Saturday, August 27, 2011

The World's Best Sunset?

It was another alarm day as we left Athens, waking up at 4.30am to take down the tent in the dark and pack up the bike for the ferry crossing to Santorini. It was all worth it though when we drove past the city and could see the Acropolis all lit up, high above the streets and buildings. Even though we saw the lights come on the night before at Mount Lykabettus, there was no lesser thrill to see them again.

Boarding the boat was quick and easy and being one of the first on we had plenty of time to go out on the deck and watch the sunrise over the port of Piraeus. We couldn’t spend too long on the deck though,  unless we wanted to stay there. The Blue Star ferry we were on was much smaller than the overnighter we took previously and was divided into classes. There was just enough room for everyone in Economy to find a seat at a table either inside near the burger bar or outside on the deck, so we settled into window seats at a table inside.

We spent much of the 7 hour journey taking turns on the wifi or playing games on the phone, with a few snacks and drinks in between. Twice before reaching Santorini however the ferry made stops at other islands, Paros and Naxos, and we took turns either minding our belongings or running upstairs to see the sights. In less than 24 hours the sunset over Athens was overruled as the best view Courtney had seen in his life, and the magic of the Greek Islands took over. The view of Paros from the ferry was the new winner.

Exactly as you imagine sailing the Greek Islands, that is what we saw. White washed houses clustered over hilltops and around the water. Blue topped churches, sparkling blue seas and the most beautiful beaches in the world. Even on the ferry for the day we could imagine sailing the islands, on a cruise or island hopping with ferries. Again the blue water and bright sunlight reminded me of summer days near the water at home but nothing at home could compare to these islands.

Arriving at Santorini everyone crowded into the cargo hold waiting for the ramp to lower and there was a distinct thrill in the air when it started to reveal the port of Athinios. Massive vertical cliff faces hugged the port and as you gazed across them you couldn’t miss the famous road we had to ascend to really arrive on the island. The road from Athinios at the bottom to the main roads at the top has 7 180 degree turns and sheer drops from every straight section. I would have been petrified driving it myself but of course Courts did it no worries, even at the top when an idiot pulled out in front of us, putting himself on the wrong side of the road and forcing us to stop suddenly. At least it was an idiot at the top and nothing to do with the crazy cliff faces. I videoed the entire ride up, all 5 minutes of it.

We followed the signs to Fira, the main town on the island and it wasn’t too difficult to find Santorini Camping nearby. We set up the tent in our usual little routine and then it was off to explore. There is a good bus service through Santorini and countless places you can hire cars, bikes, scooters or even quads to get around, but we were very glad to have our bike with us.

With Fira located to one side of the middle of the island, we headed in the shorter direction we had to choose from, towards Oia. We didn’t really have an exact destination in mind but with the sun starting to fall I wanted more and more to make it to Oia before it set. Oia is known as one of the best sunsets in the world and what better way to start off our island adventure than a sunset to rival Athens.

We parked the bike when we eventually came to a blocked road and walked up into the town. We followed narrow cobbled roads between the famous white washed buildings and soaked in the atmosphere of people and shops and relaxation. People were already securing the best spots for viewing the sunset on the first ledge we walked past. We thought we had plenty of time to find a spot so we kept exploring, heading towards the tip of the island and taking photos of the cliffs, crowded with white and blue buildings.

We found several good vantage points for watching but we were thirsty so we kept going in hopes of finding a bar with decent prices and a view as well. What we found was better, on the furthest point of the island, a pool cafĂ©, with a swimming pool on the lowest level and tables and chairs dotting the many terraces above. We sat down at the first table we came across that was on the edge – front row for the sunset. We ordered fruit smoothies and chocolate brownie and watched people in the pool, envious of the cold water.

Courtney has become obsessed with the animals of the world, hunting down, photographing, and showing off beetles, frogs, lizards, hornets (there was one over an inch long in Munich) dogs, cats, butterflies, and birds. When we toured Athens with a University-educated tour guide he asked three questions, all about dogs and hornets and various animal species. There were more stray dogs to be seen in Santorini, after our surprise at finding them in Athens, suffice to say he took dog photos in numbers that rivaled my sunset photos, and that’s saying something. As I cull the sunset photos to a near-reasonable number I am under strict instruction not to delete any dog photos.

The dogs in Santorini appeared to live in a pack, far below us at the bottom of the cliff in a barren field near the water. At one point there were 9 or 10 chasing and playing and settling in to watch the sunset. They were probably just taking in the last of the warmth from the sun, but their behavior mimicked the people that were now crowding around the walls above the pool, trying to get a good view. There was one other dog we saw, limping close to the cliff. At one point he wandered up to watch the other dogs but as soon as one of them spotted him there was barking and he ran (limped) off into the cliffside, marking a flaw in the Greek system of open-door animal welfare.

Soon it was impossible to watch the dogs over the sunset as the sky turned a brilliant orange along a thin strip near the sea, with the orange fading to violet and the vast majority of the sky staying a deep blue. The entire view was overtaken by the sun, huge and golden as it descended. When the sun started to dip behind the islands in the distance, it turned an intense red, contrasting against the dark silhouette of the island. We saw it all from the best view point possible, front row and seated away from the crowds.

There was only one way back to the bike though (or so we thought) so we walked back into the centre of town and hit a massive wall of people leaving at the same time. I knew the sunset was a must-see but from our vantage point we had no idea just how many people had come to see it. The walk ways were full, a huge traffic jam of people barely moving, and it was no better when we eventually did get back to the bike and met with real traffic. From the bike we could see the tip of the island we had been sat on and realized we could have just walked up the hill and been first out of town. If we had done that though, we would have missed the view 20 minutes after the sun disappeared when the entire sky glowed red in its absence. So despite it taking almost 40 minutes to weave in and out of traffic, squeezing between busses and quad bikes to get home, we got to see one of the world’s best sunsets, and it was totally worth it.