6 in the City
Having drawn a close on our first leg it was time to head off for the second and final installment of this Greek love story. Bags packed and back on the road with our driver Nicky, we headed back to the airport where discussions turned political and we learned a whole lot about the government of Greece and they're financial troubles. I'm not exactly an Olympian at recalling facts, so I shan't go into any details, but know this - their government needs a kick up the arse!
At the airport, we were met with a short delay, but not too much to be concerned with. Oh, and a 55€ sting on my carry on which had to be placed in the hold due to being far too big for the Sky Express tiny hand luggage allowance. Naturally, this caused some frustration, but when I saw the size of the tiny plane it was understandable. Of course, my camera bag came out of my hand luggage and onto the plane with me to avoid any unexpected mishaps.
Before long we were aboard the twin prop island hopper and in the air soaring above the city. In the time it took to be given a hot towel and a mint (or 45 mins) we were circling the croissant-shaped land mass that is Santorini and preparing to land. A ferry would have been a cheaper option, but the time saved by flying far outweighed the difference in cost.
With such small flights coming through, it took no time at all to collect our luggage from the single carrousel at the airport; so we were off the plane and into our transfer taxi in a flash. We were staying in Oia (pronounced EeeA) on the northern tip of the island, which is around a 25-30 min drive from the airport located in the south. Once we had completed check-in at our modest cave apartment perched in the middle of the cliff face it was time to head straight out and start exploring.
Traveling in May is a great time of year for most places as its slightly off season which helps keep the cost down, and means the destinations are not quite so busy. This certainly seems to have been the case in Athens, but here on the island, it was hard to imagine this was a quiet period. The main 'streets' of Oia are nothing more than narrow footpaths and steps up and down the cliffs which were fairly busy with pedestrian traffic. Trying to get around without inadvertently wandering into someones Instagram shot was a logistical nightmare!
With only a short afternoon ahead of us, I tried to use the time as wisely as possible to maximize on photo opportunities, particularly for sunset, which with only a slightly cloudy sky promised to be spectacular! We headed to the old Oia castle ruins to check out the location for an ideal position to capture my anchor shot of the cliffs bathed in golden sunlight later that day.
Another key shot on my list was to capture the sparkling bright blue and turquoise waters surrounding the island with boats floating off the rocky shore, so we walked down to Ammude Bay to have a drink and see what I could capture. Walking down the long sloping steps, dodging the upcoming donkeys (and their excrement), it was easy (or convenient) to forget the basic rules of physics that what goes down, must come back up again!
Down at the bay, we were greeted by a local restaurant patron and sat to enjoy a beer looking out at the sea with the neighboring island looming in the distance. Unfortunately, despite this being a yachting club, the only boats in reasonable shooting distance were less than attractive rigid inflatable boats. Furthermore, an unsightly foam and debris had collected around the shoreline, not exactly the shot I had in mind.
Thirst quenched we went for a short walk around the bay to see what we could find, which was not much more than jaggy volcanic rock, but I made the most of it where I could. In the time between walking from the collection of restaurants and the path beyond and returning, some octopus tentacles had been hung up to sun dry, which made for a great shot and made the journey down worthwhile after all.
I was convinced looking back at the shot that the Octopus wasn't real because the colors were so vivid and it almost looked too good, but I was assured by the restauranter if they were, in fact, actual tentacles. Apparently, the drying of the octopus in the sun deepens the flavor before cooking.
Then came the agonizing assent. Some 230 steps, each just over a meter deep which had to be traversed and climbed on already beaten down legs. Sweating and panting in the heat of the day I noticed the faces of visitors heading downwards with smiles of excitement and perhaps a little patronizing at our present condition. Don't worry, I thought, your time is coming.
After a brief rest and refresh back at our apartment, we ventured back out to have more of a wander but thought it prudent to check how busy it was at my earlier selected position for sunset. At 1800, a comfortable 2.5 hours before the sun does its thing, there were already hoards of people gathering and camping out here. As the lucky contestant, I was given two options, leave and come back an hour or so later and miss any chance of a decent view, or dig in and wait it out.
Tripod out and planted, I stood my ground and settled in for the long haul. This did mean securing the location I wanted, and as the area slowly filled up, this seemed likely to be the only spot I would shoot from. I felt pretty smug, I had my place and felt things were going my way. Ha, yeah.
Claire had disappeared to gather refreshments so we could wait patiently and watch the gathering crowds and make the most of this static situation. A young chap nearby who I soon found out was called Tim from the US leaned over and asked a couple of questions, which transformed into a full-blown conversation. Turns out we had met very briefly at the top of Philopappos Hill in Athens just days before, and that he is a student studying in Newcastle of all places. This gave us plenty to talk about and made the time pass much quicker.
As we were chatting away my attention to the scene was distracted and I failed to observe the gathering clouds in the distance. Also, the temperature now was in free fall with the wind picking up and blowing the chilled sea air right around me in the little crevice I had selected for myself. I knew then that this was not going to be the spectacle I had hoped for, but persisted in hope.
Tim had some other locations he wanted to capture so said his goodbyes and disappeared into the crowd (if you happen to be reading this Tim, I've got your drinks bottle here, you left it behind pal). Claire stuck it out as long as she could before the wind and cold were too much to bare and to departed leaving me only in the throng of selfie-sticks and tripods all fighting for a shot of a failed sunset. I held firm, praying to make something out of the two hours I had stood there physically shivering in my T-shirt and shorts, the clammy cold air covering my body in a sticky uncomfortable film.
I so wanted to give up, and when a group of Asian tourists literally barged their way through to the area I was in at the cliff edge I took one last look at the available light and decided to call it a day. Wrapping my gear up and then fighting my way through the crowd in search of warmth and sustenance. With my head aching, and body shivering I had to fight through visitors all dressed up to head out to dinner in warm clothes whilst I was a babbling wreck in search of comfort.
Only one thing that could save the day, a kebab. With my hoody on, we went out in search of food which led us to Pitogyros for some incredibly tasty grilled treats. The camera stayed at home, despite some stunning views I had a growing feeling of discontent after the day's events and was more focused on eating a warm meal than attempting to capture anything. I couldn't help but think that I wished we were back in Athens.
True to the forecast, we arose the next morning to a blanketed grey sky, so seemed a good opportunity to switch the plans up and use a slightly cooler day to take the walk from Oia to Thera. This 8.5-mile walk typically takes around 3-4 hours, so some shade from the sun would be welcomed.
After having some breakfast, camera packed and shouldered it was time to head off, passing through Oia to pick up the Thera path and head out on the walk. As we traversed the town small patches in the cloud allowed for pockets of light to pass through providing good opportunities to capture some shots.
Exiting the town it was time to pick up the trail and start the serious part of the walk. The terrain was moderate for the most part, but there were a few fairly steep climbs on the very loose ground which proved challenging. Despite my previous exertions on this trip, I found even the toughest climbs fairly moderate. Who knew that I would have increased my fitness so much in such a short period of time!
The walk was spectacular providing incredible views of the island, with dramatic volcanic landscapes broken by wildflowers and giant rocks broken free of the higher cliffs. An hour or so into the hike the weather vastly improved as the clouds broke more often and for longer, the light providing stunning contrast between highlights and shadows to the beautifully harsh landscape.
This complete change in the weather came at a cost. Foolishly I didn't cream up for the day under the pretense that the sun wouldn't be that strong if present at all. Come the end of the day, my neck, face, hands, and forearms were a delightful shade of lobster. At least I can say I got some sun!
The walk takes you through a number of remote churches which scatter the island. Most of these appear abandoned or certainly used infrequently.
Due to the number of stops along the way for taking pictures, it was some 3.5 hours before we reached any form of civilization, which highlighted the second faux pas; a significant lack of hydration. It hadn't occurred to us to bring a bottle of water on the trail after leaving town, and things were getting pretty dry by the time we hit the next town where we could buy some water.
There's isn't much to say about the first town, it's little more than a series of flashy resorts with infinity pools looking out to sea and the neighboring islands. Other than that, they could be pretty much anywhere.
Following on was Imerovigli, a small town similar to Oia with the stacked cave houses. Here we stopped for a bit of well-earned lunch after the long walk. Opting for one with a traditional menu; we settled down and waited to be served. Despite being very quiet, the single waiter seemed a little rushed and was buzzing around.
Eventually arriving at our table the waiter announced that the establishment was under new management and the menu at the front was the old one, then proceeded to whip out an A4 lined piece of paper with the current offerings scribbled on it, I kid you not. This provided some serious banter, and the guy was a great laugh. Orders were taken and with large beers on the table, it was time to relax a bit after the morning's hard work.
The food there was excellent, probably the best I had had in Greece so far. Even their Greek salad which seems to change ever so slightly from place to place was awesome! I followed the salad with Pork Gyros, which is basically pork donner in the same way we have chicken donner at home. Truly amazing! This came at a cost though, 50€ for a kebab lunch. And there wasn't even a view!
Shaking loose the thought of overpaying for lunch, we headed forth for Thera, the island's capital. As we grew closer the scenes grew ever more dramatic, with large areas fo the cliff face covered in buildings such as shops, bars, restaurants, and hotels. Dipping in and out and trying to stick the route as best we can, I couldn't help but feel things could be a little more organized. Only in a few places are the main routes properly marked, other than that you are on your own pal. A few times we wandered astray and down a dead end, but I guess this is all part of the island's charm and adds a sense of adventure.
Just over 6 hours later we arrived in Thera. Here there were many more shops, particularly of the high-end variety, catering for the many cruise ships that port there on a daily basis. The day before we learned that the island has an indigenous population of around 14k people; in peak season up to 8 cruise ships dump huge numbers of visitors onto the island which easily swell and outnumber the natives. That must be intolerable, and I can't help but feel a little sorry for the people that live in such a small and beautiful place such as this. And yes, I do appreciate the irony that I am one of those visitors, but I'd like to think that my impact on a destination is far less than a boatload of people swarming in packs.
Thera was worth the walk for the break the trip up and see a slightly different side to the island. By different, I meant the same but different. It is still a lot of church domes and bells like the Virgin Mary Orthodox Church-Three Bells below, cliff caves and dramatic coastline, but the feel is slightly different feel here compared to Oia. Because the town caters for such large number of tourists, especially those coming in off of cruise ships, the pace here feels a little more rushed and flashier there are much more premium boutique style shops.
The walk was long but very much worthwhile to see this different side to the island and provide some variety to my shots. My itinerary for shotting in Thera didn't include anything specific, so it was nice to be able to take some time and soak up the atmosphere.
I had earmarked the municipal gardens at the furthest edge of Thera as a spot to shoot the sunset which provided a small view back over the town with plenty of the horizon. This was probably not the best spot, but it was quiet. Seems this was the area that the locals liked to come and hang out at the end of the day as there was just a handful of teenagers chilling out without causing any problems.
The only issue I faced here was a group of guys taking some very cringy and questionable shots of each other with the setting sun at the exact spot where I had wanted to set myself up. I wasn't about to start disturbing their impromptu photo shoot, regardless of how bad the poses were, so I left them to it and made the most with what I had.
As the shadows grew longer, it looked like another potentially disappointing sunset as a band of low cloud hovering above the distant mountains looked poised to block the sun again, but I persevered in hope. This patience was rewarded as the sun peeked through for a brief couple of moments before calling it a day and moving on to bring a new dawn to another land.
My negative feelings towards the island were certainly now beginning to lift, and I was feeling so much more relaxed and felt I could enjoy myself a bit more now. That is until we went to get the bus back to Oia.
The local buses back to Oia at that time of night were on the hour, typically the sunset was just past 8 so we had some time to kill before heading back. This was a perfect opportunity to grab a shot looking back on the town as it lit up for the evening. Fortunately, the crowds were now diminishing as the cruise ships had loaded for the night and the atmosphere was far more relaxed.
The bus was another great example of disorganization which could be so easily amended. Firstly, there's what appears to be a ticket office, which has plastered all around it that tickets are to be purchased on the bus in English, but in misleading and contradicting ways. Secondly, the buses are coaches that just park anywhere at random and you need to carefully check the display screens on the front of them to determine their destination. The bus for Oia was usefully labeled as Ia. Why? I have no idea. But for a new visitor, this could have been a completely different destination to the one intended. Fortunately, the chipper bus driver announced that yes it was for Oia, so it was all aboard to head back to our cave and to bed, after tending to the numerous red bits of course.
The alarm went off at 5:30 in the hope that this would be my chance to capture a perfect sunrise and build on the successes of my previous venture. A quick peek out the front door to see the glow of morning light that was just about visible, with not a cloud in the sky. My bleary sleepy eyes quickly disappeared and I whipped on some clothes, grabbed my gear and headed straight for Oia castle.
There was not a soul to be seen. It felt like I had the island to myself and could set my camera up at my leisure. Of course, the tranquility could only last so long, and after about 20mins I was soon joined by a couple of early risers, then a few more. Nothing like the hoards that would gather here for sunset, so I was fairly content.
I would have to give it some serious thought, but my gut reaction is that this was one of the most beautiful sunrises I have ever witnessed. Watching the sunrise perfectly at the end of the caves in the foreground was such a stunning scene and worth the early rise. For the first time in 2 days, I have felt a proper sense of accomplishment.
And it didn't stop there. Once the sunrise shot was in the bag I moved quickly to some other key locations to make the most of the early morning sun, taking in the famous 3 domes amongst others, returning to Oia castle as the sunlight provided a strong contrast across the buildings adding depth to the scene.
Returning back to our cave feeling fairly satisfied with the early morning's work, it was time for for a well-earned coffee and some breakfast. Out hosts at White Side Villas had been kind enough to leave a bottle of Prosecco in the fridge, so with this being our last proper day, I popped it open and enjoyed a relaxing morning before venturing back out again.
With a lot of the stress now behind me, it was nice to take a gentle morning exploring the streets of Oia. Wandering through the narrow alleys, and up and down the tight winding staircases was a very pleasant experience.
There are so many photographic opportunities here which change throughout the day as the light shifts from one side of the island to the other. The light was so strong and intense creating amazing contrast with strong long shadows. The sunlight was so strong in fact, by the end of the day, my eyes were sore from the strain, despite wearing sunglasses for the most part.
As part of the tour, I took in the 3 Domes again to see if there was a different opportunity but was greeted with a huge crowd which was half expected. This was going to be my choice for sunset that evening, which did look favorable compared to the last couple of days. With such a good opportunity I did not want to run the risk of not getting anywhere near the scene so switched my plans up to return to Oia Castle for sunset, only this time altering my perspective as I had checked out in the morning.
There are no 'attractions' on Santorini, per se, there is nothing there that would draw you in other than the island itself with the stunning views of the buildings and coastline. The Islanders take great care in the appearance of their properties and maintain a very authentic look with their many simple decorations.
The town is constructed essentially on one road, with many paths off of it down the cliff which eventually hit a dead end. A lot of the paths are blocked or roped off, labeled as private where hotels or residences have limited access for wanders, but it's still worth exploring these as far you as you can.
As the evening drew near, it was time to nip back for a costume change in preparation for our final supper, grab my tripod and secure my spot ready for the main event. On arrival at the roof of Oia Castle, there were a couple of French girls chilling out, in the sun waiting for it to set who were kind enough to give me a bit of room and set up exactly where I wanted. Now it was the waiting game.
Between 1800-1930 space around me slowly filled up with spectators, fortunately, I was right at the front with my back to the crowd waiting for the final moments of the day unaffected by the hustle and bustle behind me. This was a perfectly clear sky and exactly what I had hoped for, bringing a truly happy end to the final day of the trip.
As the clock struck 8, the sun burst into color and made its final goodbye for the day. The last 15 minutes were frantic as there were a series of different shots I was looking for and wanted to capture before all was said and done. We also had a dinner reservation, so I couldn't exactly hang around!
Camera packed up, it was time to fight the crowds and head back down to Ammude Bay for dinner at one of the various fish restaurants there. Tucking into grilled octopus, and a full sea bream I was fully satisfied with the day's events, from start to finish.
The climb back up from the bay was bad enough the first time, and there was no chance we were going to do that in the dark! This wasn't a problem as a minivan was on hand to rip us off, charging 3 couple 10€ each to literally drive up a hill. Ridiculous.
Wandering back through the town, yearning for a comfy bed, I took the opportunity to capture more of the town lit up at night. Not the shots I would have liked as I would have preferred a little color in the sky, but unfortunately, I cannot be everywhere at once, no matter how hard I try.
Waking early as that's what I have been reluctantly conditioning myself for this last week, I couldn't help but lay there and wonder if I had done enough. With sunrise imminent, I had two choices, lay there and think about it, or get up and do something about it! In a few moments, I had dressed, grabbed my gear and began making my way back into town.
The shot on my mind initially was the sweeping cliffs I shot the previous evening, but this time with the sun rising above, however, I wanted to get a bit closer with the wind angle lens to give more of a sense of presence in the shot. Moving back around to the 3 Domes I set up and shot the perfect sunrise there.
The light was absolutely stunning, so I used this opportunity to capture the 3 Domes with the new morning light, but this time with a wider lens. Having already photographed most of the town I do find it much easier to photograph a second time as my attention to the light is vastly heightened.
I returned to the apartment to wash change and pack before we headed out for some breakfast and to make to most of our few remaining hours. Popping in and out of shops to find a memento for our travel shelf, I seized every opportunity for last-minute shots as this would be our last trip for a while with nothing else booked in the calendar.
That was Santorini. A beautiful island enriched with fantastic people, amazing food and stunning views. Yes, we didn't get off to a good start, but this was not a problem with the island itself, but more the weather and other visitors. Being a captive audience, food and drink are a little on the pricey side, certainly in Thera where you can easily pay around 5-6€ for a small beer.
I do recommend you visit, particularly around this time of year to avoid the crowds and responsibly relieve the pressure on the locals in peak season as well. The weather might be a little hit and miss, but if it was anything like our week, the weather was far from bad.
That brings my week's adventure in Greece to a pleasant close. With more than 55 miles clocked up over the 7 days, it was time to get back home for a rest! Thank you very much Greece for your hospitality, I hope we meet again very soon.
My full image set can be viewed here.