Athens to Santorini – May 25
We packed up and took the subway to the port of Piraeus again where we boarded out high speed ferry for Santorini. We stopped at a coffee chain called Geoffrey’s (we only figured out the name later as the sign was in a very stylized greek) for some pastries to eat on the boat. We assumed (correctly) that food on board would be expensive. As we waited to board we watched some Chinese tourists enlist others in making strange tai-chi-like poses for pictures.
When you board the ferry everyone stops by a baggage room and stores their larger suitcases on the car deck. You won’t have access to this deck during the voyage. We found our seats in a sparsely populated VIP area. So this is how the other half lives. The seats are similar in style to airlines seats with the economy seats being a bit more weathered. We had a table with a power outlet so I was able to catch up on my journal, some email, some podcasts, and some reading I brought on my laptop. We spent some time outside looking at the view but they don’t want you close to the edge of the ship while the ship is moving. This being a high speed ferry it moves at a pretty good pace and we were soon threading through the islands of the Cylides.
There was a TV on that was broadcasting various shows like Extreme Home Makeover and car racing.
As you approach Santorini your first impression is that the island is snow covered until your eye resolves that it is the white houses at the top of the cliffs. It is as we expected a beautiful and striking island as you sail into the caldera of a dormant (we hope) volcano. Everyone is encouraged to grab their bags and gather on the car deck before the ship docks so that it can upload quickly. As the ship unloads there is a confused scene of taxies, people with rooms to rent, rental cars and buses awaiting a relatively small ship load of tourists. I would guess there were 70-100 of us getting off. We found a taxi that would take us to our hotel in Akrotiri which is at one end of the crescent shaped island. The ride was about 10-15 minutes and 15 euros. We shared a taxi with a U.C. Berkeley student from Sacramento who had just finished a semester abroad in Barcelona. She had been on the island for 2 days and had just seen some friends off at the ferry.
We are staying at the Villa Mathios just outside of Akrotiri which is right up the cliff from the black sand beach but on the other (non-caldera) side of the road. Our host is Costas Popalexis In addition to this family run hotel (momma does the cooking he explained) he runs a travel agent business so we will take advantage of that to book a rental car and at least one excursion here as well as finalize our plans for Crete. We had booked a triple but Costas had upgraded us for free to a Jr suite where the master bed is in a loft. The room cost $100 a night, but $150 after taxes and fees on hotels.com. It is a lovely spot. There are certainly fancier resorts on Santorini with infinity pools overlooking the crater but this has 51 rooms, and two pools with a restaurant in between them. It is clean, attractive and a huge step up from our last hotel. We have heard about Greek hospitality and this is it. As Costas talked about helping us book excursions he said there are a number of more expensive ones but his goal is that we have a great time and still have enough money that we can come back next year.
We rested before dinner and then while Liz stayed in the room and read Joan and I walked down to the black sand beach. It is not marked on the road and was almost deserted. Much of the beach is pebbles (as we are told with much of the beaches on the island) but there was a small part with sand. We sat on the beach and watched the sun set over an array of small fishing boats before we trekked back up the hill to dinner.
Dinner was wonderful. We had local beef, greek salad, cheese dip (feta and yogurt), cheese filled meatballs. The vegetables were from the garden and the beef was locally raised. Overall it was probably our best meal so far on the trip. With a glass of local wine and a complementary glass of uzo from our host we lingered in the restaurant. Costas and his adorable young daughter sat with a few other locals when he was done working the tables. I think 4 tables were in use inside and a couple more on the patio. During high season he said the hotel is packed and you need reservations for dinner. He enjoys this time of year when there is actually time to talk to the guests.
Santorini – May 26
We were in no rush getting up and getting going. We started by sitting down with Costas and making our plans for Crete, booking a sailing excursion and renting a small car here on Santorini. The rental car company came and dropped off the car shortly thereafter (around 11 AM). The young Greek man who brought the car was bantering loudly with Costas in Greek and apologized that Greeks are loud. It is kind of a nice change to be in a country where Americans are not considered loud. Costas in particular has an affection for Californians who he thinks are more relaxed than other Americans. This might also reflect on getting good press in two of the San Francisco newspapers.
I brushed up on my ability to drive stick in a small car by Kia (I used to drive a Ford Aspire made by Kia). We drove first to the gas station since the car was delivered empty and should be returned that way. Gas was around 1.30 euros per liter (more than the $4 we complain about). We then drove into Thira and parked at the free municipal lot. There seems to be some inconsistency on whether the name of the town is Thira or Fira but in greek they spell it with a theta so I have adopted the “th” spelling in English.
We then spent hours walking around Thira while the ladies shopped and I shot pictures and video. I also just took some time to sit and look at the amazing view. Joan and Liz both bought some jewelry and Liz also bought some clothes in the many shops.
I found it interesting that al the video I have seen focuses on the views from the towns like Thira so I had a very skewed impression of the island. It is larger than I thought. It takes about 45 minutes to drive from one end of the crescent shaped island to the other. Away from the caldera the island is mostly fields. There are many grapes (grown on the ground instead of in arbors) and a few wineries. The high point (in elevation) on the island is capped with a monastery.
There was a cruise ship anchored in the bay and we watched a number of tour groups come en mass to the area around the cathedral. They were then pointed towards the cable car that ges back down to the port. So that is the part of the island you will see in most cases when you see Santorini from a cruise, basically just the shops of Thira.
After a Gyro for lunch and an ice cream break we drove back to the Akrotiri end of the island in the later afternoon to the beach at Perivolos. On this outer rim of the island you can drive straight to the beach without a hike. Perivolos is a black sand/gravel beach with a number of private chaises and umbrellas. We sat at a pair of the chaises and I went to find the cost. I asked the young man if he spoke English and he said (in Greek) just a little. I told him I spoke a little Greek (in Greek), but we did manage to communicate (mostly in English) that today we could sit for free as his restaurant had just opened yesterday and was celebrating. He did say that the area was just for his customers so we ordered a could of ice teas. He came back in a little while and said he did not have ice tea left. He could offer us coffee or champagne. When I asked the price he said that it was all free today. So let me get this straight… I can sit at your umbrella but only if I drink your free champagne. I can do that.
After a swim in the sea, a sand castle and some sunning (napping for me) we headed back to the hotel for a quick swim in one of the pools. We ate at the hotel again. We ordered a small assorted meat tray, a stuffed zucchini special (which made us wonder why we have not used the recipe we have) and the cheese dip. That proved to be to much food for the 3 of us. They brought us a pie crust like pastry for dessert. I don’t know what it was but I loved it.
We watched one of the movies I brought on the laptop (The Freedom Writers) and went to bed.
Santorini – May 27
The supply of clean clothes we brought or clothes we washed out on the way is dwindling but the hotel has asked that we not wash out clothes in the room. Santorini gathers all the water it needs during the Winter months and stores it for use during the year so water is in short supply. The water in the room has a salty taste so we have been buying bottled water to drink from the market next door. Costas advises that laundry will be cheaper if we can make it to Crete because water is not in short supply there. Electricity is also a bit erratic. To save electricity the room key has to be inserted in a slot to turn on electricity when you are in the room.
We got in the car and decided to first drive to the lighthouse past Akrotiri but we missed the turn off (almost directly across from our hotel) so we ended up driving towards the closed Akrotiri ruins instead. We parked in the parking lot for the well known red beach and hiked until we could see that beach. It was too early for us to do the beach so we backtracked to the road to the lighthouse and drove out to it. It sits on on end of the island. It has a nice view, but where on Santorini doesn’t. We got more entertainment from a group of 8 French tourists on four ATVs trying to maneuver all eight vehicles without hitting one another as they tried to park the unfamiliar machines in a narrow space. A number of people rent ATVs or scooters on Santorini. The ATVs are small enough that one of the women just picked up the back end and pivoted it around to park it.
We headed slowly to the other part of the island and Ia. Our goal was to be at Ia for dinner and the sunset but since the whole drive would only take 45 minutes we were in no hurry. we stopped at a few art studios and ended up buying a print of a watercolor of Santorini. We also stopped at the Gavala winery and sampled 5 of their locally grown wines. The family run winery has been in business for 4 generations. We enjoyed the whites we tried (the one red needed more time to my tastes and the dessert wine was, as expected, too sweet for our tastes). We bought two of the wines with the hope that they will make the trip home.
We stopped in Pyrgos on the road to ancient Thira. I wandered into the back alleys to take a picture of one of the beautiful blue domes churches. I kept going in and up a little further to try and get a picture without electric wires in the frame. It is a beautiful little village that seems relatively un-trampled by tourists.
As we reached the road to Ancient Thira we were struck by how many many switchbacks made their way up the hill. We started to drive it but quickly became intimidated and backed up to get more information before continuing. It was good that we did as it was already 2 PM and the site was closed. Pictures did not seem to show that much was visible of the Roman settlement so we probably won’t try and get there on this trip. You can take a mini-bus up and back for 10 euros or up for 7 euros. It is a 2 hour tour.
Instead we went to Kamari beach where we read, worked on sudoku and crosswords and napped. We did not end up going into the water as the sand/rocks were both hot and hard on my feet when I went down to the water barefoot. We watched with fascination and fear as some kids (at least some of them American) jumped from a nearby cliff into the water.
We drove back to thira and on to Ia. We did get lost on the way back to Thira on a road that was not well marked. The good news is that with the shape of the island it is hard to get very lost. The road is spectacularly winding and high between Thira and Ia. I was not looking forward to driving back this route in the dark.
We parked in the first lot we came to in Ia although it was 3 euros. I was relieved to be off the road so it seemed like a bargain. Ia is a beautiful town, probably the prettiest we have seen on the islands. The shops were more expensive (it reminded me of Carmel) so the shopping was not as good as in Thira. I took what would have been 2-3 rolls worth of film if I were not shooting digitally. We saw a couple different wedding parties and one model shoot taking advantage of the beautiful scenery. We found a perfect spot at the Sunset restaurant and ate pasta, greek salad and a chocolate souffl? as we watched the sun going down. It was a lovely sunset but since we are from the west coast a sunset over the water may not strike us as unique. The people watching was the real show. There we some tensions as people jockeyed for position.
After the sunset we wandered back to the car and drove back with a caravan of buses back to the other part of the island. It was difficult to see any of the signs at night be we made it back to the hotel and parked the car with no major incidence. I was glad we had waited a day to do this drive as I was less rusty driving a stick and the drive back involved starting from a full stop on a hill more than once.
Santorini – May 28
We had signed up to do an excursion today to the volcano islands in the center of Santorini. A van picked us up at around 11 AM and took us to the port of Athinios. Here we boarded a traditional greek sailing vessel (although we did not use the sails) in the bustling port. We laid claim to a table in the sun on the top deck. The passengers represented a number of nationalities and we were impressed when te tour guide gave every announcement and informational presentation in English, Greek, Italian, Spanish, German and French. He did so without notes. We made a quick stop at the port of Fira to take on additional passengers. We noticed he was definitely saying Fira instead of Thira. He told us the real name of the island is Thira and of the town is Fira although they get confused is all manner of ways according to him.
We motored to the larger of the two volcano islands called Nea Kameni (new brunt island). We hiked up the volcano to the top which is about 120 meters. We stopped at 3 points where we could both catch our breath and learn more about the volcano. It was a hike but people at least 20 years our senior made the hike. The volcano has a high amount of silicon in the lava so it is very viscous and when it erupts it does so in violent explosion in the fashion of Mount Saint Helens. Our guide dug down a few inches at the top of the volcano and dug up hot wet soil. The volcano is still active and pulls in and heats sea water around it. The soil is mostly the pumice type of lava (What the Hawaiians call Ah Ah versus the flat smooth black lava called Pahoihoi). Many of the lava flows on the volcano still looked jagged and fresh. Half of the island had been created in the last hundred years. There was very little vegetation on the island. Santorini has had numerous volcanic eruptions as well as earthquakes. We learned that the earthquake in 1956 flattened much of the island except some of the troglodyte houses (caves dug into the rock). The Greek government needed to intervene which brought the first roads and electricity and setup in that way the infrastructure for tourism.
The largest known eruption was the one 3500 years ago that buried the Minoan town of Akratiri and sent tidewaves as high as 150 meters high that also destroyed much of Minoan Crete. The tour guide said that some people think that Santorini may be what Plato referred to as Atlantis (although Plato put Atlantis past the gates of Hercules which is Gibraltar). He also said that some has speculated that the 10 plagues from Genesis may have had their origins in the eruption at Santorini. The map he had of Minoan Santorini showed an almost circle island with one opening which would been have a natural harbor and would explain why this was a major trading port.
We then sailed to the smaller of the two volcanos Palea Kameni (old burnt island) where there are hot springs. Warm springs would be more accurate as there is an inlet warmer by 18 degrees Fahrenheit (10 Celsius) than the sea water. The springs are high in iron and the mud is a rust red (and the water left was very metallic taste in your mouth). We anchored near the hot springs and you had to swim 30 meters to them from the boat. The water under the boat was 8 meters deep but, as another tourist pointed out, after the first couple of meters it does not matter. I had brought my underwater camera so I was able to shoot some video during the swim. Some people were using the mud to give themselves a mud bath. We would have loved to stay a little longer as it was nice to be in the water.
The next stop was Thirassia. Joan and Liz decided to stay down by the port while I made the hike up the hill into town. I made the mistake of forgetting my water bottle as was starting to overheat by the time I got to the top on a warm day. I did find a small shop where an elderly woman sold me water. I was glad I had done the climb but there was not much to the village. It was not as picturesque as some of the other villages we had seen. There were a couple of restaurants and one was grilling some meat that smelled very good. After looking around and downing .75 liter of water I hiked back down to find the ladies. I ended up just grabbing an ice cream to supplement the water and ham and cheese sandwich we had bought on the boat. The “beach” at Thirassia was very rocky so none of us ended up getting the water.
We sailed back via Ia, where most of the passengers got off to watch the sunset, and then back to port. There was some confusion as there was no bus for us to take but we ended up getting a ride up the cliff on another bus and met our bus driver at the top. When we got back to the hotel we swam and then went to dinner. We ordered a meatball dish that was not on the menu but that the people at the next table had ordered and souvlaki. That still left room for a candied fig which was the complementary dessert and for a chocolate souffle. After all the hiking, sun and a second glass of wine complements of Costas I crashed pretty early while the ladies watched a movie on the laptop.
Santorini to Heraklion, Crete – May 29
With no excursion planed and no rental car we checked out and then grabbed the bus to Fira. The system took us a little by surprise since we did not pay until we got off the bus in Fira so we stood there for a while we our money waiting for someone to be interested. An older gentleman on the bus would cross himself 4-5 times each time we drove past a small church which can keep you very busy in Greece.
We bought some time at an Internet cafe to catch up on email. I only had 700-800 new messages (not counting another 800 spam caught by my filters). I also downloaded some podcasts since I was all caught up. We then went to the post office for stamps. I don’t know if our experience was typical but if it was you might want to pack a picnic lunch before heading to the post office.
We walked through Fira doing some shopping for gifts as we hiked up towards Firostefani. What looks like Fira is actually 3 different villages that have grown together. The other two villages are uphill from Fira. There is a lot of new construction all over Fira but in particular there are a number of new looking and nice looking hotels clinging to the cliffs in Firostefani.
We took the bus back to the hotel and then got a ride to the ferry from Costas. On the way there was saw 4 cruise ships off the coast of the island. Costas said that in the high season he has seen as many as 15. The port of Athinios is a crazy place with ferries, bus, trucks, vans, and taxies all coming and going within a fairly small space.