(This is a much-belated remembrance of an unforgettable trip and place. )
It is just a coincidence that the names of my most favorite – and meaningful – places on this earth all start with the same letter: “S”. (“Hmm…. and where are the others??”)
Santa Rosa (my home-town in Brazil), San Francisco (which has a piece – but not all – of my heart from prolonged work-stays in the past), Skye (and all of Scotland, which has another piece of my heart – plus my soul – over a lifetime of trips and a long friendship), Santa Fe (Ten Thousand Waves massages…) and ……. Santorini, as you will see why.
Santorini and Skye are both islands that could not be more dissimilar in climate and terrain, but for a first-time traveler, both are microcosms of their respective countries. Each has ALL of the “things” for which people go to Scotland or Greece respectively:
Skye. Its terrain is so varied that it is often called a “mini-Scotland”: challenging munros for climbers, gentler hill-walks for gentler folks, glens and waterways for wildlife and fishing, plus historical and archeological sites, breath-taking scenery, native/local arts and crafts, exceptional accommodations and cuisine, and a top distillery (Talisker, which Stevenson called “The King ‘o drinks”. (Yes, Skye has some amazingly good restaurants using fresh, local products – and I don’t mean haggis! – prepared as creatively and tastily as at the best places I’ve eaten.)
Santorini. Vineyards, black sand beaches, ruins ranging from Minoan to Greco-Roman, great food and lodgings, hiking, crafts, arts, and vistas that are heart-stopping. And a night-life that will keep young (and old) disco/dancing party-animals up til dawn.
So, if you are short on time, but want to get a feel for a whole country, you couldn’t do better than the Isle of Skye for Scotland and Santorini for Greece…
The history/geography lesson ….. Fira/Thira, its Greek name, is an island volcano in the Cyclades, about 140 miles southeast of the Greek mainland, that was almost destroyed by an eruption some 3,600 years at the height of the Minoan civilization of Crete. The ash-burial of Akrotiri, a Minoan city at the southern end of Santorini, made it a Greek version of Pompeii, but ante-dating it by over fifteen hundred (1500) years. The devastation of the eruption, particularly the sinking of parts of the island, make Santorini a prime candidate as the source of the Atlantis legend.
As can be seen in the satellite photo above (click in it to enlarge), Santorini is about 9 miles long by 4 miles wide, in a crescent shape embracing what would have been the center of the volcano, which is now a huge lagoon roughly 8 miles by 4 miles. Surrounding it are cliffs of almost 1000 feet in height (934 ft. if you want to be picky) along whose ridge are the bigger towns with Thira/Fira, the capital, being the largest and stretching the longest. (It’s the “whitish” blotch in the middle of the left side.)
This is what it looks like approaching from the sea on a ferry or cruise ship:
And, from a different angle, looking back while departing towards the northern tip:
Today, Santorini is also an obligatory stop for cruise ships of all sizes disgorging polyglot day-trippers, mostly northern Europeans a little past prime party-hardy age (the younger set goes to Mykonos). It has been the setting for movies ranging from Meryl Streep’s Mamma Mia! musical to one of Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft – Tomb Raider adventures to the strange 1982 Darryl Hannah / Peter Gallagher film Summer Lovers that inspired a whole generation to go there for sun, skin, and spicy love triangles. (No wonder Hannah’s romance with JFK Jr. was not approved by Jackie… even though she had her own Greek old-toy…)
I was fortunate enough, in July of 2001, to spend a week there after having gone ashore the year before as one of those day-trippers. Those few hours at Fira (photo below), mostly in the very touristy center – a blurry maze of restaurants, souvenir shops and jewelry stores – made me vow to return and see the “real” Santorini, particularly the archeological sites.
Restaurants and smaller guest houses/hotels line the sea-facing hillside giving breath-taking views of the harbor and the caldera. One forgets, looking at the pristine blue waters that it is, in fact, where the center to the volcano had been…. It is possible to take a day trip to the island in the middle and walk where plumes of smoke still hiss out from the ground…
Seated at a table out of the Summer sun, a hundred-mile view ahead and a dish of Saganaki (a hardy cheese, usually kessari, lightly battered and then fried and served with lemon slices), a salad weighted with olives and tomatoes, and a bottle of Santorini white in front ….. who needs Heaven?
Looking north, the hazy white on top of the less hazy brown at the top center of photo, which is the tip of Santorini, is Oia. Photo below is harbor of Thira-Fira (no idea why they are used interchangeably: it was confusing while planning the trip…)
Large cruise ships, like the one below, bring the day-trippers ashore using small tenders.
Oia was acclaimed to have the most beautiful sunsets in all of Greece and not as awash in tourists as Fira. Through the internet, I found and rented a suite in a small complex of traditional houses carved into the cliffs – Esperas – and went with Margy. We met up in Brussels, where my daughter, Julia, was spending the Summer working at the US Mission to the European Union, and then, by way of Athens, flew to Santorini, landing on that airstrip that can be seen as the slightly-diagonal inch-long line on the right, near the middle of the satellite photo.
The balcony of our unit (102) at Esperas had an unobstructed view of the sea several hundred feet down the hillside and of the people silhouetted against the eastern sky each evening to watch the western sunset. Standing in the whirlpool tub, this is the view through the window bars, as the plunge down would be deadly;
The photo below is from inside the living room looking out onto our private balcony. From it, we could see the daily sunset-watching crowds perched on the ruined walls and silhouetted against the eastern sky. (The umbrellas and pool-chairs below are for the pool on the property.)
Below is a close-up of the crowds, mostly young people and mostly European, that are the tiny “dots” on the photo above.
Below, the sunset, a bit later, that we would all share. (The ship, I think, is one of the many ferries from other islands and the mainland. We would sit on our balcony and watch them disappear as our wine also “disappeared”..)
No photos of Oia sunsets would be complete without one including that iconic windmill:
A short walk from Esperas, a broad staircase of several hundred steps led down to
small fishing village of Ormos Ammoudiou, consisting of of several waterside restaurants, a few houses, and a small break-water and harbor for the boats. Nightly dinner in one of those restaurants became part of the routine, especially as we told ourselves that the exercise of climbing up and down the steps would balance out the eating and drinking…
From the sea, this is the view of Ormos with the steps (the whitish line heading towards upper left of photo ) zig-zagging up to Oia :
And Ormos, from land-side and somewhere in Oia, looking down:
The sunsets in Ormos weren’t so bad, either…. I can remember “..rosy-fingered dawn..” and “..wine-dark sea..” from the Odyssey, but not anything about the colors of the sunsets… Homer must have been very jaded…. or blind. (Yes, I know he was!)
Ormos was a place to sit from dusk onwards – with a bottle wine and freshly caught seafood – and enjoy a setting that has soothed from time immemorial: a balmy breeze bobbing boats on a placid sea.
We were usually early by Greek standards, but that only gave us more time to do….nothing! Somewhere there is a photo of Margy, grinning like a mad-woman, hands coated with butter and bits of shell, the vanquished remains of a plateful of Garides (shrimp) and a Astakos (lobster) overflowing the plate in front of her. It’s too disturbing a photo for a G-rated blog…. (The photo above shows the table where the carnage took place.)
Walking back up those several hundred steps late at night ranged from a small to a medium-sized challenge after food and wine had created some combination of giggly, bloated, and/or lethargic, but the illuminated hillside also made the slow, sometimes stumbling climb a pleasure. (I am unable to identify the red blotch at bottom-right, as neither of us claimed credit for the unsteady shot.)
And while the Oia sunsets are world-renowned, I think you’ll agree that the night sky and moon weren’t too shabby either…. The photo below was taken from our balcony:
On one of our night-time walks, the moon’s position, lower in the horizon just fifteen minutes earlier, had made the caldera’s calm waters into a silver mirror with its own moon. By the time I returned with my camera, it had risen in the sky and “all” that was left is this…. (I didn’t have a tripod and the camera was a mere 2.3 megapixels (!), though state-of-the-art in consumer digitals ten years ago, hence the blur.)
We filled the days with hiking up to the ruins of Greco-Roman Thira atop the southeast peak of the highest mountain, busing to ancient Minoan Akrotiri (the Greek “Pompeii” mentioned earlier), and visiting some of the vineyards that produce some great and, at the time, inexpensive white wines. (The wines were such a good value that we fantasized (briefly) about how to import them and make our fortune. We eventually “downsized” the dream to a reality of bringing home on the plane almost-a-case’s worth, something still possible pre-9/11.)
The photo below, taken from about mid-level climb of those steps, is the standard/obligatory shot of the windmill and the hillside of traditional-style “cave houses”. (If you look carefully at the lower left, there is a figure in red, about one and a quarter inches in from the left and bottom edges, just above the row of closed sun umbrellas and next to white barrel-roof house front. It’s Margy wrapped in a red blanket and standing on the steps to our unit at Esperas – if you click inside the photo, it should enlarge.)
The next – and final – three photos are a prime reason for why a camera should be at hand at all times.
We were out for a morning walk when we encountered a bridal magazine photo-shoot. I made the most of the places where I could stand and not interfere and took just these three shots. Composing them was difficult because the sunlight washed out the screen on the digital camera – I can still feel the blinding glare of the sun striking and reflecting up from the whitewashed walls and walks. (Hence the serendipity that the photos turned out as well as they did.)
And, maybe, that’s the long-view reviewing that trip from a distance of ten years: the best moments in life are serendipitous and both fleeting and timeless in the same moment, even when they are a week in duration. To quote (again), but in this context what that trip “was” this is from Michael Cunningham in “The Hours”, his novel – and novel “take” – on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”):
“There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now (one) knows: That was the moment, right then.”
In another month, September 9, 2001 and its aftermath would envelop our world with a dark cloud as life-changing as the ash-cloud that enveloped Santorini 3,500 years ago.