May 14, 2006

Back to Santorini

Is it better the second time? I'd been dreaming of returning to this rocky, steep Cycladic island for more than a dozen years, ever since having the time of my life here on my own, stopping wherever I liked. Yesterday I returned via a nine-hour ferry ride from Athens -- a huge boat, the size of a small cruise ship, with eight decks, the bottom four or five for cars, and the interior including cabins, cafes, and "air seat" rooms that mimicked airplane fuselages, drop-down television screens and all.

Then we came in view of a large, high-cliffed island with white villages on top. Everyone went to the side to take photos. I thought it was nice, but I'd seen better: I'd seen supernatural beauty. "Is this Santorini?" my lovely companion asked, and I assured her, "Compared to Santorini this is nothing." A minute later, the bilingual loudspeaker anounced, "Ladies and gentlemen, we will be arriving at Santorini in a few minutes." In the time since I'd seen it last, it had somehow sunk down from heaven and become a place in the real world.

That moment on the ferry yesterday was a landmark in my life.

Oh, it's still a beautiful place, and certain views from certain angles are breathtaking. You've seen it on postcards: a high, sculpted volcanic crater filled with blue water -- the remnants of one of the most powerful exposions in history, which destroyed a major Minoan city about 1500 BC and, some think, gave rise to the myth of Atlantis. Clutching the clifftops, clusters of round-roofed little white houses with blue doors, molded into the caves, and topping it all a blue-domed church. The blurred rose-gold light at dawn and dusk raise in relief the bulges of the clif and cuts shadows into the recesses. With its irregular bands of red asnd black and gray and tan rock, and its semidesert vegetation of sage and wildflowers (and even cactus at one place -- we thought of home), it's like being in a movie: heightened color all around you.

We're staying in one of those clifftops apartment villas, climging down rough-coibbled winding stairs to our one-room studio. The view is unbeatable, even from out kitchenette window; the patios are bricked and whitewashed to contrast with sky and sea; we sit outside for breakfast, just breathing and saying, "Look!", then climb up and down to the waterside and back...

But the room is tiny, cramped, the bed narrow and sagging; there's no soap in the bathroom, and most of all the bathroom fixtures are in the old Greek style: neither shower stall nor bathtub nor curtain exists. There's a showerhead on a flexible metal tube, but you douse yourself in the midst of the sink and the toilet, and the water goes through a drain in the middle of the banked floor. The toilet seat and paper get wet every time you shower... and there's a discsreet little basket next to the toilet for you to toss the paper in...

We rented a car and I drove on the narrow winding streets, squeezing between vehicles and winding around curves and passing through stop signs like a native. In the passenger seat, she could scarcely restrain herself. We backtracked endlessly, even though there's only one main road, and finally found Thira, the main town-- except it really wasn't, it was Imiroviglia, the town next to it--and we walked on the cliffside path past lovely tourist villas and tavernas galore...This island is a tourist boutique heaven, or hell, whichever way you think of it...and partly to ease our stress we ate lunch in an upstraits taverna -- homestyle lamb in lemon sauce, and moussaka baked in a ceramic pot, and I practiced the word for "delicious" ... this place was worth it.