Chasing Sunshine in Santorini

The ferry we took to the final destination of spring break happened to be the most enjoyable of the whole trip. As horrible as it was waking up at 5:15, once I was awake I quite enjoyed being on the water throughout the morning, even though I did take a quick nap on the ferry. Since our cell phones are basically useless bricks when we don’t have wifi, and the ferries did not, we have found new ways to pass the time. One of these is through playing cards. Of course it’s simple and obvious in a way, but being abroad has taught me some new cards games that makes the transportation to and from places much more enjoyable. One game my friends and I are obsessed with is called spit. The object of the game is to play against someone and stack all of your cards in numerical order and once all of your cards are gone, slap the smaller deck; the person who runs out of cards first, wins. The game has provided stiff competition, Mel and Ingrid are the true champs, and some good laughs along the way.

As the ferry rode through the sea, we stopped at multiple Greek isles, all of which were wet and gloomy due to the down pouring rain. I knew rain was in the forecast for the day, but I did not want to accept it. Each port had the same weather and I began to give up hope that my arrival on Santorini would be met with blue skies. When our ferry docked though, the skies had cleared and although it was a little foggy, the sun was trying to peek through and that was enough for me. We took a bus up the cliffside, which looked like a giant, natural pinball machine. If anyone has ever seen Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, it is the hill Lena rides a vespa down to chase after Costas. In one word, it was terrifying.

When we got to the top I thanked God and anxiously awaited our arrival at our villa in the town of Fira, located in the center of Santorini. Although villa sounds like we stayed at a 5 star hotel, it was a glorified, but nice, mini hotel. The Bus2Alps leaders invited everyone to meet up at 5:30 to head to a lookout point to watch the sunset. Mel and I changed into some cuter outfits and left for the lookout point. As we walked from the main dirt road to the almost magical side streets we finally, and by finally I mean 5 minutes later, arrive at the lookout point. When I poked my head around the corner I had my first glimpse of the famous Santorini hillside. It did not disappoint. The houses resemble a sort of Mediterranean adobe style. The walkways, roofs and doors are all rounded and painted either white or faint pastel colors such as baby blue or yellow. I expected to be overwhelmed by the stereotypical blue domes, but to my surprise there were none. Our trip leaders told us that the blue domes were more prevalent in the town of Oia, located on the northern tip of the island. The Grecian houses were juxtaposed next to rolling green hills that had be questioning whether I was in Greece or Ireland, as the hills reminded me of the Cliffs of Moher.

The amazing view of the Santorini cliffside.
The amazing view of the Santorini cliffside.

Mel and I were in the front of the pack when we first arrived at the lookout, so we took some pictures together in the spot that offered the best view of the landscape. After we took our pictures though, we realized how many people had come on the little journey to the outlook. We didn’t want to stick with the crowd since we knew everyone’s pictures would look the same and we would probably have people in the back of our pictures.

Mel and I on the first night in Santorini.
Mel and I on the first night in Santorini.

So in order to try and have an even better view of the the sunset and the town, we walked to higher ground. The view was more or less the same, but there were less people around and allowed us to indulge in a little photoshoot in front of the cliffside.

Can't get enough of this view.
Can’t get enough of this view.

Once the sun began to set I knew it would not match the one we had in Corfu. The sky was too foggy and the sun was barely peeking through the clouds. Nonetheless, the rain held out for the day and that was enough for me.

Sisterhood of the Traveling Red Foxes.
Sisterhood of the Traveling Red Foxes.

After the less than stellar sunset, we walked down to a restaurant called Mamma’s that the trip leaders recommended. We arrived right before the rush and were seated in no time. The menu had so many amazing options, many of which Mel and I had been dying to try throughout the trip, but had not yet had the chance. We decided to go all in for the meal and treat ourselves. We ordered some red wine, water, bread, and two appetizers. The first appetizer was feta baked in sesame and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette. The second was spanakopita, which is a crispy popper filled with spinach. After hearing my friend Mariel rave about eating it in Astoria, Queens when I was in NYC, I knew I had to try it. Both were so incredible, but I think I preferred the spanakopita, as balsamic vinaigrette has a weird taste to me, but you really can’t go wrong with fresh Greek feta.

The feta cheese covered in sesame and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette.
The feta cheese covered in sesame and drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette.
One of my favorite foods of the week, spanakopita.
One of my favorite foods of the week, spanakopita.

For dinner I tried chicken souvlaki that was paired with tzatziki, fries, tomato, onions, and pita bread. The chicken itself was nothing out of the ordinary, but it was a dish I wanted to try the whole week.

My min dish, chicken souvlaki.
My main dish, chicken souvlaki.

For dessert, because how can you leave without dessert, we had been on the hunt for baklava, and we finally found it, thank you Mama’s! Baklava is a flaky pie like slice of sweet heaven filled with honey and nuts. Sometimes our dining hall at school serves it, which initially sparked our interest in the dish, but true baklava was leaps and bounds better than anything our dining hall serves. We devoured it in under five minutes I’m pretty sure.

My favorite part of the meal, the baklava.
My favorite part of the meal, the baklava.

After dinner, we returned back to the villa with the intention of going out for the night. Laughably so, Mel and I both crashed on the bed waiting to see what our other friends were doing and did not wake up until 1 AM. Once we woke up we quickly changed and went right back to sleep, so we would be well rested for the next morning of fun. No Santorini nightlife for the tired spring breakers.

The next morning we left the villa around 10 AM and were on a mission to find some donkeys. One of the classic things to do in Santorini is to ride a donkey around the island. When I checked the weather before we left in the morning, it said it was supposed to rain the entire afternoon. We wanted to try and ride donkeys before the bad weather came, since they likely wouldn’t be running the second half of the day. We walked around to the area that the trip leaders said the donkeys would be waiting at, but when we arrived there was no one, animals included, around. We searched around the rest of the Fira town center, but had no luck. We even stopped in a travel agency office, but the woman said it was too windy for the donkey’s to be out. Mel and I were pretty disappointed since riding donkeys was the one thing we wanted to do while in Santorini.

As we were walking away from the travel agency, we ran into our friends Alison and Christine who we ate dinner with in Athens. We started chatting and they said that they were also looking for donkeys. We told them that we asked around and heard they weren’t running. The four of us commisserated together, and as we said goodbye, we heard bells coming around one of the street corners. As we turned around, we saw four donkeys rounding the corner. We were all in utter shock that the perfect number of donkeys showed up just as we were about to give up hope. We ran up to the man who was walking them down the street and asked if we could ride them. He responded yes and we all got on our designated donkeys.

Me and my donkey.
Me and my donkey.

The man brought us around the town center, through the side streets, and down the hill that scales the side of the mountain. The scariest part of the whole ride was going down the hill since we had to hold onto our donkey’s for dear life. We all took pictures while we rode around, but we also just enjoyed the experience. It was my favorite experience of the entire trip as the views were unparalleled and we were all just in a state of pure bliss. We started singing Dominic the Donkey and humming traditional Greek music. We definitely looked like such American tourists, but we were having so much fun that we didn’t really care.

Me, Alison, Christine, and Mel on our donkeys.
Me, Alison, Christine, and Mel on our donkeys.

After we finished, we were dropped back off at the town center. We took some pictures with our donkey’s before saying goodbye and going about the rest of our day.

Goodbye donkeys.
Goodbye donkeys.

On the donkey ride, I had happened to see this one store that had beautiful white and blue embroidered Greek shirts. Since it is not high tourist season in Greece, not all of the stores were open, and if they were, they didn’t open until 11 or 12 in the afternoon. Since we spent the majority of our morning riding donkey’s, once we finished, more of the stores were open. The four of us headed in the direction of the store and when we arrived we started picking out shirts, t-shirts, and coverups. All of us tried on a bunch of clothes until we found exactly what we wanted. I bought one of the traditional embroidered shirts, which I have wanted for years now. It was my splurge of the trip, but also most favorite souvenir.

A funny storefront advertisement in Fira.
A funny storefront advertisement in Fira.

We continued to walk around and check out some of the stores that were open. The weather continued to hold off, and it was just cloudy and windy for most of the day rather than rainy. Between shopping, we stopped to take pictures along the road that hugs the cliffside, since it offers the best views of Fira.

Jumping pics by the cliffside.
Jumping pics by the cliffside.

After we spent most of the day wandering and shopping, we stopped for some gyros. I had ordered gyros at restaurants throughout the week, but when you order them at restaurant you have to self assemble them. I really wanted to eat a pre-made, on the go, gyro and found a centrally located indoor-outoor restaurant that was selling them. A gyro is basically meat, whether chicken or pork, mixed with tomatoes, onions, lettuce, fries, and tzatziki, wrapped in pita bread. The gyros at the restaurant were only 2.50 euro and was easily one of the top three meals I had during spring break.

My first true gyro did not dissappoint.
My first true gyro did not dissappoint.

We arrived back at the villa to change as our tour was offering a trip to Oia, the most classic and picturesque of the Santorini towns. While we were changing, we noticed it started to rain, but remained optimistic since a lot of the time rain just means a light drizzle in Europe. We had on the cutest outfits we had packed for the trip and left for Oia. We drove on the opposite side of the island and the rain only picked up from the time we left Fira. Once we arrived, it was down-pouring, but the leaders told us that there was a really good lookout point at the end of the main street. We walked there and it was so windy that we couldn’t use umbrellas without them flipping inside out and we had left our rain jackets in Florence. The whole trip was so unenjoyable, which really sucked since we were looking forward to seeing Oia, but we couldn’t even enjoy it with the freezing cold rain and wind. To pass the time we had in the town, we went in the few shops that were still open. I didn’t buy anything, since the only thing I really needed was a new umbrella, because sometime in-between arriving in Oia and leaving the lookout point I broke mine. Miserable and wet, at 7 PM we got on the buses and made the decent back down to Fira.

Oia at nighttime.
Oia at nighttime.

Mel and I were starving and wanted to go back to Mama’s for dinner. From the window in our room we knew it was still raining, but we changed out of the clothes we wore to Oia and into some jeans and sneakers, which at the time seemed more appropriate for the weather. When we left the villa and walked up to the main road, we were met with what was more or less a flash flood. The main road was sloped and made of dirt. The rain was so heavy, it had washed the road away and left a rapidly flowing stream of water in its place. Mama’s was only a 5 minute walk from our villa, but in the rain it felt like 20 minutes. As soon as I stepped on the road my shoes, which were basically brand new may I add, were submerged in water, but at that point it didn’t make sense to turn back. The rest of the walk was no better and when we arrived at Mama’s we looked like sewer rats and tried our best to clean up before sitting down to eat. The meal was just as good as the first time around, and Mel and I stayed until close. Partly because we wanted to escape the rain, and partly because we were enjoying being adults at a nice restaurant. I walked home without my shoes on since I thought I might be able to salvage them. That was not the case. I ended up having to throw out not only my sneakers, but the pair of shoes I had worn to Oia since they were so drenched in water and I didn’t have anywhere to let them dry. I had to invest in a 10 euro pair of cheap sneakers from H&M when I got back to Florence, since I lost 1/3 of the shoes I had brought with me to Europe to the horrible Santorini flood of 2015. Ok it wasn’t really a flood, but it felt like that to me, so that’s what I’m going to call it. RIP to my shoes.

The next morning, we packed our bags so we could drop them off in reception since we were leaving in the afternoon. When we walked outside, it was completely sunny and warm. Of course. Isn’t the weather always perfect on the day you’re leaving to go home? As sad as it was that we had to leave on one of the only sunny days of the whole trip, we knew it gave us even more of a reason to make the most of the little time me had left. As Mel and I were eating breakfast, one of the Bus2Alps leaders announced to everyone in reception that because of the bad weather last night, the seas were unsafe for the ferries to run this morning. The ferry we were taking from Corfu to Athens, had yet to leave Athens. This meant that we had an entire day in Santorini and would not be leaving until 9 PM. Melissa and I were so excited and it just goes to show that everything happens for a reason.

We left breakfast and knew exactly where we would be spending our day–Oia. We asked the woman at reception where the cabs were and we headed there right away. Once we got into our cab our driver immediately began asking us where we wanted to go and what we were doing in Santorini. We told him we were on Spring Break and that we had gone to Oia the night before, but the weather was so bad we didn’t get to enjoy it. He told us that the rain last night was some of the worst rain he had ever seen in Santorini. On the way to Oia, he asked us if we had been to Firastefani. We told him we hadn’t and he told us he had to take us there. We made a quick detour and when we arrived it looked like it was just another view of the sea. As we walked closer to the wall though, there were multiple blue domes below us and we then understood why we had made the detour. Our driver offered to take our pictures and even climbed onto the rooftop below us to take a pano picture on my phone for me.

Panorama picture of Firastefani.
Panorama picture of Firastefani.

We continued on to Oia and the driver asked us where else we had been on our break. We told him we spent time in Corfu and Athens. He told us that he went to the University of Athens, which is located next to the Acropolis. He lived on the opposite side to where his school was located in relation to the Acropolis. As he was telling the story, he burst out laughing and said how even though we walked past the Acropolis every day for four years, he never actually walked on the top of it where the Parthenon is located. Interacting with locals is one of my all-time favorite things to do when traveling in different places, and it just goes to show you the types of funny anecdotes they have or hot spots in the location that they know about. When he dropped us off in Oia, he politely showed us how to get to the town center and we said goodbye.

Oia!
Oia!

Oia is the town that Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants was shot in. I watched the movie when I got back from Greece to mourn the wonderful time I had, and recognized so many of the locations in the film. As we walked throughout town, we were meant with nothing but jaw dropping views and sunshine; a totally different experience from the night before. We walked out to the same lookout point we had been at the night before and took some pictures where we weren’t cowering under upside down umbrellas.

It was quite windy in Oia on the day we went back.
It was quite windy in Oia on the day we went back.
Another view of Oia with the ocean in the background.
Another view of Oia with the ocean in the background.

From there we saw a windmill and since we had more than enough time to leisurely walk about, we meandered over. There was a plaque that read, “The Most Popular Site For Marriage Proposals.” Obviously Mel and I had to take a picture in front of it. We always joke that we are on our honeymoon since most of the time we are the only people on the trips we plan.

Mel and I in front of the windmill.
Mel and I in front of the windmill.

We continued on to my favorite view of the whole entire island–the blue domes. Many people think that the blue domes are a piece of Greek architecture that can be seen all over the country. In fact, the unique and widely recognized design is reserved for churches on the islands. Before I came to Santorini, I thought there were going to be blue domes everywhere I looked. The domes were only in Oia and Firastefani, and there was only about three of them. They were pretty nonetheless, but it just goes to show when postcards and pictures overemphasize the appearance of the blue domes, you will think that they’re everywhere when they in fact they aren’t. Our cab driver on the way to Oia explained why the domes are blue and many of the walls on the islands are white. The blue color matches the color of the sky, which metaphorically makes the people and churches closer to God and the walls are white so that they can pick up the colors of the sunset.

The blue domes of Santorini.
The blue domes of Santorini.

As I said before, many of the stores were closed since it is not tourist season, but Melissa and I walked almost the whole length of the town since we were enjoying the weather so much. We stumbled upon this one bookshop which was so artsy and featured books in almost every language. People would leave notes on the shelves or on books recommending them or quoting them. Even though I’m more of a magazine person than a book one, cute, quirky stores like that always leave an imprint on me.

The bookstore in Oia.
The bookstore in Oia.

After about 2 hours in Oia, we caught the public bus back to town, but not before I snapped a pic with the dolphin picture on the pavement on the exit way of the town.

A picture with the dolphins is a must.
A picture with the dolphins is a must.

Since we had explored Oia and Fira to the point where I could find my way around with my eyes closed, we hung out for the last few hours. We stopped at a craft beer store and each picked up a bottle of Santorini craft beer called Crazy Donkey. The slogan for the beer was “Hip Hoppy Kick-Ass Ale.” I thought that was pretty clever. For the rest of the day we checked in with our parents, played some cards, and drank our beers. Of course we played spit and even some war. Melissa and I found out that we play war different ways, so I converted her to my way and she schooled me. I guess that’s what I get for bestowing my card knowledge onto others.

Crazy Donkey beer.
Crazy Donkey beer.

When we left Santorini, we took two ferries and two buses home. I won’t get into the mundane details of the rest of the travels as it was snooze worthy. All I can saw is when we reached Italian land, it was a necessary homecoming. By the time we got back to Florence, Mel, Ingrid, Sarah, and I split a cab home since we live about 20 minutes away from where the buses dropped us off and were beyond sick of dragging our luggage everywhere. It’s amazing how even after two months, Florence feels like a home to me. Whenever I come home from a trip, I’m always so excited for Italian food, the streets, sights, piazzas, and people.

As for Greece, spring break was a surreal and whirlwind experience. I still can’t believe at 20 I was able to afford myself a 10 day trip to one of the most beautiful and visited places in the world. That is the most rewarding part of the whole trip for me. There were ups, downs, curveballs, and surprises along the way, but it all made for a unique and unforgettable experience. Each city offered something different and it’s hard for me to pick my favorite place. Some of my favorite memories from each place include the toga party and beach day in Corfu, seeing the Parthenon and our group dinner in Athens, and the donkey ride and visiting Oia in Santorini. Even though there was a lot of travel and the weather wasn’t always ideal, it taught me how to focus on the bigger picture. Weather is uncontrollable and when island hopping, long ferries are expected as land isn’t exactly a stone’s throw away. The trip allowed me to make even more memories with Melissa, bond with my housemates, and make new friends along the way. My camera and iPhone are full of pictures that mean so much more than an image to me as they represent my time and individual adventure in the birthplace of Western civilization. I would love to return to Greece in the summer later in life and visit other islands such as Mykonos, Rhodes and even revisit Santorini. While it was nice that it wasn’t crowded anywhere we went, I can only imagine how much more beautiful, if that’s even possible, the islands would look in the summer. For as long as I can remember, Greece was one of the top three countries on my bucket list, the other two being Italy and Australia. At the end of the semester I will be able to cross Italy off, and the verdict is still out on Australia, but I’m beyond happy I can say I got to Greece. Visiting over Spring Break gave me time to visit three different locations and really immerse in the culture and attractions in each place, rather than rushing to see everything on a normal weekend. This was my first official Spring Break trip and it will go down in the books–crazy college antics, sightseeing, floods, donkeys and ferries included. Thank you for the week of my life Greece.

Thank you Greece.
Thank you Greece.

Ciao for now,

Emily

All photography by Emily Houston. 

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