Daedalus Comes to Santorini, Almost

Sunday, April 5, 2009

We loll away the morning and bring ourselves to rent a car for the afternoon. We will keep it overnight and drive to the airport tomorrow at 5:30am. That means up by 4:45am. It will be a short night.

We drive to the highest point on the island, Mount Profitis. At the top is a monastery, Profitis Ilias, and a radar site. A huge sign atop the latter tells us that it is producing uncontrollable gobs of canceregenic (sic) material and that we would be well advised to go away. Nearby, a sign on the monastery door tells us that we are welcome but to remember that this is a holy place and we should adjust our attitudes and our clothes accordingly. The sign is posted on a pair of locked iron doors. When I knock, no one comes. We get the idea.

From a nearby lookout you can see both ends of the island, Akrotiri (Greek for cape) to the left of us and Oia to the north. I am a lover of ancient ruins and Akrotiri is the site of one, an Minoan stringer that was buried under ashes for 3,500 years preserving some of the best Minoan frescoes extant. However, those frescoes are on display at the Archeological Museum of Athens. So we decide on Oia, a highly touted little town a few kilometers from our own. Amoudi Bay at the foot of the mountaintop where Oia rests is a picturesque spot. We head there first.

At the height of the season there are fifty boats bobbing in the bay in front of the seawall and its meager array of shops and restaurants. One restaurant announces that from its terraces you will have the very best view of a Santorini sunset. Today the restaurant is closed. A tiny little boat rocks on the water while an old man in an even tinier boat rows out to to it standing up.

Three young ladies are sitting on the seawall bathing. Their toenails are painted a deep purrple. The polish makes their feet look as if they are freezing. I see an open door to one restaurant, Tis Pandora (Pandora’s Box). The room is stuffed with furniture fit for an outdoor cafĂ©. A young woman about thrity five is puttering about inside.

“Hello,” I call in.

“Yes?” comes the answer. “We’re not open.”

“Can I have a beer?” I ask.

She doesn’t hesitate. She reaches inside a cooler and pulls out a bottle of Kaiser Beer.

“And one for my wife, please.”

She brings out a second chair to go by the single wicker chair already outside and placed to face the sunset. She opens the bottles and hands them to us along with two glasses.

“How much do I owe you?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “We are not open.”

Maybe Nancy and I have been lucky. But that is what it has been like in Santorini. We’ve been ushered into churches that have are closed for the day by sextons who see us straining for an inside view from beyond the iron bars that guard it.

“Come in, please,” one shortish woman gestures to us. “But no photographs.”

In another church, this one in Oia proper, we find one old woman whose face looks like a map of the Ural mountains. She is decorating a large square white cake. Meticulously with a pair of tweezers she places silver dragees on the hard white icing to form an elaborate design. I have no idea what the cake is for but on the way out I see a similar cake beside a photograph of a young man. He has a lower lip that appears to sag out of control, a heavy five o’clock shadow and the look of someone handicapped in life. The old woman sees me looking at the photograph, places her hands together and lays her cheek against them in a gesture that tells me the young man is dead. Perhaps someone else has died. It is as if she wants me to share in the occasion whatever it is, me, a total stranger.

We find a small open square in front of another blue domed orthodox Greek church. It is in the center of Oia. From the square we look back across the island to Fira Stefani, the town where we are staying. The town is draped over the top of the mountain making the mountain look as if, in the haze and distance of evening, it were snowcapped.

The restaurant in the hotel where we are staying, Dana Villas, has a chef, Yanni and a waiter, Franco. The first night we ate there, Franco told us there were only six people for dinner. This is the upside of the off season. No one is around. You literally have the streets of the town, the cliff walk, the highways to yourself The downside is that it is cold as hell. We sit on the open terrace of the restaurant overlooking the caldera. It is a perfect night, stars, a moon, the air crystal clear. Well, almost perfect. The breeze coming in from the caldera makes us shiver. And there is no inside to retreat to. Everything is geared toward sunny days and balmy nights. Franco offers Nancy his jacket. She jumps at it. All I can do is fold my arms across my chest and hunch over the table, waiting for the food to come and the dinner to be over.

Franco is from the north, Thessalonika. He works in Santorini eight months a year and in Thessalonika the other four months. He tells me that on Santorini that are 500 churches and that every house has its own altar. He also thinks that the global recession is a trick. He asks my advice on whether he and his brother should open a hamburger stand in downtown Fira. After every meal he gives us a free desert, baklava, fried bananas and honey, kataifi. He insists. I don’t have the heart to tell him I don’t eat sweets. On our last night I do. We are the only diners all evening long.

Twenty one years ago, almost to the day--it was April 23, 1988--a human powered aircraft left Crete and flew the 74 miles to Santorini landing just seven meters off shore. It set a world’s record for human powered flight. A champion Greek cyclist, Kanellos Kanellopoulos, supplied the power

Even though the plane crashed 21 feet from Santorini soil, it still managed to set a world’s record that holds to this day. Wind gusts damaged the tail and kept the plane from going the whole nine yards. That doesn’t surprise me in the least. After all, it was Icarus, Daedalus’ son, who failed to follow his father’s advice when they escaped from Crete. Icarus flew too close to the sun. The wax that held his wings together melted and he plunged into the sea. The gods surely could not let the 20th century Daedalus arrive in Santorini unscathed.