“You should probably wipe the donkey poop off your neck before we get on the boat.” Kristin rolled her eyes in disgust, splashed some water on her hand, and proceeded to scrub. And after I helpfully pointed out a few brown specks she had missed, she got the last of it off. I don’t share this moment to embarrass her nor to increase our share of traffic from the routine Googlers of the phrase woman ride donkey (welcome, you sick bastards), but as a segue into telling you how I got some donkey poop in my mouth. And, if you visit the Greek isle of Santorini, you might too.
Santorini, of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, is actually a composite of 5 islands, three of which are left over from a massive explosive volcanic eruption 3600 years ago and now form a caldera. The other two, slowly growing in the center of this circular archipelago, are the new volcano rising up out of the lagoon. The most recent eruption was 50 years ago.
Some 900 feet above the sea, on the caldera rim of Santorini’s main island, the whitewashed villas, houses, churches, souvenir shops and restaurants of Thira, Oia, and Imerovigli offer one of the most unique, photogenic townscapes we’ve witnessed. You’ve seen the stark blue and white images. If not here, on this blog, than in magazines, on television, and from postcards of humble-bragging friends who wished you were here (we meant it at the time). Santorini is a special place designed to provide romance-seeking tourists an upscale slice of heaven in the Aegean Sea.
Though we avoided the inflated prices of the hotels and villas that line the edge of the cliffs by camping on the eastern slope of Thira and by dining almost exclusively at the string of cheap-eats near Thira’s main square — souvlaki, pizza, and gyro pitas were our staple — we did splurge on a sunset boat cruise that included a self-guided hike to the top of the volcano, Nea Kameni.
There are three ways to descend the cliffs to the Old Port of Thira: cable car, donkey ride, or on foot. Santorini’s donkeys are, for reasons I’ll never understand, a major tourist attraction. People flock to this tiny island from all over the world to see the white villages and to ride the donkeys up and down the cliff. The donkey, in turn, has become a mascot of the island. Donkey t-shirts and stickers hang from every souvenir shop, the local craft brewery uses the donkey in its logo and the naming of its ales, and the aroma of sun-baked donkey piss and manure mingles with the scent of grilled lamb chops at the overpriced cliff-side restaurants you dream of eating at.
With plenty of time to catch the boat we, being the fit and able-bodied individuals that we are, opted to walk down under our own power. The stairs face due west, the temperature was nearing 100 °F (38 °C), and the wind was gushing off the water. Donkey manure, as you are probably aware, is comprised mostly of hay and other grasses fed to the animals. On natural surfaces, this will break down and mingle with the dirt and sand of the soil and generally become indistinguishable before long. But on the scorched stone stairs of Thira, the manure gets pulverized by the traffic into a not-so-fine dust. A dust easily carried by the wind. Yes, we walked into a veritable mini-blizzard of donkey feces. Total brown-out conditions. It was over quickly, but not before our eyes, face, and — the horror! — mouths were blasted with donkey particles. We opted to pay the 5€ per person fee and ride the cable car back up after sunset. It’s a prudent investment in both health and sanity.
The hike to the top of the volcano was fun and it was nice to be out on the water for an evening, but the highlight of our time in Santorini came the following night when we hiked the 10 kilometer trail from Thira to Oia along the edge of the caldera. It was the perfect way to escape the maddening crowds of touristy Thira and enjoy a quiet, rugged side of Santorini. We timed our hike to arrive in upscale Oia, at the island’s northwest tip, just before sunset where we, sweat-stained and dusty from the hike, sheepishly mingled with throngs of honeymooning couples clad in their best white linen as we waited for a rather unremarkable sunset. If only we had worn our “Paris clothes”!
So Santorini isn’t exactly the place to go on a bicycle tour, but it is worth a visit, if only once. We ended up there because even we are suckers for the occasional can’t miss tourist trap and because it was the easiest island from which to continue our journey to Turkey by ferry.
In deciding to cycle some of the Greek isles instead of going overland through northern Greece into Turkey, we set out to focus on the bigger islands, places with enough land to make the journey there with it. Crete, the largest, southernmost Greek island, was our first stop after Athens and was every bit worth the 8-hour ferry ride from Piraeus. Though much of the northern coast of Crete is jam-packed with tourists and seemingly devoid of Greek culture (even the tiniest village we stopped in for lunch one day was half populated by British retirees), the interior of the island and its wonderful southern coast remain the forgotten gems of Cretan life. Like the Peloponnese and Kefalonia, Crete is extremely mountainous. We cut our daily mileage down to under 40 miles on account of the heat and still averaged over 2,500 feet of climbing each day.
Our route around Crete covered some 230 miles and took us from Rethimno on the north shore, south to the fishing village of Agia Gallini, through the mountains to Ano Villanos and down to the coast of Ierepetra, stopping along the way at minuscule villages along the coast. Our favorite, at the base of a steep olive-covered ravine, was Tertsa. A whole baby lamb was roasting on a spit, doused in olive oil and spices and demanded we stop for lunch. We waited an extra half hour for the lamb to finish roasting over the wooden fire and, as a reward for all the hard days of cycling, we treated ourselves to a kilo of delectable baby sheep. I will always brake for BBQ.
We spent three nights in the quaint village of Kritsa, at the end of one of the most beautiful 10 kilometer stretches of road we had ridden on the entire trip. Barely a car wide and weaving in and out of a pine forest with peak-a-boo views of the sea, the road provided the closest impersonation of mountain biking a paved road ever has. Particularly when it narrowed further along the edge of a cliff with a touch of “death-on-the-right” exposure. As wonderful as the road from Prina to Kroustas (and onward to Kritsa) was, the wedding taking place that night in Kritsa was even more special. Completely manufactured as a throwback event to boost community spirit and wrangle some tourist dollars, it was nonetheless a real wedding with real age-old traditions and costumes dusted off for a willing local couple. And it was a really good time, even if the bride and groom looked as if they regretted volunteering for this spectacle.
Sadly, no ferries continue on from Crete eastward to Rhodes or Turkey, so we ended up heading to Santorini to get back along the main tourist trail. We didn’t do any cycling on Santorini, other than the initial ride from the port to the campground, but that was enough. Anyone who has ever walked or bicycled off a ferry onto an island knows that there is always an uphill climb from the port. We’ve bicycled/walked off of ferries on numerous islands in the Pacific Northwest, in the Caribbean, in Japan, and now in Greece and we can say, without question, that Santorini is the worst. The steeply switchbacking road, replete with tour buses, hurried taxi drivers, and tourists on rented scooters and quads, none of whom seem to know where they are going, climbs 800 feet in two miles before finally leveling off after three miles. Going uphill under the midday sun was hell. Coming down it in the middle of the night for our 3am ferry to Rhodes? That was a blast!
And now we’re in Rhodes, another one of Greek’s larger islands. Home to some archaeological monuments from antiquity, the island can be viewed as either a slightly more touristy (in spots) version of Crete or, if you prefer, a poor man’s Santorini. We chose to come here because it was another island large enough to bother cycling around (though only about 110 miles or so) and because, based on preliminary research, it was a short ferry ride to Turkey. Those wishing to do a ferry-based island-hopping trip across the Aegean such as the one we’re on should learn from the mistake I’m about to share. There are far too many maps detailing the supposed ferry routes for too-many ferry companies plying these waters. And, what many of the maps don’t tell you, is that many of these routes are serviced by passenger-only catamarans and high-speed hydrofoils. Those with bicycles, like us, need to stick to the routes serviced by car ferries. The ferry leading from Rhodes to Turkey, it turns out, is passenger only. So, after our short ride around Rhodes, complete with a day off in scenic Lindos, we’ll be taking an evening ferry to the island of Kos where, the next afternoon, we will finally take a short 40 minute ferry to Bodrum, Turkey. Asia, sort of, at last!
Ferry Resource: It took some time, but I finally found a very reliable website for navigating the confusing and often outdated information about Greece’s expansive ferry system. Use Greek Travel Pages when planning a ferry-based trip to Greece’s islands and you won’t go wrong.
Camping Resource: One of the areas that Greece really outshone the other countries we visited was in the area of campground information. The Camp In Greece site offers a free downloadable PDF guide to the entire country’s campgrounds, with a ridiculous amount of information contained for each. I was able to verify the location of each campground we stayed at on Google Maps and plot our route from campsite to campsite using RideWithGPS.com — it couldn’t have been easier!