This was to be the very first holiday for me as a father traveling with his own little family and I was both excited and a little nervous. Excited because I imagined a family holiday as being much less demanding, forced to simply enjoy”playing home” in a new place, by a child that could not stand the alternative, instead of the perhaps forcefully, high-paced holidays we usually had. Nervous because so far having a baby had proven to be a source of many new worries and we were not sure how we would cope with all of them in a new environment. Most importantly, how would Espen cope with spending a whole day traveling, taking-off and landing twice, being stuck on his parents laps for hours at a time, etc…
Well, he did brilliantly! We were proud to arrive in Santorini, with a baby that had not cried once during the whole time. Perhaps Espen had developed a resistance to the air pains most kids remember from their first flights, through the 50 flights he had been exposed to in utero? I know that Anabel and I certainly enjoyed the free lunch and dinner that SAS Gold card provided by the very same flights earned us. Access to the lounges definitely helped, offering a smooth first trip with a baby; with meals both times very tasty and accompanied with a nice beer and whisky (a 12 year old Laphroaig and a 12 year old the Balvenie doublewood… how could I refuse…even if it was 12:15 and then 17:15?).
Now when we read about our destination, we fell upon someone’s description of the place as being the most baby friendly place she had visited. I think it would be more correct to say that the Greeks are baby obsessed! From the hostess in the lounge in Athens, that came to our table 4 times to tickle Espen ( and call him Cookie), to the old Andreas of Budget rent-a-car that insisted I leave him with Espen and that he would give him his house and car and all his possessed. The hotel owner was no better, insisting many times that she would provide everything we might need (especially babysitting). About 50% of all the Greeks, old or young, male or female that passed us on the street, winked and waved to our little wonder. The Greeks definitely were a warm, friendly and extremely reassuring people to spend a holiday with, when accompanied by a wide-eyed little wonder. That being said, Espen clearly isn’t just any baby, but also the cutest in the world, as demonstrated by the swedish SAS air hostess who swooned, insisting “she needed to get herself another one of those”, and nearly every single Chinese tourist also stopping by to shake hands and exchange smiles (and take pictures).
Needless to say that we had quickly found our internal comfort, and were ready to simply indulge in the safe atmosphere on our deck with the amazing view. Because yes, the view is nearly all Santorini is about, and I am surprised I managed to write so much without yet mentioning it. Our first morning here, as I opened the window, my first words were “Wow, this is simply the most amazing view I had ever seen!”. Of course I meant, “from a room”, although even that was not entirely true as Anabel reminded me of my parents house in the South African bush. But still, the words were sincere, this was truly a breathtaking view, and only pictures would do it justice. Imagine stepping out from a cave in the mountain, to a bright sunny day illuminating an endless sea that lies far below at your feet.
The seemingly endless sea, was put into perspective by the islands around us; a long one right in front, sheltering us from the otherwise imposing endlessness. One to the left, an active volcano offering prospects of enjoyable walks and relaxing hot springs. And then the islands to our right, with its white houses covering only the inhabitable crown of the island, merily resembling a snow-capped mountain. In many pictures of Santorini, the typical sight is a terrace with the same view I described above, to which one adds a dab of white and blue coloured square houses. We are even luckier, it seems as we are so “low” on the mountain or at so steep an area, that we see nothing but the sea and the cliffs around us. It really feels awesome, and I willingly spend hours sitting out and watching the wind playfully caressing the vast sea, creating light ripples that spread as if cast from a magician’s’ hands. Our room’s private terrace and it’s view was definitely the highlight of this trip and destination. The view, accompanied by the large breakfast served at our convenience, with a choice of different type of eggs and yummy fluffy bread and the best Greek yogurt I have ever had, made this my favourite place and activity in Santorini by far. This was also very convenient, as with a five-month old baby one does end up needing to spend a lot of time in a hotel room.
The rest of the island was not so exciting. I definitely enjoyed the walks and the surprising doors that seemed to open only into emptiness (every door opened only to a steep path down which could not be seen from the outside), reminding me of a unfinished Lego house.
However the island was generally much more of a tourist trap than a genuine piece of Greek living. For starters, prices, for everything and anything, was on par with those in Denmark… considering that Denmark is considered among the top three most expensive touristic destinations in the world, that is quite a statement. The quality of service though varies greatly. From our hotel (Porto Fira Suites), with breakfast -at-your-door- you-ask-for-anything-and-we-will-get-it-for-you service, to the the taxi from the airport, that costs a harsh 20€ for a 10 minute ride in a crummy car. The worst, though, was the tour to the volcano, that cost 20€ per person, to be stuck on a crummy boat with 40 other people and no place for everyone to sit down. We were dropped of on a volcano for our own tour and a strict deadline to come back, and then anchored close to a hot spring, where we were simply told to dive and swim the rest of the way. With some psychological preparation, proper protection from the otherwise blistering cold, and without the 40 others so closely stuck to us that our naked bodies would have had to make contact way too often for comfort; we might have considered enjoying the hot spring… but not in these conditions. Instead, we spent a large hour just waiting in a cold cramped boat with an uncomfortable baby to appease. If they got 800€ in 3 hours for maintaining one crummy boat and one sailor, plus a vending shop higher up in town, then they must have one of the highest margin businesses that exists around I am sure… On a more positive note though, I would add that the volcano walk in itself was a very positive experience. Espen slept through most of it, but Anabel and I thoroughly enjoyed the wild landscapes, the sulfur fumes, the savage waves of crumbled volcanic rocks and the incredible vistas of the caldera around us. There was no doubting that we were in a middle of a giant cauldron, in a soup of paradise blue.
If one could look aside the prices for the food, than I would definitely mention the food as one of the most enjoyable aspects of the stay. I am not generally very fond of a Greek salad, for example, as I do not like feta cheese, nor am I a big fan of olives. Well, apparently, I did not really know what feta cheese should taste like, nor olives for that matter. A simple Greek salad from our local Gyro seller was a great hit on the taste buds, as was their “tomato balls”; a mysterious tomato rösti, most likely made with tomato, onions, bread and more yummy stuff, which lent itself really well to melting on the tongue.
At the Naoussa restaurant, we also enjoyed a local dish called “Bouyougi”, a greek cheese fondue, made from feta, mainly, but with tomatoes and herbs added to the dish which I must say definitely reconciled me with feta.
There is otherwise not so much to do in Fira, not without a car to go farther afield. But as the weather was rather on the cold side, that we had a large bath with Jacuzzi that fit the whole family, and a view I didn’t get tired off; we found ourselves enjoying our first family vacation spending at most 4 hours out a day and the rest with hugs and food and baths at “home”.
Taking time to take things slow and indulging in my son’s rhythm so as to optimize the smiles/hour ratio? Certainly no complaints from yours truly. So, what is there to do in Fira apart from the volcano tour? Walking along the cliff side, mostly. But that is no little affair. For starters, its tough work. As the path is not made for strolling, it’s made to serve all the houses, hotels, and restaurants that are hanging on to the cliff side, and as such, it simply goes up and down, all the time. The houses, suites and hotels, are also extremely quaint, with tiny pools seemingly falling of the edges, and a homogeneous white and thick-walled construction decorated by Pots or domes of blue, curved roofs and chimneys that reminded me of Gaudi’s work, in a more sober form, and Escherian staircases. Last but not least of course, the view, with new sides of the island and new angles to the village that unfurl with every step. And need I say that the view on the see around us never ceases to look amazing? We walked all the way to Skaros rock, only to stop short due to construction work. However, the walk in itself, was worth the toil, and rest assured if you are dead on arrival, there is a shortcut back that does not go up and down, but straight through boring nothing-to-seeness, in only a quarter as much time.
For the last three full days, we decided to rent a car so as to get a little further than Skaros rock. I contacted my “friend” or should I say “father” seeing as he continuously referred to me as “mon enfant”, stroking the back of my hair as I was signing signed the contract…it was a little disconcerting but it felt so genuine that I actually ended up feeling reassured. That worked against me though, as I ended up with a crappy car for the same price as his competitor… My confidence was somehow shattered the next morning as I picked up a parking fine on the car despite his multiple reassurances that I could park anywhere… Having a car was worth it though as there is a lot more to see in Santorini than Fira, in fact I would probably recommend you not take a hotel in Fira at all, as Oia is definitely much more charming, a more polished version of Ia, whilst the southern-most tip of the island offers a much more authentic Greek experience; we for example, paid a fare that felt “normal” at a restaurant. The-said restaurant; “Gregarios”, comes much recommended, you had a fridge full of fresh fish you could pick from, and a variety of salads, in addition to a view of the whole caldera, only about 200 metres from the tip of the island. The service was very friendly, and instead of getting less change than I expect, I get a a round 20€ note for my 50€ when I owed 31€. So I ask for change for my 10€ to give as tip, and she still gives me the whole 10€ back in change instead of keeping the 1€ I owed her. This was in addition to a free desert she gave us… and not any free desert, but the best baklava I probably would every try; straight out of the oven unto our plate.
We wondered a bit in the south, seeing the red beach, with its porous rock and red & black pebbled “sand”. We missed the “prehistoric town” (sold as a “Greek Pompeii”) that somehow thought 15:00 was a fitting time to close. Closing times astound me in Greece.
After a rather frugal lunch I had once decided to go hunting for the bakery shop we had crossed earlier but were too full to enjoy; only to find that this time it was closed… at 14:30, right when, I assume, most people come out from their lunches and could benefit from a little sugar rush…. The neighbouring cafe told me that they probably opened again around 17:00… go figure. But like I said, the drive is profoundly enjoyable, even for one like me who normally dislikes driving. At least it is in this period, as the roads are calm and empty, and the vistas are nearly breathtaking at every second. I can imagine it is nothing close to enjoyable in high season. In fact I have a hard time imagining anything is enjoyable in high season here. Andreas explained that during that period, 48 planes land a day… whilst there were only 2 I think during our time and the airport closes between them.
We got lost at some point and ended up taking a long, winding road, large enough for a car and a half (despite it being a two-way), steep uphill dead-end road, that brought us to a monastery at the topmost point in Santorini. The view was even more astounding than all the previously enjoyed views as one could see as far as a healthy eye could. For 360 degrees, the island, in its entirety, spread out at your feet. Unfortunately, traveling with a 5 month old proves again to be straining one’s ability to “enjoy” the moment, as Espen, perhaps this time bothered by the sudden altitude, was crying a lot, making the moment a three-clicks-of-the-camera-and-back-down-we-go.
On the way back, we “miraculously” found an open bakery, with a wide variety of tasty looking treats. So, naturally, we took one of each, including a pack of the Easter specialty cake (“made with cheese, but not salty”). That particular cake was very nice, whilst the rest, tended to be slightly too honey-drenched. The best one we had was in fact a round ball of pistachio nuts seemingly glued together with glazing sugar. The sugar, however had orange blossom flavoring, and the pistachio were so abundant that the overall pastry had a great balance of savoury and sweet.
It’s funny in fact how despite the size of this island, (you can actually see the one end from the other), one can still experience the full contrast between capital towns, smaller towns and country side, that you would in a normal sized country . Fira is busy and not always charming , typical of a capital, Oia is quaint and calm, typical of a secondary city whilst the south of the island seems vast and uninhabited, with even more friendly people that seem to have time for you, as usually is the case in the countryside. But where Santorini really excels is that there is a distinct architecture throughout the island which reflects the local tastes and savoir-faire.
Before our trip home, we got to enjoy two last local sights: The blacksand beach of Kamala, with its sugar sized grains of volcanic ebony-black sand contrasting beautifully with the Aegean blue sea.
The ancient city of Thera, a sort of European Machu Picchu. It was nowhere as magnificent as Machu Picchu but it did radiate this peacefulness that hard-of-access ruins do, especially when surrounded by a 360 vista of the island and the sea at large.
On the trip back we discussed with a very pleasant man from Cyprus, living in Crete, that explained that he was selling very well to Chinese people right now, due to a new law that allowed them to travel freely in Shengen if they had invested enough in property in Europe. And Santorini was just the place, as it seemed to represent a dream destination for all Asians. I definitely understand why, and look forward to visiting more of Greece, its flavors, its unique sights and its friendly inhabitants.