You've probably seen photos of Santorini, with its brilliantly-coloured cliffs plunging into the deep caldera, the villages of white pillbox houses and blue-domed churches tumbling helter-skelter down pumice stone hills and the intense sapphire blue of the sea . Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists disembark from cruise ships and make the steep climb from the port to stare out over the caldera. If you visit in July or in August, you will barely be able to shoulder your way through the crowds in the main town of Fira. Even in September, the streets can be busy, but you'll forget it all when you stand looking at that incredible view. I understand now why all our guide books describe Santorini as "not to be missed".
Santorini is an island that has had many names and shapes. Over 3500 years ago, Santorini was known as "Strongyli" or "round one". Later, it was known as "Kallista" ("most beautiful") and then "Thira" in honour of a Thebian hero. The name "Santorini" refers to Saint Irini, who died here in the 3rd century AD. The island has officially readopted the name of "Thira" (the name that appears on all our sailing charts) but the name Santorini continues to be widely used by foreigners, by the tourist industry and by us.
The original round island of Strongyli was the centre of a highly advanced Minoan civilization and some people believe that this island was the capital of mythical Atlantis. The richness of Santorini's ancient culture is most evident from the incredible frescoes discovered at the prehistoric site of Akrotiri. We saw the originals of these murals (which are more than 3500 years old!) with their unforgettable depictions of antelopes, boxing children and kissing swallows, when we visited the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
The Akrotiri site is closed to the public at the present time (sigh) but reproductions of fragments of the frescos and the early Cycladic Picasso-like figurines are on sale in a multitudes of art stores throughout Santorini.
Santorini is no longer round, of course. The original island was blown apart in the massive eruption circa 1500 BC (some references say 1650 BC) that created the largest caldera on the planet. Our charts show depths of 380 meters in the caldera itself, while some of the cliffs rise an additional thousand feet or so from sea level. Throughout the centuries, the volcanic activity has continued, periodically creating terrifying earthquakes and tidal waves and raising new islands from the bed of the sea. Standing on the cliff looking out over the caldera, this is all a bit disconcerting to contemplate, but I reassure myself that, with modern advances in seismology, surely we would get some warning if it was about to blow. Wouldn't we?
With Aisling safely tied alongside at Vlikadha marina, we have rented a motor bike to tour the island. For our first outing, we head straight for Oia (pronounced ee-ah) on the northern end of the caldera. This is the quintessential Greek village of the postcards, although in some ways walking through its streets feels like walking through the streets of a large theme park. When we arrive, the streets are remarkably quiet.
We have lunch in a little taverna overlooking the caldera and then wander through the streets of the village examining the merchandise in some of the jewellery and art shops. Periodically, we veer off along the small alleyways to the viewpoints overlooking the caldera. "I'm looking for that place where everyone gets their picture taken in front of the blue dome" says Rick. "I think there are a lot of blue domes" I reply, but eventually we find the place he is looking for. By this time, a large group of cruise ship passengers has arrived, and we line up behind the Japanese tourists who want the same photo. I'm already realizing that Santorini will not offer the tranquility that can still be found on the islands that are further off the beaten track, but I feel ebullient each time I look at the view.
The next day, the meltemi is howling and the gusts whip tears into our eyes as we head for Fira to check in with the port police. I'm a little nervous about the fact that our cruising log has not been authorized since we arrived on Paxos on May 26th, and I get even more nervous when the official asks why we didn't check in at our last port of call. I breathe a sigh of relief when he accepts Rick's explanation that we have been anchoring off and obligingly gives us both an entry and an exit stamp. So far, we have experienced absolutely no problems with the infamous Greek bureaucracy. Perhaps we've just been lucky, perhaps things have changed for the better, or perhaps the whole thing was just an urban myth perpetuated by cruisers as a strategy to keep the crowds down in the anchorages!
In Fira, we wander the streets near the main square, where music from the movie Shirley Valentine drifts through the open doors of one restaurant, then another. I visit the cathedral and light one of the long thin candles in memory of my cousin Isabel, who would have had her fiftieth birthday this week. It's an inspirational and peaceful place for contemplation, with colourful icons and a huge painting of Christ Pantocrator (Christ Almighty) on the dome overhead.
We walk along the promenade overlooking the caldera, then go back toward the central square to have a late lunch at a small restaurant called "Ouzeria". We realize that, after spending more than two months in Greece, we haven't had a single glass of ouzo, but it doesn't seem wise to do it when we need to drive a motorbike back to the marina. Another day, perhaps. Lunch is very good and the prices are considerably lower than those of the caldera-view restaurants along the promenade.
The quality of Santorini wine is renowned throughout Greece and the Boutari winery is just a short distance from the marina. We finish the day with a winery tour and tasting. During the tour, the guide reviews the history of wine-making in Greece and explains that wine-making is deeply embedded in the Greek culture-- so much so that it is very common for families to maintain their own small vineyards and make their own wine. Because Santorini has never been affected by phyloxera, centuries-old grape varietals and clones can be found within these vineyards, but many are being lost forever due to incentive programs that encourage vineyard owners to destroy existing vines and replant with more profitable varieties. The vines are planted in what looks like dark sand and rocks and pruned to lie directly on the ground in a circular shape, giving the appearance of a basket where the grapes lie inside, protected from the wind.
We learn about the process for making the high-quality "vinsanto" (or visanto) wine of Santorini, for which grapes are spread on mats and dried in the sun, fermented in stainless steel casks and then aged in barrels. Later, we taste a selection of wines. I am delighted by the Selladia, which, we are told, has a Wine Spectator rating of 83, while Rick, obviously rightfully, prefers the Kallisti Reserve (rating 93). The Vinsanto, a sweet dessert-type wine, has a rating of 98 and it's easy to taste (and smell!) the reason for the high rating. Not having had the foresight to bring our knapsacks, we still manage to carry six bottles back to the boat, and we hope to pack a couple of them in our luggage so that our friends at home can taste them.
On Tuesday morning, we use up the last few hours of our bike rental with a drive to Akrotiri and Perissa beach, where the pounding surf and chilly breeze give the air the feel of a Nova Scotia autumn. A few straggling tourists wander among the beach cots looking a bit glum. But in the distance, we hear the strains of music from a celebration taking place at a small chapel high on the cliff, beside the walkway to ancient Thira. We do not have the time to make the walk, but it sounds and looks like a grand party and we later learn that this is a name-day celebration for Santa Maria. To the Greeks, name days are much more important than birthdays, so thousands of Greek women and girls named Maria will be honoured with gifts and celebrations today.
We are given a lift back to the marina by the owner of the bike rental agency. As we approach the marina, she gestures toward the nearby spa hotel. "Here, fifteen years ago, was nothing", she says. "Just there, was a rock where we used to put out our lines for fish. I take my children here to swim and play when they are little. Then, the hotel makes a spa with the hot water, everything is changed now" Tourism has clearly had both negative and positive effects for this island.
Back at the boat, the wind has whipped drifts of sand onto the decks and canvas. Rick gets out the hose and washes everything down but it is almost an exercise in futility, since the sand is blowing back onboard almost as fast as he washes it off. Below, I even feel a thin layer of grit on the countertops and realize that I will be wiping away traces of Santorini for days. We decide to leave as soon as the weather cooperates, which from the forecast seems to be the next morning . The rest of the day is a mad rush, finishing some work that is due back in Canada and preparing the boat for the passage to Astypalia. But instead of turning in early as we should, we sit in the cockpit until nearly midnight, entertained by the philosophical musings of Andreas, the captain of a large charter yacht that was tied next to us on our first night in the marina.
Andreas and Rick have struck up a friendship, and we have watched the happenings onboard Andreas' yacht with interest and some dismay, as the clients become increasingly drunken, loud and belligerent. Tonight, all seems to be quiet onboard. Andreas is too professional to give us any details, but it is clear that he disapproves. "I have been with the wealthy, with presidents, with movie stars", he says. "These are lost people. The simple life and simple pleasures, my friend, that is what makes a happy life". We hope the bottoms of his feet have not picked up too much dirt from our decks as he finally climbs back onto the dock and bids us goodnight.
The next morning at 9 a.m. we hoist the sails and are off to Astypalia- sailing at last! The wind comes and goes, but for most of the way we have a nice Force 5 breeze from the northwest, and Aisling is loving it as much as we are. A large pod of dolphins plays in our bow wave as we turn the corner into the beautiful and protected anchorage of Maltezana. A large protected cove surrounded by rocky cliffs and islets, a tiny village on shore and a slightly bigger village with a large Venetian castle on the hill in the distance. This is more like it. Yes, we are definitely ready to be off the beaten track for a while!
Cruising notes for Santorini
We experienced heavy fog with visibilities down to 200' on the approach to Santorini and as we left the Caldera. (I think that was unusual as the harbour police were even prohibiting boars from leaving the marina.) The marina at Vlikadha is out of the way but it is the only place to safely leave your boat unattended to tour Santorini. Contact VHF channel 10 or phone 30 22860 82119. Moor either bow or stern-to, or alongside, where you can expect to have other boats rafted alongside you if the marina gets busy. The approach to the marina is very tricky with a long semi-submerged ancient mole (breakwater) to starboard and a reef to port. The end of the mole is marked with small yellow buoy and depths are around 3 meters. I wouldn't want to enter here for the first time in the fog or in a strong southerly wind. Inside the marina mole it is even shallower, with depths to port near the inner marina entrance of about 1 meter. Inside the marina itself, the depths were about 2.5 meters. (Sorry Hans, you're not going to fit Delawana into this one!) The cost for our 12.4 meter boat, including wifi, water and power, was 15 euros a day. Water is non-potable and slightly salty and the marina is very dusty, especially in a blow. Small mini-mart ashore, grocery stores accessible by taxi. Motor bikes can be delivered to the marina ( Lukas bikes, ask at the marina office).
We were able to get laundry done at the blue Therm-spa hotel on the hill. The process was a bit unusual- we had to bring them a list of every single item to be washed, then they decided whether they could accommodate us and gave us a price. Knowing that our friends Jaap and Diana had paid 60 euros to get laundry done at a place that priced by the piece in Sicily, we were expecting the worst, but in the end we paid "only" 20 euros to get a large load washed and dried. The hotel also told us we were welcome to use the showers beside their pool. Getting the laundry back was tricky, since it could only be picked up when the laundry guy was on site and we had to make three trips before we tracked him down. Allow lots of time and don't leave your laundry if you are planning an early-morning departure the next day!