Lightning fast tour of Greece

When I renewed my passport late last year I decided to get the one with extra pages.  The fat one.  Because I was being ambitious mostly.  And also because I would like to think I came close to filling the last one so didn’t want to go through the trouble of having to get a new passport if I could avoid it.  I must say the process was actually less painful than I thought it would be, having made use of the Standard Bank/Home Affairs cooperation pilot that they had just launched.  So when I needed to get the a Schengen Visa a small voice at the back of my head was going good call on that fat passport despite having to jump through multiple hoops to actually get the application completed.

I hadn’t been to mainland Europe since my stay in the UK allowed me to attain a 6 month multiple entry Schengen that I used to briefly explore the old world in the autumn and winter of 2008/2009.  This would be my first trip back in 8 years.  I had somehow managed to avoid returning in all that time.  I visited the UK again and went east and west but for some reason never had the urge to return.  I had seen parts of Italy, Germany and Paris (not much more of France) and I was satisfied for the most part.  I thought, after watching Zindagi na milegi dobara, that perhaps I had missed out on Spain (and more especially Katrina Kaif as a dive instructor) but otherwise was content.  Until last year, when almost on a whim Phil suggested we go see Santorini.

To be honest I didn’t actually think we’d get there (sorry Phil!) but she’s one determined lady and by July all the flights and accommodation was booked and all was left was that hair-raising experience of sitting for the Schengen interview.  They ask for proof of everything, address, bank accounts, accommodation, employment even leave approval.  I remember thinking that perhaps they didn’t actually want me there.  I know the official line will be that since I first visited, Europe is being faced with a immigrant crisis of proportions probably never seen before.  And I would totally understand the stringent process.  But when I eventually  got to Rome I think I figured out the real reason.  They don’t really want more tourists, they have too many already.

I’m going to go out on a limb and make the wide sweeping assertion that most European cities are too busy.  Most of the main cities will have populations over a couple million to start with.  All fit into compact high density spaces.  So when you add another 2 or 3 times the normal population in tourists every year they can become very crowded just in general.   Go visit one of the tourist attractions and that general overcrowding becomes borderline claustrophobic. In fact about half an hour into my first morning in Rome I was almost ready to get on a plane and get back. In that half hour I had taken the train to the Spanish steps, set up my tripod that had taken about 20% of my luggage allowance to get there, and had about 15 different people stop right in front of my lens despite having seen me standing there.  Well to be fair not people, tourists.  Despite all the red tape in getting Schengen visas, seemingly thousands of us tourists still managed to get in.

The crowds didn’t really get much better in the rest of Rome and even when I moved across to Athens.  I visited the many fountains in Rome, ate ice cream and took in the ancient architecture.  In an effort to skip the queues at the Vatican we went on a guided tour.  The Vatican is opulent and beautiful, however almost anywhere you turned was filled with tourists.  And September was meant to be the end of the peak season so I would not want to experience it the height of summer.  Why anyone would is beyond me actually.  To get around having too many tourists in my shots I decided to go for some longer exposures which would not only blur the water but also the movement of the throngs of tourists.  And I also decided to try to shoot at night when some of the main attractions were less busy.

I had not visited Greece at all while I was in the UK.  And honestly I am not sure why I waited so long.  Landing in Athens felt different from the rest of the European cities I visited.  I think my first impression was that the landscape looked a lot like the Karoo, dry and sparse.  And the weather was a lot like Cape Town so the city had an immediate familiar feel to it, despite the language barrier that was harder than some of the other foreign languages you might usually encounter in Europe.  Suddenly the usual latin alphabet letters you have learned all your life are replaced with the Greek symbols you learned in maths (and later in chemical engineering all through university).  The city turned out to be beautiful in the end and with great food to boot!

Athens was meant to be a stop over on the way to Santorini but I almost immediately knew I would end up needing to go back.  The city itself seemed more well spaced out and not as crowded than some of the other European cities I have visited.  Like many of them the airport is outside the city limits and its only a quick train ride into the city center on what seemed like a more modern metro system.  And then it was a quick tram ride to our hotel. Even though I did have to ask for directions almost as soon as I landed and got lost getting out of the airport to the train station because I was too busy munching on a spinach and cheese pie and then spent about 45 minutes waiting for the tram because I initially was headed in the wrong direction.  We then crammed in all we could take in on the one full day we had in the city on a guided bus tour that took us to the Acropolis and the museum, lunched in the lively Plaka district and then took the metro out to the port.  We learned of Zeus and Athens and Sparta and the other Gods we all learned about while watching Hercules (He put the glad in gladiator) cartoons.  The mythology we actually grew up with.  And we ate.  Boy did we eat, from that cheese pie I already mentioned to souvlaki in Plaka, chicken in the best white wine sauce with a show to boot.  And sweet pastries that seemed to be everywhere we went!

And then it was goodbye to Athens and off to Santorini.  7:30am Ferry from the for a 8 hour trip making stops at 3 or 4 of the other Cyclades Islands on the way.  The time on the ferry actually went by faster than on a plane because you can move about.  Word of advice though, the food on the ferry wasn’t the greatest so if you ever do choose the option, take a picnic along.  The various stops and having good company meant the 8 hours flew by and before we knew it we came into view of the northern village of Oia on Santorini.

Santorini is meant to be a small island that was once larger before the volcano that created it blew it apart, sinking a large portion of the original island leaving only a crescent shaped piece of land behind.  The possible origin of the story of the lost city of Atlantis we were told. From the lighthouse in the south of the island to Oia in the north of the island is just under 30km.  But if you forget to get a car and have to walk 6km to get it then the island suddenly becomes much larger.  Driving a little rental on the wrong side of already narrow roads was fun.  We went exploring the different beaches then on a guided afternoon tour of the island, ending with sunset in Oia.  Those throngs of pesky tourists meant we had less than 10 minutes looking out on the iconic 3 churches and windmills.  But I tried to make the most of the time we were given by the self appointed keeper of the view, an old lady with a broom, shooing us over-eager snapshot seekers away from what was her front porch. And we ate again, pies, sweet pastries, rabbit that I am convinced the owner caught and cooked while we waited and grilled squid as fresh as you can get.  And all that in one day.  The next day it was off to the beach to get some droning in and then on to Thira where I somehow managed to get lost.  I was eventually found again – but in all of that I think I lost a small part of me to the island so I need to go back again!

Six days in Europe, two days in transit, too much to eat, 60 photographs from about 500 as keepers, many kilometers walked, out of choice or necessity, planes, trains and ferries and countless memories. Lightning fast but lasting impressions none the less.

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