Sunday, 15 July 2007

The Greek Geek

All my fellow graduates have planned their trips to various parts of Europe; some dipped into Africa, others keep theirs brief in Asia or neighbouring European cities.
We had Greece in mind.
Island hopping followed by ancient Greek culture. Perfect.
I could afford 7 days with my hard-earned part time salary. Compared to the 3 days in Barcelona, 3 days in Paris, 5 days in Vienna & Salzburg, this felt like a real holiday.
The plan was to land in Athens, then head straight to the port for an overnight ferry to Santorini.
Athens was hot.
It was made even hotter with our mad panic over our ferry ticket collection booth. The Greek letters all looked the same, the port was huge; we were pointed to every direction. Even though the internet café owner kindly not charged us to for looking up the agency address, we still had little luck.
Finally, one onlooker pointed us to an open café. A tiny window behind the kitchen with the agency’s name; tickets collected. Against the backdrop of the Greek sunset, cars were being manoeuvred into the ferry. Phew. We had time for a cola and our very first Greek meal.

Our 4-persons booth was shared with 2 Brazilians, who were naturally high in spirits with a Brazil flag covering their backpack. We enjoyed the Aegean sea breezes on the deck, which gradually became gales. The honeymoon excitement of the ferry voyage was over in an hour. 17 more hours to go.

A bus took us from the port up the steep mountains into the town centre, where we were left to find the right bus that took us to the hotel. It was noon, so we decided to stop for lunch in town. We chose a crowded café on a side road. The house salad was absolutely scrumptious. It was by far the biggest and tastiest salad; cubes of ham, cheese, fresh greens, crispy onions, sugary cherry tomatoes and an appetising dressing. My mouth waters at the thought. So good that the calamari just blended into background.

We then hopped on the bus that took us through Kamari to Perissa. We knew we got off at the right place, we found the black sandy beach, we saw the rows of cafes and bars. But we didn’t know where we were. The locals were darlings. While I pigged out on 2 scoops of ice cream, the vendor lent us the telephone to call our hotel. 10 minutes later, the hotel owner picked us up from the café. Fuss free.
Most hotels were family-operated with no more than 5 rooms to let. We were greeted with a refreshing welcome drink while the owner introduced the island to us in the garden. The beach was 50m away, lined with restaurants and bar. The room was clean, spacious, air-conditioned with internet access.
It was almost 4pm. We hit the beach.
Santorini is a volcanic island, and depending on the minerals the sand on the beach differs in colour. The stretch of beach along Kamari and Perissa happens to be black. The beaches closer to Fira on the other side of the island are red. Honestly, we were slightly disappointed with the beach, because the sand was coarse and the water was not half as clear as we anticipated. That’s okay. We will make the most of it.

As the sun began to set, we headed back to the hotel for a shower before choosing a restaurant for dinner. Was it just me, or was the water salty? Sea water? I hope not.
We thought we were going out for dinner, but ended up asleep in bed. It’s been a long day.
9 o’clock. About the right time for a Greek dinner. The joints along the beach were filled with people, and we picked the most crowded one with the most convival music. So we ordered the famous Moussaka, grilled stuffed peppers, Greek salad and beef stroganoff, washed down with a couple of Greek beers.

The Moussaka was served piping hot. It had all the flavours a typical moussaka was expected to have, like a regular one we tried back in London. I guess like lasagne, it’s a safe dish that rarely goes wrong but seldom surprises you. I was still mulling over the House salad I had for lunch, so the gigantic greek salad with a massive slab of feta cheese wasn’t what I was looking for. I must say the food was immemorable except for their generous portions, but the atmosphere was a buzz.
We carried our full bellies onto the moonlit beach.
Day 2 we joined a local boat tour to the volcano and the hot springs in the islands nearby. Just as we stepped onto the coach that took us to the marina, Mister realised he forgot his swimming trunks....I still he did it on purpose, not a swimmer apparently...
We boarded a Mediterranean style pirate boat, and enjoyed the sunshine with the sea breeze as we sailed towards the dormant Caldera volcano.

As we climbed the volcano, sulphur began to fill the air as the paint on my Paul Smith flip-flops peels off against the pebbly paths. The panorama was simply breath-taking.
The next stop was the small island Kameni near the volcano, where we had the option of jumping into the iron-dissolved red hot spring. Most people returned to the boat with bronze-coloured bikinis. We spotted a couple of goats(?) on the top of the uninhibited island.
Lunch stop next at yet another island, Thirasia, which was much more developed with restaurants and grilled seafood lining the docking area. It smelt amazing; grilled meats, whole squid, gambas, fish fillets. We opted for one with most people queuing, and were lucky enough to secure a table by the crystal clear sea. The prawns were so sweet and juicy and bouncy, but stingy for its price tag. The grilled squid was well-worth the cholesterol it brings; texture was bouncy not rubbery / chewy, and sweetness oozes with every chew.

The boat brought us to Oia, where I climbed to the cliff-top town on a donkey and awaits the world-renowned sunset. The blazing sun was still hanging high as we explored the town packed with blue-roofed white houses. Lines of shops selling hand-crafts and souvenirs at not-so-reasonable prices.

The town livened up as sunset approached; professionals set up their tripod for a good shoot, students picnicked at viewpoint hotspots and tourists filled restaurants with the best view of the sinking sun.

After a long bus journey that took us back to Kamari, we walked further along beach to a restaurant that an Egyptian befriended James to sell their exceptionally fresh seafood. What a mistake. Everything was deep fried on the platter; octopus, fish, squid, except for the meagre mussels. And it was the most expensive meal of the trip.

Our overnight ferry back to Athens was not until 11pm, so we spent the day exploring Fira town. We enjoyed a modern European brunch at a café. 

Fira was very much the same as Oia, so it wasn’t long before we returned to the beach. This time we walked further to Perissa, which had much finer sand and naturally more people. 

We enjoyed an early dinner at a different restaurant by the beach. I ordered stuffed squid, which exceeded my annual cholesterol intake. Slightly under-seasoned, and I wasn’t a fan of the cous cous stuffing, but the squid was quite good.  James had grilled octopus, which was bland and uninteresting.

The host drove us to the Fira port after dark; we waited dozily at the café. 
Journey to Athens was a haze, except for a deck packed with people in sleeping bags while we comfortably snuggled up on the sofa chairs in the cabin for the 9 hours.
Torching sun hung in the windless city. It was a record high 39 degrees. It was the hottest I had experience then until the Las Vegas trip at 41 degrees a few years later.
Athens was all about Acropolis and the smaller establishments nearby.
During the Latin classes, I was taught some ancient Greek myths which helped me to admire the grandeur of Acropolis. For James, however, they were more unimpressive blocks of rock as opposed to overwhelming shrines where deepest thoughts and philosophy were discussed.

We explored the winding alleys, stopped for colas and gyros, which I thought were even better than kebabs because of they were snack-size. We visited local markets and I forced myself to grow a fondness towards olives because we bought a massive bag with 3 Euros. As we ventured the National gallery, I accidentally stumbled across a door left ajar in the garden. Guess what I saw. A replica of the great Neptune, the one I took a photo of 2 minutes ago. While I understand most galleries display replicas, it was still a killjoy.

3 days proved to be too many in the city where history has left uncountable scars.
Admittedly, the tooth-ache combined with a pounding headache induced by the painkillers didn’t help.
The islands – mesmerizing and addictive, with more shades of blue than I could mix with a palette.
Athens – while it prided itself on the combination of ancient and modern, the heavy congestion, eroded buildings and poor ventilation was suffocating.