Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tentacles for everyone!

We have plenty of time in the morning to get ready before the taxi comes. Traffic is heavy at the time we are leaving and our normally twenty-five Euro taxi ride ends up being ten more than usual. (Or fares have gone up, our return taxi trip home with no traffic cost the same.)

Who cares? Get to the entertaining part Wakefield.

The end of the trip is all about speed. After waiting for three and a half hours for our connecting flight in Athens we board rapidly. I notice that the jet engines on this medium sized plane are enormous. They dwarf the wings and look like they belong on a 747. We sit for about ten minutes on the runway and then back up and start taxiing down the runway with G-forces like I have never experienced. In ten seconds we’re in the air, and in forty-five seconds we’ve achieved our cruising altitude, a process that usually takes five minutes or more.

“That is the fastest we have ever taken off!” Wendy remarks.

“I know. That was insane how fast that thing went from zero to liftoff.”

The stewardess’ hustle a cart down the aisle and Wendy gets some water and I get a Coke. In ten minutes the pilot announces our descent.

“What? Already?” Wendy says. “This was supposed to be a forty minute flight.”

A stewardess announces “We are sorry we did not get a chance to give everyone full service. Thank you for flying Aegean and we hope you enjoyed your trip.” Yes, the plane is so fast they couldn’t get drinks to everyone in time before they had to lock everything up for descent. As we disembark I point out the size of the engines to Wendy.

The hotel we are staying at “Esperas” has a taxi waiting for us and we quickly find a man holding a sign for “White (2)”. Bags are loaded and we’re off in a jet again. Only once have we had a taxi driver this fast. He doesn’t worry me because it’s clear he’s done this route a thousand times and knows just when to pass and just when to brake and tires don’t squeal when he goes around corners. But, like all of Europe the roads are tiny and when a bus appears ahead of us he knows to pull over to the side since there isn’t room for a bus and the car. A short twenty minutes later we’re staggering out of the cab, dazed, jostled from sliding side to side in the back seat, but happy to be alive.

Our hotel is on the side of a steep cliff and a muscular bellman greets us to take our bags. He throws my duffle bag strap over his shoulder and then hefts Wendy’s suitcase onto this shoulder like a Sherpa. He’s carrying close to eighty pounds on his back now. We then walk for ten minutes to the place we’re staying and it is all winding corridors and white walls. This guy is strong! I am sure we are at the hotel but no, this is just the entrance to the winding Cliffside town of Oia (pronounced “ee-yah” and still we continue on down and around and back again. We finally get to the front desk and he sets our bags down, I give him a five Euro tip. This is a good sized tip for Europe but that was a long, long way to carry our bags. We register then a tiny, cute, effusive blond leads us to our rooms. She looks like the lead from Mama Mia which we have just watched last night.



Wendy has once again outdone herself in researching our accommodations. These are built into the side of the cliff and are more house than room. We have a terrace with two chairs, a table and umbrella. Just inside is a little table to the left for eating as you enter the room, a couch, twelve books on a shelf, television and kitchenette. Upstairs we have a very large bedroom, bathroom and another terrace with reclining lawn chairs for sunning as well as another table and two chairs with an umbrella. Below us are more rooms, a steep decline into the bay with a dozen boats floating in the moonlight, and to the right, a wide, plunging staircase to take you down to the port. (See previous picture.)



Incredible.

It’s been a long day and so far we’ve had chips and a little airplane food which was surprisingly good pasta with a light tomato sauce. It is nine-thirty when we finally get over the view and the rooms and the awe. We are given directions to a restaurant nearby and while walking there, I feel like a young boy trapped in a Minotaur’s labyrinth crossed with an Escher painting. There are white walls and passageways going up, down and in every direction, the right side usually open to the sea. So, you can look up and down and see stairs and other walkways, but have no idea how to get to them. After walking for ten minutes we look down and see our hotel’s pool twenty yards below us. Yeah, we’re lost and have walked a thousand steps up and down and left and right, never crossing our original path.

There is a mini-mart we ask directions at and an exhausted Wendy gets a bottle of water. Next to the cash register is a book called “Greek Lovers” and on the cover are four naked men. Two are paired up in the traditional doggie style and of the other two: one is about to shove an enormous man-made phallus someplace dark and scary on the other man. Everyone is smiling; except me, who is horrified.

The cashier points us in the right direction and again, we set off through the maze. We can see the pink roof of the restaurant just below us but as is typical, it takes a long semi-circle around the entire restaurant and four other buildings to make it over to the other side and a passageway that will lead to the door. When we do finally get to the restaurant it is closed. I tell Wendy I saw a sign for another restaurant as we walked here and she tells me she thinks it is just a bar. I was sure it was a restaurant. We walk back the way we came and I find the sign “Restaurant Bar Fanari” pointing down a long winding stairway, but now Wendy is dead on her feet and ready to give up.

“Stay here, drink your water, I’ll go down the steps and see if they’re open.”

A hundred yards down I find the place and a very nice front desk clerk with a heavy lisp and some stereotypical mannerisms who glances at the clock then tells me they are still open but the kitchen will be closing soon. I go halfway back up and call to Wendy to come down. We have a very nice, very large Bulgarian waiter who suggests the octopus and the drunken shrimp. We get the octopus appetizer and then Wendy gets a Greek Salad and I order the Sea Bass. We also get a bottle of the local wine that uniquely thrives in the volcanic soil.

In Madrid octopus (pulpo) is usually served boiled with the tentacle chopped into thin ringlets spread over boiled potatoes and covered with paprika. What we are served here is completely different. Here we are served a nine inch length of tentacle with a nice charring on the outside resting on a bed of fava beans and a cabbage leaf shaped like an amphitheater framing the entire thing. I think many people in the states would be horrified. We are not.

“That is amazing” we both tell the waiter.

“And soon you will tell me you love it” he replies.

It is stunning and Wendy and I take multiple pictures each posing with it. When we bite into it, the waiter hovering over us, the taste is rich and complex and charcoal and spices and… it is just a stunning piece of gourmet work.

“You like it?”

“I have eaten a lot of octopus and that is by far the best I have ever had.”

He smiles and explains “That is because first it is boiled, then marinated then grilled and then flambĂ©ed. It is a very complex process.”

And worth every bite. One of the finest dishes we have ever had.

I am hosting Christmas dinner this year. I tell Wendy “I’m serving this for Christmas!”

Wendy throws her head back and laughs out loud. “Oh my God can you imagine? You set down this big platter of nine inch octopus tentacles to your vegetarian sister, niece and family that has never had octopus?”

I raise my glass in a toast; Wendy clinks it and I proclaim “Tentacles for everyone!”


The sea bass comes in traditional style, cleaned but cooked with the skin and head still on. I peel away the skin to find a very nice piece of whitefish underneath. It is cooked well, but it needs something more. I eat the eyeball (delicious, honest) on one side (advice from Anthony Bourdain that I followed a long time ago and have on every piece of fish since) and flip it over, eat the other eyeball and reduce the fish to nothing but skin, tail, head and bones. Wendy has a deconstructed Greek salad that is too big for her to finish that she also finds good, but nothing like the octopus. (We will return to this restaurant four more times and have five more tentacles before leaving Santorini. On our last night, they allow me into the kitchen with pen and paper and allow me to watch and explain as they cook the octopus.)

We talk about what we are going to do tomorrow. We are here for ten days so we’re in no hurry to do anything. We have plans to take a boat tour, visit the red and black sandy beaches, watch the moon over the water in Fira and explore the port far below us. The island is only twenty-three square kilometers so we can easily cover it all in ten days.

“We could walk down the slope at Fira and then take a donkey ride back up.” I suggest.

“I’ve done that donkey ride thing. It’s not that great. You spend the entire time leaning forward trying to hang on. It’s almost as exhausting as walking.”

“I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. I feel bad for the donkeys always working all day ferrying people up the mountain. They always look so sad. Like ponies at a riding stable forced to carry kids on their backs around the same track, day after day, never brushed out and rarely cared for well.”

“Well,” Wendy says “we can debate the merits of a good life, like horses in a stable or running free in the wild but a donkey is specifically bred to be a beast of burden. Their lot in life is to work for a living. They get fed, they work for a living there’s really no other, better life for a donkey. Well, unless they’re in a show in Mexico…”

I laugh until tears come out of my eyes.

5 comments:

  1. Your traveling stories are always entertaining, I can't get enough of them!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Is Christmas dinner going to be in New Hampshire? You may have to drive to Boston to get your tentacles, but it sounds like it will be worth it!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks Tony.
    ErDoc - Vermont actually. I have a seafood shop nearby I think I can special order them.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great writing, James! Yes, the travel writing is really your special niche. Never thought I'd see the day you'd be eating tentacles and fish eyes! Remember the Greek dish you couldn't stomach at Beverly and Bob's medieval party? It was stuffed grape leaves (Dolmas). And NOW look at you! What a transformation.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Yeah that was great. We will ignore the fact that you were eating one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Smarter than most dogs.
    Wait...no we won't

    ReplyDelete