Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Welcome back

I see it's been a month since I last blogged, my last message being that we're off on holiday to Santorini. In case anyone wondered, nothing happened to me there; we had a wonderful time. Unfortunately, a few days after coming home, I contracted the flu which left me physically weak for a few days and mentally weak for a few weeks. It's only been in the past week that I feel that "I" have returned.

Santorini is a great place, and a week is exactly the right length of time to spend there. The only bad bits about the holiday were getting there and back; the local airport is geared for European passengers, and those coming from outside the EU have to put up with long waits: one policeman checking the passports of 180 Israelis.

But enough griping! Santorini is small enough to be covered with a motorbike in a few days, yet large enough to find something new to do each day. We stayed in a small hotel near the beach in Perissa so we had the best of both worlds: both the laid back beach ambience of Perissa and the icing cake ambience and beauty of the caldera side of Santorini only 15 minutes away by bike. It might well be that those who stay in Fira or Oia never see the other side.

There was one day where we decided not to "do our own thing", but rather join an organised tour. There are many of these tours which take in the volcano islands, hot springs, lunch in Therassia and sunset in Oia. Unfortunately this day resembled an olympic triathlon and was the physically hardest and least enjoyable of all our days. A bus picked us up in Perissa, a few minutes walk from our hotel; by the time we reached the outskirts of Perissa, the bus was already overcrowded. This took us to the port at Athenios, where no one was there to meet us or explain anything. Somehow someone from our bus found the pirates' boat on which we were to sail.

The overcrowding of the bus was nothing compared to the sardine-like nature of the boat. It was almost impossible to find a place to sit and impossible to move around. It was also very hot. Eventually we set sail from Athenios, only to arrive at the small jetty at Fira; here even more people got on the boat. After another long wait, we set sail from Fira to the large volcanic island, and finally we were treated to a voice-over explanation from the tannoy, in Spanish, German and barely understandable English.

Little did we know when we arrived at Nea Kameni, the largest volcanic island, what was to await us. First of all, we had to pay 2E to even enter the island; my wife wisely decided to stay on the boat. Then we had to walk ... and walk ... and walk ... and walk .... Maybe a few kilometres over rocky terrain (very much like Iceland, no surprise there) and under a ferocious sun. Every time I thought that I was getting near the end, it turned out that there was more to walk. Eventually I decided that I had seen enough and turned back; as always, the walk back was easier. The most interesting thing which I learnt about the island (from the little brochure which my 2E bought me) was that the island grows every time there is an eruption, the last one (albeit minor) being in 1950.

Once everybody had returned to the boat - and how did they know that everyone had returned? - we sailed around the corner to the second island, Palia Kameni, where there are hot springs. One, two, three and people were jumping off the boat and swimming in the sea. After having changed into my swimming costume, I too took a deep breath and launched myself into the unknown. The sea was very cold and very salty, but the nearer I got to the island, the warmer the water became. I found it very tiring to swim against the waves and decided to conserve my strength for the swim back, so I never got to set foot on land. This was the second event in the triathlon, swimming in the sea.

Then we headed off to the island of Therassia which has a very small population, whose main job seems to be feeding the tourists who come to pay a visit. Apart from the food, there wasn't much else to do there. We arrived just before 3 pm and were told to be back on board at 3:40; my stomach isn't used to eating lunch at this hour. From Therassia we went across the bay to the small beach/port/jetty at Oia; the guides didn't really tell us anything about what was to happen. The only thing which I understood was that we could either stay in Oia and a bus would take us back to Perissa, or we could sail back to Fira and from there get to Oia (the 'how' was not explained). By default, we decided to stay in Oia, along with maybe a third of the people on the boat. What we weren't ready for was the fact that there are only two ways to get from where we to Oia: either walk up six hundred steps (Oia is about 1200 feet above sea level) ... or ride a donkey. Santorini is probably as famous for its donkeys as it is for its views. As there were so many of us and so few donkeys (maybe 12), we had to wait a long time in the sweltering sun.

Eventually our turn came and we rode donkeys up the narrow steps. The donkeys must have thought that they were in a race because they were always trying to overtake each other. Mine was doing quite well at this until one misguided attempt to pass on the outside caused me to crash into an electricity pole. It's true that the donkeys have to go up as quickly as possible in order to minimise the waiting time (which we appreciated), but they could have been better behaved.... To add insult to injury, the donkeys dropped us off before the final rise to Oia, and we had to climb maybe 50 steep stairs. By the time we got to the top, we were completely exhausted.

Fortunately there was a cafe waiting at the top where we could rest our weary bodies and laugh about the experience. We collected our breath, drank cold orange juice and washed up. We then strolled around Oia, which is exceedingly pretty, making sure to be at the northern tip before sunset. Everyone else in the village had the same idea, and the narrow alleys were packed with people. We found quite a good vantage point where we could watch the crowds and the sunset.

I don't know exactly what was supposed to happen, but I was very disappointed with the sunset - we get better ones here. True, the sun disappears behind a hill instead of into the Aegean sea, but it looks much better. This sunset sort of fizzled out, greeted by desultory clapping. We then wound our way along with everyone else back into the centre of Oia and found the bus station and bus which would take us back to Perissa.

By this time I was feeling exceedingly unwell, as a result of the late lunch and the unexpected physical activity. As I don't carry my stomach pills around with me, I had to wait until we got back to Perissa for relief.

I can only hope that other people have a better experience on this "See Santorini and die" tour because otherwise I can't understand why such tours continue to exist. Still, it was "fun" (as much fun as basic training in the army, where we were alternately crying and laughing), we saw sights which we hadn't seen, and it was "worth it for the experience", not that you'll get me on a donkey (in reality, a mule) again.

No comments: