Goddess Travel, The Beginning: Feeling All Mercouri in Santorini

On this voyage to Greece (my first!), it was clear already on the plane that the gods were with me. After finding myself in the middle of an altercation between the two women in front of me (who had decided to recline as far as their seats would go, from boarding time and even through takeoff) and the sweat-smelling neighbor to my side (who objected), I (the passenger most negatively affected by the situation, stuck in a seat that itself refused to recline) was upgraded to the three empty exit row seats! I personally did not participate in the controversy, conflicted between my firm belief that if the seat you paid for reclines you can recline it and Vueling Airlines’ combination of absolutely no space between rows and seat backs that tilt to a 25° angle over the tray table behind. However, I did reckon that if payment of her ticket price entitled the front passenger to stretch out onto my lap, payment of mine entitled me to push the hard corner of my travel guide as far into her back as it would go, as well as bang my glass incessantly against the tray table, seemingly by accident, until she called the flight attendant to complain. And so it was that I came to have a whole extra-leg-room row to myself, and we all got happily to our destination: Athens. Luck, a gift from Tyche!

All my adventures this summer seem to begin with birthday parties, and upon arrival I barely had time for a quick funicular ride to Mount Lycabettus,

P1060063_2

apparently for some reason known as Athina’s Boob, for a first fabulous view of the city, Acropolis included (OK, and a glass of champagne, and truffle fries–there is no edible food on Vueling)

Lycabettus  Lycabettus 2

before heading back to the celebration in honor of my gracious, gracious hostess, Miss I.

Party

Held by a true gourmande, the party could not but feature an assortment of yummy dishes, two cakes including Miss I’s delectable strawberry pavlova, and my first incursion (but definitely not my last) into the wonderful world of Greek wines–which, aghast for the past two decades at that vile concoction named retsina (or at least the varieties I tried), I had never bothered to explore. A surprisingly lovely blend of Papargyriou muscat/assyrtiko that totally got me chummy with Dionysus on my very first night.

Off I went the next morning on my (adventurous) own to the island of Thira or Santorini, a trip that Miss I assured me was the best way to see NOTHING of the Greek summer BUT it’s the one on all the pictures and postcards and all my life I’d been imagining myself all Melina Mercouri on its spectacular cliffs. Against my inveterate custom (and probably because I’d been forced to use my travel guide as a weapon), I had done very little advance research/planning aside from reserving a room in the Senses Boutique Hotel, an adorable eight-room house in the “village” of Imerovigli, halfway between the two better-known towns, Fira and Oía (US$639.52 including taxes for three nights, via Orbitz).

First Part, then, about the lodging: it is not perfect. Santorini holidays are not perfect, unless your budget is much larger than mine (and even then, I’m not sure). If you are not someone who can get into an island vibe and go with the flow (even strictly occasionally, as is my case) you should not go there, but you will miss one of the most breathtaking views on planet Earth. So, at Senses, a little this or that may not have been ideal (the tiniest bathroom sinks, a supermarket breakfast with no way to heat your milk, and such) and, as you will see, there was some room confusion, but it has these definite advantages: 1) It’s in Imerovigli, a sleepy town with few establishments, lovely silence and, to me, the BEST views as it’s on the highest point, and in the middle, of the side of the island facing the caldera (because, yes, you are on top of a friggin’ submerged active volcano). 2) It’s little, and intimate, and beautifully decorated. 3) Yannis. He is the one person in charge, and if you arrive/need something and he is momentarily busy you will have to wait. However, he attends to anything, responds to everything, and misses nothing. Whatever needs fixing he will fix, and if (like me) you arrive with no research and no plans he will tell you what to do, and you will do it, and you will like it. Really: look at reviews of this hotel on any travel site. It’s all about Yannis.

When I got there I was checked into the Blue Room, which was truly enchanting, and had exclusive right to the use of a little terrace with astounding views.

Blue Room

The problem, of course, was that I had reserved an “Elegant”-category room, whereas the Blue Room, albeit très jolie, was in (in fact, constituted the entirety of) the “Petite” category. Cons: It’s not actually a wee room by European standards (if you are familiar with those) but the terrace is not in the room: it is (just) across a tiny outdoor hallway. Windows face the street, so the need (or choice) to keep curtains closed leaves the room a little dark. The pros were many–as Yannis pointed out, it actually has the prettiest and most private terrace, and possibly the best view in the hotel. It also seems more recently renovated than other rooms. Never mind; it is the (annoying) case that, regardless of what she reserves, three times out of four a woman traveling solo (sola solita!) gets redirected to a smaller room, just as in restaurants she gets the back table next to the toilets. Ours is not to ask why, but in any case I insisted on wrongs being righted the next day, and was obligingly moved to the Purple Room:

Purple Room

It was just a tad larger, and had much more light. Most importantly, although the view was (very slightly) less sensational, the terrace being actually attached to the room meant I could pop right out of bed in my sexy lingerie for a panoramic breakfast. Or so I thought: unexplainably, there is no divider between that terrace and the one for the adjacent room (which would be SO EASY to install!), so the next morning I popped right out of bed in my sexy lingerie to say good morning to the couple next door, and wait until they finished their leisurely panoramic breakfast to start my own. In truth, the moment I saw Purple Room I decided I liked Blue better, but I had been too self-righteous (and they had been too helpful in moving my stuff) to go back on my decision. (There is a “Superb” room category which apparently takes care of all issues, and also precludes any risk of being stuck in an entirely purple chamber.)

I think Yannis could tell I was a bit disappointed, because ON THE THIRD DAY he offered, as amiable compensation for the previous mixup and only if I wasn’t too tired to move again, an upgrade to the King Suite With Its Own Private Jacuzzi (oh, Yannis, if you insist that I keep moving around!). And OMG:

P1050950             IMG_20150620_132758

IMG_20150621_102342It should be noted that the little pool is private only in the sense that it’s accessible strictly to the suite’s guests, as in Santorini (unless you spend a lot more money than I have, I guess) most rooms/terraces oriented toward the view are also facing the walking trail that goes from town to town. So pedestrians will pass by and see you when you’re

JacuzziNight

but that didn’t deter me from soaking there with my bottle of wine (the glass railing does fog up, anyway). After a whole afternoon sailing (see Part II, below), it was SUBLIME.

Inside, the suite is also sublime. Huge, with a wonderful living room with vaulted ceilings and gorgeous original furniture that came with the property purchase (it is a restored traditional house), an actual king-size bed, and a bathroom bigger than either the Blue or the Purple Room, complete with twin showers for when you want to bathe with your bollycao but not in excessively close proximity.

Suite

There are a few cons: the tiny little fridge they could fit inside a beautiful armoire isn’t as handy as those in the other rooms, and makes no ice; the larger space isn’t as perfectly cooled by the air conditioner as the other rooms. Anyone who knows ice and a/c are the two things I consider most essential to survival will understand that I suffered a bit, but not enough to turn my nose up at the ritzy digs.

I would definitely go back to the Senses. I will. There are five rooms I haven’t tried yet, after all.

Part II: Activities. As I had jabbed my travel guide into a woman’s ribs instead of reading it, I had no real plans for my three-day Santorini vacation, knowing only that the first order of business, given how touristy it is, had to be to STAY AWAY FROM THE PEOPLE. Luckily, I had Yannis, who asked me in what activities I would like to engage. In addition to this,

Pool

I said, ideally with my feet as high up as possible, I would love to go horseback riding (thinking wishfully, I’d carried riding boots in my otherwise minimal luggage). There are no horses in Santorini, he replied, but you can ride a donkey if you like.

Donkeys

NO. Wrong equine, plus there’s the whole matter of whether or not they are abused. So, then, I would like to go on some sort of boat. For that, he informed me there were many options, ranging from 18 to 150€. Now, if you don’t want to mix with The People, this is the kind of thing on which you selectively splurge, so I instantly decided on the most expensive option.

Caldera Yachting’s Gold Sunset Cruise picks you up at your hotel at 3:30 p.m. and brings you back around 10:00. In between you are on a brand-new 45-ft. catamaran with a limit of fifteen passengers; the sail makes three stops and ends with dinner and sunset viewing. With GLORIOUS weather we departed from the port of Ammoudi on the shore below Oía

P1050854  P1050851

toward the first stop, the island of Thirassia, where we were informed that we were to snorkel, and I–who, as my dear friends know, am decidedly against even slightly cool water–steadfastly refused.

Thirassia

Well, I did try to refuse but our Serbian chef-ringleader Maria, who oozed enthusiasm, was not the kind to take no for an answer:

Maria

Ordinarily that would have been very annoying, but what the hell: in Santorini you get into the island vibe and go with the flow, plus, did I mention the flow included unlimited amounts of boldness-inducing krasí?

P1050883

For once in my life, the word “refreshing” was not used by evil connivers to lure me into shock-inducing frigid waters: it was indeed refreshing, and delicious! After that, there was no stopping me; I was the only person on the boat who swam on all three stops. After Thirassia, that encompassed the Kameni islands: Palea Kameni, where you jump off the boat and swim toward muddy sulphur springs (we were told a single old man lives on the island, with his chickens and goats), and Nea Kameni, where you float on the volcanic crater itself.

Palea

Nea

After all that swimming, Maria and the rest of the crew made a delicious dinner and, again, did I mention the free-flowing wine?

Dinner2

By the final part of the cruise, everyone had gotten all lovey-dovey and all Rolling Stones as we went off into the sunset:

We’re going to blame the sun-on-my-hand photo also on Maria. And, as you ponder the beauty of the scenery, please notice my strategic placement next to the boat’s only bollycao, proof that no matter how relaxed or poetically communing with nature I am, my radar is absolutely never off.

Sunset

That was my utterly dazzling gift from Poseidon, of course. But the rest of my time in Santorini was dazzling as well. I walked a lot between Imerovigli and Fira, which you do out of necessity (dining/shopping), or maybe just for the quaint corners and the views.

Im-FiraViews

I visited Oía on my second night, because everyone says that’s where you need to go for the best sunset view. But that is only if you enjoy the company of the masses, which, as it has been established, I do not.

Masses

Oía has beautiful views all over,

P1050815  P1050818

but the sunset thing really is a waste of time, because a majestic sunset can be enjoyed in blissful isolation ANYWHERE ELSE in Santorini. So I got tired of waiting with the crowd and went to dinner at Thalami Restaurant, Yannis’s least successful recommendation. The food (taramosalata, meatballs and rice–I was on a quest to try all the Greek dishes I’ve always known in Greece) was correct, and the view might have been magnificent if I weren’t a single woman, sitting as usual by the back wall.

Thalami

When I finished dinner and walked back to the town square, the sunset was FINALLY just ending, and everyone clapped. So touching. Moi, I went to Oía’s famous Melenio pastry shop and got myself a treat to have back in the apartment, with my personal post-dinner wine tasting.

Melenio

(I did not like/finish my ekmek, BTW–a sort of baklava with pistacchio frosting–but to each his or her own.)

The (white) wines, however, were a different story. One of them I had obtained in Fira, a Ktima Aptypoy Kahaani 2014 made from one of Santorini’s characteristic grapes, aidani. The other one I acquired during my one visit to a winery, Koutsoyannopoulos, which in addition to wine tasting

Tasting

has a unique wine museum with funky animatronics recreations of Santorini winemaking through the ages (complete with wagging dog-tails):

Given my previous limited wine connoisseurship (I enjoy really good wines but can’t explain why; in a drought, I can drink gasoline), I can’t say I learned a lot about Santorini wine except that they have a very peculiar way of growing vines close to the soil to protect them from wind, like so (ignore the moviemaking dummies, please):

Vines

And this, together with the volcanic soil and the salty sea air, results in white wines that you really, really, really want to drink. Like the one that I bought, made from another typical Santorini grape (assyrtiko), and which I was told is sold only at the winery:

assyrtiko

So those two were my personal tasting wines back at the hotel, and what can I say… two bottles in three days. I would describe both as dry and crisp and mineralish, and I don’t know if those terms contradict each other, but yum, yum, and slurp. 🙂

A final note on dining: I was advised by wise Yannis to avoid most of the sea-view restaurants and seek small local spots and little tavernas. Again, right on. I ate at two that, from what the sales guy at the Germanos store said, are owned by brothers: Mama’s House

Mama's

and Taverna Nikolas (at both of which the price is definitely right). Until I ate at Mama’s House, I was with John Oliver on moussaka: “disgusting potato lasagna.” NO MORE. At Nikolas, I had a mighty fine plate of pork souvlaki, and the place was SO cute (I think that might be Nikolas wearing black there–it’s one of the owners, in any case)

Nikolas

that I didn’t even mind their incessant playing of that song from Never on Sunday (instrumental version) over and over again in a loop.

I also at one point missed my stop on the bus to the wine museum (they’re not great at calling out the location names) and accidentally made it to the final station, Kamari beach. As world beaches go, it’s pretty unremarkable, but the detour led to an unscheduled gyro at a random fast food place (on the street going down to the beach where the bus drops you off) that was TO DIE FOR.

Gyro

I don’t know how I’m going to live without gyros back in Barcelona. Or in the States–they’re just not the same.

There ARE things to avoid in Santorini. Like I said, the masses. Especially the throngs of young ladies wearing chiffon gowns, with their photographer in tow because what girl in her right mind doesn’t want a picture of her beautiful self on a windswept cliff, with hair and clothing floating behind her. The multitude of idiot newlyweds who hang locks all along the trail path, because what better symbol could there be for marriage. The tourist traps in Fira and Oía, especially the jewelry shops that will attempt to sell you a gorgeous yet ridiculously overpriced 1530€ pair of earrings (you must do like Ulysses with the sirens here, and like me–although I did almost go insane with desire).

Avoid

Most of all, if you could, you should avoid The Bus. Imagine riding down California’s Route 1 on a packed bus, standing up, holding on to WHATEVER you can (oops, sorry beautiful young lad, I didn’t mean to do that!). Dizzying. Dangerous. And the crowds, and the waiting, ugh. But I’m afraid it’s not entirely possible to skip, as there are only 39 taxicabs in all of Santorini, and the alternatives (car/scooter rentals) have their own dangers. With that, good luck.

And when you leave, remember: avoid The People. On that ferry,

sCosmote

splurge again on the VIP ticket (not even that big a difference from the regular ticket). The seats are quite similar to cheaper ones, except of course that you might just get four chairs to yourself without even having to assault anyone for them.

Cosmote2

Return to Santorini? I hope I do. I will. It is the kind of touristy place you love to hate (next time I’ll go to a real island where I can actually see something of the authentic Greek summer), and also the place your eyes ache for when you don’t know if you will once again behold the beautiful caldera.

It made me feel free, and hippie, and mod!

hippie  warhol

As Cavafy wrote (if about something else altogether),

Come back often and take hold of me,
sensation that I love come back and take hold of me—

I hope I do return, or it comes back to me.

But first, back to Athens. That must, however, remain for a later post.

About WRF

New York-based Spanish Cultural Studies professor and academic author venturing (nervously) into new forms of writing: travel and food-logue, cultural commentary, pseudophilosophical speculation, opinion, reminiscence, prophecy, examination of conscience.
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One Response to Goddess Travel, The Beginning: Feeling All Mercouri in Santorini

  1. Pingback: Back to Reality, Escorted by a Playboy Bunny (Barcelona, Amsterdam, New York) | plomaipel

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