Eastern Trail

I finally did it, I took the plunge and uploaded my first YouTube video! It’s nothing fancy, simply a GoPro short of my time travelling Eastern Europe with Contiki. I look forward to making more of these and eventually transitioning to ‘proper’ YouTube videos. In the meantime, you can check my first video out here:

The tour featured is the nine-day Eastern Trail, and takes in seven European countries: Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy. The full itinerary can be found here.

The elusive diva of the north

In March 2018, National Geographic Traveller asked their readers to submit a great piece of travel writing in a bid to discover the very best untapped talent. The prize, a two-week Thailand Hike, Bike and Kayak Adventure courtesy of G Adventures. They, of course, received hundreds of entries, however, had to whittle these down to just three compelling tales that would be published in the October issue of the magazine. The winning piece; Uganda: Songs for Elephants by Dom Tulett was a compelling read and left a lasting impression with its reader. Of course, I was a little enervated at not being published; nonetheless I have decided to post my entry here:

We have spent the past five days traversing northern Norway; wolf encounters in Narvik, reindeer spotting on the North Cape and husky sledging through Alta. Each night we’ve waited patiently to catch a glimpse of what the locals call the ‘diva of the north’; however she has yet to make an appearance and so tonight, our last night, is our last chance.

Wolf Encounter at Polar Park, Narvik

We were due to be flying further north to Spitsbergen, the crown of Arctic Norway. However, the vast blanket of white that is engulfing the city, swallowing distant objects, means our plane has been grounded, and we’re going nowhere. Although disheartened at the missed opportunity of scouring the horizons of Svalbard for polar bears, we are determined to make the most of our extra night in Tromsø, the gateway to the Arctic.

As dusk falls over the city, we wander the historic centre, delighting in the traditional architecture, imagining what stories live within the chestnut red and burnt yellow walls. I look out across the steel grey Tromsøysundet strait, and admire the iconic Arctic Cathedral, built in the 1960’s the triangular structure stretches skyward, imitating the hulking snow-capped mountains behind.

We cross over the Tromsø Bridge, toward the mainland and take a cable car to the top of Mount Storsteinen where we are rewarded with a sweeping view of the city. Beneath the canopy of the night sky, Tromsø appears almost as though it’s been dusted with glitter; for the city is alive with lights. Our guide, a professor at the city’s university, draws our attention to the emerging constellations from the palette of stars above; the Little Dipper, the Northern Cross and a lone orbiting satellite.

Tromsø from Mount Storsteinen, 421 metres above sea level.

Inside, I take a bite of my reindeer burger and listen intently as the professor tells me of his encounters with the ‘diva of the north’. He recounts the variety of forms, colours and intensities that she can take on. Suddenly, as though she knows she’s being spoken about, she teases the sky with the first hint of her approach and the excitable buzz of chatter in the restaurant increases in volume. I find the nearest exit, hoping this is it; the moment I’ve been waiting for.

I look up at the night sky. At first, it appears indistinct, a light smudge behind a bank of clouds. The smudge starts to glow and gather into tormented twists of ethereal green. It is indisputable now, the elusive diva of the north as arrived. The Northern Lights dance across the sky in a sequence that only Mother Nature could choreograph. I gasp as a halo of vibrating violet light explodes almost directly above my head. I am speechless, awestruck. Bursts of white, green and purple continue to splash themselves against the canvas of the sky, as though being formed by the brushstrokes of a haphazard hand. There is nothing inexpert about this artist, though; every touch is calculated, every motion nuances the breathtaking final masterpiece.

Aurora Borealis from Storsteinen

And then, as swiftly as it began, the spectacle above me dissolves into nothing, and I’m sure the natural phenomena has departed. But then, instantaneously she forms on another horizon, dancing onwards, swirling streams of colour amid the craggy peaks. She continues late into the night, the diva of the north, the sensation of the sky, has given us the performance of a lifetime.

Chasing the sun

When you think of Greece, you’re probably thinking of Santorini. Multi-coloured cliffs that soar 300 metres above sea level, white-washed Cycladic houses with azure blue-domed roofs clinging to the cliffside and donkeys ferrying slothful tourists back and forth.

The village of Oia from aboard a sailboat.

Santorini sits in the middle of the sapphire Aegean Sea, halfway between Athens and Crete. The island spoons the vast crater left by one of the largest volcanic events in history. The Minoan eruption was a major catastrophic volcanic eruption and devastated the once circular island of Strongili (Round One) 3,500 years ago. The colossal eruptions caused the centre of Strongili to sink, and the sea rushed to fill it, leaving the east caldera that we today know as Santorini.

Perched on the northernmost tip of the island is the village of Oia, pronounced EE – AH. Built on a steep slope of the caldera, the village’s whitewashed lodgings nestle into the volcanic rock and reflect the renaissance of Santorini. Although most parts of the town are only accessible via foot, Oia still draws enormous crowds and at sunset is a magnet for tourists from across the island. Witnessing the spectacle that is the Santorini Sunset is unavoidable. The beauty of the setting sun painting the sky, the colours bouncing off of the whitewashed dwellings, producing a palette in variant shades simply cannot be missed.

Oia at Sunset
Oia at Sunset

Santorini’s main town and modern capital, Fira, is a vibrant place. Fira derives its name from an alternative pronunciation of ‘Thira’, the ancient name for the island itself. Built on the western edge of the caldera, Fira is a maze of narrow, cobbled streets full of shops, bars and restaurants. The town offers views over the multi-coloured cliffs and out to the volcano, and at night the caldera edge is a multitude of frozen fairy lights.

The whitewashed buildings and cobbled streets of Pyrgos.
Ekklisia Panagia Platsani Church in Oia
Working donkeys transporting slothful tourists.

If you head down the 600 stone steps from Fira, you’ll reach Ormos, the old port. The small, typical harbour has restaurants, tavernas and a handful of shops. Alternatively, if you do not fancy the climb, you can traverse the 600 steps via donkey or take the island’s only cable car.

The coastal hike between Fira and Oia was a highlight of my time on the Greek island. Taking you along the Caldera edge, through the villages of Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli and Oia, the hike typically takes between two and four hours however will depend on your physical capability and, how many stops you make – it took me around three hours. The trail itself is just 11 kilometres (6.8 miles) and varies from footpath to cobblestones to dirt tracks. Some sections of the trail are signposted, yet others are not; therefore I suggest following the crowd to stay on track. In the peak of summer, the temperature is uncomfortably hot by 11:00 so setting off in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the midday sun. I chose to set off late afternoon from Fira. This meant I finished my hike in Oia just in time to watch the sunset, the icing of top of a wonderful cake!

Note: Take enough water to last you the duration and be sure to take your camera as there are endless photo opportunities!

Santorini’s capital on the Fira to Oia trail.
Santorini’s capital on the Fira to Oia trail.
Small traditional Greek Orthodox church in Oia.
A painter painting the landscape using acrylic paint.
Oia at Sunset

However, Santorini is not just about its caldera edge. The island slopes down to sea level on its eastern and southern sides, with volcanic beaches in the popular resorts of Perissa and Kamari.

Perissa is a seaside village on the south-east coast of the island and is where I based myself. I chose this resort as it is much less crowded and more affordable than the villages on the north side of the island. After much research, I discovered a quaint property set only 300m back from the beach and 200m from the resort centre. The comfortable yet straightforward property was perfect.

Our accommodation in Perissa – Athina Apartments
Perissa Beach
Ferry Landing, Perissa Beach

The main blue flag beach is the long stretch at Perissa. The beach road is closed daily for pedestrians between 17:00 – 05:00 from May to October, allowing tourists to stroll the beachfront promenade undisturbed by the many mopeds that buzz past during the day. It is easy to rent a scooter or ATV for yourself in Perissa – my friend and I did this one day and spent our day exploring the island; this spontaneous decision turned out to be one of our most memorable days.

For great Gyros, a Greek staple and a must-try for any foodie when in Greece, drop into Pepito’s along Perissa Beach. My friend and I ate here almost daily; not only were the staff welcoming and the food delicious but the costs friendly to my wallet.

Kamari is another seaside village on the southeast side of the island; however, the beach here is more shingle than black sand. The town has a wide choice of taverns, bars and clubs as well as an outdoor cinema. Approximately a 20-minute walk from Kamari Beach, each night at 21:30 the charming cinema opens its doors to tourists and locals. The movie changes every few days, information of which can be found locally or via the cinema’s website: http://www.cinekamari.gr/. Before wandering to the cinema to watch none other than Mama Mia, we ate at ‘To Pinakio’ after reading some overwhelmingly great reviews on TripAdvisor. Our meal did not disappoint; we sampled some authentic Greek meze, all of which was simply mouth-watering. Because of the restaurant’s popularity – booking is essential.

The mountain that sits between the towns of Perissa and Kamari – Mount Voluno is home to Ancient Thira. Ancient Thira is an old city on the ridge of Mount Voluno. Named after the mythical ruler of the island, Theras, it consists of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine ruins.

Although not signposted well, it is worth the one hour hike up the dusty ‘path’ from Perissa (appropriate footwear is a must.) The summit offers rewarding views across both Perissa and Kamari.

Mount Voluno
A grazing donkey by Mount Voluno.
The seaside resort of Perissa from Mount Voluno.

Other notable sights on and around the island of Santorini are the square Akrotiri Lighthouse, one of the oldest lighthouses in Greece, constructed in 1892 it sits on the islands southern peninsula.
Red beach, named for its blood-red sand and gently crumbling burnt-umber cliffs, is located in the village of Akrotiri and is the most scenic and interesting beach on the island. Akrotiri, the spectacularly well-preserved remains of the Minoan Bronze Age settlement that was destroyed in the Theran eruption and buried in volcanic ash 3,500 years ago. The most famous Minoan site outside of Crete, the buildings are spookily intact.
Santorini Hot Springs, located on the tiny, uninhabited islet of Palia Kameni was formed by ongoing volcanic activity deep underground. The orange streaked pool reaches temperatures of between 30–35°c and contains sulphur which has healing and softening properties for the skin.

For more information on where I stayed in Perissa, click here.