway) you can’t discuss over tastes and colors! The Corinth Canal awaits your visit –  however you want to enjoy its beauty!
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Sophia Nikolaou