When we decided over a year ago that we wanted to take a cruise around the Mediterranean and Greek islands, Santorini was one of the ports I was most excited about. It’s the kind of place that makes you say “I want to go to there” when you look at photos of it. Its white-washed, blue-domed churches and houses are what comes to mind when you think “Greek islands.” Surely it is a magical place that does not smell at all like donkey poo, I thought.
As we left Rhodes to sail to Santorini, I sat on the balcony listening to Yanni’s “Santorini” on my iPod in what would have been an epic, defining moment were my life a movie. Mykonos, the other iconic Greek island, was beautiful, but crowded. I was ready to see what Santorini had to offer.
I thought about making this just a photo post. Rick Steves says if you can’t take a postcard-quality photo in Santorini, it’s time to retire your camera. But I like to keep it real on this blog. So first I’ll show you some photos I took that will make you say “I want to go to there!” and then I’ll tell you how miserable it is to actually get there.
Pretty, right? Now to burst the magical bubble…
Santorini is a volcanic island. It blew its top around 1630 BC. Cruise ships anchor in the middle of the former volcano, now below the sea, and they tender passengers to the island via little boats. That was the first obstacle in getting to Santorini — sitting on a little boat while it rocks and rolls in the open sea, waiting for all the passengers and their wheelchairs to get on. (I’m not exaggerating — it’s no secret that the majority of people who cruise are old.) Because of the way the island was created, the villages are built into cliffs. The tender took us to the bottom of the cliff, and we had three options to get to the town of Fira at the top: ride a donkey up 587 steep steps, hike up those sames steps, sharing them with donkeys or their poo, or take a cable car.
From the tender you can see the cable car on the left and zigzagging donkey trail stairs on the right. You can also see a lot of people waiting…
Rick Steves and the cruise company recommended the cable car. It seemed like a no-brainer. But there was one minor detail that the Santorinians forgot when they built the cable car: cruise ships carry nearly 3,000 passengers. Sometimes three or four ships will be anchored on the same day. Yet they built a cable car that can carry 36 people at a time. (Or maybe they did think of this because they were generous enough to build two cables, meaning 72 people can go up at a time.) When our tender docked we saw a massive crowd of people. We figured many of them were waiting for boats on the pier, so we started walking in the direction of the cable car entrance. I eventually stopped and asked the people what they were waiting for — “the cable car,” they replied. We then had one of those movie moments like they did in “Christmas Story” or “Eurotrip” when your brain fully takes in just how many people are queuing in front of you as you trudge to the back of the line.
“Cable car wait is hour and a half!” the donkey man shouted. “Donkey ride only 5 Euro!”
The only pic I got of the donkeys through the cable car window.
It was tempting. But I could already smell the poo and heard from multiple sources how unsafe the route was. So we waited. And waited. Did I mention that it was 90+ degrees out? And there was little shade? The donkey man’s hour and a half prediction was an exaggeration, but we still waited about 45 minutes to finally get to Fira. And Fira isn’t even where the magic is.
For the blue domes we had to go to Oia, which meant finding the bus station. We tried following the map I picked up at the cable car station, but the only landmarks and streets name on it were for paid advertisements — not very helpful. We finally found the bus station and joined the throng of tourists who repeatedly tried to buy tickets at the desk, despite “Buy tickets on bus” signs in every language imaginable. There was a mad shuffle when the Oia bus showed up, but we managed to get a seat. People were standing in the aisles, but the ticket seller still pushed his way through to everyone. It was about a 25 minute ride, 15 minutes of which we were driving mere inches from the edge of a cliff. It was equally picturesque and terrifying. Just like I thought my time was up on a plane ride between Dalian and Shenzhen, I thought it was all going to end in a fiery bus crash off a Santorini cliff. But we made it. Knowing that maps were essentially useless in the maze of pedestrian streets, we just went exploring. I was determined to find the blue-domed buildings. We saw a lot of white, but no blue.
Pretty, but no Greek islands blue! (You know, besides the sea and sky.)
I was tempted to walk into a souvenir shop and ask “Where can I take this photo myself?”, holding up a postcard photo. I wonder if anyone does that. I suggested we turn down what looked like the entrance to someone’s house, and we finally hit the jackpot — the beautiful coast and the blue domes. The “I want to go to there” spot worth a cable car wait and crowded bus.
Found! But there are tourists ruining the shot…
That’s better, strategically cropped the tourists out.
I took more photos than I know what to do with, and then we headed back. I make that sound easier than it was — it involved another crowded bus, unshaded hour-long cable car wait, and tender ride. But at least I got my Facebook profile photo.