(Santorini being such a special place, this post is a little longer than usual)
There can be no more dramatic Greek island arrival than that of Santorini. As we sailed along the curve of the island we were given a panoramic view of Santorini’s villages clinging precariously to the tops of the sheer 200m – 300m high cliffs.
First we passed Oia in the North, then the main town of Fira in the middle, before docking several kilometres further at the ferry port. Santorini has been shaped by its extremely violent volcanic past, having once been a circular island, but now split into several islands, facing a central caldera (a large crater formed by the collapse of its volcanic cone). This caldera is open to the sea in several places, and that is what we had just sailed along to reach the port. The island’s history is fascinating – and reads like a geography lesson – and the evidence of its volatile past is everywhere, from the caldera, to the red volcanic rock cliffs, to the exposed towns buried under metres of ash (its own version of Pompeii) to the beaches of red, black or white sand, depending on what layer of solidified lava is exposed.
Having disembarked, our first obstacle was to get to our hotel 8kms away, and not having hired a car or booked a shuttle bus we set off on foot. It is a monstrous hill – as we docked all that distinguished the cliff above us from the sheer cliffs around was the switchback road cut into the rock. We hefted our bags on our back, and set off gently, enjoying the view that opened as we climbed, but determined that if we ever came back, we would arrange a lift in advance.
On the ferry we had been struck by the number of Chinese visitors – at least 90% of the non-Greeks were Chinese. This stems from the 2014 release of a Chinese romantic comedy set in Santorini, which has caused a spike in the number of Chinese visitors, as well as in the number of proposals and weddings taking place here. Overall, although Santorini is by far the most touristy island we have visited, the visitors now number in the hundreds, compared to the summer, when it sees 2 million arrive over the course of a few months. In comparison, the island population is a mere 15,000. To help manage the situation, Santorini has begun imposing a limit of 8,000 cruise passengers a day. Although the quietest time of the year, we noticed a different pace here compared to other islands, less a relaxing island life vibe, and more of a super charged energy. And inevitably with the huge number of tourists they see, we felt tolerated, as opposed to really welcomed.
We had four nights in Santorini, plenty of time to enjoy the pretty towns of Fira and Oia, the latter which we reached via a 10km picturesque walk along the cliffs.
The views are simply spectacular – the location of the houses perched vertiginously on the cliff edge, the houses themselves with their pleasing cubic shapes and array of stairs leading the eye up or down, dozens of churches, as well as the view over the caldera and the layers of red volcanic rocks, and out to the blue sea beyond.
We also enjoyed people watching, seeing Chinese tourists tottering along in their high heels, or having their “wedding” photos taken (pictures to be blown up and displayed at their wedding at some future date).
Most of all we just enjoyed wandering along, taking a left here, a right there, and seeing where we would end up.
One morning we descended the 600 steps to Fira’s old port, and found the most peaceful spot in Fira. This is where the cruise boats dock in summer, with the passengers either walking up to the town, taking a cable car or a donkey ride. Donkeys feature heavily in the island, not just as transport from the port, but for transport of construction materials to the various building sites all over Fira and Oia, where the stepped lanes prevent vehicular access. There are literally hundreds at work, and sadly, they seem to be worked relentlessly.
Back to the construction, we saw in Santorini – as we did in all other islands so far – a huge number of half-built properties, a legacy of the economic crisis of the last 8 years. Elsewhere a handful were undergoing work, but in Santorini, there are hundreds, and hundreds, being developed / rebuilt / refurbished.
The two main towns of Fira and Oia are like a construction site, and as well as donkeys, men of all ages were hunched under bags of cement, or hauling bricks up and down the maze of stairs. Very tough work, but work nonetheless, and we suspect many are happy to have it.
Life is very tough for the Greeks today and it is jarring to see such a life side by side with the ostentatious and extreme luxury on offer in Santorini. It is an island that draws a jet-set crowd (ourselves excluded!), with private pools on cliff-side terraces, and sunset cocktails overlooking the water.
Expensive jewellery shops abound, and there are clearly two very different sides to life here, with the locals living modestly, far removed from the glitz of the 5 star hotels.
Interestingly, Santorini has no source of water, and while there is running water thanks to a desalination plant, the water is non-potable (barely usable to brush our teeth). So everyone stocks up on bottled water, and it was not unusual to see people pushing trolleys round a supermarket with a dozen cases of water, each containing 6 by 1.5 litre bottles. There is a thriving wine industry here, and the vines have adapted to the arid climate to absorb dew from the early morning coastal fog. In another adaptation, they are “trained” to grow in a low-sized basket shape, with the grapes hanging inside to protect them from the ferocious winds.
Our plan post Santorini was to go to the small, and very quiet island of Folegandros. We had been drawn there since we first read about its beautiful main town, considered by some to be the most beautiful town in Greece. It is a three hour ferry ride from Santorini, en route to the island of Milos which we planned to visit next. Unfortunately the large ferries we have used so far do not service that route, so we were left with a choice between 2 small ferry companies. Choosing the 9am departure over the 7am, we refrained from booking our onward accommodation in Folegandros; even though the weather was sunny and calm, we had a lingering concern that the ferry may not sail, having already witnessed the non-departure of the small ferry we were booked on way back in Syros.
Adding fuel to our concern, on our last morning there we awoke to stormy skies and a gale force wind. Being dropped at the port half an hour early for our ferry, we took refuge from the wind in the Port Authority waiting room, and we seemed to be the only living souls at the port. Seeing how rough the sea was, we seriously doubted the ferry would turn up. We were also nervous about the ride ahead if it did turn up, half dreading it, and I wholly regretted the spinach and pickle pie I had for breakfast. Gradually a trickle of other travellers arrived (all Greek – the Chinese visit only Santorini) and we began to have confidence that the ferry would appear. Finally it came into view, heaving in the swell, and we watched as the port hands battled to secure it to the dock. Eventually secured, the door opened, and a couple of grateful passengers emerged, being helped over the heaving ramp and onto dry land. Next it was our turn to board, and we were passed one-by-one by the ferry crew up and over the wildly swinging ramp, and onto the only marginally less wildly-swinging ferry. We watched in horror as a heavily laden truck tried to reverse onboard, trying to cross a ramp that was constantly moving, crashing loudly into the dock, often with one side of the ramp three feet higher than the other. After many false starts, to the relief of all, he made it, and, show over, we handed over our tickets for inspection. At this point we were told that the ferry would be skipping its scheduled stop at Folegandros as that port is too exposed, and heading directly to Paros (where we had been a week previously).
Facing a long day sailing in those seas, back to our least favourite island so far, we jumped ship. We couldn’t believe it – our plan was in tatters. With so few ferries at this time of the year, we weren’t sure what our next move would be. But as we watched our little ferry depart to do battle with the swell, our first step was to turn and face yet again that monstrous hill.