PHOTOGENIC PARADISE SANTORINI


The Greek isle of Santorini has survived through its past history and natural disasters to retain its title as the most photogenic paradise.

photogenic paradiseview of oia village

It starts out as a holiday from hell. Greece is in the throes of stormy weather in the beginning of summer – our ferry is cancelled and we have to settle for expensive air tickets. As we land on the island, the sky is a smouldering grey and the first drizzle depresses us; we were looking for islands in the sun…instead, we wrap ourselves in fleece and caps as we head out.

According to Greek mythology, Santorini was a handful of dirt that the sea god Triton gave to the Argonauts. Another tale says that the god Zeus hurled the core of the island at his enemies – the Titans – and the imprint of his fingers can be still seen on four inlets of the island. Called Kallisti, “The Loveliest,” when it was first settled, this crescent shaped photogenic island locally called Thira, is famous for its dramatic setting.

oia village streetchurch with blue dome

Rimmed by striated red and grey volcanic cliffs and lined with a chain of vertiginous villages, with white sugar cube houses that drip down the edges like frosting on a cake, it is probably the most photogenic in the Aegean. Three thousand years ago, Santorini changed forever when a volcano exploded with such force that the centre collapsed into the ocean and a tsunami wipe out the entire Minoan civilization. Plumes of lava ripped through the skies in a mammoth explosion. Legend has it that the lost city of Atlantis was inspired by his volcanic eruption.

a cafe in city of firahouses in fira

BLUE AND WHITE LAND: We choose to stay at Oia, a pretty village in the northern most part of the island, in a traditional cave hotel that is chiseled into the soft volcanic rock where one villa’s roof is the next villa’s balcony. The owner is generous and upgrades us to an apartment, as we have arrived during off-season just after Greek Easter, when the islands are slowly being readied for the summer. This is when hotels are painted, woodwork is polished and plants are tended to. This jumble of cave houses called hyposkafa was built for fishermen and sailors. These were nestled in the cliff rocks, and one could see only their arched entrance, so that the inhabitants could hide from pirates. Above these cave houses are Venetian mansions built for the wealthy sea captions, called kapetanea. It’s a world where white and blue are the predominant hues.

doors to heavenBoutiques

Locals say that the Turks who settled on the island were banned from using the national colours of Greece, and to defy them, they painted the houses in the colours of the national flag! Oia is also an artist’s hub, with colourful shops lining the main street paved in marble, selling jewellery, paintings and carvings as well as distinctive doors painted with scenes from the village.

From Oia, we walk down to the small fishing village of Amoudi Bay lined with seafood in small eateries, giving us the chance to snorkel and swim in the clear waters.

As the sun comes out, changing the complexion of our vacation for the better, we gaze enviously at the luxurious villas with their infinity pools spilling over the sides of the cliffs. Rows and rows of white balconies with blue swimming pools and umbrellas hug the sides of the cliffs.

Precipitous paths wrap their way around this maze. We spend our days walking through the vertical world, watching adroit waiters lugging breakfast on their shoulders nonchalantly, shops displaying colourful watercolours, blue domes of churches framed with sprays of bright pink bougainvillea, offering a striking contrast to the white and blue colour scheme of the entire island. I get lost often, walking through the labyrinth of streets that were meant to thwart pirates long ago.

Almost every street seems to end in a whitewashed church. Santorini has just eight thousand inhabitants, but more than three hundred churches with their signature blue domes and pretty bell towers, most of them built by grateful seamen, for having been saved from fierce storms.

ISLAND RETREAT: we take a trip to Fira, the capital of the island, accessed by more than 500 steps from the port. If Oia is tranquil, Fira is robust and full of life.

Fira is where the big cruise ships come and dock and the presence of big spenders have resulted in a lot of gaudy stores. We walk through the cobbled lanes paved with volcanic stone, ‘Gold Street’ filled with shops selling expensive gold jewellery and rest our tired traveller’s feet at cafes with panoramic views of the volcano.

There are liveried donkeys that ferry tourists who choose that over a cable car from the harbour at the foot of the cliff. I see a time warp of wizened old women basking in the sun and Greek orthodox priests with long beards, alongside camera-toting Japanese tourists who fill up their memory cards recklessly.

Santorini is a hedonist’s paradise, with infinity pools and black beaches to bask on – but scratch below the surface and you will find the scars of its turbulent past; hoteliers build properties teetering on the edge of the volcanic crater, and farmers till the hard soil and plant vines in spite of the lack of rain.

I realised how fragile the island and its romantic hotels are when I take a trip to the volcano, walking up a grey ash path, with the whiff of sulphur and the hiss of steam signifying that it still has life.

I follow it up with a swim in Palei Kameni, a hot sulphur spring where you feel like you are drowning in a pool of sewage, but it works wonders for your skin.

ANCIENT WONDERS: long ago, Santorini was home to one of the most advanced civilizations of the world. I find the ghosts of the past everywhere. I see them in the gorgeous wall paintings in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in the capital. Some of the oldest vineyards are still found on Santorini’s surprisingly fertile soil. For a time warp experience, I visit the southern tip of the island, where the Bronze Age archaeological site, Akrotiri, exists with the ruins of ancient settlements with mosaics and frescoes preserved perfectly for centuries under layers of pumice. Imagine a Minoan city, with well-planned streets and squares and three-storey houses, buried by a volcanic eruption. Artefacts, furniture and vivid frescoes that decorated the houses of its sophisticated wealthy sea merchants that were unearthed show that its must have been a very sophisticated civilization.

Come sunset, I head to the end of the village, for the famed Santorini ritual of watching the sun inching towards of purple horizon, casting vivid shadows of purple and orange on the whitewashed facades. I look forward to dinners at open air restaurants on the precipice that arrange their tables and chairs on the edge of the cliff and give the phrase ‘meal with a view’ a completely new dimension!

cooled lava rock souvenirspainted doors n windows in oia

With more than 300 days of sunshine and rich volcanic soil, Santorini is quite the foodie paradise – on every table in the island are fava beans grown on the island and made into a puree with capers and other flavouring. We feast on local specialties like baby squids batter fried and tomato fritters made with the island’s aromatic cherry tomatoes.

My Santorini sojourn is all about those Eureka moments; catching sight of a gorgeous seascape painted on old doors and windows of an art gallery, a black cat napping on a blinding white parapet, a little secret courtyard aflame with geraniums, a blue door that seems to lead nowhere, the constant soundtrack of pealing church bells and finally, the rosy hues of the setting sun against the dramatic cliffs heralding the curtain call to yet another day in paradise.

Courtesy by K.T.

Graceful Monaco


Home to arguably the world’s most glamorous royal family, this tiny city-state welcomes celebrities and high rollers in their droves, no doubt drawn to its glitzy nightlife and designer boutiques.

graceful monacomonte carlo bay

Monaco is a discreet, welcoming place and that is why celebrities like it here: they can stay in private and not be disturbed by fans. This is a place where wealthy and successful people come to live because they know they can leave million-dollar artworks in their Ferraris, or not lock their doors, and come back to find everything is still there.

place du palaisnicole kidman in the biopic of grace

The countless security cameras that swivel and zoom every time you cross a street or walk into a shop no doubt help, but Charlotte’s back on brand, pointing towards the perfectly placed bunches of flowers that decorate the lobby. Here enthusiasm is contagious. Monaco is a glamorous city – state, penned in by France and the Mediterranean and just a short drive from Italy.

grace kellyhotel metrolole - pool with a view

hotel metropole

Now, with Nicole Kidman’s biopic of Grace Kelly opening the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and Louis Vuitton’s cruise collection dropping anchor here, it’s clear Monte Carlo’s star cachet is on the rise. Add warm weather, beautiful scenery and a history scattered with royal tales and intrigue….it is a must to visit place.

The world’s smallest city-state has a population of just 30000, yet every time there is a big event – a society wedding, or even a Robbie Williams concert – that number rises to 2000000.

For beautiful, spacious rooms, a Karl Lagerfield-designed restaurant and the occasional celebrity spotting, Hotel Metropole is very lovely indeed. The staff at the hotel are super-friendly – ask them to print you a Princess Grace tour map.

Courtesy by G.N.

TRYST WITH TALLINN


tallinn

The Estonians are only discovering their culture — so immersed in history [from KGB museums to wartime subs] – but certainly not disconnected from the rest of the modern world. This is, after all, where Skype was born TEXT AND PHOTOS: STUART FURSTE

DID YOU KNOW?  You can take a ferry from neighbouring Helsinki in Finland or Stockholm in Sweden to Tallinn While Tallinn is the official capital, Tartu is the cultural capital, and Pamu is known as the summer capital.

It speaks volumes for Tallinn’s charm that the Estonian capital’s Old Town is an attractive place to stroll around even on a cool, drizzly evening. Dusk, with the yellow glow of street lamps reflecting on damp cobbles and the lanes largely empty of people, is as good a time as any to explore the well-preserved medieval centre.

wooden clockTallinn was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site 16 years ago, but travellers are only slowly discovering the rich heritage of this city of 425,000 people. Centuries ago, the merchants of the Hanseatic League of trading cities invested their wealth in grand Gothic buildings that today stand as photogenic landmarks, such as the Town Hall and the Great Guild Hall, now the site of the Estonian History Museum. St Olav’s Church was the tallest building in the world from 1549 to 1625, but lightning struck and burned down its 159-metre high spire; the sleek replacement you’ll see reaching into the sky today is a mere 124 metres tall. These sites are within easy walking distance of each other and are still ringed by 1.9 km of city walls interspersed with defensive towers. Ten metres under those walls, you can take a guided tour along the bastion tunnels, part of the Kiek in de Kok museum (www.linnamuu- seum.ee, open from Tuesday to Sunday), to learn how the Swedes, Germans and Russians had each occupied Tallinn.

The Soviets built a civil defence shelter down in the tunnels with the capacity to be used by 1,000 people in the event of a nuclear emergency. The shelter still existed in 1991, when Estonian independence was restored. Since then, embracing freedom, Tallinn has modernised rapidly outside of the well-preserved Old Town. Locals are quick to point out how technologically advanced their young nation is and you may well hear proud boasts that Estonians developed the software behind Skype, the Internet-based telecommunications platform. The people give the impression that they are forward thinking and open to outside influences. For international visitors, this brings the advantage that English is widely spoken in Tallinn, meaning it’s relatively easy to get around, acquire information or order food and drink.

One of the best places to get an overview of the city and appreciate Tallinn’s skyline — the Old Town to one side and modern offices, shopping malls and hotels on the other — is from the walkway up on the 24th floor of the Sokos Hotel Viru, built in the 1970s to accommodate foreign tourists and keep watch over them. The hotel was once riddled with listening devices belonging to the Soviet secret service, the KGB. Jana Sampetova, a petite blonde, leads tours of its upper floor, now known as the Hotel Viru and KGB Museum (www.sokoshotels.fi), recounting a series of anecdotes illustrating how  life was under the former regime. Some of the tales are laced with dark humour. One guest, explains Sampetova, was brought toilet paper by a member of hotel staff — without ordering it — after bugs overheard muttered complaints that their bathroom had none. Perhaps the legacy of the Soviet influence is most telling in subtle manifestations.

seaplan harborPointing over towards Toompea, the old fortress on high ground in the Old Town, a tour guide explains how “Tallinn is layered like a Russian doll” and that the castle area represents the smallest doll, at its centre. Estonians are beginning to explore their history and national identity. One of Tallinn’s major new attractions is the Seaplane Harbour Museum (www.lennusadan1.eu), which opened in May last year, occupying the site of an aircraft hangar built in 1916- 17. The story of Estonia’s naval history is told within the museum’s subtly lit hall, covered by the arches of a reinforced concrete roof that is 8 cm thick at its thinnest point. The star attraction is the Lembit submarine, which was built during the 1930s, in Barrow-in-Furness, in England, for the Estonian navy. The sub was on the water for 75 years before being moved into the hangar so that visitors can clamber through the hatch and explore below deck. lmpressively, it still has its original engine. The museum makes good use of technology and information about the exhibits is displayed on touch-controlled screens. You’re given a swipe card on entry and each time you see something of interest, you can choose to have it emailed to you, to read later. You can also get a feel for how the harbour’s defenders would have felt as they were attacked by enemy aircraft during wartime. A simulator, using computer game technology, allows you to man a full-size machinegun post and shoot at approaching planes. They are trickier to hit than you might think.

maru cafe-restMaru, the smart cafe-restaurant overlooking the Seaplane Harb0ur’s main hall, serves delicious black rye bread with soup flavoured by mushrooms, fresh from the forests that cover almost half of the country’s surface area. Though it’s hard to believe, given the quality of the food at Maru, Estonians are only now beginning to explore and enjoy their cuisine, which was long regarded as stodgy and inferior to foreign foods. “Five years ago, there were not so many restaurants in Tallinn that served Estonian food. We had Italian and French cuisine, sushi places, but not so many places serving Estonian,” says Rene Uusmees, the executive chef at Mekk, a chic but casual restaurant (www.mekk.ee) in the Old Town. Uusmees works with locally-sourced ingredients such as smoked fish, fresh cloudberries and wild lingonberries. He uses traditional recipes but applies techniques that he learned in France. “The idea is to serve nice local food and to develop it, because we are a young country,” says Uusmees, who regards Estonian cuisine as part of the contemporary Nordic food movement that is currently impressing gourmets worldwide. Uusmees suggests visitors to Tallinn should also dine at the restaurants Leib (at Uus 31) and Neh (at Lootsi 4) to acquire a rounded overview of what the country can offer.

outdoor diningAt the beginning of 2011, Estonia, a signatory of the Schengen Agreement, became the 17th nation to adopt the Euro as its currency. Thanks to reasonably priced accommodation and restaurants, those Euros go much further in Tallinn than many European capitals. This helps explain its growing popularity as a destination for short breaks, particularly for Finns, many of whom arrive on ferries from Helsinki, 82 km and three hours away, across the Gulf of Finland. The city centre is only 4km from Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport, where international travellers land. The long Baltic summer days are ideal for exploring Tallinn, which is compact enough to explore on foot and has much to offer visitors looking to experience a taste of its heritage.

Learn more about travel and tourism within Estonia via the http://www.visitestonia com website.

For more information about Tallinn, visit http://www.tourism.tallinn.ee

Courtesy by K.T.

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