A Slice of Honeymoon Heaven Proves Just the Tonic
Santorini, stunningly beautiful, volcanic rock heaved from the bowels of centre earth, its inhabitants settling precariously on its cliffs, which form the rim of a massive dormant volcano - a beast responsible, in 1500 BC, for the second biggest eruption known to man; considerably bigger than Krakatoa's, and the ensuing massive, deadly Tsunami was the precursor to the eventual destruction of Europe's ancient Minoan civilisation on Crete, 110 kilometres to the south.
Oblivious to its devastating legacy, my wife, booked a two week Christmas break in Fira, the capital of Santorini. But on finding out that travelling to the island would involve at least three flights via central Europe and Athens, Greer promptly decided to cancel. However, this would mean losing all the money, so our fate was sealed - we were going to Santorini.
Perhaps we would have quite happily let the money go if we had known how treacherous the flight from Athens to the island was going to be. As we approached the short landing strip, the pilot was fighting to keep the plane steady. The sky was intensely dark, then set alight, as lightning continuously forked wildly from within the heart of the storm clouds. We had been circling the island, waiting for clearance to land for some time, the other passengers shifting awkwardly under seatbelts pulled far tighter than is usual. The captain eventually announced we would have to return to Athens to retrieve a bigger plane. However, back in Athens, we were then instructed to board the 'same' plane and fly back into the eye of the storm. For once, everyone paid close attention to the safety briefing. The pilot had been changed and he sounded much older, so I guessed he was far more experienced; this time we flew safely into Santorini airport. Rain and gale-force winds greeted our arrival on terra firma, but the feel of solid ground, be it on top of a sleeping volcano, was a welcome comfort.
Our expectations for the two weeks were not particularly high, a feeling further reinforced when we arrived at the hotel. The Minoans are known for being an advanced civilisation but the modern bunch have yet to develop a fully flushable toilet capable of handling toilet paper!
Over the following fourteen days, Santorini's attraction began to break forth from its core and we were buried under a blanket of beauty, to be forever etched in our memories. The following day the winds were still strong so initially we explored close to the hotel and the town of Fira. The white-washed houses, hotels and restaurants clung to the cliff edge; from a distance they looked like snow-capped mountains. Charming art and craft stores adorned the narrow streets and a cable car plunged down towards the old port below. The following day, the wind had relented, while the sun burnt through the clouds raising the winter temperatures to 17 degrees. A longer walk to the village of Pyrgos, revealed a viewpoint stretching across much of the island; and quaint narrow streets where local, stray cats roamed, appearing surprisingly healthy.
Christmas Day was one we will never forget. The plan was to hike from Fira to Oia, the islands most northerly point. Greer and I have walked all over the world, but nowhere as stunningly beautiful as this. The trail meanders along the cliff edge, steeply rising and falling, each twist and turn revealing fresh wonders. To our left, the deep blue water glistened as it caressed the small central islands of Nea Kameni and the older Palea Kameni; the centre of Santorini's volcano. As we progressed along the walk, the houses became larger, infinity pools apparently an obligatory element in their grandeur. The trail then became more rugged, revealing a more natural beauty. After negotiating some particularly steep and rocky track, we entered the remarkably picturesque town of Oia. Chinese couples wander along the narrow streets, waiting for the sun to set and romance to blossom. The popular Chinese movie 'Beijing Love Story' was filmed on the island, sparking an explosion of volcanic proportions in tourist numbers. We return to Fira and pass the outcrop of Skaros, where, in 1421, an inviolable castle once stood before almost completely collapsing into the deep waters below after several devastating earthquakes. (A few days later we trekked to a church, precariously perched on its precipitous slopes, Greer only managing to complete the trip after we had happened upon an old lady, probably in her early 90's, returning from the church carrying several bags, a trip her daughter told us she did on a weekly basis). Soon after, we reach the high cliffs of Firostefani and are fortunate enough to witness the sunset completely alone. This clearly does not disappoint - the sky above Nea Kameni turning yellow, orange then blood red - a perfect night cap to the most wonderful of days.
It was always going to be difficult to match that special day, but our trip to the volcanic centre came very close. We descended the 588 steps that led to the old port, passing the donkeys that are still used to take tourists to the cliff's base. An old wooden boat took our party to the volcano centre on Nea Kameni and then a steep walk culminated in witnessing various sections of rock smouldering, as if the dormant volcano was reminding us of its presence. Back on the boat, we docked at Palea Kameni and two hardy American couples dived into the deep, cool waters prompting me to quickly follow - so five of us swam across to the muddy, hot (well, actually lukewarm) springs. The water bubbled around us before we finally mustered the strength to swim through the cold waters that lay between the springs and the warmth of our boat.
Equally as fun, was our day spent exploring the parts of the island, too distant for our daily walks. For this we hired an ATV or 'All Terrain Vehicle' - basically a small buggy with a 200 cc engine. First stop was the 'Monastery Profitis Elias' perched on top of the islands only mountain. The views were stunning and gave a great impression of the islands overall size and scale. Next, we ascended the cliffs south of Kamari, visiting the remains of the ancient town of Thira belonging to Dorian colonists from Sparta. This gave us a great impression of how this advanced race of people had lived in the early 8th century BC. Later, we visited the ancient remains of the prehistoric city of Akrotiri. Life here came to an abrupt halt in the 17th century BC, when the Minoans abandoned the city following powerful earthquakes and the enormous volcanic eruption that followed. Like Pompeii, the volcanic material that covered the island preserved the sophisticated settlement, which nowadays testifies to the Minoans extremely high level of development. Visits to nearby Red Beach and then to Perissa's Black Beach, the Santo Winery and Oia again for the sunset, capped a wonderful day of exploring - mention must be made to the fun I had driving the ATV - for a small vehicle, it had ample power and speed, although Greer (who was my passenger) may not agree as she made constant reference to reducing our speed!
Greek hospitality on the island is exceptional and it is clear they value the tourists who contribute a great deal to the Santorini economy. There were plenty of food and drink choices, while sampling the local fare such as moussaka, souvlaki, fava, yoghurt and the local wines was always rewarding. We were frequently offered extra food and drink at no extra cost and were warmly treated by the locals. This hospitality extended to the local dogs, which appear to wander the island freely. On two separate occasions, while exploring the island around Monolithos, we were accompanied by one of these dogs for several kilometres before they eventually return, we assume, from where they came from. Several days later, and again on separate occasions, both these dogs came bounding up to us, tails wagging, a bounce in their step, clearly recognising us from before. It is this feeling of belonging that is similarly felt between the visitor and the island - one that will surely remain for a very long time to come.
I am a Level 3 Cycle Coach with British Cycling & the Association of British Cyclists.
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