Sunday, 27 April 2014

Probably the Most Expensive Frappé in the History of the World

There's one good thing about the Santorini bus station. It's very near the action. OK, so "Bus Station" is a rather ambitious epithet for what is actually more like a levelled area about the size of a basketball court, on which a few "buses" [or as we Brits would call them "coaches"] of various shapes and sizes hang around to give you the impression that you'll be able to get where you want to go at approximately the time when you'd like to go there. Nevertheless, Santorini Bus Station it is.

Having descended from the bus much later than we'd hoped when we'd booked this slightly crazy day out, and then having been told that, despite the fact that the ferry back to Naxos doesn't dock until 3.30pm and it's only a fifteen minute ride back to there from here, the bus for our return goes at 2.30pm, we were rather understandably anxious to get to the place where all the views are and pdq.

You would have thought (or is it me?) that they might just have harmonized the bus schedule with the ferry times, yea? No such luck. So, here we were faced with a scant sixty minutes to take in one of the most iconic locations in Greece, nay on the planet. But were we going to be beaten? Has the Pope got a balcony? So off we tore hotfoot, up the very steep hill, which led fortunately a mere fifty metres or so to the beginnings of the cobbled street which leads a further fifty metres or so to the first spot where you get that view.

Frankly, nothing prepares you for that first glimpse. You may have studied the photographs for years in fact, as I had, so that you even recognize most of the buildings and features in that view because you've seen them all so many times in the photographs, but it makes no difference.

It's rather like the first time you see the Grand Canyon (name dropping a bit here, granted). When we drove the forty miles or so South from the ticket booth at the entrance to the Grand Canyon [North Rim] National Monument (they call lots of parks 'monuments' in  the USA, …odd eh?), after having breakfasted at Jacob Lake some time before, we eventually began driving along a wooded road at a point where according to the map, the Canyon ought to be just a few metres to our left. Since I was driving I had to concentrate on the road, since it was pretty curly (I like that adjective, OK?), so all I could mentally note was the presence of a lot of trees to both sides of us, but all of a sudden my wife let out the kind of gasp that makes one think she's about to die of a seizure or something. I genuinely thought that perhaps she'd eaten something that was about to cause her a major medical emergency. Glancing left through the trees in the direction that she was staring, mouth all agape while she considered whether it might be a good idea to start breathing again, I had to ram on the brakes and stop the car. Through the trees to our left, which were quite well spaced when you looked at them sideways on, was the biggest gap, hole, ravine, call it what you will, anyone could ever imagine catching sight of. It was so huge that it made the mind doubt what one was seeing. Such was the effect that our first glance of the Grand Canyon had on us. Yup, it was even bigger than the holes in the Greek roads.

Well, it's not a lot different when you stand atop the "Caldera" at Thira on Santorini. The majesty of the view and the way in which the buildings seem to tumble higgledy-piggledy down the sheer cliff face make you doubt what you're seeing. It really is that magnificent. Plus, we'd chosen as clear a day as one could wish for to make this visit and so the light was perfect. Hence the clarity of the photos...

When you gaze down at the huge amphitheatre of sea that is the "caldera", or crater of the old volcano, the view is stunning. Smack dab in the middle of the "basin" is an island which resembles closely the colour and landscape of the Canary Islands, comprising as it evidently does, volcanic rocks of a dark brown and black colour. It looks to be barren, save for a tiny beach far below and directly facing the cliff on which we were standing, where one or two small vessels were laying anchored. It was interesting to observe the route that ships and ferries took when approaching Santorini's harbour. Almost without exception they circled the far side of this small island rather than passing closer to the cliffs. I was left wondering about that cruise ship, the Sea Diamond, that had struck an underwater "spike" back in 2007. She's apparently still down there and I guess that other vessels don't only want to avoid the spot but also the underwater "spikes" that she foundered on.

You know when the Benny Hill show used to end with that speeded-up chase all over the lawns of some country house, or around a public park or something, with more people joining the snake of running (and frequently scantily clad, …as if I'd noticed that!) people all the time? Well our time constraints on this visit sort of made me feel a bit like that. I felt we had to kind of "speed up" our all-too-brief wanderings around the tiny steep streets of Thira and do what all traditional tourists do, in other words snap away like mad with the camera at double-quick speed. Fact is though, we still felt obliged to stop for a frappé, and obviously at a café that afforded one of the best views, so we ascended the steps of one such establishment, which as it transpired only opened for the first time that very day for this year's season, and prepared to be fleeced comprehensively for the privilege.

So, as we sat there and winced at the price, we did have to concede that it was worth it just this once for the view that we had sprawled out beneath us. Mind you, while we sat there waiting for the non-Greek waitress (sweet girl, nevertheless) to bring us our gold-plated frappés, we did a quick calculation on the cost of this trip. Since every single morning of our holiday we've been strolling to a café on the front for a coffee, or occasionally in my case an iced mochaccino (say four "hail marys"), we concluded that this was far and away the most expensive frappe we'd ever drank and were ever likely too. If you brought the whole trip down to basics, we'd left Naxos at some time after 11.30am and, if all went according to plan, would be back there before dark, then you could argue that we went to an awful lot of trouble and expense to drink an iced coffee in Santorini. Gulp, passes quickly on before breaking into a cold sweat.

In actuality though, as regular readers will know, my much beloved mum died last summer and, since we'd lost my dad five years earlier, we'd come into a little inheritance, which, as it so happens, has hit the bank whilst we've been enjoying this special anniversary break. Her house sold and the various procedures were all completed and the solicitor deserves our praise for the very quick and efficient way in which they expedited the whole process. What I'm trying to say is this: we agreed that this was one holiday when we'd not even think about what we spent. It wasn't going to happen again, that's for sure. But we lifted our frappés atop the Santorini Caldera and said, "Thanks mum, thanks dad. These are on you!"

Thus you see before you the photo of my dearly beloved better half and I with the glory of Thira surrounding us, courtesy of a very nice young man from Latvia, who was sitting at the table next to us with his young wife and child. I'd turned to him and rather embarrassingly asked, "Umm, do you speak English?"

To which he replied, "Yes, of course," whilst he reached for my camera, which I was unconsciously already extending toward him with my right hand. No sooner had he taken it, mind you, than I spotted the enormous great photographic apparatus that was hanging around his neck on a stripey strap, shouting without words…"I cost this guy a serious amount of cash, folks!" I could see the word Nikon emblazoned across the biggest part, well, no, sorry, not the biggest part. The biggest part was the lens hanging off the front, which could easily have doubled for a jet engine - it was that big and complicated-looking. So, I immediately felt a prize plonker didn't I, having just handed him my little instamatic digicam with a zoom so small it would make some men feel the need for inadequacy counselling. I'm not even going to mention that my camera is metallic pink in colour.

Anyway, to this young man's credit (and his English was flawless too, curse him) he didn't make any remark to indicate how laughable my little feeble attempt at photographic apparatus was alongside his. He merely eyed us up, asked us to move here a bit, there a bit, and snapped a couple of shots before handing the camera back with a smile and a "You're welcome."

Our frappés duly consigned to the nether reaches of our insides, we paid the waitress and headed off to snap as much as we could as we made our way back to the "Bus Station" for the ride back to the harbour. One thing we did continually as we walked [trotted, more like] was compare the prices in the restaurants and bars to those on Naxos. On that subject, I have to say that, although we love Rhodes, the prices for food in the tavernas and restaurants on Naxos are consistently lower than on our home island. I have to say too that the menus are also much more extensive. We've been genuinely impressed with, not only the prices, but the quality and choice in the tavernas an other eateries here too. 

Santorini, however, well, notwithstanding how much we'd paid to come here, we found ourselves calculating that we'd have been hugely more out of pocket had we decided to spend a few weeks here. Beautiful it is beyond argument, but cheap it ain't. Each to his own, the comment we always have to insert at such junctures, but we'd have found ourselves going home not only much, much poorer, but with a distinct feeling that we'd been subjected - like those sheep in those sheep-shearing competitions they have in New Zealand and Australia all the time - to a thorough fleecing.

And so to the return journey. Yes, folks, we did make it back to the bus stop in time. We even had the same driver, who greeted us with a smile of incredulity, concluding (so we vainly hoped) that we must have had some very important business to conclude to have come for such a brief visit. Not fifteen minutes after having boarded the bus for the return trip, and we were jumping off at the harbour across the way from the string of car hire offices and cafe-bars that line the base of the cliff.

We had plenty of time and so decided that it may just not be too much of a rip-off to have a toastie and a beer here before boarding the Blue Star ferry, which had yet to put in an appearance, since it was still forty-five minutes from departure time. Having repaired to the cafe we'd chosen, I did indeed order a cheese and tomato toastie and a beer and Y-Maria went for a spanakopita [spinach pie] with a can of Tonic Water. OK, so the prices weren't too bad and the staff were quite friendly, but my toastie did a fairly good impression of two pieces of blotting paper ever-so slightly tanned in faint lines here and there on each side, inside of which the cheese was hardly melted at all and the sliced tomatoes still cold. Y-Maria's spinach pie had so much Feta in it that she had to extract huge mounds of it and leave it on the side of her plate to avoid being sick. At least my beer was cold and they did have Tuborg tonic, so all was not lost.

The ship arrived five minutes late and all hell broke loose. This was only the third week of April. I can't imagine what this place must be like in the high season. There was the biggest horde of tourists to-ing and fro-ing as I've ever seen. Yes it was a nice day, temperatures in the lower 20's and unbroken sunshine, but to be honest in the shade it was quite cool and yet vast numbers of "yoof" surrounding us were all dressed as though it was 40ºC and August! Lots of them had so little clothing on as to make us feel like they'd soon be suffering from exposure. Uniformed people with whistles shepherded the masses this way and that between metal barriers, huge articulated trucks manouevred themselves on and off of the ship's vast vehicle deck and general organised mayhem ensued.


By the time we'd managed to get aboard and ascend to the exterior rear deck, so as to watch the rest of the show, it was approaching 4 o'clock. Just when it looked like they'd got all the vehicles off that wanted to get off and boarded all the ones that wanted to board, one of those buses turned up at the quay-side that you usually get ferried around on when you get on and off a plane at an airport where they don't have those "tunnels" that attach themselves to the side of the plane. You know the ones I mean, they're very low with precious little ground clearance. I was leaning over the rear rail far above as they proceeded to try and get this bus aboard. At first it tried reversing straight on to the huge steel ramps that are stored upright against the stern whilst at sea, forming doors. These ramps though are quite steep and the step from quay to ramp is also fairly large. No sooner had this bus begun its attempt to board than there was the sound of screeching metal and this brought the arrival of a half a dozen or so ship's crew-members in short order, one of whom was evidently in charge and began barking orders to the driver and his fellow crew-members whilst waving his arms this way and that. Soon someone arrived with some huge coils of ship's rope and they had the idea of sliding these beneath the wheels of the bus "in series" to try and raise the vehicle's underside high enough to get it boarded.

There I stood, watching in fascination, whilst also checking my watch and seeing the time ticking away. Quite what an airport bus was doing on Santorini's quay I couldn't imagine, but it wanted to leave, that was for sure. By the time they'd finally got it on board and the klaxons were knocking out my eardrums as the ramps were being raised, the sea began churning up as the vessel's screws turned faster and we were slowly putting a space between us and the quay side it was about 4.20pm. I didn't allow myself to think how much more time we may have had on Santorini had we been wise before the event.

One thing I can say with the benefit of experience. The Blue Star ferries which ply the Aegean sea are the bizz. We've used them a number of times and every time felt like we were on a mini-cruise. As the Blue Star Delos began sedately sailing northward, I gaped in amazement at the view above me and took snap after snap until we exited the caldera and met the open sea...

It had been an extraordinary experience, if somewhat expensive. As we disembarked on Naxos a couple of hours later we agreed that Santorini has to be seen, yes. But we felt we'd come home as we strolled back along the Naxos front.

Santorini is not just Thira and the Caldera, of course. All we ever see in the photographs is the dramatic bit, but the island slopes gently away in the other direction (eastward) as it's really just one giant escarpment. Toward the east there are cultivated plains of vegetables and vines, plus the ubiquitous olive groves. There isn't much forest or woodland, though. The overall impression one gets is of an open, slightly bleak landscape. The airport is way over toward the East coast too and thus doesn't seem to present much problem noise-wise to those living or staying in or around Thira or the even more picturesque Oia way up at the northern tip of the Caldera. 

On Tuesday next we're off to see the archaeological wonder that is Delos, an island where no one is allowed to either be born or to die, and then to Mykonos. But before then I've got tons to write up about our second bus trip all the way up to the far north of Naxos. See you soon.

1 comment:

  1. Ah yes getting to Santorini is interesting whichever way you travel. The photos are fab!