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August 07, 2019

Greek Islands: Sumptuous Santorini



Surrounded by the indigo Aegean, Santorini is a glorious blue and white testament to the island beauty that is typically Greek.

Before the Latin Empire named it in the 13th century after the cathedral of Saint Irene, Santorini was known as Kallist, which translated as “the most beautiful one”. Seems there’s been unanimity for centuries. Not just the best Greek island but the ‘best island in the world’, said the BBC in recent times.

First impressions count for a lot and mine was not many notches below spectacular. A direct flight from Heathrow had me on the ground at Monolithis Airport late in the afternoon and a brief dash from the airport positioned me on a ridge above the caldera just as the sun was setting. For something that happens every day this took on all the elements of an exquisite occasion, complete with lines of folk and choruses of sighing exclamations (more than a few in antipodean accent). For while sunset tends to reliably draw an audience in tourist locations all across the big blue marble, the Santorini setting is pretty much peerless.

This island had one of the most dramatic volcanic explosions in recorded history some 3600 years ago (in a region where volcanic activity goes back millions), which resulted in the vast three-side rectangular lagoon with soaring three hundred metre high walls. So deep that almost every ocean craft in the world can enter its protected domain – with up to four a day bringing in agog visitors in peak season. The tumultuous activity left the island with a crescent shape that lends weight to the popular theory that this was the fabled realm of Atlantis. As part of a generation who had come of age listening to Scottish troubadour Donovan recite and sing Atlantis I found myself easily musing upon how “All the Gods who play in the mythological dramas in all legends from all lands were from far Atlantis”. Of course.

The spell was never allowed to be broken. A room boy shouldered my suitcase and set off at a loping pace along a high winding path near Imerovigli village just a couple of kilometres from Fira (or Thera) the island’s main town, to Grace Santorini, a boutique property etched in the caldera wall.

Lifelike doll's face stares out from a
Santorini boutique (Roderick Eime)
Santorini is one of only two islands in Europe with a hot desert climate. Within the Cyclades group, of which Santorini is the southernmost member and ferry-reached Mykonos has the loudest parties, there is an appealing architecture style of low-lying cubical stone houses either whitewashed or coloured by volcanic ash, with some rooms (or produce/wine cellars) dug into the surrounding pumice for effective all-season insulation. My room at the Grace Santorini gave the impression that it had been tunnelled into the cliff, with wooden shutters opening onto the ever breath-taking view. I had a small spa pool but a level up, exerting an almost hypnotic pull, was the shimmering infinity pool that features in almost every published image of the hotel.

Once you tear yourself away from all of this, there are quiet villages, tavernas, museums, cave houses, castles, walks along dusty paths to dive in the deep waters of Ammoudi, the rebuilt 13th century BC city of Akrotiri, thermal springs, scuba diving, boat rides, old harbours and blue domed churches. For some, certainly, after the sun has so dramatically slipped from sight – it is a primarily gastronomic experience. The island is famed for succulent cherry tomatoes and caper berries sold preserved in oil in jars by street vendors. There are sesame-coated almonds, pistachios, yoghurt with honey and walnuts, fresh fish and the ever-present gyros on pita rolls. This is bread-basket, fruit-of-plenty land.

And while the cruise liner flow ensures that there are the requisite rows of souvenir stalls, there is a startling number of one-off boutiques, emporiums and craft shops with unique items not duplicated all along the road.

Like most of the Greek Islands, Santorini is a world apart from Athens and the mainland. It comes alive in high season and seems to stand apart from the nation’s heavily-publicised travails, though an absolute reliance on tourism on the part of 15,500 residents makes one conscious of a certain fragility and constant attention to preservation.

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Originally published in Get Up & Go Magazine Summer 2015

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