2005 -- Biking and Exploring Greece
Island of Santorini

July 4 cont -- Greek People Would Not Do This --

After a four hour ferry from Crete we get off the boat on the island of Santorini. A group of touts surround us, each trying to convince us to put our bikes in their vehicle for a ride to their hotel.  We wave them off with a smile, but they are persistent. 

"You can not ride this road!" they tell us. "This is the steepest road you have ever seen!"  We stop adjusting our luggage to look up to where they point at the switchbacks above us. 

"Yes, it looks steep" we agree, "but very short."  As we came in on the ferry we counted nine switchbacks.  The hill is only a couple kilometers in length. 

"No!  No!  Not short!" one man sputters, the blood vessels in his head look ready to explode as though we have insulted his island.  "From the top it is still a long way to town!"  But our map shows its is only about five kilometers.  We continue to politely refuse his ride and hotel offer.  "The reason we brought our bicycles is because we want to bicycle here," we tell him. 

Finally he shakes his head, looks at our bicycles, and says "Greek people would not do this."  Then he looks straight at us and adds "Your are not like Greek people," and walks away.  We are not sure if that was a compliment or an accusation.  We finish packing and as we start riding up the hill Tass sternly waves her finger at me and says, "Your are not like Greek people," and we bust out laughing.

July 5 -- Volcanic Eruptions -- Photographers Paradise

During the time of the Minoan civilization Santorini was called Strongili, the round one, because of its circular shape.  In 1605 BC the island experienced a colossal volcanic eruption, one of the largest explosions in recorded history.  The center of the island blew up, and then sunk into the sea, causing a devastating tsunami that probably led to the collapse of the entire Minoan culture.  All that was left was a circular ring of cliffs, like a giant bullseye filled with seawater, and the very outer fringe of land and beaches from the original island.

In 236 BC another earthquake broke and separated this ring into two parts, the larger crescent-shaped Santorini and the smaller Thirasia.  In 197 BC an eruption built a small island in the center of the bullseye. In 726 AD an eruption blew pumice stones all the way to Asia Minor.  A smaller chunk of Santorini collapsed and disappeared into the ocean in 1570.  Then a 1707 eruption built a second, much larger island in the center of the bullseye.

During all this time people slowly repopulated the island.  In 1956 an earthquake destroyed nearly all the houses in the two main towns, Fira and Oia.  So it seems quite natural and reasonable that today all those houses have not only been rebuilt, but substantially enlarged.  Today the town precipitously spills down the sides of the steep and crumbly cauldera cliffs, attracting hordes of tourists who stay, like we do, in stuccoed, lava rock houses, each perched precariously and improbably on top of the other, like a huge house of cards, waiting for the inevitable next disaster.  But until then, this is paradise.

We splurge and get a room with a dramatic cauldera view, in other words, our house will be one of the first to fall into the ocean at the slightest earthquake.  We have the coolest view from our roof-top terrace, one direction we can almost reach out and touch the white-washed dome of an Orthodox Church, the other direction we can see all of the town of Fira, hanging on the cliff.  Far below us, boats bob like little toy ships in the blue-green ocean.

We spend the day walking along the four-foot wide, pedestrian paths with steep steps that wind through the cauldera side of town, going between houses, hotels and cafes, then above them, then below them, photographing the maze from every possible angle.  Tass is absolutely ecstatic, this is by far the most photogenic place of our entire trip.  At times she feels visually overstimulated, everywhere she looks are photo possibilities--a colorful door or window, an agave cactus in a blue clay pot, a twisting path of whitewashed stairs, a cat sitting by blooming red flowers, the pattern in a wall of black lava rock, the shadow from a vine cast onto a golden wall.  While she photographs hundreds of details. I walk with my wide angle lens photographing the bigger picture--stacks of buildings, the ocean far below.  At the end of the day we photograph the beautiful sunset, and later that night the lights of town dripping over the cliffs into the cauldera like a fairytale village.

July 6-- Peregrine Falcons -- Black Sand Beaches

Up early to enjoy a leisurely morning on our private roof top terrace, sipping coffee and watching through our binoculars as Peregrine falcons dive bomb flocks of pigeons.  Because we are on the side of such a steep cliff the falcons sometimes hover eye level from us, then drop out of the sky as they stoop on the pigeons far below, giving us exceptional views of the rare, and fastest, of all birds. When we hear the tinkling of bells we lean over the terrace railing to photograph groups of mules ambling past single file, followed by their owners, who offer rides up and down the stairs in town and all the way down the cauldera to the sea.

Mid-morning we take off on our bikes to explore the island.  We feel so fast and free, riding without all our luggage!  Our first quest is to photograph the famous blue domes of the island's Greek Orthodox churches.  In each village we detour along narrow streets and navigate a maze of pathways to find the most photogenic churches, domes and bell towers.  By mid-afternoon we arrive at the black sand beaches of Kamari and join a relaxing throng of people on chaise lounges under a sea of colorful umbrellas, drink half a gallon of ice water, another half gallon of lemonaide, and then start nursing ice cold beers.

In the evening we shop for a necklace with beads made of black volcanic rock for me to wear during our Volcanoes of the World program.  Once we find the right necklace and agree on the price, the shop owner throws his arms in the air and says "Let's have a drink!"  As he pours out three glasses of Ouzo I laugh to think of the improbability of a jewelry store owner doing the same back home.  Here it seems like a natural way to celebrate a friendly business transaction.

July 7--Clouds -- Turbo Trek

Our first possible day of rain of the trip.  Giant clouds of thick mist swirl along the edge of the cauldera, covering the town with a blanket of eerie gray light.  The wind is blustery and almost cold.  We eat breakfast on our roof top terrace, hoping the sun will burn through the clouds.  When that fails to happen I head for an internet cafe.

By noon there is still no change of weather.  We had planned to bicycle north to make cauldera photos for our Volcanoes program.  With the day half gone and the weather so poor, we decide to rent a motor scooter for just 10 euros (12.50 US).  We figure it will put a little excitement in an otherwise bleak day, and also help raise the chances of finding someplace on the island with less fog to get our photos.

Tass is a nervous Nelly on the back, giving me a barrage of comments and warnings about each intersection, corner, and vehicle we approach.  Now  I know why we don't own a tandem bicycle.  We zip north, we zip south, looking for a clearing in the mist.  After a few hours Tass relaxes and we come out of the fog, make some dramatic pictures of volcanic sea cliffs, and also the marble-sized red volcanic pebbles of red beach.  At the end of the day we sadly drop off the "Turbo Trek," (so named from the gas tank insignia).  Tass even thinks we should get a scooter for home, a quick and fuel efficient way to run town errands or zip up to go rock climbing.

July 8--Ferry and Bus to Turkey

We get up early to blue skies, load up the bikes and push them up the stairs to the main road, then cycle along a rolling ridge top before dropping back down the nine hairpins to the ferry dock.  When the ferry arrives we board with all the cars, lash our bikes securely in the hold so they won't fall over if the seas get rough, and head for the deck--only to find we are on the slow boat to Pireaus.  We embarrassingly, and quickly, disembark.  A few minutes later another ferry arrives and this time we (hopefully) board the fast boat to Pireaus, Athen's main port.

In Pireaus we sweet talk a guard into letting us take our bikes on the metro into downtown Athens, stop at "our" hostel to leave some miscellaneous gear including Greek guidebooks and exposed film, and pick up our Turkey books and maps and 60 new rolls of film which we left in storage.  Then we jump on the bikes to cycle across Athens to the bus station just in time for the 6 pm, 22-hour bus to Istanbul, Turkey.

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