Saturday, April 11, 2009

Fun in Santorini

Saturday, April 11, 2009

One of the best things about Santorini was that there are no Roman ruins here. This Aegean island boasts nothing but beautiful vistas. Whether it is the mountains, the towns or the water, Santorini is one large Kodak moment.

All of this beauty comes at a price – there is not a level place on the island. What we see now is the remains of an active volcano which erupted in the Seventeenth Century B.C. According to some historians, the resultant tidal wave destroyed the Minoan civilization on Crete. Today, all that remains is a string of islands which form the caldera of the volcano. There are two newer islands in the middle of the caldera, one purely volcanic and the other, the active remnant of the volcano. Local legend has it that the lost city of Atlantis is buried beneath the water near these two small islands.

The classic views of Santorini show the sheer cliffs of Fira, a town which faces into the caldera. On this side of the island, we found most of the high end tourist hotels and stores as well as the usual array of souvenir shops. Our guide today, Nikos, says that hotel rooms on the cliff can rent for as much as 1000 euros per night. These are not luxury high rises, either, but boutique hotels built on and sometimes into the cliff. One thousand euros to sleep in a cave! Some of the houses here cost several million euros.

On the other side of the island, the outer wall of the volcano, prices are as much as 90 per cent less. Rents are more affordable with accommodations available, according to Nikos, for 50 – 75 euros and up per night. The outside of the island is where swimmers can find black sand and gravel beaches. The biggest are two and seven miles long, respectively. We saw a few American sun worshippers on the smaller beach this afternoon but none had ventured into the chilly water while we watched.

We saw just about everything there was to see here, starting with Fira. We took a port tender [not a HAL tender] to the dock and climbed stairs to reach a cable car to ascend to the top of the cliff. We could have walked approximately 600 steep steps up the side or even taken a mule ride up the steps, but there was really no discussion as we trooped purposefully to the ticket booth. The ride is smooth and relatively quick, but Sharon’s fear of heights weighed heavily on her; she made it to the top without incident but was a nervous wreck.

We were supposed to meet our guide “at the top” at 10:00, but no one was there with a sign when we arrived, so we wandered through the cobblestoned shopping area before deciding to return to the cable car area to wait. We found our contact person looking for us by the time we got back. Then the fun began. Instead of walking down the hill to the van, we walked farther up the hill until we got to the very top. We stopped twice to catch our collective breath and to avoid cardiac arrest. This was not an easy climb, especially since three of the six of us have had some sort of orthopedic procedures. Climbing, steps and cobblestones are not our friends. We wheezed our way to the top to meet Nikos a breathed a little easier as we headed for the northern end of Santorini. [Santorini is also collective name given to the islands which form the caldera] The town of Oia [EE-yuh], one of twelve towns on this island, is smaller than Fira but has the most classic picture opportunities.

We walked up a hill, down a hill, up a hill, down a hill…looking at the town, the cliffs, the water, the other islands. No matter where we looked, we saw blinding whites and bright blues – the water was dark blue and the church domes were a brilliant blue. It was a nice change from Roman ruins and world history. Oia and Santorini exist just to be pretty. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Or A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

As time passed, we drove to other areas of the island, snapping away as we went. After we visited the black sand beach, we went to a restaurant which Nikos said specialized in fresh seafood. We were the first customers of the day and the staff could not have been more attentive not the food any fresher. Bread, tomato paste and briny Greek olives were brought to the table first. We ordered the Santorini salads, which were simply a Greek salad of cherry tomatoes, red onion, capers, green pepper and feta cheese, and split three of them among the three couples. MA order moussaka and D order stuffed cabbage leaves [like dolmades but with cabbage] and an order of the house specialty recommended by Nikos, broccoli. Although no one ordered dessert, the waiter brought a plate of fresh fruit – six slices of apple, kiwi, orange, strawberry and apple – a refreshing way to end the meal. It was all good, but there was simply too much food. With the bread charge and Cokes, our bill was about 32 euros.

Bill & Sharon and Scott & Karen ordered fresh fish which they selected from a display of fish on ice. The fish were sold by the kilo, not the piece, and were weighed prior to cleaning. Scott and Karen also ordered fried cheese, something Scott had discovered in Rome. Bill & Sharon’s bill came to about 75 euros and Scott & Karen’s was an amazing 115 euros; their red snapper sold for 57 euros a kilo and weighed a whopping 1.5 kilos resulting in a price of 83 euros just for the fish! No wonder the waiter/proprietor offered them the head when he brought out the platter. He should have given them the head, the ears and the tail.

Our penultimate stop was at the highest point on the island. We drove more switchback roads as we snaked up to the peak more than 1800 meters above sea level. Despite a slightly overcast day and incoming clouds, it was a breathtaking sight. We watched as clouds obscured a building on the peak as we watched. Photographs will no more capture this moment than they will the grandeur of the rest of the island. Sharon’s acrophobia kicked in and she stayed in the car, relying on Bill’s pictures to experience it.

Our last stop was at a winery which also sold retail. Bill & Sharon like to sample local wines and wanted to bring home something unavailable in the States. While they discussed and then bought their wine, the rest of us were helping the local economy, too. MA got a ceramic box as a souvenir of Santorini, deciding that she wouldn’t have to deal with the shops in Fira later. It was a good idea.

We drove back to Fira and let Scott and Karen out so they could shop. The rest of us were dropped off nearer to the cable cars, paid our fare and went home.

A picture is worth a thousand words:

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