Issy's got a really bad cold, which sucks for her. She‘s taking every medication known to man plus some that haven't been invented yet, but all to no avail. I head off along the clifftop path towards Fira town while she rests up. There’s a cruise ship in and it gets progressively more crowded as I proceed. I hear a lady complaining that she has to climb too many steps to get to her hotel; I think that maybe she should have chosen a slightly flatter destination. It's now insanely crowded, and I hear a tour group leader constantly yelling "number one group this way", so that his charges don't all get lost. The whole town is a series of narrow alleyways. I‘ve got a map, but it's not a lot of use because none of the alleys are sign-posted. I walk back past our hotel to the next village of Firostefani, and then to the stunning viewpoint above the famed blue domed church.
Issy's still feeling very crook. We had pre-booked an afternoon tour, so she ignores her ills and we set off with our guide Kostas. He says that he studied archaeology before becoming a tour guide, and
it seems that he's now a walking encyclopaedia of Santorini. He tells us that there was virtually no tourism until the movie "Summer Lovers" was made here in the mid 1980s, but there are now about 120,000 tourists at any one time during the season, as well as around 15,000 permanent residents.
Kostas says that the Santorini caldera is 900 metres deep, which seems pretty deep considering the cliffs around the edge, which look gigantic to us, are only 300 metres high. He tells us that Jacques Cousteau once tried to find the bottom in one of his submarines, but without success. Apparently Santorini’s earlier inhabitants lived in caves they dug into the rocks in the hillside, and they hid in them whenever they saw pirates or invaders approaching. The theory was that invaders wouldn't see much point in invading an island with no people on it, and that pirates wouldn't bother coming if there was no one to steal from.
Apparently almost no one is born in Santorini; the local healthcare system is so bad that everyone goes to Athens to give birth. Kostas shows us a recently finished hospital which has never opened because the government
can't afford to pay for any staff. The discussion inevitably turns to the current financial crisis. Kostas says that the people will vote against austerity measures, because if they don't then things will just get progressively worse with no end in sight.
First stop on our tour is Akrotiri, which is a large archaeological site of a Minoan town from 1,500 BC. Apparently there are more ruins under this ruin which are somewhere around 5,000 years old. Kostas shows us pictures of frescoes, which appear to indicate that the original inhabitants visited and traded with the Egyptians. He says the town had sewers and toilets, which seems fairly impressive for 5,000 years ago. The original town was wiped out by a volcanic eruption, and archaeologists have found volcanic rocks here the size of beach balls which apparently rained down at somewhere around 300 kilometres per hour. It sounds like that might have been a good day to be somewhere else. The whole site has now been enclosed in a building with solar powered windows and other mod cons aimed at ensuring it remains well preserved.
Next stop is Red Beach. Kostas says they tried to close land access
to this a few years ago because of rock falls. We pass a sign saying that entry is prohibited, but judging by the number of people and permanent sun lounges it's a waste of space. The sand and the cliffs behind it are indeed a dark shade of browny red, befitting the name.
We move on to a small rural cafe to sample some of the local produce. Most of it is apparently flavoured with leaves from the caper plants which grow in abundance here. Kostas tells us that the cafe's owner was once on a cooking show with Jackie Chan, in an episode showing Chinese people how to make Greek coffee. It was also supposed to include a segment about feta cheese until someone pointed out that a high proportion of Chinese people are lactose intolerant. The cafe owner was terrified about having to travel to the village of Oia at the other end of the island to film the show, as this was the furthest she'd ever ventured in her life.
Next stop is the black sand Perissa Beach. I think I'm too Aussie; I don't think I could ever get used to lying on black
sand. There's miles of it, and it looks like dirt. It‘s all lined with sun lounges which you can rent for 25 Euro per day, and is clearly very popular, despite its grubby looking sand.
We drive uphill to the Profit Elias Monastery which is at the highest point on the island. It‘s very unexpectedly green inside due to something mysterious that the monks do with the water; well mysterious to Kostas at least. And there are trees. Just about the only other trees we've seen on Santorini are gum trees imported from Australia. Kostas says that he's very disappointed that they didn't come complete with koalas. The monastery's chapel is tiny; so tiny that there's no room for a congregation. The views from up here are stunning.
We drive down to Pyrgos, which Kostas says is a typical Santorini village without the tourists; and there do indeed seem to be virtually no tourists here. It’s a labyrinth of narrow windy streets, and there are churches seemingly at the tops of each of its many hills. Kostas tells us that a lot of the residents also have private chapels attached to their houses. We assume that these are
used by the families to pray in, but Kostas says that most Greeks aren't into praying, so the chapels only get used very occasionally.
Our final stop is a winery on the edge of the caldera. The grape vines here don't look anything like the ones we're used to seeing back home; they sprawl flat on the ground. We're not quite sure how anything grows here; there's not a lot of evidence of any soil, just lots of small rocks. Kostas tells us that the grapes are poured in at the top of the caldera and gravity then runs the process; it ends with the final product flowing through pipes directly to barrels in ships in the port below. The only wine tasting I've ever done before involved standing at a bar, taking a small sip from a thimble sized glass, swirling it around in my mouth a few times pretending I could tell that it tasted different to any other wine I'd ever tasted, and then spitting it into a barrel. It seems that they do things a bit differently here. We're directed to sit at a small table overlooking the caldera and presented with four bucket-sized glasses
each, all filled with different varieties of the local product. We look for the spitting barrel, but this is noticeably absent. As Issy launches into her third bucket she says that she's now feeling much better, and is wondering why she didn't think to start drinking copious quantities of alcohol when she first got sick. We finish our session and stagger up the stairs into Kostas' van. Issy's euphoria has now evaporated and she says she's now feeling worse by the second. Kostas stops at a chemist so we can get something to try to make her feel a bit better. The chemist is on the other side of the busy road. I‘m still feeling the effects of our tasting session, so as we go to cross I look the wrong way. Kostas pulls me back as I’m about to walk into the path of a fast moving truck. I‘m glad one of us was sober. We stumble into bed.
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