The Ringing Bells of Santorini, Greece

by Kristen Helgren, Rooms Department Manager, Kenai Princess Wilderness Lodge

View from Fira in Santorini Greece
View from Fira in Santorini Greece

I approached my cruise to Greece with some clear preconceived notions. I envisioned sun-baked stairs leading from the crystal clear Mediterranean and bright white-washed houses perched atop cliffs. I knew I’d see those iconic blue-domed churches, and I anticipated spectacular views. At home in Alaska, it was those images that were my idea of a “Greek Island paradise.”

As our cruise ship maneuvered to drop anchor at Santorini, I got my first glimpse of the island’s iconic steep cliffs. Though I may have glimpsed what towered above me at that point, my attention was actually focused downward, as I contemplated the fact that we had just sailed into a giant, submerged volcanic crater, or caldera.

Santorini is what remains from an enormous volcanic eruption more than 3,000 years ago, and we were anchoring in the deep lagoon formed when the crater of the volcano collapsed. I wondered, as many now believe, if this caldera could really be the site of the Lost City of Atlantis, the legendary civilization that sunk to the bottom of the sea. With my attention now back on the island’s 300-meter high cliffs, I could see our destination, the town of Fira, perched high on the rim above. But how do I get there? The answer became delightfully apparent. Waiting at the bottom of the steep string of switchbacks and stairs that formed a zigzagging path up the steep incline, were donkeys.

I happen to love donkeys (actually, anything with a tail), so I was as excited to see them as I was to explore the island. But at this point I found myself torn. I could either travel up the cliffs by donkey, which has been done since mythical times, or I could walk up the infamous Santorini stairs and hopefully work off the wonderful desserts I’d been enjoying on the ship. Since it was a beautiful crisp October day – perfect for hiking – I decided to set out on foot.

I climbed corner after corner up more than 500 steps, passing donkey teams headed up or down along the way. The donkeys wore colorful beaded neck collars with a bell attached that jingled as they clomped along. Each switchback brought the tinkling of bells and better views of the crystal clear waters below.

After about 45 minutes we reached the top eager to explore Fira, and then afterward set out by local bus to the small town of Oia, located at the north end of the island. My immediate impression was that this magical place should definitely be on a travel bucket list.

Oia is situated atop an impressive cliff with more views of the sparkling expanse of  the sea. This charming village was made up of traditional white houses and blue domed churches,  along with narrow streets between buildings just wide enough for pedestrians and the occasional passing donkey. We discovered that many artists have made this picturesque setting their home and enjoyed wandering through the array of art galleries full of original works.

After a day in this island paradise, it was time to head back to Fira where we would descend down the cliffs to our anchored cruise ship. Again I decided to make the journey by foot, once more passing the donkeys and their sweet sounding bells along the way. When I got to the bottom, I realized I had encountered a sound I did not want to leave behind. And since I really like to support the local economies of the places I visit, I had the perfect idea for a souvenir!

Not speaking any Greek, I was somehow able to communicate with a donkey herder that I wanted to buy one of the donkey bells with the colorful beads. It was a perfect addition to my collection of authentic animal bells (I have many…really…including cow bells from Bali and Switzerland). Although it did take some time to convince him that it really wasn’t a ride on his donkey that I was after, I finally was able to walk away with the perfect memento of this perfect day.

Now, as I sit in our cabin in Alaska, our wonderful Mediterranean cruise vacation may seem a distant memory, but I keep my donkey bell in a spot where I see it often and can reflect on my journey to the cliffs of Santorini.