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Footloose in Santorini

Sensational Sunsets, Seafood on a Greek Island

February 09, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

SANTORINI, Greece — It borders on irreverence if you fail to mount a scrawny donkey at harborside for the 900-foot climb up a sheer black cliff to this island's main village, and foolhardy is the only word for one who would honor this hoary tradition twice.

It's a terrifying ordeal to unhinge the most valiant: skinners driving the scruffy beasts ever upward with the harsh whacks of a two-by-four; knees scraping the rough walls lining about 500 steps; surplus saddles from the Peloponnesian Wars; shrieks of fear and protest from both burro and burden.

Fortunately, a funicular now makes the awesome ascent, separating the venturesome from those whose sporting blood runs thin in the face of adversity. So the choice was simple on our most recent visit.

Santorini, Thira to the Greeks, has a past no less turbulent than its welcoming ride to visitors.

Thought to have been almost perfectly round in Paleolithic times, classicists believe it was ripped asunder by natural disasters into a huge crescent with four major islands in its bay. Volcanic eruptions destroyed a Minoan civilization 14 centuries before Christ; numerous earthquakes were no less devastating; Barbarossa even gave the place to Turks in the 16th Century.

Santorini's economy today turns pretty much on the gift shops, few hotels and bars of Thira, its capital. But the biggest archeological dig in Greece began in 1967 at the town of Akrotiri and is still going on. It may or may not have been the legendary Atlantis, but those Minoans sure led a sweet life until the lid blew.

Here to there: TWA and Pan Am fly to Athens with stops, several foreign carriers with changes, American to New York for a change to Olympic Airways non-stop. Olympic gets you to Santorini, or you may take a boat one of several cruise lines, from Piraeus, the port nearest Athens.

How long/how much? Cruise ships stay long enough for you to ride the mules up, spend a bundle and have a glass of wine while observing the sunset. The sunsets are unreal in their beauty, but local rose and white wines a cut below mouthwash. If you're setting your own pace, spend a night in Thira, a day hacking around the island where prices are better. The top hotel's rates seem out of line by Greek-island standards, others cheap, dining a bargain. Shop prices also appear high, small deterrent to the dedicated.

A few fast facts: The drachma was recently valued at .0065, 154 to the dollar. Pleasant weather any time of year, but putting summer crowds in Thira is like putting them in a phone booth. The funicular will cost you $2 up, $2 down, mules the same, bus service about the island very good, lots of scooters for rent. Don't be put off if you see street signs or anything else spelled several different ways. When they switch from their ancient alphabet to ours it often comes out funny.

Moderate-cost lodging: Best place in town is the Atlantis ($41 double B&B) on main street beyond basilica, built 30 years ago. Its 25 rooms are very simple but fresh and airy, terraces of public rooms look out over cliff toward bay. It picks up Aegean colors with blue and green decor inside, blue shutters outside.

Near museum you'll find the Asimina ($11 double, skyrocketing to $14 during summer season), a 14-room, three-year-old study in simplicity and we do mean plain. Neat, clean and they speak very good English.

Panorama ($33 double, half-pension, low season, $38 high) hangs over the cliff with spectacular view of entire bay, a great place for sunsets. Rooms very modest, but the meals are awfully good, the chicken on the night we were there dressed in a sauce to rave over. Sorry, only Panorama guests may dine here.

If you're here for more than a few days, your best bet may be to contact Robert Clardon, telephone (0286) 22507, for house rentals. He has a particularly desirable one about a mile from town with bedroom, living room, kitchen and courtyard going for $23 daily for two, $6.50 per additional person up to five. Glardon speaks fine English and has a small office right on main street.

Regional food and drink: Seafood is prepared nowhere better or more simply than here in the Aegean. Try psari yia skara , just about any kind of fresh fish grilled, mackerel, herring, gray or red mullet, even the tiny barbounia with enough little bones to drive a non-Greek berserk. Greeks claim they introduced Marseille to bouillabaisse in the guise of their kakavia , also claiming that it can't be made properly outside Greece. We just know it's delicious.

We're told one of Santorini's specialties is a dried-pea soup with onions, but have had little or no luck in finding it. If the local wines weren't bad enough already, they often serve the whites and roses unchilled. Nothing like it on this planet.

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