Monday, May 14, 2012

Sunset Capital of the World

The island of ancient Thira, or Santorini (Latin for Saint Irene) as it’s now known, has to be the most romantic island in the world.

What remains of a dark, uneven, volcanic caldera encircles a deep central cobalt blue lagoon and dark chunks of what was the original island, in the center of which is the still smoldering volcano, mark the arc of the circumference. Fira, Santorini’s main whitewashed town, spills dramatically down the sheer west-facing cliffs, as if the gods had poured it over the precipice and it dripped all the way down to the sea. Donkeys ploddingly shuttle tourists from cruise ships anchored offshore up and down the zigzagged trail to town alongside a chair lift, which makes the same trip in a fraction of the time. On the eastern side of the volcanic rim, the island slopes down, steeply at first and then gently, until it becomes a fertile, seaside plain dotted with farms and vineyards that ends in a black pebbly beach. This southernmost jewel of the Cyclades is a breathtaking, otherworldly vision in the Aegean and the approach to the island by ferry is priceless.

On two past trips, we’d stayed in rented rooms on the cliff, once when backpacking on our own and once with the kids, but this time we opted for a simple, white and blue budget hotel with a pristine, sparkling pool area on the other side of the rim. Ever-so-kind and helpful 20-something Katarina, who made our stay most enjoyable, efficiently manages the family-owned property with aplomb. We had a vertical couple block trek up to the caldera each evening past hoteliers still in the process of getting ready for the high season, filling pools, varnishing furniture and trimming dried palm fronds. Anyone who has visited the island acknowledges that it is the sunset capital of the world since there are few twilight skies anywhere like Santorini’s. The spectacular descent of the sun into the sea is theater not to be missed. While Mykonos and Naxos, just miles away, are under the very same sun in the very same sky, their end of the day canvas didn’t come close to the fiery show that takes place every evening on Santorini. We had cocktails and dinner looking over the caldera on most of our nights, just an amazingly dreamy location to spend the final hours of the day. On one of our night’s out, a handsome, tanned, flirty waiter spoke to me, as he did all the other female diners, his hand on my shoulder and a twinkle in his eye. I told Joe he reminded me of one of my favorite actors in his prime and my clever dining companion promptly dubbed him Richard Gyros (pronounced Gere-os). We were surrounded by couples taking in the romance of the evening and despite having 30-plus years of marriage under our belts, felt right at home with the honeymooners.

Oia, a quieter, gentler version of Fira, sits atop the volcanic rim on the northern tip of Santorini. Its colors are a bit less dramatic than those of its larger neighbor; many of the bright royal blue accents and trim of Fira are replaced by light blues and grays in Oia. We did the scenic seven-mile hike from one town to the other along the caldera rim trail up and down the slippery red, black and gray volcanic scree beds in fierce sun. Despite ample application of sunscreen, we still felt like we were frying and finally having lunch in the breezy shade of an Oian taverna overlooking the lagoon felt like heaven. A couple days later, we did the challenging hike from the hill town of Pyrgos straight up 1,860 feet to the Profitis Ilias Monastery on the highest point on the island, through broad swaths of bright red poppies, white daisies and dazzling carpets of spring wildflowers thriving in the rugged terrain. After being rewarded with panoramic views of the entire island, we negotiated the rocky switchbacked trail down the other side of the mountain, first to the ruins of Ancient Thira halfway down and then all the way down to the black sand of Perissa Beach. Once again, a late lunch in the shade of a taverna, this time beachside, was a welcome respite. Santorini is home to one of the world’s most famous archeological digs, ancient Akrotiri, which unearthed a Minoan town buried by the volcanic eruption in 1500 BC. Closed for many years after the dig’s cover collapsed in 2005, Akrotiri had just recently reopened under a new, reinforced protective roof so we were lucky to see what some have called the “Minoan Pompeii,” with simply amazing evidence of this civilization’s daily life a full 3,500 years ago.

I’m going to turn into a Greek salad if I’m not careful. I find it difficult to resist the perfect mix of deep red, juicy tomatoes, crisp, white cucumbers, shaved red onions and plump, vinegary capers topped by a generous slab of soft feta cheese. My daily diet has included at least one of these healthy concoctions a day since we arrived in Greece and on some days, I actually have two: one as my lunch and another with dinner. I’ve eaten so many over the past few weeks but I don’t believe I’ll ever tire of the fresh ingredients moistened by just a splash of olive oil and vinegar. We’ve enjoyed so much good food in Greece and while we continue to order our old favorites regularly  -- saganaki (pan-seared cheese), moussaka (Greek lasagna made with eggplant), tzatsiki (garlicky yogurt with grated cucumber and herbs), dolmades (grape vine leaves stuffed with moist rice) and spanakopita (spinach pie) -- we’ve branched out a bit and tried stifado (rich, tomatoey stew with beef and pearl onions), grilled squid, fried bacalao (salt cod) and Santorinian specialties, fava bean spread and cherry tomato croquettes. It’s easy to patronize local, family run restaurants on the Greek isles since most eating establishments are exactly that and more often than not, if you peek in the kitchen, you’ll find the Yia Yia (grandmother) matriarch all dressed in black, stirring the pot.

Santorini is not a large island – just 12 miles from end to end, but we became frequent users of the bus system to get to its far-flung corners. Fira’s central bus station is always a beehive of activity, but add several dozen 15-year olds heading home after school and a bunch of sun-crazed tourists hell-bent on getting to Akrotiri ASAP to the mix and you end up with cacophonous chaos. It was comical to watch yet despite the melee, we managed to negotiate our way onto the bus we needed. On several of our trips we had the same driver: a chain-smoking 40-year old curmudgeon who ignored the no smoking sign posted overhead. Maybe he figured that since he had his very own window beside him, opened to the max so that all his smoke was drawn outside, his cigarettes didn’t count. He pontificated nonstop to the elderly ticket taker sitting in the jump seat next to him and it sounded like he was complaining, but he was likely just discussing politics and the day’s events. Once on the road, the ticket fellow headed to the back of the bus to collect a ticket or sell a fare to all passengers and each time a new rider boarded, the driver grumbled, “pay later, pay later,” meaning, “don’t bother me, I’m just the driver.” He was clearly a sociable guy since he stopped the bus for a minute or two to chat with (complain to?) the driver of every bus we passed coming in the opposite direction along the narrow, winding roads. Traveling can often mean long periods of patient waiting and we spent lots of time awaiting busses on Santorini because there is no apparent coordination among routes. It’s a classic spoke system with all vehicles starting and ending at the central station and more than once we arrived on one bus only to see the taillights of the connecting bus we’d been hoping to catch to the other side of the island disappear around the corner.

What was a rind of a moon when we arrived on Mykonos had waxed into a brilliant orb on Santorini. We thought this gift of nature was simply the result of looking at the sky in the Greek Isles, but later heard that we’d benefited from a bigger, brighter “supermoon,” the result of its closest encounter with Earth in many years. Being on this magical island is always an experience to cherish, but add blinding sunshine, an extraordinary full moon, my devoted husband and Richard Gyros to the unrivaled sunsets and it’s a recipe for perfection.  

Pictures of our adventures:

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