Sunday, November 24, 2013

Santorini - too beautiful for words (but we try)

Santorini showing crater, white houses on the hilltop nearby & in the distance,
and one of too-many-to-count churches
The beauty of Santorini is that the island is the top two-thirds (or so) of an ancient caldera.  A couple additional islands complete the circular shape of the full caldera, the circle of land left behind after a volcano blows it's top. 

The thing about a caldera is that it can have steep sides.  In the case of Santorini, this means that there is no easy way to get from the sea to the towns at the top of the caldera… Well, it's not really so bad. From where we arrived there is a road with many switch-backs…and taxis or buses to get you to your lodging.  From where the cruise ships arrive the options are: walk, take the cable car or ride a donkey.
Donkeys returning home at the end of the work day
An uneventful, smooth, ferry ride and a transfer (Bill not driving) up a series of switchbacks to the "main" road took us to the cave house we had rented in Firostefani. With a short trek up over the lip of the caldera and down to our accommodations in the rock, we had arrived. Then we walked to Fira (very close) and on to Thira (maybe a mile further?)  From the time we hit Fira, there were a several more or less parallel walkways, each lined with shops offering clothes and/or a range of potential souvenirs….
Marty's House: Looking down from the loft to the living room. Kitchen is to the far left. Bathroom is thru the door to the right. Master Bedroom is below the loft. Note: Cave houses seem to always have a curved roof.
The views over the caldera, were stunning morning, afternoon and evening but especially at sunset.  From our cave house we also had a great view of Skaros, a rocky promontory that unbelievably used to be the castle/fortress "city" of Santorini from medieval times until the early 1800s. The castle was destroyed by a 19th-century earthquake.
See that knob on the hilltop in the center of the photo?  That's Skaros today.
In a photo we saw, it had a fort and buildings clinging to the hillside.
Our lovely cave house belongs to Marty Finkelman, a friend of our SMA friends Jack & Ruth. Living in a cave house means constant temperature and, occasionally, some interesting sound effects from the walkway overhead. It seemed like we were in a standalone house. We walked down to our patio and into the living room. But occasionally it seemed like someone was walking around "upstairs".  As it turns out this was literally true. We finally realized that the public pathway along the water that we walked to get to/from the house, was indeed over the back half of the house. The house comes with a resident cat, Martina  She pretty much owns the property but she must own a couple others as well. She is well-fed! We worry a little about how she does in the winter, but we heard stories from the locals about how they adopt several extra cats over the winter months.

Poor, underfed(?) Martina.  We think she is the real owner of the house.
We had a rental car and made excursions to Oia (one of the extremities of the island), Akrotiri (the other end of the island), and several other spots in between. Along the way, we tasted local wines, explored touristy shops, and photographed castles, churches, and white & blue buildings stretching down the steep hillsides / cliffs.
From afar the white houses look like snow or frosting on the hilltops.
This is what they look like in the setting sun.
Church in Oia
The windmills are commonly associated with Mykonos
but we found them on Rhodes & Santorini as well.
After our day in Oia, Bill's Mom sent us an email with the jigsaw puzzle of the day that she had completed. And, yes we were able to send her back a photo of the same location that we had taken that very same day. What a coincidence!
Our version of Puzzle of the Day
One day we wandered through the neighboring town of Fira and viewed some replicas of lovely wall frescoes from the ancient Akrotiri, a Minoan city inhabited around 2000-3000BC.
Copy of a wall fresco from Akrotiri.  The original is in the local museum but we didn't get there.
The frescoes are amazing. As are the ruins of the city, which we discovered later… The site is being excavated and several houses are clearly visible. Unusual is there are no temples, churches, etc.

Remains of one of the houses at Akrotiri; storage jars intact.
One evening the entertainment was presented by mother nature. It had been a partially cloudy day which made for a spectacular sunset that filled the sky with vivid colors. Even the locals were taking pictures and exclaiming how spectacular it was. That said, the sunset was so amazing that pictures can not even describe it. 
The crater at sunset
Being off-season there were fewer tourists (usually one large cruise ship each day) and consequently many of the restaurants were closed. Never fear. We did not starve. In fact we ate just fine, we just had to walk a little farther.

Fried fish plate. Yum!
We're struggled (and failed) to master Greek wines. The challenges are that the bottles are labelled in Greek lettering and the grapes are primarily unique to Greece. They do have some Cabernet, Syrah etc but we of course are more interested in trying the unfamiliar ones. 
Typical labeling on local wines.  Apparently for the larger wineries,
they have labels combining the Greek with the English translation using the Roman alphabet.
Here's what we know about Greek wines as of our Santorini stop. 
  • At least on Santorini, odds are, if the grape name starts with "A" it is a white wine (there is one red, but we hardly ever saw it). Common white wines are: Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aidani. Common red wines are: Mandelaria, Mavrotragano.  (Actually that second red is unique to Santorini but that really is the source of our knowledge at this stage).
  • On Santorini, grapes are cultivated with a method that is new to us. The main source of moisture for the grapes is from the overnight dew. To help the vines collect this, they are curled into circles about 2-3 feet in diameter. During the summer the vineyards look like a field of low lying grape leaves. In fall/winter, they look like a a field of grapevine wreaths all laid out separately.
    Grapevine coiled to better retain moisture.
  • Vinsanto it is not the same as "Vin Santo" in Italy. In Greece they harvest the grapes in early August, at the same time as other grapes. They then leave them to dry in the sun for several days or weeks before pressing them. In Italy, the grapes are dried much longer.
Stayed tuned for news of our final stop: Athens

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