When we first considered taking a Mediterranean cruise, Santorini was one port that just had to be on the itinerary. We have made a decision to fill our home with photos of our travel experiences and high on our list of "must haves" was a shot of the blue domed churches of Santorini with the Sea of Crete in the background.
Santorini is a located in a group of islands called the Cyclades. The landscape of the island is considered by many to be the most spectacular in the world with wonderful beaches to the east and incredible sunsets on the western side of the island.
The first evidence of humans inhabiting the island dates back to the 3rd millennium BC. Excavations have confirmed that this continued until approximately 1500 BC when a volcanic eruption buried the island. The island remained uninhabited until the end of the 13th century BC. At that time the island was called Thera. It wasn’t until the 4th century AD that the island’s name was changed to Santorini.
Santorini survived Frankish rule and later Turkish dominion and in 1830 became part of the independent Greek state. A huge earthquake in 1956 resulted in a large decrease in Santorini’s population and the economic disaster that followed lasted until 1970 when tourism began to develop into a major economic contributor.
Today, Santorini is a Mecca for tourists looking for serenity, sunsets and breathtaking views. If you are able to imagine glimmering white painted villages perched on top of 300 meter high cliffs facing the sea below, then you have arrived at one of the most beautiful places in the world.
There are two main towns on the island of Santorini; Fira (Fear –a), located in the north-central part of the island and Oia (EE-Ya), on the northern tip of the island. Each town is cut into a cliff with the squared white washed buildings stacked in tiers to the highest point imaginable. Our day in Santorini included a 7 mile hike from Fira to Oia along the caldera, lunch in Oia, and of course, our search for the famous blue domed churches of Oia. I have created a MS Word document that details the trail we took with photos of landmarks noting where to turn etc. as this trail is not easy to follow. If you would like me to send it to you, just post a message to me at IgoUgo.
Our first order of business was to get from the ship to the top of the cliff and the town of Fira where our hike would begin. There were three options available but only one of them was practical for us. The cruise ships use tenders to transfer passengers to a dock area at the base of the cliff. There is a cable car service that is available for a one way fare of 4 Euros per person. This service is very efficient although you may have to wait 20 minutes on the way back down at the end of the day. You can also walk the 500 steep stairs to the top for free…but… there is a catch with this option. The stairs are also shared with a donkey service that incidentally is option number three. Those that rode the donkeys smelled like them afterwards – a lot! The walkers had to negotiate donkeys and their excrements the entire way. In addition, the donkeys would push the pedestrians against the side of the wall and although we never saw anyone get their foot stepped, this would be very difficult to avoid. The walkers that encountered the donkeys along the way smelled bad too. I have posted a photo of the donkey service that I took from our cable car. For us, the cable car service was worth the modest expense.
There are several car rental services available in Fira as well as a public bus that runs between Fira and Oia. There are very limited roadways on Santorini and you will undoubtedly be sharing them with scooters and ATV’s.
The magic of our hike was that it took us on a quiet cobblestone pathway through the northern part of Fira and through the villages of Firostefáni and Imerovígli.
The quaint whitewashed hotels and private residences that lined the walkway had brightly painted shutters and doorways that added a splash of colour brought to life by the rich blues of the sea of the caldera. The hotels here were small perhaps three rooms each and every one of them had a wonderful view. We left Fira at 9:30 am and as we walked through these villages we encountered less then 10 people along the way.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and with a temperature soaring to 95 degrees, we were glad to have our hats and plenty of water. This hike is not through a main tourist area so it is difficult to find any water for sale until you reach Oia which is 3 hours away. Sunscreen is a must. I would also recommend taking an extra shirt with you. After hiking in the heat, it was nice to change into a fresh shirt when we sat down for lunch.
Once you leave the main villages, the trail turns to a dirt one. There are several chapels along the trail and we spent a fair amount of time taking pictures. This added another 30 minutes to our hike and like always, I found myself climbing to obscure vantage points in search of a unique shot.
You will see Oia throughout the hike and the views of the caldera are beautiful. There are also a few larger scale hotels currently being built between the two towns that look very nice. For us though, staying in a small whitewash hotel in Oia is more alluring.
Arriving into Oia we could see several of the blue domed churches that dotted the cliff. As we approached them however, obtaining a vantage point high enough to get the photo we wanted was going to be difficult. There were several churches and residences higher up on the hill however, each had a padlocked gate that prevented us from climbing the stairs to get the perspective that I needed. We were becoming despondent that the photo that we were looking for was going to elude us.
Hunger set in and we decided to stop for lunch. Our three hour trek in the 90 degree heat was draining us and a shaded view of the caldera was definitely in order. There are no shortage of restaurants and cafes in Santorini. As you walk down the main shopping area, you will encounter many menus posted at the top of stairways that lead you down (or up) to magnificent views of the sea below. The food here is reasonably priced and the menus from restaurant to restaurant vary little.
After looking at several menus and just before the shops began to overtake the number of restaurants, we stopped at a restaurant called Seagull. As we were led down the stairs to one of the two seating areas we were stunned to see perfect views of the blue domed churches that we thought would be unattainable! There are two pictures that I attached to this story that were taken sitting down as we enjoyed our lunch. The service at the Seagull was slow and that suited us just fine. We sat in the shade, enjoyed a couple of drinks and took in the remarkable view. We had budgeted 80 Euros for lunch and spent only half of that on our lunch which included a couple of drinks.
The public bus that runs between Oia and Fira departs every twenty minutes or so. In Oia, you must walk away from the shopping area to the vehicle road that is a block away. The bus stop in Oia is at the end of the road at a large turn around area. A one way bus fare is only 1.40 Euros per person and I would recommend taking the bus if you do not have the desire to hike between the two villages. The one way trip takes approximately 15 minutes however, every cruise ship anchors in Fira so the afternoon busses from Oia are very crowded. There are no points for politeness on boarding the bus and passengers push through both the front and middle doors to claim their seats. It is a good idea to have some coins available for the fare as it is collected as the bus travels down the road and making change may be difficult on this short trip.
The bus stop in Fira is located in the center of town and there are an abundance of signs that will point you to the cable car service.
Santorini and the village of Oia were magical and will forever hold a spot in our hearts as one of our favourite places we have visited.
Next stop… Mykonos.