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Wednesday, September 17th, 2003

traveling hard

The new Athens airport has two Olympic stores. I saw them both. We had three hours to kill, and it’s not that big an airport.

We found a newsstand selling English-language paperbacks. I picked up a title that looked interesting, some kind of crime-fiction beach novel, and gasped at the price: $15. The next one I checked cost $17. I could buy the entire Grisham library for $17 on

Our flight to Santorini was delayed, but the delay was not announced. We sat at the gate as our boarding time came and went, wondering whether we were in the right place.

The plane, when it finally arrived, was an abused-looking propeller craft. The interior reminded me of United Airlines circa 1985, with synthetic fabric seatcovers stretched tight across lumpy, uncomfortable, too-vertical frames. There were two seats on each side of the aisle, one class of service (“marginal”), and scratched and dirty windows through which photography would be compromised. I was denied the image of “Santorini from the air” that was supposed to accompany last Friday’s entry. And so began our descent.

A taxi drove us to Ia, a town at the northern tip of the island. Rena, the proprietress of the inn where we’d booked lodging, came out to greet us as we pulled up. She led us up a half-dozen concrete stairs, tough to navigate with our heavy bags, and turned left down a busy sidewalk lined with shops. Our suitcases have wheels, but the sidewalk was uneven — stones in mortar, cobblestone-rough in places.

We didn’t have far to go, but is it turns out, we weren’t going to our room. We’d only stopped for an orange juice. Hospitable but, under the circumstances, poorly thought out, for our apartment was a half-mile in the other direction. Because our flight had been late, the porter had gone home for the day. We dragged our suitcases for 20 minutes through crowds of fresh-off-the-bus tourists, all of whom watched us like we were some sort of local attraction: “Look, tourists!”

We marched on and on, over rough stones, down and up steps, shouldering our way through the crowds into the late-afternoon sun. Did I mention the heat? We were drenched. Did I mention the crap? The town of Ia hosts a population of wild dogs and cats; the sidewalks feature frequent installations of canine and feline digestive art.

Finally, up ahead, Rena turned left off the main thoroughfare. Steps descended and twisted away down the cliffside. There was nothing to do but lift the suitcase and follow. On and on we went, down a ridiculous number of sun-baked concrete steps. We had to stop as a large mutt urinated on the steps ahead of us. After it finished, we lifted our bags and stepped carefully across the spreading, steaming pool. This was a low point in a check-in journey best described by the word “miserable.”

(Some people would begin to laugh at this point. It was so hot, so disgusting, so generally bad, that lots of reasonable people would just give it all up and laugh at their circumstances, certain that things had to get better soon. But not me… I think I have a higher capacity for misery than most people.)

We came to a crazy-steep run of stairs, some a foot high. There were no handrails, just distant concrete patios to break one’s fall. Rena had gamely been dragging one of our thousand-pound bags, but at this point I had to carry both down the stairs. It was grueling and entirely unsafe; had I leaned forward beyond my balance, I’d surely have cracked my skull open on the steps, then been crushed by my own luggage. Perhaps that’s a suitable fate for people who tend to travel heavy.

At the base of the steep steps, Rena turned left and crossed a terrace to reach the front door of the cave house we’d rented. My first impression: the place was huge. Had this cavern been in Missouri, it would have been Jesse James’ hideout.

My second impression: it was very warm and somewhat dank inside. The further in we went, the warmer it felt. The lack of obvious air-conditioning controls could mean only one thing: we wouldn’t be needing any of those sheets or blankets on the bed. To put it mildly.

The size of the place made us nervous. We were certain Rena, who is not fluent in English, had confused our request and put us in the $150/night apartment rather than the $100/night apartment.

So we’d arrived… feeling exhausted, overheated, lost and unsettled. We couldn’t unpack because we were sure we’d be moving to a smaller, cheaper room the next day. We couldn’t cool off because our concrete cave retained heat like a pizza stone in a brick oven. We festered. Or, at least, I did. I’m good at it. (It’s important to know one’s strengths.)

Ia, Santorini, GreeceFortunately, we had four days in the most visually stunning city in Greece to recover. Here’s a teaser image of Ia from the west as the morning sun crests over the ridge.

posted to channel: Travel
updated: 2004-02-22 22:49:16

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