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