So much has been written about this island. It appears as the number one island to visit of the Greek islands in the South Aegean Sea. But with that comes a fee. Increased costs for everything and people in the annoying form of tourists off a cruise ship. The worst ones.
Santorini is the largest island of a small, circular archipelago, which bears the same name and is the remnant of a volcanic caldera. The island was the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history: the Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption), which occurred about 3,600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization. The eruption left a large caldera surrounded by volcanic ash deposits hundreds of metres deep. It may have led indirectly to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, 110 km (68 mi) to the south, through a gigantic tsunami. Another popular theory holds that the Thera eruption is the source of the legend of Atlantis. (wikipedia)
As the ferry pulls into crescent bay you can see why it is so popular. It’s just beautiful! The ferry docks at the base of a sheer cliff, which makes up the inside of the caldera. Riding off the ferry we wait for a couple large trucks to clear the tight serpentine road leading to the top of the cliff. The AirBnB we booked is on the east side of the island with contrasting beaches to the cliffs. This is the original side of the island before the eruption formed the caldera to the west.
We pulled into a small beach village of Kamari and up a side road to our place for the next few nights, the Villa Dioni. The restaurant attached to the villa is Alexanders, named for Alexander the Great, a Macedonian. We are greeted by the owner of Alexanders as we dismount, trying to figure out where to park the bike. He tells us in perfect English that it will be fine right in front of his restaurant. The owner of the villa, his daughter, is out at the moment and to please come in and be his guests for a cup of Greek coffee. We had a wonderful visit with him while waiting for his daughter to return. He invited us to return in the evening to his restaurant to eat, drink and enjoy the Greek music of which he would be part of. Of course we will return in the evening.
The next morning we took off to explore the island. We rode along the top of the caldera along towns with white washed building clinging precariously to the side of the cliff. On the northern most tip of the island is the town of Oia. This is what Santorini is known for. The side of the mountain from the top and spilling down towards the water are whitewashed and blue building. It is an amazing sight with the deep blue of the water in stark contrast to the white. Cruise ships and three and four-masted sailing vessels drift in the water below. Across the water is the other side of the caldera and the rest of the now inactive volcano. There are no roads in this town other than at the top. The inclines are steep and when too steep, stairs. All the way to the bottom. Overweight tourists grumble as they all have to walk to their overpriced accommodations somewhere is the maze of white buildings. Porters carry enormous suitcases stuffed with way too many pairs of shoes and coordinated finery. The problems of the rich.
We sit and look at the beauty and the watch the tourists complain. On the way back to the beach we pass a brewery, the Santorini Brewing Company. We chat with other Americans there that can’t believe we would actually ride a motorcycle over here. The owners and brewers are also American and the beer is actually very good. On tap are Red Donkey, Crazy Donkey, and Yellow Donkey. We thought this would be a good name for our poor, overburdened V-Strom, so it is duly christened at this point.
Deciding we have seen enough we head back to the hotel and spend another fantastic night at Alexanders eating amazing food and listening to our host and his small band play traditional Greek music. What a night.
The next day we catch the ferry back to Athens for a few day of more exploration before heading to Turkey.
We arrived at the Githio ferry port with plenty of time to spare. Our first stop would be the Greek Isle of Kithira. Parking in the front of the ferry office we easily purchased the first leg of our Isles tour. The ferry would arrive later in the day so we made ourselves comfortable in the large tented area in the middle of the vehicle circle at the wharf. I ordered a beer and we had great FREE WiFi access and plugins for the afternoon.
The ferry trip would only be a couple hours which would put us into port just as the sun was setting. We were at the front of the queue but loaded after the large semis had all backed into the hold. Melanie walked on board as I parked next to a railing as directed by the men loading the ferry. I watched as they expertly lashed my bike to the rail and hoped that’s with it would remain for the journey.
The ferry was much nicer than I had expected with seating in the galley area and nice airplane type recliners upstairs, for a small charge, of course.
We pulled into the ferry port after dark, as expected. I was the first one to disembark, which would have been great, except we had to pack some things from the ferry ride and pick up Melanie. By the time we were ready several big trucks were ahead of us and making their way slowly up the mountain from the docks. We took off and easily passed several to get into the front. That’s when things got hairy. It was very dark and even with my Denali lights shining brightly, I was proceeding carefully. Once at the top the trucks, anxious to get to their destination and knowing the roads started to bear down on me. There was no place to pull off so I kept speeding up when possible to distance myself from them. Coming into the first town the nearest truck was getting close and my GPS showed a turn I felt was not right but without time to think about it, I turned. Yep, right onto a narrow, cobbled alley that twisted and turned, in total darkness, up and up. There wasn’t a place to stop so we kept going until it opened up enough for me to park sideways on the hill, get Melanie off, and try to turn around. Melanie wanted to walk back down but it would have been too far in the inky darkness, so she carefully climbed back on and, somehow, we made it to the bottom again.
Our place we had found to stay was on the south side of the island, near Kapsali. From our balcony we had a great view of the harbor and the Kithira castle to the side of us. It was late in the season and not a big tourist island so most things on the island were closed. The next morning was a beautiful day so we went exploring the island. The views were amazing and we felt we had the island to ourselves. In the afternoon we took a hike along the cliffs overlooking the harbor to the abandoned buildings just under the castle.
In the evening the weather moved in promising rain the following day. Waking up in the morning was just that, rain. We packed up between showers and headed to the port and to grab a bite to eat. Everything was closed, including the ferry building to buy our tickets. We finally rode back up the mountain to find a Gyro to eat in the small village and get warm with a cup of coffee. The only ferry to Crete left in the late afternoon and was a 10 hour ride, getting us in at around 02:00hrs. We had found a inexpensive beachfront room for a couple nights and the host agreed to let us in sometime in the wee morning hours.
Arriving at the port we loaded up and headed out of town toward the west coast. The road to our place twisted down the mountain turning into dirt. We knew we were close but the directions were, umm, bad. We parked the bike and started wandering around with the torch looking for anyone that might be up. Finally, a sleepy looking guys came wandering up the road. We figured it was our guy and, being in the wrong place, he showed us where to park and our room.
We woke up in the morning to a beautiful, cloudless sunrise and wandered down to the outdoor restaurant on the beach for breakfast. Today was a day of relaxing on the beach and drinking inexpensive Greek beer. By the time we wanted supper the off-season caught us, everything was closed. Luckily, we always have our emergency rations.
While looking at maps that night I found two great looking roads on the south side of the island. You know the kind. You look at the maps and there is a very curvy road with switchbacks and elevation changes right down to the coast and one way in, back up the mountain. The way south toward the coast went through the Imbros Gorge which is an 11km long canyon. Once you reach the coast you pass through Sweet Water Beach before starting the switchbacks back up the mountain with the most incredible views of the sun glistening off the Mediterranean. After reaching the top there is an old wooden bridge crossing anther gorge to an old church, the Church of the Archangel Michael.
Soon after we found a great place for lunch. I wanted a little cafe with a great view of the Mediterranean. After passing several places that just didn’t do it for me the sun was starting to dip toward the sea. Starting to lose hope we rounded a corner and, perched precariously on the side of the mountain, was this great little cafe. The food was even delicious.
I had spotted a camping spot on a river just off the Mediterranean, the Camping Agia Galini. After arriving we set up camp and headed for the pool for a quick dip to cool off. Walking across the bridge we headed into town which had several little shops and restaurants where you could kick off your flip-flop and dig your toes in the sand as you ate dinner on the sea. There was to be a live classic rock band that night at one of the places, so we decided to come back for dessert and drinks. While eating dinner we started talking to a couple from the US that live in Greece now. They told us we didn’t act like the typical Americans. After dessert the waiter brought us a carafe of Raki and two shot glasses, a Greek way of saying Thank-you. It was a very relaxing and enjoyable evening.
The next morning, we headed north toward the capital and ferry port of Heraklion. We hoped to get to the Minoan Palace of Knossos before catching the ferry to Santorini. As we pulled into the parking lot, I smelled hot antifreeze, never a good thing. After pulling the front of the bike apart I discovered that the radiator was cracked by the top mount. The first motorcycle repair shop we found was closed, as was the second Suzuki shop. Standing out front a man walked up to see if we needed help. He couldn’t help but a couple minutes later he brought us some fruit to eat from his apartment. As I was looking for a cafe for WiFi, Melanie flagged down the next Suzuki rider that rode by. The young man had a friend that worked on motorcycles and said to follow him. Down the road to traffic, then up the sidewalk, through a pedestrian tunnel under the train tracks, down a one-way road, the wrong way, and we were there. The owner of the shop immediately offered me coffee, looked at the bike and said he could fix it.
We found an AirBnB within a mile of the shop owned by John from Boston. He was a funny, easy going guy that offered us anything we needed for our stay. I dropped our gear and Melanie off and took the bike back to the shop for them to get working on it. He said to check with him the next day, so I started walking back to the condo, stopping at the market for some supplies for our stay.
I headed back the next day and he had worked well into the night and had taken the radiator to another shop to have it welded at the break. The weld looked great in the morning as he proudly showed me the fixed radiator while ordering a couple coffees for us, to be delivered from the cafe down the street. He was almost when I offered to pay. Neither of us could speak to others language but a good bond over motorbikes was there. He started working to put it all back together and charged me US$62 for the completed work.
We hopped on the bike and rode downtown and purchased our tickets for the ferry for the following morning. With that out of the way we spent the day goofing around in the old town and touring the castle on the water. The castle, the Rocca a Mare Fortress, was built in the 16th century by the Venetians.
The next day morning we down to the docks we rode to wait for the ferry to Santorini. While we were waiting we sat down to watch the activity on the docks with a cup of coffee.
We made it across the bridge with the medicane a’coming. To refresh, a medicane is a term coined by the meteorologists meaning a hurricane that originates in the Mediterranean.
Our destination was Olympia, site of the first Olympic games and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The storm was still two days out and the winds were blowing at about 40 mph as the leading edge of the storm was already upon us. We stopped for a tea in town to get some WiFi and find an inexpensive place to stay as it was going to get wet. Finding one on the outskirts of town we could only stay for two days. Hoping the storm would be gone by then, we took it. There was a convenient market across the road so some supplies were purchased along with a bottle on Greek wine. Supper was prepared on the balcony using the door, table and our house camping bag as a shelter from the wind to keep my fire lit.
The next day it was windy, no rain and brief moments of warming sun, so we headed over to the Olympia archaeological site to explore. It was pretty amazing but many things were still as they had been found, prompting a conversation between us. If you go to an ancient site do you want to see everything intact with artificial pieces making up the ones that were destroyed, as someone thinks they were, OR, would you rather just see the ruins? Our consensus was a little of both would be nice and let our imaginations do the rest. What do you think about it?
The place has a long historical evolution of one of the brightest sacred temples dedicated to the father of the gods and people, Zeus, and was the cradle of the Olympic Games. Walking around seeing the stone footings and toppled pillars was a bit of a disappointment as my imagination had to work overtime. Walking the path that so many athletes and kings had walked onto the Olympic competition field was a highlight of the trip to these ancient ruins. We sat high on a grassy knoll overlooking the field and wondered who had sat in this very spot and whom they had previously watched on the playing field. Strolling back to the entrance we passed the site of the lighting of the Olympic torch. This is the spot that the torch is lit every 4 years as it journeys to the next site of the games being carried by runners.
That night we discovered the rain would be here in the night and decided we would stay a couple days to let it pass. “No room, we are full”, were the words we didn’t want to hear in the morning. We found another place closer to town and more expensive and without a place to cook. Eh, what’s a budget for if not to break it.
A couple days later the warm days had been replaced with cooler, fall-like weather. It was October. This was to be the temperature trend for the remainder of the trip. Packing up we headed for a much talked about pass that seemed perfect for motorcycles. We followed the road and turned off toward Dimitsana and to a bunch of what looked like insanely curvy roads headed south toward the coast.
The day grew warmer with brilliant blue skies as we curved back on forth on great roads following the canyon back down the mountain toward Sparti and our destination, Mystras. Mystras was the seat of the Byzantine empire in the 13th and 14 century. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one of the most well preserved in Greece. We found a muddy campsite near town at the base of the mountain, from the storm, with a view of the ancient hundreds of feet above us. After moving a visitor to our camp, along with her hundreds of babies, we set up and made camp and supper.
Soon after we a set a ruins with nobody around just off the side of the road. Pulling in it was a newly discovered stadium that had just started the renovation work. A wonderful discovery.
We came across a village perched terrace style near the top of the mountain. This was a crossing point of a trail system that crosses through Europe. Stopping for fuel just outside of town, we had to go inside a small restaurant to pay. It was Sunday morning about 1000hrs. There was a chill in the air so we decided that we would sit down for a cup of Greek coffee. You could feel the chill transfer into the room as we walked in as conversation stopped, the stares turning toward us. After ordering the coffee at the bar we sat down at a cozy table in the middle of the dining area. Conversation amongst the men started up slowly, in Greek, and I noticed all the men were drinking Scotch. If I wasn’t on the bike I would have joined them.
The next day we rode to the top of the mountain and hiked midway down the ruins before returning, riding to the base to see the rest. After, we went back to town and had lunch before heading back to camp to finalize our plans for ferrying through the Greek isles. We ate supper at the campground kitchen having to wake up our elderly host so as to order. He was probably 70+ years old and runs the entire campground by himself. He was up at sunrise and cooked until 2100hrs. I think he just caught naps as time permitted.
In the morning we rode another incredible pass headed to the coast. We rode on smooth, narrow tarmac weaving back and forth as we descended toward the Mediterranean. At times we passed under enormous rock overhangs resembling a tunnel without it’s outside wall. The views were just amazing. Following the coast south on whatever road we could find we kept telling ourselves we were coming back here to live. Seems to always happen, every trip. The world and the people are just beautiful. We would also be saying this many more times along this ride.
The day was getting long and the shadows longer so, reluctantly, we found a route toward Monemvasia. The island is linked to the mainland by a short causeway 200m in length. Its area consists mostly of a large plateau some 100 metres above sea level, up to 300 m wide and 1 km long, the site of a powerful medieval fortress. It is also referred to as “The Gibraltar of the East”.
As we sat having a coffee and searching for an inexpensive place in town to stay we started chatting with three women claiming to be “shipwreck survivors”. They were Americans and were taking a Mediterranean cruise on a luxury yacht that was shipwrecked during the storm and sank. They had to abandon ship during the storm along with the crew. All their belongings, money and papers, including passports, were sunk on the ship. They were stranded in Greece until new paperwork could be obtained. Quite the story. We eventually found a wonderful waterfront hotel just down the street with secure parking right under our balcony. I had to talk the owner down a bit, but he was super nice.
The next morning we rode out to the island and walked about the fortress where many shops, hotels and restaurants were located. It still had it’s charm as all the walk paths were still original cobblestones. The views were incredible making us understand the exorbitant prices the rooms were commanding. All along the path were cats owned by the town and allowed to run loose. There was cardboard laid on the paths and chairs out, all for the cats. Food and water were plentiful being set out by all the individual shop and inn owners.
Gathering up our belongings and packing Yellow Donkey, we set off for the port which would be the ferry starting point for our Greek Isle tour. But first, a stop at a shipwreck we saw yesterday along the coast, the “Dimitrios”. This 220 foot Danish cargo ship, built in 1950, was stranded here in 1981. It is a very picturesque location with the curve of the beach stretching out behind while surrounded by deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. There are a couple rumors about the ship. One, it was a cigarette smuggling ship running from Turkey to Greece. Two, it is a ghost ship. The ship was simply abandoned there and no attempts were ever made to recover her.
Arriving at the port we wait at the front of the que for the ferry to arrive. It’s getting late and this will put us into the first island port, Kithira, after dark.