"Now whosoever of them did eat the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, had no more wish to bring tidings nor to come back, but there he chose to abide with the lotus-eating men, ever feeding on the lotus and forgetful of his homeward way. Therefore I led them back to the ships weeping, and sore against their will, and dragged them beneath the benches, and bound them in the hollow barques." - Homer (The Odyssey)
Seductive. Intoxicating. Otherworldly. Dangerous. I think I found the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, the island where Odysseus' men ate the fruit of the natives and forgot their ten-year mission of returning to Ithaca. One of Santorini's many aliases is Kalliste, which means "most beautiful". In Greek mythology, Kalliste was a nymph of Lycaon who seduced Zeus. As our bus skirts the Caldera, our guide tells us we are bound for Oia (pronounced ee-ya), which she says is "the most beautiful village" on "the most beautiful island" with "the most beautiful sunsets" and "the most beautiful houses" where we can get "the most beautiful pictures." It occurs to me that I might very well be seeing the most beautiful place on earth.
Motoring into the crescent-shaped bay, the rim of one of the largest active volcanos in the world, our ferry towed an epic plume of white water, a wake that billowed to turquoise at the edges and then relaxed to peacock blue. Agapi had advised me to take anti-nausea medication that morning. This wasn't one of the massive inter-island water taxis that people used to get around the Cyclades, but a smaller high-speed catamaran on which you felt every wave. A very rare subject to motion sickness, I didn't heed the advice, but I felt fine as I went down into the rumbling belly of the ship where our luggage was stored. I waited in the garage with the rest of the passengers, feeling as though I were disembarking a spaceship as an echoing alarm buzzed and the vehicle ramp yawned open, a slow reveal of a dramatic cliff face in the Caldera.
Crete has a rolling, Elysian-Fields kind of loveliness about it. Santorini is less subtle. Its harsh, primeval beauty is more beat-you-over-the-head. On the approach, I'd seen what I thought were snow-capped mountains. Now I realized the white cascades were not snow but houses, one-story villas so bright and gleaming they could give you a sunburn. They were built into the mountainside connected by white-washed stone staircases, their backs merging into the tiered rock like caves. I didn't know how or why, but even the snails here were white. As we wove our way up the mountain on the bus, we passed the most beautiful white horse I'd ever seen, grazing on a hillside with no halter and no fence. We drove a while longer and it struck me that I saw no horse, anywhere, that was any other colour.
What wasn't white was blue. Cerulean domes on churches and houses fortified the structures against earthquakes and mirrored the colour contrast of the white-crested Aegean. Grapevines grew in coils on the ground to protect the fruit from the wind. To add to the dream-like surreality of it all, Santorini's beaches - and ONLY the beaches - were black, the volcanic sand coarse as Kosher salt as it sloped beneath white fishing boats that looked like they were floating on blue stained glass.
Like the poppy fields in the Wizard of Oz, the enchantment of this place was such that it had a physical effect. I wanted to lay down and stay forever in an eternal sleep, condemned like Odysseus' crew to a life of apathetic bliss. I found myself reciting where I had to be and when tomorrow, so future commitments didn't just slip away - check out of the hotel at eleven, meet my transfer to the volcano at three-thirty, take the ferry back to Crete at six... It was all I could do not to forget it all. My time on Santorini was cruelly short. The exclusivity of the place wasn't lost on the tourism industry. One night in a hotel here could cost as much as €2000. Luckily my overnight tour hadn't cost one tenth that, but if I were to stay longer on my own, who knows?
Our guide pointed out a good lunch spot in Oia, which I was grateful for. There was little I hated more than arriving in a minefield of tourist traps and having to rely on instinct and guesswork to choose a restaurant. This terrace-top taverna had wooden tables covered with blue-and-white checkered linens and a spectacular view of the Caldera over descending dome rooftops. I pulled out a chair at a table next to two middle-aged blonds travelling together on the same tour, and before I even sat down they were inviting me to join them. Judging by their accents and dogmatic chatter, they could only be American. Southern American. I asked where they were from and my suspicions were confirmed.
"Arizona," one of the blonds, Piper, told me.
"Okay," I laughed. We were going to get along just fine.
"How about you?"
"I'm Canadian," I replied, "but Arizona is probably my favourite place in the world." Until now, perhaps. "I'm stopping there on my way home."
We ordered bread and pasta and Visanto, the local red wine of which we'd been given a welcome taste at the village entrance, and which I had instantly fallen head-over-heels in love with. It was sweet, almost sickly sweet, a reminder that the richness of life on Santorini would be too much to take on an everyday basis. We talked about my one-woman adventure, and I told them that, although it was liberating, it was a relief every so often to share a meal and have a conversation. I liked the way these ladies mixed olive oil and vinegar to dip their bread in. I hadn't seen anyone do that since I left home. In Croatia they tried to tell me vinegar was inedible.
I tagged along with Piper and Debbie (that was the other Southerner's name) for the remainder of our afternoon, grateful for the company and the opportunity to follow as we wandered the narrow alleys of the capital, Fira and then rode the bus down to the black sand beaches of Perissa. Our bus driver, named Kostas (surprise!) was a miracle-worker, manoeuvring our mammoth two-story coach up and down streets barely wide enough for a donkey, tapping the gas just the right amount to inch his way around a hairpin switchback, the front bumper missing the corner of a Byzantine cathedral by millimetres. Piper and Debbie and I said our goodbyes in Perissa. They weren't staying overnight.
"Okay Babycakes," Debbie flashed me a winning southern smile, "take care of yourself. Go have the time of your life."
"Thanks," I returned the smile. "I am."
My hotel had the air of a Niagara-on-the-Lake B&B, blue and white (of course) arches nestled so deeply in a garden of palms, cacti and flowering climbing vines that you almost couldn't see it. There was a pool with wicker loungers in the shaded courtyard, and a small dining room with vased pink flowers on the tables. My room had a canopied double bed with gold covers. I'd gone back to Creta House for lunch in Heraklion yesterday. I liked the way the older waitress (I think she was the owner's wife) called me "Princess". It didn't sound condescending the way it might coming from some North Americans, but rather like a grandmother addressing her granddaughter. It was the way I felt climbing between the sheets of that bed in Santorini.
I'd never known inspiration like that which struck me here. It went beyond a spark or a flash. It was an explosion of fireworks. It kept me up that night, my mind reeling with poetics. I felt that if I didn't write, I would die, from the inside out.
Writing was the first thing I did in the morning, letting my coffee get cold while I took furious notes in my leather journal at the breakfast bar. I whiled away the rest of the time before my transfer exploring my surroundings. By now I'd figured out where I was: Kamari, Santorini's second black-sand beach and, coincidentally, the town I'd put at the top of my must-see list before coming here.
I walked along the main strip by the waterfront. I found a mini market specializing in local products and bought a bottle of that sweet Santorini specialty, Visanto. I already had honey and olive oil. Now the Mediterranean Holy Trinity was complete. The bottle was tiny, enough for two glasses at most, and I vowed not to open it until I met up with my mom in Arizona, and had someone to share it with.
I did get to have one last glass, though, when I stopped for lunch at Al Fresco, a trip-advisor-recommended pizza and pasta place. Greek food was all well and good, and God knows I'd had my share of it, but if I saw one more potato in this country I was going to shoot myself.
I asked for tagliatelle, and the waiter said they didn't have any right now because it was made fresh everyday. "It should be ready in about an hour," he told me. "They are rolling it out now."
"Then I'll wait," I smiled in reply and reached for the Frances Mayes book in my bag. While I read I sipped a very full glass of Visanto, savouring every drop of the raw juice-like tang. The flavour was so natural. I'd never had a wine that tasted more like grapes. After only about forty-five minutes, my pasta arrived, a gorgeous nest overflowing with whole langoustine, mussels, zucchini, saffron and Santorini's famous cherry tomatoes.
"Here you are," the waiter said. "Fresh tagliatelle made just for you."
I followed the descending cliff line over the rooftops back to the beach. Standing on the dusky sand, looking out at the water, I indulged in a sigh. After spending one night here (not remotely close to enough) I knew one thing for certain: If you didn't fall instantly, hopelessly in love with this place, there was no hope for you as a lover, an artist, a dreamer, a human being or a mortal.
No one said anything about another boat. It was all I could do to make peace with the ferry ride back to Crete, and yet here I was a few hours before, balking at the sight of the tall ship waiting for me in the harbour. It was windy, and the wooden sailboat looked ready to capsize at every wave. My gut curdled just looking at it.
"The volcano is over there," or guide pointed across the bay to the rocky islet in the middle of the crescent. "How did you expect to get there?"
Assuming we would be getting back on the same bus afterwards, I left my luggage in the storage compartment. Apparently I was wrong. As I stepped reluctantly into the boat, my suitcase hit the deck with a thunderous crash. I looked over my shoulder to see the bus driver grinning and waving goodbye.
I spent the duration of the ride with my back against the cabin, gripping the rigging with white knuckles to avoid being knocked off my feet as the bow rose and dropped over five-foot waves with a velocity that made my stomach bottom-out. The wind whipped my hair in my face (great day to wear it down) and I could feel salt crystallizing on my skin as waves swallowed the bow with every plunge, drenching everyone onboard. Our captain was a tall, solid man with black curls that stretched past his shoulders, like a pirate. The only sound over the blow-hole roar of the sea was his booming, maniacal laugh. Ever been whitewater rafting? It was like that, but in a tall ship.
When the ride finally smoothed out, we were in a small inlet walled on three sides by volcanic cliffs, sharp and black as slate. Our guide unrolled a ladder over the side. What was that for? Apparently I was the only one who hadn't been informed this excursion involved swimming. Everyone else was already wearing bathing suits under their clothes. Even if I had been prepared, I doubt I could have rallied enough to get in the water.
"Aren't you going in?" Our guide asked when I hung back while everyone else took the ladder down or cannonballed off the side. One young Russian backpacker did a backflip off the railing.
"I'm not much of a swimmer," I confided, eyeing the churning waves, gunmetal-blue in this overcast light.
"It's okay," he assured me. "It's an active volcano. The water is warm."
Oh, now I feel better. I stayed onboard, watching mountain goats scale the sheer cliffs until our crew dried off and we sailed back to the harbour.
I don't know if it was because the ferry was late, or the fact that there was a storm brewing, or both, but the port was a madhouse when we arrived to catch the boat back to Crete. Hundreds of passengers swarmed the tiny departure lot, narrowly avoiding being flattened by tour buses as they flooded in, spewing out more people. No one knew where to go. Our tour group hadn't been given tickets yet, and we had no idea who to see to get them. I asked one of the other guides, and he nodded and smiled. "You don't speak English do you?" Getting stranded on Santorini wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, just the most expensive.
By the time we figured it out, the High-Speed 5 was docking in the harbour. Officials ushered us through the departure terminal with an urgency that felt more suited to an emergency evacuation. "Get inside please," we were told over and over again, masses pouring over the ramp, which buzzed and rose while the last passengers were still boarding. No one was allowed to stand on the outside deck. The seas were too rough, but a lot of people stood at the back windows, watching the most beautiful island fade, like a dream, into the fog.
The catamaran was almost as rocky as the tall ship. I found my seat and planted myself there for the duration, closing my eyes and swallowing hard, all the while trying to pretend I was on a plane. If I ever saw another boat again it would be too soon.
There was more confusion when we arrived in Heraklion. Tour buses were taking people on a first-come-first-serve basis whether they spoke Greek, English, French, German or Russian and without regard for the company they'd booked through or the bus number on their voucher. People were left behind. I'm sure of it. "Where is your hotel?" The driver of bus twelve, my number, demanded.
Attempting to simplify the process, I shrugged. "It doesn't matter," I yelled over the chaos. "I haven't booked yet. Just put me down anywhere." He gave me a look that clearly communicated he couldn't do that. "Roxani is fine," I amended quickly, naming my departure point from the day before. He pointed me toward another bus and shouted the name of the hotel to the driver. Driving through Amoudara Beach, where I'd spent the last two weeks, the bus came to a stop in front of Petousis, the biggest and most popular hotel in the area. I tapped the driver on the shoulder. "How much does it cost to stay here?" I inquired, pointing to the expansive stone taverna and apartment complex.
"About forty-five euros," he told me.
"Just let me off here."
Nerves effectively shot, I rolled my suitcase inside and asked for a room. My last hope as I accepted my card key and took the elevator up to the third floor, was for towels. Not all hotels here provided them, and mine were still dirty. The bus driver's price quote was dead-on. For sixty-six Canadian dollars I got a three-bedroom suite with a balcony, conjoined kitchen and a bathroom with a hot, high-pressure shower. There were no less than eight towels. Big, thick, white ones.