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A Santorini Rendezvous

Written on: Friday July 3rd, 2009

After struggling for two days through the battle-hardened lands of Bosnia and Serbia, I finally made it to Greece!  I touched down in Athens exhausted but happy, for soon I would meet my adrenaline partner, Liz, who leapt with me from the highest bungee platform in the world some three months earlier in South Africa.  Having a passion for travel and a flexible job, she was interested in a getaway from her Florida home and Greece proved to be the idyllic destination.  Unfortunately, I did not have internet access over the last 48 hours and was therefore unable to confirm that she had departed on time and made all the connections.  Fortunately, the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport had free internet access in the terminal, allowing me to confirm that she was in route; well, at least there were no messages stating that she missed a connection.
 
Three hours later the flight from Fiumicino arrived, bringing Liz with it.
 
"Hi! You made it!" 
 
 'Hi!  Barely made it.  Urgh...what a nightmare."
 
"Come on, you can tell me all about it on the train."
 
Skipping the baggage claim area, we were able to head directly to the train bound for central Athens.  During that sixty minute ride I learned that she did, in fact, barely make it.  One disaster after another tried to keep her from arriving in Greece on time, but with a lot of persuasion and the purchase of one entirely new airline ticket, she was now in the super-heated streets of one of the most prolific ancient civilizations the world had ever known.
 
We skipped off the train at Monastiraki and hiked the half mile to our previously booked hotel.  The neighborhood around the Evripides Hotel seemed sketchy, but we didn't care.  It was well located, clean and possessed the only other two requirements we had: air conditioning and a kick ass view of the Acropolis! 
 
After cleaning up a bit we managed to go for an exploratory stroll through town.  It was everything I had imagined: beautiful, old and busy. Street vendors sold fresh fruit while touts tried without remorse to get you into their restaurants or souvenir shops.  We aimed back toward the train station, bought some delicious cherries and headed up the hill toward the Acropolis.  By the time we arrived there was not ample time to visit the Wonder, so we sat atop a nearby rock lookout point and enjoyed the sun setting over the Roman Agora.  Heading back toward the touristy part of town, we opted for dinner at one of the less busy establishments, thoroughly enjoying our souvlaki and wine.  We took the long way 'round back to the hotel, content to stretch our legs and catch up on the last three months.  A nightcap on the rooftop balcony provided an illuminated view of the Acropolis...not a bad first night in Greece.
 
Unless you had visited the Acropolis prior to 1989, you did not see the Parthenon without the grotesque and ever-present tons of scaffolding set up across the vast majority of the structure.  Renovations had been ongoing for that long.  The other major drawback was the hoards of sheep (ie: tourist groups) waddling throughout the site.  Lines were long and photographs impossible to get without catching Kevin and Sally from Nebraska or a busload of Japanese in the frame.  Still, the site was impressive.  To stop and look at the immenseness of the Parthenon and think that it was completed almost 2500 years ago was astounding.  The nearby Erechtheion was in better shape, although the six maiden statue columns on the southern side were plaster mocks, with the originals displayed in the nearby Acropolis museum (except, of course, for the one original that was commandeered by Lord Elgin and his British vanity).  The Theater of Dionysos was in good shape, despite its current albeit temporary decor for what appeared to be the site of an upcoming pharmaceutical conference.  Also interesting was the 'other' theater, that of Herodes Atticus.  One certainly had to admit that Greek civilization from 500-300BC had it goin' on!  Our tour through the museum was more interesting than I expected.  But I suppose there were a lot of historical items found over the years in this part of the world. 
 
We left the Acropolis and started our way to the National Gardens, making a detour at the nearest ice cream shop.  It was hot and we needed a treat!  The gardens were nice enough, with walking paths set amongst the fruit trees and ponds full of turtles.  Despite the sweltering heat, we decided to hoof our way over to Lykavittos Hill for a bird's eye panorama of the city (we did, however, take the tram to the top).  It was amazing to see how truly massive this urban center was!  There was simply no way to fathom its size from ground level.
 
Starting the trek back toward our neighborhood, we located an adorable restaurant.  Feeling quite carnivorous, we followed up our Greek salad with a mixed grill, including sausages, chicken, steak, pork cutlets and, of course, lamb chops.  It was a tasty way to renew our energy levels for the next portion of the trip.
 
I had dreamt of going to the island of Santorini for a long time.  Images of beautiful beaches and cliff side towns with clustered, white houses and blue trim filled my head for many years.  And tonight was the night that dream would come true! 
 
We negotiated a taxi to bring us from the airport to our seaside hotel in the town of Kamari, along the western coast.  Our second story room had the largest balcony in the resort, offering stupendous views of the ocean and beach below.  I think we made a good choice to come here!  After strolling south for 200m across the stone beach, we reached the promenade, a single street of cute restaurants, small hotels and local pubs.  It felt right.  There were plenty of dining options so as not to get bored while staying here, but not too many tourists around, which kept crowds thin and prices low.  Truly an ideal combination.  And we hit one out of the park on our first night, for tonight fate would have us dine at the Almira Restaurant, where our beautiful beach side table was served by friendly staff and visited occasionally by curious cats. 
 
It was quite often that I ordered grilled squid for dinner.  And the squid that I was served tonight was at least fifty percent larger than any I had had on the entire trip.  It was not often that a dinner of this desirability came in second place out of two dishes.  Liz opted for the signature pasta dish, a ridiculously tasty combination of penne pasta, smoked ham, cream, cheese and other fresh, local goodies.  I had to admit that I was envious of her choice, but thoroughly happy when she was not able to finish it, as I still had ample room.  Finishing off our $6 litre of wine, we milled about the promenade for a while before stopping for one last drink at a sports bar of sorts.  It was the oddest thing: we both had a desire to watch DARTS on the television.  Yes, I know...we could have chosen something similar, like watching paint dry or the grass grow, but for whatever reason, we were intrigued by it and honestly had a good time.  Who knew?
 
The next day was spectacular.  While enjoying our tasty, poolside breakfast in the sun, we planned our route to explore more of the island.  We hunted down a nearby motorbike rental company and negotiated a price 50% better than the hotel offered...not bad.  Mounting the Vespa, we set off first for the nearby archaeological site of Ancient Thira.  The site was atop a mountain on the southern edge of Kamari, and the steep switchbacks that led us to the top were not to be disrespected.  Most of the road surface was cobblestone, making the 180 degree turns all the more challenging.  We made it to the top and strolled about the ruins, unintentionally skipping over a fence and also, consequently, the entrance fee.  There wasn't too much left to old Thira, but one could certainly get an appreciation for why this site was chosen so many years ago.  The mountain top vantage point was unparalleled for seeing enemies in those days, appreciating spectacular vistas in these.  We drove back down a bit and stopped off where we thought we saw a cave in the distance.  Traversing the mountainside, we stumbled upon an old church tucked partially inside a cave.  Too cool!  It was deserted, but there were still signs that folks would come by to pray and maintain the building.  One such sign was the nearby herd of goats.  When we walked closer to photograph them we were suddenly met by the aggressive howls of one, no two...make that three...oh shit, about twelve dogs!  Certainly nobody other then the owner was going to get near these goats!  An afternoon break to hit the beach was next on the agenda.  It was hot, again, and the water was crisp but oh so refreshing!  Changing into our evening attire a couple hours later, we jumped back on the bike and set off for the western side of the island, specifically Fira, the capital of Santorini. 
 
As modern Santorini was created by an enormous volcanic eruption approximately 3600 years ago, the remains of that disaster now offered stunning views of the caldera from the western side of the main island.  Fira was the stereotypical village on the island, with houses and hotels and restaurants and bars built up against one another along the cliff side.  It was an intricate yet brilliant scene, and watching the sun slowly fade into the Mediterranean Sea as we finished our dinner was something neither of us would ever forget.
 
Day number three on Thira began with adventurous ambition.  We drove back across the island, past Firo to nearby Firostefani.  We both instantly fell in love with this place, as the town was even more picturesque than Fira and the crowds were significantly less.  It was amazing how many people strictly followed the guide books and never ventured beyond what they were told by Tony Wheeler and the gang.  We walked the windy path past the countless establishments as we worked our way down to the bottom of civilization in the town.  From here there was nothing but a trail leading out to a small, rocky peninsula that supposedly was home to a spectacular church on the opposite side.  So we began our hike across the frail, volcanic rock until we made it to the opposite end.  We spied the church, but put it on the back burner: the was a peak to climb and, dammit, we were gonna climb it!  We navigated around the jagged rock structure, finding a way up.  Making it to the top, we spent several minutes admiring the scenery...360 degrees of Mediterranean beauty!  It was a good moment.  Carefully making our way back down, we maneuvered farther down the cliff to the monastery.  Unsure whether or not it was still used in this day, we approached with respect.  It was in outstanding condition.  The pure white building was complimented by a blue dome and trim.  This was a perfect representation of Santorini.  Close to wearing out the batteries on our cameras on this site alone, we decided to head back up the cliff and move on to other venues.
 
The next venue happened to be Oia, another picture perfect little town on the far northern end of the island.  Apparently this one WAS in the guidebooks, as the sheep were back, in full flock.  Fortunately our bike was small enough to fit through the rows of buses, allowing us to park right next to the main square.  It was here that we stopped for another ice cream break!  Yes, one could get used to eating in Greece.  This town offered more amazing photo ops, and we certainly took advantage of them.
 
Driving back across the island, we felt it was once again time to hit the water.  Only this time we made our way to the more popular public beach at the end of Kamari.  It was here that we smiled and swam, thoroughly enjoying the water.  I had brought the frisbee and soon discovered that Liz had mad skills with the disc.  We were still flinging it back and forth when she spied a cliff from which to jump into the drink.  There were a couple of kids jumping already, but we knew that we had to do it!  It was fun and took me back to the good ol' days in Jamaica, jumping from the rocky cliffs of the former Pickled Parrot.
 
Despite the myriad of dining choices, we both wanted to go back to Almira.  Yes, I got the pasta for myself this time, and it certainly didn't disappoint.  From there we danced along the promenade, working our way from one end to the other without a care in the world.  Darts was on the tube again, so we stopped in to say hello to the folks we met a couple days ago.  It truly was another perfect evening!
 
The next day, our last on Santorini, saw us biking off toward the southwest of the island.  It was here that we located Red Beach.  A cosy little beach nestled beneath a cliff of red clay, this place was awesome.  Playing frisbee in the waves cured us from the annihilating heat that attacked the beach and the dozens of other folks looking to relax.  Hiking back up the cliff to our bike, we travelled farther east, finally locating a beach with sand!  But this was only hotter on our feet as we scampered to the coast.  Our time was once again split between chatting and relaxing and playing with the 'bee.  After a beach side refreshment, it was time to head back to our 'hood.  We made it a tri-fecta, stopping at the Kamari Beach to once again throw our bodies off the rocks and into the sea.  There were many other people jumping today, making for questionable safety.  It was this that ultimately caused us to leave the beach and head for the resort.  A final stroll along the promenade to return the bike allowed us to say a silent goodbye to the town we both came to love.
 
That night back in Athens we went out for a relaxing dinner, both of us sad to see our time in Greece coming to and end.  But I did have one final surprise for Liz.  Today was the Fourth of July and I had 'secured' some sparklers and red, white and blue decorations from one of the pubs in Kamari.  So upon heading back to the room, I brought her out to the balcony to help enjoy the holiday celebration.  It wasn't much, but it felt good to celebrate America's national holiday with a great friend and fellow American.