The Edge of Heaven
We woke up early this morning. Not exactly the crack of dawn but with a grand day out planned we wanted to make the most of the day.
Breakfast was also scheduled for a little earlier and it arrived on our table on our private patio precisely on time. It was delicious and Julie was even happier she had realised how to order the individual hot breakfast items, like bacon, mushrooms and tomatoes.
We took our time over a lesiurely breakfast still mesmerised by the stunning views across the caldera. It was a beautiful day, it was a beautiful breakfast. It was idyllic. Perfect. The truth was we could have stayed there all day. It's what dreams are made of. The feeling of good fortune was overwhelming.
It was a shame we had so little time on Santorini. Today was already our last day on the island before moving on to Athens.
Despite expecting to spend the whole day out and about, other than collecting our ferry tickets from an office in Thira, we had nothing planned for today. We were taking it "on the hoof" as they say. We didn't actually leave the hotel until 11am, but eventually we set off along the cliff-top path towards the island's capital. It wasn't very far, about 2km at most and more or less downhill all the way.
We decided to avoid the many steps through the middle of Imerovigli choosing instead to follow the main road out of the village. In hindsight it was a bad idea. There were no pavements and it was a surprisingly busy road. We were glad when we rejoined the path at the first opportunity.
We walked amongst the classic white houses sprawling over the hill to the very edge of the cliffs. I'm not sure where Imerovigli ended or Thira began, or if indeed there was another town called Firostefani in between or not; but almost every step of the way was in sight of a glorious view.
Thira wasn't far, only a mile and a half but we were making slow progress. I was constantly stopping to photograph everything.
There were some sights I couldn't ignore, such as the Church of St. Mark the Evangelist. It was different to the simple whitewashed blue domed churches. With columns and layers it was as pretty as a wedding cake. It probably wasn't a Greek Orthodox church and more likely to be a Roman Catholic church.
During the 13th century crusaders (known as the Franks) brought Catholicsm to the island and even renamed it Santorini in honour of Saint Irene of Thessaloniki. Despite having its name returned to its original Greek Thira when the island was unified with Greece in the 19th century, the name Santorini has stuck.
Looking out over the rooftops, I could see the black volcanic island of Nea Kameni in the centre of the caldera. This brought back wonderful memories of when I was last here in 1981. I was fortunate enough to have cruised the mediteranean on the SS Uganda. The school trip to beat all school trips.
Santorini was one of our port of calls and a small group of us went onto the volcanic island which was essentially a release of lava erupting out of a magma lake beneath the surface. The island is believed to have been created some two thousand years ago.I still remember the smell of sulphur and steam rising from the earth. It made quite an impression on the thirteen year old me. The wonders I saw on that journey inspired me to see as much of this world as I can in a lifetime.
It wasn't long before we reached the middle of Firostefani, with a collection of cafes and souvenir shops and the blue domed Orthodox Church of Agia Gerasimos. They had even put out the flags to welcome us!
Feeling a little parched we stopped at a cafe called Pirouni for a drink and took the weight off our feet. We didn't have an exemption from our Sober for October challenge today so it was diet coke all round. and we drank out of glasses like civilised people, paying €7 for the privilege.
Xafe Pirouni had a roof top terrace with great views back towards where we had come from. It made us realise how elevated Imerovigli was and that there was a hill waiting for us on the return leg.
Below it, jutting out into the caldera was Skaros Rock. To say it looked very dramatic was an understatement. Julie's knees went weak just thinking about yesterday's little adventure. From a distance it looked like no one in their right mind would attempt to scale it without ropes and crampons.
"Bloody hell! Is that where we walked yesterday?" asked Julie with her eyes popping out her head in disbelief. It made us realise the precipitous drop from the path down to the water below.
"I'd be a little nervous if I lived in one of those houses right on the edge" said Julie pointing to the precariously positioned homes. "Yes, imagine being in one during an earthquake" I added turning the worse case scenario up a notch, much to Julie's consternation.
We sat admiring our courageous achievements sipping rather expensive soft drinks.
With our thirsts quenched we returned to the path through Firostefani. It gradually became more and more tourist orientated with more cafes and souvenir shops. There wasn't much like this in Imerovigli which I quite liked. We prefered the serenity it brought.
Where Firostefani ended and Thira began did not exist, It was a seemless transtition, one just became the other.
When the path met the edge of the caldera once again shop keepers improvised by using the wall to display there goods. I noticed one trader selling amongst other things a bright blue penchant, an "evil eye" good luck charm or something to ward off the evil eye spirits to be more precise.
Superstitions are fast becoming a thing of the past and the custom of giving someone the evil eye and protecting yourself against it is now something only the old folk do and the tourists lap up.
I bought one in Corfu 35 years ago. It didn't work. Despite wearing it around my neck for much of the school trip I was subjected to some bullying and had my money stolen. Then again it didn't get me down, and in fact I remember the trip with fond memories, so perhaps in one way I was protected.
We carried on walking. Within no time we turned a corner and beyond the dome of the Catholic Church of St. Stylianos the whole of Thira spread out before us.
It was certainly on a larger scale than any of the other villages on the island.
What actually stood out of place was the whitewashed four tiered Hotel Atlantis. Despite its attempts at blending in it was the largest carbuncle in town.
I was surprised to see Thira wasn't exclusively whitewashed either , there were a few rogue pastel colours scattered around the town which made for a more interesting view, as if the residents had been given carte blanche to express themselves.
The first such colourful expression was the yellow and blue Catholic Cathedral Church of Saint John The Baptist.
It's belltower which also doubled as a clocktower was a similar layered wedding cake style as the earlier one we saw. It was quite garish. It was damaged as was almost everything else in the 1956 earthquake and was completly rebuilt in 1970. Even so it looked freshly painted and brand spanking new!
From here we began to walk downhill through the Catholic district of Frangomahalas towards the centre of town passing along the way this busker playing a lovely tune on a Bouzouki, a traditional string instrument.
It looked and sounded like a lute or mandolin but it had a long slim neck with four pairs of strings. We stopped to listen to him for a while. He was clearly an accomplished player. Whatever song he was playing it was mesmerising.
We dropped an euro into his collection box before moving on.
With pit stops and photo ops it took us almost an hour to reach the narrow streets of souvenir town centre.
Santorini is a popular port on the Mediteranean Cruise circuit with large ocean liners weighing anchor out in the middle of the caldera. The passengers who disembark flood into the centre of Thira and hardly go no further than the shops and cafes that have collected around the port to service the demand.
Neither Julie nor I are big shoppers. We don't even buy ourselves gifts from Christmas or birthdays.
What we do enjoy is our food and drink and when we stumbled across a taverna called Dionysos brandishing the Santorini Brewery's livery we were drawn inside, hypnotised by the red and yellow cut-out donkeys hanging off the gate.
We entered despite abstaining from alcohol today as we hadn't received a free pass from our "Sober for October" challenge.
In a desperate attempt to taste the Crazy Donkey we sent out an SOS on Facebook begging for some kind friend to donate £10 and buy us a Golden Ticket.
We entered a dark and empty bar but it opened out onto a large covered terrace at the back. The waiter came and gave us a menu each. It would have been rude not to have eaten so I browsed my options, of which there were many, trying hard not to get fixated on the Domatokeftedes.
"Try something different" I told myself.
When the waiter returned we checked our e-mails. Sadly nobody had answered our desperate plea, so it was a large bottle of their finest sparkling water with a plate of Domatokeftedes to share.
I couldn't help myself. It was as if I was on a mission to find the best tomato fritters on Santorini.
For the record these looked the best with a deeper reddish colour but whilst they tasted good the flavours from Bella Thira yesterday was superior. These were more cheesy than tomatoey.
Once we had eaten we moved on in search of a travel agent by the name Nokimos Travel. We needed to collect our tickets for the ferry tomorrow to Athens. It wasn't in the warren of narrow streets but on the main road out of town, a short distance on the right.
Collecting our tickets couldn't have been any easier. I showed them my booking confirmation, they printed out the tickets. We were in and out inside a minute.
All the time we saved was then wasted when we queued for five minutes in the post office for some postage stamps before giving up and leaving empty handed. Despite oour failure we always enjoy a post office experience however mundane. I don't know why. Perhaps its because it's a slice of the everyday local life.
On the way back into town we passed the Museum of Prehistoric Thira but decided against going inside. I'm sure it would have been quite interetsing but neither of us wanted to hide ourselves inside on such a lovely day.
We walked up towards the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral which was a vision in white. As we peered into it's colonaded courtyard garden I couldn't help thinking how much it had the look of a mosque, even its belltower was reminiscent of a Moroccan minaret.
First built in 1827 it was also a victim of the 1956 earthquake and recently rebuilt.
The front door was open. We peered inside and could see this huge chandelier hanging in the centre of the church. Intrigued we went inside to have a closer look.
The interior was typically Byzantine, full blown Orthoodox Christian with the walls entirely decorated by frescoes of all the saints. They were painted by a local artist, Christoforos Assimis and gave the church the feel of a far more ancient place of worship than its 40 years of age.
We walked around the pleasant cloister-like garden taking a moment to absorb the serenity. It was a wonderfully calm space to relax.
Back outisde we stood at the edge overlooking the caldera. We were much closer here to the island of Nea Kameni (also known as Tholos Naftilos) and it was clear to see that it was mostly a mass of black volcanic rock. You could easily imagine how the lava flow spread out from its core, cooling down to form the island.
It wasn't the most attractive of landscapes, arid and lifeless but fascinating nonetheless. Little fishing boats were tucked into its many coves and I'm sure I could see steam rising from its centre. Or was that just my imagination running wild.
Gazing out over the rooftops of hotels and churches our thoughts turned to what to do next. Having ticked off the only task on our to-do list we had a new shortlist for this afternoon of either visiting Oia, a pretty town at the far end of the caldera or the fascinating archaelogical site of Akrotiri.
But first before leaving Thira I wanted to find the path down to the Old Port up which donkeys still provide a taxi service.
Walking the path which gradually snakes its way up the hill was one of those memories that stuck with me from my visit here 35 years ago! I didn't ride a donkey back then because I couldn't afford it and I had no desire to hop on one today. Not that I'm against the use of animals for labour as long as their welfare is thoroughly protected, it was just we had no need of their service today.
There weren't many donkeys actually working, most were standing about in the shade. Not only do they have to struggle against changing attitudes but also they are no longer the only transport option up the hill.
A little further to the right a dozen cable cars glide up a channel cut into the cliff carrying many passengers with ease. It would be a shame if one day there would be no donkeys carrying people up the hill. It is a part of Santorini tradition. I do hope when I return in another 35 years they will still be here.
Before leaving Thira we decided to have another pit stop, this time at the cafe of Hotel Porto Carra. They had this balcony overlooking the old port, but that wasn't the reason we were lured in. It was the Peanut Butter sandwiches on their menu!
Unfortunately we were left disapppointed when we ordered. "Sorry" the waiter apologised "we have no peanut butter. It's the end of the season and we have run out".
So we decided on cheese sandwich instead. He quickly returned "We have no sliced bread only bagels. It's the end of the season this week" he explained.
It was a reminder that the tourist season comes to an abrupt halt next week as most (if not all) businesses go into hibernation for several months.
It must be a strange life being so heavily reliant on the tourist season. You work yourself into the ground for six months of the year in the hope you have earned enough to carry you through winter. There's a lot to be said for a boring office job with a steady income.
Anyway, we ended up having a very tasty cheese filled bagel and relaxed for half an hour, looking out over the caldera.
We settled our decision for the afternoon, deciding on visiting Oia, a town at the far tip of the island. It was too far to walk, although in theory the 10km would only have taken us two hours to walk to the far end of the island. But there was an easier option, we could catch a bus.
We retraced our steps back towards the Museum of Prehistoric Thira where across the main road (Mitropoleos Street) we found the bus station.
After walking up to what looked like the "ticket office" we were told that the process was to get on the bus and pay for the tickets there.
After some confusion we found the right bus and hopped onboard just moments before it left. The bus squeezed its way out of Thira's narrow main road and continued through Firostefani and Imerovigli, with a few stops. The conductor was making his way up the bus, issuing tickets. I was expecting anything between €5-€10 but the fare to Oia was a very affordable €1.80 each.
Once we left Imerovigli we hit the open road. On this stretch of road you could really appreciate how narrow the island was, hardly more than a mile wide. The road meandered it's way over a ridge, from West coast, overlooking Panagia Kalou on the East coast.
The hillside here had a strange appearance of lush green paddy fields, very much in contrast to the edge of the caldera. Our explanation as to why it looked more Indonesian than Grecian was it was the result of solidifying cascading waves of molten lava. Sounded perfectly plausible.
Julie was having kittens (as they say) with the bus hurtling around the bends at some speed. There were many sharp intakes of breath as she feared careering over the edge and those feeble crash barriers wouldn't have stopped us! Fortunately the feeling of being on a runaway train didn't last for long.
It wasn't long before we came away from the ridge, heading West and rolling into Finikia a town which in a blink of an eye merged into Oia.
We pretty much reached the end the road in a small square and came to a stop next to a derelict building that despite looking as if it was about to collapse also had bags of character. It had the name "Taverna Canava" painted above the door. Much of its warm terracotta plaster had fallen off. It looked like a survivor, a pre-56, a collectors piece.
It wasn't obvious which way to go from here but we followed the flow of people towards the town's main church Panagia Platsani.
This was a full blown typical orthodox church, traditional whitewashed walls, classic blue dome and a tower of ever decreasing bells, in a 3-2-1 formation. In front of it was a lovely marble tiled square, although in Julie's eyes it may as well have been an ice rink with its shiny appearance making it look very slippery.
Julie skated off to the end of the square to admire the view back across the caldera whilst I waited for the opportunity to have a clear shot of photographing the church.
Directly in front of the church was a Chinese lady having her photo taken by her faithful and very patient companion. They were taking it all very seriously, striking some dramatic poses whilst dressed in this really odd and very short puffed out skirt/dress. At first I found it all very amusing but ten minutes later she was still pouting and pirouetting in front of the church and I was getting slightly annoyed. Instagram has a lot to answer for!
Eventually the posturing prima donna moved enough to one side for me to sneak a photo.
From the edge of Panagia Platsani square we stood at the edge of the caldera looking back towards Imerovigli amazed how it clung to the rock appearing like frosting on a cake.
We tried to spot our hotel. "It's the white one" I said. Which made me laugh if no one else.
It was also fascnating to see the church clinging on to the side of Skaros Rock. To call its position as dramatic would be an understatement. Once again, for the second time today, we surprised ourselves with our little adventure yesterday.
There seemed to be only one way out of the square so we followed the narrow street passing several souvenir shops. At the first opportunity we turned left off the main street down some steps and out into the open.
Here we found the spectacular view of the South face of Oia, the side facing the caldera. It was a picture postcard perfection of blue-domed churches sprinkled amongst the white and pastel hued houses cascading down the hill. It was the classic image of a Greek island. Just beautiful.
In front of us were the dome and bellfry of the church of Agios Spiridonas and then beyond that the church of Anastasis.
Oia is considered one of the best locations on Santorini to experience the sunset and some eager photographers were already claiming their position for later in the day. Now I enjoy taking a snapshot or two but I wouldn't have the dedication nor the patience to be a photographer. All that jostling with your tripod.
Where we stood was literally on the rooftop of another church , one with lovely twin bell towers. We noticed out in the caldera another island, the uninhabited rock of Aspronisi.
"Or is it a whale?" joked Julie refering to the time we once mistook a rock out in the Pacific Ocean for a humpback whale. Oh, how we laughed.
We returned to the main shopping street, where we had a good chuckle outside a pharmacist selling donkey milk beauty products, it's a "miracle for the face" apparently. We found it hilarious.
I think the amaeturish poster added to its comedy. An estatic looking model holding a bar of donkey soap was overlooked by a badly cut and pasted image of donkey dropped into the top corner. So funny.
We browsed the souvenir shops without any real intention to buy. It was just quite interesting to see the colourful art & crafts on sale. Almost tempting us to part with our money were these cute minature blue-domed churches, hardly bigger than a thimble, but our conviction not to buy was stronger than our desire for them.
The street soon split into two.
We decided to take the high road which lead us to the end of the town where the shops stopped and the street narrowed into paths.
We followed the path to its conclusion and came to a fully restored windmill. It was no longer a working mill but has instead been converted into a villa, as had practically every other property in Oia.
Part of the Golden Sunset Villas I didn't feel I should go inside it. Although I'm sure I would have been welcomed with open arms. They had table and chairs outside for guests. As custodians of the island's icon they should be applauded. The windmill itself was in immaculate condition. Not a blemish on its whitewashed walls and its thatched roof was well maintained.
I rejoined Julie and we walked down narrow lanes admiring old fishermen cottages which brought some character and charm amongst the more modern hotels.
It was a glimpse of how Oia would have looked before the hordes descended when it was just a fishing village on a lump of rock in the middle of the sea.
Although looking closer I'm sure even this was part of a hotel.
From the windmill we retraced our steps a little before taking another path down towards the fort. Every now and then we stopped to look behind us at the spectacular view but he best vantage point was from the walls of the fort.
We spotted a second windmill just below the other, an infinity pool at the base of a hotel cascading down the hillside. There was even a patch of rough ground, undeveloped land with several stone built arches giving access deep into the rock. It was a real mishmash of buidlings, colours, form.
Historically there were many cave dwellings in Oia. Today a few hotels offer the unique experience of staying in a cave albeit a 5 star luxury one. (An experience we had recently in Matera Italy!)
We walked a little further towards the ruins of the Castle of St.Nicholas a 15th century Venetian fort. All that remained was the remnants of a red brick tower. A combination of the Turks and successive earthquakes had reduced it to a plile of rubble with a few steps. Depite this it was the place in town to be to catch the best views of Oia, especially when the sun set. During the summer months, in the late afternoon there would be no chance of finding space on it's ramparts.
It made us feel glad for coming. Oia was undoubtedly the most picturesque village on this already stunning island. We sat on the wall looking back towards the windmill sighing at its staggering beauty.
We took a few selfies then sat on the low wall gazing over the picturesque. We felt a little weary and decided to head back to the hotel.
As we were about to leave we got a text message from Hannah. Three hours after sending out an appeal for a golden ticket of sobriety exemption, someone finally came good and donated £10 to the MacMillan cancer research. We thanked Bethan (Julie's niece) enormously and headed back into the town to find the nearest bar!
With renewed vigour we skipped up the steps, along a path that could only lead us towards another stunning view across Oia. The blue domes of Ekklisia Anastasis (or the Church of the Resurrection) in the midst of the patchwork of houses looked more like a painting.
We soon came to our holy grail, a small bar serving Crazy Donkey called 39 Steps. They only had a few tables, enough for eight covers. We sat outside, shaded from the sun beneath their canopy, just behind the blue dome of the church Saint Nikolaos Peramataris and ordered a beer and a cocktail.
I knew that Crazy Donkey was a stronger brew than average at 6.9% but I wasn't expecting a large (750ml) bottle. It went down well and after only a couple of minutes I was staring at an empty bottle . Julie was far more controlled slowly sipping her Strawberry Daquiri.
The bar was in a fabulous spot for people watching. The blue dome was a quite an attraction. People came with their selfie sticks for a photo of themslves with it as the backdrop. It was entertaining to watch them all. On one end of the spectrum you had the no nonsense type that just stood there, took a photo and moved on, not even breaking into a smile. Then at the other end of the scale you had those who took dozens of photos of themselves pouting and posing like they were on a fashion shoot.
Anyway, we moved on, mostly in search of free wi-fi so we could post a photo on Facebook and thank Bethan profusely for her Golden Ticket donation. We walked up (I guess) 39 steps to the main street, picking up wi-fi signal from random places but of course they all needed passwords. After my feeble attempts at hacking my way in we decided to go inside one of them.
We chose the one with the wonderful smell of garlic wafting from the kitchen. Restaurant Lotza had a lovely terrace out the back overlooking the Church of Saint Nikolaos Peramataris and of course the splendour of the caldrea.
Unfortunately however we had allowed our stomachs to rule our heads as they didn't have any internet, the real reason for our pit stop.
Never mind. As we were here I ordered something called Briam which turned out to be incredibly delicious. It was a traditional Greek dish combining slow roasted mediteranean vegetables like peppers, aubergines, courgettes, tomatoes with root vegetables of carrots and potatoes. Finished off with a drizzle of yogurt dressing and flat-leaf parsely.
It had clearly been cooked for hours to acheive the rich intense flavours. I was so disappointed when it came to an end that I almost ordered another bowl full. Without a doubt it was the tastiest meal of the trip so far.
We didn't rush to leave. The sun was just starting to drop and there could be no better place to enjoy it than sat at a table with an ice cold beer.
Our joy was tinged a little with sadness as we realised that we were leaving Santorini tomorrow. There was still plenty to see and do on the island that we could have done with a couple more days here.
"It's always good to have a reason to return" said Julie imparting her wisdom like a Chinese sage.
We left the restaurant and made our way back to where we got off the bus ready to catch the next one out. Just along the side of the main church on the square we stopped at a bar called Blue Sky because we noticed we were picking up their wi-fi signal.
The waitress was a little miffed. "Only one beer?" she asked as she tried to work out if we deserved to get the password to connect to the internet.
She reluctantly revealed their secret code. When she said BlueSky2015 I had a little chuckle. I should have guessed that one.
With our Crazy Donkey/Strawberry Daquiri photo posted onto Facebook we left for the bus stop. It was now just after 6pm.
When we got on the bus we had the coach almost to ourselves. Unsurprisingly there was hardly any one else leaving Oia whilst the sun was setting. It's the main reason why people flock here.
It's not as if we missed the sun set either. On our journey back we enjoyed some lovely views. The silhlouette of the a church in Finikia was particularly memorable. I think it was the way the dirty bus windows filtered the sun into rays of light.
However we both agreed it wasn't the best sunset in the world (That award went to Santa Monica) but it was still pretty.
Ten minutes after leaving Oia we came to an uncheduled stop. A couple had flagged the bus down. They had started walking from Oia and realised that it would be soon dark and not safe to walk along the pavementless road.
We were parked up for a few minures whilst they asked if they could get on etc. Out of our dirty window we had a wonderful view Westwards over to Thirasia.
We reached Imerovigli with enough time to pop to little a grocercy store for a bottle of wine and still be sat on our patio watching the last light of the day fade away. It was such a perfect ending to our day.
However the night was but young as they say and a few hours later we were on our way out to find some supper.
We had planned on trying a place called Taverna Anestis but after seeing that it was totally empty we continued to walk straight past it. Nothing puts you off as much as seeing an empty restaurant. Especially when we compared it to Bella Thira which was just across the road and was quite busy.
Attracted by its popularity we returned to Bella Thira. The same waiter who served us yesterday came to take our order. "I think we owe you some money" said Julie. He just smiled.
Julie ordered the Lamb Kleftika. It was what she was craving since we arrived in Santorini.
I ordered two appetisers. One was called Bouyiourdi a dish of feta cheese submerged in a spicy tomato and red pepper sauce. The other didn't have a name but was pretty much the same thing but with aubergine slices submerged in a milder tomato sauce.
They weren't that pretty on the plate, they had clearly been over microwaved and the tomato sauce was more like a cream of tomato soup. The bouyiourdi wasn't a traditional Santorini dish, hailing instead from Macedonia in the North of Greece, and I guess what I had in front of me wasn't a very traditional bouyiourdi.
Despite all of that, the bouyourdi actually tasted really good.
Sadly whilst the aubergine dish had an interesting hint of cinnamom it was otherwise quite bland. It suffered in comparison to the strong flavours of the bouyiourdi.
Julie was more than happy with her choice with the lamb cooked to perfection.
We ended the meal with complimentary shots of Ouzo which I necked back both so that Julie didn't have to feel obliged to drink hers. She's not the biggest fan of any kind of aniseed liquer.
It was all very reasonably priced as our bill came to only €35 including half a carafe of wine and a large Mythos beer. This time we had made sure we had enough cash in our pocket to pay and leave a good tip.
The staff here were all very nice. They dealt with one awkward customer in a very professional way whilst we were waiting to pay. She was complaining loudly that her pasta dish tasted like it contained meat. Despite reassurances she refused to eat it. She was very rude and po faced. She was also constantly smoking so I'm surprised she could taste anything at all. Anyway they brought out a fresh bowl of pasta without any cheese to see if that tasted more to her liking, which apparently it did.
Once the commotion had settled we left and we made our way back to the hotel.
We briefly thought about a dip in the hot tub but decided against getting our swimming costumes wet. We would be packing and moving on tomorrow.