Post 5 of a series – you can read my other Greece posts here.
Today we boarded a cruise to Santorini – a Greek island combining spectacular volcanic morphology, sublime white buildings and ethereal blue seascapes. I had great expectations, but Santorini still managed to dazzle me with its unique beauty.
To get there required an eight-hour cruise from Piraeus Port, just a short metro ride from Athens. We left our Airbnb apartment early in order to catch the 7.30am sailing, and soon we were hanging over the railings of the Blue Star Ferry, waving the mainland goodbye.
There’s not much to say about the journey, other than we sat (and napped) in some comfortable airline seats by a window, bought burgers from the Goody’s fast food outlet, and went onto the deck several times to watch as we passed various rocky islands, all of them interestingly shaped and striped with layers of volcanic sediments. As long journeys go, it wasn’t bad at all.
Having docked at Santorini, we easily found the line of tourist buses ready to take us into Fira, the island’s capital. The journey was short, but not for the faint-hearted – the bus had to ascend some very steep and narrow roads to get from the sea-level port to the top of the cliffs. But before long we were dropped off at Fira’s central bus terminal, which was little more than a small parking lot continually being squeezed in and out of by jostling, lumbering buses. I phoned our next Airbnb host Elias and he came to pick us up in his car.
After a short drive, Elias led us up a narrow path to a small archway in the wall. Passing under this archway and into the Ersi Villas complex, I couldn’t hide my delight. The collection of cream-coloured, domed buildings, interspersed with greenery and encircling a small pool, looked brilliantly pretty in the sun. Our lodging, a small cave house in the lower corner of the complex, was equally charming. It was preceded by its own low, white-picket fence, whose gate opened onto a terrace with plastic sunloungers and a wrought-iron table and chairs. Through its arched front door was a cosy den of curved white walls and ceilings and terracotta tiles, featuring simple wood furniture, a basic kitchenette and a bed that was literally carved out of the wall; thankfully it also had a mattress and bedding! The bathroom was similarly simple but endearing.
Elias invited us to his office for an arrival briefing, in which he asked us what we wanted to do during our stay and then marked out the places we mentioned, as well as a few tips of his own, on a map for us. By this time we were bursting to get out and explore, so we followed his directions to the centre of Firostefani – basically, we turned left out of the complex, climbed the stairs and we were there.
Firostefani is a small settlement approximately 10 minutes’ walk north of Fira. It’s so small that we didn’t think we’d started off at its centre until we’d walked its full length. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in content. The settlement has a good number of restaurants and cocktail bars – these are generally quite expensive, but cheaper than sea-view venues in Fira – along with a couple of souvenir shops, a convenience store and a tour agent. The most remarkable thing about this small street is the architecture: the diverse shapes making up the buildings, together with their palette of gorgeous colours, seems to transform them into two-dimensional cubist paintings when viewed from certain angles.
Nevertheless, the splendour of the man-made landscape is surpassed by that of the natural landscape. Despite being out at sea all day, the view of it from Firostefani’s ramparts still took us aback. The low sun was blazing a glittering trail across the waves, leaving the islands of Nea Kameni and Thirasia floating either side as hazy silhouettes. The sight was somehow tranquil and enthralling all at once.
The sinking sun never left our sights as we followed the winding coastal path to Fira, up and down narrow staircases and past luxurious guesthouses, artist’s studios and blue-domed churches. At one point we turned a corner and Fira appeared: an enchanting, almost surreal sight of layers upon layers of angular white buildings, ethereally pale against the dark volcanic cliffs suspending them above the sea.
Soon we were amidst the shops and restaurants of Fira, these laid out in a twisting labyrinth of swinging signs, colourful restaurant menus and souvenir shops spilling onto the street. I got the distinct impression that this place – perhaps the entire island – was created especially for tourists like us. Gazing out at the sea, exploring the clean, enticing streets and browsing the quirky shops, all the while feeling entirely safe and surrounded by like-minded strangers, it felt like everything had been put here purely for our enjoyment. With sunset fast approaching, we began to browse Fira’s many seafront restaurants – but were shocked at how expensive they were. We decided to postpone dinner in order to watch the sunset from a street overlooking the sea. A bird statue advertising Grey Goose Vodka made a fantastic prop for our photos!
Once the sun had set, we found a restaurant across the road from central Fira that offered much more reasonable prices. Pelican Kipos‘ tables were almost entirely outside, in a garden-like courtyard interspersed with palm trees, flowered trellises and glowing lights. I ordered a lovely Santorini-made rosé wine and Steve tried one of the local craft beers, Yellow Donkey.
For starters we shared some tasty Ntomatokeftedes, which were very similar to the onion bhaji-like courgette balls we had in Athens but made with cherry tomatoes instead. Next Steve had the grilled fish of the day while I – after much deliberation between the many delicious-sounding pork dishes – the pork fillet stuffed with smoked cheese in black beer sauce and peppers. This was just as rich as it sounds! Unfortunately we were too full for dessert, so we called it a day and waddled up the main road back to our new temporary home. I was excited to spend my first night in a cave!
All photos and text (c) Juliet Langton, 2015. All rights reserved.