Santorini – less donkeys and tourists thank you.
In 1972 I stopped off in Santorini on my way back to Athens from Crete. Unusual for me, I don’t have a lot of memories of that leg of the trip. Yes, there were those two Swedish girls on Perissa Beach, but, that is another story.
It is a place that is on everybody’s bucket list. The volcanic explosion that created the Caldera (crater) occurred around 1,500 BC. It was one of many (at least 12) eruptions over thousands of years but this was the big one. They think it was 4 times bigger than Krakatoa and that it created a tsunami somewhere between 100 and 500 feet tall that decimated the north of Crete just 160 KM’s away. Since the Crete Minoan culture was a warring, sea faring bunch the wave most likely wiped them out, although it is said that the worst damage to the culture was from an earthquake and fires some years before. The explosion did leave Santorini unoccupied for hundreds of years. The Caldera is 12 KM’s by 7 KM’s, 400 meters deep and the rim, on which the villages of Fira and Oia are built, is 300 meters (980 fee ) above the water.
Today, there is a proper little airport and the Agean Airlines flight from Athens is only 40 minutes or so. The villages built on the rim of the Caldera provide hotels and villas built right into the rock edging down from the top. Some are simply fantastic with pools and terraces and priced accordingly. The cruise ships anchor at the base and the punters come up the slope on donkeys or via a funicular. Fira is the touristiest village. Oia far the most slick and the smaller Imerovigli, in between them a bit of both. It takes at least 5-6 hours to walk from Fira to Oia.
We chose the Aigialos Hotel (part of the Historic Hotel group in Europe) in Fira and booked it on our favourite site, Tablet Hotels. Unfortunately we were assigned the only room without a proper terrace, which was a non-starter. An email to Tablet New York had us upgraded to a suite with terrace in hours. These guys have never failed me. The Aigialos is at the south end of the Fira tourist scrum and is a former convent. Quieter with a main courtyard that once held the convents wine press (Hmm. Good convent). It has cascading, red Bougainvillea over its dining room and little pool. Very charming and not as Euro slick as some of the places we saw.
Our old friend from DDB Toronto, Martine Levy, was on the island and leaving for Nice the next day. We met at a cliff side bar (PK Cocktail Bar) to catch up and marvel at the sunset, a nightly ritual and photo op that pull absolutely everybody to the rim every night. And, it is worth it. One of the great sunsets in the world as the sun sinks into the Caldera.
Ellen takes the opportunity early morning to run up and down the steep stairs, nearly to the harbour. However, parades of donkeys use the same paths coming and going from their duties carrying tourists up the switch back slope from the harbour below. This has been going on for a hundred years but it seems the average tourist’s weight is now well beyond what a donkey should carry. Animal rights groups are lobbying for the practice to end and, frankly, little would be lost in my view. And it would also end the piles of donkey shit outside your front door. Santorini in high season is horribly over run by tourists and, like Amsterdam and Barcelona, they are trying to figure out a way to cap the numbers coming in. The island has a population of just 15,000 but in high season 8,000 tourists come off just the cruise ships every day not counting the ferries and airport arrivals. It is too much for this little island to bear.
After exhausting the culinary possibilities of Fira, we took a taxi to Oia as I refused to walk it in the heat for six hours. That cost us 25 Euros but worth it. Oia is, in my view, a more sophisticated version of Fira. Still packed with tourists but more upscale. We dined at a lovely spot perched over the water called '1800-Floga'. Fantastic watermelon salad with arugula and feta. Good place. Another night we went to a much-lauded spot called ‘Red Bicycle' - nouveau Greek. Imagine your Greek salad put in a blender and then foamed. Terrible. I think it was the worst meal of the whole trip.
In retrospect Fira wasn’t bad at all after that. We did try a place called ‘1500 BC' ( no idea why they use numbers instead of names here ) and while dinner was uninspiring, we did have the most perfect calamari for lunch that was probably the best lunch we had. Well, almost the best. Away from the touristy rim of the caldera and close by the bus station, is a little storefront called ‘Lucky’s'. Here they do fantastic Gyros and Souvlaki from a counter with ice-cold Mythos draft beer. They only have two little tables but for 3 Euros it simply can’t be beat.
We got our Sunset shots, met with a dear old friend, had some great food and the wines are excellent. Given the mineral rich volcanic soil, the Santorini whites grown from the local Assyrtiko grape are stunningly good. These vines can grow up to 18 meters in length and are supported in wicker baskets to protect them from sun and wind. These have been voted some of the best white wines in the world and 65% of Santorini’s vineyards are planted of this grape alone.
We did love Santorini even if we saw its faults much too clearly. It was great for Ellen to see it as it really should be on everybody’s bucket list. Yes, it is expensive and way too touristy. There is more on the island to see such as the ancient, excavated ruins of Akrotiri and the black sand beaches of Perissa in the south but it can all be done in three days and nights or perhaps four. We spent five and were anxious to move on. And we did, by Fast Ferry to Crete.
OVERVIEW OF WHAT & WHERE
Aigialos - located a short walk from Byzantine church of Christ, Aigialos in Fira is quiet and peaceful, yet not too far from the hustle. Set amongst quaint cobbled walkways, all 16 houses named after the prevailing winds, offer a magnificent view of the caldera, the volcano and the Aegean from their verandas and balconies.
PK Bar - 3 levels overlooking the caldera, it's the perfect place to enjoy sunset and great in house cocktails.
1500 BC - a stone's throw from our hotel in Fira, with top views south across the caldera, this elegant patio served the best calamari (at lunch) we had on the trip.
Lucky's Souvlaki - a top spot for cheap eats close by bus station. Perch on a bar stool (if there are any available) at this popular place and demolish a tasty gyros pitta (pork, chicken or lamb) for an extremely reasonable €3.