I can’t leave the subject of Santorini without mentioning the sunset. People come from all over the globe to see it, couples spend a fortune to be married with a Santorini sunset backdrop, tourists stand shoulder-to-shoulder in Oia to view it from that picturesque point, and, at every good sunset of the summer, multitudes come from all parts of the island, virtually lining every open space on Santorini’s cliff-edge to see (and photograph) the glorious, ever-altering spectrum washed across the seascape. It must be one of the most photographed sunsets on the globe. I’ve certainly never experienced anything like it. Here are a few of my photos — I wish they were better.
Since it was the wine of Santorini that caused us to revisit the island, it seems only right that we give it its own blog post. Santorini wine is remarkable because the vines are cultivated in conditions that more or less preclude the growth of vegetative matter of any sort. The vineyards are hills and slopes of volcanic pumice. Any rain that might fall would drain through this stuff in about a second. In any event, though, it doesn’t rain. One winery rep this summer told us that the last rain had been in May and the next one would be in November. And, on top on the annual summer drought, there’s the matter of the sun. It’s a merciless, desiccating, searing physical force that feels like a giant broiler overhead.
One might add wind to this recipe for desertification but in the case of Santorini’s vineyards, light and moderate winds are a blessing because they carry moisture from the sea up the slopes to the vines. And Santorini’s winemakers long ago developed a unique method of capturing that moisture. Unlike vineyards elsewhere that grow grape vines supported on trellises, here the vines are trained in a circle, one branch on top of another, until a “basket” of living vine is created. The grapes grow inside this basket, providing protection from strong winds, and the leaves overhead shade the grapes and help collect moisture.
And, as it turns out, the arid climate and the soilless vineyards also provide some benefits to the vines. First, the phylloxera virus that ravaged european vineyards and required they all be replanted with vines grafted to American rootstock never affected Santorini’s vines because the virus cannot survive in the pumice fields. As a result, some of the vines on this island are thought to be 500 years old — the oldest in the world. Second, the grapes can be left laying on the ground without worry about rot or mildew.
The king grape of Santorini is called Assyrtiko, and in the island’s volcanic soil it produces a white wine of stunning power and elegance. Sharp minerality, citrus, and nose of the island’s wild herbs make it not only ideal for sipping on warm evenings but also a marvelous partner to lamb and grilled seafood. Other parts of Greece produce some assyrtiko but the examples from Santorini are singular and sensational. Even more intriguing, these wines can be aged 5 years and more, although I’ve never been able to leave a bottle unopened for more than 2 years.
Visitors to Greece tend to think of the mainland when it comes to the country’s vast archeological heritage but the islands are also peppered with fantastic ancient and Venetian sites. On Santorini, the cataclysmic 1700 BC eruption that gave the island its astonishing caldera also created one of the world’s most unique archeological sites — Akrotiri. Reminiscent of Pompeii, Akrotiri is an ancient town buried by the ash of an enormous volcanic eruption. Unlike Pompeii, however, everyone had evacuated Akrotiri by the time the volcano blew and so no human remains have been found at the site. In fact, the inhabitants had abandoned and then returned to the city several times as pre-eruption earthquakes became more frequent and intense.
The excavated portion of the site is protected by a new, earth-covered roof that keeps it nice and cool inside while providing for light and ventilation.
What one sees inside is the excavated portion of a complete ancient town, apparently occupied by relatively well-off traders and merchants who had no need of defensive walls. Built right down to the edge of the sea, there was obviously no worry about pirates, either.
The photo above is of a building called West House, in which were found some of the beautiful wall frescoes recovered from the site. The door- and window-surrounds were made of wood because the inhabitants has discovered that wood timbers provided better earthquake resistance than stone. Here, concrete has been cast to replace the lost wood, but painted to resemble it. The window to the right of the door is thought to have been a shop window. The large size of the window on the upper floor is another indication of the freedom from fear of invasion enjoyed by the residents.
A set of the wall frescoes recovered from the West House and now preserved in the museum in Fira. They represent a notable development over the Egyptian genre from which they derived in the amount of “white space” they employ, and in their purely decorative function.
A couple of the beautifully decorated household items recovered from the site. Interestingly, both the turned-up spout of the one and double bowls of the other may have served the same function — helping to separate and settle-out the sediment in the wine or other liquid served from these pitchers.
This area is called Triangle Square, and it is here that West House is sited. The experience of walking the streets of a 3700-year-old town is hair-raising.
Apparently not everything could be taken, and there are many pots and amphorae to be seen as well as remains of some wood tables and bedsteads.
A reminder of the power of the earthquakes that accompanied the eruption, this entire set of stone steps broken in two.
After the eruption, the bleak, lifeless shell of Santorini went uninhabited, except for fishermen and sailors camping, for almost 900 years. Then, in the 8th century BC, colonists from Sparta established a new city in a very different location. Atop a virtually impregnable cliff with shear 400 ft drops, a classic Greek city was laid out along the ridge top on the eastern side of the island, just a few miles north of Akrotiri.
From the plane, the site of Ancient Thera on the top of this enormous rock.
And, from Ancient Thera, a plane coming in to land at Santorini. The ruins of the theatre stretches down the hillside, maintaining the pattern of consistently beautiful backdrops I’ve seen in theatres across the county.
Anafi island is visible in the distance.
The ancient cemeteries were located on either side of the parking circle, on a saddle between the peak of Ancient Thera and the peak of Agios Georgios, just to the west.
The view down to Kamari, the famous black sand beach. That’s the airport at the top left.
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.
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.
A community of new houses being built to look like the traditional windmills.
St. 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.
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.
I am: Thalassitis (“of the sea”), made by Gai’a on Santorini of 100% assyrtiko grapes.
Character: Fully expressive of the island’s volcanic terroir. Bone dry. Honeysuckle nose. Stoney minerals, salt air, dried herbs, crisp citrus.
Dream date: pair with chincoteague oysters.
We’re just finishing our 4th heat wave of the season. My recollection is that 2 is the usual number. The Greek meteorological service says July was the hottest in 110 years, and June was one of the hottest. I’m not sure how the meteorological service classifies a heat wave but it seems temps of 40 (104 F) or more on consecutive days does the trick. Our normal highs in July and August are 37-38 (99-101) so heat waves are not a huge departure but they seem to be just enough to make the heat unreasonable.
The combination of a sun that feels like a giant directed-energy weapon and the high air temperatures transfers a lot of heat to virtually everything in the environment, turning the buildings, the roads, the trees, the dirt, even the seas into passive solar radiators. Walking around at night one experiences the unusual (for me) sensation of heat radiating from below. And I can tell when I’m approaching the front wall of our building with my eyes closed. This radiation from the environment keeps the nighttime temps relatively high, even in the absence of high humidity. The normal low is about 25 (75), and we haven’t seen a morning low below 22 (69-70) in 2 months.
The heat is one reason why we advise against visiting in July and August. This photo was shot about 3pm on August 27. The probe is 3 inches below the surface of the beach. I did the same measurement at the end of July and the temp was 105. I recorded a water temp of 80-82 that day and, having left the probe on my beach towel while I swam, I observed a reading of 130 when I returned. I shudder to think about the interior of the car in mid-afternoon.
Now, with the solstice 2 months past and August rolling to a close, we are looking forward to the return of the west wind, the occasional cloud overhead, and maybe a little cool, cool rain.