Tag Archives: Stunning


After the tourist hell that was Mykonos, I have sort of been dreading coming to Santorini. From all I had seen in advance, it was the prettiest of all of the Greek Islands, the striking white villages perched high up on the cliffs, overlooking the sea. Yes it would be stunning, but these views have attracted steady streams of tourists for many many years. And this is the bit that was troubling me.

Santorini is the most visited of all of the Greek Islands and is one of the top tourist destinations in the world. It lies 200 km southeast of Athens. Pre-Covid Santorini was getting around 2 million tourists each year.

Santorini is shaped like a half-moon as it was originally formed in around 1650 BC after a huge volcano erupted and the island is the remains of the caldera. The five villages of Fira (the one we are in), Oia (the famous sunset one), Imerovigli, Firostefani, and Akrotiri all sit atop the caldera and offer spectacular views into the crater.

Having hopped the midday ferry from Naxos, we did the 2 hour journey to Santorini which was relatively calm until…It was time to get off. And almost everyone got off. Thousands of people, on one of the big ferries, all trying to get their bags and get off the ferry, it was bedlam. Add to this all the vehicles and trucks on the ferry that had to wait for the hordes to exit before they could move.

From here you spill out onto the docks to find almost the same amount of people trying to cram themselves onto the ferry to leave. Add to this the tour group operators (that Jill has come to despise) the busses, taxis and motor transports all trying to find their passengers. To say this was a debacle would be underselling it.

Once in your transport, you then get to watch the traffic and graffiti for the next 40 minutes or so. The road out is a series of ever-diminishing switchbacks (8 in all) to climb the incredibly steep cliffside. This climb is done by everyone, busses, trucks, cars, transports and motorbikes. The road is narrow and only just allows these vehicles to pass on the straights. So at every switchback, the bus or truck invariably spilled over into the other lane jamming up traffic. Did I mention the thousands of people? A full coach only holds around 50 people. So we are talking 60-70 buses, along with minivans, trucks, lorries and fuel tankers all inching their way up this cliff.

Fira (with a population of about 2000) is the capital of Santorini, it is the cultural and economic centre of the island. On the west side of the island, it sits at the centre of the caldera. Fira apparently got its name through the mispronunciation of the word “Thera” in the late 18th Century when piracy stopped existing in the Aegean. 

There are more than 1,000 beds per square km, more than any other isle after Kos and Rhodes, and in a destination of only 76 sq km, more than 700 restaurants, cafes, bars and bakeries – the vast majority concentrated in Fira, the main town.

There are two ports in Santorini, the old and the new. We got off at the new port. The old port is reserved for cruise ship tenders that drop their passengers at the bottom of the cliff (unless you have booked a day trip, then you get dropped at the new port to a waiting bus). Local laws were passed in 2015, limiting the number of cruise ship passengers allowed on the island each day to 8,000. But this was quickly thrown away and now up to 7 cruise ships (3000-5000 per boat) could be parked in the bay during peak times. Once you get off your cruise ship and have been dropped at the bottom of the hill you have 3 options:

  • Ride the cable car to the top (for 6 euro each way)
    • Walk the 587 steps and climb up to the town
  • Or hire a donkey to walk the stairs for you for 10 euro each way (25-35 mins)

Whichever way you get there, once up the cliff you are surrounded by the island’s iconic white-washed buildings and blue-domed churches. And there are tons of churches. We found this out at the crack of dawn the next morning when the bells went off, for about 20 mins, repeatedly.

The main show for the Catholics is the Cathedral of St John the Baptist which was was built in 1823 but restored in 1970 after an earthquake (1956).

The main show for the Greek Orthodox is the Candlemas Holy Orthodox Cathedral which was built in 1827 and was also renovated after the earthquake.

But it is the Three Bells of Fira that is the money shot that you see on all of the postcards and Instagram shots. Officially it is the Aghioi Theodoroi Church (Saint Theodoros Thira Holy Orthodox Church) in the village of Firostefani (which is really just part of Fira).

The biggest challenge that you get here is to find an angle where you can avoid the Instagrammers while also cutting out the the cruise ships from the photo. If you are patient enough this can happen.

Ignoring all of the hustle and bustle, the township is quite pretty and you can certainly see why it is such a popular tourist destination. The one thing missing was Greek people. The shops and bars were mainly staffed by foreigners and there were very few locals that we could find. Doing our research we found that unless you worked in the tourism sector, you could not afford to live here. This rang true on Jill’s booking experience, the first place she booked was closer to town. By changing our location to a bit further out we managed to save $500 on accommodation (we only stayed 2 nights).

Santorini has started its own beer brand and sells it everywhere it can. We figured that we should give it a try. They are predominantly IPAs which means they are too malty for my tastes. I tried the lager but it was too fruity. Talking to a barman (at another place) he said that there were no preservatives and therefore they must be kept cool or they go off. This may have been the case, as my lager was very ordinary.

Also in town were the Museum of Prehistoric Thera and the Archaeological Museum. We did not go in, but for those interested, they are options.

When googling what to see and do in Santorini the top things that come up are sailing cruises around the bays and a range of wineries. The number one thing that comes up is the hike from Fira to Oia. When you look a bit deeper, you find that this is a 10+ km journey along a pathway up and down, along the edge of the caldera. I looked at the images and the various photos were spectacular, but I’m not doing that, as long as my ass points towards the ground, I’m not doing that.


So instead of doing a ludicrous walk, we paid about 2 euros each and caught the local bus to Oia. Every evening the local buses, along with private coachloads of tourists, descend on Oia. The crowds push their way along the village’s packed central alleyway, they head past the shops selling luxury gear and trinkets. All with one goal to find their vantage point of choice (the eateries and bars that line the clifftop rim), so that they can settle in for sunset while they pay top dollar for cocktails and panoramic views.

Now this town is stunning. It is the sunset point that everybody craves and with good reason. It is set up perfectly for it too. The front strip is brand new (rebuilt after a major earthquake) and is full of cafes and restaurants, all facing west. And of course, the prices are obscene and every Instagrammer is dolled up and ready for their vanity shots.

Every now and then you pop up on a place that has not had a makeover, but for the most part, this place has been fully revamped. As terribly expensive as this place is, the good side is that the top thing to do is free. And that is to walk and just simply enjoy and admire the view, which is truly amazing.

A check of the accommodation sites shows you that a villa in prime position, built into the cliffside overlooking the volcanic caldera, can cost up to €15,000 ($25,000) a night. And with growing demand for the spectacular views as a backdrop for weddings, marriage proposals and vow renewals, everyone is booked solid.

Leaving Oia (before waiting for sunset) we headed back to the bus stop to return to Fira, only to find about 200 people in line waiting to do the same thing. Now, now only about 50 people fit on a bus and they only come every 30 mins. We were not waiting 2 hrs to get home. An opportunistic van driver was parked nearby offering immediate departure for €10 a head. So once his 11 seats were filled we went and he made €110 for a 20 minute drive.

Santorini Beaches. Due to the the volcanic nature of Santorini, the beaches have become their own attraction. The past volcanic eruptions not only shaped the island but also the beaches. There are distinct differences in the colours of the sand (red, white and black) as well as some covered in volcanic rocks and pebbles. The tourism blurb claims that “the dissimilar beaches will please everybody”. 

Perissa and Perivolos offer the best long beaches covered with black sand and pebbles. Kamari Beach is also a black sand beach but according to the locals, the beach itself is not the best, since it has pebbles and small rocks which hurt your feet. All of these come equipped with beach umbrellas and sunbeds with beach bars and restaurants nearby.

The White Beach in Santorini or Lefki Ammos, as called by the locals, is a beach of black pebbles and grey volcanic sand under high white cliffs. The sand on the beach is not white, as its name clearly indicates.

The Red Beach of Santorini is surrounded by volcanic cliffs and rocks, leaving the black and red pebbles and red sand

Ancient Thira

The Mount of Prophet Elias is the highest point of Santorini. From up here you can see the whole island! Most notably you see the huge difference between the tourist side on the cliffs to the west and the traditional side on the flat part of Santorini to the East. Our short time did not allow us to visit here but the photos look nice.

On our last day, we had a few hours to kill as we had a 4pm ferry out and had to be out of our room at 11am. So I settled in to write this, while Jill got into a long chat with the manager/receptionist of the hotel. In this chat, a whole lot of things came up that we had no idea about.

The number one for me was that this place did not run all year round. I knew that there was a tourism window from April to November, with peak times in July and August. What I did not realise is that from the end of November, everything shuts down. Apparently, there are only 2 restaurants open and virtually all hotels shut their doors. December and January everyone leaves, and in February/March the cobwebs get dusted off in preparation of the next run.

We are used to tourism in Australia where everything runs all the time. Sure there are peaks and troughs (school holidays etc) but it never just stops dead. Well, it does here.

As much as I dreaded coming to Santorini, both Jill and I enjoyed it. Yes, it was obscenely overpriced (especially in Oia), and it was full of Instagrammers and plastic people. And yes it was a tourism mecca and the crowds were crazy, but we still enjoyed it. We chatted and tried to work out why we liked this but disliked Mykonos so much. We don’t have an answer, but we really did not enjoy Mykonos but did Santorini.


IMG_3589Having gotten off our nightmare 20 hr train journey to get here we were greeted with 37 degree heat and the usual Burmese 80+% humidity. We hopped our cab to get us to the accommodation. Now when I say cab…we sat in the back of a ute on a thin mattress and bounced around until arriving at our booked place. Our booked hotel was pretty good… considering. It was $25 a night for both of us which included breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, pancake and coffee. The TV had a total of 4 channels none of which were in English and despite advertising wifi… We could not get any internet for the entire time we were here. That was not just the hotel but also included every cafe, coffee shop and restaurant along the entire main drag.

Between 1044 and 1287, Bagan was the capital as well as the political, economic and cultural nerve center of the Pagan Empire. Over the 250 years, Bagan’s rulers and the wealthy citizens constructed over 10,000 religious monuments (approximately 1000 stupas, 10,000 small temples and 3000 monasteries) in an area of 104km2 in the plains. About half of these remain today and so Bagan is today home to the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world.

Jill read in her planning books that the best way of getting around to the sights was on a horse and cart…so this was in her head as the way we must travel. Totally ignoring the motorbike hires, the air conditioned cars…nope…horse and cart it was. Fair is fair, it was a great way to get around to all the ruins, temples, pagodas and stupas. A car would have been annoying as the distances between each was quite short and the air conditioning would have no time to kick in, the busses were just packed and wrong, and motorbikes and bicycles would be in high heat on sandy tracks. The horse cart gave us a breezy, shady ride with minimal exertion and views 100% of the way.

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This was a great day. It was another of those days where our photograph count went through the roof as we snapped away at each of the relics. Each one is individual and unique in its own right, add to this the extreme detail on each one and then add the fact that each angle opens up new views and aspects. There is nothing you can do but to snap away and try (and fail) to capture some sense of just how good this place is.

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Once you have snapped away at the ground level temples etc you hit a few that you can climb up. From these high vantage points atop the pagodas you get a sense of just how vast the Bagan plains are. You basically have 360 degree views of the whole place and in every direction all you see is trees and temples. We tried to do some panorama style shots to give you guys a sense of what it was that we were experiencing. Once again they will not do it justice but hey…it’s what we’ve got.



As we were here just after rainy season the place was lush and green, making the contrast between the red bricks of the pagodas, or the white or gold of the stupas really stand out against the green of the foliage. The area is quite hot and dry so I imagine that it could be brown at other times of the year making the contrast less defined. Either way, we had an incredible day cruising around the relics.


We have been to several of these sorts of things so far and still have a few to go. It will be an interesting recap and comparison of these ancient sites once this leg of the journey is over. So far on this trip we have been to Hampi in India, Bagan in Myanmar, Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka and we are yet to do but are heading off to Siem Reap in Cambodia and Luang Prabang in Laos. While the funds will not allow it on this trip, and we will have to go home and be adults for a while…we have the intention of saving our pennies and doing a similar journey to South America which will hopefully add a bunch of ancient Incan cities and ruins to further add to our comparisons.

Three Years on…

So again here we are three years after our last post and I thought that I would just follow on from the previous post and give a sense of what has changed and my thoughts on the place as it stands.  On a positive note…Bagan still rocks…the temples, the weather, the people and the prices. Everything about this place screams as a fantastic destination.

Once again the tourist numbers were way up on last time but the hotel prices were also well down. We moved ourselves to a new hotel that was much closer to the restaurant strip and we are so glad that we did. The last place had crappy wifi and was quite the trek from any restaurant worth eating at. This time we were in the heart of it all in a hotel with a little less crappy wifi.

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The biggest change that you notice  is the abundance of e-bikes…these things were not here the last time and they are a blessing. For between $5-7 a day you can hire these whispering assassins and explore the temples of Bagan at your own pace and leisure. To be honest, on your first day of exploring the temples I would still recommend doing the horse cart…it is just one of those things that you will talk about for years to come.

So on day one we hit the usual trail and snapped about 3000 photos of temples, stupas and pagodas. And it  was fantastic (again).  The first trip we bought a couple of the sand paintings but as it was towards the end of our BIG adventure we were a little cash poor and were certainly luggage challenged. This trip however  we were cashed up and had plenty of room for souvenirs (that said we only bought 2). So on day one we checked out what was on offer and the sorts of prices that you could expect to pay.

This is possibly the biggest tip of all for travellers and will be obvious to most…but never buy on the first day. By day 2 or 3 you have walked away from so many touts and have heard how low the prices can go and therefore are more likely to grab a bargain. We were wandering  the temples on day 2 and heard some Americans bartering to pay between $18 and $20 for  the same pair of pants we had been offered the day before  for $5. So day one was the usual suspect temples and the local cuisine and of course for those of you who have been following along…those damn stairs.

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So day one done and the photos taken it is off to the local restaurants. Now while we ate Asian with a smattering of Burmese last time we did not really immerse ourselves into the local fare. Something that we absolutely did this time around. Jill found and incredible little lunch joint for the next day called Myo Myo. It was a lonely planet special recommendation and involved about 30 tiny local dishes that you grazed upon as it suited you and you only pay for what you eat. This was lunch time of day two and the pair of us ate like champions and had change from $10. But the dinners were equally as tasty but were a tad more expensive as they were washed down with icy (and I do mean icy) cold beverages.

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So day one over and we hopped on the e-bikes and off we went exploring at our own pace. We saw it all. Days two, three and four allowed us all the time in the world to check out anything that we wanted. We spent an entire day when we went off  the reservation and found ourselves in random, out of the way villages. We found ourselves amid a cattle drive, and 30 minutes later were surrounded by goats. We were in the villages where all of the lacquer-ware was actually made. While commuting we came across a little market garden come restaurant. It was lunch time so we stopped.

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We ordered some local Burmese salads, a bean salad, vegetable salad, tea leaf salad and a tomato salad…and we were blown away by them all. As we were the only ones there…a conversation ensued. As this was so far off the beaten track very few tourists happened upon the place and even fewer ate the local fare. So we asked about what made the food so nice…long story short…we came back the next day (quite the effort finding it again) and had a private cooking class with his wife  in their dirt floor kitchen in the middle of nowhere.

The number one thing on the menu that I wanted to learn to make was the local boiled egg curry…and of course work out what was in those damn salads to make them so good. So back we came…everything that we needed was in the garden or in a small collection of powders and sauces. And off we went…the truest and most authentic experience you could ever have. He spoke very little English and she even less. The ingredient interpretations took some doing but we got there and after about an hour we had a feast on our hands.

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We ate, we washed it down with cold beers and when we tried to pay the comment was that it was their gift to us…now obviously that was not going to cut it…so we guessed at how much it would have cost for the food and drink and multiplied it by 4 and paid that.  We thanked them for their time and their hospitality and for the sharing their knowledge with some interested travellers.

And on the way out we happened across a local wedding…The bride and groom sitting atop an elaborately adorned oxen cart…so we snapped away.

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So the verdict is that Bagan is fantastic and a must see for all. We have been twice now and it has not disappointed either time. Put this one on your bucket list.