The pungent whiff made me whip around and stare accusingly at my fellow travellers, who continued to look innocently at the horizon. It took me a minute to realise that the odour was not a dinner gone wrong, but was emanating from the bowels of the earth itself: weak puffs of sulphurous gas, not much more than a boiling kettle – all the indication I had of standing on an active volcano that had once destroyed a civilisation.
Santorini is a harsh place. But it is endowed with a magical beauty that, like black-and-white photos, actually makes a virtue of harshness. This darkroom, though, creates panoramas in blue, rust and white. The southernmost island of the Greek Cyclades, Santorini is a dramatic curl of volcanic rock set amidst the deep azure of the Aegean Sea, and one of the jewels of Greece’s treasure chest.
But some 3,600 years ago, the volcano blew with almighty force, partially destroying not only itself but putting an end to the entire Minoan civilisation on nearby Crete. The land which remains around the sunken crater comprises the archipelago of modern Santorini, and it was on one central bit of this, Nea Kameni, that I was standing, surrounded by treeless expanses of jagged, black lava rock and gravel paths.
Catching my breath after a long and sweaty hike uphill from our docked boat gave me time to take in the view of the main island of Thira, over a mile away. From left to right, I could see the clifftop towns of Oia, Imerovigli, Firostefani and Fira – whose port we had set off from earlier – their distinctive whitewashed houses from this distance looking like handfuls of white pebbles poured onto the striated reddish-brown rock.
For a few glorious summer months, with a powerful sun beating down and a gentle sea breeze blowing, Santorini comes alive with its two highly seasonal industries: tourism and agriculture. As visitors flock to see its deservedly famous watercolour sunsets and the panoramic spectacle of closely-packed traditionally-built houses perilously perched 400 metres above the sea, the island’s myriad hotels, tavernas and shops kick up into a well-honed buzz.
The main town, Fira, can get quite congested, with convoys of tourists on rental quad bikes blending with clattery buses, taxis and the occasional extra-noisy small scooter piloted by local attention-seeking teens. Youth cluster at the gyro (kebab) shops, tucking into tasty rolls of country sausages, lamb or chicken wrapped in pitta bread with a dollop of tzatziki, or grab an oversized ice-cream. Outside the few chintzy bars, employees call out happy-hour offers.
A short distance from the cobbled main square, along a narrow pedestrian pathway, restaurants line the cliff-edge, serving up colourful, crunchy salads with goats’ cheese and capers, fava-bean paste seasoned with chopped onions and olive oil, tomato fritters and incredibly fresh grilled seafood – along with jaw-dropping views.
Out in the bay, a couple of cruise ships are moored, a harbinger of things to come; in peak season, up to seven of these leviathans will dock at a time. The freshly whitewashed walls stretch to the left and right, contrasting with the sea, sky and the blue domes of Greek Orthodox churches, preserved traditional windmills and sprays of wildflowers in red, white, yellow and shocking pink. It’s ridiculously beautiful, and only extreme willpower or a flat camera battery can stop you maniacally shooting photos from every conceivable angle, height and pathway.
A twenty minute scooter ride towards the north of Thira, up winding roads that hug the inside of the island’s mountainous elevation, is another paean to postcard perfection: Oia. Though blatantly touristy, with its stone-paved main street lined with shops selling Santorini magnets, paintings and handicraft, Oia is an exotic jumble of narrow alleys and colourful houses that just happens to be blessed with views of most of Thira and, in the other direction, the setting sun.
Ducking past professional photographers busy choreographing newlyweds on balconies and street corners, I bagged a spot at a strategically located cafe, got myself a frappe, and watched the sky slowly suffuse with yellows, oranges, reds and pinks as the sun went from nuclear flash to molten-steel disc and finally winked out of sight. The flurry of clicks from the crowd’s cameras had barely ended when someone spotted the moon simultaneously rising in the other direction. And what a moon, too – huge, clear, bright; first cream-coloured and later a reddish-pink. Everyone swivelled and the cameras clicked away again. This is not a place for a 36-shot roll of film...
Back on Nea Kameni , after roasting under a perfectly cloudless sky, our boat set off, heading for a little cove where sulphurous hot springs are said to rejuvenate the skin. With the vessels moored three abreast a couple of hundred metres away, where the green water was still cold in early summer, the more adventurous passengers stripped down to their swimwear and leaped in with varying combinations of trepidation and daring. The landlubbers stayed on the wood-lined decks, content to nurse an icy cola, until their companions returned, suitably refreshed and triumphant, and the boats peeled off one by one.
With the mood onboard now more like our own private yacht, we chugged on languidly to Thirasia, a sleepy island of just 200 people, who, born and raised there, continue to call the little wisp of land home and subsist almost entirely on the lunchtime boatload of tourists. Two restaurants by the dock and one more by the viewing point up the steep cliffside, and a couple of craft shops seemed to make up the economy of the island.
Over a simple but delicious lunch of skewered meat, prawns and swordfish with rice and salads, prepared and served buffet-style by seven members of the same family, I gazed out over the clear, sunlit blue-green waters full of tiny fish. The stone buildings, the colourfully-painted wooden doors, the rusty padlocks, everything had an air of rustic resilience, of rough-hewn yet elegant decay.
The Greek mainland might be in the jaws of recession, but out here in the Aegean, life was far less complicated. As long as the tourists stepped off the boats, enjoyed their meals and soaked in the sunshine and the gentle silence of the lapping waters, everything would be alright, and just as simple as it always was.