Going to Shine on Australia

The sun has set on Santorini 2012 and what a fortnight it was. There were donkey-rides and boat tours and (many) glasses of wine. Ancient ruins, traditional villages, the beach and enormous amounts of food. There was a tiny rental car and a very cautious, horn tooting driver (Dad). There was a spectacular, public fall down some slippery steps (Dad). We swam in the bay, climbed the volcano and caught a cable car. It was a reunion and an introduction. It was, as it always is, truly wonderful. All photos and words can be found here.

Last week, we watched one of the island’s famous sunsets from a boat, drifting just off the top of the island. As we watched it go down, my Mum said, ‘it’s going down to shine on Australia.’

Precisely where I will be next week.

And so the sun keeps rising and setting, days keep dawning and ending, the world keeps spinning and the time, as the Germans say, keeps running. It is all we can do to keep up with it. And as we try, as we run, sweating and panting alongside it, trying to grab it and slow it down a little, it’s nice to know that we’re all under the same sun.

Because so many of you ask, all but 2 of the shots were taken from the balcony at Astra Suites, including the ones with the pool. 

Dear Santorini Tourism …

If I could have five minutes of face time with the Santorini tourism powers that be, I would ask them but one thing. It would be, and this is as eloquently as I can put it, ‘why don’t you give the white houses on the cliffs a break and show the world your history and your industry?’ And they would probably look at me and say, ‘because, Olivia, it has worked just fine thus far.’  And they would, of course, be quite right. White houses, black beaches and the sun setting behind a volcano (or indeed sinking into absolutely nothing) has been the island’s bread and butter for the past 30 years. And that’s all very well. It draws the crowds, it prints the postcards.

But I have been thinking. Given the importance of tourism right now, for Greece’s economy, and given this season has been a touch quieter than years past, perhaps it is time to think about mixing things up a bit –  and I am coming at this with a few years of serious field work under my belt. I have a couple of ideas, dear Santorini, and I think they could work.

Here’s what I think we should do.

Tell the world more about Akrotiri. About the Minoans living there 3000 years ago, about what they achieved, how they lived. Your reconstruction of the excavation site has been so beautifully done. Charge people more than 5€ for the privilege of walking through history. We pay 5€ for a Starbucks coffee and a hell of a lot more to see fairly shitty art and theatre and film. So we’ll pay more to see one of the world’s most significant ancient Minoan sites. Just spread the word, generate the buzz, educate the masses. Your little island is an extraordinarily important, bite-size piece of human history. I know you know that, so let’s tell everyone else. And let’s charge them 15€ and the profits can go towards cleaning Perissa up, the rubbish is getting a bit silly.

And while we’re on the topic of ancient ruins, why the hell are you hiding that old Spartan city up there on that big rock? Why is the road to get there so treacherously curvy, so as to almost deter all but the most determined (Spartan?) of visitors? Why isn’t more of a deal made about the fact on top of that dirty great rock is a Spartan city? One that was then inhabited by the Romans, some several hundred years after the Spartans. Sure, there are signs. And pamphlets. And people do make it up there and stand, hundreds of metres above sea level, looking at an amphitheatre used thousands of years ago. But that isn’t enough. Such an incredible snapshot of human history (noting a theme here?) needs to become synonymous with the name of your island. People need to say ‘Minoan ruins!’ and ‘a Spartan city’ in a game of word association, when Santorini comes up. These things are special. And for goodness sake, up the ticket price from 2€.

And please, make more of a deal of Pyrgos. Oia is beautiful, of course, and Fira is where the action is. And I know the tourists want the beaches – it’s the only sunshine some of those Northern Europeans see the entire year, I get that they want to see it, splayed beneath it. But Pyrgos is the real deal. And so is Emporio. Not enough people know about its castle and although I quite like that, and I love the handwritten sign guiding the wayward few who want to find it, if we’re in the business of overhauling your marketing plan, then Emporio needs to feature.

Let’s talk about your wine. Why do so many restaurants and bars serve the vile cheap stuff, when your wine is your second biggest industry? I know, I know, because it’s cheap. But your good wine isn’t that expensive. Would it kill places to feature at least a few 10€ bottles of Santorini white on their wine lists? Could the beautiful, cultivated, long-standing relationship between traditional Santorinian food and wine get more of a look-in at the multitude of tavernas populating the island? And maybe wine tours could get the air time volcano tours do. The volcano is pretty amazing, but, at its core, an enormous, hot pile of rocks that make you feel vaguely uneasy as you scramble to the top. A wine tour, however, involves cheese and meats and chocolate and quenching thirst and learning truly fascinating facts about ancient and modern Santorini and an industry the island’s inhabitants have perfected over thousands of years. So why not push the wine tours a bit more? I went on one and it was fantastic. I knew your wine shrubs grow small and close to the ground to survive the meltemi winds but I didn’t know the trunk of the shrub has actually been coaxed to grow into a spiral like basket, that protects up to 5kg of grapes, as they grow! And I didn’t know there is a progressive, award winning vineyard that produces a rose that smells like a big basket of fruit. Nor did I know there was a vineyard so close to the ocean, the salty breeze can permeate the wine. And quite apart from all of that, being ferried around in an air-conditioned van, from winery to winery, trying the best the island has to offer, was one hell of a splendid way to spend an afternoon.

I love you Santorini. You have given me a lot, over the years, and our relationship is a pretty solid one. That’s why I feel confident enough to be able to put this on the table – you can do better. You need to do better. You are better. Change the world’s focus. Pry the people away from the sweaty crowds in Fira, from the over-priced cafes in Oia and cheap beach breaks that feature ‘full English breakfasts!’ to woo the full English tourists and show them where you have come from and what you can do. Because God knows an ancient Spartan settlement beats fried eggs and beans any day.

That’s it for now. I’ll let you know if anything else springs to mind.

And Tourism Australia, you’re next.

Getting Lost in Emporio

Emporio makes you work a little bit, like many of the old villages on the island. Firstly, you have to get past what you see when you go whizzing through it on a quad bike. You have to realise that isn’t it. You have to park, find the sign for the traditional village and follow it until you see the hand written sign for ‘castle’. You may have to ask some locals on the way, check you are going in the right direction. Once on track, you have to go looking for its colours (which you will mostly find on doors). You have to climb its steps and get lost in its narrow, winding paths to find the eccentric cafe with fresh strawberry ice cream. You have to get lost in the remains of its big castle, a castle that people now live in behind those coloured doors.

Of course, working hard for it makes the discovery of true, old, traditional Emporio all the more worth it.

Doors

A little village en route to the black sand beaches of the island’s south, Emporio is easy to miss. One can zoom through it without so much as a second glance, determined to reach the soaring caldera views of Oia or the flat coolness of the Aegean. This is because all Emporio has to offer is tucked behind the main, rather plan square. You have to follow very small, at times handwritten signs, to the traditional part of the village, to the original cave houses, to the big castle that has since been diced up into little dwellings. Dwellings that lie behind these beautiful doors.

More on Emporio to come, but for now, imagine what you’d find if you were to open any of these …

Firsts & Favourites

Despite having been here several times before, often for months at a time, this time round I am still doing and seeing things for the first time. There are still corners and alleys and cliff-paths I haven’t walked, churches I haven’t been into, villages in which I haven’t poked around.

Yesterday we hired a car (first time I have done so here) and hit the bottom half of the island. We went to Pyrgos and this time I followed the winding paths all the way to the top. This time I went into the little church (one of 33) instead of passing it by. We stopped and bought a little bag of ntomatinis and bottles of Vinsanto from an old local men whose store was a trestle table. Mum and I followed a path into one of the many ruined houses that populate the village and came out the other side, face to face with a couple of donkeys. We found a house for sale right in the heart of the island’s old capital and plotted its purchase. We looked out over the other side of the island, the side you never pay much attention to.

Afterwards we went to the ancient Minoan ruins at Akrotiri, which re-opened to the public in April of this year. Santorini has done an utterly superb job. You walk through the 3000 year old village, through the public square looked onto by the wealthy captain’s house. You see ancient barley pots in situ, perfect stone steps cracked in half by the volcanic eruption that destroyed the civilisation. You can see the stone streets, the draining system, the tiny windows, the bowls for crushing seeds and cooking. It is truly extraordinary. I have never felt so fully in history as I did walking through these beautifully excavated and preserved ruins. You cannot miss it. You must see it.

There are still old favourites. Lunch at The Cave of Nicholas in Akrotiri. A beer at Visanto in Perissa. A quick stop to see the volcanic walls of Vlychada. The lighthouse.

This afternoon we will follow the cliff-hugging path from Imerovigli to Fira. There we will get on an old, traditional boat and go out and around the volcano, before heading to the island’s tip to watch the sunset from the deck. Another first. And probably another favourite.

Morning Light

We have been waking quite early on the island, why I don’t know. But it does mean we catch the morning light, which is so cool and white. Up here in Imerovigli, the white villas reflect the tea-weak light and the huge caldera seems to absorb it.

This morning, before breakfast, we wound our way to a little church. It sits, loftily, high above everything else with a Greek flag flapping and wrapping itself around the flagpole with each smack of wind.

The light was cool, the sun gently nudging the island awake.

The Octopus

There was great excitement, down by the Akrotiri pier the other night. A cluster of sun burnished cousins stood at the end of the pier, shivering, their skinny arms wrapped around bodies that had spent the day in the water and were now, along with the sun, losing their heat. A boat bearing two young boys was coming closer and the taller one of the two was holding something out in front of him. As the small boat drew up to the pier, it became apparent that clenched in his victorious fist was an enormous octopus, all waving tentacles and outrage at the indignity of being caught. The cousins went mad. The catcher was ushered off the boat like a hero. Behind our table, which was laden with fresh ntomatini salad, dakos and fried squid, the childrens’ Yiayia was yelling, ‘bravo! Bravo Niko!’ The octopus, still clutched in Niko’s fist, was ferried to the front of the restaurant which was, at the time, occupied only by us.

The kids followed, one girl and a handful of boys, Nikos the Pied Piper with his slimy catch. The Octopus seemed to have lost a touch of its outrage and now only waved its magnificent tentacles mildly, as if asking when the gawking and celebrations would be over, when he would be returned to the water and left in peace. In a trice, he was thrown to the ground and a specific section of his middle expertly and lightly stepped on. The tentacles stopped waving. We watched, laden forks poised before our mouths, as something oozed forth for where one would expect the octopus’s belly to be.

‘Oh,’ I said, returning my fork with its wedge of chloros cheese to my plate.

‘Oh,’ SG said, looking balefully at his plate of tiny fried squid.

Down below, the octopus, having departed this world, was scooped up and taken back to the pier where Nikos threw him to the ground, picked him up and threw him again. This was repeated about ten times with youthful vigour. An Auntie oversaw the process for a little while until Yiayia couldn’t resist and, in her apron and sensible shoes, she joined the crew on the pier to ensure the softening off the sea creature’s tough flesh was being done properly.

After the throwing, came the rubbing. The waiter explained to me, as he took our plates, that the octopus’s flesh needs to be softened considerably, after the catch, to ensure its edibility. And so we watched the octopus, floppy and limp, be rubbed back and forth over a rock, Yiayia watching with her hands on her hips, the work all being done by young Nikos, the catcher. After a while, the octopus was deemed soft enough and he was given to Yiayia who deftly bundled him and his unwieldy legs into one little transportable package and took him to the kitchen.

The cousins wasted no time. The catching of an octopus meant there could be more things out there that would make Yiayia shout ‘bravo’ and watch on with thin lipped approval and hands on apron-ed hips. A little boat was shoved out again.

The summer’s evening was still young. Who knew what these waters still held for a cluster of sun-browned cousins and their boat?

Vlychada

This morning we took a quad bike out to my favourite beach on the island, Vlychada. It is bigger than Perissa and there aren’t as many tourists and only a handful of umbrellas and sun loungers. The water is cold and clear and if the winds are strong enough, there’s a tiny surf to bob around in. But most spectacular of all are the huge, rolling sandstone walls. Weathered and eroded, they hug the length of the black sand beach, like an old, worn guard watching over a secret enclave.

The sandstone walls that hug the beach.
It’s like a layer cake.

Last night we went to one of the best restaurants on Perissa’s beachfront, Volcano. Run by a local family (good sign number 1) and packed every night (good sign number 2) we went with a few classics; taramasalata, fried baby marrows, a big, leafy Volcano salad (me, I am making up for all the hearty German food) and pita gyros (SG). And of course a carafe of white wine.

Fresh, hot pita bread.
Taramasalata.
Santorini wine.

This is what we looked at while we ate.

And later, as we walked home, this is what was hovering over the water.

It’s Good to be Back

It’s good to be back.

It’s quieter this year, Greece’s situation stretching to include the country’s tourism cash cows, the beautiful islands. It’s too early to tell for sure, but it looks like a slow season.

That’s fine. Fewer people means fewer loud, brash, Australian backpackers. It means the noisy quad bikes don’t crash through the peace as they zoom along the beach front, ferrying bronzed tourists. It’s just the locals riding at the moment, their little old motorbikes weighed down, as usual, with children and shopping and anything else you can fit on a little old motorbike.

There are fewer dogs this year, the dwindling number of island strays perhaps a result of the neutering program put into action by the rescue group. That’s what I like to think anyway. There are fewer cats as well, or not as many kittens. But the kittens always seem to find homes anyway.

The English tourists are here, sun pinkened and chatty. We befriended an older Mank couple on the beach and I realised, as we talked about nothing that I miss English small talk so very much. I miss making friends for 2 hours on a beach and maybe seeing them again, or maybe not, it doesn’t matter.

We’re staying just outside of Perissa in a little studio, in villa we have all to ourselves. It is quiet, the most removed from the village I have ever been and the only neighbours we have are horses and a particularly lusty rooster who crowed dutifully this morning as the sun came up behind the big rock. But it is perfect. I like being quiet and removed this time round. My previous times on the island have been anything but.

Our landlord thrust a bottle of his wine upon us, a dry rose he made himself and tucked lovingly into the fridge when he showed us our room. It put hairs on my chest before the sweet, Vinsanto-esque finish could roll onto my tongue and SG had to finish mine. Santorini wine can be an experience. I am not entirely sure where Freedy’s grape shrubs are or indeed what kind they are, but another glass of the potent pink drink would have had me on the floor.

The dirt and dust and unfinished buildings are all still here. The Meltemis whipped themselves into such a frenzy early this morning, it felt like our villa would blow away. Our towels and swimmers, drying on the line almost did.

So now it is time to gather those towels and swimmers, leave this big balcony with its view of sun-dried paddocks and that big rock, and head down to the beach front for a morning coffee and a swim.

Yes, it’s good to be back.

The sun rises behind the big rock.
Freedy’s wine.
One of our neighbours.
Another one.
Blue.