The Caldera Clifftop Hike on Santorini

Santorini1Santorini was once a single island, rising in the centre to a beautiful cone-shaped peak (like Fujiyama in Japan, or Taranaki/Mount Egmont in New Zealand). Along with Crete, it was at the heart of the Minoan civilisation; a culture that dominated the eastern Mediterranean during the Bronze age, until a cataclysmic volcanic eruption about 3,500 years ago.

SantoriniHike2The cone of the volcano burst open, spewing smoke and ash high into the atmosphere. The explosion would probably have been heard as far away as Scandinavia and Central Africa, Gibraltar and the Persian Gulf. The mass of rock thrown skyward formed a vast caldera, into which the sea flooded. Giant waves generated by the blast swept across the Mediterranean, as the fragments of the island were buried under a white-hot blanket of dust and debris.

Today, Thera, the largest island of the Santorini archipelago, is a remnant of that catastrophe. Sheer cliffs, banded with charcoal grey, rose pink and rust brown strata, rise from indigo water on the eastern side of the drowned crater, catching that famous sunset in their curves. A hiking trail snakes along the rim of the caldera between the island’s capital, Fira, and the picture-perfect village of Oia, on the northern tip of the island.

SantoriniHike1We started the hike early to beat the heat of the day (As a pale-skinned Scot, I wilt in midday sunshine). With dawn creeping up the sky, the sounds of the waking island filled the air. Crowing roosters, barking dogs, and the tolling of church bells more rhythmic than melodic. The sunrise washed over us as we made the short climb through the winding lanes of Fira, spilling down into the caldera as we reached the rim.

Far below, water taxis cast off from the harbour, heading out to meet the first cruise ship to arrive into the caldera. Donkeys mustered at the bottom of cliff, ready to transport passengers up the seemingly endless zig-zag trail. Cleaners and handymen buzzed around rooftop terraces and infinity pools, preparing for the day ahead, but heading away from the centre of Fira, things quietened down considerably.

SantoriniHike3We took a diversion in the village of Imerovigli to walk out to Skaros Rock, a fin of rock protruding out from the caldera rim, topped with a reddish rocky chunk that wouldn’t look out of place alongside the mesas of Monument Valley. It once boasted a fortified citadel, long destroyed by earthquakes that accompanied eruptions in the centre of the caldera. All that remains is the tiny chapel of Agios Ioannis Apokefalistheis, clinging to the side of the cliff a hundred metres or so below.

Rejoining the main trail, we passed a number of exclusive hotels and apartments heading out of the village, barely spotting any other people. The exception was an Asian woman in a gorgeous and elaborate bridal gown, choreographing her photoshoot against the backdrop of the view. I don’t think her groom/cameraman was going to be allowed to to feature in any of the shots.

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SantoriniHike6Leaving Imerovigli, we were joined by a dog taking himself for walkies, who we named “Sausages”. He seemed particularly nonchalant about that development, and eventually left us to pursue a female dog taking a walk in the other direction.

Once out of the villages, the trail snaked through the cinders along the caldera rim. Scrubby bushes lined the route, providing shelter for lizards that scarpered out of the way as we passed by, before returning to bask in the sunshine. It wasn’t until we reached the chapel above Oia that we met others on the trail; two birdwatchers engrossed in watching a merlin (a small hawk) search for prey on the hillside. They’d picked a great spot, with a panoramic view of the sugar-cube houses of Oia arranged haphazardly along the spine of the island, framed by the blue Aegean. The island of Therasia mirrored Oia, with a snowdrift of white buildings spilling across terraces of rock.

SantoriniHike7From this point, the trail drops steadily into Oia, where it runs into the main “street” and on through winding lanes to the remains of Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village. We stopped into a café for a long, leisurely brunch with a couple of frappés (the real Greek coffee!) before exploring the village, soaking up the gorgeous sea-views and people-watching, whilst trying to identify the easy listening covers of popular music of the café soundtrack. Amongst the constant flow of tourists (identifiable from their leisurely walking pace), we spotted another two Asian brides, marching purposefully between vantage points to capture shots with the best backdrop.

 

What to see in Oia

  • The most famous photographs of Oia seem to be taken from Kasteli Agios Nikolaos at the end of the village, where you have a panoramic view across the village, including the famous windmills, and over to the island of Therasia.
  • The picturesque port of Amoudi, at the bottom of 300 steps below Oia, is the place to go for fresh fish, and even to take a dip in the clear water.
  • Atlantis Books. I know I find I hard to walk past a bookshop, but this is a real delight. It stocks books in Greek, English, German, Spanish, French, from fiction to philosophy.
  • Beautiful Asian women in wedding dresses. I don’t know if it’s a thing, or my visit coincided with a magazine photoshoot, but I spotted at least 6 different brides in places around the village.

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Important information

Depending on exact start and finish points, the trail is 10 to 12km in length, with the hike taking around 3 hours, depending on fitness, how relaxed you make your pace, and how often you stop to stare with amazement at the stunning panoramic view.

SantoriniHike5The trail is pretty obvious, so you don’t need a map, although if you don’t look ahead at some points it’s possible to make a wrong turn and end up on edge of a busy winding road. The ground underfoot is uneven, and the trail rises and falls as it winds along the clifftop, so suitable footwear is recommended (volcanic cinders and sandals don’t work well together). There is little escape from the sun on the route, so carry plenty of water and remember sunblock and all that sort of thing (as I try not to sound too much like your mum).

SantoriniHike8The hike can be done either direction, but if you’re hiking in the afternoon, consider walking from Fira to Oia, arriving in time for the sunset. Just bear in mind this is a popular destination and you may have to share your spot with a crowd. However, sunset views are just as impressive everywhere on the caldera edge.

Buses for the return journey depart regularly from the square in Oia, and are cheap (1.60euros).SantoriniHike11

A Vagabond January

To help meet my goal of being more focused on work, and in the rest of my life, I’ve been noting down little achievements in my journal. But without taking time to revisit what I’ve done and reflect on milestones I’ve passed, I’ll never maintain the momentum I had at the start of the year. So each month I’m aiming to publish a review of what I’ve been up to.

Where I’ve Been

I kicked off my #30NightsOut challenge to spend more time outdoors in 2015 with a Hogmanay camping trip with a few friends to White Horse Hill in Oxfordshire. Huddled round the campfire, we celebrated the New Year with a feast of ribs, corn on the cob and sweet potatoes roasted on the fire, and washed down with a few glasses of bubbly. We were able to watch several firework displays from our vantage point, until wind and drizzle forced us to bed in the wee hours. Grotty weather put paid to our plans to climb the hill in the morning, so we retreated home to the comfort of pyjamas, duvets and endless cups of tea.

I’ve entered the 2015 TGO Challenge, a demanding backpack across Scotland from coast-to-coast, that will take place in May. The Bear (my bf) and I are going to hike for approximately 14 days, so we’ve been out on several training walks in the countryside of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

I’m not really one for sitting about, as you might gather, so while I’m looking for work, I’ve got myself involved in a project with the Ocean Youth Trust based in Southampton. I’m working with a team over the winter to refit their sail training vessel, John Laing, a 22metre-long ketch custom-built to be able to sail anywhere in the world. So far, my jobs have been rather dusty as we strip back old paint, ready for a fresh coat.

Highlights

After a hard day of sanding on John Laing, I escaped out to the pretty village of Lymington in the heart of the New Forest for a walk across the wintry heathland. The pale silvery sunset looked like it might promise some snow, but all we got was a crisp hard frost that turned the heather crunchy.

News

I visited the Adventure Travel Show in London on the 18th January. It was exciting to browse the stands and see travel options available, but the most inspiring part of the day was listening to talks from people like Benedict Allen and Ann Daniels. I was particularly inspired by a talk by Russ Malkin about filming his travels, and really want to try some of his tips for myself.  Just need to get a camera…

I’ve Been Reading

I’m a massive bookworm. Getting stuck into a good read is just one of life’s pleasures, and I particularly love books that explore a topic in exquisite detail. Gossip from the Forest by Sara Maitland is a spell-binding examination of the connection between forests and fairytales, and how both have shaped the culture and experience of Northern Europeans like myself. Each chapter ends with Maitland’s retelling of a familiar tale.

As a lighter diversion, I also read Sihpromatum: I Grew My Boobs in China by Savannah Grace, which I picked up as a Kindle freebie. A self-published memoir written for young-adults, this is a coming-of-age tale that charts Grace’s transition from a whiny, self-centred teen to a young adult with a wide-eyed wonder about the world.

I’ve also spent a lot of my usual reading time this month listening to the BBC podcast of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Quite frankly, big books feel a little daunting to me (perhaps from the time I dozed off and dropped the hardback copy of A Game of Thrones on my face, giving myself a black eye), but the hour long chunks of the story have been perfect, and I can lie back on the sofa and daydream of the drama and romance of Tsarist Russia without worrying about injury.

Best of the Blogs

This month I shared an account of the time I set out on a trip to explore Oslo, and only managed to spend time in the hotel before flying out again. Visiting Scandinavia at this time of year is likely to mean snow and freezing temperatures, but these tips for making the best out of winter travel curated by Turnipseed Travel will inspire you to get out into the cold. Closer to home, I enjoyed following the bloggers that took part in the #blogmanay experience, in particular these stunning pictures of Glencoe by Finding The Universe. But if getting knee-deep in snow really isn’t your thing the naughty guide to winter in London by Girl vs Globe might be more up your street.

My Most Popular Instagram

IMG_3651v1This shot of the Parthenon, at the top of the Acropolis, is a flashback to my time in Athens for the TBEX Conference in October last year.

Coming Up Next Month

I’ll be obsessing over maps in February, as I put together my route across Scotland for the TGO Challenge, and send it off for approval from the event co-ordinators on the 14th. I’ll also be out for some more long training walks and to test some of the equipment I’m planning on carrying.

I’ve got a short-break to the Peak District planned for the start of the month, which is bound to include more hiking. Depending on conditions, I might also be tempted to spend a night under canvas for my #30NightsOut challenge, although I’m keeping my fingers crossed for snow and the excuse to find a good pub with a roaring fire at the end of the day.

That’s it for this month. Thank you for following These Vagabond Shoes. For real-time updates from my adventures, you can follow me on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

2014: A Vagabond Year in Review

2014ReviewTitleIt’s that time of year again: time to look back at what the last 12 months have brought, and start to think about the year ahead too. My 2014 travels have made for an interesting year, with loads of exciting opportunities, unusual adventures, and new destinations across Europe and the UK to explore. Add to that mix a few return trips to favourite places, the odd unexpected detour, and plenty of time the BEST COUNTRY in the WORLD!*

My first trip of the year was a short Hogmanay holiday in the Scottish Highlands, based near Aviemore. After Christmas on the Aberdeenshire coast with my family, my boyfriend (the Bear) and I headed for the hills in the hope of snow. Unfortunately, a mild spell meant that only the tops of the Cairngorms got a dusting of the white stuff, then hurricane-force winds closed the ski centre and funicular railway, forcing us off the hills.

Rothiemurchus Forest near Aviemore is remnant of the ancient Caledonian wildwood.
Rothiemurchus Forest near Aviemore is remnant of the ancient Caledonian wildwood.

I worked full-time during the first half of the year, so my travels were limited to long weekends and day-trips, including a visit to the Bear’s family in Yorkshire, a few day-trips to London and a couple of nights camping in Northumberland.

I squeezed in a two-week road trip and camping holiday to the far north of Scotland at the end of April, introducing my boyfriend to some of my favourite places in the world. My childhood holidays would usually start with a visit to my Grandparents in Thurso, on the north coast, followed by a few weeks in our caravan touring remote beaches and tiny villages.

On April 13th I ran the Virgin Money London Marathon, a 26mile long street party, and have an awesome medal to prove it.  I didn’t see Mo Farah.

Eilean Donan Castle, on the Road to the Isles
Eilean Donan Castle, on the Road to the Isles

At the end of June I said goodbye to my colleagues and boarded a flight to Norway. I headed to Haugesund, to meet up with the crew of the Viking longship Draken Harald Hårfagre for an eventful summer of sailing. Three days into our crossing of the North Sea, our mast broke, and we made straight for the safety of Lerwick, Shetland, to assess the condition of the ship. We were able to take advantage of the unexpected shore leave to explore a little of Shetland, whilst we waited to find out if our expedition could continue.

 

With a green light from the owner, we were thrilled to get back out to sea again, even though we were motoring rather than sailing. Our skipper took us down the Moray Firth and through the Caledonian Canal, to avoid the challenging conditions around Cape Wrath, on our route to the west coast.

Calling into the whisky-lover’s paradise of Islay, we bumped in to a fabulous band called The Blueswater, and invited them to stage what must surely be the greatest ever blues gig held on a Viking ship. If that wasn’t enough, the following evening on Rathlin Island we were invited to a ceilidh with traditional Irish music from members of the famous Black family.

Our next destination was Peel, on the Isle of Man, before we headed to Liverpool and the Wirral, where the ship underwent repairs.

With a fortnight’s shore leave, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore. Estonian shipmate Kessu and I took the overnight ferry to Belfast, and road-tripped our way along the Antrim coast, before heading south to Dublin to meet up with Marie, Draken’s French cook, to tour the city.

From our Merseyside base, I visited the sights of Liverpool and was joined by the Bear for a weekend. And after a few days of work, a few shipmates and I escaped for a couple of days hiking in Snowdonia, Wales, to celebrate crewmember Jemima’s birthday.

Back on Draken we returned to the Isle of Man, this time under sail. Heading north, we called into Oban, the Isle of Rum (where we visited quirky Kinloch Castle), and Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, before rounding Cape Wrath to reach Stromness in Orkney. We raced north to beat stormy weather, ziping past Fair Isle to make port in Lerwick, where we spent a week waiting on the weather for our return crossing to Norway.

After signing-off from the ship, I set out to explore Oslo, but somehow got sidetracked into a road-trip adventure that ended in Marie and I gatecrashing a Viking-themed wedding on a mountain top at midnight. I never managed to see Kon Tiki.

Scotland1
The UNESCO biosphere reserve of Beinn Eighe in the north-west highlands of Scotland.

There was only one place in the world to be in September, as Scotland faced a referendum on independence from the UK. The atmosphere was buzzing with excitement and trepidation, and people were determined to celebrate regardless of the outcome. Wha’s like us?

In October the Bear and I headed to Greece, spending several days exploring Rhodes, before taking the ferry to Santorini. Well-known as a luxury destination, I wanted to see if it was possible to have an awesome experience on a shoestring budget. Mission accomplished!

I spent several days in Athens, taking in the TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exchange) conference, my first experience of the travel blogging community. I met loads of awesome bloggers, made some good friends, and got the opportunity to take a day trip to Delphi.

After all that travel, it was time to return to the UK to work to pay off some of my adventures and build a bit of a fund for next year. It wasn’t all work and no play however, and I managed to squeeze in a couple of day trips to London and Oxford before Christmas.

 

It’s been a great year. What was your most memorable moment in 2014?

 

*That’s Scotland, by the way, if you didn’t get the subtle subtext through the post.

Santorini on a Shoestring

The name Santorini is likely to have captured your imagination long before you even set eyes on the islands that make up this tiny archipelago at the southern end of the Cyclades chain. Famed for the spectacular sunsets that wash over whitewashed villages perched on precipitous clifftops, turning them rose and gold in the gloaming, it is very much on the tourist trail through the Greek islands.IMG_3809v2head

Chances are your impression is also that Santorini has an air of exclusivity around it, somewhere only for the rich and famous, or a romantic destination just for honeymoon couples, with a price tag to match. If you must watch the sunset from a private balcony, cocktail in hand, or dip in an infinity pool on the caldera rim to make your stay special, that’s certainly true. However, it is possible to visit Santorini on a shoestring budget, and have an unforgettable experience. Continue reading