Eating out in Greece
I still don't fully understand it, but here are a few things I observed in Greece:
It is very common for a restaurant to give you something extra when you choose to eat there, as a gift "from them." Accept it graciously, and eat it all -- Greeks can be very hurt if you don't enjoy your entire meal.
Tip is usually included. Notice on your receipt where percentages are listed after each itemized price. Extra tip is still appreciated, just be aware that this is what it is -- extra.
Spectacular Island of Santorini (Thira)
click: Zorba music
This crescent-shaped island in the Cyclades Group of the Greek isles is very special because of its geographical phenomenon. Geographers theorised that around three and a half thousand years ago, Santorini was a much larger island but its volcano blew most of the island apart, and the waters of the Aegean sea spilled into the vast newly-formed crater called the "caldera", resulting into some very spectacular landscapes. Historians also theorised that Santorini (or Thira in Greek) is where Plato's legendary city of Atlantis was located before it sank into the sea. Despite its volcanic origins, I am surprised that this sun-drenched island itself is quite barren and rocky with nary a tree in some parts; and this is not what I expected from a volcanic landmass which normally has fertile soil.
Although the land itself is harsh and rough in a beautiful way, the main attraction of Santorini are the resilient towns that dot the island. Rustic, quaint and simple, they are an amateur photographer's dream, because nothing can go wrong with your pictures. The towns are very pretty which belies the island's destructive and violent ancient history. White-washed structures, built in simple basic forms of cubes and domes are densely stacked next to each other in the older sections of the towns, clinging precariously on the rugged cliffs overlooking the blue Aegean Sea. The maze-like layout of the towns invite you to wander and explore the hilly footpaths, and with each turn revealing yet another interesting scenic angle. One can reflect that this is a stark contrast between the simple man-made designs against the backdrop of the grand forces of nature.
Santorini's main town is Fira and this is where the vast majority of the travellers first visit. Tourism is the overwhelming fixture in this place. Most ferry boats dock at Port Athinios, a few kms from Fira. Furthermore, huge luxury ships disgorge thousands of affluent tourists for a quick stopver at Fira. The town's population swells three-fold when these ships arrive and quickly subsides as soon as they leave for the next port of call. Fira has transformed from a small simple village to a popular tourist destination. Fine restaurants, bars, shops, markets have changed the townscape. Donkeys that once hauled harvests now carry obese or aged tourists from the jetty all the way up the cliff leading to Fira. I suppose the locals find this much more lucrative than picking grapes and I can see that they must be doing well because in the outskirts of the town, nice modern houses have been mushrooming. Firans are slowly experiencing fresh challenges in maintaining their rustic lifestyle. Some have completely turned their back against it.
The caldera is what made Santorini very popular. This large bay contains two smaller volcanic islands called Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni. These volcanoes are still active and the last eruption was only back in1950. Can you imagine the sight of an erupting volcano viewed from the towns in Santorini? And what effect would that have on the already-spectaular sunsets?! Volcanoes normally produce hotsprings and these two islands are no exception. Many travellers who visit these islands mainly bathe in these island's hotsprings.
Other islands in the caldera are Thirasia and Aspronisi. Like Santorini, these islands used to be part of the larger island before they splintered as a result of the ancient volcanic eruption. These islands can also be reached by boat from Fira.
All roads and seaways lead to Fira in the island of Santorini, but there are other smaller towns overlooking the caldera that are equally attractive but relatively untouristed. The towns on the caldera side are much more popular ones to visit as they provide breath-taking views of the Aegean Sea and the smaller volcanic islands in the caldera. These towns also face the west and therefore they are prime seats for one of the most spectacular sunsets in the world. Deep orange in colour, the effect on its reflection over the whitewashed villages on the rocky cliffs are something you'd see on a science fiction film. It's just out of this world!
"Oia or Ia"
Oia or Ia, in one tip of the island is typically Santorinian. Much more relaxed than Fira, the quiet rustic atmosphere still prevails, I spent a lot of time in Oia and it is a delight to explore this quaint town using the narrow labyrinthian pathways. The skyline of Oia is dominated by small whitewashed churches with azure blue domes and raw Greek-style windmills. Here you'll see elderly Greek matrons dressed in all black doing their rural chores. This is what I imagined Greece to be like and Oia doesn't disappoint, unlike Athens.
Another town in Santorini is Akrotiri which is located in the other extremity of the island. Smaller than Oia, this town is close to archaelogical excavation sites where one can see well preserved ancient Greek frescoes.
"Water Water everywhere"
Away from the caldera side are Santorini's beaches. The Greek islands can be intolerably hot during the summer months, and these beaches are a welcome sight for tourists and locals alike. Most of these beaches have dark sand because of the volcanic nature of the island. Perissa beach is the most frequented of the lot.
Santorini is definitely well-worth visiting. It's popular because it has so much to offer for such as barren small island. The townspeople should congratulate themselves for their resilient and indomitable spirit. Their innate sense for the simple rustic style has captivated the travelers, so much that many new modern houses in Western cities are patterned after those tthat they've seen in Santorini.