Some will immediately notice that a day is missing from my blog. That would be Wednesday, September 22. Overwhelmed by the experiences of the prior 4 days, a “day-off” was called; and so I sent word to Brother Maurus not to worry about my absence, but to go forth with the pilgrims to the Island of Rhodes. And though within sight of this attractive city and island, I remained aboard to enjoy some reading, blogging, and the quiet which comes with the majority ashore, missing the city I could see just moments away.
We sailed overnight from Rhodes to a coastal town of Crete, Agios Nicolaos. It was here that we disembarked to Knossos, the capital of the ancient Minoan Civiliation (see entry “Cretans, too”). By 11:15am we set sail for what many consider the jewel of the Cyclades, Santorini (officially Thira). By 4:15pm the shipboard activities director, Elizabeth, was urging us to the upper decks to begin to admire the sparkle of this enchantment.
The jewel rose from the horizon, first ahead, then to port, and to starboard. It rose from a hazy obscurity as a rocky fastness, yet soon began to reveal its many facets — layered rock, abrupt soaring height, topped by what appeared to be snow (but which proved to be houses!) Many details emerged, as attested by the photos below.
Drawing closer to the harbor, smaller craft began to appear — unique in design to the island — tourist punts prowling about with guides speaking of the volcanic nature of this Aegean jewel. They would be telling their guests that 3600 years ago a massive eruption threw a major portion of the original single island into the atmosphere and buried the remainder under hundreds of feet of ash. The ultimate results were two islands, with a natural harbor (lagoon) whose depth of 1300 feet accommodates all manner of seacraft.
As we slowed for harbor entry, the new caldera (mouth of the active volcano) rose to port of our ship; the lifeless black surface, a-jumble with lava rock, revealed the earth recreating itself even as the sea persists.
Distracted by scenes to port and starboard, one could easily miss that ahead lay the harbor proper. From a distance earlier it appeared that one other cruise ship was in port, probably anchored over the one site (we had been told) where a ship could drop its anchor. Any others arriving would need to maintain their positions by thrusters or, having debarked their passengers, cruise about the islands until such time as their passengers returned. Visual distance can be deceptive, we all know. Hold one’s thumb up to a distant object and it disappears behind flesh and nail; all the while one knows this is an allusion. Thus so as our craft came into harbor: not one, but five other ships had preceded us, and to our port we could see a sixth sailing away!
It may have occurred by now that getting ashore might not be with the ease of gangway and concrete pier. The two landing points — known as old harbor and new harbor — are not really harbors as we had encountered thus far. They are landing spots for smaller craft -tenders – leaving and receiving folks from the tourist bus lot (new harbor, destinations numerous), and Fira (old harbor).
The harbor tenders rapidly came alongside in spite of their continual service to the other ships in harbor (evidence of great organization and experience). Our wait on Deck 2 was not long, as the tenders were both to port and starboard. Father Eugene and I gladly moved to the port side, were helped aboard the small craft, and witnessed the remainder of the boarding (all seats were taken before we sailed!) The journey, brief with a minimum of choppiness, brought us to old harbor. Kindly helped to the concrete pier, we stepped into a sea of tourists, shops and vendors at the base of the looming island!
Now, there are three means by which one may scale the “cliff”, or face, to attain Fira: gondola (skylift), mule/donkey, or as a pedestrian. The gondolas dangle from shore to peak over the harsh layers of rock interspersed with intrepid trees and shrubs. The mules/donkeys are skilled and numerous (as we discovered), ferrying the brave along in an ambling fashion. The pedestrian faces two challenges: wear and tear upon the body (lungs, knees, calves and back), and mule droppings (moist) and dry (windblown). For Father Eugene and I, the first was too easy, the second too scary (imagine straddling a mule, sitting higher than the pedestrian walls which separate the path of steps from the air and rocks below!), the third preferred.
The climb began — once we found our way through the shops to the actual ascent point! I refrained from taking pictures of the mules or other tourists. Rather, we both became fascinated by the vista along the way, as evidenced by the stops (for me, both photo-ops and breathing points!) revealed below.
At the summit the last 20 steps were numbered…ending in 988! Goodness! We knew that not all steps of the ascent were equal; but we made them all! Imagine the life of the mules/donkeys and their owners. We spent a few moments admiring our accomplishment. Then we stumbled along doing what two male tourists typically do — walk, gawk and talk without shopping OR buying. There were shops for scarves, handbags, jewelry, statuary, pottery, handcrafted fabrics, trinkets (cups, shot glasses, spoons, t-shirts), fine clothing, rocks (really!), gelato; banks with the ubiquitous ATM, hotels both starred and not, churches, and of course, restaurants with their street maitre’d (hawker of wares and greeter). We found little of interest for purchase, but enjoyed the sights, sounds, and smells. Once gain, as on Mykonos, the gelato was excellent! Our wanderings did take us to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Candlemas (for Roman Catholics, February 2), the ancient end to the Christmas Season (4oth day), which celebrates the Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple (see Gospel of Luke, Simeon and Anna).
A rare thing happened as we stepped from the Cathedral — it rained! Stepping from the portico, it suddenly became apparent to me why all the other folk who had been in the Cathedral were loitering about on the porch! It wasn’t a dousing rain; but it was enough to drive me back toward the ever-so-subtly smirking Father Eugene, whose wry wit greeted me with “Well, you figured it out”. The winds began to seriously blow; it was cooling quickly with gusts lifting flag to salute and hats to soar or to be jealously grasped. What seemed most appropriate was a fine dinner overlooking the harbor — a treat funded by a staff member who espoused the beauty of this jewel. Don’t ask Father Eugene or I the name of the restaurant — neither introvert held it fast to memory. However, ask upon what we dined, and both can readily attest: fine mineral water, a very fine Greek salad, warm bread, and fresh calamari (not deep-fried!). The olives, feta and greens sang; the bread crunched and tore so fine; the wine (me) washed soothingly down both moresel and mouth-full; and the calamari — an aria to that which is of the sea! Oh, heavens, it was good.
The afternoon was waning towards dusk as we departed the restaurant. With little hesitation — knowing the hour, the ships sailing time, and our earlier ascent — we chose the Gondola to return us to the embarkation point to our ship. As we stepped along, we found the evening unfolding in a robust and spectacular array of colors.
Eight euro (four apiece) bought us our fast descent (the ascent is just as rapid!) to the embarkation point. Boarding proved a bit more challenging than from ship, as the winds were up and the harbor choppy. The tender bore us quickly alongside the MV Louis Cristal onto which we lifted grateful legs for an end to our day. Father Eugene parted to his room and I to walk the deck to admire once again the visual wonders of Santorini. Witnessing the last tender to arrive (the last of the tour bus folk, of whom some were our pilgrims), a short walk led to the aft Caruso bar, where a double Amaretto soothed me toward a night of slumber aboard our vessel, now steering for the Isle of Crete and evidence of the ancient Minoan civilization.