Santorini

Santorini 1981

In October 1981 I went to Greece for the first time, and visited three island, Mykonos, Paros and Santorini. There were not many tourists on the islands, but quite a few signs (tourist shops etc) showing that tourism had reached the islands.

I was pleased to reach Santorini after a cramped boat ride from Paros. The island is the remnant of an extinct volcano and the main town of Thira is built on the rim of the volcano. There was then no cable car; the only way from the old harbour to the top was up the 600 odd steps or donkey taxi. The ferry landed at the new port of Athinios where two buses waited. Hundreds of passengers and rucksacks (so it seemed) clambered on board. We saw a spectacular sunset as we wound up to Thira. Where would we all sleep? No need to have worried.

Quite a few years ago now I started hearing comments from people who had been to Santorini more recently that the streets were lined with gold jewellery shops. Passing through Santorini in autumn 1996 (by a somewhat eccentric hydrofoil route from Naxos to Amorgos via Ios and Santorini), I saw five large cruise ships moored in the bay of Santorini. I was horrified to think that so many cruise ships called in at Santorini at the same time. Later I was on Mykonos when there were the same number of cruise ships on a much smaller island.

Certainly Thira town and Oia (even from the seas I could tell that Oia had expanded dramatically since my visit) had more buildings than on my first visit.

Back in 1981, the cable car had not been built. I walked up and down the steps to the old harbour a time or two, resisting the temptation to buy a ride on one of the now probably retired donkeys. The new harbour a mile or two round the coast had been built by 1981. The new harbour was not and is not a place to stay, and if there are rooms, they would only be used by people waiting for or landing from a boat. There is usually a fleet of buses and hotel owned mini buses to meet the ferries. [Update - when I visited in I think 1998, there ws no bus waiting to meet the ferry, and few buses from the town to the harbour. Much must depend on the time of year and the number of visitors. You would be unlucky to not find at least one room tout with a vehicle. I tend to visit Greece now at ever quieter times of the year when there are fewer tourists and the islands retain more of their old world charm - but theat also means fewer buses!]. I have been on ferries calling in at Santorini on a number of occasions. We usually sail out of Santorini to the sight of a positive convey of these vehicles snaking their way up the hairpin road leading from the harbour. Are they so assiduous in returning you to the harbour, I always wonder? I say there are usually a large number of buses. Coming back from Anaphi there were only five passengers and a crate or two of fish on board the Express Santorini. I noticed that the ferry was not met. If anyone had been getting off at Santorini there could have been a long wait in port until the next bus appeared. Another ferry (presumably from more populated ferries) had just left port, the buses were snaking up hill, but not single one had waited to meet the ferry from Anaphi. Luckily no one (human or fish) got off.

I stayed at the Hotel Kavalari. I see that the hotel is now listed in various hotel guides, and must have gone upmarket since my visit. I remember the novelty of having the reception on the top floor and the rooms on the floors beneath. My room was in the volcanic crater, windowless, dug out of the rock. Apart from a cave hotel I stayed in at Matamata in Tunisia, this was the only time I have ever slept in a cave. This room was reached down a tunnel and had no window, just a ventilator onto the tunnel; the cave room in Tunisia gave onto an outside platform. The Tunisian hotel was on the tourist trail; the door was only made of palm leaves and had no lock. One morning I was lounging in bed, not that late, perhaps about eight, when I heard some voices. A tour group was exploring the hotel. I rapidly made some noises and put my head out of the door so that they could see the room was occupied. I had no such problems at the Kavalari for although the room was in a cave it had a locking door.

I heard one middle aged couple complaining that their room was damp. To me a damp room in that heat would have been a blessing. I have different expectations when I am in Greece to when I am in England, and maybe these two had not adjusted their expectations. In England, I expect a hotel room to have a fitted carpet, yet in Greece I am more than happy with a marble tiled floor and a rug or two. I have been in hotel rooms in Athens with carpets, but they often look tatty.

I walked along the paths past white churches, with blue sky and sea beyond; Santorini was as picturesque as the tourist photos and postcards make it out to be. I visited a museum in a convent, and noticed lots of apparently locally hand knitted jumpers on sale. I still have somewhere a baggy brown (raw dirty sheep colour more than brown) jumper. Another chap was writing messages of the customer's choice onto a piece of metal that he then twisted into a scroll shape and fastened onto a wooden back. I still have the message I dredged from somewhere:

"Everything is easier than it seems before you have started. And never give up once you have begun."

The label on the back reads "Bronzo Santorini." It is probably almost an antique now.

I had read somewhere that "Bobby's" was the best place to eat and I ate there each night. I remember that Bobby's did seem less touristy than the other places I saw. On the first night, I had kebabs, meatballs, salad, and local wine. My appetite must have been larger in those days!

The profusion of "Thira's" was confusing, the island, the main town, and the site of old Thira across the island. Santorini is the Venetian name - after the 3rd century St Irene. Thira is the Classical name.

The Minoan site at Akrotiri is worth calling in at Santorini for, to see the impressive ruins of the Minoan site buried by a volcanic explosion in 1500 BC. Someday I will go back. I have often called in at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens to see the Santorini frescos. I have often wondered, why are the gibbons blue? Or why are there gibbons at all? Where did the painters see real gibbons?

I caught a bus to Oia in the north of the island, a small scale Thira with (then) few tourists, and walked down 500ish steps to the harbour and dipped my toes in the sea, the only refreshment available. Back up in Oia I bought some prickly pears from a man who looked like the oldest inhabitant of the island. He peeled the fruit and was very insistent that I did not touch the unpeeled fruit. After I had eaten the fruit, he gave me a cloth on which to wipe my hands. Ouch! It was full of prickles! I went round the maritime museum that struck me as being an odd place. I remember seeing a stuffed white satin anchor. Having written that I remember my thoughts at the little maritime museum in Andros and tick myself off for being critical of a little museum that must be someone's pride and joy.

Back to Thira to see another beautiful sunset, and dinner at Bobby's again. The season was nearly over and many places were closed.

One day I caught a bus to Kamari beach. I have read that Kamari has been much developed since I was there, and is now a large resort area. Then as now it was famed for its dark volcanic sand. I walked up the mountain to the site of old Thira, missed the path, and ended up crawling over loose lava. A passing tourist hauled me over a wall onto the right path. So hot. No refreshments, not even a prickly pear (peeled or otherwise). I set off for the next mountain, where there is a monastery, Profitis Ilias. View spectacular. A military station, where photography prohibited. Monastery closed for long lunch break. No food or drink on sale (young innocent, I had not learnt always to carry a bottle of water with me). I explored a church, outside of which was an open air shower next door to a loo. I tried the tap. It was not a mirage. I showered, fully dressed, and drank lots of the water, not caring where it had come from. Some passing soldiers were much amused. The monastery remained closed and I gave up waiting. I walked back down mule track to the town of Pirgos built on a hill. I wrote back in 1981 that there were lots of nooks and crannies to explore at Pirgos. No doubt Pirgos was a fine place, but in those early days I was a novice island explorer. I am sure I have since been to many Greek island villages with far more in the way of nooks and crannies to explore. I found a cafe that was open and lingered over a tipple - probably a Fanta. In those far off days! I had not discovered how good an Amstel can taste after a long walk. Saw bus leaving, last one for hours. I was resigned to a long hot walk back to Thira. Taxi pulled up. Free lift to Thira? I jumped in. Another beautiful sunset. And dinner, guess where!

Next day I caught the bus at some unearthly hours for the port. These buses must have elastic walls. I was in Santorini at election time. I do not remember the obvious manifestations of the election that I had seen on Paros and Mykonos, but I travelled to Athens either the day of or the day before the election. I do not remember the name of the ferry but she was packed, absolutely packed, with people going back to Athens to vote. I have never known a ship so crowded, and even at Santorini, (where she probably started her journey) there was standing room only. The journey took 12 hours. Looking back it is surprising that this experience did not put me off island hopping for good!