Santorini: A Platonic Encounter
Text & photos by Marla Norman, publisher of Travel Curious Often
The world is filled with beautiful places, but none of them can rival Santorini. Bewitchingly beautiful, the island sits under a sapphire sky, high above an Aegean Sea so deep-blue, it’s almost purple. The endless shades of indigo and azure contrast with the white-washed houses. Carved out of sheer rock, they line the terraced hillsides like sugar cubes, reflecting the shimmering light — hypnotic and dazzling.
When we first arrive, we do nothing but walk, gawk and swoon over the scenery. Looking out over the ancient caldera (volcanic crater) we’re easily persuaded that Santorini could be Plato’s mythical Atlantis. What is indisputable, is that in 1600 BC, the island was the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever recorded. Whether this cataclysm destroyed the legendary civilization is an ongoing controversy.
These days, the most obvious natural disaster afflicting Santorini is tourism. Only 76-square kilometers in area, this tiny plot of land hosts well over 2 million visitors between the months of April and October. Heavy traffic jams and dwindling water sources have caused frustrated local residents to impose a daily cap on cruise passengers to the island.
We count ourselves as lucky, however. Our stay, the last week of October, is mercilessly free of tourists. In fact, walking back from dinner the first night, we don’t encounter another soul. Stars are our only companions out here in the middle of the Aegean, where the skies are bedecked with thousands of glittering lights.
There is one flaw in our Paradise, regrettably — stone steps — miles worth of them. And after lengthy explorations, we feel the pain. At one point, we also realize we’ve taken a wrong turn and are at the wrong hotel.
Hoping to avoid retracing our steps and another strenuous climb, Michel spots a gate that seems to lead out: “I’m pretty sure this is a short cut to our place,” he says, pulling on the heavy door.
Immediately, a high pitched scream pierces the quiet evening. A male voice yelps two seconds later. Michel slams the door shut, apologizing profusely: “Excuse me! I’m so sorry,” he says, rapidly backing away.
“I busted up a romantic moment,” he whispers to me with a pained expression. “Two nude lovers enjoying a hot tub in the moonlight.”
Meantime, a security guard spots us. “Are you lost?” he asks. “Can I help?”
We tell him we’re at the Hotel Esperas. “Ah! You’re very close,” he responds encouragingly, but then leads us back up the long flight of steps we were hoping to avoid. “Just follow those stairs to the top of the hill, take a left and walk past the two windmills. Esperas is right at the bottom of the last set of steps.”
Sighing, we take a few moments to enjoy the stars and then climb back up the stairs…..
LIFE ON THE EDGE
Our first morning in Santorini begins with a sumptuous breakfast brought to our private terrace by the attentive staff at Hotel Esperas (located in Οία, the 2nd largest city on the island.) Thick, creamy Greek yogurt (nothing like the chalky paste we have in the U.S.) is accompanied by fresh orange juice, eggs, delicious breads, pastries and rich flavorful coffee. But of course, good as the breakfast is, the best part of the meal is the remarkable view. Staring at black volcanic islands, clouds swirling across the sky and the sea at our feet, we wonder if we’re still asleep and dreaming.
Leaving the hotel, however, requires ascending a few miles worth of stairs and the aches in our legs from the previous day’s exertions leaves no doubt that we’re fully awake. To take a break from stair climbing, we decide to rent a small car. Michel pops into VIP Car Rental to make arrangements. A few minutes later he walks back out and hands me a helmet.
“What’s this for?” I ask, dreading the answer.
Michel smiles from ear to ear, “I rented an ATV!”
I’m not thrilled initially, but his enthusiasm is compelling. And after a few hours of cruising along the sea, past gorgeous scenery, I’m all in. Honestly! How can you be unhappy in Santorini?
One of our first stops (of course!) are the Santorini vineyards. Winemaking has existed on the island for centuries and became especially profitable after Venice acquired control of the region during the Crusades in the early 1200s. Through the extensive Venetian trade network, Santorini wines were exported throughout Europe and were in great demand.
Much of the current production stays within Greece, but growing tourism has brought new awareness and interest in Greek wine. Santorini’s classified wines include Santorini, Nykteri and Vinsanto.
Santorini consists primarily of Assyrtiko, a white grape varietal, known for its acidity and citrus, mineral flavors — ideal in warm weather climates and the perfect accompaniment for seafood.
Nykteri is traditionally harvested at night to avoid hot temperatures. Indeed, the word, Nykteri means “to work through the night.” This wine is also composed of 75% or more Assyrtiko, but, unlike Santorini, this classified wine must be aged in oak for a minimum of three months.
Vinsanto is part of an ancient winemaking tradition dating back thousands of years in Santorini.Very similar to the Tuscan Vin Santo or Holy Wine, Vinsanto is made from late harvested grapes that include at least 51% Assyrtiko as well as 49% Athiri and Aidani varietals. The grapes are sun-dried for 12-14 days, then crushed, fermented and aged for a minimum of 24 months in oak barrels. Vinsanto is known for its dark amber color and aromas of apricots and spice with an underlying minerality.
Most wineries in Santorini welcome visitors and charge only a nominal fee for tastings. Frequently, cheese plates and appetizers are available for purchase as well. As an additional bonus, many of the wineries have fantastic views and settings, ideal for sunset visits.
MEET THE MINOANS
At the southern tip of Santonini is the village Akrotiri, famous for its architectural site. If in fact there was an Atlantis, these ancient ruins will provide the answer….someday. For now, scientists and historians continue to carefully remove volcanic debris and unearth the lost city.
Currently, 40 buildings have been uncovered, but they represent only one-thirtieth of the enormous site. Experts estimate that excavations could easily continue for another hundred years or more.
Akrotiri was founded around 3000 BC. Its settlers are presumed to be Minoans from Crete. Their city had paved streets, advanced plumbing and drainage systems. Sophisticated architecture, craft specialization and art work all demonstrate a highly evolved culture. Trade routes flourished throughout the Aegean and the city prospered until one horrific moment, when the Theran Eruption buried the region some 3,600 years ago.
One more fascinating fact about Akrotiri: Very few precious metals have been found and, more importantly, no uninterred human skeletal remains have turned up. All of which indicates that the settlers understood an eruption was imminent and evacuated before disaster stuck. Again, more evidence of the sophistication of Akrotiri and, perhaps, that this was indeed the location and inspiration for Plato’s Atlantis.
Walking the “streets” of the excavated city is fascinating and hauntingly poignant. Thousands of years later, it’s still easy to imagine the heartbreak and tragedy of having to abandon a home and everything familiar for a new world.
In addition to Akrotiri, the Museum of Prehistoric Thira in Fira is also worthwhile. Housed here is a small collection of pottery and artifacts collected from the archeological site. Most of the items found over the years have been sent to the Archaeological Museum in Athens. But a spectacular fresco portraying Blue Monkeys frolicking from limb to limb is on display. Also here is a striking portrait of a Fisherman with a large, enviable catch. Smaller pieces featuring painted swallows, decorative flowers and border designs are also on view. The elegant composition and execution of the frescoes is again a testament to the cultural achievements of the ancient residents of Akrotiri.
FOOD: FISH FISH FISH
The seafood in Santorini is irresistible. Simply prepared and, of course, incredibly fresh — even die-hard meat-eaters succumb to the allure of the fish platters here. Also appealing are the island-grown vegetables and salad greens.
There are any number of fantastic restaurants in Santorini, but without fail, every local we queried recommended Sunset Taverna. Located in a tiny quay, just at the base of Οiα, the colorful restaurant is perched right at the edge of the water. You can taxi down or, take the scenic route and walk. We decide to park the ATV and walk — 260 steps later, we arrive.
We take a few moments to catch our breath and admire the location, then a waiter shows us to a large refrigerated glass case with freshly caught fish. An incredible range of choices are available: Sea Bream, Sea Bass, Red Snapper, Swordfish, Grouper, Scorpio Fish, Cod, Red Mullet and Tuna.
We choose the Sea Bream and then order several appetizers and sides. Again, a wide variety of choices are available. We settle on a Fisherman Salad with shrimp, anchovies, squid, mussels and lime sauce. Additionally we order Eggplant stuffed with Feta, Halloumi cheese and Dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves). Remember — we walked 260 steps!
A bottle of Sigalas Assyrtiko is the crowning touch, as we devour the beautifully prepared food and savor the views: fishing excursions coming in and going out, divers rigging up their gear, deep-blue water lapping the side of the sea wall…..a perfect meal and setting.
More great Οία dining:
With its gorgeous rooftop seating off the main plaza, Skiza is an ideal spot for viewing the caldera and people watching. Pizzas, fresh salads and risottos are tasty. Evening cocktails are also a nice sunset option.
Roka, unlike most Santorini restaurants, has no views. In fact, we wander around back alleys to reach it. Roka does, however, serve up wonderful Greek Island specialities. We start with an assortment of dips, including a heavenly Fava Bean Purée. Grilled Red Peppers, Eggplant and Fried Calamari with Tarama Sauce are equally delicious. For main courses, we take a break from seafood and order Lamb Shanks and Boufalo Soutzoukakia (meatballs with grilled tomatoes and potatoes in a yogurt sauce.) Prices are quite reasonable as well. Be sure to make reservations, as this is a favorite spot with locals.
Considered the most romantic restaurant in all of Santorini, Ambrosia lives up to its reputation. Spectacular views and well-prepared food is their hallmark, beginning with the Ambrosia Tarts, filled with goat cheese, onions and basil sauce. Seafood pastas and fresh fish fillets are excellent. Lamb, duck and veal are also available. All of this does come at a price, however, but Ambrosia is well worth the splurge.
A PHILOSOPHICAL TWIST
We’re spending the last three days of our trip in Crete, so we stop by the hotel front desk for help to purchase our ferry tickets. Nicole, one of the Hotel Esperas managers, welcomes us into the office and runs a quick search for options. Frowning deeply, she begins typing faster. We suddenly have a sense of impending doom, something akin to the ancient Akrotiris, about to be told that something REALLY bad is going to happen.
“I’m afraid,” says Nicole, with a forlorn look, “that the last ferry for Crete departed at 10:00 p.m. last night. The company won’t resume service until next year.”
We’re in utter shock. “Nothing until next year!”
“Well,” she says, typing furiously again, “There are private yachts you could charter, but that’s quite expensive, at least $3,000 to $5,000. You could go to the docks and look for fishing vessels, but there are no ferries to Crete at this time or airline service.”
We sit down to absorb the news.
“It’s the end of the season,” Nicole explains. “Right now, including the two of you, we have only five guests. Like most of the hotels here, we’re closing at the end of the week and everyone will go back to their homes in Athens or Albania until March. You know,” she adds, “very few people live here full time. It’s much too expensive.”
We listen to her and consider our options, finally deciding to stay in Santorini two extra days and return a day early to Athens. “It’s ok,” I say, “This is hardly a life-altering change. We’re not the Akrotiris after all.”
“We will need to cancel our hotel in Crete, change our planet tickets leaving out of Crete and book a hotel in Athens.” Michel reminds me.
No problem. Within seconds, the ever efficient Nicole books our hotel in Athens and cancels the stay in Crete.
A call into Aegean Air doesn’t go so smoothly however. We had hoped to cancel the Crete to Athens segment of the original flight and pick up the second segment from Athens to Paris. Nicole shakes her head. “No. They insist you cancel the old flight entirely and book a new flight from Athens to Paris. Tickets will run about $1,000 total.”
We sit down again. “That’s crazy!” Michel exclaims. “We’re actually giving them two seats to re-sell and using only half of the ticket we already paid for. In essence, they’re asking us to pay for the same seats again at double the price!”
“How’s this possible?” I wonder out loud. “And here in Greece of all places? Isn’t this where Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras and Democritus developed rational thinking, reasoned logic — established the pillars of Western Civilization.” I feel a tremor as the great philosophers collectively turn in their graves.
Nicole’s shift ends and Viki, another manager, calls Aegean Air once again to plead our case. They continue to insist that we purchase new tickets. Michel and I each take a turn on the phone. No luck. Finally, we give in and pay the $1,000 for new tickets.
“I’m so very sorry,” Viki tries to console us. “I do have some good news. If you don’t mind moving, we can upgrade you to a better room with better views for a cheaper price than you’re paying now.”
We appreciate the gesture and thank Viki for her help. Walking out on the hotel terrace, Kaci, the bartender, offers us cold glasses of Assyrtiko. We watch the sun making its nightly plunge off the island cliffs, while the sky and sea light up in another theatrically Greek moment. We laugh and toast. Logic and reason be damned. We are after all, unbelievably lucky to be spending two more days in this extraordinary place. Somewhere Plato, Socrates and the gang have to be smiling.