Santorini, known locally as 'Thira', is considerably different from the other Cyclades.
Once a solid circular island, some three to four thousand years ago the center of the
island exploded in an enormous volcanic eruption. The resulting land was ring-shaped
with two small breaks. The sea rushed in to fill the new caldera in the center and the
resulting tidal wave is likely responsible for the destruction of the Minoan civilization
on nearby Crete. Today, Santorini consists of two facing crescent shaped islands: Thira
and Thirassia. In the 18th century, volcanic activity produced a couple new islands in
the center of the caldera, Nea and Paleo Kameni. The Kameni islands are shown in this
photo with one of the two openings between Thira (left) and Thirassia (right) in the
background. The small island visible past Thira is Aspronissi. Today, only Thira and
Thirassia are inhabited.
The airport is located on the fertile but small plain on the outside of the main island.
As a result we had not yet seen the caldera when the taxi dropped us off on the edge of
Fira, the capital city. Fira is mostly built vertically in layers and car-bearing roads
are not possible. The streets in the city are similar to those in Mykonos except
three-dimensional. Some of the streets are in fact nothing but long staircases. The city
is perched atop the cliff and hangs over towards the caldera. Far below at the water
is a small port where boats leave for other stops around the island. This is the
staircase leading down to that port. Behind it, the six white spheres are the cable
cars for those not willing to brave the more than 600 stairs. Alternately, mules are
available for the trip up and down.
From the balcony of nearly every home and business in Fira you can look down at the roof
of a building one street down and up at the balcony of the next street up. The
receptionist at our hotel led us to our room, which turned out be quite necessary as it
was about 6 levels down from the front office. This on top of the fact that the hotel was
about 3 levels down from the main street made us think twice about leaving the room
frivolously. 120 stairs up to the main road can do that. Like everywhere else in Greece,
Fira is strewn with stray dogs and cats. However, given the topography of the city, they
don't tend to be afraid of heights, like this one resting on a lintel.
The first afternoon there we spent mostly sitting on the balcony of our hotel room
admiring the view. Not that it really matters, we were behind the big red building,
near the bottom of the town. The room was a bit more expensive than most we stayed
in while in Greece, but there was never any hesitation once we saw the place. If you
have to pick one spot in Greece to splurge a little on hotels, it should almost
certainly be Santorini. That evening we went up to the main square and ate at an
interesting little cafe with a techno dance club style decor.
We returned to the hotel after dinner, it was starting to get rather windy and a bit
chilly as well. The next morning we woke up to find the winds had gotten rather extreme.
It also contained a fine dusty sand which we later learned to be a standard part of the
Sirocco -- a hot dry wind which blows north from the Sahara desert into Mediterranean
Europe. Not many people were out in Fira, probably because they had better sense than us.
We started out towards the south, but found we were unable to get very far as we couldn't
keep our eyes open in that direction without having them sandblasted. This worked out
alright though, most of the city was north of us.
As we turned to follow the alleyways to the north we were joined by a couple of playful
dogs who seemed overjoyed to find other living creatures in the streets of Fira. They
started following us, roaming ahead or behind, sometimes disappearing altogether to
reappear a few blocks farther down. We named them Pano and Kato ('up' and 'down') after
their tendencies to run along the narrow stucco walls separating the road from the cliffs.
Melanie claims to be able to distinguish which is which, so email her if you really want
to know. It turns out they followed us for close to three hours, past the end of town
and then all the way back. We also learned in the process that they were not in fact
even strays, they were just allowed to run free during the day. Along with a tendency
to wander into open-air stores and restaurants (which is all of them in Greece), they
also came across an empty one liter water bottle which they managed to play with for a
very cacophonous half an hour until some bystander took it away.
Incidentally, this photo was not pre-arranged or set up in any fashion - it just sort
of happened. For the most part, there were no people along the cliff face roads. On
the more sheltered streets some of the shops had opened. Of course, it was also
still well before the main tourist season and just barely on the edge of the shoulder
season. Most of the famous night clubs were in the process of repainting, refurnishing
and so on. Also many of the hotels were still closed for the off-season, and the
so-called 'infinity pools' which are filled to the very edge for dramatic Conde Nast
photos were altogether empty.
The wind left us with palpable amounts of sand in our hair, our ears, our clothing,
pretty much everywhere there could be sand. They also wreaked havoc on Pano's ears,
and the airline and ferry schedules as well. All trips out to the Kameni volcanic
islands were cancelled for the day, all inter-island ferries were cancelled, and all
flights out of Santorini's airport were cancelled as well. We learned this at lunch
when Randy and Bev happened to reappear at the restaurant we were eating at. They
had planned to leave that afternoon but would end up once again on our flight the
next day. Incidentally, the Poseidon Restaurant (and there is a Poseidon Restaurant
in every city in Greece) just off the main square in Fira has the best stuffed bifteki
in the entire world as far as we can tell. Bifteki is generally two thin steaks with
a variety of ingredients in between them, in this case feta, tomatoes, onion, peppers,
proscuitto, and olive oil.
Given the cancellation of just about all public transportation except buses, we decided
to spend the afternoon taking a bus. The next bus from Fira was heading to Oia (EE-ah)
and thus, so were we. Oia, seen here from Fira is a small town on the north end of the
island even more precariously balanced than Fira is. It is known for its sunsets and
during the tourist season, most of the population of Santorini flocks to Oia for a couple
hours every evening. After further review, we turned out to have just missed the bus to
Oia, but there was one returning later that day which is more than we could say for the
buses headed to some of the black sand beaches and Akrotiri, the archeological site on
the island. So we took a taxi to Oia some seven miles away down a road that many self
respecting goats would refuse to travel on. I can only say that I'm glad I wasn't driving.