16 September 2007
AS WE NEARED the small island of Santorini we were surprised at what we saw. There were no beaches in sight; instead we were confronted with high cliffs with tiny dots of white houses cut into them near the top. Our Rough Guide described the port here as “rather grim” and they were 100% correct in that matter. The port here is, to put it mildly, a little grungy and hectic. As soon as we got off the ferry we had to run the gauntlet of dozens of hoteliers competing with each other, trying to win our, well, basically, our money.
We’d already booked our hotel online and were trying to find the guy who was supposed to be there to pick us up, but couldn’t see anyone holding a sign with our name on it. After most of the passengers had been whisked away by buses, taxis or private transport, the rowdy bunch of dusty older men turned their attentions to us again. But, when it was made clear that we already had accommodations they became very friendly and helpful. A handful of them gathered around us in a semi-circle speaking in rapid-fire Greek to each other, trying to sort things out. One got on a cell, and then the others told us to “go with him”. We really had no idea what was happening, it was so fast.
We hesitatingly followed the guy but stayed a few paces back. He got into a van and drove up to us, telling us to get in. He could see the uneasiness in our faces and explained that he is a friend of the man who was supposed to be there and he was taking us to meet him near the top of the cliff. The drive up, especially when a ferry has just come in, is a little unnerving. The route is a narrow road that is shared by massive buses and is a nothing more than a succession of hairpin turns winding to the top of the cliffs. We met our guy in a pull-off half-way up and made the switch for the rest of the ride to our hotel.
Santorini’s unique landscape is the result of a massive earthquake and an ensuing volcanic eruption a couple of thousand years ago. The heart of the island sunk into the ocean so it is now in the shape of a crescent moon. The white, stone houses and blue-roofed churches you see in all the postcards are built into the cliffs of the caldera (crater) and have amazing views down into the ocean and across to the island of Thirassia. On the second of our five days on Santorini, we were regretting our choice of stay. As we walked around the cliff-hanging hotels with sweeping views over the caldera we drooled at the people sunning themselves on pool decks or lounging on their balconies.
True, booking a hotel right on the cliffs would have cost us a considerable amount more, but – and this is our tip to you if you come here – it would have been well worth it! In fact, we believed that so much that we spent hours looking for a place to move to. We were shocked to find that most hotels were booked solid (we thought this was low or shoulder season, but later found out that this island still considers it high season) or were ludicrously expensive (many ranged from 150 to 260 euro per night – for comparison, we were paying 24 euro for our room which was just across the street and down a hill). We did manage to find a couple of options which were more reasonably priced. In the end however, we decided to stay put and splurge on other indulgences. Later on we found out that we could also have rented a timeshare week through an owner online at some of these same hotels for less than half the price they were charging. If we ever go back for a week or more, will definitely be looking into that.
Santorini is MUCH touristier than we’d anticipated, especially at this time of year. Fira is overpriced and, compared to Naxos, the people are quite unfriendly. Most of the scooter rentals were about twice that of Naxos, but we did find a good bargain and rented one for three days. The traffic here behaves a little differently too. For one thing, there actually IS traffic. And they are not the most courteous drivers! You do have to have your wits about you as you make your way around the island, but overall, it wasn’t too bad an experience and we never were in any danger.
We used two of the three days with the scooter to explore the island; since Santorini is so small that’s all you need. We started south and visited the lighthouse at the southernmost tip of the island. We also checked out Red Beach, a small black volcanic-sand beach set at the bottom of sheer red cliffs. Because it is in a bit of a bay, the water is very calm here and a good place for a dip. As you move from west to east, the island slopes down into the sea and as a result there is more beach on the east. Perissa and Kamari are the two main ones here – they are exposed to the open ocean so it was quite a bit rougher than at Red Beach, although not so bad you couldn’t go in.
Many people actually snorkeled near the shoreline. Perissa is a backpackers’ haven; things are cheap and there is a youth hostel in the village. Kamari is a little more upscale (read expensive) and, in contrast to the black sandy beaches at Perissa – it has a black ROCKY beach. We also visited the town of Pyrgos, roughly in the centre of the island, and built on top of a small hill. There were really nice views from the top. Santorini is so small that you can actually see that you are surrounded by water. We’d never been on such a tiny island where you could see the ocean 360 degrees around.
The real highlight of Santorini is Ia, a village built into the cliffs like Fira, but on the northern tip and much more pristine (much of it was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1956). Yvonne’s picture in her head of Santorini, from postcards and pictures she’d seen, was shattered when we’d arrived in Fira. It wasn’t until we visited Ia that it was restored and we discovered where all the pictures you see of the island are taken. (Further to our previous tip about finding a place right on the caldera, it would be even better to find it in Ia, although it is a touch more pricey than Fira.)
We walked from Imerovigli, just north of Fira, along the caldera’s edge to Ia. It is about a two hour walk along a dusty and rocky path. Ia was filled with day-trippers when we arrived (there is a tour bus parking lot and it was full of parked buses) which actually made it a little tough to navigate the narrow lanes of the pedestrian-ized village. But the vast number of visitors wasn’t enough to diminish our experience there. It is beautiful; stunning. There is no shortage of subjects to picture (and we have the hundreds of shots to prove it!). Although we didn’t know it before, THIS was what we came to Santorini for. We spent some time walking around and eating lunch (where we were very entertained by our Scottish waitress who berated us, and the other guests, for everything we did – all in good humour of course). We returned to Ia that same night to catch the sunset.
If you hear that the sunset is the same seen from Fira and Ia (as our guidebook said), don’t believe it! In Fira, the sun sets behind the island of Thirassia. In Ia, it sets unobstructed on the horizon. This is a world of difference and it didn’t disappoint. We had an excellent dinner of lamb chops in Finikia, a small village just south of Ia, in a restaurant recommended by our “rude” (and hilarious) Scottish waitress. Our drive back to Fira though was a bit dicey as it was dark and for much of the way there were no streetlights (and it was frickin cold!). We did manage without incident though.
Our last full day on the island was spent lounging at Perissa beach, before we had to return our scooter later in the evening. Check-out day, which we were dreading for two reasons – one, it meant the end of our European travels and, two, we had an eight hour ferry ride back to Athens – was highlighted by our last looks over the caldera and our final Greek meal, which turned out to be one of our best. The sun, sea and beaches will sorely be missed as we head toward cold and rain (Moscow has been hovering in the 10-12 degree range lately…grrr…or should I say brrr).