A romantic hike becomes a heroic feat
SANTORINI, Greece - When we mentioned our plans to hike up the coast of the Greek island of Santorini, the manager of our small hotel rolled her eyes and shook her head as if to say we hadn't a smidgen of common sense.
"Too far for you," she said, taking in our aging bodies. "Take the bus. It's 15 kilometers to Oia at least; too far for you."
"I heard Oia's 12 kilometers from here," a German tourist nearby ventured. "Not even a German would walk that far. Rent a car."
"Nine miles, seven miles, what the heck," we figured. "If it's too far, we'll turn back."
Last month we suggested that even senior travelers should embrace what adventure our age will allow. A bit of a stretch adds spice to what might become in memory a lackluster getaway.
Santorini is one of 200 or so islands that dapple the blue Aegean Sea southeast of Athens, and the scenery is picture-postcard stunning. But we wanted to try the gravelly footpath that meanders the cliff heights from just behind our hotel in the little town of Firia north to the more upscale village of Oia.
Santorini is one of the more fabled islands of the archipelago that stretches from the Greek mainland toward Turkey. It's the place many travelers conjure in golden dreams of whitewashed ports and long afternoons that end in bloodred sunsets.
The island's settlements dive down near-vertical precipices hundreds of feet to the sea, which washes into a deep caldera left by a volcanic eruption more than 3,000 years ago. Some scholars believe the explosion formed the basis for the myth of the lost continent of Atlantis.
So the romance is there. We just wanted to add some adventure.
The hotel manager and the German tourist weren't the only people who took a look at our aging bodies and tried to discourage us.
"The trail turns into a goat track at some point," said an American we'd talked with earlier. "It's really narrow and the cliff drops right to the water. Scared me to death."
"It's a walking path, for Pete's sake," we told each other. "We can turn back if we have to."
We stopped by a little market to pick up some pricey slices of mortadella, pita chips, a couple of oranges, and bottles of water for the romantic picnic we'd have in a couple of hours in the shade of an olive tree beside the trail overlooking the caldera.
A cobbled path took off from behind the parking lot of a monastery a few blocks from our hotel. Cobblestones soon gave way to coarse yellowish rock, chalky white dust, or porous red volcanic landfall bordered by clumps of thirsty vegetation - thorny brambles, knee-high wild fig trees, and a scattering of late-spring wildflowers. The sea far below was startlingly blue.
Sometimes the path would lead through the courtyard of a monastery, deserted on this weekday, its whitewashed walls offering the only shade around.
Along the way, the trail did indeed become a goat track, narrowing in places to a yard wide, with a sharp drop-off to the water.
By midmorning Firia was far behind us and we could just make out the blue domes and white-on-white architecture of Oia clinging to the cliffs ahead. The dusty goat track was rough but relatively hard-packed and didn't seem treacherous.
As the sun climbed higher in the sky, we began looking for a place to have our picnic. But there wasn't an olive tree in sight, and the day was becoming wickedly hot. We were soaked in sweat and we imagined the mortadella cooking inside our backpacks and our water warming to spa temperature.
We stopped to chat in the courtyard of a monastery with a bicyclist who'd caught up with us from Firia. As he opened a water bottle and splashed his head to cool off, he said he was from France and had planned to ride to Oia, although he found himself walking the bike more than riding it over the rough trail.
We traded cameras to snap pictures of each other, and as he moved on he hollered back that he'd have a beer in Oia before trying to ride back and added, "You'll have to take the bus back, yes? It's many kilometers."
"Maybe," we mumbled, still not ready to say we couldn't make it to Oia and back on our own two feet.
As Firia grew more distant, the arid path began to seem more like the Sahara than Greece, and we joked about someone having to send the monks out to rescue us.
And then ahead - a tree.
A lovely thing, not gnarled like an olive tree, but straight up, like an oak, with a smallish canopy of green that shaded the trail. Beneath it half a dozen people crowded shoulder to shoulder for the meager shade. No room for us, much less our picnic.
We trooped on.
By now we feared that our pricey lunch meat was spoiled and our water more hot than tepid. But the civilization of Oia gradually began to encroach on the path, first with a few warehouses and finally with a paved street.
We dug our limp lunch from our backpacks, dropped the whole mess into a trash can and looked for the nearest taverna. Ah, a shady courtyard, glasses of wine with grilled vegetables and bread.
"Where can we catch a bus?" we asked the waiter.
"Where did you come from?" he asked.
"You are heroes," he exclaimed, drawing back in awe at our feat. "I think it's 18 kilometers away."
And we felt like heroes, walking all that way, hot and sweaty, with everyone telling us we couldn't do it.
Our map at home tells us the footpath from Firia to Oia is about nine kilometers (5.6 miles) long.
That adventure has became one of our favorite travel stories. We took a chance on adventure, in spite of all the naysayers who thought we seniors would be better off settling for romance.
And we'll never forget the waiter who called us heroes for doing it.
John and Sally Macdonald are freelance writers who live on a houseboat in Seattle.