I’ll continue with my Wanderhalbjahr odyssey through Europe, as well as bits of North Africa and Asia (Turkey), as a form of self therapy—one suggested by Matthew to help relieve my anxiety about not being able to travel during the pandemic.
We last left off in Sitia, a small fishing village at the northeastern end of Crete where my girlfriend and I lived for a month. After several weeks of absorbing the atmosphere of a small fishing village (sadly, now a resort), it was time to move on. Checking with the port agent, we found there was only one ferry out of Sitia, and I recall it went once a week. Fortunately, it was going to Athens via the island of Santorini (also called Thira). Here’s the whole route we took to Istanbul:
Santorini is a small island (91 km² with a population of about 15,000), the remnant of an ancient volcanic caldera. The volcano, which exploded about 3600 years ago, is said to be responsible for the demise of the Minoan civilization on Crete, though this is disputed. What is not disputed is that this is indeed the remnants of a volcano, that it blew up in a tremendous explosion, and that the volcano is still active. You can clearly see the volcano shape and visit the smoking fumaroles of Thólos. Sadly, though I have pictures of my trip from back then, they are all Kodachrome slides, and I’ll have to do with pictures from other people.
The caldera is clearly outlined above .
The place to stay in Santorini is in the main town of Thera, which has a western view over the crater and the Aegean sea. It’s a colorful whitewashed town, and full of cats. We were not rich then, but we did splurge a bit for a room with a view, which was still cheap in 1973 (it’s not now).
Yes, Thira is a tourist town, and was back then, though less so, but the view justified the visit. But I’ve seen it and wouldn’t go back.
Tourist boats dock below Thirda once a day, disgorging a lot of daytrippers who hire mules to ride the hundreds of steps up the crater wall to the town. Those mules have a hard life, for they just go up and down, often bearing those who are overweight. We, of course, were proud, and hiked up from the ferry wearing our backpacks. Here’s a video of how the cruisers do it:
If you get a decent hotel, you can have a balcony overlooking the crater to the west, and then relax on the balcony to see one of the most spectacular sunsets in the world. In my view, it ranks up there with Mount Everest, Machu Picchu, Antarctica, and the Taj Mahal as one of the most beautiful places on Earth. There are few finer things on this sphere than kicking back on a balcony with a bottle of Santorini wine (they do make good wine there) and watching this. I have never seen a more beautiful sunset.
After about a week or so visiting the island (there’s a black lava beach on the west side and some archeological digs of Minoan remnants), we took the ferry back to Piraeus, the port of Athens, and then hit the road, hitchhiking north to Thessalonika. Near that big town an old college friend worked on a communal farm, where we stayed for a few days. Our goal beyond that was Istanbul.
Thessalonika doesn’t have much to recommend it to tourists, which is why it’s a good place to visit. For it was there we first experienced the full measure of Greek hospitality. We walked to a taverna near the farm for a meal, and of course were the only non-locals there. As we sat there eating a main dish, other dishes began arriving at our table: carved cucumbers, cheeses, olives, glasses of retsina, and other goodies. They were sent by the other diners, for as they hit the table we looked up and saw the moustachioed diners (men, of course) grinning at us and raising their glasses.
After a while everyone got soused and then the dancing began: the classic Greek dancing as seen in the movie Zorba the Greek, beginning slowly with delicate steps and snapping of the fingers. As the music got faster, the Greeks started throwing plates on the ground, breaking them (This is absolutely normal.) The fellow-feeling between us, even though I speak little Greek and they spoke no English, was something I’d never experienced: we were celebrating our humanity with wine, cucumbers, and broken plates.
Of course hospitality runs in Greek veins like pine sap in retsina, but that was a special night.
Then it was time to hitchhike to Istanbul. Hitching was rough that day. Even though the distance from Thessalonika to the border crossing past Alexandroupolos is only 233 km, it took us all day to even get close to the border (there isn’t much car traffic on the road), and, as the sun set, we realized that there was no way we were going to get to Istanbul, much less Turkey. We put down our ground cloths in a nearby farmer’s field and unrolled our sleeping bags as the stars came out. (I love sleeping under the stars, and spurn tents unless it’s freezing or raining.)
As dawn approached, I felt like somebody was punching me in the back—repeatedly. It freaked me out, and I woke up screaming. It turned out that I’d pitched my groundcloth over a groundhog hole (or whatever is the Greek equivalent), and the poor rodent was trying to make his morning exit, bumping my back.
Well, that got us up, and we walked to the road and stuck out our thumbs. Hours passed. Morning trundled toward afternoon, and there were barely any cars, much less rides. Then, around noon, a big Mercedes bus came by. We thumbed it, too, and, mirabile dictu, it stopped.
It turned out that it was a bus full of hippies going from Europe to India: the classic hippie cross-country route of that time. I got on, said we were going to Istanbul, and the driver told us he’d take us there for $5 each. Done! What a bonus! (Old hitchers from the Sixties, by the way, must recall the elation they felt when they saw a Volkswagen van approaching. They were invariably driven by hippies, and your chances of getting a ride were high.)
As we approached the border, the driver said that if we were carrying any drugs, we’d better get rid of them. The Turkish penalties for drug “smuggling” were well known, and documented five years later in the horrific movie “Midnight Express” (written by Oliver Stone), in which Brad Davis is caught smuggling hash out of Turkey and has an unspeakably hellish time in prison before escaping. I can’t remember if anyone ditched their drugs (I’m not dumb enough to carry any when traveling), but, sure enough, when we got to the Turkish border the guards came aboard and basically ripped the bus apart, even prying up bits of the floor. I was scared the whole time that they’d find something and somehow it would get pinned on us.
But they found nothing, and the bus rolled on. Several hours later it pulled up in front of the epicenter for traveling hippies in Istanbul: the Pudding Shop, where stoned hippies would gather to swap tales, find transport, and eat the variety of wonderful Turkish sweets.
I won’t describe Istanbul, except that everyone must go there some time. And it was at the Pudding Shop, after a week or so, that we found a young Canadian couple who, for gas money, would drive us back to Greece and then up most of the coast of Yugoslavia towards Germany.
I must get some of those slides scanned some day. I have over ten thousand of them.
Here’s the Pudding Shop in 2010 (real name: Lale Restaurant), which has its own Wikipedia entry as a gathering place for denizens of counterculture. Though I’ve been to Istanbul several times since 1973, I haven’t returned to the shop.