Greece – Santorini

We visited Santorini at the very beginning of tourist season, with many of the shops and hotels in panic mode, frantically trying to get ready for the hordes of visitors scheduled to visit the island. Painters were out white washing the caldera cave apartments, technicians were furiously working to restore wifi, and construction workers were putting the finishing touches on recently renovated accommodations. It was quite impressive to see how quickly the village whipped itself into shape, given the sleepy state of Oia when we first arrived. Our accommodations while in Santorini were at the excellent Old Oia Houses, with friendly owner Gill coordinating our ride from the airport and leading us to our adjacent apartments. The view from our balcony was mesmerizing…great value and location made Old Oia Houses a rare find in postcard pretty Oia. Highlights of our visit to Santorini included a hike from Fira to Oia (fantastic views), watching the sunset from the castle ruins in Oia, and drinking beer on our balcony while admiring the caldera. Santorini is the prettiest of the Cyclade islands and is deservedly popular. We were glad that we finally had a chance to visit.

28 March: Our flight to Santorini arrived on time at 10:45am, and our pre-arranged taxi/van driver was patiently waiting for us (along with several other passengers). Our driver was great, giving us a running commentary as we drove from the airport through Fira and onward to Oia. Tourist season had not yet begun in earnest, but the main street in Fira was full of tourists, making this the busiest (and most touristy) island of the trip so far. The island must be deluged with tourists during peak season…one wonders how the locals cope with the invasion of camera happy visitors? Everyone was dropped off at the same turnaround point in Oia, and we paid the driver 25 Euros for the four of us. Our accommodation for the next four nights were two adjacent cave apartments located right on the caldera at “Old Oia Houses”. Becky had coordinated with the owner, a lovely British lady named Gill, for units #2 and #3. Unit #2 was a quaint studio apartment, with the larger Unit #3 next door, complete with a kitchen, living room and separate bedroom. Total cost was 80 Euros for each apartment (per night), a bargain compared to almost every other Oia caldera view accommodation we had looked into. An Old Oia House employee eventually showed up at our drop off point and walked us to our apartments. Gill intercepted us part way, and it was obvious that she had many other pressing issues to deal with as she was talking and moving a mile a minute. She said she’d be by in a couple of minutes after we got settled in. Oia is ridiculously picturesque with narrow alleyways, sky blue church domes, and whitewashed buildings. Within minutes, we were at our apartments and the view was unbelievable. Everyone kept pinching themselves to see if this was real…this slice of paradise was our very own for the next few days. Awesome! As promised, Gill showed up to give us a quick orientation, hand us our keys (for the apartments themselves and a separate key for the door at the top of the staircase to prevent tourists from hopping down the stairs to our balcony). We found out to our dismay that wifi was currently down; Gill was working furiously to rectify that. But in the meantime, she offered up the use of her nearby office for any of our internet needs. We offered to make payment but Gill shrugged us off, stating we could get around to it later on our holiday. Our cave studio apartment was super cute, built into the caldera itself. A low archway led to our petite kitchen, and after hitting our heads once or twice, we quickly remembered to duck down before entering. Same deal for our cave-like bathroom. Bob and Ann’s apartment was much larger, no ducking required! We quickly agreed to use their apartment as our hangout spot, since it was so spacious and the balcony had the most spectacular view. The weather today was fantastic, with the sun shining brightly and the temperature rising. Lucky us! Bob and Ann pulled out their still wet laundry to air dry, and we all eagerly set out to explore pretty Oia. Only 962 inhabitants call Oia home, with tourists easily outnumbering the locals by several multitudes. The city is pronounced by the locals as “Ee-ah”, and it is quite easily one of the prettiest (and most breathtakingly beautiful) villages in all of Greece. Chinese honeymooners certainly think so…we were shocked at the number of Chinese tourists who flooded the streets of Oia (as well as our inbound flight to the island). It was comical seeing so many of them wander the streets with selfie sticks in hand! Apparently Oia suffered a devastating earthquake in 1956. Today, it has been restored into a picture perfect Cyclades vision, with whitewashed houses perched on the steep slope of the caldera one after another. It was obvious that a cruise ship was in town, as large groups of harried tourists rushed around hurriedly trying to soak it all in. We were so glad that we had plenty of time to explore at our leisure…it certainly would suck to visit Oia as part of a large, herded group. We strolled from one end of the village to the other along the main pedestrian street of “Nikolaou Nomikou”, pausing for photos at dozens of random stops. The Church of Panagia in the main square was particularly eye-catching. At the end of the pedestrian street, we finally stumbled upon a rather small supermarket where we were able to load up on some food supplies. A quick stop at a bakery, a butcher’s shop and another supermarket (price comparisons, of course), and all four of us staggered back to our apartments with our arms fully loaded with goodies for the next few days. Prices were higher than in Crete and Rhodes but not extortionate. Leaving Bob and Ann to sort through the groceries, we headed out to find Gill at her restaurant (Lotza), which was not too far from our apartment. Lotza had been damaged by a recent fire, and Gill had been busy getting it back in tiptop shape to prepare for the busy tourist season. No wonder she was spread so thin…Gill was constantly frazzled and a bit scatter brained as she hopped from one project to another! Gill was able to get us a second gate key so that both apartments now had access to the main gate, and she showed us where to find her office in the event we needed internet. We were also granted a sneak peek at two other Old Oia apartments (awesome views) and the wifi access code in case we wanted to hang out in the office courtyard instead. For a late lunch, we stopped by “Family Greek Souvlaki” (near the bus station) where we ordered up pork gyros sandwiches and beer…perfect! After more beer and snacks at our lovely balcony, we joined the massive horde of Oia tourists to watch the sunset at the nearby ruins of a castle/fort, just a few feet away from our apartment. Even in the “off season”, the place was packed a full hour before sunset. As soon as the sun set, the crowd dispersed quickly which made us think that most visitors must have been based out of Fira. Back at the apartment, we enjoyed a tasty dinner of fried fish, salad, and bean soup for dinner. Home cooked meals are the best! And a fraction of the price we would have paid at any of the currently open Oia restaurants.

29 Mar: It was an early morning as we wanted photos of Oia at sunrise. The views from the old fort were quite nice and we couldn’t believe we had the entire place to ourselves! What a difference 12 hours makes as sunset last night was crowded as hell. Walking through the alleyways of Oia in the early morning was a delight…we had the entire village to ourselves. Gone were the cruisers and Fira based day-trippers. It was just us and the friendly cats of Oia. Wandering through the empty streets did have a twilight zone feeling to it…not another soul in sight at one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations…uncanny! Back at the apartment we had breakfast with Bob and Ann. Our plan for the day was to catch a bus from Oia to Fira and hike back. The weather threatened to turn on us though…the morning was overcast with the sun trying its best to break through. We hoped that if it did rain, it would just be a light drizzle. Nevertheless, we prepared for the worst by packing up our rain gear just in case. There were a couple of tourists waiting at Oia’s bus stop for the short ride over to Fira. We joined them and waited, and waited, and waited. What the hell? The bus service in the off season is not reliable! While we were waiting, the rain we had been dreading started, with a light drizzle at first before it became a torrential downpour. The streets of Oia became flooded, and we quickly abandoned all thoughts of visiting Fira and hiking back to Oia. However, we still had to contend with the rivulets of water gushing towards us as we attempted to walk back to our apartment. It was like someone had a fire hose on full blast! The force of the water swelling up and rushing through the narrow alleyways of Oia did have one awesome benefit…all the dog poo washed away in an instant. Our shoes were completely soaked by the time we reached our apartments and we were drenched from head to toe, rain gear and all. So we decided to take a short siesta to let the rain ease up. After a light lunch, we decided to try again, but Bob and Ann weren’t having any of it. They wanted to relax and have a chill day, so we agreed to link up for dinner once we returned to Oia. The weather finally cleared and a sizeable crowd had gathered at the Oia bus station. We were worried that the bus wouldn’t be able to accommodate all of us, but we needn’t have feared as there were plenty of seats for all. The drive took about 15 minutes and cost 1.60 Euro each (paid upon disembarkation). Once in Fira, we left the bus station and headed uphill towards the cathedral and Hotel Atlantis. From here, we wandered around and briefly checked out Fira, but our real agenda was the 9km (roughly 3 hours or so) classic hiking trail linking Fira to Oia through a series of settlements. The Fira caldera views were nice, but we were secretly pleased to have chosen Oia as our base because Fira pales in comparison…Oia wins hands down for beauty and ambiance. Our guidebook had this to say about Fira, “Santorini’s main town of Fira is a vibrant, bustling place, its caldera edge layered with hotels, cave apartments, infinity pools and swish restaurants, all backed by a warren of narrow streets full of shops and even more bars and restaurants. A multitude of fellow admirers cannot diminish the impact of Fira’s stupendous landscape. Views over the multicolored cliffs are breathtaking, and at night the caldera edge is a frozen cascade of lights.” Yup, even with that description, Oia beats Fira any day. From Fira, we walked uphill towards the neighborhood of Firostefani, which is dominated by the Petros M. Nomikos Conference center (a reddish brown neoclassical mansion beneath which is a corner offering fantastic panoramic views of Fira). After snapping countless photos of Fira, we hiked up towards the village of Imerovígli. Here, we decided to prolong our hike by taking a detour out to Skaros Rock. To reach it, we hiked up to the highest point of Imerovígli, which was a blue domed church and baroque tower. From there, we walked a further 30 meters towards the small door of a chapel. Here, we took a right hand turn and followed the steps leading down a steep path to the quaint little chapel of Agios Ioannis Katiforis, which faces Skaros Rock. From here, there are lots of clearly marked stairs leading to the massive rock. The detour took us about 30 minutes round trip, and we both thought it was well worth the effort, since Skaros Rock provided us with unique views of the caldera from its protruding cape. Despite the numerous stairs, it wasn’t too difficult as we took it easy on the hike back up to Imerovígli. Once back in the village, we made our way along the backstreets until we found an alleyway painted with the way to Oia (spelled “Ia”). From here, the rest of the hike to Oia was quite straightforward and easy to follow, as the route was fairly obvious. White chapels strewn along the hike served as our reference points, and we were making great time despite our leisurely pace. When the sun came out, we quickly started overheating, especially on the uphill sections. So we stripped down to our undershirts and then when the sun went behind the clouds, we immediately started shivering. Crazy weather but overall, we felt lucky to have such a glorious day for our scenic hike. The 9km route ended up taking us just over 3 hours, and in retrospect it was a good idea that Ann decided to skip it with her bum knee. The hike is not for anyone with physical ailments or lacking a reasonable level of fitness as it crosses a lot of uneven and rough terrain. Additionally, there were a few sections with loose pumice pebbles which must be trod on with care as we found it quite difficult to get a decent foothold. That was the portion of the hike that decent footwear was a must, as slipping was a very real threat. As we approached Oia, we realized how lucky we were to have this section of the island as our very own for the next few days. Even from the outskirts of Oia, the views mesmerized us and we were entranced as we got closer and closer. The white sugar cubed houses built precariously on the edge of the caldera…postcard views abound in obscenely scenic Oia. Back in Oia, we stopped by our favorite supermarket to stock up on some well deserved beer. We also took a quick detour to the courtyard of Gill’s other apartments to check email since the wifi issue at our apartment had not yet been resolved. After dropping off our bags at the apartment, we hopped over to the fort for another sunset view. Today’s sunset was way more colorful than yesterdays, eliciting ooohs and aaahs from the crowd. Ann had been busy preparing dinner, which we had definitely worked up an appetite for! Fried chicken, salad, and cornmeal (similar to grits)…yum! After dinner, we strolled back over to the other apartments as we wanted to chat with Franny. By this point, other guests had checked into them and they were a bit bewildered why we were in their courtyard on a skype session! Gill promised that she had someone working our wifi issue…fingers crossed it gets resolved soon. Needless to say, we slept soundly tonight.

30 Mar: Our first leisurely day in Oia! We slept in till 8am and then joined Bob and Ann for breakfast. Ann had whipped up corn fritters for breakfast which were surprisingly good. Everyone wanted a chill day and the thought of hiking down (and back up) to Ammoudi Bay did not appeal to Bob and Ann so we decided to leave them to do their own thing while we did ours. Despite the overcast morning, we had high hopes for decent weather as we set off for the walk down to Ammoudi. The tiny port is visible from the sunset lookout point, and we could see fishing boats in the harbor. As we descended the 300 steps below Oia towards Ammoudi, it started to rain. Since we were wearing flip flops and the rain made some of the steps quite slippery, we took our time getting down to the red cliff bay. Thankfully, the rain was a light drizzle so we weren’t getting drenched (unlike yesterday morning!). Work crews were furiously working down in the bay, trying to get the tavernas and bars ready for tourist season which was right around the corner. We strolled from one end of the bay to the other, just soaking in the scenic harbor hugged by blood red cliffs. The sun made an appearance, which really highlighted the amazing hue of the cliffs in contrast to the aqua water of the bay. A fishing boat pulled into port, and we went to check out their haul of lobster, fish and crabs. Later on, Ann expressed her disappointment that we didn’t end up buying any directly from the fisherman but he was in serious negotiations with restaurant staff and we didn’t feel comfortable interrupting. According to our guidebook, Ammoudi bay is the place to catch a daily boat tour to Thirasia, but none of the ferries were running in the off season. Walking back up to Oia wasn’t that bad, although we were both glad not to have a heavy backpack on as we did it. Back in Oia, we found Gill and Becky settled the bill with her. Gill was gracious enough to grant us a discount since the wifi issue had not yet been resolved. Total damage for the two apartments for 4 days with one of the best views in Oia…only 560 Euros (70 Euros per night per apartment)! A bargain compared to the other accommodations we had checked out in super pricey Oia. Lunch was a relaxed affair of gizzards, tzatziki and beer on the front deck, and we actually had to employ our patio umbrellas because the sun was kicking! What a beautiful day in Oia. Earlier in the morning, Bob and Ann had gone shopping and they had stopped by the local butchery. The butcher (who recognized them from the day before) promised to have fresh spring lamb delivered that afternoon and told them to come by after 6pm. We were excited because the last lamb meal we had in Lindos was fabulous. After lunch we had a nice siesta in the apartment for the afternoon. At 6pm, Bob and Ann went to pick up the lamb, leaving us with the task of boiling potatoes. The stove in our apartment kept tripping the power breaker so we went over to their apartment to use theirs. After our potato chore was complete, Robby had a difficult time locking the door to Bob and Ann’s apartment without their key. After manipulating it a bit, he finally managed to secure it (by leaving the top of door lock loose and securing only the door’s main lock). We took off for a wander around town, eventually stopping at the courtyard near Gill’s office for some internet time. Bob stopped by to report that he was unable to unlock the door to his apartment…of course everyone looked at Robby and blamed him since he was the last person to “lock” the door! Poor Gill was notified and she sent one of her workers to try to assist. He couldn’t budge the door open and neither could Robby. Finally, the locksmith was called to see if he could resolve it (the locks had just been installed recently and we were the first customers to break them in, ha). Meanwhile, Robby kept trying to unlock the door, alternating pressure points on the door. Something must have worked because presto, the troublesome door finally unlocked! Crisis averted, we rushed over to Gill’s office to tell her to inform the locksmith to stand down. Such were our trials and tribulations in Oia! Dinner was even better than we had anticipated…the spring lamb was cooked to perfection, the boiled potatoes were pan fried in lamb fat and a tasty salad with feta cheese rounded out our perfect meal.

31 Mar: The din coming from the workers upstairs early in the morning told us that Gill was trying to get another apartment ready for the impending arrival of guests. We slept in till 8am and took a peek outside. It had rained overnight and was still drizzling so we decided to get an extra hour of sleep before joining Bob and Ann for a late breakfast. The wifi situation had finally been resolved, but it was really slow. Still, we were happy to finally have internet access again. When the rain finally eased up, we wandered the alleys of Oia again. Neither of us ever got tired of the quaint views of this pretty village, which at times felt like a movie set. The only goal for today: find beer, bread and postcards. Not too challenging! We easily accomplished the first two items on our agenda, and decided to leave the souvenir shopping for later in the afternoon. Bob and Ann were keen on going over investing so we spent some time with them discussing the basics. After lunch, we ventured out again and found the perfect souvenir store where we snagged a painting for Ann and some postcards. Oia’s cutest store, Atlantis Books, had beckoned us for days and we finally hopped down its stairs to check it out. A friendly dog kept us company and there were hundreds of books to catch our interest. Definitely worth a quick peak for its welcoming atmosphere and laid back staff. At sunset, we didn’t feel the need to contend with the crowds for the nightly ritual, instead opting for a relaxing and stress free night. Dinner was a tasty meal of fish, cornmeal and salad, accompanied with some wine and followed by Greek yogurt and nuts for dessert. We did most of our packing after dinner as we still had to consolidate all of our stuff into one check-in bag.

01 Apr: Today we were flying to Istanbul! After getting up at 7am and enjoying a breakfast of leftovers (bean soup, chicken and lamb), we finished our last minute packing and relaxed until it was time to head to the airport. Gill had coordinated a return trip shuttle (25 Euros for the 4 of us) to the airport, and pick up was at 9:30am. It was a short walk to the pickup/drop off point, and the van was on time. About halfway through the ride, poor Ann was about to burst from the need to pee. Thankfully, traffic was light and she managed to hold it all the way there. Check-in was smooth and before we knew it, we were in the air. Goodbye beautiful Greek islands! We’ll miss you…thanks for 3 fabulous, off season weeks.

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