Sunday, 26 October 2008

Greece, Island hopping 2008, Santorini

I have been to Santorini three times before , in 2002, 2004 and in 2006 and although I rather like it I have to say that it is no longer my favourite. The trouble with Santorini is that once you have been elsewhere it simply becomes less impressive. Everyone says ‘Oh, you are going to Greece, you must go to Santorini!’ but generally these are tourists who haven’t been to Amorgos, Sikinos or Folegandros and these islands, let me tell you, are many times better. Santorini is an airport island so is popular with people in football shirts and Lycra who prefer package holidays and know no better but there are many islands that easily eclipse Santorini despite its stunning caldera and unique scenery.

We travelled to Santorini by highspeed ferry, which is more expensive than a regular boat but gets where it is going twice as quickly. I prefer the alternative but this wasn’t so bad and at least it was possible to go out on deck. The approach to Santorini is truly spectacular and once the ferry has slipped through the ring of islands and into the blue caldera the hilltop towns of first Oia and then Thira come into view. Some say that this is the exact spot of the mythical ocean city of Atlantis and I like to think that somewhere down there in the inky blackness is Troy Tempest in his submarine Stingray searching for the elusive and mysterious Marina.

Across the water from Thira was a black island with rocks distorted in twisted agony just as the volcano left them when it erupted and spilled into the water in the throes of a difficult birth. The eruption that created the caldera was among the largest volcanic explosions in the history of the planet that measured six on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, which may not sound that big but is just about as huge as you can get. So this would have been a fairly big bang and when it went off it would be sensible to be standing well back because it ejected an estimated sixty cubic kilometres of material as it blew the unfortunate island apart and destroyed the Minoan civilization both here and on the nearby island of Crete. To get a sense of perspective try to imagine the county of Essex rising sixty kilometres into the air into the earth’s mesosphere (a terrible thought I agree) and you can get a sense of just how much material that is.

Santorini is an island of contrasts and it is a shame that the ferry doesn’t dock at Thira but carries on to a harbour a few kilometres south, which is a mass of concrete, souvenir shops and taxi ranks and does present the arriving visitor with the most pleasing aspect of the island. We found the bus for Thira and it left quite quickly up a long snaking road that led up to the top of the cliffs and the road to the island capital. It was a short trip through some scruffy parts of the island and once there it deposited us in the bus station at the back of the city. Surrounded by tourist shops selling cheap souvenirs this may not be the best part of Thira but it doesn’t take long to get there and in only five minutes we were at the picture postcard front of the town looking over the caldera. Everywhere there were impossibly bright whitewashed buildings, giddy steps raking down to the sea and blue domed churches. Looking over Thira reminded me of the joy as a child of opening a brand new box of watercolour paints with all the attractive pastel shades that reveal themselves when the lid is opened for the very first time.

After a drink and a baklava in an expensive café with a great view we walked along the entire length of the cliff top admiring the sea on one side and the little buildings clinging to the rocks on the other. Another problem with Thira however is that because it is so popular it can be really overcrowded and busy. Down in the bay there were six cruise ships all shuttling their guests to the town and filling the place to overflowing. The average cruise ship has about twelve hundred passengers so that is about seven thousand cruisers joining all of the regular holidaymakers and day trippers like us and easily outnumbering the indigenous population of twelve thousand and making the place fit to burst.

As the little shuttle boats kept bringing people ashore the crowds were at the peak of their numbers and the shops and cafés were all full to the brim so this seemed a good time to leave Thira and get the bus to the nearby town of Oia at the very north of the island. The ride provided more contrast as the road followed a road with a high mountain to the left and a flat fertile plain many metres below. The road clings to the top of the mountain and provides splendid views but you really have to hope that the bus has had its brakes regularly maintained!

Oia is even more picturesque than Thira but fortunately not nearly so crowded and we walked along the top of the cliff, along narrow roads and down twisting footpaths, around churches, windmills and a castle and it was so much more leisurely and enjoyable than the capital. The town has stricter rules on development and commerce and has managed to successfully protect itself from the excesses of tourism. It was now extremely hot, there was no sign of the breeze that Vagellis had promised and as the sun blazed and the rays bounced around the whitewashed streets and houses it made us think of mythos and shade so we found a taverna in a back street and enjoyed a meal at about half of the prices in Thira.

Oia is famous for its sunsets and about an hour before the appointed time coaches, buses and cars flood into the little town and bring hundreds of people in to see the spectacle. They take up position all along the little streets and the place becomes overcrowded and far too busy so I was glad that we were going in the opposite direction and back to Thira which by now was much quieter as all of the cruise ships had started to leave. Quite by chance we had timed our visit to perfection and here is my visiting Santorini tip; go first to Oia because while Thira boils over with visitors during the day it is empty in Oia and when this town starts to fill up for the sunset go back to Thira which calms down nicely at about this time when the cruisers all leave. You can see the sunset in Thira just as well as Oia and let’s be honest, it is exactly the same sunset anyway!

We had dinner on a roof top terrace with a good view of the caldera, the town and the mule trains with their grumpy drovers transporting tourists back and forth down a precariously dangerous hairpin track consisting of five hundred and eighty numbered steps to the harbour below and back to their ships. The bar had a good view over the harbour below and we watched the cruise ships taking people away to exciting new destinations. Preparing to leave was an Easycruise ship and I wondered what that must be like? I have never been tempted by cruising I have to say but if I was going to be I am sure that I would like an experience like sailing on the Titanic or something, but obviously without the iceberg bit! Taking a two or three hour flight and suffering basic levels of service and extreme discomfort on an aeroplane is one thing but I am not sure that I would really want to sign up to a week or so of the same sort of treatment on a ship. The concept is a good one I suppose, dirt cheap and no frills but if I was going to cruise then I think I might like just a little bit more than a shoebox for a bedroom and a MacDonald’s meal plan. The advertising promotion is more than enough to put me off: ‘Cheap cruise line doesn't mean totally Spartan: each cabin has air conditioning, comfy beds and a washbasin, toilet, shower, towels and soap. You'll start your trip with a clean cabin; any other housekeeping must be paid for separately. Meals and beverages, including alcohol, are not included but may be purchased onboard.’ To be fair they do also point out that this is probably not going to appeal to dinner jacket and tiara cruisers and call me a snob if you like, but I’m going to give that a miss!

We watched the electric red sunset but had to leave in a bit of a rush to get back to the bus station and take our transport back to the port. Not quite as elegant a departure as the cruisers I have to confess but it was efficient and we returned to the harbour in good time for our return highspeed ferry back to Ios. A fourth visit to Santorin will probably be my last for a while so I watched it slip away behind the ferry as we left with no urgent plans to return. On board the ferry there was an embarrasing little mix-up over seat allocations because I didn’t understand the numbering arrangements and thought someone was in our seats so took somebody elses instead and when challenged refused to move but was then ejected by a cabin steward who impatiently pointed out that I was stupid and had got it all wrong. She was right and I really did feel stupid all the way back to Ios.

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