Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Greece: Santorini's Posh White City

Tourists walk to and from Oia's northernmost point
as others dine just above them. The white stucco buildings
are typical of Oia. 
Think of all the Greek islands: Rhodes, Crete, Corfu, Mykonos, Naxos and literally dozens others, all with their own charms: remote monasteries, beautiful beaches, mountains and valleys. Jane and I are wine buffs, so the first island we discussed in planning our trip was Santorini, which produces some of Greece's (if not the world's) most enjoyable white wines. Another attraction is that it is usually considered the most beautiful of the Greek islands.

So, we went straight from inland Delphi to one of the southernmost islands, which some maps and airlines call Thira but which everyone knows as Santorini. Travel books and on-line research led us to the town of Oia (also spelled Ia and pronounced EE-ah) at the northern tip of the island. Our hotel, Ikies Traditional Houses, is at the southern end of town, just off the 14-kilometer seaside footpath that connects Oia and Fira, the capital of the island. I have the impression that a lot of people start the path, realize how steep it is, and turn around. We did, as had everyone we spoke to about the path. It's probably a wonderful hike and it certainly would get you beyond the jewelry stores and boutiques of the two towns. In Oia, the main walkway is lined with restaurants, jewelry stores, clothing boutiques and souvenir shops. We saw maybe two stores where a local resident might actually find something to buy. I'm just assuming there are local residents somewhere in this shopping mall of a town.

For our Balkans itinerary and hotel information, click HERE.
For our visit to Athens, click HEREDelphi, HERE
Heraklion, HERE. Chania, HERE
Hydra, HERE. Thessaloniki, HERE. Kotor, HERE.
Dubrovnik, HERE. Hvar, HERE. Split, HERE.
Zagreb, HERE. Ljubljana, HERE. Piran, HERE. Trieste, HERE. Venice, HERE.

We mostly stayed in Oia, venturing to Fira only to board a catamaran for a sunset sail. Oia is indeed a beautiful town, made up of white buildings that cascade down the sides of mountains, stopping short of the sea. Oia is on the edge of the caldera (as is Fira) that was created around 1600 B.C.E. when a much larger island exploded in an almost unimaginable volcanic eruption. It created a tidal wave that did great damage to the Minoan civilization on Crete and, it is said, started the legend of Atlantis.

Oia spreads out, mostly on the sea side, along its one main walkway, with one street for cars a short walk to the east. There are very few hotels in Oia that don't require a bit of walking and a few flights of stairs to reach.  Our room at Ikies was exactly 96 steps below the footpath, and there were houses and other hotels below us.

Once up on the footpath, a pleasant walk takes you into the town proper, where the pleasant part evaporates as people jockey for ways forward on the increasingly narrow sidewalk. I think that some of the shops make sales to people who came in only to get a little breathing room.  And it's not only that there are a lot of people, it's what some of them are doing. Couples (maybe newly-weds, but who knows?) stop traffic as they take photos of each other at the different sea overlooks. Women in dresses not exactly appropriate for hiking or even shopping position themselves atop stone walls for more photos. And everyone everywhere is constantly at risk of being whacked by a selfie stick. What evil bastard invented these things?

Many resort areas around the world have to live with short seasons. Business have to make enough money during three or four months to last an entire year. No place illustrated this better than Oia, with sky-high room rates and expensive restaurants and shops, though not every eatery was super expensive. Our first evening there, we happened into Thalami (click HERE), a pasta and grilled foods restaurant where we were seated on the open-air upper terrace with great views. Dinner of salad and smoked mackerel with wine was simple but good, and the price wasn't terribly out of line. The next evening we made a reservation at Thalassia (click HERE), recommended by our hotel, and got the outside corner table on the front porch, the best view in the place. I had lamb chops and Jane had grouper. With a bottle of wine, the tab was more than 100 euros, this for a meal that would have been half that price or less in Athens and just as good. About the only bargains around are in the shops that mostly serve locals -- there you can buy some Santorini wines for less than 10 euros a bottle.

We originally planned four nights here, cut it to three nights to save a few dollars, and would have been happy to leave after two nights. It's a beautiful place, but the experience is ruined by the crowds. For us, Heraklion on Crete and the island of Hydra were much better. But that's just us. Loads of people really, really love Santorini. And it's understandable when you see photos of it.

Oia's location on the side of a mountain means there are always
at lot of stairs. Note the fellow on the right in the hat, taking
a photo of a woman in a yellow dress. If digital photography had
not been invented, anyone selling film in Oia would be rich indeed.

Open stairways connect these houses and hotels to the footpath at the top of the hill. 

Some of these houses have rooms created by digging into
the hillside; they're called cave houses. 

We stopped into this little bar for coffee a couple of times. 

Pedestrian traffic on Oia's main walkway.

A woman being photographed (by
someone else in addition to me!)
strikes a pose just off the main walkway.

Looking north toward Oia from the footpath that connects it with the town of Fira.
Not all of the path is as well maintained or as level as this stretch.

On our sunset sail, our boat met up with
others at the "mud baths." Actually, it's just
muddy water warmed by an undersea hot spring.

It's a cold swim from the boats to the warm, shallow and muddy water of the mud baths. 

Someone from our boat takes the plunge.

A day with water so choppy that a third or more of the people on our boat became seasick
ends with a big payoff -- a Santorini sunset. The next day we left for another island, Crete.

Greece: Delphi and the Oracle

Columns at one corner and parts of the foundation are all that remain of the
Temple of Apollo at Delphi, once the most important place in the
classical world.  In the story of Oedipus, it was here that it was
predicted that he would kill his father and marry his mother.

If you're at all familiar with the history of classical Greece or the story of Oedipus, you should be aware of the importance of the Oracle at Delphi. The Pythia (the high priestess at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi) was the most powerful woman in the ancient world. Although the Pythia or Oracle was well known and revered for centuries beginning in the Eighth Century B.C.E., little is understood about how her prophecies were delivered or how the high priestess was selected. A popular theory is that the Pythia delivered prophesies while under the influence of intoxicating vapors (probably sulfuric gases) coming from the ground, and her ramblings were then interpreted by the temple's male priests, but some sources say the prophecies were delivered coherently and even in poetic verse.

At any rate, communities all over the Greek world paid tribute to the Oracle with elaborate gifts, often establishing treasuries at Delphi to hold the gold and precious objects presented to the temple. Today, what's left are a few columns and the foundation of the temple itself, a couple of the treasury structures, and many of the offerings presented in tribute to the Oracle. A small but excellent museum near the site has preserved many sculptures and architectural details.

For our Balkans itinerary and hotel information, click HERE.
For our visit to Athens, click HERE
Santorini, HEREHeraklion, HERE. Chania, HERE
Hydra, HERE. Thessaloniki, HERE. Kotor, HERE.
Dubrovnik, HERE. Hvar, HERE. Split, HERE.
Zagreb, HERE. Ljubljana, HERE. Piran, HERE. Trieste, HERE. Venice, HERE

The town of Delphi itself is a pleasant place to stay during a visit to the temple site, though I suspect many people visit the temple as a day trip out of Athens. There are good restaurants and bars with distant views of the Gulf of Iteas and the Gulf of Corinth. We were there two nights, arriving from Athens by taxi. Afraid the next day might be rainy, we made a point of visiting the temple and the museum on the afternoon we arrived. Both are an easy walk from the center of town, where we stayed at Pitho Rooms, a B and B above a gift shop. Our full day in Delphi turned out to be sunny, and we took a bus (changing buses in Itea) to Galaxidi, a fishing town with an inviting waterfront strip of open-air seafood restaurants.
It seems disrespectful to allow weeds to surround the Omphalos of Delphi, believed to have been hurled
by Zeus from the heavens to discover the center of the world. It's also called the navel of the world. 

The Athenian treasury at Delphi once housed votive
offerings sent by the city of Athens and wealthy citizens.

The ruins of the Temple of Athena are on the slope below the Temple of Apollo. 

The Temple of Apollo seems to soar above the valley below.

In about 560 B.C.E., the island of Naxos presented
this spinx, carved from one piece of marble,
to the Oracle. It is the body of lion with the
head of a woman and the wings of a bird.
Mounted atop a column near the Temple of Apollo,
it was 12.5 meters high, about 41 feet. 

These two life-size identical statues from the
sixth century B.C.E. are considered the oldest
monumental votive offerings at Delphi. They
are thought to represent either the pious brothers
Cleobis and Biton of Argos, or the Dioscuri,
whose cult was popular at the time. The
story of the brothers from Argos is poignant. When
oxen were unavailable, they pulled a cart carrying
their mother to a temple. In gratitude, she
prayed to Hera to grant her sons "whatever
is best for a man to receive." They died
in their sleep that night.

The town of Delphi consists mainly of two streets, which meet at each end of town.
The west-bound street is on the right and is much higher than the east-bound
street on the left, which is where our inn was. When we took a bus to Galaxidi, we bought
tickets in the bar next to the bus station, at right. 

Steep side streets connect the town's
two main arteries. That's a tavern
on the left, and a corner of the Gulf
of Iteas in the upper right.

This appeared to be a private residence, home
to someone who loves potted plants.

The harbor in Itea, where we wandered around while waiting for a bus to take us to Galaxidi.
Waterfront restaurants in Galaxidi on the Gulf of Iteas. Just the other side
of the parked cars is the harbor. We had a fried fish feast for Sunday lunch here.