Picture running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Masses of people voluntarily running as fast as possible, millimeters ahead of angry bulls through narrow streets. Picture it with donkeys and people running pell-mell along a steep path with a sheer drop on one side. Picture the panic.
Welcome to Santorini, Greece.
Santorini is a beautiful island in the southern archipelago of other stunningly beautiful Greek islands. Villages sit atop cliffs overlooking the water-filled caldera of a slumbering volcano. Buildings look as though they were sprinkled over the land by the gods, like sparkling white stones. Although tourist destinations, getting up to these places is sometimes a challenge.
Our ship’s tender docked at a small pier where hundreds of tourists lined up for one of the three transport options to get up to the village of Thera:
- Option 1: cable car. Long lines – sometimes over an hour at peak times and not for those afraid of wee contraptions hanging by a wire that go super high.
- Option 2: donkey. Sure footed and strong, these beasts of burden do this for a living.
- Option 3: feet. Exercise is good! Burn some calories.
On the tender, I looked up at the island. I didn’t fancy the cable car option. I’m terrified of heights and get ornery waiting in lines. So my daughter and I agreed on the donkey option; my husband and son opted to walk.
Skirting the huge line for the cable car, we bid the boys adieu and searched for donkeys. The donkey line was long too and a tad chaotic. I was cranky. I was looking forward to a nice glass of ouzo or, at the very least, a heaping bowl of creamy Greek yoghurt drizzled with honey, sprinkled with chopped walnuts. After 11 days of waiting in one line or another, I’d about had enough.
Telling my daughter to follow, I pushed forward. Normally, I’m a docile sort who knows how to stand in a queue. On this day, I got in touch with my inner bitch and pushed into every available free space as I went forward. Rude? Probably. I was already having doubts about this donkey nonsense. We could just walk. My daughter’s an athlete and I’m in reasonably good shape – how hard could it be?
We emerged onto a courtyard of chaos: confused tourists, elderly Greek men waving their arms and yelling, and masses of donkeys. All donkeys seemed to be relieving themselves spontaneously and turning in mindless circles. I pulled my daughter aside a split second before a donkey backed over her (they don’t come with rear-view mirrors or sensors or those handy beeping alarms).
Terror struck. The likelihood of me being smashed to bits on the cliff after being flung from a donkey was probably fairly remote but still… I stood in Santorini having flashbacks to my last (nearly fatal) equestrian accident. Meanwhile my daughter pushed as hard as she could against a donkey’s ass to keep it from squashing her flat.
Ignoring the kind offers from the elderly Greek donkey wranglers to “take a donkey, ladies” we struck out on foot. Barely five feet from the base of the hill, a rider lost control of her steed (can a donkey be called a steed? My apologies to horses everywhere if they cannot). From somewhere behind me, an elderly Greek donkey wrangler screeched as well as any banshee. The lady’s donkey reconsidered its options and shot off like a…terrified donkey. As he skittered over the stones, he spontaneously let loose a torrent of urine that could only be described as biblical. As in, where was the Ark? My daughter shot me the look that could shatter stone once more.
“Maybe running would be better,” I suggested. She stalked off with me trotting behind.
The pathway was steep, paved with cobblestones; it rose in a series of hairpin turns all the way up to the village which was so far up we couldn’t see it. On one side only a low stone wall separated us from a certain death off the cliff; on the other side, a high whitewashed wall with no doorways or crevices big enough to squeeze into offered little protection from anything. Footing was treacherous; looking up was not an option.
Resigned to a long, hot, smelly hike, we suddenly heard bells. Not the pleasant tolling of church bells on a beautiful sunny Greek morning but the high-pitched, tinny sound of cheap cowbells. We stopped and looked up the path. I heard my daughter’s scared voice. “Mom! Mommy?!”
Sure, stampedes happen. But not on vacation. Not on a sunny Greek isle. But there we were, staring at a frenzied mass of legs, ears, and wild-eyes hurtling towards us. There was nowhere to go. I wondered how the headlines would read. I didn’t have time to edit my obituary – all I could do was shove my daughter behind me and make small.
This manoeuvre was repeated countless times for approximately 1 million more steps. I can now add “fear of Greek donkeys” to the ever-growing list of things I need therapy for. The sound of bells now makes me jumpy. I smacked a few donkeys. By the time we reached the top, I was ready to smack anything or anyone that got between me and a very, very strong drink. Oddly enough, the journey for those riding the donkeys was no picnic either; tears were shed. Along with poop and urine, one could smell the stress.
We found the boys – unscathed – and began the shopping marathon that is Santorini. What about that drink? I whimpered. The shops were lovely but if we ever go back to Santorini (hello cable car!), I could skip shopping. There are vineyards, beaches, and boat tours available but as always, we didn’t have time. I wanted less donkeys, more time.
A delicious lunch of tiny brioche sandwiches with very tall glasses of ouzo restored me. The creamy all-fat yoghurt was worth the hike…well, almost. I looked out over the shimmering white terraces to the dark blue waters below – it was all impossibly beautiful. Sitting on the breezy terrace, I let my mind wander. I could live here, be a shop girl in Santorini. I’d never leave my clifftop perch. I would start a rescue for over-worked donkeys. Below us, the boat tenders lined up at the dock. Already, it was time to go.
Another two days at sea and we’d be back in Barcelona. The distance between me and reality was closing fast. Sitting in the porthole again as we left Santorini, I snapped endless pictures of the island’s cliffs, bays, and villages spread across the top of the island like royal icing gleaming against the rich blue sky. A postcard, I thought. Does anyone really live in a postcard?
The sun retired for the night, the cliffs darkened until they melted into the sky, lights twinkled atop them like strands of stars. We headed for open water and Spain.