Greek Isles Odyssey
Book 1: Ancient (and modern) Thera
Thera (Santorini) is a dreamscape. Almost every person on the planet has seen the photos on their calendar, screensaver, or in a gallery. Over two million tourists arrive each year to finally see it for themselves. Like many such places in the 21st century, it’s more of a living museum than a place anymore. And that’s fine. Once, it was an actual place where people scraped out a living on the rocky volcanic soil, and subsisting off what the sea could provide. Earthquakes and pirates were a constant danger from ancient times to the Middle Ages.
Long ago, Thera was a gigantic mountain. Since then, it has erupted in the neighborhood of 12 times. 3600 years ago, it erupted so spectacularly that the blast is thought to have destroyed the Minoan civilization with the tsunami that washed over the island of Crete to the south. What remains is the rim of that long-ago mountain ringed around the caldera. Time passed. People fished. Then, one day, someone noticed how beautiful the island is with all its white “sugar cube” homes and blue-domed churches stubbornly clinging to the rim of a volcano that is so steep and vast it takes your breath away, and thought “I should open a hotel here.” And so it was. This was in the late 1950s. Now it is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. And trust me when I say pictures do not do it justice.
Greeks still live here, they have to in order to support the massive tourist trade, but the island’s most scenic real estate is now given over to a chaotic rabbit warren of restaurants and tiny boutique hotels with even tinier infinity pools dotting every inch of buildable hillside. There are so many restaurant tables with a stunning view, you would almost be hard pressed to find a seat without one.
Thirty-five years ago, when I first visited, it was already very touristed. But I still had that rare cultural experience of an elderly man stopping me on the street, warmly asking me where I was from in his halting English, and then inviting me into his home to enjoy Ouzo and seafood. He was old enough to remember when there were no tourists and he must have still found them to be a fascinating and possibly welcome curiosity. His home in Fira looked out over the Old Port and enjoyed the view that everyone now comes for. That home is now a hotel, bar or restaurant. If people like him still live on the island, they live down on the eastern slope where the real estate is not as expensive. Their curiosity about traveling Americans is probably limited to their Visa cards by now. But if I’m making it sound like Thera is spoiled, it is not. It has evolved, just like every other place on the planet. Things change. Thera is magnificent. Even the fact that the hotels are tiny and eclectic, rather than giant edifices sporting names like Marriott, Hilton and Ritz, makes the place worth seeing. The weather is lovely. The food is terrific. And the people are still very friendly despite an onslaught of 15,000 tourists per day in the summer.
When you visit, I don’t recommend coming by cruise ship. If you do, you will sail overnight from Athens and wake up looking up the 800’ cliffs to Fira. Excited now, you will file down the escalators and stairs to the queuing area for the tender boat. You will get on board in single file and then slowly motor into port. From there, you will line up again for the tram car to take you up the cliff. Alternately, you can walk, or ride a donkey, but if you tied one on in the casino bar the night before, that’s unlikely. Up in Fira, you will probably have lunch. And then you will shop along the tiny pedestrian streets lined with souvenir shops because you will need a Santorini t-shirt, magnet, ball cap or pumice stone. Then, realizing that it’s already getting close to your sailing time, you will head back to the tram. Unfortunately, the other two cruise ships in port have a similar sailing time and there are already 800 people ahead of you in line for a tram that moves about 20 people down to the port every 10 minutes. You’re going to have to wait in the hot little street, away from the magnificent view. When you finally make it down, now sweating the time, you will have to wait for the next tender, and then wait in line for people to stand on the ship’s escalators (why do people walk up stairs but stand on escalators? – safety?). And shoot, now you have missed your seating time in the main dining room – you’ll have to hit the somewhat shitty buffet on L Deck. But tomorrow is a new day. Port of call Mykonos!
You should not take my word for this. I’ve never been on a cruise in my life. But I did see that tram line. And I’ve been on lots of escalators. Instead of that approach, I suggest taking a ferry or flying to Thera. Then stay awhile.
We walked the stairs down to the Old Port, and back up. It’s a long way down and even further back up again, but we (I) needed the exercise. I thought I would be losing weight in Greece because I would be on the Mediterranean Diet. Turns out the Mediterranean Diet, in my case, is copious quantities of beer, lamb, and pita bread. Hence the stairs. Halfway down were some souvenir shops and we stopped to magnet browse. They also had lots of souvenir soap. Our budget hotel had soap. But it was one of those tiny little bars that produce an even tinier amount of suds. And Thera water is hard. Like lava-rock hard. So, it’s sort of like washing your hands with water and a small rock. The souvenir guy had lots of soap to choose from including some that appeared to be mostly olive oil. Can you cook with it too? But my eye was drawn to one called Donkey Milk.
I was hoping the second noun was more about texture than ingredients. And I am glad they didn’t call it Ass Milk. That might have even put me off.
There are loads of donkeys lining the steep stairs to the port. Before the tram, that was the only way up or down besides hoofing it yourself. Now, I guess people still ride them up and down as some sort of authentic Greek experience or photo op.
We only saw one couple doing it in our week there. They were going down the stairs at a pretty fast clip – cloppity clopplity clop. She was smiling, adjusting her hair, and taking selfies. He was holding on tightly and clearly in some discomfort as his balls were slamming into the little saddle horn with every clop. But we enjoyed seeing the donkeys as we stepped around their donkey droppings. The souvenir shops sell lots of donkey stuff. But I didn’t need a donkey t-shirt, or a donkey coaster set, so I thought, why not soap?
Back at the hotel, I gave it a go. Pretty good lather all in all. Lori did the same. But later, lying in bed, we both felt like were still smelling donkey. Like, donkey donkey. Maybe, as a small little joke and payback for pushing them off their island, they use the donkey apples as part of their soap mixture? Kind of genius if so.
Next port of call on the Odd-ssey: Naxos. I’m bringing my soap.