Stimulating the Greek Economy, One Gyro at a Time
24.09.2012 - 01.10.2012 29 °C
Overnight Stays: Perissa (7 nights)
DW - At this very moment I feel like a real writer - it's Friday evening, the lights have just gone out (a fuse blown or something like that), I'm listening to The Animals, and sipping on admittedly a shithouse bottle of red, dressed in a flanny. But just when you want to be quick to make a first impression judgement of me, maybe think again, because first impressions can be dangerous...
Our first impression of Santorini was kind of 'meh'; we liked it enough, but couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. It's arguably the most famous of all the Greek Islands, which are more popular than Judaism in Israel, and must-do on most's European vacations ('vacation', that's really not a word we use in Oz is it? More a Seppo thing I think). But like I mentioned above, first impressions can be dangerous things, as they're not always right.
In our heads, the Greek Islands were pristine, white sandy beaches, the best in the world. But what we didn't know about Santorini was that it is a volcanic island, therefore the beaches are mostly black pebble, a mix of poppy-seeds with a dash of sesame. I've said it before and I'll say it again, expectation is travel enemy number one (1); as soon as you expect a place to be incredible, it isn't... Well you can imagine how we felt, expecting nothing but white sand but seeing nothing but black. But thankful we are that we spent a week in this place, because our first impressions were soon replaced by admiration.
I'll get to more about how and why our impressions changed soon, but first I'm going to take a step back... Having already overstayed our welcome in Europe we were a wee bit nervous about Greece and getting in and out, knowing full well that if a Customs Officer paid enough attention to our passports we'd be fined €1,100 each, sent home (not for free, sadly), and given a big red stamp on our passports, forbidding us from visiting Europe for a few years, ouch. But for whatever reason, perhaps riding on the incredible luck we'd had to-date (minus the whole Brazilian saga), we ran the gauntlet, and when we arrived at Santorini we were given a huge injection of confidence when the Customs Officer not even checked our passports, just looked for the next available spot to whack a big stamp on it, phew, another win for Team W.
There's something self-satisfying about getting picked up by private transfer when you arrive at an airport. As a kid, whenever I flew somewhere I always hoped that for whatever reason, one (1) day one (1) of those signs you see at the Arrivals Gate would have my name on it. And although we've now had it several times, it's still quite nice, and it makes us feel a little bit special, ridiculous I know, but we're easy-pleased. So, with a lovely Grecian, Marco, holding our sign, we rode with him from Fira airport, across the small island, to Perissa, where we'd be spending the best part of the next week. Not knowing much at all about Santorini (obviously, given that we thought the beaches would be white, not black) we'd booked our accommodation at Perissa because it was ridiculously cheap to stay there, especially compared to Fira and Oia, the bigger towns on the island, the ones you see on all the postcards.
I remember reading an article about six (6) months ago on Santorini, and it was titled 'The Greek Island The Recession Forgot', and that made me incredibly nervous about how expensive things were going to be on the island. But again, expectation is a dangerous game, luckily this time it worked in our favour though, as Perissa was super-cheap, bringing a huge smile to both our faces. Not only did it cost a measly €20 per-night (that's not a typo) in a great little hotel, we were a stone's-throw from the (black but beautiful) beach, and surrounded by restaurants, bars, and shops, perfect for a week of relaxation.
Another thing that surprised us about Santorini was how dry and dusty it was in general. When you think of popular beach destinations, dusty isn't an adjective that comes to the top of mind, but Santorini is different, and it kind of adds to its charm I reckon. Not only that; often spotted on the dusty, basically bare paddocks, grape vines, seemingly dead beyond recognition. But you get the impression they're not quite dead, more like at the end of their wits after a torturous summer of scorching heat, chock-full of dry and juicy fruit. If only the wine was good, what a shame. In fact, I'm willing to say that the wine is just terrible, barely drinkable, and we gave it a good crack too. Maybe they should stick to tourism...
Anyway, this post seems to be getting side-tracked all over the place, maybe it's this horrid Santorinian wine I'm knocking down, not even knowing why.
And so we settled into our room, next to the pool, in the hotel with no other guests, lovely. It was the first week of off-season, which meant you still had the amazing hot weather without the scores of tourists, just what the doctor ordered. Every so often, you'd hear a 17year-old Stu Peberdy scream down the street in his shitbox with a milo-tin exhaust, clearly pulling chicks left right and centre. But despite this place being so far from what we expected, our love for it began that very afternoon, a love difficult to explain. Not love like we share for each other, or for Mexico, or London. A love of being isolated, in a ghost-town, in the heart of the Aegean, with a week up our sleeves, with no plan whatsoever, an annual holiday, a honeymoon even.
That afternoon we received the relieving news that our Rio flights had been officially changed to Buenos Aires, although ten (10) days later. Time to tell Mitch that he's got us for another fortnight, poor fella. And so we rested, by the pool, in the sun, by ourselves, totally relaxed, knawing on some delicious beef pie we'd managed from the 24-hour bakery just up the road.
Each day we slept in like never before, rarely rising from bed before midday, crazy for someone like me who can't sleep-in. That'd ultimately mean breakfast wasn't essential, so we'd visit our mate, one (1) of the two (2) town local-legends, for a beer and gyro, the best way to start a day! Even better, the gyros were but €2 and the beers (500ml) about the same, delicious. A standard day would usually follow that with a few hours of sun on the poppyseed beach, broken up by splashes in the gorgeously clear and calm water, followed by a siesta for Loz and a few solo beers by the pool reading for me. Over the past few months we've absolutely learnt the difference between tourists and travellers, and we like to sit ourselves somewhere in the middle. We love to explore, go to places no-one goes, see weird and wonderful things, but we also love to just have down-time and be tourists sometimes, doing nothing at all, just taking in what specialist tourist places are good for. Our week in Santorini we spent 100% as tourists, without question.
In the evenings we started out testing a few different restaurants and bars, but after not long we knew that Orion's Bar was the best for everything. They offered €3 cocktails all the time, proper ones, not stitch-ups like you often seen when such price are offered; they offered food from the neighboring 'Grandma's' restaurant, with the best gyros and Greek salads in the world; and they employ the only other local-legend in Santorini, the guy who fell as in love with us as we did him as the week progressed.
The bakery just up the road from our hotel was friggin' amazing, and I for one (1) just couldn't get enough of it. They offered a whole host of pasties, breads, pies, and sweets, but I had a lot of trouble getting past their baklava, outstanding. We first experienced baklava in Turkey in April 2011 and immediately fell at its' feet, always wanting more. Lucky for us, we were again in baklava territory and it tasted just as we remembered, like triangles of heaven covered in honey, sugar, pistachio nuts, and pure bliss. Needless to say I went a bit overboard with it, but in my defense I say it was required to help digest the copious amounts of gyros I was consuming, averaging two (2) a day for the week (given that we were only eating two meals a day, that's not a bad effort I reckon).
Breaking from the mould of a 'normal' day, one (1) day we caught the public bus to Fira back on the popular side of the island. At first Fira didn't grab us, as it was stacked with three (3) cruise-ship-loads of people on that day, and you could barely move through the overwhelmed footpaths that ran through the town. Add to the that the fact that the whole town smelt of donkey-piss and we, although surrounded by one (1) of the most photographed places in the world, weren't all that excited, we were actually eager to get out away from the chaos. Eventually we did, and as we neared the edge of the whitest of towns, the crowds thinned and we had space to breathe again. In the far distance we could see what we assumed was Oia, a lot further away than what we'd anticipated, but we continued towards it, having read wonderful things about the 'walk' that joined the two (2) towns.
Once we were completely out of Fira it all felt very foreign; there was no-one in sight, and we were on a goat track, just dirt and rock, crawling blind towards a distant oasis on the horizon. And at that very moment we started, dangerously, comparing Santorini to the other islands we'd visited in Europe. We very soon came to the conclusion that it didn't hold a candle to the likes of Sardinia (Italy), Hvar (Croatia), Milet (Croatia), Menorca (Spain), or Sicily (Italy); it was, as we saw it at that very moment, actually quite ugly.
But again I stress that first impressions aren't always on the money, and although we'd seen absolute beauty on walks in places like The Amalfi Coast (Italy) and Cinque Terre (Italy), this wasn't in-fact 'ugly', it was just different, and far from what we'd expected, when we look back on photos now we realise how lucky we were to have seen this place and done this walk; it's gorgeous!
When we finally, after about three (3) hours, reached Oia we really liked what we saw. Compared to Fira, there were bugger-all tourists around, the town itself seemed nicer, and you could walk around at your own pace, stress-free, and talk to the lovely welcoming shop-owners about whatever you wanted, in clear stress-free English.
After admiring the town we started the stairs down to the beach (Fira and Oia, the ones from the postcards, are built on top big hills. What you don't see on the postcards is how bloody far it is down to the water, so so many stairs), eventually slightly disappointed by the lack of swimming spots at the bottom. When you've just completed a three (3) hour walk in sweltering heat, a swim is the first thing you want. There's not many more frustrating things than that moment when you're sweating out of pores you didn't know previously existed, there's water right there, but nowhere to swim, it's a marina full of boats .
Totally exhausted and with a whopping great climb back up to Oia ahead of us, we found solace in taking the option of riding donkeys to the top instead of walking, a God send indeed. What's more they only cost €5 and made for a bloody interesting climb. You soon came to realise that you had absolutely no control over these incredible creatures; they'd done this route enough times to know to just climb and follow each other up the hundreds of stairs until their master, shouting from metres behind you would tell them to stop. We spent the whole time laughing as the donkeys skewed from side to side on the path, not looking up at any stage, but just following the tail of the mate in front, oblivious to the person riding or anyone around, avoiding it to make it down the stairs. These creatures owned the stairs, they were the stairs, and how dare anyone get in their way.
Again having a 'when in Rome' moment, we figured on another day that we'd give the island all we could and explore it on a quad-bike. It seemed the preferred method of transport in Santorini, so we had to give it a crack at just €15 per-day, ridiculously cheap. We got out of Perissa and started towards the south-west side of the island, not really knowing what was in-store. After a little while we spotted a sign marked 'Red Beach' which we thought must be worth a Bo Peep. I'd mark Red Beach as one (1) of my favourites in the world, just beautiful. Titled so because of the red cliffs that overlook it and the build-up of red rocks that settle for a short-while on shore, it's a sight worth seeing. The water, consistent with the rest of the island, is stunning, amazingly calm and clear, perfect for swimming, and always the right temperature. Despite there being quite a few people about, we had no trouble finding a spot and lay and swam carefree for a few hours while the sluggish 50cc quad-bike rested in the sun.
After a couple of hours we hopped back on the quad and started towards Fira, ready to give it another chance. Thankfully there weren't any cruise-ships in that day so we looked at the beautiful town with a totally different set of goggles on, and loved it from that moment. And somehow, mysteriously, the rancid donkey piss aroma had subsided, wonderful.
The day before we'd noticed a sign at a restaurant, advertising Red Bull's Art of Motion in Santorini, basically the world championships of Street Running (you know that European phenomenon where dudes jump off buildings and stuff and make it look cool by not breaking bones? That one.). So we pulled up the quad (we're back on the present day, by the way) on the side of the road, and followed the crowds to the centre of the action that was about to commence.
The guys that do this stuff are very talented and incredibly ballsy. They have no fear jumping/falling from rooftops, flipping several times on the way, only to not really land, but continued onto the next platform, crazy. We snagged a ripper spot right amongst the action and stood for hours amongst the masses, as the best street runners in the world scalded past us, within centimeters at times, top stuff. The music that rammed out the huge speakers pumped the crowd, blasting foreign hip-hop and dub-step, only increasing my love for both styles, legendary. Towards the end we were interviewed by Red Bull for their production on Red Bull TV but we were never able to find the footage later, sad face. All in all though, this event was bloody amazing and we left blown away by the whole experience. I've no idea how we keep running into these things by my God I'm glad we have, such good times!
Running on adrenaline, ready to pounce from building to building, we walked for a while back into the guts of Fira and sat for a couple of cold ones while the sun set over the neighbouring volcano surrounded by The Aegean as far as you could see. To this day it ranks as one (1) of the best and most memorable sunsets of my life; not for its colour or extravigence, but for its calmness and situation. We were sitting at a trendy little bar, in one (1) the most photographed places in the world, watching the sun drop into the horizon, drinking out of ice-cold glasses, it gives me shivers.
There's lots more I could tell you about our visit to Santorini, but to be honest, I just don't feel like it right now. It's a beautiful place, surrounded by beautiful water, and filled with beautiful people. It's perfect for a relaxing week, and if you stay out of Fira and Oia (although you don't get the views) it's surprisingly cheap. If you do go, don't expect white sandy beaches, in-fact, don't expect anything at all, just take it for what it is and embrace it, make it your own. Because that's the best thing about travel, it's personal.
For the record, I reckon Greece saw a spike in their economy for the week we visited, and I put it down to the twelve (12) gyros probably still sitting in my belly a fortnight on.
Oh, and we made it back to London, out of Europe for the final time, without drama. We finished 43 days over our welcome in Europe, and although we got away with it, it's probably not a gauntlet we'd run again. But the problem with Europe is that there's never enough time to see it all, it's just so bloody big and diverse. You could spend you entire life scouring all corners of the magnificent continent, and still not be content, a sad sad truth that everyone who visits soon discovers.