Friday, July 13, 2012

Mediterranean lazin'

So here we are, almost a year since we got back from Europe and finally nearing the end of the story. Santorini was supposed to be the penultimate stop of our trip, a week of R&R before returning to London for our flights home. But, somewhat tragically, it ended up being condensed into only four days due to our shortage of funds. I'd say we still managed to cram about a week's worth of restorative lazing (extreme lazing, if you will) into that short space of time anyway, though.

We got from our Athens accommodation to Santorini via a series of trains and buses, each more crowded than the last (apparently half the population of Greece resides in Athens), and then, finally, a ferry. Ahead of us the entire way was a pair of girls with bags comparable in size to our own, and it turned out they were, of all things, Canadian naturopaths headed to the island too, so we sat with them on the ten-hour ferry ride and chatted and slept.

Leaving Athens behind.

  Sunset on the Mediterranean.

Our ferry in Port Athinios.

We got to the island around ten at night and were met by the proprietor of the hotel where we were staying, Poppie, and her husband. Tales of Poppie's hospitality resound throughout the halls of, and we weren't disappointed. She insisted on serving us iced tea every time we dropped into the office for this or that, gave us a free bottle of wine, dropped us off for our ferry home and picked us up that first night. The view as we drove up the mountain was captivating, even in the dark: soft lacings of lights draped over the tops of the hills that protruded out into the ocean all around.

Having our own room with free wifi felt luxurious at this point, and the next day we took full advantage. We threw our possessions down wherever we wanted, slept in, stayed in bed all day, and I experienced a bout of 'cyperactivity', catching up on all the internet I'd neglected and uploading a billion photos to Facebook and the like. The day outside was beautiful, and once we were sufficiently rested, we ventured out to the island's main city of Fira, perhaps twenty minutes walk away.

Our hotel.

A church graveyard we found along the way.

Some of the wares to be found in the tourist shops. Caims, heais and strongthens, indeed.

I studied the Minoans of ancient Santorini, or Thera, as it was classically known, in Year Eleven Ancient History. Millennia ago it was a whole island, but a gigantic volcanic eruption destroyed its centre, leaving it with a 'caldera' surrounded by a ring of land, and another eruption during the Bronze age is thought to have brought an end to the Minoan occupation of the island:

The ring peaks right on its inner coast and right through Fira, so as we walked into the town and through it our view still looked out over the island to the Mediterranean. We chose a path that led up towards the crest, no idea of the view that awaited us once we got there. It was all the more breathtaking because it was unexpected. We just stood there for a moment in awe.

I think what's so amazing is the scale; there's just so much space before you, right there, cradled by the island. The caldera might be a bath, and the gigantic cruise ships and ferries breezing through it toys. You know how big those ferries are because you arrived on one, and there they are, tiny as snails leaving white trails of foam instead of slime.

Your eyes can't even comprehend the space. The water doesn't actually look that far away below you, but then you see people moving around down there barely visible they're so tiny and you realise how high up you really are.

An art shop in Fira.

We followed a path through Fira that led us past a smiling man outside a cafe who urged us in, but we wanted to keep following the path, so we refused. A short way up, though, it became apparent that it didn't lead anywhere much, just to a large restaurant and then out into the hills, perhaps. We turned back to find a large procession of mules or donkeys behind us, and we had to weave our way past them on the narrow path to get back.

On our second go past the man's cafe, we were ensnared by the view it offered and decided to take a seat.

From the balcony you could see the donkeys wending all the way up the cliff.

Since Rome, anyone who's been following our adventures might remember, I'd been lusting after a good iced coffee, and another couple at the next table over had one that looked amazing, so when the man came to take our order, I just said I'd have one of those. 'Santorini iced coffee', it was called, he told me. Tilly couldn't decide what she wanted, so the man recommended a cactus juice and she said, 'Why not?' It turned out those two drinks, while delicious, were the most expensive on the menu, the sneaky bastard. About twenty euro all up!

From Fira we continued on to Imerovigli, the next town along the inner ring of the island.

Came halfway across the world to go to Bluenote.

Just before sunset, we came across a church in Imerovigli with an amazing view, where a small crowd of people were gathered to watch. There were people with picnics and Champagne, cameras, and even a couple having wedding photos taken. If we hadn't slothed around our room all day, we wouldn't have come across this particular spot at sunset, which just goes to show you.

The next day, true to our hedonistic purpose in coming to Santorini, we spent the whole day swimming at the hotel. We did much the same the next day, before venturing back into Fira for drinks and dinner. Til's Europe on a Shoestring Lonely Planet guide said something about a restaurant with amazing reviews that did cheap and delicious local food, but after looking around for it for a while we gave up and went to another restaurant overlooking the caldera.

Now, last time we had seen Gilly, who's writing a children's novel that deals with human treatment of the oceans, we'd had a massive discussion about cod, and how you shouldn't eat it because it's endangered and overfished. Apparently it's been on the Greenpeace International seafood red list, 'a list of fish that are commonly sold in supermarkets around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries', since 2010 Wikipedia says:

According to Seafood Watch, cod is currently on the list of fish consumers should avoid. In the book The End of the Line, it is claimed cod is an example of how unsustainable fishing is destroying ocean ecosystems.

So when Til said she felt like fish, I immediately joked, 'As long as it's not cod!' She ended up not eating, but it just so happened that on our way back we passed the place the guide had mentioned and, not having eaten, Til was eager to go in. There were only two fish dishes on the menu, one of them cod, the other one some local specialty. She wanted to get the cod, because she knew she liked it, but I guilted her good and proper and she started considering the other alternative. I counselled against it because I knew it could easily be a plate of small fish cooked whole (even though I'm now the vegetarian, Til has always been the more squeamish one about meat, disliking both those meats that are too far removed from their natural state, and those that too closely resemble a dead animal). But she asked a waiter about the dish and he assured her it was a delicacy. This is what she was presented with:

We sat with the dish between us, eating almost in silence. Despite her professions that it was okay, I knew that any talk about the meal would likely render it inedible for her, and she later confirmed that she was trying not to think about it too much or she'd be sick. She was pretty angry at me for morally blackmailing her into a disgusting dish of tiny, greasy, bony, whole fish that stared at her while she ate, but at least we didn't encourage the overfishing of cod, right??

The next day I think we just swam and lazed again all day until we went into Fira for delicious pita kebabs and ice cream, and then iced teas on the caldera. Basically all our days followed this pattern of sleeping in, lazing and swimming until hunger drove us into Fira for food and drinks on the caldera. It was nice. After that we just went back to the hotel and hung around the pool reading (I finished Cloud Atlas here) till our lift to the dock.

And it was lucky that we'd gotten so much rest done over those four days, because little did we know, we were about to face A TWENTY-HOUR TRAVEL ODYSSEY-ORDEAL. The ferry ride over had been pleasant. We'd sat in a big carpeted room on comfy chairs and stuck our feet up when we wanted to sleep. We'd assumed it would be the same on the way back, but we were wrong. We showed them our tickets and they directed us right up to the top floor on an OUTDOOR DECK with COLD HARD METALLIC CHAIRS where it was FREEZING because of the WIND of a MOVING SHIP AT NIGHT TIME. 

Til looking suitably distraught with our accommodation.

Thankfully they were very lax in enforcing allocated seating. We went back inside and looked for a little corner to huddle in. Nearly every nook and cranny was taken up, but we eventually found a skerrick of space to fortify with our bags and some chairs, and set up a bed of jackets and towels to sleep on. It would be twenty hours of ferry, train, plane and train before we reached our destination, Berlin, truly a journey of Odyssean proportions!