“The idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting” – Andy Warhol.
There could be no better way to explain how I felt when we first decided to visit Greece, two years back. We had just moved to Sweden from India. It was all still like a dream. I could not believe for few weeks that we actually were in Europe! Well, we can delve more into my madness in later blogs (It’s too big a topic for a Blog anyway).
Europe, in general, is a sea of tranquil places and beautiful landscapes. To be able to choose just one place to visit, at first, seemed like a mammoth task. But as our search began and the list of destinations started to form, there was one particular place which kept ringing in my head and blurred my vision towards everything else. And just like that, we were sure that it has to be, “Thine Greece”. And when someone says Greece, what’s the first name that pops out? Of course, it is “SANTORINI”.
Santorini; a small island just 200kms off Greece mainland, is the star of the circular archipelago in the Aegean Sea. The remnant of a volcanic caldera, it features steep red cliffs hanging majorly towards the volcanic crater and hosts the gorgeous looking white-washed houses and blue-domed churches; a perfect example of Cycladic architecture. A harmonious combination of the sea on one side and mountain cliffs on the other, it’s a no-brainer why Santorini is the most sought-after travel destination in the world with a yearly turnover of two-million visitors.
Even though there were great cruise ships and high-speed ferries to reach the island, we chose Aegean airlines. It’s the fastest (about 45mins) and definitely not the cheapest way to reach Santorini from Athens, but when it comes to deciding between time and money, when in Santorini, please go by the former; you can thank me later.
We immediately booked a taxi from the airport to reach our hotel which was located in Oia, a scenic village in the north-western part of the island. Oia is the typical Santorini; what you see everywhere in postcards, what you have come seeking for, on this island. It is around 11kms from Fira, which houses the airport and serves as the main transportation hub on the island.
The initial view around the airport was like a barren land, and our taxi took off on what seemed like a single road of the commute for coming into or going out of that area. We quickly gained elevation with empty lands on both the sides that looked parched and arid. After about 25 minutes into the ride, the road appeared to perch on the cliff and was sufficiently high above the sea level, for us to get a clear view. In the matter of a few seconds, the sight that unfolded in front of us was nothing less than spectacular. We had the most beautiful view of the caldera and the surrounding island cliffs, briefly flashing the white-washed houses that looked like a pile of fresh snow on the edges.
When we arrived at Oia and in front of our hotel, all that we could see was a single stretch of paved street, lined on both sides by the typical Cycladic houses (smooth and white-washed cube houses). As the road is situated on the topmost part of the island, you almost see nothing else when you are standing on the road. We had reached early for our check-in and thus were escorted straight to the breakfast table, while they got our rooms ready. Now, let me just walk you through the next part, a bit slower and with greater details, as this was a pivotal moment for me.
We went through a series of small winding stairs, all completely white and spotless (as if they were painted the day before). Passing through small courtyards, lined with potted flowers of every imaginable color, we emerged into a partly covered open terrace with our breakfast table all set up. The few seconds that followed, might have been a bit hazy; as I don’t recall any moment in my life before that I felt this numb. The view awaiting us was mesmerizing. It was everything that I imagined for, much more than I hoped for and phenomenal in itself. Remember the times in our life when we really feel that the best and the most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched but you have to feel it by heart. This was that moment for me. I cannot explain it in words but I felt as if my eyes were just useless and it was my heart that was registering the vista for me. There was a panorama of flush glistening white cave houses spread in a cascade, as far as the eye could see. They were dug up into the steep slope side of the mountain facing the caldera, each resting next to and on top of each other. They all looked similar yet distinct enough and seemed to have no clear distinguishing boundaries. They looked like a bunch of white grapes hanging to the cliff and in sharp contrast to the blue Aegean Sea just in front. There appeared to be a sense of freedom and vastness in the landscape. The white open terraces of the houses seemed to agree with the crystal clear sea and the red volcanic rocks of the caldera. As I stood there, I was amazed how beautiful a place can be. I was stupefied and could have easily missed a heartbeat or two.
In all this, we had almost forgotten about our breakfast. We quickly took some pictures and finished our breakfast, as we were more eager than ever to discover more and walk through the place, to see what else this island had in store for us.
We headed down the same road we had arrived earlier and quickly realized that it was the single main road that went from start to finish of the island, sometimes branching off into smaller alleys and ending abruptly. It is not a very big place. In fact, you can actually cover the place from end to end in under an hour, only if you don’t stop to take pictures or divulge in shopping (A quick disclaimer: you would stop and take hundreds and hundreds of clicks).
The island is in the shape of a flipped C. So as soon as the road starts to bend, the beautiful townscape becomes visible along with the view of the caldera and the open sea to the side. It’s easy to see why this place is so popular; irrespective of the fact that it is incredibly beautiful and dazzling, everything that it has to offer is right in front of you. Unlike most places, you don’t have to hike or make a lot of effort to get to a vantage point. Almost everywhere you look and anywhere you turn, there is a new frame waiting to be clicked. Rather, the road itself gives you a sweeping view of the exquisite scenery.
We reached what looked kind of like a square dotted with souvenir stores, selling all kind of touristy stuff; clothes, magnets, umbrellas, decorative items, etc. Soon, the road bent into an alley, the caldera view was gone and we were moving in between the steep walls of the shops. The road kept winding with small and cute shops everywhere. It was kind of cozy and very inviting. Every store, like the cave houses everywhere, had potted colorful plants which looked vivid against the white background. Not an inch on the street was without a fresh white paint, and they looked immaculate. They had a carpet of flagstones outlined with white paints, which matched with the aesthetics of the surrounding, seemed distinctive and added to the aura of the place.
It was amazing to see the variety in stores too. On one side there were stores of high-end luxury brands and on the other, there were shops selling local handmade crafts, Greek artifacts showcasing works of local artists and local wine. There were colorful pottery items displayed on the streets and on the verandas of the shops, little quirky shops with cute taglines and a small library with a very beautiful phrase painted on it.
Soon, we were out again with an open view of the sea, with the street lined with boutique and fancy restaurants offering local Greek cuisines. It was funny to see, how every restaurant had a handyman in front calling out tourists with printed menus in hand and gesturing in a special way to allure customers to their place. They weren’t disturbing or annoying like in many major tourist places but rather were very stylish and sophisticated in their approach. We realized that it was a while that we were walking and decided to take a lunch break. Needless to say, we chose a place which had the open caldera view and proper shade, as it was a hot June summer day. We ordered two Greek salads (Choriatiki; made of fresh veggies and a generous amount of Feta cheese), a plate of traditional tomato fritters (Tomatokeftedes) and some refreshing frappes. We also ordered some wine which came highly recommended by the hotel staff and we were not disappointed. It was surprising to see that in such a strict Mediterranean climate of warm temperatures, low rainfall, and high humidity, they had an indigenous white grape, Assyrtiko in the island, which made their flagship wine Vin Santo; famous for its sweet and distinctive taste; all thanks to the porous volcanic vineyard soil. We sat there for a while enjoying the wine, the lovely seascape; with the cruises and speedboats passing by.
Now, with a full stomach and refilled energy, we caught up on our exploration. This time, the single stretch of the street seemed to have come to an end and took a right turn. There were many stairs sprouting in all directions, like streets. Some of them went down to the beach and others to more shops, hotels, and restaurants. But, we headed towards the next best aspect of Santorini, the windmills. These windmills have been a part of Oia, the earliest settlement in the island, for centuries. Some date back to the 1400s when the windmill acted as a single unit of milling, bakery, and housing for the millers. On our way to the windmills, we headed towards the less traversed parts of Oia. Away from the crowds, some of the winding stairs led us to the few residential cave houses still used by the natives.
The best thing about the windmills in Oia is their location. Standing tall, upon the crest, overlooking the caldera, these mills not only make up a good focal point for a magnificent postcard photograph of Santorini but also a good spot to check out the much talked about sunsets of Oia. People were already reserving spots on the nearby café, hours earlier to sunset. Thus, without further ado, we left for our pre-selected site for watching the sunset, the Kastro of Oia (an old Venetian Castle fortress in ruins). The walls of the castle offer uninterrupted panoramic view around. It’s best to reach the place hours before sunset, as heaps of tripods, couples, newlyweds, and to-be-weds flock to the area, all with the same goal.
Watching the sunset in Oia is like watching the empty canvas of the sky getting painted with the exquisite hues of sunset in front of your eyes. The fading sun and the town of Oia changing its colors with the changing colors of the sky was a sight to behold. As we noticed people leaving immediately after, we decided to hang in a bit longer and focussed our gaze on the cityscape and not the sea this time. In the bluish hue of the golden hours, the prominent white sugar cube houses, the doors and the windows painted in a dominant azure shade of blue, some off-white cave houses, looked like an artist’s pallet.
With an overwhelmingly surreal experience, we headed back to our hotel. On the way, we stopped to get some souvenirs to remember this special day and place by. As the day was coming to an end, so was our time in Santorini. With a promise to come back again, this place made me fall in love with White all over again and gave me a new-found respect for the minimalistic approach.
Have you been to Santorini Yet? Please post your experiences and suggest ideas. As I can’t wait for my “ROUND TWO”.