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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

July 4, 2011

Happy 4th of July! Today we woke up bright and early (even though we'd partied the night before) and got a little more shopping in before checking out and leaving for the airport at 11:45am. The flight to Santorini was very easy and the hotel picked us up.

We are staying at the Aigialos Hotel on the edge of Fira, the main town of Santorini. We were greeted by the manager, Jean-Pierre, who immediately gave us tons of information about the island and its history. The name, Santorini, is a bastardized form of Saint Irene while the name, Thira, comes from
the Dorian priest Thiras who came and settled the island after the volcano. Originally the whole area was one complete island until about 3,600 years ago when the volcano in the center of the island erupted - the famous Minoan or Thera eruption. This eruption destroyed the civilization and all vegetation on the island and left behind a massive caldera creating the crescent shape of the island today. This eruption is also speculated to have contributed to the downfall of the Minoan civilization on Crete thanks to a massive tsunami. It has also been rumored that Santorini is the source of the legend of Atlantis.

On the main section of the island there is the largest town, Fira which is the most centrally located and the most popular, followed closely by Oia which is towards the tip of the island. Fira is made up of the traditional white-wash buildings that cling to the side of the 1,000 foot cliffs that make up the edge of the caldera. It has the best shopping and nightlife in my opinion. Oia on the other hand has the most traditional feel and world famous sunsets.

Aigialos Hotel is made up of a dozen or so small "houses" which are really just like large hotel rooms but with way more character. The establishment is bordered on one side by an Orthodox church that was built near the end of the 16th century. Along side the church they built a monastery for the nuns and later the bishop built his house nearby. Then on the neighborhood grew up around the church. All these buildings have become part of the hotel grounds.
The name "Aigialos" comes from the word "gialos" whic means a small port where earth meets the sea.

Santorini has a very windy climate and thus the names of all the rooms are the different ancient winds. Our two rooms are
Kaikias and Maistros. Kaikias is the north northwest wind that is capricious and playful while Maistros is the northwest wind that is benevolent yet sometimes fearsome. While checking in we were served Kanellada, a tea drink that comes in a cocktail glass with a speared strawberry and a sugar-coated rim. It was both beautiful and delicious!

The rooms were adorable! Kaikias (my room) was a large open room painted a cheery yellow with a large, soft bed and a huge private veranda. Maistros was more sectioned off with a separate bedroom area and a full dining/lounge area and deep red walls. Overall the hotel is amazing although I wish we had more of a view of the town as the hotel is at the very edge of Fira. In terms of amenities I love the toiletries they provide but the water pressure is a little light and you have to flip a switch for hot water and wait 20 minutes before you can shower. Not huge issues but just thought it was good to note. Also be prepared to walk up and down a lot of stairs to get to your room!

After settling in we walked along the caldera deeper into the town. We stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants overlooking the water and I had my first Santorini Salad. It is AMAZING. The salad is tomatoes, cucumber, goat cheese, and crispy pieces of toasted bread that combined make a killer salad.

It was a great introduction to the food of the island. From there we just wandered through town and found the "Gold Street" which is the main drag through the center of town aptly named thanks to all the jewelry stores. We noted a bunch of bars for later in the night.

For dinner we ate at Athiri which is a little pizza place in the touristy district. Finally a place with falafel! We ordered that, pizza, and carbonara pasta. The falafel was very tasty, the pasta was creamy goodness, and the pizza was pretty good too. From there the BF and I walked next door to Two Brothers because we'd spied a hookah.

Fast forward five hours and we are absolutely shitfaced thanks to our waitress, Elizabeth, who kept a steady flow of drinks coming our way. The bar is one of the most fun places I've ever been. They played great music and it's a small venue so it feels really intimate. And they have toilet paper in the bathrooms which is a major plus! We made friends with two girls (one Kiwi and one Aussie) who were crazy dancers and I managed to clock one of the waitresses in the head during a rousing rendition of YMCA. Around 2am we headed back and crashed.

July 5, 2011

We woke up relatively early for breakfast at the hotel before heading out for our beach day. Unfortunately, all the taxis were unavailable and we didn't want to waste time so Jean-Pierre offered to take us in his Vietnam era jeep. Um... coolest car ever. No seatbelts, no doors, just the seats and the open road. It was a great drive down from Fira to
Perivolos Beach. He even took us on some side streets to show us other fun parts of the island while telling us more fun facts.

For example, Santorini is famous for their cherry tomatoes, wine, fava beans, white eggplant, small zucchini, and pistachios. In fact, they are in talks to make fava beans a Santorini specialty similar to Champagne or Cognac, which can't be called by that name unless they come from those areas of France.
One of the famous grape varietals is called Mavrotragano which means "black crisp." This rare red varietal can only be found on Santorini and amounts to 2% of the total wine grown on the island. They only make 6,700 bottles a year so it is pretty special.

Perivolos is one of Santorini's black sand beaches which means it is very pretty but extremely hot to walk on. Each restaurant has a section of beach where they've put up umbrellas and chaises for people to rent for about 7 Euro for a pair of chairs. There are long wooden walkways out to the chairs to help save your feet from the burning hot sand. We spent the day lounging in the sun and dining on fried cod with fries at Ta Sixtva ("The Nets") a picturesque taverna right on the beach. The fish and chips were just salty enough to be utter beach food perfection. My BF's mom even ventured to say "I feel like I'm in a postcard" to which I replied "You are!"

Around 5pm we headed back to Fira for dinner.
We picked a restaurant with a insane view of the sun setting over Fira town. The food was okay but the view was spectacular.

Full on wine we ventured back to Two Brothers for another night of ridiculousness. The two Aussie/Kiwi girls were there again and gave me a bunch of great advice about the night scene in Fira. They said that Two Brothers is considered touristy but it really is the best place for dancing. That is one thing we've noticed about Greeks - they really don't dance, they just go to the bar and drink and chat. Highlander is another great bar to start at and it is a favorite with the Aussies, Americans and Kiwis. Enigma is one of the major clubs that starts going off after midnight but it is more of a druggie hotspot while Koo Club is very popular with the Greeks.

We managed to take down two hookahs, fill up on whisky and kamikaze shots and even do a little dancing on the bar. Yet again it was our waitress' fault because she told us "If you order three shots you get them for the price of one!" - That's just ridiculous.
My BF even made friends with a small man who could fit his thumb between his two front teeth. He loving referred to the small man as "My little hobbit." We barely managed to make it back to the hotel.

July 6, 2011

Today we woke up sooo late because of our crazy night last night. To ease the hangover we walked to Cafe NRG (get it?) for breakfast crepes. I ordered a ham, cheese, and egg crepe which in theory sounds delicious right? Well I was thinking scrambled eggs but instead they took a hard-boiled egg, sliced it up, and tossed it into the crepe. Not really the most appetizing taste when hungover (we also got one last night which is the only picture I took so just to give y

We rented ATVs so that we could drive across half the island to Oia for the day. You can either take the "red" road or the "yellow" road as depicted on the map from the hotel. The red road is the main thoroughfare while the yellow road is the longer, more scenic option. We opted for the yellow road and spent the next 20 minutes reveling at the beauty of driving along the coast of the island. If there is a heaven it looks like this.

Oia is the cutest town EVER. It's much smaller than Fira but more traditional and quieter. We stopped at Meteor Cafe for some affogato and a view. Meteor Cafe is a small little establishment with lovely interior decoration. We even got to sample some Kataifi, a local dessert that looks suspect but tastes like cinnamon apple pie.

From there we wandered the city and took some pictures of the town from the remains of the castle along the water. Oia is built closer to the water and perfectly situated for sunsets. We decided to hop back on the ATVs and check out
Baxedes Beach to kill time until the sunset. Turns out Baxedes isn't much of a beach but instead is a little outcropping of rough black rocks and a small cafe. We hadn't brought towels so we didn't spend a whole lot of time there. On the way back we took a wrong turn that led us to the base of the town on the water's edge. There we found a little marina filled with restaurants and quaint wooden boats. It was fun to spend 15 minutes or so wandering around before we went back into town.

We scoped out a bunch of restaurants in Oia to determine where it was best to have dinner to see the sunset and settled on Kastro. Turns out they were completely booked but were able to fit us into a little nook that just fit a table and two chairs. Thank God because it turned out to be the best meal I've had in Greece thus far. We had fried olives stuffed with goat cheese, a green salad with pomegranate seeds, lamb souvlaki and fried meatballs with yogurt. We washed it down with a bottle of rose wine that featured two naked women playing instruments on the label. And for dessert we had chocolate souffle with a side of sunset. And we were not let down.

The sunset was everything it has been rumored to be. An artist would have to search long and hard to collect all the colors that painted the sky. The white walls of the building lit up one by one as if a massive fire was engulfing them. And all around us hundreds of people stood watching the sun set into the ocean. It was as if we were all collectively holding our breath only to have it come whooshing out in cries of "Ahh!" as the final edges of the sun sunk from view. All resounding round of applause completed the moment as if we'd just finished watching an epic play.

Once the sky began to darken we hurried to the ATV to ride back to Fira before it got too dark. The ride back was magical as we twisted and turned through towns lit by tiny fires of light. We were back before we knew it and retired to our rooms to relax for the remainder of the night.

July 7, 2011

Our last day in Santorini comes too soon! I've had so much fun here. It's the perfect blend of beaches, scenic roads and crazy nightlife. And our hotel has been so helpful and friendly. Today, we woke up early and headed out on the ATVs to Red Beach. The signs were a little difficult to read sometimes but we made it there without mishap. It takes about 30 minutes to get there and you have to park and then walk about ten minutes but the beach is worth it. I would not recommend it for people looking for comfort as the ten minute hike is uphill over very loose, steep rock and the beach itself is littered with rough pebbles some the size of eggs. But the backdrop of blood red rock over an azure ocean is breathtaking.

We had to have the ATVs back by 2pm so we return to Fira, dropped them off, and then met up with the rest of the group to take the cable car down to the harbor for the infamous Santorini donkey ride. I learned three things during this experience. One, is that I really like fried tomatos even though that wasn't what I'd ordered at lunch. Two, the reason all the doors in Santorini are blue is because the fishermens' wives in the old days would paint their doors blue to ward off evil spirits and ensure their husbands' safe trip home.

Lastly, I learned that that it is thought that the donkeys of Santorini are really lost souls stuck in purgatory. I'd be willing to believe it after watching our guide smack his donkey in the head over and over again to maneuver it up the hill. This particular hill is the giant zigzag road that leads for Santorini's harbor, up the sharp bluffs to the city. If you are crazy you can walk; if you are smart you take a donkey. The poor animals wear muzzles, aren't offered water and spend their entire day dragging stupid tourists around. It was fun and I'm happy to cross "donkey" off my list of random-animals-to-ride-in-my-lifetime but I did come out of it feeling bad.

After the donkeys we had just enough time to return to the hotel, pack up and head to the airport. Everyone else went in the hotel car but I went with Jean-Pierre in the Vietnam jeep because I loved it so much the other day. On the way Jean-Pierre told me two funny stories. The first was that he and his wife had been vacationing in Crete and were driving the jeep while wearing military-esk clothing. They passed a military training ground where new recruits were learning how to repel down the side of a mountain. On the back of the jeep is painted the stars of a military general so as they passed the training ground all activity slid to a halt and they saluted him. He thought this was hilarious and raised his hand to tell them "At ease soldiers" as he drove on by.

This got us talking about costumes, which are a passion of mine, and he told me another story about the time he and a group of friends went to a black tie costume party for Halloween. Greece is notorious for their bands of gypsies so his group had dressed up as authentic gypsy complete with swaddled babes and small dirty dogs. Upon arriving at the event the security had no idea whether to turn them away or let them in!

Two stories was all we had time for before the airport so I took my leave of the jeep and we hopped on our plane to Crete. The ride was only 30 minutes but once we arrived we had to gather our rental car to drive an additional hour to get to our hotel. I was elected to drive as the only person who knew how to drive a manual transmission. Our car was a sleek Saab and after about five minutes remembering how to shift we were barreling down the coastal road of Crete headed for Elounda.

Our hotel, the Blue Palace, is just outside of Elounda and takes up acres of beachfront property. It has honeymoon spa written all over it and our rooms came with a giant bathtub, walk-in closet and private patio complete with pool and lounge chairs. Very chic. Unfortunately it is also hours away from anything else...

It was close to 11pm by the time we were settled so we decided to eat at the hotel restaurant - Isola. The Mediterranean salad was delicious as was the molten lava cake dessert.

Everything else was terrible. It was WAY overpriced for the quality which dropped the hotel a few points. Back in the room the extremely soft bed added a few points back as I snugged into my pillow and fell asleep.

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