Santorini: The Biggest Bang for Your Buck

by wandering freditor / May 28, 2009 /


For Big Bang believers, the Greek island of Santorini must surely be a Nirvana, for the most cataclysmic event in the history of the world took place there over 3600 years ago. Then it was called Strongyli, a pizza-like little island with a volcano in the middle, on which, we are told, lived a “prosperous civilization”. Then one day, the pizza crust cracked and the waters of the Mediterranean flowed in. Before you could say Pepperoni there was the mother of all bangs, the innards collapsed, and the sea turned into a giant 75 metres high tsunami. It totally wiped out the even more populous and prosperous Minoan civilization on nearby Crete. “Oi” I hear you say, “what about Krakatoa?” A veritable baby boomer by comparison, I tell you, for Strongyli’s explosion largely blotted out the earth’s sun for nearly six years, in a boom and gloom sort of way. It effected plant growth and made going to bed early, a rather commonplace occurrence. Some sophists claim that Strongyli’s explosion was the source of the fabled city of Atlantis, while others claim that it led to the plague of locusts in Egypt, mentioned in the bible. Anyway, by the Thirteenth Century, the all conquering Venetians seized the island and called it Santoreeeeni, in that melodious manner in which ‘Italians’ can orally stretch vowels, and saved it from being called something that ended in poulos. It has been a pleasure place ever since. It remains, literally, Europe’s latest and newest hot-spot, because in the 1950’s a black and sooty chunk raised its head above the Med, and has stayed there ever since, enabling tourists like us, to stroll over the most modern piece of Europe!

Seen from space, Santorini looks a bit like a giant, slightly misshapen, boiled egg, with the top sliced off. The shell is the caldera rim, cracked in those places where the sea rushed in, the egg-white is the inner sea, and the yolk, the volcanic island of Nea Kameni, sort of in the centre. If you permit me to be a little crass, and decidedly sexist, if Angelina Jollie is the “Barbados of islands”, then I would say that Santorini is a bit of a Charlotte Rampling-type. Not your classical beauty, but nevertheless languid, striking and angular, and always commanding your attention. It is really the remnants of a volcanic slurry, with a fringe on top, black rock like layered cake, and in other parts as red as rust, with splotches of ugly grey in layers, forged by a painful excretion of rock from the very centre of the earth. Yet majestically, on top is a fringe of settlements of white so as to suggest a dusting of snow. As you get closer, you realise that it isn’t snow at all, but that long ago, some mythical Greek god took a handful of little cheese cubes and hurled them at the top of the rock so that they tumbled down in a higgledy-piggledy manner. It was mainly fetta of course, but as you look more closely, other colours appear as well, a Red Leicester perhaps, some orange cheddar, a bit of gorgonzola and definitely some Danish Blue, which turned into those wonderfully blue tops of the majority of Greek churches.

Flying into Santorini feels a bit like Bogart and Bergman will be there to meet you on the set of Casablanca. The concourse has that old deserted look, the terminal is a brick blockhouse and the control tower dates to a time when Marconi was a boy. Yet a warm breeze blows, little white sugar lump cottages run to the horizon, the smell of coffee is in the air, and you know it is going to be the start of a beautiful friendship! We drove to the old town of Oia, at one tip of the island chain, if indeed you can have that in a circle, along a narrow road, which crept through places of settlement and snaked along a skyline ridge. On the dry plains below, terraced long centuries before, the little village settlements looked like shag droppings, and beyond the Med bounced bright and blue. Our taxi driver, Costas to be sure, smoked a never-diminishing cigarette, and drove his Mercedes with all the finesse of a Formula One driver at a time when passing was still a possibility. For Costas, the double-white lines were merely indicative of the flow of the road. We arrived in the main square of Oia unscathed, although mentally taxed, and alighted. Our accommodation was only a few hundred metres away.

The laneways of Oia are donkey-width, and you walk on rounded stones set in cement which make cobbled streets seem like they were made by Dr Scholl! The noise of our roller-cases sounded like continuous machine gun fire, with each click, as we bumped down innumerable steps, sounding as though we were loading another clip. Alas, Oia is not, in many parts, for the disabled, unless their wheel-chairs come with Rolls Royce supplied shock absorbers. Soon we were rolling down a more smoothly stoned ‘main street’ with an abundance of toilet-booth type shops and restaurants, selling Greek tack (“Takkis”!!) with impossibly blue ‘church and Med’ scenes, Santorini tee shirts and hats, blue-glass eyes to ward off evil, or ‘ancient Greek’ playing cards depicting men hung like donkeys. But there were also stylish places selling superbly crafted, highly priced jewellery, art, and replica pottery, and above the clatter of my suitcase wheels, I heard periodic silence from those of my wife, as she stopped to ‘browse’ (returning the next day to claim a little lava-stone and gold number). Then, after an epic journey which had seemed to me as long as the Oregon Trail, our pathway tumbled down and revealed a bright blue church dome, and beyond, white houses cascading down the cliff. We were in no doubt that we were in Greece, and stopped for a moment to admire the view … before plunging down more steps to our ‘hotel’.

 

Santorini

 

How a pre-digital Mr Kodak must have loved places like Santorini, for there is a photo in every metre of Oia. There are the alleys, the nooks, the shop-fronts, the steps at impossible angles, and always the backdrop of the dramatic setting, high up on the barren cliffs, with the blue Mediterranean in waiting. We went through a faded blue door and into a little courtyard with a tiny pool, and an array of welcoming sun lounges, and a view over the caldera that went to infinity. Welcome to the Residence Suites. Our room was as though designed by JR Tolkien himself, a white-washed cave carved into the lava stone, a bathroom where I was sure there were Hobbits hiding, and even a red lava lamp which gave our abode all the enchantment of those Amsterdam window scenes! I resisted the Flintstone in this Fred to drag my wife inside by the hair, and instead poured an ouzo, and one of Santorini’s excellent white wines, and we sat outside in silence, drinking in the scene.

It almost seems that settlements on Santorini have been lifted from one of those mini-towns like Madurodam in the Netherlands, that kids so love. Well Oia is a mini-town for adults. The steps require abseiling experience, the gates and doors are tiny so that a stoop is mandatory, there are courtyards the size of a cornflakes box, and windows are the size of pinkie-nails. And where there are patches of colour, much of it faded, the ‘lustre’ is enhanced by simply being juxtaposed to ‘something white’ – a dazzling, stinging, blaring white, which dominates settlement on Santorini. Thighs and calves get a constant workout, because there is so little that is flat. I made my way down to Oia’s port, to its tavernas with tables a metre from the sea, along a path that, I imagined, felt like the descent into hell. It twisted and jagged like a bolt of lightning and like a Grand Prix driver, I prayed for an end to the esses. My knees trembled as though an alluring Kim Bassinger had just given me a wink and tilted her head towards the couch in a ‘come-on’ sort of way, and I took long minutes to admire the view and re-compose. I went back up the slightly less arduous road, still wheezing and stopping frequently. On a roadside rock, a lover had painted Petros loves Theodora, which somehow seemed much more romantic than Jack loves Jill. Santorini is that sort of a place.

Like hundreds of others, we walked to an old ruined castle to watch the sunsets for which Oia is famous. Now I must confess that growing up on the West Coast of Australia, where the sun sets over the sea, I don’t pole-vault with passion at the thought of old Sol hissing down in the sea. But clearly, millions of others do. People hung on to vantage points like travellers on the Rajahsthan railway, and over the oohs and aahs came a constant cacophony of cameras clicking. We found a table at a viewpoint taverna, where the price garnishes the food, and I mistakenly had ‘the shrimps in ouzo’ thinking they would be fresh. Only later I read the small print that “The shrimp and the lamb come to Santorini much cold”. The lesson of eating something akin to wet flour remains frozen in my memory for eating in Santorini, but that was the only blemish.

 

cat, santorini

Muslims have a saying to cherish the first hour of the morning, for it is one stolen from paradise, and being an early riser, I never demur. There is something I find appealing about the coming of the light and invariably, I have whole towns to myself. And for a while I did, and I admired the sun on two windmills that would have had Don Quixote’s heart pumping. Then, at the head of an alley, on Oia’s mean streets, I found my path blocked by four ugly bruisers and we stared at each other somewhat menacingly, for flight for me was impossible. “Hi fellas” I said with as much nonchalance I could muster, and then finally a tail wagged, then another, and another, and suddenly I had my own Praetorian Guard. Dogs are everywhere in Santorini and in lots of places there are bowls of dog food and water placed along the alleyways. Like the high wire walker, Charles Blondin, they walk assuredly on high ledges with all the skill of a cat, vault up slopes with the powers of a fakir, and play on the edges of cliffs with all the assuredness of one with a parachute on his back. My four walked with me the kilometre to the edge of Oia, chasing away cats and attempting to do so with the occasional car, warding off other dogs, and making sure that I got safely home again. And all for the payment of a piece of cheese, the only food we had in the cave, before with a parting wag, and they were off again.

I sat down with my computer and notebook to write up the things that I had seen, but a cat leapt up from a ledge below, and after brushing my legs a few times, jumped up and walked across my keyboard! “Have I got your full attention” she smirked, like a hussy on heat. Indeed she had, and I sat back as a ray of sunshine bit us both, and she bounded into my lap, and instantly gave my jeans a Mohair look. I patted her, but confess to looking around somewhat sheepishly, lest there were people to see a grown man patting a cat in his lap. Then again, a short distance away from Greece, those Egyptians had believed in the godly power of cats, and now this cat was forcing me to relax. So I looked around and saw things that I might otherwise have missed, the changing light, the swirls of the wind on the water, the redness of the rock looking as raw as yesterday when it was moulded. In the rays of the sun, I saw the little coloured beanie-type helmets on the chimneys and the lattice work that hid a huge amphora. I watched as below me, a donkey, heavily laden with bags of garbage, clipped and clopped up the steps at the urging of the garbage-man. But otherwise there was silence.  It was good to slow down, to look, and reflect, and I thanked the cat. Over the week, we adopted her as ‘our cat’ and at the tavernas, smuggled bones and mousaka into napkins when waiters weren’t looking, to take home to feed her. We bought sardines and milk, and on the last two nights, let her sleep at the foot of our bed. When she woke the next morning, she purred as though she had spent the night in the Paris Hilton (Not THE Paris Hilton – that is a different type of pussy altogether!).

We ate our breakfast looking over our drop-down Oia, and in the distance, at the foot of the main town of Thira, three large white cruise ships rode at anchor, looking as though they had been scrubbed with toothpaste. Below us, a modern-day windjammer glided by with all the serenity of a swan, the most beautiful one at the pageant, the sun turning her sails into burnished Thai silk. Later, however, when we wandered in the alleys, we realised that all those ships had disgorged their passengers into buses, which had all travelled to Oia! In the main alley, as I forged my way forward with the liberal use of my elbows, I felt like Macauley’s Horatius and the immortal line, “In yon straight path a thousand, could well be stopped by three”. Forget the other two, I could do it alone! Kick over a few Zimmer frames, grab the tour-guide’s “Follow me” flag, and the task was done! I could single-handedly save Oia from being raped again by the quick in-and-out crowd. There was the Burberry-festooned Sushi Tanushi, sucking his breath between his teeth and wheezing in Japanese, clicking his camera at everything inanimate, and animate. So too Vlad Volgograd, bargaining for a bauble, and telling the shop assistant the item should be “More sheep”. Or Luigi Sqeegi in his Juventus tank top and big white sunglasses, which looked as though that had been stolen from the cockpit of an Airbus, and his olive-skinned girlfriend in micro-shorts and Milano Blahnik heels, complaining about “di cobbles”, which made her reel drunkenly. There was a whole mass of humanity, either going to the shops, or to the buses, and we were glad when they left for the six o’clock first dining session on board. We watched, with some joy, as the lighters, like fleas, took the cruisers away from our rocky shores.

Thira, Santorini
The view from Thira over to the volcanic Nea Kameni

The next day, there were new cruise ships at anchor as we travelled to Thira, and found the plague there to be worse than in Oia! Here in the four-abreast alleys, the tourists were eight-abreast, and from my view-point on the cliff-top, I saw more were arriving every moment. There were strung together donkeys, adorned with colourful cloth and a head-plate that said Taxi, plodding up the 500-plus step switchback, often with a fat tourist, who wore sunburn as a uniform, aboard. No wonder the donkeys brayed! For a moment I thought of Chesterton’s description of them as The devil’s walking parody on all four-footed things, and their faces portrayed all the sadness of their lot. The less adventurous came by gondola, which appeared like London buses – none for a while and then suddenly five at once. Again, every vantage point sported posers and clickers, and the prices were inflated to such a degree, that I was amazed not to see cans of Coca Cola floating off into space of their own volition! When I mentioned this to a beaming kiosk owner, he said “Oh you should be here in July and August. It is even busier, and everything doubles in price”. I simply could not imagine it. But it explained why along the main roads, almost every second premise was one offering cars, motor cycles, scooters, quad bikes and buggies, for rent. Pound-for-pound, Santorini has probably more hire vehicles than anywhere else in the world, and like locusts, they cover the roads, the young and un-helmeted, veritable Evel Knievels on holiday. Here, there is a serious case for berth control!

I left Thira’s buzz, and like a philosopher, struck out for solitude, leaving my wife in the embrace of the shops. I decided to walk along the rim of the caldera, from Thira to Oia, eight kilometres as the crow flies, considerably longer as the goat walks. The crowds thinned at beautiful Imerovigili, the highest point of settlement on the rim, and the view was stupendous, with the volcanic Nea Kameni now in perspective, and Oia in the distance. I passed places of glorious settlement, cool pools with ladies bearing their bumpy bits, and struggled up heights to isolated churches built, I am sure, by penitent parishioners. Alas the doors were all barred with chastity locks, to deter ardent admirers from going inside. Beside them, invariably, flew the Greek flag, so decidedly apt in its pace-setting blue and white, the embodiment of all Greek island buildings. At times the pathway was of volcanic scoria and pumice-stone, so that I rocked and rolled in my gait, while 700 feet below, the waters waited to embrace me if I took a final tumble. Sometimes there were grasslands of sweet smelling daisies, or the swaying, blood red poppies that you associate with Flanders fields, bold buttercups amid them, like officers in the ranks. Though the limbs did suffer, the mind was cleansed of tedium, and I completed my walk refreshed, joined for the final mile by members of my Praetorian Guard, who easily sniffed me out anew in the manner that others gave me wide berth!

Santorini dogs

One of my Praetorian Guards on dawn dog watch patrol

The following day we took a Pirates-of-the-Caribbean boat across to the volcanic island of Nea Kameni, and there was not a Kalashnikov among the crew. The island looked angry from our first footfall, black and grey, rocks jutted and piled as though spat there, vents of sulphurous steam hissing at us like snakes. We clambered to the top and looked at the yellowy-green patches in the crater, then at the vista while standing in the centre of a circle, the settlements on the ‘mainland’ looking again like snow. The boat took us to a place where venting steam created a thermal bath, and a few hardy young souls plunged into the cold waters to find the warmth they had left behind on the boat, and shivered when they came back on board. Ah, such is the folly of youth! Then it was on to another island in the volcanic bracelet, Thirasia, where three tavernas beckoned at the water’s edge. “I recommend Captain John’s” said our guide, and while we all thought “kick-back” she said promptly, “And I get no kick-back from them”, though later we did see her and the rest of the crew, tucking into souvlakis, while seated at Captain John’s table. Now I ask you Yanni! Call me Papadiamantopoulos and strike me lucky, but Captain John didn’t convey a drachma of ‘Greekness’ to this visitor, and in a way, we felt cheated. The island looked poor and run-down, but as such, except for a possible drop in tourists, not otherwise much affected by the global financial crisis. Here men still fished in little brightly painted boats, paying out their nets as their fathers had done, or tended goats and donkeys, grew a few grapes. Life on Thirasia seemed to have changed little over the years.

And away from the main tourist centres, Santorini looks very poor. There are fenceless fields where the wheat is still harvested by hand, and donkeys are the beasts of burden. It is dry, oh so dry, and the grape vines are small and low to the ground, but the grapes nevertheless help to make some of Greece’s finest vintages. There are a few cows and horses, the roads are narrow and poorly maintained, the cars are generally small as befitting a place where the cost of fuel is great. There are lots of half-finished constructions, or places which have been boarded up for the winter, for Santorini is a summer isle. But it is also easy to see that this is Europe’s poor cousin.

We hired a car and drove around much of the island, for there is a lot to see. The beaches may generally be black sand, but at the height of summer, the sun-lounges are all occupied, and the clear waters are full of bobbing heads. We travelled to a red beach and a white beach, both requiring mountain goat dexterity to reach them, but in summer, they are the playground of the topless and the nudies. And, on Santorini, you can always be sure there is a taverna nearby, with good food, plentiful and heavy, excellent wine and Mythos beer, and your table a mere splash away from the catch of the day. At Perissa, the playground of the young-bloods, the tavernas stood side-by-side like hookers in Monmatre, and beckoned with the same enthusiasm for your body. At night, I am sure, its jungle bars dripped with sweatiness, the air full of unbridled libido and rental by the hour. It just ‘looked’ that sort of town, with blackboards proclaiming ‘happy hours’ and ‘free drinks’ for the skimpily clad. Being way past that use-by date, we drove on to Vlyhada, a sort of Zorba’s Blackpool without a pier, where Dimitri embraced us liberally – and literally – in his taverna high above the harbour. The Greek salad had a slab of fetta cheese on it the size of a pallet on which boxes of foodstuff are delivered, and the kalamata olives were the size of a Fiat Bambino. The wine came in a specimen jar, and we drank it from tumblers, the salt air mingled with the food and we relaxed and enjoyed the bouzouki music, which added further flavour to the vista. Relaxation was mandatory. And the bill, when it came, was only half that of our meals in Oia or Thira.

We travelled to the island’s main port, Athinios, where the inter-island ferries dock, and found the usual string of tavernas, these all with that port-seedy look, and a bevy of buses with signs in the window that simply said “English, Russian, Chinese, Italian”! When we sat down and asked what coffee they served, we were told “Nescafe”, and when we asked for cappuccino, there was a puzzled look as though he was one of those Italians arriving on the 10.30 ferry from Brindisi! Nescafe it was! Later we drove to the magnificently sited Santo vineyard tasting gallery, and then on to the ancient town of Akrotiri where archaeological digs have revealed a town every bit as sophisticated as that in Pompei, but alas for the moment, barred to public visitation. Ancient Thira, another dig site, was a long walk away, and after the food and wine, and the hot sun, we contented ourselves, the Philistines that we were, with looking at pictures in a brochure! We drove on to the old lighthouse at Faros, stopped and bought artworks in Emporio, and drove to a monastery which occupied an eagle’s eyrie high above Pyrgos. From there, I am sure, you could see the creation, for Santorini lay spread-eagled below.

 

Santorini

 

When we left, we felt that we had ‘done’ Santorini. Beautiful isle that it is, we probably won’t be back, but that is only because there are so many other Greek islands still to be seen. It is a place in which to stay a while, because only then can you see it when it isn’t baulked-up with tourists. For it is a place that offers that increasingly rare commodity of ‘relaxation’, just by sitting and looking at what man and God together, have created.

On the flight from Dubai back to Bahrain, we were offered a Greek salad by a Filipina flight attendant named Xanthe – so far, so good. But the tomato was as red and as saggy as Joan River’s cheeks, and the fetta was simply anaemic and tasteless. It was clear that our Greek holiday was over.    

 

Winfred Peppinck is the Wandering Freditor Editor at Wandering Educators