Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Santorini - Main island of Thira

[Kyle]After all of the anticipation of Santorini, it turned out to be an enormous disappointment. The entire island smelled like wet donkeys and their waste, even though it hadn’t rained in weeks. The place is infested with vicious biting flies. Shopkeepers were rude and aggressive and any place with a “view” invariably had it blocked off to those who hadn’t paid a fee. When you did get through, the foreground was always filled with a parking lot or overflowing dumpsters. We were so disappointed.

Dirty, trashy, smelly... Yuk!

For Americans, at least, it would have been much quicker and cheaper to go to Las Vegas, stay at the Olympic, and attend the Greek Island Experience. There you can see the whole thing in giant HD IMAX clarity with near 3D detail (like 2D), feel like you’re climbing a hill on a real donkey with their new ReelFeel™ seats with none of the smell or waiting. Afterward, enjoy a buffet of Greek/American fusion cuisine created by their chef Vinnie Pappadopolis and including such delights as Moussaka with fries, Lamb kabab with fries, Spanakopita with fries and everybody’s favorite: Fried ouzo.

Kate, if you’re reading this, you didn’t miss a thing. You must be feeling a bit sleepy. How ‘bout you go get yourself a cup of coffee? We’ll see you next time…
She’s gone! Here’s what really happened.

At Thirasia in the morning, we saw some activity around eight and decided to head ashore just in case. We got there just in time to see a big, empty boat cast off and steam for Thira. Damn! It was picking up the staff for the restaurants. We waited around hoping for something soon, but by 9:15, knew it was going to be the 9:30 ferry. We spotted the gruff Captain coming through the village on his small horse and followed along as conspicuously as we could. We didn’t want him to leave without us suspecting he may not be expecting customers for the run. He was busy, so we gave him his space as he worked. When it looked like departure was imminent, we asked if it was okay to come aboard. He grunted and motioned us in.

Private Ferry ride

On board, he was busy again, so we made our way to the top deck for the view. Suddenly, we were moving. I became concerned that we had just boarded a boat without paying and that we weren’t even sure exactly where it was going. All we knew was that the day before, it kept leaving and disappearing around the corner only to reappear an hour later. We had no idea which port they went to or even which island.

We tracked down the guy to pay and completed the whole exchange without him saying a word to us. Maryanne got out a piece of paper and pen. With doodling, sign language and broken English, we were able to determine that he was indeed going to Fira, the capital of Thira and the last ferry back was at 5:00, we think. We still weren’t entirely sure he understood us. Apart from four staff, we were the only people on the boat. We stood on the top deck gazing at the view and snapping pictures as we approached Thira. It was Cruise Ship Day. Five big ships were anchored or hovering off the town and scores of little launches were ferrying passengers into Fira.

At Fira, we asked the other three guys on the boat when the last one left Fira. We got a couple of 5:00s and a couple of 5:20s. Well, at least that wasn’t too big a range. We decided to be back by 4:30. As a backup, we stopped at several places offering tourist information and were told there was no direct boat to Thirasia, only crater tours that stop there.

“Yes there is. We just got off that boat. It’s right there.”

“No boat. Only tours.”

It turns out there is no tourist information per se in Santorini, only tour companies touting themselves as such. If it’s not their boat, they don’t know about it. Nobody knew about it and we could find no timetable anywhere. We had to hope 5:00 was right.

With so little available time, we decided to use our new favorite mode of transportation – the scooter – to see the island. We found an agent right at the ferry stop that told us they would have a guy meet us at the top.

First views of Fira

We didn’t take a donkey but instead boarded the gondola funicular with a large group of Spanish cruise ship passengers. Two minutes later, we were at the top.

Funicular - so much easier than walking up!

Wow! What a place! It is hard for words to describe how beautiful it is. Curved adobe buildings covered in wedding cake icing and speckled with blue doors and windows dripped off of the rim of the crater like a layer of toffee. Below them in the distance was an enormous crater filled with deep blue water and centered on a giant mound of cinders. It took the words out of everybody’s mouths. People, including myself, would get off of the funicular, walk over to take their first look and then stand there transfixed for a minute or two, taking it in, jaws agape, rendered speechless by it. We would stare for a while and then sort of come to, realizing we needed to make way for others to have their moment. Then it was time to turn and dive into the bustle of the narrow streets.

The guy from the scooter rental place met us and took us on a long winding walk through the town. When we emerged, we were on the outside of the crater with a view of distant Anafi along a very busy auto road; the first we’d seen so far.

I left my license as deposit and was shown to our scooter. We got a thirty-second briefing on the controls, climbed on and were off.

The congested street was near gridlock for cars and busses, but the scooters threaded their way right through. We headed clockwise around the crescent shaped island in the direction of the ancient Thira archaeological site and the black sand beaches of the south. We had hoped to see the Minoan site at Akrotiri, but it was still closed after a fatal accident at the site six years earlier.

As we approached ancient Thira and saw the road was really steep with switchbacks all the way to the top, we were worried our little rental scooter wasn’t up to it. Seeing the road turn from asphalt to cobblestones caused us to chicken out. {Maryanne: I really encouraged Kyle NOT to go up that hill, I think he was otherwise game for it. It probably helped that with our limited time he wasn’t too bothered about yet another archaeological site that I was trying to get us to}.

Kamari beach and the crazy steep cobbled switchback up to Ancient Thira

We turned and headed back downhill to the beach at Kamari to see for ourselves the black sands. The beach was sparsely filled with vacationers sitting on deck chairs under thatch umbrellas reading paperbacks. White wooden walkways had been put out to protect from the super-hot sand. The trick seemed to be to triple jump from the walkway to the chairs and to the water. A lot of Olympic triple jump training takes place on Santorini.

We weren’t much in the mood to fritter away our precious day in a deck chair so, having seen and felt it, we were back on the bike headed up the shallower hill towards the rim. We got about half a mile before the scooter started losing power. We got slower and slower until we ended up coasting off the road onto the dirt shoulder. The engine was completely dead and would not start. It seemed to be overheating. We pushed it into a shady spot to let it cool off and considered what to do if cooling off didn’t work. We took our time digging out the cell phone and rental agreement (no refunds, our bikes are in perfect condition and should be returned as such, etc) and to avoid making an international phone call via cell phone, agreed to wait 10 minutes and see if it started then.

At the end of our wait we were able to get the bike started (with difficulty) and our immediate plans for that end of the island were abandoned and our new goal became to make it back to the rental store. We took the journey slowly, riding close to the shoulder at no more than 20mph. Every now and then on a steeper hill the engine would die again, we would coast to a stop and repeat the cooling off process; we were relieved when we finally made it into Fira and pulled up to the scooter rental store. The young guy there thought we were done, and we explained to him the bike was broken he looked confused; after all we’d just ridden up on it. We tried to describe the problem, but he started the engine, revved it and looked at us incredulously (what were we talking about, it’s fine). The did issue us another scooter to the obvious consternation of the boss, and were good enough to top it up with fuel (from empty) as we’d just paid to fill the now broken one from ¼ of a tank.

The new scooter sounded like barbed wire in a washing machine but ran all right and we had no problems for the rest of the day. Running out of time, we now decided to head in the other direction to the town of Oia on the Northern end of the island and famed for its beautiful sunsets.

Oia on Santorini's main island

If it was even possible, Oia was even prettier than Fira. A large proportion of pretty little art galleries displaced some of the more traditional touristy souvenir shops. There were throngs of people all recently disgorged off of tour buses, but the place seemed to have a breathtaking view for each one of us. After a couple of hours there, I was actually starting to get overloaded on scenery. I love it, but it was exhausting to always be gasping at yet another gorgeous vista, stopping and taking more photos. It just wouldn’t stop. The curvature of the crater was filled in with gorgeous villas that seemed to be molded into the hill. Each one was unique. Many of the places had infinity pools that were formed to fit the available space where swimmers could lean over the edge to a view of the caldera. Rectangles were very rare. It was sensory overload. What a magnificent place. {There were a couple of VERY splendid hotels in Oia and a few had plaques for ‘Small Luxury hotels of the World’, they were WOW hotels and I plan to look up others and maybe plan a romantic get away at some point – if they are even half as nice as the ones in Oia they will be wonderful.}


Eventually we headed back south, and managed a stop at two other small and beautiful villages before finally finding our way back to the capital of Fira to return the scooter and leave some time to explore.

The tiny village of Firostefani, Santorini

In Fira we reversed our morning route from busy road to donkey path, meandering this way and that depending on what caught our eye. We ended up at a rooftop restaurant where we had a Santorini snack of bread dipped in warm Fava bean sauce and a bottle of white wine from the island. From up there, we could watch the chaos on the streets while being removed from its tensions.

The bike, Fira, Santorini and a wondeful snack

The view was incredible and the wine was pretty good, too. We felt so full of happiness at being able to see this place.

Afterwards, we descended to the harbor on the funicular. Four of the cruise ships had left. The last, a German boat, was in the final stages of getting everybody back on board. Our car was filled with the last of the stragglers.

The boat to Thirasia wasn’t there waiting for us, nor in sight (arriving or leaving). Five O’clock passed and then 5:20 and the only boats we saw in the harbor were shuttles taking the last of the Germans to their cruise ship, and the sunset schooners departing. I began to get a little nervous which grew with each passing minute. Thira was nice and all but since most non-camping rooms sold between €500 and €1500 a night, we needed to avoid staying their if at all possible.

Waiting for the Ferry home

At just about the time my pacing back and forth had driven Maryanne crazy our boat came into view around the corner; I knew it all along. Four people got off the arriving ferry and we were the only two to get on. The crew gave us the usual grunts but did not express any other recognition (what tars). After being available for boarding for a total of no more than 30 seconds the ramp lifted and the boat backed into the harbor, then it started heading in the wrong direction. We weren’t too concerned since we knew it overnighted in Thirasia (at least we hoped it did every night), so we enjoyed the detour to the main ferry terminal for Santorini, a couple of miles south of Fira at which point the only other four passengers disembarked leaving the boat (as in the morning) four crew and the two of us. On the passage back to Thirasia the ferry skirted by the new central volcanic islands giving us a great view of the mounds of jagged burnt new rock.

Volcanic islands and the ride home

As we arrived in Thirasia we could see the sunset schooner tied up alongside Footprint at the mooring ball. Conditions were a little windier this day so they had a different configuration and this time the mooring ball was taking most of the strain of the large boat. Rather than going straight home we decided to maintain our anonymity and rushed to the only restaurant with customers before it closed. The waiter gave us a slightly withering look, I’m sure he expected us to be requesting our entire meal served before the next boat departed (soon). We did our best to appear nonchalant. At that point there were probably 25 people in the restaurant. A few minutes later, without any obvious signal, and like a flock of ducks taking off in the morning, they all simultaneously hopped out of their chairs, dropped money on the table and left. After they were gone and unlike the night before six people remained (including us). Two of them shortly boarded another boat and two mysteriously remained. The remaining young couple seemed completely unconcerned that they had just missed the last boat off the island. We assumed they must be one of the few people staying on the island at its one hotel at the top of the hill.

We made a point of finishing our meal and paying our tab so the restaurant staff could be on their way home (they looked eager to go) and moved to a table with a better view near the balcony (that also happened to be beside the other couple). We introduced ourselves and soon discovered they were an American couple from Denver: Canute and Molly. We exchanged the secret Colorado handshake a combination of shoveling snow and planting a ski pole. The reason they were in no hurry was that they had their own transport home; Canute The Resourceful had rented an inflatable dinghy with an outboard for the day. He’d rented it from a place on the outer side of the main island by Oia, gone completely around the outside of the Santorini islands and spent the remaining day exploring the inner crater as well, finally ending up eating dinner at Nisis Thirasia where we met them. It seemed like a LONG way to take a dinghy with such small fuel tanks but he assured us he had plenty, this main concern seemed to be that sunset was approaching and he wanted to be out of the bay for the best views by then, a treat for Molly’s birthday. He was just winging it. Canute the Impulsive.

We both left the restaurant at the same time, and we made our way back to Footprint and hoisted the dinghy into its davits for the passage the following day. Canute and Molly however had conspicuously not left by the time we’d completed this and settled down for our evening glass of wine. It was definitely getting dark by then and we were concerned for them and curious as to what the problem (or change of plan) might be. After a long while they still hadn’t left and were back in the restaurant, we figured they must have decided not to chance the return journey so late and were somehow planning on staying in Thirasia for the night. I couldn’t imagine this was going to go over well with Molly who potentially was going from a nice Oia hotel room to a night on a pile of fishermen’s nets. Canute the Available.

A half an hour or so later a small powerboat zipped into the now dark harbor and stopped by the restaurant and after a short while sped away back towards Thira with two dinghies following close behind. We assumed at least one of these was Canute the Saved and Molly and were glad to think of them having a nice bed for the night. In the absence of any real facts, we imagined they had run out of fuel after all (or were otherwise unable to start the dinghy) and were rescued by their rental company; I can only imagine the after hours call out charges, yikes. Canute the Broke.


Mommy Dearest said...

I hate to grumble, but could you please post these things during a time when I have a fresh cup of coffee, don't have to get to the bathroom, and wasn't planning on doing anything for the next hour anyway? It's SO disruptive to my day--here I am, right in the midst of a fascinating chore, thinking I'll just get this boring task done and then make it to the cappuccino maker and bathroom for a break when BING, here comes another of your blogs. And I'm hooked. Even when I tell myself I'll just take a peek, maybe look at the pictures and get on with my work, returning later to read...I can't do it. Never can. It's like a flytrap to a fly. Gets me every time.

I gasp at the beauty, laugh at your take on it, daydream about it all, and become completely oblivious to the bathroom--need to finish work--coffee issues. I'm mesmerized.

Love you!

kate said...

i don't think you're the least bit funny.

Mommy Dearest said...

Kate, you're not supposed to be looking!