Golden Oldie Visits a Picture Postcard – Santorini

25 August 2013

It’s funny how things work out sometimes. This is why it is essential to leave big spaces of unscheduled time in your travels. I found myself at Athens airport with a couple of hours to kill till next check-in and so there was time to think, wonder and be grateful for how my healing trip was working out.

I had no intention originally to be in Greece at all this trip (and yet I would find myself at Athens airport many times over the next couple of weeks), let alone going to my next stop – Santorini! I was loving this going with the flow thing. Plans for an unscheduled visit to St Petersburg from Sweden became way too hard so I threw all my ideas up in the air and what landed in my intuition was Santorini. Could I have chosen a place any further away? I began dreaming of some real chill out time, sunsets, Greek coffee and ocean. No alarm clocks (unless I decided to catch a sunrise or three) and after the Copenhagen experiences definitely no drunk backpackers waking me up. It was time for some ‘alone’ time in my own room. The thought crossed my mind ‘Who knows I may even find my inspiration and my poetry muse might return’ She had been absent while I was running around exploring.

I arrived in Santorini safely, so glad the pilot was obviously experienced, it’s a very sharp turn to line up for landing and a very short runway. It was after sunset when we landed. Driving up to Oia the twinkling lights of the various villages on the way were delightful and there was a traffic jam in Thira (to be expected I suppose).

You can’t drive within the actual village of Oia, it is all very narrow cobbled lanes winding between buildings and up and down steps, just delightful. So I was taken on foot to my hotel from the tourist office. The lane leading to my hotel is the main pedestrian thoroughfare to all the main places so, of course, it is full of jewellery shops, art galleries, souvenirs and wall to wall tourists. Everything is open late so after dumping my luggage I was off.

I thought the hotel had got up and moved by the time I’d gone out supermarket shopping and searching for a swimming costume – but no, it was there, I just kept walking past the narrow lane opening. After Scandinavia, prices on Santorini appeared reasonable, I got 2 whole Serbian salamis, 200g of Cretan cheese and a bottle of local wine for 14 euros, still expensive but less than I expected – that will last a few days (no, not the wine, that was guzzled as I was arguing with the wifi!).

That was a lovely bottle of local wine
That was a lovely bottle of local wine

I was wondering whether I should have emptied that bottle given the configuration of my room. My room number was 121, (interesting only because that was my house number back home) it had a green door, and needless to say the Green Door lyrics started, ‘what’s behind the green door’? Well let me tell you what was behind my green door. Firstly the entire floor was tiled, I understood why later when I realised that the humidity is so high that carpet would probably rot, and cleaning was easier. However, I became aware of certain safety issues. Firstly both the mirror and the fridge were down 4 tiled steps with no handrail, so I would need to be sure that my feet weren’t wet when going down there.  Secondly the mezzanine bedroom was up six tiled semi-spiral steps, with no handrail, so I would need to make sure that if I had to go to the bathroom down stairs at night, to turn the light on and be fully awake! I’ve had way too many altercations with stairs in my life. Thirdly the ‘bedroom’ was in a replica cave with a curved ceiling (they have a love in Santorini of replicating the caves that people used to live in and there are many curves in Cycladic architecture) so even I (at 5 foot 2 inches) couldn’t stand up. After banging my head on that very hard ceiling several times I finally remembered that I had to slide out of bed first then keep my head bent. As a result I left my bag and all my clothes on the lower level. On the up side, the bed did have a railing so I was unlikely to fall out of bed onto the lower floor. And people worry about staying in hostels! Having said all of that it was a lovely hotel, the staff were really nice and the breakfast plentiful, it was just a matter of getting used to something very different and quite charming.

Tricky steps in the dark
Tricky steps in the dark
The bed itself was safe but don't have wet feet when going down to the fridge.
The bed itself was safe but don’t have wet feet when going down to the fridge.

Day 1

My first day dawned in time to have the included breakfast, so lovely sitting outside my door by the pool enjoying a leisurely breakfast in the warm morning air. And then I was off exploring.

My first daylight walk and I fell in love! Yes I know, that’s very fickle of me, after all I had loved so many places so far, but, funnily enough this country girl has an island heart and it seems that pieces of land surrounded by ocean just carry me away. Now I was torn between Capri and Santorini as favourite islands (I don’t include Venice in the comparison, it is in a love category all of its own), both Capri and Santorini are postcard perfect, but I guess as I was in Oia at the time it was Santorini all the way.

Lanes, arches and Bougainvillieas
Lanes, arches and Bougainvilleas
Cobbles and art
Cobbles and art

My camera was working overtime as I meandered along the cobbles and flagstones finding all sorts of places. It is impossible to take a bad photo in Oia. The winding lanes, the stunning Cycladic white houses with their soft curves and the blue domed churches, the bright pink and the subtler white Bougainvillea bursting with colour against the starkness of the white stone buildings. Then the caldera, sparkling blue in the bright Aegean sunlight, boats and yachts cutting through the water as they headed towards beaches or the volcano. I have seen some stunning sights, but this place took the prize.

Painting the church of Panagia
Painting the church of Panagia
The curves of Oia
The curves of Oia

I spent that first day also keeping an eye out for alternative places for watching the sunset. Even in the daytime it was obvious that the crowds would be horrific at the traditional viewing

The pristine caldera
The pristine caldera
The fortress, sunset viewing place during the day
The fortress, sunset viewing place during the day

spot, the Kastro, ruins of a mediaeval fortress built by the Venetians in the 1200s at the most northerly point of the village.

My first Santorini sunset

I just love how things get manifested in my life. I was walking past King Neptunes restaurant on my afternoon walk, wondering where to watch the sunset when I happened to stop and look at the menu (now you have to understand that I had no idea of compass points and hadn’t thought about it, just, for some reason, assumed that the sun would set over the caldera. I noticed that Neptunes restaurant had lamb on the menu (I had been dreaming of lamb since I left home) then I noticed that they had a rooftop terrace, so I wandered up. That’s when I discovered that west was not over the caldera at all! And the tables facing west were all reserved (of course).  However, the owner said that in fact the perfect table WAS reserved but it was cancelled, needless to say I grabbed it. And what a delight it turned out to be, the meal was spectacular and the sunset just beautiful. As always interesting things happened. The next table had been booked by a young lady I’d noticed on the same flight. It turned out that she was a Ukrainian 21 year old medical student so she ended up joining me instead of us talking across tables and I got to learn a bit more about the world – Oh, I do love travel! Every day is a good day, because every day I learn something new. We have remained social media friends and so one day I will get to Ukraine to visit yet another friend in another new place. Dinner and the sunset over I went to see what happens at night in this beautiful place.

My first Santorini sunset
My first Santorini sunset
Sunset ray shining on my entree at Neptunes.
Sunset ray shining on my entree at Neptunes.

Day Two – The morning after the night before

Well that was an interesting night! I was in my room writing up my story for my Facebook friends when just as I realised that it was 1.30am and I should go to bed, the lights went out, literally. Having conveniently forgotten about islands, small towns and sudden blackouts I had to cast my mind to what to do. Then I remembered that my dear son Ginski, who, over the years has said many things both useful and unuseful, had given me a piece of backpacker advice, that was about to prove to be one of the most sensible things that he has ever said…..’you need a headlamp Mum’ he said to me at Lake Bled in Slovenia. He, having travelled for the previous 2 years was, of course, more experienced in these things. I bought one in Ljubljana and hadn’t had a lot of need for it but boy did it come in handy that night, as did my phone which I needed to find the lamp! It was fun crawling up those steps (which didn’t have a banister) to the bedroom in total darkness to find the phone! But at a least I knew where it was, unlike the headlamp which was buried in my bag.
After realising that the whole town of Oia was blacked out, not just the hotel, of course I had to go and find out what Santorinians do at these times. The lamp wasn’t needed outside, it was half moon so there was plenty of light. The restaurant across the lane was lit up like a Christmas tree and I could hear the hum of a generator. Earlier in the evening I had noticed a band playing in the church square so I went that way in case things were happening. Yes, I found the band still playing, people still dancing, dogs still wandering, and old men still smoking by the light of the moon. The caldera was dark and only faintly reflected the lights from cliff top villages that hadn’t been blacked out, obviously the problem was local. A little breeze played at the hem of my dress and brought just enough cool into the air. I finally decided I really ought to go to bed, I wanted to be up for sunrise and at 2.30 there was still no indication that the electricity was coming back. Sunrise? that’s another story, missed it by half an hour, forgot that my phone wasn’t set to Santorini time.

Seeing as I’d missed the sunrise day two was taken up with more exploring, more photos, more ducking in and out of art galleries and shops. The cluster of buildings that was Oia constantly amazed me. How on earth did they manage to build this place which was perched on a cliff? And how do they manage to renovate and maintain buildings with such tight access?

The cluster of Oia
The cluster of Oia, how do they build and renovate?

 

What a delight.
What a delight.

A walk to the Tourist office was a battle against the tide of tourists coming the other way. Most of them seemed to be Russian, that was pretty much the only language I could hear. I needed to see if I could book a sunset cruise (more on that later) and also to  find the post office.

This is when I discovered an interesting aspect of Greek communication. I popped into the shop where I’d found a suitable swimming costume to ask directions to the Post Office (importantly, it was 2.45pm). The lovely lady gave me excellent directions and off I went. I found the Post Office quite easily and went in through the wide open door. I wasn’t prepared for the tirade that greeted me. Having asked for stamps the man in there started yelling at me that I should have come earlier. I asked why and he pointed at the door where there was a small sign which apparently said that they closed every day at 2pm. It seemed that he was only there because he was running late and was sorting mail. I realised that you have to know the answers to your questions before you ask them because you may not be given the extra information needed (a bit like going to a solicitor or doctor back home, you need both degrees in order to know what questions to ask). I struck this problem again later in my Greek travels but that is another story. The evening was spent at Neptunes again enjoying dinner and the sunset.

Shade and beauty
Shade and beauty

The manifestations and serendipities kept rolling in. I felt like I was being held up in a supportive hand and everything I wanted was happening, it was a great feeling of safety! I decided that as the lady from the travel agency was going to call to let me know if there was a mini bus running at the time I needed it to get to the super cheap basic cruise (which was the only one left, the rest were booked out), I wouldn’t bother going back to the office to check. Instead I thought I’d go for a walk in the other direction and explore the fortress ruins. As I walked out of my hotel I ran into the lady from the travel agency, who was passing by, who told me that someone had cancelled out of the better sunset cruise the next day and if I were to get down there the space might still be available. So I hot footed it down to the agency and got yet another surprise, the cruise company had decided that as there were so many requests for that cruise they would run two boats and the space was on the second one – the one they normally use for private cruises. Woo hoo! So, not only did I get to go on the cruise I wanted I also got the bonus of the top notch catamaran. I couldn’t wait for Day 3.

Day 3 – Sunrise

Finally, I managed to get up in time. Oia is not the best place for watching a sunrise you would be better located at one of the villages on the Eastern side of the island, but I didn’t have enough time to travel there, perhaps next time. However, Oia has its own sunrise mystique and beauty. The wall near the church square was going to be my vantage point.

The caldera was shrouded in morning mist when I arrived at the wall. I noticed that there was a homeless man asleep on the park bench and I was surprised, I hadn’t thought about the possibility of homelessness in such a tight knit community. As first light approached the mist started slowly clearing. I saw a young man approaching with a takeaway cup in his hand. He headed straight for the man on the bench, woke him up and gave him the cup of coffee and left. The mist kept clearing and soon I could see that sunlight was creeping over the cliffs to the east. The man on the bench finished his coffee, walked over to the wall, leaned over and pulled out a broom. He started to sweep the flagstones in front of the shops and cafes. I guess this was his way of paying for the coffee.

There is a certain light that envelopes the island at both sunrise and sunset a particular mix of pink and blue that is indescribable, the French call it crepuscule, the Italians crepuscolo and the closest inEnglish would be twilight. It appears briefly before the full brilliance of the sun melts it away in the morning or after the sun has set in the evening. As my gaze shifted between the mists and pastels of the caldera and the east, the sun started peeping further and further over the cliffs and as it did the mist cleared and revealed the pristine caldera in all its beauty.

Crepiscule morning
Crepuscule morning
The sun peeks over the cliffs
The sun peeks over the cliffs as the homeless man sweeps
Sunrise mists
Sunrise mists

Sunset 

It was time to meet the bus to be taken to the port for my sunset cruise. The bus drivers need to be good as the last bit of road to the port is very narrow and downhill so they need to reverse all the way down as there is nowhere to turn around.

The cruise was so much fun, the people on board with me were

The pristine caldera
The pristine caldera

friendly and easy to chat to. We headed into the caldera and stopped in various places for people to swim. One of these was the sulphur springs hear the volcano, you can see the yellow of the sulphur in the water and apparently it’s warm. I’m not a swimmer and I also have a sulphur allergy so there was no way I would be testing out the springs. Others went swimming and reported that it really was warm and pleasant. We also anchored not far from the black beach, the guys on the cat did warn people not to sit on the black sand as they would never get it out of their costumes. Yes, this was a time I wished I didn’t have my fear of deep water and that I could swim, never mind, it was fun watching everyone else frolicking around.

Sulphur springs in the caldera
Sulphur springs in the caldera
Barbecue on the sunset cruise
Barbecue on the sunset cruise
Cave doors where people lived once upon a time
Cave doors where people lived once upon a time

In the cliffs along the beach are doors. Behind these doors are the original caves where, according to our boat crew,  local people used to live. They are now used mainly for storage.

The barbecue was ready by the time everyone returned and we had the nicest lamb barbecue ever! That done, we were off to position

Colours of Santorini on the catamaran.
Colours of Santorini on the catamaran.

ourselves for the open water sunset along with all the other boats. Oh! what a joy that was! I will let a few photos speak for me, words are just not enough.

Oh that sunset over the Aegean
Oh that sunset over the Aegean
Evening crepiscule
Evening crepuscule

Day 4

There was a moment on that day when I thought that yes it would be nice to have someone traveling with me. Why? Two reasons, one obvious one is to share the beauty of that place (to paraphrase what one friend said on her travels ‘just to be able to look at a friend with a silly grin on your face and share the amazement’) and the other – so I would dare to hire a quad bike and go hooning! Yes, I know I could do it on my own but never having driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road and never having ridden a quad bike I’d feel a little dorky and unsafe if anything went wrong, I’d be so much braver with another person. Yes, sometimes I’d like a friend with me.

Last day 

It was a day of ‘lasts’ , and two firsts. Last night on Santorini, last walk along the tourist lane along the edge of the caldera, last amazing gelato from Lolita’s, first island gyros and first local beer and sadly my last Santorini sunset. I caught myself having conflicting thoughts on my way back to the hotel, while munching happily on 3 awesome gelato flavours…. one thought was that I hate the farewells to places I really like, and there had been many of those already in those first 4 months (and no doubt there would be many more) but then that is balanced by the excitement of what will I find in the next place. Then I was thinking that in a way this was part of what I needed to really ‘get’ during that trip, the letting go, the being OK with farewells, loosening up on the need to hang on to things – gosh, it sure wasn’t easy. In fact it’s almost as hard as the day I realised that I had to let go of being the ‘all knowing’ mother and talk with my kids as equal adults. But nowhere near as hard as letting go of Mum.

The best gelateria
The best gelateria

Next thought was that once I’m off the island I may stop feeling like one of those eccentric old English ladies in a broad brimmed hat that I used to read lots about in English novels – you know the ones where she would move to a Greek island and wander around in her hat being eccentric and having afternoon teas?

Of course there are donkeys
Of course there are donkeys

Time to say goodbye

Well, that was it, four fun filled days on an island I had fallen in love with. I woke up wishing I could stay on, but there were other places to go. It was time to pack and get down to the tourist office for the shuttle to the airport. There is always one, isn’t there? This time, it was two, and amazingly it was two men who were late and holding us up. One arrived half and hour late and said the other was off doing last minute shopping, oh dear!  We just made it and were on the plane at 11.20. heading back towards Athens and an on to my next unscheduled, unplanned visit – Istanbul!

Even Oia gets some graffiti
Even Oia gets some graffiti                            
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