This was a morning of shopping. We got an early start and there was some sunshine. Fira was very quiet until the cruise ship passengers came ashore. From the hilltop we could see the shuttle boats ferrying them from the mooring the shore. Shortly after they came flooding down from the cable car station.
After shopping we checked out of the hotel. We had some time to kill and watched a parade of island school children, some in national dress, marching along the main square, carrying flags. After marching the kids formed circles in the street and performed some dances. Turns out today is a national holiday: Ohi (“No”) Day, and so the locals were out enjoying themselves. After the very quiet early morning Fira seemed much busier than it did yesterday.
In the afternoon we rode the bus to Kamari for a short visit to the beach. It was much warmer and less windy down there, but still a bit too cold for bathing. “How can the sea be so blue?” Lore wondered. Our beach visit was more like a short snooze in the black sand. I had some baklava in a beachfront cafe, though.
The bus ride to and from Kamari, and our departure from the island showed the more mundane parts of Santorini and Greece. The villages in the lowlands are not obsessively painted. The departure area in the airport was somehow not as nice as the arrival area. Stray dogs wandered around in the terminal, a reminder that Greece is still a Second World country. The classy tourists must come by sea.
Back in the ancient capital, we’re becoming regular experts at getting from the airport to central Athens. Or maybe we just realize how easy it is. The buses and the subway are nice and clean.
We are that fulcrum point of vacation today: when the anticipation and excitement reaches an equilibrium with the realities of beginning the return trip. The memories are starting to outnumber the plans for the rest of the week.
This was a wasted night in Athens. There is not enough time—and we’re too tired—to do anything this evening or tomorrow morning before we fly back to Paris. This will be a day of transition and travel, time to take it easy and give the camera a rest.
Our plane landed on Santorini Island (or Thira, as the Greeks call it) at night and it was too dark to have an impression of it. We do have a nice room for a great price in the middle of Fira, the main village.
Our day was off to a disappointing start, meaning rain and heavy winds. Looking for breakfast as the rain came harder, we ducked into an over-decorated and over-priced cafe with an underwhelming menu to be waited on by a brusque waitress. The Greeks have a direct manner that treads a fine line between endearing sincerity and snotty rudeness. I think they are also not morning people.
The streets of Fira are a maze of narrow but colorful pedestrian alleys that wind up and down the hilltop. Our wandering took us up to a place exhibiting reproductions of wall art from Ancient Akrotiri, an important Minoan-era archeological site on the island.
What a view was revealed as we followed a street along the ridge that looked out over the town! We could see the circle of islands that were the volcano’s caldera. Painted stucco buildings cascaded down the hillside. The hilltop villages form a white rind on the scrubby brown island surrounded by blue, blue Mediterranean water.
Our walk took us up to the adjacent village, Firostefani, where we had a lunch of Greek salads overlooking the caldera. Once back in Fira, we stopped at the Orthodox Cathedral and the Catholic Church before taking a cable car down to Fira Skala, the port at the bottom of the cliff.
The cable car ride took about 5 minutes and we were the only passengers. The cliffs are more colorful up close; red, white, and chocolate brown rock layers with some dusty green plants. Fira Skala was quiet. The few shops were closed though ready for business when the cruise ships call. A man offered us a mule ride up the cliff steps back to Fira. We didn’t want to ride the mules and he got annoyed and a little too aggressive. “Why?” he asked, as if we owed him an explanation. The cable car is probably ruining his livelihood.
After we got back to the top we got on the bus to Oia (pronounced EE-a), another hilltop village on the north end of the island best known for its gleaming white church and sunsets over the Mediterranean. The bus was crowded and one of the passengers opened the emergency overhead hatch for ventilation. The driver and the conductor got really upset about that because the hatch nearly blew off on a winding mountain road. We had to pull over so they could secure it. “Malaka,” the driver kept saying.
Oia was really windy—strong winds that we had to lean into to move forward—and dusty. The wind blows dust right into your eyes. I was shaking it out of my hair later in the hotel. Actually it was more like coarse sand than dust.
Oia was also amazingly beautiful. The sunset observation area at the north point (it was too overcast to see the sunset) also looked over Ammadou, another cute little village with windmills on the cove below.
We got back to Fira for a late dinner. I had a yummy lamb gyro. There is a thunderstorm tonight. Will it bring sunny weather behind it?
We headed up to the Acropolis today, starting at the bottom of the hill with the Theater of Dionysos. Restoration work everywhere in the Acropolis makes it looks as much like a construction site as a tourist attraction. They’ll probably be restoring it for decades if not centuries.
It’s hard to get an overall picture of the Acropolis without a map or a guide, but we didn’t really need one or want one to admire the marble ruins. There were some waysides with decent illustrations.
At the top of the hill it got crowded. The steps of the Propylaia, the gate to the hilltop, was crammed with polyglot visitors. The cruise ships brought their passengers up hundreds at a time. There were lots of Americans, French, and Spanish; even some Argentinians. It reminded me of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Then I finally saw the Parthenon! All architects should be forced to stare at the Parthenon until they develop good taste. I wish it wasn’t so crowded. What is it like during the busy season?
The Parthenon is massive but we tried to pay attention to the details. What was so amazing about this building, I realized, was not just the Parthenon itself but what was scattered around the entire site: Acropolis chunks. Ancient columns and pedestals and capitols stacked up like warehoused merchandise to be used later in the restoration. A close look at a random capital on the capital pile reveals beautiful and precise hand-carved decorations. There is not just one of these little masterpieces, but hundreds of them.
The Ancient Agora, below the Acropolis was much more tranquil. It was park-like and quiet, better organized and less chaotic. The grounds aren’t trampled to death and there are actual blades of grass. Much of the Acropolis crowds didn’t venture down there, or at least the herds of cruise ship passengers didn’t.
Then we went to the Roman Agora, amid the maze of streets in Plaka. I thought it was interesting that though it was Roman they still built in the Greek style with no arches.
We took lunch on a quiet, sunny street in Plaka: lamb and potatoes and Greek salad. The meat was very tender and tasty, cooked simply with lemon, oregano, and olive oil. We’ve been lazy about learning Greek pleasantries; everybody in central Athens speaks English. Even traffic signs are in English. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a Greek neighborhood of a big American city.
We wrapped up the day at the Temple of Olympian Zeus. What little was left was even bigger than the Parthenon, built to the mind-blowing scale of the gods. One fallen column looked like a giant stack of poker chips someone knocked over.
Yesterday I didn’t think Athens had any charm but after our tour and our pleasant lunch this fine day, I think it does. The weather was sunny and pleasant, almost perfect, though a little muggy in the morning after last night’s rain. Athens is somewhat ragged and without the elegance of Paris (it’s not even close), but its roughness matches the partially restored remains of its ancient civilization.
Charles De Gaulle Airport is the ugliest thing I’ve seen so far in Paris. It’s concrete and steel and has ceilings made from some weird plaster covered with mesh netting. It looks like it was designed in the 1960s and is way too small for the amount of traffic it has. We can’t hear the announcements, and there are delays. There was a flight to Nantes before ours that took an hour to board. I doubt it takes an hour to fly to Nantes from here.
But the flight to Athens was on a nice, wide A320 with plenty of baggage space and leg room. The seats are smaller, perhaps because Europeans aren’t as fat as Americans on average, but it worked for us. Air France’s food was quite good.
The Athens International Airport is much nicer than de Gaulle. Metro workers are on strike, so there is no train from the airport, but the city is providing plenty of buses. We are staying in the Koukaki neighborhood, about a 15 minute walk to the Acropolis.
There are a lot of tourists here even though this is the end of the busy season, including lots of Americans and even some Argentinians. The weather is in the 60s, making a great night for walking around. The Acropolis is lit up from its dark perch on a bluff overlooking the city. All the Greeks here speak English. The city of Athens seems to be lacking in charm except for the stunning ancient ruins sprinkled here and there.
We wandered around Plaka, the old neighborhood of central Athens looking for a good place to eat, and found one. I had a very good moussaka, which is like a ground beef, mashed potato, and eggplant layer cake. Our waiter looked at Lore’s unfinished plate of stuffed bell pepper and said, “What?” We assured him it was very good as well. At the next table, amid the several tables of tourists, were some unhurried old Greek men chatting and occasionally bursting into song.