For some reason which I can no longer actually quite put my finger on, once upon a time I decided it would be a fantastic idea to head off to Greece, for a grand total of seventeen glorious days. I would be spending some time solo, some time cruising around with my good pal Rachel, and some time visiting another absolute legend- my other good pal Erin, who moved out there a while ago. Rachel and I had also been promised ‘THREE KEYS’ in Lefkada (one for a house, one for a boat and one for a car), several times, by a Greek chap we worked with; the elusive THREE KEYS never materialised but maybe that’s for the best. (In case you’re wondering, THREE KEYS has to be written in capitals because that’s exactly how he said it, with a good dose of spit thrown in for luck.) So here we go pals: after a failed attempt at sleeping in Gatwick airport (was awoken by sniffer dogs), and one night in an Athens hostel, resulting in oversleeping by two hours and almost missing my second flight, our story begins….on the tiny and very insta-famous island of Santorini.
First, the sciencey bit…
Flying into the island is pretty full on awesome. From above you can just about make out that the area is actually a collection of islands, nestled around a caldera which was formed by a rather large volcanic situation that went down a few thousand years ago. Obviously the whole caldera part you can’t tell from the air; I found that fact out upon landing. ‘Caldera’ literally means ‘cauldron,’ and this particular caldera and volcanic history has led many to suggest that the lost city of Atlantis might be somewhere round these parts; at the very least the biggest eruption caused the downfall of an entire civilisation of people (the Minoans, if you’re interested).
Becoming a cave-dweller
That’s right, pals! During my time on Santorini, I decided to really go EXTREME BUDGET and hide out in an actual cave, Neanderthal style. Nah, just kidding. I stayed in probably one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in, Caveland Santorini. Located in an old vineyard in the fairly central village of Karterados, it’s true that guests do sleep in the caves where the wine was once stored, but there’s also showers and wifi, meaning it’s not quite the back-to-basics caveman scenario that it could be. I made my way to the village by bus at 8am and got spat out of the doors into the sweltering heat at Zoto’s Bakery on the corner, where I proceeded to navigate my way down a very quiet hill on which a few kids gave me funny looks and ran away as fast as they could. To be fair to them, I probably looked like a sweaty MESS, and the bag I was carrying was cutting off the circulation in my right arm which definitely showed in my face.
Anyway, back to the point of the actual hostel itself. Accommodation on Santorini is downright expensive, and having resigned myself to the fact that a luxury villa with infinity pool hanging off a cliff side was extremely out of my budget, it felt like with beds going for around a tenner including breakfast, Caveland Santorini was a far better option anyway. In addition to the caves and the breakfast, there were dogs, cats, and an awesome pool to chill out by whenever you bloody well wanted. Infinity pool, schminfinity pool.
If there’s one thing that I have learnt in recent years it’s that never should you ever feel guilty for relaxing when on holiday, and this was the ideal place for doing so. Bougainvilleas were adorning just about every space available, the sound of cockerels crowing could be heard in the distance every morning, and a chilled out poolside vibe made the whole place full on DA BOMB.
Greeting the local donkeys
I went to say hi to the donkeys in Fira (the main town of the island), however these guys hang out all over the place. The purpose of the donkeys is to carry people up and down the steps from the old port to the centre of town- there are an awful lot of steps and an awful lot of tourists arriving in giant cruise ships daily- however I politely declined the offer of the donkey-men squawking ‘donkey, donkey!’ in my face as I passed them. It’s hard to tell from the expression of a donkey whether they’re happy or sad, but I felt that making one carry me down hundreds of steps in the baking sun wasn’t exactly a kind thing to do, and just had a nice chat with a few of them instead. On a side note, there’s no denying that their jewellery is full on awesome, and this was in all honesty the main topic of my chats with these lovely creatures.
Gyros, the ultimate budget street-food
I went to Pito Gyros in Oía for a truly top-notch gyros. Traditional gyros are made with pork, and contain onion, tomato, chips and tzatziki wrapped in some kind of flatbread. Also, wherever you go in Greece, if they charge more than €2 (€2.50 at an absolute push), they are massively ripping you off and you should definitely turn your back and walk away in horror and disgust.
Talking of Pito Gyros in Oía, I thought I might as well explore the rest of the town while I was in the area as this is where the whole picture perfect image of Santorini derives from. Pronounced in the same way a cockney says ‘here,’ i.e. ‘eeya,’ this town clinging to the Northenmost cliffs of the island is far quieter than nearby Fira although still attracts a large number of tourists at sunset as this is the part of Santorini that gets the longest and most glorious sunsets of them all, you know. This place is all about the whitewashed buildings, blue domed churches and generally a casual way of life. The main street is built out of marble, which made me think mostly of the yellow brick road and the grand old city of Oz, but in addition to that it adds a mild element of danger to the atmosphere as marble does tend to be a very slippery surface for walking on, particularly when boiling hot. Underneath the town sits the tiny port of Ammoudi Bay, where you can fling yourself off the rocks into the sea, or alternatively just catch a boat to the little island of Therasia, for an even more truly Greek experience.
And the castle
I came upon the old castle in Oía purely by accident. I’d finished my gyros in as elegant a fashion as possible- which is not very elegant at all, as there was definitely drops of unnoticed tzatziki still soaking into my clothes come dinner time- and kept on strolling with no real idea of what my aim for the day was, only to realise all of a sudden that I was standing at the top of a very high rock jutting out into the sea, surrounded on this rock by the crumbling remains of a castle. It’s not been kept in fantastic condition, and although it is a ruin people also seem to have used it as a dumping ground for unwanted building materials. But even so, it’s a pretty cool place to go and have a nose around. It was built when the Venetians were in power by a Byzantine family, to help defend Santorini from pesky pirates and also probably just to make themselves look cool. It must be pretty cool to have your own castle, after all. When I visited there were just a couple of snoring Greek folk lazing in the shade of the walls, but by sunset the whole place is crawling with visitors wanting to get the best spot to see the sunset from.
Family dinner time
It became clear to me very quickly that in order to eat truly great food, it would be imperative that I DID NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTAMCES eat in the restaurants targeting tourists in the town of Fira (for example). The hostel organised a so-called family dinner at a local taverna and despite the fact that I struggle a little with large groups of people in general, let alone large groups of people I don’t actually know, I thought it would probably be a good idea to go along. In this instance the promise of delicious food helped me to beat down my inner hermit and as it happens I had a right old laugh. Fourteen of us shared Greek salad, feta, split peas, tomato and zucchini fritters, olives, mousakka, the list of food goes on and on and on, but we basically had a little bit of just about everything they presented us with, rounded off with a few shots of raki for good measure. Raki does smell like turpentine but I must admit it went down easier than I was expecting so well done all around.
Adding to my collection of awesome bookshops seen…
In recent times I seem to have developed a sixth sense for intuiting where really awesome bookshops will be located, and to my full on delight the island of Santorini was not immune to my bookshop-senses. The entrance to Atlantis Books in Oía is hidden down a short staircase, and inside this cave of wonders is all manner of incredible books in both Greek and English (and a few other languages for luck). And not just your normal Waterstones stuff either…magical-looking hundred-years-old copies, rare first editions signed by the authors, and small and intriguing books and maps published by the bookshop’s own publishing company. It is a true marvel! On the roof of the shop are a few more shelves of second hand books, some small nooks for reading them in, and a fantastic view of the caldera which I’d imagine is even more fantastic at sunset. (Also, on the day I was there- a washing line.)
Taking in the sunset
Probably one of the most famous activities in all of Greece, is to watch the sunset in Santorini. On the last of my three evenings on the island, after a peaceful afternoon hanging out by the pool with two Canadian girls, I ventured back to the top corner to witness this sunset in all it’s glory. And let me tell you this for free, it truly was glorious. It’s pretty mind blowing to me that there are so many things to do and see in this world, crazily incredible buildings, cities and all manner of man-made brilliance, and yet somehow one of the most spectacular sights is still just a simple sunset which has been happening every single day since whenever the world began. What a laugh!
On day three I found my way to the new port by bus (going down some pretty steep and extremely bendy roads) accompanied on the journey by an Argentinian banker who had been staying in the hostel too. But more about that another time! Santorini is amazing. In my imagination it is physically heaving with the effort of carrying so many cruise passengers, honeymooning couples and quad bikes laden with selfie-stick weilding people…but unfortunately I suppose this is the one downside of being such a beautiful place.
- Flights from Athens to Santorini take around 45 minutes, and ferries take between five and nine hours, depending on whether you take a high speed service, and how rough the sea is.
- Buses are cheap and run to and from the ferry port and airport, however the schedule depends on the port or airport schedule. When you arrive on the island there will be a bus waiting to collect you (and everyone else, obv), and buses leave Fira an hour and a half before a ferry or plane is due to leave. It’s a strange system but if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
- Another odd thing about the buses. (They’re more like coaches which is nice because it means aircon is in good supply and seats are comfy.) You get on. You sit down. Then a couple of stops later a man with some spare change and a bumbag gets on and works his way up the aisle collecting your fares and doling out tickets.
- Had I been staying longer I definitely would have explored further afield and seen the black and red beaches, as well as the island of Therasia and volcanoes. (But with two days in total I was glad with what I managed to see and do, so all is good)