19 October 2008

Stunning Santorini

26 September 2008 – Rex's birthday

On the recommendation of George K, best taxi driver in Athens, we had hired a man named Dimitris Nikoladis to take us on a private tour of Santorini, which is said to be the prettiest of the Greek Islands.  It is famous for its traditional Greek homes, painted white, and its blue-domed churches.  Oh, and did I mention that all of these buildings are situated on the tip-top of an ancient volcano caldera, just across the way from an active one?  The active one last erupted in 1935, but it's literally right next door!  Since our ship was anchored off-shore (Santorini is also where the Sea Dream sank in April) we tendered into the dock at the base of the mountain.  From here, we had three choices of how to get up to town: ride a donkey up a path of 600 stairs that switchback all the way up, walk up that same path, or ride the cable car.  Although Emma was none too thrilled with the prospect, doors number one and two were still not as promising as the cable car.  There were six cars on two different cables, each of which held six people (or 450 kg total), and as one cable was going up, the six cars on the other side were coming down.  I think it cost 4 or 5 Euros to ride – best bargain of the trip so far!  Even Emma agreed!

When we got to the top, we were in the village of Fira, which is the capital of Santorini.  We were a bit early for our 9:30 rendezvous with Dimitris, so we just checked out the view and the many souvenir shops nearby.  Soon Emma spied a man sitting in a chair holding a sign with my name on it, so we were off.  Dimitris has a great, cheerful personality, and we could tell right off that we would have a great day with him.  On the way to his van, we passed the only Catholic church in Santorini, which has a tall bell tower – very different from the blue-domed Greek Orthodox churches that dot the island.  Since the van held 16 people, we had plenty of room, and we were off for our day's adventure.  As we were en route to our first stop, we passed by Dimitris's new home – very nice!  He has lived here since '95, after he and his wife moved back from Germany.  Dimitris grew up on the mainland of Greece, but he knows Santorini like the back of his hand.

Our first stop was in Firostefani at the top of a big hill where we looked down on the famous blue dome of the church that is synonymous with Santorini, or as Dimitris calls it, the postcard church.  We took tons of photos and Dimitris took several of our whole group up here.  From here, the views of the islands and sea below were spectacular, and the Aegean is every bit as beautiful as you think it is.   From this vantage point, we could see that Santorini is one edge of a huge collapsed volcano, with most of the other nearby islands forming the rest of the rim, except for what the sea has covered and the one 'new' active volcanic island.  If you've ever been to Molokini, off the coast of Maui, you have some idea what I'm talking about.  From below, the houses on the crest of the island look almost like snow – they are so white and so high up. Our next stop was the village of Oia (pronounced EE-ah) which is at the northern tip of the island.  At one point, the island got so narrow that we could see the ocean on both sides of it, and what a surprise it was for us to see that the eastern side of the island is flat!  What is really hard to imagine is why and how the island came to be settled so high on the mountain instead of on the flat land, which is only now being developed very much.

When we got to Oia, the tour buses were there in full force.  We were so glad we were not on one of them!  Dimitris started us off down a path in the village and told us some of the history of the area.  We passed some gorgeous homes, which he told us mostly belonged to ship captains and ship builders.  Most of the homes had gates or doorways that opened up onto the path we were on, and each was painted or decorated in a different way.  The terraces and patios inside the gates were full of beautiful flowers – lots of bougainvillea, hibiscus, and aloe especially.  The path itself was unusual – concrete studded with different rocks in different areas of the village.  We passed one place where a sea captain had had a wine cellar – we could still see the small cave where it had been, and next to it was the place where the donkeys had been loaded up with the wine so that they could carry it back down the mountain.  Dimitris told us to be sure to walk all the way to the end of the island, and look at the fishing village down below.  He promised to tell us its significance when we met him 45 minutes later.  And so we were off!  All I can say is that Santorini is a photographer's paradise!  Everywhere I turned there was another awesome shot waiting to be taken.  Thank goodness for digital cameras!  We found windmills, flowers, an old fortress, a gorgeous hotel, beautifully painted homes, stunning views of the Aegean, and the small fishing village, straight down, where the water next to the land was a gorgeous deep aquamarine color reminiscent of the color of glacial lakes.  Breathtaking!

Rex and I walked down to the Kastelo (the remains of the old fortress) and the view looking back on the village was spectacular!  The hotel was a place I would love to come back to someday – I could sit by the pool with the poolboy bringing me exotic drinks all day long!  With this kind of scenery, who needs a book?  It was time to start finding our way back to the place we were to meet Dimitris, so we wandered through the quaint streets and did a little window shopping.  Oh – and one funny thing happened along the way.  I think it was Bob who remarked, “Well, we're not in Durham anymore!” when a lady walking the other way said, “Durham, North Carolina?” and of course, she and her husband were from Durham (and live less than a mile away from us!)  They were on another cruise ship – too funny.  Some of the things I loved most as I snapped my way through the streets of Santorini were the narrow, pebbled walkways and the colorful, distinctive doors – and of course, the bright blue domes of the Orthodox churches.  We wondered how the locals felt about the huge flocks of tourists; it's surely a good thing/bad thing as many people here make their living on tourism or something related to it, but I would not like all of these throngs of people clogging up my street and taking pictures of me and my house every day...

We all found our way (independently!) to the spot where we were to meet Dimitris, so we piled in the van and headed for the flatlands and Domaine Sigalas, where we enjoyed a wine tasting and learned about the unique way the vineyards are planted here.  Oddly enough, grapevines are planted in small round indentions in the ground where they form a basket-like growth.  It all has something to do with the salty air and the humidity near the soil.  I would not want to have to be picking those grapes, which led our van into a discussion about cotton picking, which Rex and Judy have actually done.  I just like to drink the wine and am thankful that someone else makes it for me!  As we left the winery, we wished that the figs on the tree at the gate were ripe (yum!) and we loved seeing the little man and his donkey, piled high with big sticks, walk down the road.  From the flat, cultivated, sparsely populated side of the island we drove back across to one of the highest points on the island and the site of a big winery that overlooked Athinios Port.  Looking to the north, we could see the remains of an old pumice quarry (no longer operational, since they mined all of the pumice).  We also looked down upon the sunken cruise ship (Karel, is that the one you were on?) so that was a little creepy.  Made that muster drill a little more important...

It was about 12:30 when we left, so we were excited when Dimitris told us we were on our way to a small taverna on one of the black sand beaches (back on the flat side of the island).  We wound our way (no kidding – you should have seen the curvy roads we were on!) down the mountain, past many more blue-domed churches and whitewashed houses until we arrived at Monolithos Beach and Skaramackas Taverna.  This small restaurant was open on three sides, much like the place Rex and I ate at in Mykonos.  There was a table waiting for us and Dimitris helped us pick some traditional Greek dishes to share and sample.  While we were waiting for our food, we enjoyed watching a couple of men making fishing lines.  They had a big basket of line and they were stringing hooks on it about every meter – it was fascinating!  Soon our food appeared - we had tomato balls, zucchini balls, fried cheese, cod, Greek salad, tzazaki with pita, something sort of like hummus, marinated and grilled eggplant,.....and French fries for Bob!
We ate until we were stuffed!  And then, out came the cake!  Did I mention it was Rex's birthday?  Dimitris had ordered a cake for him and boy, was it yummy!  It was a yellow cake covered with a rich dark chocolate ganache and lots of chocolate garnishes.  The perfect ending!

We walked across the parking lot to the nearly deserted black sand beach.  There were a handful of people there (all with suits on) but the rows of beach chairs were empty.  It was nothing like any of our North Carolina beaches!  Our time with Dimitris was almost over, and we were stuffed as we rode back to Fira.  Once there, Rex and I did a little shopping, but Bob, Emma, John, and Judy were very adventurous and walked back down the steep, curvy, donkey-dung covered hill – with the donkeys!  Robert, Nancy, Rex, and I did not mind our thirty minute wait for the cable car, especially after we heard about the smelly stroll the others experienced.  We could not believe they did that – Bob, what were you thinking???  We were back on board ship by 3:30, where we just chilled until it was time to eat again.  This is the life!  Happy birthday, Rex!

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