Monday, December 03, 2007

Thera

I'll return to Athens before flying out of Greece, but from here I move on to the gorgeous island of Thera (or Santorini). I had hoped to do some island hopping, and see at least three or four islands on the way to Crete, but, despite hastening through much of the mainland, I was running out of time, and decided to spend more time on the islands, and less time traveling. It was exciting to finally set sail on the Greek sea from the port at Piraeus, and I stood outside and watched as the mainland receded into the distance. Occasionally we would pass by some very small islands, which didn't seem to be inhabited as far as I could tell. We passed between the islands of Sikinos and Ios before finally entering the harbor at Thera. As you move past the centralized island volcano and come into the port, the stark cliffs grab your attention. I probably don't need to mention that Thera is most famous for largely having fallen into the sea, making a once-circular island into something of a crescent shape with the ominous volcano at the middle. As we approached the docking station, it became clear that in order to get anywhere we would have to climb a frighteningly steep and windy road up the sheer cliff face. We could see buses and cars making their way up and down by zigging and zagging on a narrow road leading almost directly upwards. Our villa had arranged a transport for us, but we had to wait twenty minutes for the next boat to arrive with some other guests, so we sat around and had a cool drink. On the ferry we met a man who owned a coffee shop at the docks, but it was too hot for a coffee in the middle of the day during a heat wave. He spent part of the year in Chicago, and the rest of the time on Thera, and it was clear that he knew the ferry system well enough to sneak into the cabin section of the ferry without paying: he kept looking around awkwardly and taking a seat until someone came up to him with tickets and asked him to move.




When we finally started the ascent up the cliff face, I could hardly look over the edge. It didn't help that our driver felt it necessary to pass a car on the first stretch, with a bus coming down the hill at us. Full-sized tourist buses and vans and cars all drove much too quickly, and then came to abrupt halts just at the hairpin turn, where, invariably, there was a bus coming around that couldn't make the turn clearly, so we would have to wait patiently. I was honestly surprised that I didn't see any accidents.



Once at the top, the view was astounding: on one side the island sloped off gently to the sea in the distance, with green land, as any island might look; and on the other side the island fell immediately into the sea with colorful, vertical cliffs. There was, as I mentioned, an island volcano at the center, and a larger island off to the north-west, and a few other islands to the south-west; you could see each end of the largest, crescent-shaped piece of the island. Our villa sat on directly on the cliff at the highest point on the island, with a breathtaking view that would be the focus of our stay there. The island itself is interesting, but I could have sat and pondered at the vast harbor that was once land: I simply could not imagine that one day it was a huge island, and the next, most of it was gone.

The western cliff faces were completely and utterly covered with the stereotypical white buildings that you probably associate with Greek islands. You could walk several kilometers to the next town on a path that went through the balconies and patios of other homes and visitors and restaurants. We found one of the most fantastic restaurants that we would experience, and ended up eating there three times before we left; if you ever get to Thera, make sure to visit Skaros. The tables looked out onto the harbor, and the menu was only a formality, as the waiter would encourage you to try the fresh seafood of that morning, or, at least, some special design of the chef. The service was friendly, and the food was amazing, and the wine, as everywhere on Greece, was local and delightful. My only experience with Greek wine was the dreadful bottles you are lucky to find in a wine shop in New York, but the fresh, local wine of the different regions of Greece, made from grapes that I've never heard of (and can't remember now) were always tasty and crisp. And the digestifs were always offered enthusiastically; if you refused, they would insist that you have one on the house, and the waiter would always join you, which must have become difficult by the end of the shift.

video

There were several Minoan settlements on the island, and the famous Thera fresco depicts what might be a map or a visual narrative, with boats leaving one piece of land, and arriving at another. There are different types of boats, and even some instances of people falling out of the boats into the sea. It would be fascinating to learn the context. Luckily for us, when we returned to Athens, we discovered that there was a special exhibit dedicated to Thera.

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