Santorini: Off the Caldera

Seven years ago, Susan and I celebrated our 30th anniversary on Santorini.  We stayed at one of the luxe places spilling down the cliffside above the caldera.  Our room was a cool cave dug back into the tephra, there was an infinity pool with astonishing views over the caldera, a cafe/bar with the same views, a guy to carry our luggage up and down the cliff steps (once he had wrested it from my hands), etc.  We generally stayed cliffside, walking around the big town of Fira, strolling Oia night and day, enjoying a spectacular anniversary dinner in Oia on the roof at 1800, walking — cautiously — along the trail that clings to the cliff face and stretches from Fira to Firostefani to Imerovigli and all the way around to Oia.  It was beautiful, spectacular, perfect.  Except it seemed to us that we hadn’t met any Greeks.  Apparently, as the tourist invasion intensified, the Greeks pulled back, with the business owners now hiring seasonal help from whatever country is cheapest and then decamping to Athens, and the other locals moving inland or to quieter islands.  It was like that Caribbean island owned by a cruise ship company — beautiful and soulless.  It wasn’t Greece, it was Tourist Land.  (We experienced the same conditions in Venice, where a local who is trying to raise her family there told us almost everyone had moved off the island as mass tourism — cruise ships in particular — had made the place increasingly unlivable.)  As far as we were concerned Santorini had all but ceased to be a Greek island, and we were very sad to discover that we didn’t want to go back.

By last summer, however, we had spent 6 years exploring the embarrassment of riches that is the Greek wine world and couldn’t help but notice that several of our favorite wineries were located on Santorini.  Our desire to taste the full expressive range of these wineries, and experience those unique instances of liquid glory in their native terroir led us to wonder if it would be worth a trip back.  We concluded that we might be able to do it in good conscience if we found a hotel off the caldera and spent our time away from the rim.  Susan found us a place that was not only run by Greeks but that catered almost exclusively to Greek tourists, and we had a wonderful time visiting wineries and seeing the rest of the island.  Here, then, are some photos of the island’s interior villages.  (I plan to post a piece about the wineries as part of this series.)


There were 5 “castles” built on Santorini at various times in the last 800 years.  One was at the site of the cathedral that slipped into the sea in Oia, and another was in the central village of Emborio.  We visited the one in Emborio and, at the opposite end of the spectrum from Oia, almost had the place to ourselves.


This castle consisted of a ring of houses whose exterior walls formed the defensive perimeter for the tower within.  It’s wonderful wandering around the rabbit warren of streets and passageways within.


Of course,  there is always at least one church inside the walls as well.


The tower.


This is the village of Perissa, where we stayed, from way up in Ancient Thera.  It’s a small village, with a strip of cafes, tavernas, and shops along its black sand beach.  The church that stood just at the base of this mountain, St. Irene, gave its name to the island.


Watch dogs at a leather shop in Perissa.


We visited the little village of Amoudi, tucked under the cliff below Oia.  Its waterfront is lined with fish tavernas, and we were there for fish.  Boat excursions out to the active volcano leave from the dock here.



IMG_3334There’s a long set of stairs that you can walk or donkey-ride.  We drove on the road.


A community of new houses being built to look like the traditional windmills.

IMG_4983St. Michael standing on some guy.  If that’s supposed to be the devil, he looks a lot like Barry Gibb.   This is from the church of the Virgin of Platsani, which was built in Oia to replace the cathedral destroyed in the 1956 earthquake.

IMG_4851The Red Beach, near Akrotiri.  Red sand/pebbles washed down from the cliffs make it a unique, and popular, place.


We visited another old “castle” in the village of Pyrgos, the island’s highest village.  Pyrgos enjoys commanding views over most of the island, so this is where the occupying Venetians moved when they abandoned their initial castle on a rock outcropping in the cliff face (after an earthquake).  Here, we’re looking all the way down to the southern point of the island.





We visited a museum of traditional life on Santorini.  Here, a farmer’s wife shells fava beans with a hand mill.


On a side street in Oia.

Santorini: The Caldera

My impression is that when Americans think about Greece, the visuals that spring to mind are of the Acropolis and the islands.  (At least that’s how it was before the financial crisis.  Now I guess a news photo of some sort of chaos is included in the slideshow.)  And, when it comes to the Greek islands, the usual images are of the clubs on Mykonos and the caldera at Santorini.  I like to post about Greece from the perspective of an American living in an area relatively few foreign tourists visit but we’ve been to Santorini three times in the last 10 months, and it’s been suggested that I post something about this most touristy of all Greek islands.  Since I can’t think of a way to approach Santorini in a single post, I’ll put up several installments in the coming days (I hope), each dealing with an element of the unique experience that is Santorini.

And I’ll start with the blockbuster.  Santorini’s raison d’etre.  The feature that draws the hoards.  That which makes Santorini unique among Greek islands.  The caldera.


In about 1700 BC, Santorini experienced the mother of all volcanic explosions, a blast that left a ring of three islands on the periphery of a gigantic caldera.  The biggest of the three islands, shaped like a backwards “C,” is Santorini.  Even standing on the rim it’s hard to get a feel for the enormity of the caldera but it’s about 7.5 miles on the north-south axis and 4.3 miles east to west.   The high point of the rim, the village of Imerovigli, near the center of this photo, is 300 meters above the sea.  The overwhelming majority of visitors to the caldera come to Santorini but a smaller island on the other side, Therasia, is also inhabited and welcomes day-trippers mostly.   In addition, two small islets in the center of the caldera have risen from the depths since the big bang 3700 years ago.  The volcano is still active, and dozens of boats daily take tourists out to Nea Kameni to see the volcano and swim in the adjacent hot water.

The photo above was taken from near the center of the backwards “C”, looking north.  That which looks like frosting on the top of the rim are the clustered houses of the villages that line the caldera. The northernmost village, barely visible atop the arm stretching to the left, is Oia, the most famous and most visited spot on the island.


This is what makes Oia famous and infamous.  The exquisite beauty of the little whitewashed house against the deep blue sea far below.  And the hoards of motor coach and cruise boat tourists that squeeze themselves into the tiny village daily, usually traipsing after a cosmically bored tour guide who stops every minute or two to rattle off the memorized script in all the languages of the UN.  That viewpoint where they’re all standing or waiting to stand is the foundation of a cathedral that went careening into the sea during a terrible earthquake in 1956.  It’s the westernmost point of the island, and a dead-end, so once you’ve shot your selfie there you have to turn around and fight your way back through the throngs.

Looking to the southeast along the caldera from Oia.


Looking northwest over Oia.  The cliffs beyond are the island Therasia.


The locals use donkeys to haul tourists up and down the caldera steps.  There are also a couple of roads and a couple of cable cars from the ports.



A few more photos from Oia:






How to handle the hoards:


The lighthouse at the opposite end of Santorini from Oia: