Continued from Part 4…
The ride on the big ferry from Piraeus (the port of Athens) to Santorini lasted some seven hours, painful ones because a) we'd gotten up at the crack of dawn to catch the 7:30 AM boat and so were operating on very little sleep, and b) I had come down with a bad cold and was squinty, drippy, and miserable. On deck in the open air, the "roof" was only semi-opaque and let a lot of sunlight through. Thinking the fresh air would be good, we baked out there for awhile; then I needed, and got, some relief in the air-conditioned belowdecks where there are comfortable airplane-style seats. (Well, airplane-style circa 1980; they're much more pleasant and roomy than coach seats on an airliner today. See Part 1 for the relevant griping).
We passed a number of picturesque islands on the way, with the boat making brief stops at some (like Paros), and all my grousing was forgotten as we approached the port at the legendary island of Santorini (called Thira locally). The big ramp whined slowly open to let the people and vehicles out; the stupendous cliffs of the island came into view, and we tumbled into the hot, sunny afternoon, suitcases in tow.
Santorini doesn't feel much like the rest of Greece. First, it's so optimized for tourists (a great number of whom visit for only a few hours from a cruise ship) that most signs are first in English and only then, if at all, in Greek. Second, and more significant, is the unique geography. The island is an inverted "C" curled around the waters of the caldera, the vast crater left by the Thera volcanic eruption of roughly 1500 BCE. That enormous explosion seems to have put an end to the great Minoan civilization (centered in Crete), and may have been behind the legend of Atlantis and the stories of the Biblical plagues in Egypt.
What the eruption left behind is a strange landscape of vast layered cliffs, beaches in three colors (white, red, and lava-black), and whitewashed, blue-domed villages built thickly into the rock to defend against earthquakes (a strong one in the 1950s destroyed many buildings on the island). From the port of Fira, a cable car or donkeys take the strange, babbling beings we came to know as the Cruise-Ship People up to the town, but the ferries such as we took dock at another port, Athinios, from which a bus switchbacked us up. (The island's well-run bus system stood us in good stead throughout our stay.)
Our hotel room was quite small but the staff were so friendly and helpful that we didn't mind. (Note: even the smallest hotel rooms in Greece come with balconies. Many hotel bathrooms, however, have shower nozzles that you have to hold in your hand. Fair warning.) Also helpful was the price—so low, on a generally expensive island, that I'm not even going to disclose the name of the hotel. You can ask me nicely if you want it. Also, we've still got 20 minutes of time at the Internet cafe in town, if anyone wants that.
The hotel was cheap because of its location on a nothing side street off the main square of the main town of Fira, rather than on the cliffs overlooking the caldera. That wasn't important to us; we don't typically spend any time in our hotel other than to sleep. We spent our time exploring (places and cuisine) and saw a good deal of Santorini in two and a half days. The ancient Minoan site of Akrotiri, frozen in time by the volcano's eruption (like Pompeii but much older), is closed because of the collapse of a protective roof, but the dramatically situated mountaintop ruins of Ancient Thira satisfied any craving for ruins we still had. (The two inset photos show relief carvings of animals and a real animal at Ancient Thira.)
We took our one and only swim at Kamari Beach (hot, black not-quite-sand; beautiful clear water) and then a small boat ride around an imposing jutting cliff to Perissa Beach, thence home to Fira by bus. But it's walking along the ridges from village to village, always in sight of that amazing caldera with its brand-new volcanic islands, that lingers most vividly in the memory. A five-minute rain shower was the only precipitation we experienced in our whole two weeks in Greece.
In short, Santorini is all it's cracked up to be, its popularity well deserved. It's crowded enough in May; I can't imagine going in the high season of July and August. Nor can I imagine being one of the Cruise-Ship People, whisked up by cable car for a few hours of view-gazing, shopping, and a meal, then zoomed back down for happy hour on board. Even though it's a small island, you need time, at least two nights, to get a decent feel for a place like this. Other sites we saw: the impressive digitally created reproductions of the wall paintings of ancient Akrotiri, housed at the Thira Foundation; the northern village of Ia, famed for its sunsets (but was it really better than the next night's sunset from Firostefani?); the small, lovely Catholic cathedral (those Venetians again); and the Megaron Gyzi Museum, which has photos of the island pre- and post-earthquake. What we'll have to get to next time: winery visits; a boat trip to the caldera islets; and of course, ancient Akrotiri, which we hope will be reopened in time for our next visit, whenever that might be. We left the island almost overwhelmed, even without having experienced everything.
In the next and final installment, a pleasant, much shorter boat trip takes us to Iraklio, on the large island of Crete, and from there a bus to our favorite town of the whole trip, Chania, where we followed in the footsteps of Anthony Bourdain and got pelted by a dust storm out of Africa. Continued, and concluded, in Part 6.