Saturday 15th April to 1st May 2006
Our flights with Air France to Santorini via Paris and Athens ran more or less to time but still involved a full and tiring day’s travel.
Our first impressions on arriving in Santorini were a bit mixed – helped not at all by a somewhat aggressive security officer at Santorini airport and a hair-raising taxi ride from the airport which deposited us in the village car park that looked like it had been lifted straight out of the “third world”!
We were met there however by our “godfather” looking landlord and escorted to our traditional cave-dwelling villa. The villa itself was comfortably but appropriately furnished for its holiday purpose in clean, cool and relaxing colours – mainly blue and white. Whilst reasonably well-equipped for self-catering, it was less so for personal hygiene – something we discovered later was common right across the island. This unique arrangement – detail of which will, for sake of delicate sensibilities, be supplied only on request – faded into insignificance however when compared with the views from our villa’s balcony like those below.
Oia, which is the village in which our villa was located is about 11 km from Thira, Santorini’s capital, and has all the advantages of the small community it is – less traffic, less noise and, cruise ship tour visitors apart, less crowded. As seemed to be the case elsewhere on the island, there were any number of unfinished building projects – houses, shops and roads. There was ample evidence however that Santorini may have discovered the importance of tourist income and there were probably an equal number of new building projects underway, most of which appeared to be designed to cater for the “plusher” end of the tourist market. If this results in more pedestrian as well as vehicular traffic – as it undoubtedly will – I recommend to anyone planning a visit to choose either the beginning or end of the season to do so.
We loved the small family-run restaurants (all within easy walking distance) as much for the friendliness of the people running them as their fresh salads and simply-cooked dishes. We also acquired a taste for Ouzo – not least because it was often offered with the compliments of the owner at the end of a meal. The Greek Easter was celebrated while we there and although we didn’t participate in any of the religious services – in a community as small as the one we’re in at Oia, it seemed to us to be intrusive to do so. We did, however, enjoy a special Easter dinner on Easter Sunday eve at a nearby restaurant just before the locals arrived at midnight to do likewise.
Reminiscent of Pompeii, dogs of all shapes and sizes abound – most of whom seem to sleep on the streets. I wonder to what extent there is a link with volcanic activity. Subject for a learned thesis one day, I daresay. Not all, I regret to report, were in the best of health or condition. Having said that, there were similarly large numbers of cats, many of whom were decidedly unprepossessing!
Being so early in the season quite a lot of the regular tours were not available, but on one day we took a short cruise on a traditional sailing vessel across the caldera to the newest (1950) of the volcanic islands, Nea Kameni, climbed part-way to the crater, “watched” as the hardier young passengers braved the chilly waters to swim in the nearby hot springs and lunched in a small village on the coast of another adjoining island, Thirassia. All in all, a relaxing day in brilliant sunshine after a steep climb down the steps to the jetty at Ammoudi and what seemed a steeper one up the road back to Oia.
Although not reported in the “Global Updates” from which the stories of this Odyssey are drawn, I proposed to Carol on a ketch on the Caldera in what must surely be one of the most romantic places in the world. And, she accepted.
We visited Thira on a couple of occasions. On our first visit, we both took the cable car down to the harbour side (where the cruise ship’s tenders unload their hordes) but only one of us was brave enough to take the donkey ride back up the zigzag flight of steps to the dizzy heights from which we’d come – and it wasn’t me! I had hoped to be able to record Carol’s “ride” for posterity, but with a slap from the donkey’s owner, she was off and out of sight within seconds.
She has reported the experience as exhilarating, but refrained from repeating it when next we were there. We did however shout ourselves a shot of ouzo to accompany our coffee as a sort of celebration of her donkey-riding prowess!
And what was our impression overall? An island of stark contrasts both in terms of topography and development, but as I trust some of the following will show, just breathtakingly beautiful.
Our return to Heathrow was a hint more fraught than the flights to Santorini. The late arrival of the plane for our flight from Athens to Paris resulted in our missing both our connecting flight and that following and meant we didn’t get to Heathrow until about 6:00 pm. But worse was to follow. Whilst we had made the distance, our bags had not – and were still in Paris. Not the happiest of returns “home”!
After a good night’s sleep, a “Full English Breakfast” and the welcome delivery of our bags, our spirits returned to the “Santorini” levels shown above – and all was well with the world again!
Tuesday 2nd May 2006
Although, after Santorini’s warmth, London was more than a hint chilly, it was fine enough for us to venture into the city on a “Walk the Gardens” day. And that’s just what we did. After walking down from Paddington Station, we were greeted at the entrance to Kensington Gardens with beds of magnificent tulips of every imaginable colour standing proudly above plantings of every hue – lobelia, primula, pansies, violets, you name it.
For reasons that are beyond us, we failed to take our cameras with us and will, for many a long day I suspect, regret not being able to record the beauty of what we were seeing. These literal feasts for the eyes continued through Hyde Park, into Green and then St James Parks.
Now, in truth, it wasn’t all flowers – we stopped briefly at Peter Pan’s statue (who doesn’t?) and Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain, but the sights savoured included little coffee and ice-cream carts, squirrels, ducks, gleeful toddlers, geese and swans as we meandered our way along the paths.
All in all a truly memorable day.
Wednesday 3rd May 2006
Into the country today to visit Knole, a National Trust property sited in Kent some 30 miles south of London. Once an archbishop’s palace, a royal house, and, since 1603, the Sackville family home, Knole has remained largely unchanged for 300 years. State-rooms are laid out much as they were in the 17th century to impress visitors. In addition to what we were led to understand is a world-renowned collection of Stuart furniture, they contain paintings by Gainsborough, Van Dyck and Reynolds. Carol was more than a little taken with the original furnishings which she described as “just glorious, dating as they did back to the 17th century”!
Knole is set in a 1000 acre park – some of which we sampled – as much to admire the deer that still roam freely there as the gardens, though we were a little too early to see it at its best. And, it has to be said, the chilly breeze was such that we were grateful to return to the car for the trip back to Slough.