Greece 2024 Travelogue!

Santori-no fun for you

Fira from the bay

I slept a bit fitfully the night before the ferry, the way you do before early travel and not helped by someone noisily throwing out trash at three am in between incredibly violent bursts of rain. The plan was to hit the subway not long after it opened for the morning and catch it to the port where my ferry was leaving at solidly “WHAT?” o’clock. It was just as well I was very conservative with my time estimates as it turned out my ferry was in the absolute opposite end of the port and I must have missed the map that said so and/or the sign that pointed to the shuttle bus that arrived at the ferry just as I’d hoofed it around a ferry terminal probably 4x the size of anything I’ve seen at home. Eventually I got there though, all of 15 minutes before final boarding, plonked my luggage in a rack and found my seat just as the rain finally came back and started lashing the deck. Small favours. As much as I would have loved to spend the day staring out the window at sunny seas and islands in the end I was a bit dozy through the first part of the voyage anyway and better to have rain on a travel day than it forcing me inside while at a destination.

After a couple hours we started intermittently docking at islands before Santorini. Despite the looming low clouds each one looked gorgeous and inviting. They also looked incredibly dead people wise. I’d been warned by my research that the islands were quiet in low season. While in July and August there are multiple ferry options, high speed directs, inter-island bounces etc we were firmly in one slow boat a day territory at the end of February.

One of the en route Islands, Paros I think?

For those who don’t know the island of Santorini (or Thira for the actual main island I gather) is one part of a formerly quite large island that blew its top in ancient times and the modern ‘Santorini’ is mostly build on one part of the Caldera rim. If you’ve seen images of a greek island with white towns built on what seems like impossibly steep cliffs it’s a good chance this is it. I’d gone back and forth a few time on whether to spring for one of the ‘Caldera View’ suites and in the end had decided to save my money and spent it elsewhere. I’m glad I did as the weather was ‘fine’ but rarely super sunny and I was unsuccessful in getting one of the really quality sunsets they’re famous for while there.

The Rim Path

One thing that isn’t dead is the taxi industry despite the time of year and they want pretty extortionate rates to go anywhere on the island. As a solo traveler I cab only when necessary and it definitely wasn’t here with a modern motorcoach bus transfer available to my home base (the capital Fira) for only 2 Euro. The ride up was a pretty impressive zigzag up the Volcano’s rim and across some of the fertile lands at the top until we arrived in a village of white washed buildings, hotels and tavernas/restaurants… all of which were closed completely.

I exaggerate only slightly. I’d guess at least 95% of businesses were firmly battened down at this point which was more intense than I was expecting closure wise. To be honest more than a few of them looked like they maybe hadn’t been open since Covid Lockdowns but my hotelier said most things had reopened. The sheer number of places that were completely stripped out was shocking though. As my time on the island went on I did see some of these businesses being sandblasted/repainted and I gather some of this activity was for the start of April (Orthodox Easter being their first busy weekend.) Compounding the frustration was the fact that most of these business do not update their business hours for offseason on their website if they have one or on google. It was pretty frustrating. You know a place is dead when their McDonalds (incidentally the first one I’ve seen this trip) is closed.

My (cheaper) hotel was on the secondary road and I clattered down the crappy pavement after the sidewalk gave out until I found a tiny sign and a steep ramp down. I’m a little afraid I may murder my suitcase with all these cobbles (yes I skipped the old reliable backpack this time as it didn’t seem necessary.) Thankfully it was a lovely little place with a number of suites scattered around a neighbourhood and I was shown to a little second floor unit with a balcony terrace and a comfy bed. Unfortunately he more or less confirmed nothing was running excursion wise either though he told me to check at the travel agency where they confirmed it. At this point I was starving so I pretty much immediately went back up to the main road, found one of the few things open was a soulvaki place (gasp!) and chowed down on a pita. Properly victualed I began exploring the internecine pathways of the town, pretty much all lined with closed down jewellery shops, souvenir stores, snack bars etc. Restaurant wise there were two souvlaki stands with outdoor seating, an asian fast food place and two not great looking sit down chinese places. When things got a bit busier a day or two later it was mostly chinese nationals I saw so perhaps the latter still being open isn’t surprising.

Snaking my way down towards the caldera I could help but gasp at the view. It’s truly breathtaking and probably wild if you’re afraid of heights. You look out towards the other islands that form the rim while in either direction beside you stretches an absolute hodgepodge of bulbous buildings jutting out over the edge like cliff sparrow nests. (Empty) infinity pools are everywhere the better to enjoy the sunset with your traveling companion. Whether you QUITE get that luxury experience from the photos when there are other balconies inches to your left and right I don’t know, especially since in some the cheaper ones near the top you also have schmucks like me who can just lean over and look past your balcony to the sea.

The dock right below the town apparently is often clogged with cruise ship tenders and there is a cable car and a long set of 500+ stairs often covered in donkey dung. Apparently you have the option to have a ride part way via donkey as well. A lot of the deliveries are done by teams of donkeys as the narrow paths aren’t accessible even to carts. I chose not do do the 500 stairs as the cable car wasn’t running if I decided I wasn’t up to coming back up.

That first evening I walked most of the way to the next town up cliff-side path (it goes about 9km to the last town on the island) before snaking my way back through the alleyways since the heavy cloud was not cooperating for sunsets. As there was basically nothing to do at that point I walked back, decided to skip a gelato (regrets as this was the last time it was open during my stay) and headed back to my room for a movie and a think. I’d purposely kept things flexible here in case I’d wanted to extend things on the island but instead it seemed time to work out when/how to leave.

This is when I discovered the ferry strike was going ahead for the day I’d planned to leave. Long story short nothing was sailing on the calendar day I wanted to leave. There was a ferry starting from Athens (Piraeus) just after midnight, arriving at Santorini around 5 am then going onward to Crete the following morning. Unfortunately that basically made my options to be “get a hotel for another night and leave at 4am, pay a middle of the night taxi+luggage+time surcharge on top of the ferry fare and get to Crete probably wrecked again. Alternatively since the air traffic controllers were not on strike after all (they’d planned to join in) I could fly. Unfortunately again because low-season there were no direct flights at the moment… I dithered about it for the next day but then yes I booked a flight back to Athens to then turn around and basically fly back over Santorini to land in Crete. Wasteful as hell but I wanted to make sure I got out of there without wasting another full day, especially if the strike had delayed that ferry further.

Oia – from the point

Still before that happened I hopped a bus over to the end of the island the next day. If Fira is the pretty girl Oia is the supermodel. It’s DEFINITELY that white washed walls/blue roofed village you’ve seen on a greek travel poster. Felt like I was in an off brand Mamma Mia sequel where they didn’t want to pay the extras. I spent a few hours wandering around the various paths, marveling at how many hotels were just closed completely with many looking like they needed two months work to be opened again. Store wise there was a bit more open here, mostly souvenirs and a couple women’s clothing/jewellery shops. Pretty much everything on the island is pricey but I guess the Oia folks know everyone is coming there for sunset no matter where they’re staying on the island, even in the off season.

I ended up spending a couple hours on the tip of the point at a small fortification getting snuggles off and on from a very affectionate cat and reading a book in the sunshine. It was a lovely day, I just would have really loved to be able to take a cruise around the islands too while I was there (and dive some of the volcanic caves.) Despite sitting there enjoyably for hours as it began to get busy for sunset I climbed further into the hotel neighbourhood figuring I’d be able to find a good vantagepoint that was less busy given they were all closed. I found an excellent balcony… but it was eventually ruined by a french couple who both kept hacking up a lung/sniffling until I retreated for my health… then by a large cloud bank rolling in just before sunset. I grumbled as I caught the last bus back to Fira, grabbed some food then booked my flight(s) out.

I realize that I neglected to mention the one new thing I’d found open after the first night which was a delicious bakery hidden in the bowls of a building behind a pretty bad looking bar and a closed fish spa. I’d seen a girl walk out with a koulouri (greek sesame bagel thing) and had wandered into the darkness and come away with a delicious ham and cheese pretzel. The next morning (my luggage left with my hotel man) I grabbed a feta pastry and took another bus, this time to the Akrotiri historical site. This is an ancient town buried by ash not unlike Pompeii with the note that most of the inhabitants evacuated here. It’s a neat site with a full canopied building over everything and excavation ongoing. It’s also right by the sea so as I waited for my bus back I stuck my feet in the water for the first time this trip. Chilly but no worse than home in the summer.

Akrotiri archaelogical site

With that though, Santorini time was over. A quick bus back to Fira, the long trudge to and from the hotel to get the luggage and another bus to the Airport and it was time to go. Have I mentioned I went through like 4 books while there? The flight was mildly stressful as we started boarding late and had to take a bus out to the plane so I started sweating my connection, especially when while disembarking I got stuck behind a woman who insisted on opening her carryon to put away her coat and blocking the entire line. In the end I had to run through the terminal as it was already marked final boarding when I got inside (our plane being parked at the ass end of nowhere and me again missing the first bus back to the terminal.) Still, I made it, got on another absurdly short flight and took another bus to the old town of Heraklio (Iraklion) the capital of Crete! More to come.

PS I don’t want to seem super down on the island. It’s a beautiful place and I don’t doubt the stories about how it gets massively OVERcrowded in the summer but I would have loved even slightly more in between. It seems like October might be the time to visit while things are still running and the seas are warmer but after the crush.

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