23 January 2011

A Few Days In Santorini

It’s been quite some time since I last posted a travel blog. Unfortunately, work commitments, lack of much free time, the whole economic crisis, meant that 2010 was a year of very little travel. Hopefully this is now a thing of the past and 2011 will be a year of more fun and even more travel (I hope!).

As most of you know, last August I visited my family in Greece and took the opportunity to regain my tan. During my stay, I spent a few days in one of the most beautiful islands in Greece (if not the world), Santorini. It was a place that my girlfriend and I always wanted to visit and, being only about 2 hrs away by ferry from my hometown (Heraklion, in Crete), we could not resist the opportunity. It certainly did not let us down!

In the past few years Santorini has been a very popular destination with Greeks and tourists alike, mainly due to its magnificent scenery and views of the Aegean Sea and sunsets. But before I give you more details, here’s the history part:

The father of history, Herodotus, called the island Strongyle (the Round One). Scientists have concluded that  up to 5000BC the island was nothing but an imposing volcanic cone, with a height of about 1 km and a diameter of 14-15 km. With time the volcano became extinct and the first colonists appeared around 3000BC.

Around 1500BC, the Minoan civilization in Crete (the first civilization in Europe) was suddenly terminated while at its peak. Historians have concluded that earthquakes triggered the awakening of the volcano at that time, which erupted, causing the crust of the earth in its centre and the central part of the island to be sucked into the sea. What is left of Strongyle today is nothing but three little sides of the volcano, the largest being Santorini. The catastrophe was of Biblical proportions and must have been accompanied by enormous tidal waves which eventually destroyed the Minoans too.

Santorini remained uninhabited for another two centuries. Its first settlers were the Phoenicians, who named the island Kalliste (which means beautiful), followed by the Dorians. The island was renamed Thera after king Theras from Sparta, who eventually settled in the island. During the remaining centuries it was ruled by the Persians and the Romans.

In 1153 AD the island is mentioned as Santorini for the first time. It seems that it was called by that name by the Crusaders after a chapel in one of its towns, called Santa Irini. It was subjugated by the Turks in 1579. By the time of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence, in 1821, Santorini had the largest shipping fleet in the country.

Unfortunately, catastrophic earthquakes in 1956 destroyed most of the buildings in the island, which was abandoned up until the 70s. During this period, the scientific, historical, geological and archaeological interest has lifted Santorini back into centre stage. Nowadays, it has become the favourite holiday spot of thousands of Greeks and tourists alike.

But enough of history. Let’s get back to my Santorini experience:

We took the ferry from Crete and after about two hours the coastline of Santorini was clearly visible. When you go by ferry make sure you find a spot on the deck with clear views, as all the passengers crowd both sides in order to take as many photos of the wonderful scenery as possible (see photos below).

The main port in Santorini is Athinios, which lies at the bottom of the cliff where Fira, the capital of the island, stands. Restaurants, cafes, coaches, taxis, private hire vans and loads of tourists are the taste of the port. Oh yes, I forgot. And loads of people asking whether you are after a room to rent during your stay. Usually, most hotels/apartments offer the option of a pre-booked pick up from the port (at an additional fee). It is worth taking, because taxis are very rare, unless they drop someone for their ferry back. However, not all is lost. Many drivers from the private hire vans/buses will actually give you a lift to your hotel (for a small fee) if there’s a spare seat.

But before you do that, raise your eyes and have a look around you. You are actually standing at the side of a volcanic crater!!! The sight of the cliff is overwhelming, especially the sight of the vehicles climbing slowly up its steep incline!! If you are kinda scared of heights, make sure your seat is not the window one!!

Our hotel was Blue Suites Apartments. I highly recommend it because it ticks most of the boxes of a romantic holiday: It is only 10 minutes walk from the centre of Fira, it’s in a very quiet spot, its customers are usually couples or families with children, the rooms are massive and have balconies with great views, if you cannot be bothered going to town you can just sit by the pool and relax. The only thing that the place needs (apart from a view of the caldera) is a bar/restaurant. Unfortunately if you want to enjoy a drink or a meal, you either have to go to town or buy your own provisions by a supermarket which is close by. However, you do get breakfast (your usual eggs, toast, ham, jam/honey/yogurt, coffee/tea/juice combination).

Fira, the capital, is a small town at the top of the cliff with a population of about 1800 people, which increases dramatically during the summer. If you want clubs, busy bars and nightlife during your vacation, this is really the place to be on the island. Oh yes, and if you want to shop till you drop, the town is full of shops! In fact, I think it may easily have the most number of jewellery shops per square mile in the world!!!! What a better way to have a lovely stroll in its cobbled narrow streets and paths, do a bit of shopping and then have a meal or a drink in one of the spots that offer amazing views of the caldera.

Be warned, however!! If you have a drink or a meal in one of the spots overlooking the sea, you do pay for the view! In fact, don’t just walk into the first bar or restaurant with a great view that you walk by. Fira (and any town on that side of the island) has many such spots (some of them free), so look around. You may save loads of money. For example, I’ve seen prices for a mojito that range from 5 to 14 Euros, within 100 metres!! Now, that’s what I call difference for the same view. So, look around, keep an eye on the prices and ask some of the locals to recommend a nice place, where you will not just pay too much for bad food.

During our stay we did try a few places, so I will recommend the following. Note that the list below does not suggest that these places are necessary the best in Fira. But we found them to be very nice, very friendly and a very good value for money:

Mama’s House Restaurant:
This restaurant was recommended to us by our hotel owner. However, while I was searching the internet for recommended places its name kept on coming up, with great reviews. So, if the majority (and a local) seems to recommend it, it means it’s worth a try!

It didn’t let us down. The place is right in the centre of Fira and has a lovely open seating area under the trees. It does not offer any views of the sea, but what it lacks in views it more than makes up for in taste. The owner (mama) is a very friendly lady who speaks Greek and English fluently. I think she comes from Australia but may have Greek roots. The staff is very friendly and from the minute they lead you to your table they are attentive until the minute you leave. Prices range but portions are plenty! As usual, we ordered various ‘mezedes’ (selection of various little dishes) and I have to say that the ‘dolmades me augolemono’ (stuffed vine leaves in egg and olive oil sauce) were as good as my aunt’s (which I hold as the benchmark). In fact, even the chef comes out and speaks with the customers which gives an extra warm and family like atmosphere to the place.

I would also recommend you try the local white wines, such as ‘Argyros Estate Assyrtiko 2009’, which actually won a Gold Medal in the Decanter World Wine Awards in 2010. “Sea shells, pungent lemon zest, white flowers, volcanic ash and salt. Mouth filling and complex with long intensity” is how it is described and I am in no position to argue!

Crepa Club
Easily the biggest and tastiest crepes in town!!! And believe me, we have tried a few in our lives! We ate there a few times, as it’s right in the main square and, therefore, easily accessible when you’re feeling hungry after a day’s shopping/walking.

Lucky’s Souvlaki
Lucky (or Lakis, as his real name is) seems to be a very popular chap in the island. This means that his kebab place is also equally popular. No other take away beats a Greek souvlaki in my opinion and we thoroughly honoured that tradition while in our holidays.

Lakis is a very friendly guy (but this may also be because the first time we met him he was slightly drunk and treated us to a few shots of local tsipouro, a type of strong spirit). The place does not only sell kebabs and souvlakis but also massive portions of Greek salad, roast chickens and kotosouvli (chunks of pork slowly roasted on a spit). MMMMMMMMMMM!!!

Franco’s Bar
Well, for starters it is very expensive! 14 Euros for a Mojito is not exactly normal pricing for a tiny Aegean island. However, Franco’s is a special place, especially for a romantic evening.

Its position allows you to have fantastic views of the caldera. The music is classical, soft, very chilled out. And although you can sit in large, relaxing sofas, I would recommend the long sun loungers! You lay back, enjoy the view, the music, your drink(s) and you start smiling because you think of those poor folks of yours back home who right now would be sitting in front of their TV with a cup of tea!

But enough of Fira. Time to explore the island a bit! And what a better place to go than Oia, famous for its sunsets. In fact, if you are after a holiday on the quiet side, I recommend you stay at Oia rather than Fira. No more loud bars, not much of a buzzing nightlife and no more crazy tricycle drivers! (oh yes, I forgot to mention them).

The town is only 10km from Fira but built lower towards the sea. It is more picturesque than Fira. It has many troglodyte houses, carved out of the cliffside, apparently from the crews of the merchant ships that used to live there, for their families.It also has many little churches; it’s full of tiny little streets laid with marble plaques and plenty of spots to view the amazing sunset.

One of the best spots is its castle (well, actually only a few stones of it remain nowadays), however this ‘hidden’ secret is no longer a secret, so make sure you get there about 40-60 minutes before sunset to get a good spot. The photos below are taken from the castle (the castle is shown in the first one) before, during and shortly after the sunset.

We only spent one day at Oia but we found a very nice little spot to get cover from the scorching midday sun. It was a bar/restaurant called Pelekanos (pelican). It’s located on the roof of one of the many buildings next to the cliff and as you can see from the photos below it has a 180 degree view of the caldera.

But I know what you are wondering. What about beaches? After all, you were on a Greek island, weren’t you? Of course we were. However, don’t forget that all the towns/villages on the western side are on the top of the cliffs, therefore in order to go swimming in the sea you have to go all the way down! Not to worry though. For the fit ones out there, there are plenty of paths and steps all the way to the sea. For those of you who want that typical Greek postcard photo, there are donkeys at Fira that take you all the way back up. And if you just can’t wait, Fira has a funicular that takes you up and down within minutes (although not recommended for those scared of heights!).

The sea in Santorini is simply fabulous. The colour of the sand also varies, depending on which part of the island you are. On our last day we decided to visit one of the most popular beaches, the Red Beach.

Again, a bus journey there is only about 20 minutes away. You arrive at a small village called Akrotiri, where two boats are waiting to take you to the beach (you can reach it on foot but it’s a bit of a trek).On your left you can see the beaches of Almira and as far as the beach of Vlichada (see photos below) with their imposing steep cliffs.

The boat journey is a bit weird though. You first stop at the Red Beach, but only to take more people on!

Then you go off to the White Beach, where you can disembark.

Again, more people can come on, you return back to the Red Beach where this time you can disembark and finally the boat returns to the small village. The boats arrive every 20-30 minutes, so you can actually spend some time on both beaches if you like. However, make sure you bring with you only the basics, because you have to jump into the sea at waist level to walk out to the beaches.

The White Beach does not actually have any sand. It’s full of large pebbles and is a great place for snorkelling.

The Red Beach has black, volcanic sand, which gets really hot under the sun. The beach gets its name from the red lava cliffs behind it.

There are other beautiful places to visit while on the island, but unfortunately we did not have enough time. For example, you can visit and swim in the volcanic hot springs, which are located in the middle of the caldera (see where the boats are returning from in the photo below), or go on a yacht trip around the islands.

Needless to say, if you are after a romantic holiday, Santorini ticks all the right boxes. It’s one of the most beautiful islands you’ll ever visit and the memories from your holiday there will last you a lifetime.