Thursday, August 11, 2011

Europe Trip: Part 4 (Santorini, Greece)

Our ferry from Athens arrived in Santorini at 11:30am. The main island is a large crescent, part of the remaining ring of islands after a giant volcanic explosion ripped open the original island long ago. Cliffs almost a thousand feet high circle the remaining volcano tip in the center of the flooded caldera. (From a distance, the white-washed villages lining the cliff-tops reminded me of bird droppings.) Docking at the port, we had to wind our way up the steep inner cliff face to head down the sloping backside to our hotel located at Perissa Beach. It is a beautiful beach, but the black sand is almost impossible to walk on for very long without sandals. The water is very warm, but there is a wide section of slippery rock just inside the water's edge that is hard to navigate without falling.

The view of volcano tip out in the center of the caldera from the surrounding cliffs of Santorini.
The black sands of Perissa Beach in Santorini.
Close up of the pebbly black sand of Perissa Beach.
After an afternoon swim, we caught a local bus up to the Santo Winery. It is in a perfect location, perched on the edge of the cliff at the center of the island's two arms. Santorini is a desert island but large vineyards cover the hillsides around Perissa. The grape vines look very unique, each plant spaced out and growing less than knee high with most of their irrigation coming from the morning dew. Watching the sunset over the caldera, we drank six bottles of white wine with some delicious cheese. We also had a glass of the amber-colored dessert wine, Vinsanto, that the island is known for. Unlike other dessert wines, it is not fortified with another alcohol like Brandy. It is the first dessert wine that I have enjoyed.

Noah overlooking the northern arm of Santorini from Santo Winery.
Holding a glass of Vinsanto with the sun setting over the Santorini volcano in the caldera.
Our group drinking wine at sunset with the southern arm of Santorini in the distance.
On Wednesday, I went scuba diving with a local dive shop. After organizing all the gear we boarded a small Navy Seal-type pontoon boat to circle around the island to the dive sites inside the caldera. Speeding over the waves while sitting on the side pontoons was almost as thrilling as the actual diving. The first site was located at an ancient port that is now underwater. An old donkey trail winds along the submerged cliff face. Swimming along it, I took off my fins and my divemaster, Ludo, took my picture pretending to walk along the flat path. Since I haven't dived in three years I went through my air pretty fast. We were still a ways from the boat when my tank ran low and Ludo switched to his auxiliary respirator and gave me his main. It is a little scary switching respirators underwater but I stayed calm and cleared the flooded respirator. Swimming close together we made it back under the boat where we had to wait a few meters down for the three-minute safety check before surfacing.

Walking along the submerged donkey trail in Santorini's caldera.
Translucent sea creature.
Preparing to descend on our second dive off of White Island.
For our second dive, we drove out to White Island, one of the small islands near the volcano tip. It looks like a layer cake with a thick top layer of white sandstone that has accumulated over the centuries from the blowing winds. The dive started in shallow water before dropping off into a steep wall. We slowly worked our way down the volcanic wall with ledges hanging over heads and swimming through narrow canyons. The water was so clear, I just wish there were more big fish. Except for small ones, the sea was pretty empty. This time, Ludo gave me another weight to help my buoyancy and I was able to finish with plenty of air. The head divemaster, George, was hilarious, always cracking jokes as he drove the speedboat around the islands. (He really liked my jalapeno and cheese crackers. He wanted to know where he could get some, but I brought them from America.)

Noah and the village of Oia on the northern tip of Santorini.
The crowded alleys of Oia at twilight.
The view from the tip of Oia out into the caldera.
After returning from diving, I tried to take the bus to the famous village of Oia (pronounced ee-yaa) with the blue and white buildings on the northern tip of the island. The problem is that the buses are so crowded that they don't stop if they are already full. I mean really full, squeezed in like sardines. While waiting for a bus that could pick me up, I met two sisters, Rhea & Sjoukje, from Arizona heading the same way. We considered sharing a taxi, but a bus with enough space finally arrived. We made it to Oia, but five minutes after the sunset. We rushed around at twilight, taking pictures before darkness fell and then had dinner on a nice restaurant terrace overlooking the caldera.

The restaurant terrace where we ate dinner in Oia.
Rhea and Sjoukje in Oia, Santorini.
Standing room in the very crowded buses of Santorini.
The first bus back to the main terminal in Fira went smoothly, but we ended up waiting a long time for the next bus to Perissa. Since there was a large crowd, Rhea and Sjoukje rushed into the first arriving bus and grabbed some great seats, but I'm glad I double-checked it's destination. It was going to Kamari on the wrong side of the island. After I banged on the window to let them know, it was quite an effort for them to squeeze off before it departed. (Another reversing bus hit Sjoukje with its mirror while we waited, but she was unhurt.) The Perissa bus finally arrived after an hour and I reached the hostel, Anny Studios, around midnight. It was a great day! Tomorrow, we take the morning ferry back to Athens and then an overnight ferry to the island of Lesbos.


p.s. Since Santorini is a desert, the water in the taps is salt water. Diluted, but still salty.

The vineyards covering the backside of Santorini near Perissa.
The large crowd boarding the ferry back to Athens.
p.s.s. It took five nights in Greece but I finally had my first Gyro. Very tasty and cheap! Only two euros. I have eaten a lot of Greek salads here. Great tasting vegetables, but they contain no lettuce and the Feta always comes in a big block sitting on top.

Noah diving along the donkey trail inside the Santorini caldera.
A school of fish in Santorini's Caldera.
p.s.s.s. It may have just been my imagination, but I think I had a mild case of the bends after my first scuba dive. My left leg was really itching back on the surface but the divemasters said there were no jellyfish or stinging creatures in these waters. The boat had a dive accident checklist and I noticed that itching skin is a symptom. I was relieved when it disappeared after my second dive. We spent more time in shallow waters after exploring the wall so it must have allowed any trapped gas under my skin to be reabsorbed.

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