We carried our large backpacks to the train station, and within the hour we arrived at Athens International Airport. The check-in was rather painless, and we have some time to while away, so Liping and I went around the shops. Like, finally we don’t have to rush through airports with a feeling of dread at the pit of our stomach.
I must say I was very impressed by Easy Jet. Despite being a budget airline, their service was flawless, the aircraft felt amazingly fresh, and the entire journey was over in a flash. I was really happy, and if I ever travel to and fro London, I will definitely choose them.
So we landed at Gatwick airport. I was holding my breathe as I stepped out of the airplane. I am finally in London! Was half expecting problems at the immigration, but like Liping said, they will always ask you the standard questions, so as long as I have answers for them, I will be fine.
Zapped through the immigration, and off we went to find the Tube… but even Liping got really confused. It took us a good 30 minutes before we figured out where the Tube was. LOL.
The journey to Liping’s place took longer than expected. For one, my Oyster card (courtesy of Liping) didn’t work well, so I was stuck at the turnstile for longer than expected. The Tube was crowded, and by the time we reach Warwick Avenue station, it was already dark.
And it was freezing cold. I loved it. Did I ever mention how much I love being in cold countries? LOL.
London bus service was amazing too. I mean, they actually announced the upcoming stops, so that people like me who has no idea which stop was where, it was incredibly useful. I wondered why Singapore didn’t use the same thing, and Liping said, “That’s because, by the time they repeated the upcoming stops in four languages, the bus would have passed the said stop”
LOL. That’s very true. The four language thing in Singapore MRT could be a bit over the board sometimes.
Liping stays in a Zone 2 area in London called Maida Vale. I read about the place before – no, not from some guidebook – but on Shopaholic! You see, Becky and her boyfriend/husband (depends on which book you are reading) stays in Maida Vale. I have little idea how the place looked like when I arrived because everything was dark, but I had a feeling it will be gorgeous in the morning.
So Liping and I walked… actually, no, we ran because it was so cold, from her place to a nearby pub (a pub! in a residential area!) for dinner. I was eager to try out the multitude varieties of British beer, and the famous fish & chips. The former was impressive – I mean, look at the selection! You’ll die of liver malfunction before you can finish tasting them all – and the latter was not as expected. The barter tasted bland, though the fish was fresh.
I half contemplated leaving the house to go out that night, but figured that it might be too much to be so adventurous in a strange land at that time of the night. So I rested my tired body to get ready for the big London adventure the next day!
So the morning dawned upon us again. Still raining (as usual) but after a quick breakfast, we rushed out of the backpackers to catch a cab to the bus station. Our bus for Delphi will leave at 10.30 a.m. and it was already 10.00 a.m.
It was just our luck that we boarded a cab whose driver wasn’t too fluent with English, and he had no idea which bus station we wanted to go too. After some acute miming and pointing at my guide, he seemed to understand and we were on our way.
As we passed more and more unfamiliar buildings and routes, the sense of dread seemed to build within us. Liping and I looked at each other questioningly – could we be on our way to the wrong bus station?
Ten minutes later, our fear was confirmed. After running around the strange bus station looking for a non-existent bus, we approached the information counter and was told crudely that the bus station we were supposed to be at was five kilometres away.
I looked at Liping in dismay. It was already 10.25 a.m. and without a doubt we will miss our bus. And since today is our last day in Athens, it will also mean we will miss Delphi altogether.
Dejected beyond belief, we had to spend several minutes taking deep breathe to calm ourselves after a bout of serious cursing of the cab driver who acted like he knew what he was doing. I suggested that we should visit the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, which was closed when we visited yesterday. Liping looked at me blankly and said she will bet her bottom dollar that the damn museum will be closed as well, but since we had nothing else planned for the day we might as well just try.
And finally, finally, our fortune turned for the better – the museum was open! You can imagine our relief to see the hordes of people moving towards the entrance. And so we got our tickets and immersed ourselves into the world of Greek culture and history.
The National Archaeological Museum of Athens houses some of the most important artifacts from a variety of archaeological locations around Greece from prehistory to late antiquity. It is considered one of the great museums in the world and contains the richest collection of artifacts from Greek antiquity worldwide.
As we walked along the many, many displays of ancient Greek artifacts, I couldn’t help but felt awed by the grandeur of what I was experiencing. Centuries of Greek culture were immortalised through brilliant sculptures, drawings and archaeological find. I took a great many photos here, and here are some of my favorites.
This sculpture depicts a fallen young Greek soldier, whose knees were wounded and was kneeling on the ground. His helmet has fallen to the side, and his arm was stretched to the front yielding a sword to defend himself. The look of anguish was clearly engraved on his marblic face.
Ancient Greek head gear (I can’t remember what it was called) for the partisan, plated in gold. It looked like an exotic tiara to me, and I really, really wanted to buy a replica of it to bring home!
A painting of two boxing children, which was excavated from the ancient site of Akrotini of Santorini. Somehow I find this a bit too freaky for my liking. They looked like they are doing a round of muay thai.
Liping and I spent a good two hours here at the museum. I finished first because I was so, so tired from the adventure last night, that I fall asleep in the museum foyer waiting for her! How embarrassing, LOL.
As we leave the museum, the sky was finally cleared and the rain was reduced to a light drizzle. Liping and I took a slow walk to absorb the atmosphere – afterall, this was the area where the recent riot took place, and we could see many burned down buildings, smashed facade etc.
After a leisurely meal at a nearby cafe, we went back to (where else?) to the backpackers. By then we were tired out, both physically and emotionally, from the roller coaster adventure in the morning that we just rested. But I couldn’t stop myself from going to Ermou Street one more time to get a proper winter jacket from Zara, and to shop for more clothes.
Which I did! The shops were then opened (much to my relief), and spent some happy hours trawling through the street despite the unrelenting rain.
This was the jacket I bought from Zara. Pretty cool, eh?
When I returned to the backpackers, we were all ready to go out for dinner. Liping, Marco, Kevin and I went to this place recommended by the owner of backpackers, where we bumped into the youngster Rene and Simon. So we joined our table and had the most fabulous dinner ever! A bit on the pricey side but it was worth every euro.
Since it was our last night in Athens, I intend to enjoy it to very last moment. As usual, our session for the night started at Athens Backpackers’ pub, and gosh, by the time the few of us left for pubs outside, I think I was totally smashed. Marco, Rene, Simon and I made a gang of foursome and trawled the Makrygianni area for drinks, dancing and merriment. Liping and Kevin decided to call it an early night – aiyoh!
I think I had a little too much to drink that I couldn’t recall much of the night. I recall buying the lads a few rounds of beer (alcohol in Europe is seriously affordable compared to Singapore), and danced with a couple of Greek girls at a pub to some retro-like Greek tunes. LOL. A serious culture immersion experience for me.
And – horror of horror – I puked all the way back from the pub to the hostel. Poor Simon and Rene took care of me. And I will always remember one conversation that we had:
Rene: Are you okay Raz…? (in that German accent of his)
Raz: I am okay… *pukey* I need water. Can you buy for me?
Raz: (Pregnant pause)
Rene: But I don’t have money.
Raz: *pukey* Okay, here is five euro. Quick, before I puke again!
Rene: Okay. SIMON! Take care of Raz!
And off he ran. LOL. For some reasons this remained in my memory. Though it could be Simon the one who went to buy drink for me and Rene who stayed with me.
They even got change back to me, and stuffed it into my pocket. LOL.
So we went back to backpackers, and true enough there were a couple of drunk backpackers loitering around in the lobby too. Simon and Rene started to hunt for their “lost camera” (I thought they were playing punk, but apparently they really did lose their camera!), but ended up going back to their room and… passed out on the floor. LOL.
(The story went that Simon puked on the bed and had to sleep on the floor. Either way it was still hilarious)
Here are the photos I took that night. Thank you my dear lads, for taking care of me that night. Athens was great because of you guys!
The plan for the day was to visit Delphi, located some two hours coach ride away from Athens. After some seriously difficult sign language with a cab driver, Liping and I managed to find our way to the right bus station…
… only to discover that the 10 a.m. bus for Delphi was sold out! The next bus is at 1.30 p.m., and since that would mean we will arrive at Delphi close to four, and everything will close by 5 (sunset, see?), it makes little sense for us to go on that day.
So, to be better prepared this time, we bought the ticket for the next day. After some contemplation on what to do next, we decided to pay a visit to the National Museum of Greece. So off we go on another cab (lucky for us the driver speaks pretty good English)…
… only to discover the bloody museum is closed! Worst of all, it was still raining (what is it with Greek weather?!). Liping and I were frozen to the bone. At the museum, signs of the recent riots were evident. It was a bit disheartening to see such a beautiful place being tarnished by graffiti.
And so, with a heavy heart we went back to the backpackers. Liping was so disappointed with the unfortunate turn of event that she settled down in bed to read. It was only after some hours later than we decided to make full use of the day to go out to the shopping area of Athens, a street called Ermou Street.
Mind you, it was still drizzling when we ventured out, so imagine, just imagined our disappointment when most of the shops were closed at Ermou Street!
Espirit – closed!
Zara – closed!
It was really, really a mega bummer. In total desperation we went to a nearby cafe to have lunch… and ended up chatting for two hours. To be honest, although Liping and I have been traveling together for some days now, we didn’t really talk talk. So over a cuppa and some food, we talked and caught up with each others’ scandals. LOL.
After that long yakking session, we went to the Parliament House of Greece to watch the changing of guard. It was really, really dull work, and the ceremony wasn’t as grand as it supposed to be. So I was kinda look forward to the one in London.
We then went to a nearby McDonald’s for some coffee, because I was really, really frozen to the core with all the strong wind and drizzling wind. Just our luck that in McD, we bumped into a couple of “crazy people”. A mute man who was enthusiastically scribbling on many, many pieces of paper and was so excited seeing my Macbook, he demanded to look at the screen. A slightly crazy-looking overweight woman who sat next to us who started to scratch herself everywhere.
Liping and I were very perturbed by these, so decided to head back to hostel instead. More photos of our adventure that day here on Flickr.
That night we had a lot of fun drinking (again) at Athens Backpackers. Liping even tried her hand in making sunny side up eggs, much to the amusement of all the lads around her. Got to know a couple of friends too – Marco from Switzerland, as well as the lads from Germany, Simon and Rene. We drank together and generally had fun the way only drunk people will. LOL.
We had a little bit too much to drink, and in the pissed-off state we were in, Marco, Simon, Rene and I decided to head out (in the rain!) in search of more drinks after the backpacker’s pub was closed at 11 p.m. So on we went, and I couldn’t remember exactly what we did. I think we tried to go into some clubs, only to discover either they have a minimum age (Rene and Simon were only 16!) or they have exorbitant entry charges. We moved in and out of clubs and pubs, and at one point someone even approach us and asked if we want to get some “fun pills”!
Of course, we didn’t. Do you mind! I am a thoroughly decent guy, drunk or otherwise :D
And so we ended up at a pub where we had some more beer and shots, before making our long, long way home. I crashed out the moment I entered the room. What a night!
Christmas Day in Athens! You would expect joyful caroling along the main streets, with people mingling around drinking beer, dressed-up ponies surrounded by shrieking children…
… well, that was supposed to be an Athenian Christmas, but it didn’t happen today because it was raining the whole damn day.
The sky just poured and poured… not heavily, mind you. Just heavy enough for you to think you can venture outside only to discover yourself drenched within minutes.
So all in all, it was a bummer of a Christmas, but within the house of Athens Backpackers there was still joy to be shared by all. In exchange for a Christmas lunch, Liping and I volunteered for some “communal cooking”.
So off we went! I was on chopping duty, so my job was exactly that – chop, chop and chop! It was a hilarious experience chopping mounts of vegs with the ladies who (surprise, surprise) had no idea what we are chopping. LOL.
And so after all ingredients were prepared, we sat at the lunch table and waited… and waited… and waited.
Did you know turkeys took five hours to cook?
Nope, we didn’t know either. So we waited from late morning till 3 p.m. before any food was served!
While we waited, I chatted with Zun, who hailed from China, but was born in Philippines, but right now studying in the USA. His background was so complicated that Liping, Kevin and I had trouble understanding. LOL. But we had fun making fun of each other and passed time by complaining in unison how long it took.
Ah, the food was finally ready!!! This was what we waited five hours for. It tasted… well, I guess it tasted alright. But the wine they served (on the house, yay!) more than made up for the amount of food to be shared by the 40 odd backpackers that afternoon.
It was certainly an interesting way to spend my Christmas morning, and one that I would love to do again.
After sitting for so long in the dining hall, we went back to rest in our room. Contemplated going out, but it was still pouring, so we slept instead until dinner time. By then we were starving again, so we headed to a nearby restaurant for some food.
The food, I have to say, was much more satisfying compared to lunch. The dim light, the soothing music (they had live piano and guitar going on on Christmas songs) and the great company made a wonderful Christmas dinner.
And then it was back to Athens Backpackers for more drinking and merriment. I think by the time I hit my third glass of housepour, plus a couple of Raki shots on the house, I lost track of time and what I was doing. Crashed out not long after that.
After a minor crisis at the Athens Airport involving a detached haversack from my backpack, we made our way to Athens city centre… by bus. We were lucky that we did not miss the last bus, since the flight from Santorini – Athens was delayed!
And so we made it to Syntagma Square, where our accommodation Athens Backpackers was located at. A series of misinterpreting directions (my fault, I’ll admit), me made it to the backpackers in, checked in with little fuss and soon tucked into bed.
The next morning, after a quick breakfast of toasts and coffee, we took part in the Downtown Walking Tour (5 Euros), which was organised everyday from Athens Backpackers. It’s not just a walk around, but a complete orientation of the city centre, a must on your first day in Athens. The very chatty guide, a local Greek girl named Paula who spoke perfect English, took us to some of the must-see sites and museums, shopping tips, interesting out-of-the-way places, and of course show you where the great cheap tavernas’ (traditional Greek restaurants) are.
In the two hours walk, Liping and I learned more about Athens and the Greek way of life, more language and culture. I won’t put the photos taken during the walking tour here as we visited some of the key landmarks in the same day.
We ended our walking tour in the middle of Plaka. Liping and I opted to head out for lunch… and after walking around the area (and subject to some minimal touting, a relief compared to Istanbul), we had some simple sandwiches at a nondescript cafe. Right after, we hurriedly made our way to the majestic Acropolis, site to many ancient Greek monuments, including the sentinel Parthenon. However, our first stop was the Theatre of Dionysos.
The importance of theatre in the Athenian city-state can be gauged from the dimensions of the enormous Theatre of Dionysos on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis.
During the golden age in the 5th century BC, the annual festival was one of the major events on the calendar. Politicians would sponsor dramas by writers such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, with some light relief provided by the bawdy comedies of Aristophanes. People come from all over Attica, with their expenses met by the state.
I took a great many photos here, because the place was simply too grand for just a cursory glance. We climbed up and down the seats to take in the feel. It was a good thing we did – turn out that this is the only site in Acropolis that we can actually get close to. The remaining were cordoned off, out of reach of tourists.
Next up – Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which was built in 161. Herodes Atticus was a wealthy Roman who built the theatre in the memory of his wife Regilla. It was excavated in 1857-58 and completely restored between 1950 and 1961. There are performances of drama, music and dance here during the Hellenic Festival. The theatre is open to public only during performances.
Not very far from here was a series of stone steps to go up to the top of Acropolis, where my breathe was literally taken away.
To get into the main site, you will pass through the grand entrance of Propylaia. The Propylaia formed the towering entrance to the Acropolis in ancient times. Its architectural briliance ranks with that of the Parthenon. It consists of a central hall, with two wings on either side.
The Panatenaic Way, which cuts across the middle of Acropolis, was the route taken by the Panathenaic procession – the climax of the Panathenaia festival held to venerate the goddess Athena.
Erechtheion was built on the part of the Acropolis held most sacred. It was here Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and where Athena produced the olive tree. Named after Erichthonius, a mythical king of Athens, the temple housed the cults of Athena, Poseidon and Erichthonius.
The Erechtheion is immediately recognisable by the six larger-than-life maiden columns that support its southern portico, the much-photographed Caryatids. They are so called because the models for them were women from Karyai (modern day Karyes) in Lakonia.
The Parthenon is the monument that more than any other epitomises the glory of ancient Greece. It means “virgin’s apartment”. This is the largest Doric temple ever completed in Greece, and the only one built (apart from its wooden roof) of Pentelic marble.
Built on the highest part of the Acropolis, the Parthenon had a dual purpose – to house the great status of Athena commissioned by Pericles, and to serve as the new treasury. It was built on the site of at least four earlier temples dedicated to the worship of Athena.
We were lucky that during our visit, the weather was sunny and bright, if not a bit too windy. To be at the Acropolis on that day was like a dream come true for me. Standing on top of the hill, the white buildings of Athens stretched everywhere you look. It’s like the God drop a whole load of (white) candies on top of the Acropolis, and they rolled in every direction.
Right after the majestic Acropolis, we descended from the hill to visit the Ancient Agora.
Ancient Agora was Athens’ meeting place in ancient time. It was the focal point of administrative, commercial, political and social activity. All roads led to the Agora, and it was a lively, crowded place. The main monuments are the Temple of Hephaestus, the Stoa of Attalos and the Church of the Holy Apostles. The site is bounded by Areopagus Hill in the south, the Athens-Piraeus metro line to the north, Plaka to the east and Apostolou Pavlou to the west.
I was looking forward to see the Temple of Apollo. Little did I know it will be just like the rest of the “remains” in Ancient Agora – just foundation stones on the ground. What a disappointment!
Of the entire Agora, only Temple of Hephaestus was in tact. This temple, on the western edge of the Agora was surrounded by foundries and metalwork shops, and was dedicated to Hephaestus, god of the forge. It was one of the first buildings of Pericles’ rebuilding programme and is the best-preserved Doric temple in Greece. Unlike the Parthenon, the monument doesn’t evoke a sense of wonder, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
On the way from Ancient Agora to Roman Agora, we bumped into a couple of riot polices hidden at a corner of the main road. We looked around in alarm and saw that indeed some kind of a crowd was gathering at the square of Makriyanni. Of all things, a riot on Christmas Eve! I hurried away, but Liping found the time (and courage!) to snap a couple of photos first. LOL.
Soon we arrived at the Roman Agora, and immediately one monument attracted our attention. The well-preserved Tower of the Winds was built in the 1st century BC by a Syrian astronomer named Andronicus. The octagonal monument of Pentelic marble is an ingenous construction that functioned as a sundial, weather vane, water clock and compass. Each side represents a point of the compass, and has a relief of a figure floating through the air, which depicts the wind associated with that particular point. Beneath each of the reliefs are the faint markings of sundials. The weather vane, which disappeared long ago, was a bronze Triton that revolved on the top of the tower. The Turks allowed dervishes to use the tower.
The rest of the Roman Agora appears to the layperson (like me) as little more than a of rubble. In the southern area are the foundations of a propylon and a row of shops. To the right of the entrance are the foundations of a 1st-century public latrine.
In fact, I almost had a little incident at the said public latrine. After a full day of walking about, I was understandably high-tide. So I was scrambling around looking for a toilet. Was told by the nice lady at the ticketing booth where the toilet was, which was at a corner of the Roman Agora.
As I walked to the said corner, I can’t help but notice the said site of the ancient public latrine. Of course, by now, the latrine was reduced to mere rubbles on the ground. I was puzzled and momentarily considered if this was where I was supposed to relieve myself. But it couldn’t be… I mean, should I be tainting a national monument with, err, human waste?
After a couple of puzzled seconds, I finally noticed the actual public toilet, which is actually built into the ground. No wonder I couldn’t see it! Haha. For a moment I almost made a fool out of myself. LOL.
Click here to view the galore of photos I took that day.
Finally we went back to the hostel to rest. My poor, overwalked feet! It was also then we met Kevin Yum. He was originally from Hong Kong, but now studying in the States. Came to Athens enroute to Italy for an end-year holiday. Lucky bastard. If only I was that fortunate when I was a student!
I couldn’t remember what I did that night… I have a shrewd suspicion that it consisted nothing more than an elaborate dinner at a restaurant nearby and then more drinks at the hostel bar.
Cheap drinks galore! For EUR2, I get a beer. EUR3 for a housepour. And despite not being that well equipped, the bartender was surprisingly apt at producing the most delicious drinks. He also had a penchant to dish out free shots of raki at us the Asian guests. I am not complaining of course, but it also meant I was dead by the time midnight came around, and off to the bed I went.
As we need to return our car to the rental agency, we decided to spend the entire day before our flight home roaming around the alleyways of Fira.
A multitude of fellow admirers cannot diminishes the impact of Fira’s stupendous landscape. Views from the edge of caldera over the multicoloured cliffs are breathtaking, and at night the caldera edge is a frozen cascade of lights. The central square is Plateia Theotokopoulou. It’s a fairly crowded place (though of course not so during the winter when we visited); the main road, 25 Martiou, intersects the square as part of a one-way system that just manages to keep the traffic flow going. Between 25 Martiou and the caldera is the essence of Fira, a network of pedestrianised alleyways.
The dawn of our last day in Santorini was rather overcast, with little hope of sunshine. We were a little downhearted, but determined to enjoy the day nonetheless.
As we venture pass shop after closed shops, we came across a group of donkeys! Laden with goods, they were making their way up the steep alleyway of Fira. We were a bit curious as on how they would know their way, since there was no visible person guiding them, and decided to follow where the donkeys go. The donkey station was located nearby the cable car station, where there is a pathway (Marinatou) leading down to the old port of Fira Skala. It was quite a funny adventure, actually, to follow the donkeys!
Marinatou, the steep, cobbled pathway leading from Fira town edge down to the old port Fira Skala, was quite a difficult descend. It took us close to an hour walking down. Halfway through to the descent, my knees started to shake from the impact of climbing down the stairs.
Oh, let me introduce you to Raki. We met him halfway during our exploration around Fira. At first we thought he was a rather fierce dog, but soon he started to follow wherever we go. He also responded to my calls, and seem to understand what I was telling him. I know it made no sense, as it all probability, the dog would only understand Greek and it was probably own by someone since he was wearing a collar. But he followed us, we enjoyed his company, and decided to name him after the infamous Turkish vodka, Raki.
Raki walked with us all the way down to Fira Skala. During our hour-long journey going down the stairs, he always keep ahead of us, like some sort of advanced bodyguard cum scout. When he went too far ahead, hiding in some bushes or something, I will call out to him, and he will come tottering to me. At the port, when I lied down by the waterside to rest, he tried to lick my face but I pushed him away. Not giving up, he decided to sit next to me and push his entire body next to mine. Ah, the joy of having a lovely dog like that. Did I mention that Raki was blind in one eye? You can see that from the photo above.
Soon it was time to board the cable car up the cliff back to Fira. There was no way we will climb up the steep pathway again. It was also then we had to bid a fond farewell to our new-found-friend Raki at Fira Skala. I felt bad leading him down all the way here only to abandon him for cable car. The ride up took mere minutes, and cost EUR4 per person. As you ascend up, one canâ€™t help to admire (or gasp, if you are height-phobic like yours truly) how dramatic the caldera cliff is.
When 4 p.m. came around, I finally understood why Santorini is famous for its sunsets. The sight over the cliff looking out to the volcano with the setting orb was truly breath taking. We took a great many photos of this phenomenon (which you can view here on Flickr). We got a pretty good unobstructed spot to take photos near the cable car station. Stayed there for about an hour, in the process which four more dogs joined us. I really, really like the (stray) dogs of Santorini. I think during winter times they were starved of human attention they used to enjoy during summer, hence whenever they see someone like us, they will come over and be friendly.
By 5 p.m. the sun was covered with large clouds, and it was unlikely that we will see it sinking into the sea horizon. But nevertheless we were happy just to be able to catch one sunset, especially on our last day here. This is even better than the sunset I witnessed at Phuket.
We decided to head back towards main town square of Fira to catch a bite before taking the hotel transfer to airport. Out of sheer luck we spotted Tavern Noussa, and it was open! This eatery was highly recommended by Lipingâ€™s friend, and we decided to have our last meal in Santorini here, which turned out to be a good choice. The fish soup was absolutely delicious, and my grilled chicken was tasty despite being a tad dry. The friendly chef even came over to talk to us a few times, and offered some complimentary and absolutely delicious dessert which we struggled to finish because we were so full!
So we dined and wined and laughed and generally had a good time. The owner told us to tell everyone that Tavern Noussa is open all year round, and ask everyone to come here for dinner.
Soon we were back to the hotel and the friendly owner sent us to the airport. The whole place was dead. We were told to hang around first while waiting for the luggage xray machine was turned on, for the check in counter to be operatingâ€¦ this got to be the most relaxed airport I am in ever.
Right now I am sitting waiting for the security control to open their gate for departure. The flight was effectively delayed by 1.5 hour, and we were not supposed to complain. Liping has worked out all the routes to get to Athens Backpackers, our accommodation for the next 5 days, when we get to the airport. Wish me luck!
We went to a tour agency yesterday to check for packages to visit some of the best features of Santorini: the volcano island Nea Kameni, the hot springs at Palia Kameni as well as the nearby island Thirasia. But silly us should have realized that ferry services are not existent during the winter months. There went our hopes to spend sometime away from the main Santorini island.
Since that didnâ€™t work out, we planned for another day excursion around the island, using my faithful Lonely Planet as a guide but mostly just following our fancy. If you have the time to kill, just drive around the island. Trust me, youâ€™ll have more fun that way.
First off we went recce around Fira, since most likely weâ€™ll spending the last day here in the main town. I had always told Liping for us to head for the caldera edge, since we never did that in broad daylight. Our nightly walk around the mostly deserted walkways around Fira might not do the town justice.
And true enough, but just venturing a little further from where we used to frequent, the incredible sight above greeted us. Views from the edge of the caldera over multicoloured cliffs were breathtaking. Though it is not as serene as the sight that was Oia, it was a relief to find that Fira packed a punch as well, befitting its title as the main town of Santorini.
While walking around the quiet and almost as-dead-as-Oia town of Fira, I discovered that the cable service was still running! Okay, perhaps it was just carrying some empty cable cars up and down the cliff towards the old port of Fira Skala, but it was a relief to see it nonetheless. Later on I discovered that the cable service do run during winter, but only from 8.00 a.m. to 10 a.m. in the morning, and between 3.00 p.m. and 4.00 p.m. in the afternoon.
We got started on our day trip and our first stop was Ancient Thira. This old settlement of the Dorians consists of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine ruins, which include temples, houses with mosaics, an agora (market), a theatre and a gymnasium. Okay, so that sentence was word-for-word from Lonely Planet, but it got me all excited to see some real Greek ruin at last! But like all things in Santorini during winterâ€¦
The bloody place was closed as well! We stopped our car somewhere before the start of a steep, rocky climb up the hill towards the site for these photos. From where we were, you have a splendid view of Kamari and the surrounding town. By now the wind was blowing very, very strongly and the chill of Santorinian winter started to bite into my bones. Soon we headed back into the car to drive down to Kamari.
And what a sight Kamari was! Kamari is 10 km from Fira and is Santorini’s best-developed resort. It has a long beach of black sand, with the rugged limestone cliffs of Cape Mesa Vouno framing its southern end. The beachfront road is dense with restaurants and bars, though everything was closed during our visits – I would imagine things get very busy here in high seasons.
This was the first time in my life I see a black beach in my life. The wind was very strong here, and the waves crashed to the shore with a ferocity that will put the fear into your heart. The sea was very treacherous at this time. I was determined to take a photo of myself with the big waves, so I asked Liping to shoot one while I perch myself on some of the large stones along the beach. I should have known better. A split second after the photo above was taken, the waves engulfed my legs and I was soaking wet! Worth the shot though.
Again, we had the entire beach to ourselves save for some exceptionally friendly stray dogs. I guess these dogs were very used to human presence during summer time, when this place will be packed to the max. So during the winter month, when tourists were scarce, they will approach whoever for some affection and perhaps some warmth.
Not that I minded, but Liping was freaked out one of them might just paw at her like the other night. LOL.
Right after Kamari, we started to make our way to Oia again in the hope of catching the famous sunset view, making a few more unchartered stops along the way. Seriously unchartered because for the life of me I couldnâ€™t identify where we were at times, but we just know the places were beautiful.
Our first stop was the Argyroâ€™s Canava, one of the oldest wineries on the island and home to various wine museums and shops like the one pictured above. I had never visited a winery before and hence wanted to visit one, but alas most of these places were closed during winter so my search around this area was in vain.
We came across a sign pointing towards Pyrgos, and so that was our next stop. This wasnâ€™t marked as recommended destination in Lonely Planet, and it is easy to know why. There is no interesting spot to take note of, but the sight at this hilltop town was pretty awesome. Look at the photo above. Churning sea, white-foamed waves and rolling dark clouds. Now close your eyes â€“ can you imagine how strong the wind was? We couldnâ€™t stay more than 10 minutes on the cliff because of the biting chill. Soon we were back into the car make our way to Oia, passing by the town of Fira again in the process.
And I just have to show you what a dangerous drive that was.
This photo was taken by risking the lives of Liping and I. See the steep incline to my left, right behind me? Now imagine a sheer drop to the sea with little or no barrier along the roadside, a wind strong enough to bend even the tallest trees, and a car so small that it rattled whenever the wind was too much to bear. That was the kind of stress I had to go through when I drive to Oia. At one point of the ride, I can see the Sea of Crete to my left and Aegean Sea on my right. That was how narrow that strip of the island was. Now imagine doing all that again under the cover of darkness on the drive back.
Gosh, that was one thrilling ride. Despite the horrendous I described it, I would still want to do it again. LOL.
Driving past our stopping point in Oia yesterday, we followed the road signs to reach the small port of Ammoudi. If you are driving, follow the signs that says â€œBay of Ammoudiâ€. If you are walking from Oia, take the 300-steps down from the tip of the cliff (see the zigzag stairs in the photo, just above my head). This is a tiny port with some tavernas and colourful fishing boat. During summer, boats and tours will go from here to Thirasia (a neighbouring island) daily. During our visit, the whole place was deserted with no human activities to speak of (although I am sure there were people lurking around because of some parked cars). Ammoudi is worth visiting is you want to take dramatic photos featuring Oia (top of photo), red-stone cliff (mid of photo) and beautiful sea (bottom of photo).
We went to walk around Oia one last time (no more photo taking since we have shot enough yesterday) just to enjoy the peace, and guess what we have found?
A bookstore. Actually I discovered Atlantis Books yesterday during our first visit. This photo was taken then as I find it very, very attractive to be nestled in a corner like this, with a charming shopfront display.
Today, when walked past, I realized there were lights on, and a sign was saying â€œIf you are open, we are openâ€.
How could we resist? So we went down the stairs, and stepped into the world of my dream.
Handmade bookshelves. Well-loved books. Classical music. Staff recommended titles (with handwritten reviews!). Funny memorabilia (like letters between the shop owner and a debt collection agency; it was hilarious). Warm, soft glow. Living corners right there in the shop â€“ dining table, sleeping beds, sofaâ€¦
There is a description of how Atlantis Books was stated on their website, so I wonâ€™t repeat it here. We met Chris, the owner-in-residence at that time, and two very friendly chaps from England. One was reading some very serious-looking paper but playing with a very adorable kitten at the same time, and one was very sportingly showed us how he could disappear through the roof and reappear at the front door, and then came back in through a hidden door. Such was the magic of Santorini.
In fact, it was during this visit that Liping and I vowed to come back to here again, specifically to Oia to experience its magic during summer. It had also revived my dream to run my own bookshop. I wish I could get to know the shop staff better, but it was getting dark and I still have to make the 16 km drive back to Fira. So we bade our farewell after buying some shop-produced postcards from them.
Hey guys, if you are reading this, we will be back!
Apparently, yes. When I was about to leave, the group of playful youths I met at Town Club during my first night here walked through the door, and the kid who asked to dance with recognized me and waved hi.
True enough, they were still here when I return after a delicious but oversized dinner at the nearby Tarvena Simos (Note: This tarvena was run by a very friendly lady who speaks excellent English and can recommend great food. We had a delicious platter of fried calamari. I had the traditional mouzhuka and ouza, which tasted suspiciously like raki I tried in Istanbul). Some of the lads chatted with me, but all of them were very boisterous over something that I couldnâ€™t understand. So I left them to it while I stayed online to chat with Cheryl who was amazingly awake at that time of the night (it was 4 plus in the morning in Singapore).
All in all, a pretty good night. But lethargy took over me, so decided to come back early, blog this and go to sleep.
After such a long day yesterday, Liping and I woke at about 10 a.m. After a coffee and a Santorini-briefing offered by the hotel owner, we decided to do a little road trip to the coastline of the island by renting a car!
â€œDoryâ€ is a two-seater smart car that we rented from an agency in Santorini. It cost us EUR50 for two days, but I think it was damn worth it. At first I wanted to get an ATV, but considering the weather and the fact that we do have quite a bit of stuff on us, a car made more sense. With Dory we traveled the length of the island for the entire day.
Fantastic, fabulous Santorini deserves all the superlatives. Even the most jaded traveler succumbs to the awesome drama of this surreal landscape, relic of what was probably the biggest eruption in recorded history.
Santorini is famous for the caldera and its vast curtain wall of multicoloured cliffs is truly awesome. The village of Oia on the northern tip of the island is hugely popular sunset viewing site because there is an uninterrupted view of the sun as it finally sinks below the horizon. From farther south down the caldera edge, the last of the setting sun can be obscured by the islands of Nea Kameni and Thirasia.
During the excursion we ventured into nooks and corners of Santorini, making pit stops whenever we fancied so. As a result we took lots of photos of places we have no idea about, but stunning nonetheless.
The landscape behind me was very unique and I am pretty sure it was because of the earthquakes Santorini is so famous for. Minor eruptions have been the norm in Greeceâ€™s earthquake record, but Santorini has bucked the trend â€“ and with an attitude â€“ throughout history. Eruptions here were genuinely earth-shattering, and so wrenching that they changed the shape of the entire island several times.
Despite my smile, I was scared out of my wits sitting on the ledge like this. Hidden out of view is a sheer drop of a cliff that will…. kill me if I just slip and fall!
The first common tourist destination we arrived at was Perivolos Beach, one of the few black sand beaches in Santorini. Purely coincidental actually, as we intended to go to the southwest end of the island first, but for some reason we navigated our way to the southeast instead. With the exception of a few local anglers here, we had the entire beach to ourselves. We could almost imagine how pack this place will be during summer. Shops after shops lined the beachfront, with innumerable cafes and, of course, stray dogs. Many of them.
We backtracked our way to the southeast end of the island, to visit the prehistoric town of Akrotini. Excavations here at this Minoan outpost that was buried during the catastrophic eruption of 1650 BC, began in 1967 and have uncovered an ancient city beneath the volcanic ash. Buildings, some three storeys high, date back to the late 16th century. Such steep history on this dramatic island made the site a captivating visit.
During our visit, the site is closed, and not only because its winter. One visitor was killed and several others injured when a section of the roof collapsed during the summer of 2005, and the official investigation is still pending.
Next we went on to the Red Beach, which is located near to Ancient Akrotini. In my opinion, this is not really a beach, but rather a stretch of stony edge to the sea (ideal of snorkeling and diving), leading up to a hillside of truly stunning views. Red Beach has high red cliffs and smooth, hand-sized pebbles submerged under clear water. It was also here I acted out my â€œdreamâ€ â€“ to sing The Winner Takes It All from the movie Mamma Mia on a cliff in Santorini. Had the time of my life here.
It was a magical moment for me, one that I will remember for a long time.
We made a few more pit stops after Red Beach (like the one above â€“ you can see Liping at the far end of the cliff) after unsuccessfully trying to find the White Beach. Also managed to do a short video clip during one of my many pit stops. You can view more pictures from my day excursion on Flickr here.
After that Liping managed to persuade me to drive all the way up north to the famous town of Oia some 16 km away. The drive to Oia was truly hair raising. The way was steep and runs along high cliffs hugging the rocking terrain, with sheer drop to the sea on both sides. This was the first time in my life while driving that I can see the sea on my right and my left at the same time. As I was driving a left-seated car on right-sided road for the first time, I was in on a nerve-wrecking half-hour ride.
But the end destination was worth it.
The village of Oia (ee-ah), known locally as Pano Meria, was so devastated by the 1956 earthquake that it became something of a ghost town for a while. However, there is little evidence of that period because of good restoration work and upmarket tourism have transformed Oia into an attractive place. Though quieter than tourist-frenzied Fira, its streets still have their share of trendy boutiques and expensive jewellery shops. Built on a steep slope of the caldera, many of its dwellings nestle in niches hewn into the volcanic rock. Oia, believe it or not, gets more sunset time than Fira.
We had the entire town to ourselves, and we loved it. The whole place was so beautiful it took my breath away, and it was so peaceful I could barely bring myself to leave. The buildings here were built right into the cliff of the mountain overlooking the Aegan Sea. Shops were nestled into little nooks and corners, with cobbled and narrow passageway snake around the haphazardly built multi-coloured building. It felt like being oversized candy factory. The only sound I could hear was the cry of seagulls, the crashing of the sea, and my own breathing. It was an awesome experience I couldnâ€™t really describe, and only Oia in winter can give me that.
So we decided to head back to our room for an early night. I really hope Athens in winter will be much better than this. I loved the solitude, but a bit of a holiday crowd will make a good change to the pace of things.
All in all, my eight day in Istanbul (and supposedly my first day in Santorini) was the worst day in my entire 22-days trip. That’s because Olympic Airlines had major screw ups with all my flights. Case in point:
The flight from Istanbul to Athens was severely delayed. For some reasons, after cruising the runway for an hour (I didn’t realise, I was asleep), the plane had to go back to terminal to refuel. That resulted in a two-hour delay in our flight
By the time we reached Athens, obviously we have missed the flight to Santorini on Aegean Airlines. Major bummer. But we held our chins up and checked for flights to Santorini
Turned out that Olympic Airlines had the next earliest available flight to Santorini on the same day at 8.15 p.m. So Liping and I forked out an additional EUR100+ to get additional tickets
But for some fucked-up reason, even this flight was majorly delayed. By the time we eventually got up the plane to Santorini, it was already 10 p.m. plus at night.
So what did we do to make the whole situation less distressing? Well, if you are as optimistic as me, you’ll find joy in the smallest way:
Liping and I had a haircut. Right here at Athens Airport while we wait for our evening flight to Santorini. The damn place looked so stylish that we gave in to the temptation… over a coin toss. LOL. Mine cost me EUR35 and it wasn’t that nice (I think some of my cuts at QB House were better) but a novel experience nonetheless, especially when your hairdresser needed to ask you to speak in English slower
Find joy in the entire flight delay situation. We gotta be the smallest group onboard an airplane, ever. Less than 20 of us in total, including a baby. LOL. When we boarded the train, a very disgruntled stewardess was standing along the aisle with a pissed-off look on her face, arms crossed over her half-buttoned chest. Liping was right when she commented that the stewardess looked more like a porn star than a stewardess.
True to the Greek-spirit, the moment we settled down in our seats, the flight took off in less than five minutes and we reached Santorini in a record-time of 40 minutes.
There was only one baggage claim conveyor in the airport. The entire airport setup was almost a joke. There was no passport control to speak of, and visitors can actually walked into the arrival hall to greet their friends. Even Phuket Airport was more established than that!
So we were off to our hotel guided by our poor host, Lefteris from Hotel Antonia. He must have been waiting for us on and off the entire day. I felt so sorry for him… and yet he was so friendly and helpful, we felt totally undeserved of his hospitality.
I was totally impressed by Hotel Antonia (check out the hotel review here) was a God-sent. Absolutely heavenly. Let me tell you why:
The owner came to the airport to pick us up! I felt so bad to keep changing the pick up time due to the flight delays, but he never complained
The room was superb. Heater, private bathroom, wardrobe, fresh towel everyday… even our very own balcony!
The family who runs the place was very friendly, and speaks English very well… and coffee every morning!
This hotel in Fira, while not located right next to the Caldera, was a mere 5 minutes walk to the town centre.
Best of all, it was EUR28 per night for the two of us. I guess in summer the price will be higher, but at the winter time we were visiting, we are not complaining. Absolutely recommended. If you going Santorini, stay here.
When we are done choosing our bed (idiot Liping went for the double bed, and I went for more bathroom space), it was already 11.30 p.m. when we headed out to check out the nightlife in Fira. To be honest, it was way quieter than I thought it will be, but considering the winter months, I reckon tourists were really scarce.
That’s why when we visited the pub Kita Thira, and then Town Club, we are easily the only foreigners around. The crowd was decidedly local in a good way, but we must have been so Asian that no one really talked to us. Perhaps it was too late in the night for a dose of Greek hospitality.
Modern Greek music and mainstream are just right for the charmingly kitsch landscape of the upbeat Town Club. During our stay this is one of the VERY few places open in Fira (afterall, it’s winter), so we were lucky the place was pretty happening on a Wednesday night. The crowd seems to know each other, mainly youths in their late teens and early 20s, and they are absolutely friendly. After some minor hiccup and shy stares, one guy came up to me, ascertained that I speak English, and asked me to dance with them… of which I did.
Fun night indeed. Thanks, Christy, for your hospitality!