Santorini – in Greece’s Cyclades islands – is one of those places that everyone should see before they die. I know there is a book and TV series which lists such places. I haven’t read it nor seen the show. But I’ve seen this astoundingly beautiful landscape and my jaw dropped.
Also known as Thira, most travellers reach the island by taking a 10 hour ferry trip from Athen’s port of Piraeus. If time is limited, Santorini has a small international airport, reachable from Athens and other cities in Europe. The arrival by boat, however, rewards visitors with some of the most breathtaking scenes of spectacular volcanic landscapes rising out of aqua seas. From a distance, the white Cycladic houses on the island’s cliffs look, at one moment, like snow on a huge plateau and, at another moment, like white icing on a gigantic misshapen chocolate cake.
Formed after the world’s biggest and most destructive volcanic eruption in 1650 BC, Santorini and its smaller islets are largely barren of the olive and pine trees which thrive on other islands and over much of mainland Greece. Vines crawl along the ground but the landscape is mostly rock…of all colours. With a rental car, my friends and I visited Red Beach, Black Beach and White Beach. The geographic history of the cliff faces is also revealed in rich veins of colour. One sobering thought, which entered my mind once, is the fact that even though the volcano is considered at rest now, an earthquake in 1956 practically destroyed the main settlements and killed many residents.
The magnetic beauty of the caldera settlements of Oia and Fira quickly dispelled that thought. White washed cottages, many of which have been converted into very expensive accommodation for tourists, are seemingly carved into the cliff faces. The postcard scenes of blue domed chapels and church bells are even more pleasing to the naked eye. The cobbled lanes are vehicle free except for the occasional donkey. One highlight of many was a donkey ride down the 600 odd steps to Fira’s old port.
The highlight of each evening, except for one which was overcast, is the dramatic sunset witnessed from the caldera rim at Oia, a town of sights and scenes that words cannot describe. Hordes of travelers do gather for this ritual, lining the narrow paths of the town for a place to rest their camera. The sunlight against the town’s rustic houses and ruins together with the descending sun into the sea is well worth all of the hype.
There is a mythical and aesthetic magic about Santorini, even a bit of fear. I really think it’s a place I’d better see twice before I die.