My big fat Greek vacation, part II

Wait, first read part one!

Monday, March 19: Welcome to paradise

After a rough departure from Athens, I was worried that events from the past 12 hours would taint my time in Santorini — the one place I’d wanted to see more than anywhere else. In the metro, airport and shuttle bus to the plane I was trying so hard to think myself into a better mood — and getting so frustrated that it wasn’t working. Then, I stepped off the bus and saw our plane.

It was a little, white ATR-42 (seats 42 people) with big, blue propellors in front of the wings. The moment I saw it, every ounce of bad in my system was replaced with excitement. I LOVE flying — especially take-off and landing — and I take a little bit of sadistic pleasure in messing with those who don’t. For instance, our flight was only 20 minutes, so the plane stayed very low in the sky and looked like it might dip or land in the water. I may have pointed this out several times to Lydia, who gets nervous flying. Oh well, she survived. Caitlin, on the other hand, was so nervous she started crying when we landed. (So of course on our three flights home to Florence, we all teased Caitlin each time we landed. Unfortunately, the next time we tease her, we’ll be heading to the States…)

Though brief, the flight was amazing. The water was so clear you could see the currents and all the plants beneath the surface. The flight attendants even managed to serve us snacks, candy and two rounds of drinks.

After we landed (along the beach!) and claimed our bags, an old man named Vangelis — the Mr. of the couple who owns our hostel — picked us up and drove us to our home for the next five days. For €8 per night, the hostel and the view were BEAUTIFUL.

“Wait. Is this where we’re staying?” I asked the group when Vangelis pulled into the parking lot. (I hadn’t been very involved in planning the trip; I just hopped on board.)

“Yeah!” A few girls chimed.

“Wait. REALLY?!” I honestly couldn’t believe it. Looking around, I felt like I should be on my honeymoon. But it was even better than a honeymoon because I was with my best friends.

Villa Manos, our hostel

View from our room

Vangelis led us to the main lobby where we were greeted by his wife, Poppy, who is probably the sweetest, most angelic woman I’ve ever met. She seemed thrilled to have a group of six girls, and showed us to our room. Almost immediately upon seeing the view, we dropped our bags, hopped in our bikinis and sat by the pool.

Later that evening, we explored Fira — the big town (relatively speaking) in the center of the island, just north of our hostel. We stocked up on groceries, enjoyed a feast of tuna sandwiches and Twixes and hit the hay early.

Tuesday, March 20: Black sand beach, deserted streets and a home-cooked meal

Early Tuesday morning, we caught the bus to the black sand beach of Kamari, about a few miles south east of our hostel. The bus man who collected money was very rude and we were very flustered (typical tourists), but luckily we got on and off at the right places.

It was a bit more like a black rock beach, but pretty nonetheless!

Kate and I

After spending a lazy afternoon in the sun (and getting completely fried), we decided to search for some lunch. It took some wandering, but we finally found an open restaurant — though empty except for us — and ordered a bunch of cheap, delicious gyros. Then, we headed back to the beach.

The streets were totally deserted. A local at the bus stop later explained that — despite the beautiful weather — it was still the island’s winter season, and tourists don’t typically arrive until mid May.

Made this masterpiece on the beach 🙂

As the sun began to set, I realized our friend at the bus stop was right about winter season after all. As soon as that sun faded, it was freezing. We decided to wait 30 minutes for the next bus rather than walk, and I wrapped my scarf around my legs and wore Lydia’s big army jacket to stay warm. Just as I was joking about looking like a bum, this ratty, smelly, but adorable dog strolled up to me on the curb. He was so dirty but so sweet, and I was the only one who would love him. We made a cute, bum pair.

After taking the right bus but missing the right stop, walking home and barely making it inside our room long enough to warm up, Poppy invited us to the main lobby. As soon as she saw us, she said she “had an offer for us.” We were a little confused by her wording, but we did as she wished. Turned out, her offer was a home-cooked dinner! She made us four dishes of beans and pasta with meat and cheese sauce. It was so yummy, free and thoughtful.

There wasn’t any night life within walking distance, so we had another early night in. Kate and I were the only ones who didn’t bring our laptops, so while everyone Facebooked and blogged, we cuddled, pigged-out on more Twixes and watched the thriller/ horror movie Hannibal on her iPod (because it takes place in our home — Florence!).

Wednesday, March 21: Four-wheeling, off-roading and cliff climbing

Monday and Tuesday were pretty lazy days. Come Wednesday, I was ready to kick it up.

Unfortunately, so was the wind.

Some of the girls staying above us had draped their damp clothes over their balcony to dry, and as Kate and I were sitting poolside waiting for our roommates to get ready, the wind sent bikinis and underwear flying across the parking lot and into the street. We planned to rent Vespas and ATVs for the day, which would double the wind, so we geared up in our jeans and leather jackets. Plus, we wanted to look as bad-ass as possible cruising around the island.

Poppy called the ATV guy, who picked us up at our hostel and drove us to his shop. I wanted a four-wheeler because I was afraid I’d crash a Vespa, and we later learned motorbikes require their own licenses, anyways. We ended up renting three ATVs between the six of us, for two days. Kate and I shared the red one (and the fastest one!), and I let her drive first because I’d never even driven a golf cart. After we signed some papers, ATV guy slapped helmets on our heads, pointed us to the gas station and sent us on our merry way.

After filling our tanks (gas is just as expensive overseas), our first stop was back to Kamari and the black sand beach. A Greek woman Bethany met on the plane told her about a nearby chocolate shop that sells chocolates filled with the famous Vinsanto Santorini sweet wine. When we hit the area and realized we didn’t know the name of the shop or have any way of finding it, we turned around and headed to Pyrgos, a tiny town in the middle-south region of the island.

The road to Pyrgos was stunning. The entire island used to be part of a volcano, so it’s largely hilly and rocky, and Pyrgos sits on top of one of the hills. For the first time in my life, I totally understood why people want and love motorcycles. As we sped up the hill, twisting round and round the winding road, the wind was rushing on my face and through my hair, and I felt so free. It sounds cliché, but the feeling of flying through the open air is so liberating. Kate was still driving, so I could turn in my seat, try to snap photos and gaze across the island below.

In Pyrgos, where the hill began to plateau, we happened upon a restaurant called Mythos. It was the only open restaurant around, and it turned out to be another one of the places the woman from the plane had recommended.

She recommended it for the traditional Greek tomato balls:

I didn’t care for the balls, but I enjoyed yet another chicken gyro (I was on a budget). I also tried fried feta cheese (yummy), a Kalamata olive (disgusting) and Turkish delight — these weird, gelatin-like cubes topped with cinnamon (not delicious, but not terrible).

Everywhere we went, gyros were so big, delicious and CHEAP! I never paid more than €2.20, and I pay about €6 for a cheap meal in Florence. Also, attention American readers: it’s pronounced yur-oh, not jahy-roh. The mispronunciations throughout the week were a pet peeve of mine.

Our waiter brought us this Turkish delight as dessert for free. I find the name a little ironic because most Greeks hate Turks.

After lunch, we swapped drivers and headed toward the southwest tip of the island to find the red sand beach. As a first-time driver and the leader of the pack, I decided it would be a good idea to turn onto a tiny, steep-downhill gravel road that looked like some sort of shortcut. It was a fun, bumpy ride — until it became a bit too bumpy and I started to lose control. As soon as I was able to twist into a stop, we hopped off the bike to turn it around and yelled up at the other girls not to follow. Kate insisted that she drive back up the path; I happily agreed.

Once we got back to the main road, we paused for some photos…

Me

…and continued on.

We never figured out where to turn for the red sand beach. The only sign we recognized pointed us down the gravel path we refused to drive — which was too long to walk — so we continued all the way to the southwest tip of the island.

As we were parking our ATVs, we ran into a Canadian couple we met in Athens. They had spent all day walking and found the red sand beach, but they said to forget the beach for now and keep walking out to the tip because the view was “to die for.”

They were right:

Needless to say, we spent the rest of the afternoon rock climbing.

View across the entire island

One of many things I’ve learned about myself while studying abroad: I LOVE climbing things. I love ascending, descending and never knowing if I’m about to slip and smash my huge camera (which I’m always prepared to throw my own body under), but I especially love the views. I’m even okay with wind — which normally drives me crazy — at the top of rocks. It just feels right.

I did, however, get nervous a few times because we were pretty spread out, surrounded by drop-offs several hundred feet above water. At one point, we couldn’t see Kate for a few minutes, so Lydia and Bethany began calling her name. The more times she didn’t answer, the more panicked they sounded. I figured she was fine because I thought we’d hear a scream or something if she fell. After some more tries, Bethany turned to me and said, “Jess, you call her.”

“Kate?” I called, quieter than the panicked yells before.

“Yeah!” she replied instantly. Everyone laughed.

“Of course she answers you,” Bethany said.

It’s a best friend thing. 😉

It was getting late in the afternoon, and we decided to try to find the red sand beach one more time before dusk. We made a couple circles, and even stopped to ask for directions from an old Greek man on the side of the road. He didn’t speak any English, so we had to communicate using hand gestures. We still didn’t find it, so we shrugged it off and raced all the way home. Kate and I won, of course.

(We later learned we had basically found the beach, we just needed to round one more corner.)

That night, we met up with fellow CCI girls Erika, Yelena and Kelsey, who were stopping on the island through Bus2Alps — the student tour company I used for my trip to Interlaken, Switzerland.

No night life = a fun evening of drinks and catching up, crammed into our tiny hostel room.

Thursday, March 22: Donkey ride, blue roofs and an unexpected friend

I heard about donkey riding in Fira from Lydia, and I was instantly in. I mean, who wouldn’t want to say they’ve ridden a donkey in Greece?

At the time, however, we didn’t know the path was down the cliff that Fira sits on. We also didn’t know the rides weren’t supposed to be recreational — they were meant to transport people who didn’t want to do the 30-minute hike to or from the sea port.

After driving to Fira, parking our ATVs and searching through the town’s white plaster alleyways, we arrived at the top of the donkey trail. Here, the donkey men told us a roundtrip ride would be triple the cost of a downhill ride. Of course, we picked the downhill ride, even though Lydia was advised never to do so because the stones on the path are slippery, and the donkeys can fall.

Long story short: We survived sans falling donkeys, but I was terrified for most of the ride. I hadn’t ridden an animal in years, and I forgot how bouncy they are! Plus, those men were hastily pulling the roped donkeys down the slippery slope, while free ones trotted by. It seemed like chaos. Once again, I was prepared to throw my body under my camera if my donkey went down.

As the ride drew on and I began to pay more attention to my camera and less to the scene it was documenting, I felt myself trusting the donkey more and more. My muscles relaxed and I bounced with the rhythm of the animal; I’m surprised the photos turned out at all.

I was laughing and enjoying myself by the end, but I felt a little guilty because I felt like I might have supported something wrong. The donkeys were exhausted and thirsty, and it seemed as if they were poorly cared for.

Next came the real misery: hiking back up.

Thirty minutes up stairs doesn’t seem terrible, but the steps were so short and wide that it was impossible to get a good rhythm, and the path wove up in a way so that you couldn’t see how long it was or where it ended — you could only see the 20-m stretch in front of you. It was the never-ending staircase from hell. Kate and I were so hot we stripped down to our bikinis, not caring if anyone shouted things at us. We’re used to it wearing sweaters in Italy, anyways.

Lydia learned she’s allergic to donkeys (like she is to most other animals), and she took twice as long to make it up the hill. I thought she might pass out or suffer from some sort of shock when she reached us, but she got herself together, and we all recovered over lunch. This time, I broke my gyro streak and ordered chicken and potatoes in a lemon sauce. I know, I know — not very Greek, but it was SO good. For dessert, our waitress brought us free shots of Ouzo — the infamous Greek liquor that tastes like black licorice, bubble gum and other weird things that you’d think would taste okay but tastes so, so bad. We slyly poured ours out.

Fira

Fira

After lunch, we picked up our ATVs and met Erika, Yelena and Kelsey in the center of Fira. The three girls rented their own ATVs that morning, so we all stopped for gas, then formed a caravan of nine girls on five ATVs to go spend the rest of the day in Oia — a bigger town northwest of Fira with some of the island’s most famous views.

On the way, we stopped for some photo shoots.

The gang

Instead of Hell’s Angels, we called ourselves the Santorini Saints. Everyone stared when we cruised by; it was pretty fun. During these rides, we all felt like bad-ass biker chicks. In reality, we probably looked like Mario Kart characters.

Thirty minutes of breezy, island cruising later, we arrived in Oia — which was everything I imagined and more. Oia is the town with the famous images of bright, white houses and shiny, blue roofs, and it was one of the settings for Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — the book (then movie) that planted dreams of Greece in the mind of a much younger me.

It was so surreal to see places I recognized and had already grown to love from Google Images.

Arriving in Oia

The town was so beautiful and colorful. We spent most of the afternoon exploring and browsing in shops, asking the locals for the best spot to watch the sun set. Consensus seemed to be at a long balcony where pieces of an old castle remain.

We found the balcony…

…and a new friend…

…but we still had more than an hour to kill before sunset, so Kate and I split from the group to do some more exploring. The one thing I really wanted to do was find the vantage point for the classic Santorini photo of the hillside with the two white-wall, blue-dome buildings, so I could recreate the image. We set off to find the spot, but slowed down as sunset drew near because Bus2Alps rolled in with a tour group of about 150 American study abroad students. From the brief eavesdropping I did while pushing through crowds in the narrow, hillside alleyways, I totally understood why our professors in Kent urge us to be good ambassadors. It makes me sad that many people’s impressions of Americans are the stereotypes that those students embodied.

Anyways, after some pushing, shopping and pausing to play with puppies (they’re everywhere in Greece), we found the spot:

Oia, Santorini, Greece

We wandered a bit more, and made it back to the castle in time for sunset.

Kate

Me

The sunset was pretty, but a bit anticlimactic. I was expecting something much more magical because of all the hype, but I think the crowd of college kids might have killed the mood a little. As soon as we snapped a few photos, we hurried to a restaurant we had noticed earlier in the day. I accidentally ordered a dish I didn’t like, and the waiter never brought us our wine — but we ate on a beautiful deck on the hillside over the sea, and the waiter did bring us free brownies for dessert. We were also joined by our dog friend from the castle, who I named Maximus. We figured Maximus belonged to the waiter (who was also the owner) of the restaurant. The waiter and his wife seemed annoyed that the dog was sleeping under our table, but they never kicked him out.

After dinner, we walked to the edge of town to find our ATVs and head home. The first thing I noticed was the stars. I thought I’d seen stars in rural Ohio, but I’ve never seen ANYTHING like Santorini stars. It must be the whole small-island-in-the-middle-of-the-sea thing because I could see everything, even an arm of the Milky Way. I teared up it was so beautiful; I had missed stars so much. In Florence, you can only ever see Venus and the moon.

As we packed our trunks and geared up for the ride, we noticed a dog barking at each car and motorcycle that passed. Soon, the dog began chasing everything that passed, getting dangerously close to the vehicles. It was making Kate and I nervous, so we called after him. Sure enough, the dog was Maximus! He trotted over when we called, but ran right after the next car that drove by.

When everyone was ready to go, we patted Maximus goodbye and lined up in our caravan — Lydia took the lead and Kate and I took the rear. We took off, and Maximus immediately ran with us. From the back, Kate and I saw his little white butt racing right beside Lydia’s ATV. We pointed and laughed for a while, and then I leaned back, took a deep breath of cool air and watched the stars swirl around me. That simple moment — riding through the night and the stars — was one of the highlights of my trip.

After a few minutes I emerged from my starry dreamscape, and Maximus was still running. He kept running, and running — for five… then 10… then 15 minutes…

We were driving at about 30 mph, and Lydia kept honking and flashing her lights around the bends. I was amazed by that dog’s endurance, but it was scary because he was running along Lydia’s left side in the middle of the road. I was just waiting to see that cute, white butt get smashed.

Eventually, Maximus began to slow. He was running beside the second ATV, then the third, then fourth, then right in front of Kate and me. I yelled at Kate to slow down; I didn’t want to leave Maximus alone so far from home. She slowed a little, then suddenly, Maximus stopped. He turned and looked at us, knowing we would stop for him. We slowed to a halt in the middle of the road, and Maximus stood, panting heavily, in the glow of our headlights. He looked up at us with the most human face I’ve ever seen on a dog. His eyes said, “Please, please wait for me. I’m trying so hard.” We all looked at each other for a moment, and then Maximus went to lie in the grass on the side of the road.

“What do we do?” I asked Kate.

“I don’t know how to get home,” she said. “We have to catch up to the other girls.”

With that, she took off. Maximus jumped up and ran behind us, but this time he was too slow. I screamed at Kate to stop, but she insisted she couldn’t, and I watched Maximus disappear into blackness. The stars seemed a little dimmer after that.

Kate and I caught up with our caravan and made it home. It was then that we realized Maximus had been following and protecting us all night. We tried to tell ourselves we did the right thing — Maximus needed to turn around, we were leading him farther and farther from home — but we were pretty solemn the rest of the night. I think we both kept hoping we’d hear barking outside our door…

Friday, March 23: Boat ride, volcano and hot springs

Early Friday morning, Kate and I swapped ATVs with Lydia so she could take the fast one to try to find the red sand beach before we had to return the vehicles. We had booked a boat tour for the day and had to catch our boat at the old port around 11 a.m. — the same time our ATVs were due. The hike down to the port is supposed to take about 30 minutes from Fira, so we figured we’d be safe if we left our hostel around 10 a.m.

Kate and I left just after 10, and made it more than halfway to the ATV shop. In the middle of the intersection on our last turn, we ran out of gas. We freaked out, hopped off the ATV, turned it around and pushed it about a mile to the nearest gas station — in the opposite direction we needed to be. I thought the whole thing was kind of funny but Kate was pissed, so we sped to the shop, returned our gear and raced down those wretched, endless donkey stairs to the old port.

We made out boat!

First stop: the volcano.

Santorini is essentially what remains after an enormous volcanic explosion that destroyed the earliest settlements, on a formerly single island, and created the current geological caldera. So, what they call the “volcano” is the original peak.

The volcano’s crater

After an hour of hiking and posing for “king-of-the-world” photos, we got back on the boat and headed to the hot springs.

With the hot springs came the option of jumping in, but you have to swim about 20 meters in the icy sea to get to the springs. Of course, there was no point in even going if we were just going to look at the water, so we had to jump in. Out of about 30 people on the boat, the only ones who jumped were five of us girls, a middle-aged Asian man and an American couple who had to be in their 50s or 60s. The water was so, so miserable, and the springs weren’t even that warm — but I’m so happy I did it. Everyone on the boat was leaning over the edge taking photos of how crazy we were.

The Aegean Sea is one of the saltiest in the world, so I was brushing off clumps of salt for the rest of the day.

Back in Fira, we rode a cable car back up the hill (refusing to do the stairs or the donkeys ever again), and spent the rest of the day shopping. I impulsively bought a couple of quirky rings, had the most amazing Greek frozen yogurt and the best chicken gyro yet.

We spent most of the evening washing off salt and mud from the hot springs and packing for our early flight. At the last minute, we realized we had yet to try baklava — a traditional Ottoman pastry — so Poppy ordered some and had it delivered to our room. I’m not a big honey person, so I wasn’t a huge fan at first. Once I got over the fact that dessert doesn’t always have to have chocolate in it, the baklava grew on me. It was actually pretty good.

Saturday, March 24: Airport games and good bye

I woke up Saturday the sorest I’ve ever been. Ever.

A few groans later, I realized everyone was in the same pain. Sitting and standing was almost unbearable, and I let out a moan each time. It was kind of funny, but I was confused because I thought we had hiked equal amounts each day — and I didn’t understand why I hadn’t been sore until this day. It must have been the perfect combination of the race down the donkey stairs, hike up the volcano and swim in the icy sea.

We flew out of Santorini early in the morning on that tiny propellor plane I loved so much. It was even cuter because the entire airport only had one gate and three employees. A woman ran the front baggage counter while a man checked the bags; then, when everyone was done, the same man ran security while the same woman checked boarding passes by the gate. A third woman ran the concession counter.

In Athens, we had a five-hour layover. Even though the airport had a big mall, we couldn’t shop because we were stuck with our huge bags (it was too early to check them). We decided to wait outside in the sun, and for whatever reason, I starting playing “Simon Says.” To my surprise, everyone (except Caitlin) played along. That turned into an hour-long fest of “make everyone look as foolish as possible” with unconventional Simon Says rules, which turned into charades which turned into karaoke. We looked completely ridiculous and everyone was staring, but it was one of the best times I’ve had — just sitting (and singing and dancing) outside the Athens airport.

Eventually we checked our bags and caught our flight. We had another layover in Switzerland, which brought back lovely memories of Interlaken, but we had terrible turbulence and a rough landing on our last flight. I was pretty nervous that I had cursed our group because I bought a bracelet made with volcanic rock, and apparently it’s terrible luck to take rock from the volcano. Of course, I learned this after I bought the bracelet. Oh well. We made it home in one piece. Plus, I figured if the plane was going down, there was nothing I could do. Might as well enjoy the ride.

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