September 19, 2010

A Whirlwind in Europe - Santorini (Day 5)

Santorini was an adventure. It was as beautiful as advertised, although in reality, the blue dome roof and white-sided buildings were much less common as often depicted.

Santorini was an adventure due to a couple of things I brought onto myself. The first was a 5am flight from Athens to Santorini. The second was an ATV rental which was supposed to be fun.

Public transportation services to the airport during early hours are sparse in Athens. There were a couple of buses that serve the airport. However, these buses only run every 30 minutes. The total travel time from Piraeus to Athens International Airport was 40 minutes. Thus, I needed to wake up at 2am to catch a bus.

I’ve been to many motels where wake up calls are offered. However, this cheap hotel in Piraeus did not offer morning calls. I had to depend on the alarm clock on my watch.

Well…I slept through the alarm and actually woke up at 5am! Yes, I was freaking out! My first reaction was to rearrange a later flight to Santorini, but last minute flights were both expensive and there was no service in the morning. The next thing to do was to see if there was any last minute ferry service. Lucikly, there was a 7:30am high speed ferry ticket and by 6:30am, I was ready to hop on the ferry. The ticket was only 55 euros and the trip will take only 4 hours. It was actually a pretty good deal! But since I missed the morning flight, my time in Santorini was now restricted. Fishing in Santorini was out of the question.

Oh well, try to see the positive out of the tough situation, right? At least I can experience a ferry ride to a Greek island.

The 4 hours ride passed by quickly since I caught up on some sleep for about 2 hours. I had a chat with a couple of Aussies and also a couple from Windsor, Ontario. I haven’t mentioned before, but there were lots of Canadians vacationing in Greece! At the Acropolis, I even met a couple who lived about 90 seconds away from my apartment. Seriously, this world is much too small.

At 12pm, we finally docked at Thira (Fira). The town of Thira was perched on the caldera rim and it was quite a long climb up to the rim. Most people chose to take the public bus (about 4 euros) to reach Thira Town. There were a few people who decided to hike up the windy ascend. All I have to say was “Good Luck” because they would need it.

Instead of another night at a hostel, I decided to try “camping” in Santorini. These “tents” were actually metal sheds with a secure door. There was enough room to fit a queen size bed, a couple of simple chairs and a night table. It was decent arrangement for 22 euros, but I think I would rather stay at a nice hostel next time. I don’t mind roughing it…but this was really very basic.

After dropping off the luggage, it was time to rent the ride of the day.

I had NEVER rode on an ATV…nevermind driving one. A short lesson was given on operating the vehicle. After that, it was a steep learning curve.

Just so you know, Santorini has a high incidence of traffic accidents. Many of them involves tourist on rental cars, scooters and ATVs. It doesn’t help the case when local drivers are impatient toward slower traffic and they do drive rather reckless. I was doing quite well on my ATV for about 20 minutes until a coach bus decided to pass me on a turn. I was on the outside of the turn and the bus passed me on the inside. There was only one foot between the bus and the ATV, and one foot between the guardrail and the ATV. It was a rather scary experience.

Thankfully, there was no further incidence and I finally reached Red Beach.

Santorini (known as Thira) is an active volcanic island. In the past, there were several violent eruptions. The Minoan eruption obliterated the island leading to a collapse of the magma chamber and the caldera. Further eruption / collapse cycles give birth to the saltwater lagoon that you see in Santorini today. In the pictures, you can identify three distinct layers of eruption material. On top is a layer of white tephra covering the black and red layers from previous eruptions.

The ride to Red Beach actually took much longer than expected. The campground desk clerk said it should take about 15 minutes. Maybe that’s the correct travel time for a car…but definitely not for my 80cc ATV. I had planned to visit Perissa to see the black sand beach, but knowing my time was limited, it wasn’t possible. My return trip took a total of 45 minutes (with several stops to let cars pass) and it wasn’t until 3pm that I returned to Thira.

Originally, I was planning to drive to Oia to watch (and photograph) the sunset. Having personally experienced some of the dangerous driving in Santorini, the decision was to return the ATV and take the public bus to Oia. Since sunset began at about 6:30pm, there was still 3 hours available. I explored the streets on foot to reach some of the more unique churches on the island.

Santorini has many stairs to climb.

But there are rewards at the end of these stairs, such as the famous Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral…

Vista like this…

Decorated walkways…

And colourful buildings…

At the end of one long hike, the view toward Thira Town was spectacular.

In this picture, you can see 5 different churches. Santorini probably has one of the highest concentration of churches per capita. There were anything from small closet-sized chapel (which only fits a couple of people crouching inside) to the large cathedrals.

Backtracking a little, I visited the famous Catholic Cathedral.

The inside…

Up and down various stairways, passing many small restaurants, bars, souvenir stands and other shops, it was easy to lose yourself in Thira Town. With limited time, I actually had a very good experience exploring Thira Town.

However, time was ticking and the sun was about to set. At 5am, I fought for a spot on the bus to Oia. I’m not joking, you literally have to battle your way onto the bus. I really had no idea where was the best location to watch the sunset. I was hoping to just follow others if they had known better. When we were almost at the Oia bus terminal, there were a few people in front of my who exclaimed they have missed their stop. I overhead that it was much better to photograph the sunset “back there”. When the bus finally reached the terminal, I decided to walk back toward the last stop and attemped to stumble into a good viewpoint.

About 10 minutes later, I finally reached “back there” and arrived at a blue domed church.

But honestly, I was not very satisfied with the viewpoint. Looking around, I saw a walkway leading up a high point in the caldera. Maybe the view would be even better there?

It’s all the way up the hill…just at the end of this series of white buildings…up on that little peak.

When I reach the destination, there was an abandoned boat perched up on the retaining wall. Weird, huh?

Before the sun set, I took a few area shots. I liked this one best.

By 7pm the sun was beginning to set.

Soft glow on the white buildings

Here we go…

Almost gone…

See ya tomorrow!

Some of the lights began to appear.

And the fading light

Before it got too dark, I navigated back to Oia with the help of my headlamp. Yes, I was prepared for the late photo session.

At the bus terminal, there was a little pita shop. They had an interesting gyro. Can you see the French fries in that gyro? It actually tasted very good. One gyro was not enough…so another chicken souvlaki pita was ordered. I still remembered that simple, yet so satisfying, meal!

Returning back to the campground, it was another early night to bed. Strangely, I could arrange a wake up “knock” at the campground for my 6:55am flight to Rome. In addition, they also arranged a taxi for me to get to the airport. I couldn’t believe the campground had more service than my cheap hotel in Piraeus!

The next morning, I didn’t miss my 5am alarm. I woke up before the wake up “knock” and was waiting for the taxi 15 minutes early. The ride to the airport was only 20 minutes but cost 15 euros.

Now, this is a warning to all who may use the airport at Santorini. I was told (and so were others waiting in line), that 1 hour advance check-in was adequate for the Santorini airport. Many people were shocked to see the 1-hour line when they arrived! I was lucky to arrive 1.5 hours before my flight. There was only one flight departing at the early hour but there were only 3 counters serving 300 people. The check-in also operated on “island time” so it was slow and not particularly efficient. So let this be a tip for anyone who may visit Santorini. Arrive EARLY!

I was told that the plane doesn’t leave until everyone has boarded. Fortunately, there was only a 5 minutes delay. This was the last picture I took of Santorini.

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