Departing to Santorini (also known as Thira) by ferry was a seven-hour journey across the Aegean Sea. The crowded vessel stopped at several islands along the route to dispatch, and then board passengers. Given enough time, travelers can move throughout the Cyclade islands, hopping on and off the ferry with a prearranged schedule to visit a variety of the islands.
With our tighter time frame, we spent our time only on Santorini. Having booked a rental car, we were able to head away from the port to Perivolos, on the southeastern coast. In trying to locate our hotel (there are dozens along the waterfront) we stopped at a little store asking for directions. The excited man replied that one of his friends owned the hotel, so he gave him a call. A few minutes later, we were being escorted by Parus (one of the owners) to our destination. After our arrival, we were greeted by his wife, Litsa, with a welcoming glass of wine. We are truly being spoiled by the hospitality of the Greek people!
An airport also services the island, and cruise ships unload their hoardes on the well-known cities of Oia (ee-ah) and Fira (Fee-rah). If you've seen a picture of Santorini, chances are the photo was taken somewhere in Oia. The white-washed walls, blue-domed Cathedrals, windmills, and bright blue skies are iconic Santorini.
The views on the island were created by one of the world's largest known volcanic eruptions, which occured 3600 years ago, and blew the mountain apart, leaving steep cliffs on the remaining land form, which creates a semi circle around New Kalmeni (Volcano Island), another remnant of the former mountain. This eruption is thought to be responsible, either directly or indirectly, because of tsunamis, for the disapperance of the Minoan civilization. In 1956, another powerful quake hit the island. Following this quake extensive rebuilding was done. City planners used this disaster as an opportunity to make major renovations along the cliff front, and create an exclusive tourist spot.
Our first evening, we opted to have dinner at a restaurant near our hotel. Scanning menus as we walked along the waterfront, Alan spotted the moukassa he had been craving, and we were seated for dinner. An added plus, an older Greek man playing a lute and singing. As the evening progressed, two teenaged girls started accompanying the music with traditional Greek dances, later a spitfire, but somewhat older waitress, hostess and dancer took over the restaurant floor along with the younger dancers, and performed a rendition of the plate dance. Plates are broken by kicks, as the dancers swiftly move to the music. The highlight, for us, was the Zorba dance. Explaining the steps, and then asking for volunteers, Alan joined the conga line as it snaked through the restaurant and out onto the street for several minutes as he did his best Zorba the Greek impression. The beat of the music was increasing every couple of minutes until the dancers were reaching a fanatic pace, Alan dropped exhausted in a chair as the dance continued. Unfortunately, since we were just going for dinner, we hadn't packed a camera, but the evening will definitely be one we remember, irregardless.
Since we knew a visit to Oia was mantatory, the next day we headed to town. Parking is only available at the beginning of the area, so a lot of walking is an inevitable part of the visit. Hiking up and down the cliffs, along the rim of the old volcano, is like walking through a giant picture postcard. Every view, from every angle, seemed to be prettier than the last. Impressive to say the least. Lined with expensive hotels, shops and restaurants, the walk is best taken early in the day before the tour groups move in. Stray cats are seen throughout Greece, but the felines in this neighborhood, lined with million dollar dwellings, were definitely fatter than their counterparts in Athens.
Santorini is also known for incredible sunsets. Talking with our lunch waiter we found out where the sun would be going down for the evening. Heading out toward Caldera Beach, we stopped for dinner at a restaurant located along the southern edge of the caldera. Prepared to be blown away by a spectacular scene, a heavy haze lay over the horizon hiding the sun as it slipped away for the day. Beautiful, eerie, but not the crimson and orange sunsets they are famous for.
Familiar with items like moussaka, kabobs (called souvlaki here) and greek salad, more unusual items like grilled octopus and calamari, or marinated anchovies were foods we were a little apprehensive about trying. Turns out, we liked everything we ordered, though Alan won't be running out for the anchovies or sardines. Salads were widely available, with greek salads topped with a slab of feta cheese on top (and the best tomatoes we have had in years) offered at almost every restaurant.
Unfamiliar with the climate, we were surprised to learn that the island is technically a desert. Rainfall is a rarity, so homes and businesses function on water from a desalination plant which is non-potable. Drinking water is sold everywhere and cheaply. More amazingly, the island produces a few tasty wine selections (more on that later), outrageously sweet cherry tomatoes, melons, cucumbers and white eggplant. All the farming is done without irrigation. Grapes and tomatoes are not grown on trellises, they are allowed to grow on the ground. All the produce obtains water from the overnight dew. Passing fields of tomatoes, we would see the bright, red fruit growing on what looked like dead vines. Obviously, this is particularly difficult for harvesting, but the end products are wonderfully flavorful.
Visiting Gavalax, a 300-year old family winery, we learned that the sweet wine, Vensanto, a world-reknowned dessert wine, is made with a special grape that have been sun-dried for a few weeks to intensify the sweetness, it is then fermented for several years in oak barrels. It has a smooth, rich, syrupy texture, and it is delicious. Only our limited luggage space (we're traveling with backpacks) prevented us from buying a couple of bottles to bring home. We did manage to consume some of their dry white wines before we departing.
A wide range of water focused activities are available, from kayaking and boat rentals to diving and sunset cruises. We opted for simply hanging out a couple of afternoons along the black sand beaches near our hotel, and the nearby Red Sand Beach. With temperatures peaking around 98 degrees, the waterfront was the best place to be. In spite of the heat, water temperatures remained chilly, and refreshing. Weather in June typically runs 15-20 degrees cooler, and before we departed things started to cool down a little bit.
Unfortunately, the cooler weather was accompanied by winds and high seas, which made the seven hour ferry ride seem a lot longer, for a number of passengers, myself included. Arriving in Piraeus, we headed to a new hotel in the dark. Even though we were only a few blocks away, we managed to get lost. Thanks to the kindness of a stranger, at nearly midnight, we were led to our hotel.
Next, we're moving on to the island of Hydra.