Running with the donkeys at Santorini is not quite as dangerous as running with the bulls at Pamplona, but it certainly has its risks and adrenaline rush.
My husband and I naively decided to stroll down to Santorini’s old port of Skala during donkey rush hour in the middle of the day when traffic was at its most hectic and chaotic, with muleteers cursing their beasts and each other, and hot, cross donkeys threatening to kick you for six.
The protocols appear to be strict, with donkeys stationed at the top, midway and bottom of the 589 steps from the old port up to the tourist village of Fira.
As soon as one group of cruise ship tourists is delivered to the top of the steep pathway by these venerable beasts of burden – mostly mules, not donkeys – the equivalent number of animals is sent down to the port to replace them, so that each of the muleteers gets their fair share of the tourist euro.
It is very much a case of pedestrians beware. The animals have right of way. On more than one occasion, when donkeys clambering up the path with tourists hanging on met those careering down with muleteers in noisy pursuit, we scrambled off the narrow path and on to the stone wall to avoid being trampled.
Reasonably fit and agile, the donkey encounter was still quite an adventure for us. But the descent turned out to be high drama for an elderly Spanish couple from a cruise ship, who had also decided it might be pleasant to walk down the path rather than take the return trip on the cable car.
We came across the pair a third of the way down the path. The woman – quite frail and wearing high heels, long culottes and elegantly coiffured hair – was stranded on the path, in the midst of a serious panic attack. Her husband also seemed to be in shock, so he was not much help to her. Both were petrified of the donkeys and apparently unable to move.
We spent the next hour helping them down the path, forming a human shield between them and the donkeys. Near the bottom of the path it all got too much for the dear lady. She collapsed in a quivering, hysterical heap, so my husband scooped her up and carried her the rest of the way down.
She protested at first and then just slumped in his arms, accepting the indignity of being delivered in this embarrassing fashion to the skipper of the cruise ship tender, waiting at the port.
Heading back up the steps, trying to anticipate the donkeys’ preferred route and leaping out of the way when we invariably got it wrong, we looked out to sea and saw the couple waving and blowing kisses to us, as they returned to the safety of their huge white ship.
Reported by Justine Tyerman for our AA Directions Autumn 2019 issue