The name Santorini was first attached to this place by the Romans in the 13th century. Before that it was Kalliste: “The Most Beautiful One.”
Santorini has a big reputation, but this morning, it’s not living up to it.
The white sugar-cube villages perched 300m above the Aegean Sea are draped in an organza mist.
Santorini, one of the prettiest of the Greek islands has started the day coyly.
Then, wham, bang, the tissue paper is ripped off the chocolate box.
Sun burns through the cloud revealing the full beauty of the villages of Santorini, with their blue domes, windmills and homes and hotels like delicate, formatted icing along the matte red and grey rim of the caldera.
The name Santorini was first attached to this place by the Romans in the 13th century.
Before that it was Kalliste: “The Most Beautiful One.”
Santorini, the most southern of the Cyclades Islands, is actually a series of islands around a lagoon that is up to 400m deep. The rim and lagoon were created 3600 years ago by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, though there has been volcanic activity here for two million years.
The biggest island is Thira and its main town bears the same name, which locals spell Fira, and that’s what appears on road signs.
I’ve arrived by sea, in the caldera, as most people do as it is a popular cruise stop. Rather than taking the cable car (€6 each way), a “donkey taxi”, or walk up to the town of Thira, I step straight on to a local boat that, for €15 takes visitors along to the port at the base of Oia, drives them up to the village in a coach and then, at hourly intervals up to 2pm, goes back to Thira.
Oia is the pictorial centrepiece of Santorini, with alleyways, stacked white toy-block buildings, blue-domed churches against the backdrop of water, and relic windmills that catch the sunset light.
The shops are like small galleries. It’s a good place for interesting and high-quality women’s clothing, at places such as the Silk Shop. “By Greek designers, made in Greece,” is an impressive phrase used often.
Often the best views of Oia are from cafe terraces.
For me, there’s a very local lunch of Greek salad and tzatziki at the famous Cafe Lotza. I’m lucky with a front-row table as the spectacle is not only the domes and buildings, but also the steady stream of selfie-takers on the path below, many specifically dressed, styled and groomed for this moment.
Later, there’s good coffee, baklava and galaktoboureko — custard in filo with syrup.
Then comes a good decision ... to walk the well-marked 11km cliff path back to Thira, which takes me through to the end of Oia, then into the open hill ridge, before the village of Finikia and then Thira. At not much more than a stroll, it takes three hours.
The next day, I decide to hire a very nice little Fiat Panda car instead, for €40 for the day (quad bikes are very popular on the roads, and cheaper).
I head south, out along the coastal roads, until I reach the Tomato Industrial Museum at Vlihada (which locals call Vlychada). Santorini tomatoes have a big reputation, too. Grown in the volcanic ash soil, these cherry tomatoes are intensely red and flavoursome, and Dimitrious Nomikos started making tomato sauce from them on Santorini in 1915.
By 1945, his factory could handle 3500 baskets of tomatoes a day — each basket weighing 50kg and brought by donkey. The tomatoes would be washed in sea water, chopped, condensed to sauce and tinned, and the farmers would wait to get their seed back, for the following year’s crop. This was how the almost anhydrous Santorini tomato, containing hardly any water, was kept alive.
In that same building, the Tomato Industrial Museum has preserved the old machines, photographs and philosophies, told through a film made of locals who worked here.
It also serves as the Santorini Arts Factory, and a hub particularly for local children’s creative endeavours.
The ladies at the museum point me to “where we go” for lunch — Psaraki, overlooking the harbour. It has short-finned squid, fresh sea urchin eggs, scorpion fish, Mediterranean barracuda and anchovies marinated in olive oil and lemon on the menu. Everything is fresh — and I choose Greek salad, fish directly from the ocean, and potatoes which taste of this island. But the lunch for two is €75 — Santorini is not cheap.
From there, I drive on across the volcanic ash soil plains where Santorini’s sweet, almost seedless white eggplants, unique variety of big cucumbers, and the legume Lathyrus sativus, blended to fava (which elsewhere is more usually made from yellow split peas) are grown.
A big brown donkey brays, tethered in a field.
Perissa is perhaps Santorini’s most famous beach. They call it “black sand” but in fact, it’s a rather nice, glare-free fine gravel. The end of the beach runs into a big rock face, and it’s very popular, with lots of tavernas and cafes. But further away, just out of the forest of umbrellas, it’s quiet and lovely for swimming.
Back in Thira, the shops are full of souvenirs, but most of these are made in Greece, and among the sea sponges are local foods and wine.
And for me, the day ends as I started, back on a ship in the caldera.
And Santorini ends its day as it started, too, with a veil of silk mist draped around the shoulders of the caldera, its lights sparkling like diamonds.
- Celestyal Cruises, the only Greek-owned cruise line based in Greece, calls at Santorini on many of its Greek Island itineraries. It stays in many ports overnight, some for two days. It specialises in affordable, medium-sized ships, for example Celestyal Crystal, which usually carries 700 passengers. For more information on all Celestyal Cruises ships, itineraries and prices, contact Bicton Travel on 9339 0277 or email@example.com
DisclaimerStephen Scourfield travelled courtesy of Bicton Travel and Celestyal Cruises. They have not seen this story and have not approved it.
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