White and Blue
[Santorini, Greece, May 16-17, 2019]
There are over 6000 islands and islets in Greece, of which only 227 are inhabited. The Greek islands account for almost half of the country’s 16,000 km/10,000 miles of coastline. They are split into six groups based on their georgaphic location. Offbeat Greece has a great guide to the different groups. The most popular group is by far the Cyclades, which includes Mykonos and Santorini, as well as the less popular but just as beautiful Naxos and Paros. The Cyclades are famous the world over for their white homes with blue roofs.
Although their beauty comes to mind first, the history of the islands is all the more fascinating. The Greek islands were stepping stones for civilizations from ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt and Anatolia (present-day Turkey). Crete was the homeland of the Minoans, while the Cyclades and the Dodecanese were home to a series of Bronze age cultures (the Trojan, Minoan, Cycladic, and Mycenean). These civilizations were the predecessors of classical Greece, including Athens, Sparta, Corinth, and more.
We only had time for one Greek island, and we didn’t overthink it. Santorini came first to mind, and that was that. With flights from Athens just about every hour, it was easy to find a flight that worked with the Sofia-Athens flight we had already booked.
This was B’s first trip to Europe since 1992 – that trip was, coincidentally, to Athens. He was impressed with the new Athens airport, which opened in 2001, 3 years before Athens hosted the summer Olympics.
Our flight from Sofia was on time, and we went through customs in Athens quickly and without issue. However, at the gate for Santorini, the gate agent checked the weight of all the carry-ons. The limit is 8 kg /17 lbs. Since our carry-ons contained two weeks worth of clothing, both our bags were overweight, although B’s suitcase was right on the cusp. They made us check our bags and charged me 40 Euros. Lesson learned – Greek airlines are sticklers for weight, even more so than the Germans!!! If we’d known this in advance, we would have paid for overweight luggage online, which is much cheaper than doing so at the gate.
Despite Santorini’s status as a major tourist destination, the airport is dated and very small; it is currently undergoing much-needed renovations. We picked up our rental car and were on our way to our hotel. Parking was as painful as I thought it would be. There was a small public parking lot next to our hotel, but it was quite full. With the help of the hotel staff, we managed to find a spot that was barely big enough for the already small car. We had considered alternative modes of transportation, but taxis are expensive and buses are cheap but can be crowded, so after much deliberation, we decided a rental car is our best bet.
It took me a long time to pick a place to stay in Santorini. Oia (pronounced Ee-ya) is the most popular village on the island, consequently the most crowded and loudest. Privacy is already hard to find here, with homes stacked on top of each other along the cliff. A favorite travel blogger of mine had recommended staying in Imerovigli, which is only 20 minutes away from Oia by car. The place she recommended was fully booked, but luckily I found an affiliated property that turned out to be perfect for us – Aqua Luxury Suites.
It was a bit of a splurge, but hotels here are expensive as it is, and since we had booked our flights on points, we decided to go for it. We arrived after sunset, but even the night-time view was amazing and the cool temperature was perfect for the hot tub. The complimentary bottle of wine the staff provided upon check-in did not last long.
Our suite was the last one down several flights of stairs, which gave us the most privacy – we passed by other suites and their balconies on the way down to ours. Of course, this also meant we had the most steps to climb, but we gladly traded that for the added privacy. As soon as we woke up the next morning, we checked out the view in daylight. And, wow.
Sprawling in front of us was the Santorini caldera. Santorini is actually an ancient volcano lying on the southern Aegean volcanic arc. During the Minoan era, around 1450 BC, a giant eruption left the huge crater, or caldera, and the crescent shape of the island we see today. The islands in the middle emerged later on and are still volcanically active.
Our hotel provided complimentary breakfast. We ordered the night before when we checked in, and picked a time for the delivery. Pictured on the table are omelets, Greek yogurt, several types of bread, butter, freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and tea. We loved having a leisurely breakfast on our own patio and enjoying this amazing view.
We could have well spent the whole day in our suite, but we did want to visit Oia before it got too crowded. Even though high season here is not until June, we assumed Oia would still get busy. Somewhat reluctantly, we got dressed and headed out. We discovered that our hotel had an awesome bar at the top of the stairs, at street level. The village of Imerovigli was sprawling before us. It’s not accidental that all the buildings are gleaming like this. Every Spring, the islands get ready for high season by re-painting everything.
The 20-minute drive to Oia took us to the other side of the island, then back over towards the caldera. The roads here are narrow, drivers are aggressive, signage is sparse – basically, typical Balkans. Most rental cars are manual, too, so driving here is not for the faint of heart. In other words, B fit right in.
Anything that doesn’t block anyone is fair parking around here. Our right tires are in the parking lot, so this qualifies. This was the first lot we saw, so we took it, and it turned out to be a great spot.
Just a short 3-minute walk later, we found ourselves on the main street in Oia. This picture makes it look very busy, but it was actually not too bad yet. We took note of landmarks around us so we knew how to get back to our car.
The best way to experience Oia is just to meander. Don’t give in to the pressure to get those Instagram-worthy shots! There are so many little walkways and alleys in Oia, more than half the fun is exploring without a map in your hand. The village is so small that you will undoubtedly still stumble upon the most famous landmarks, like we did here. This was our first view of the most famous blue domes in Oia, belonging to the church of Agios Spyridonas. We ended up seeing this church several other times from different angles.
And just around the corner, we encountered this unobstructed view of Oia.
Surprisingly, Santorini is not just white and blue! Bright pops of color were everywhere.
Obviously, we took a gazillion photos. The architecture here is just so amazing! But it wasn’t always this way. Oia suffered a major earthquake in 1956, which destroyed virtually the whole village and left it mostly uninhabited. In 1977, Oia had only 306 inhabitants. When they rebuilt, they took the opportunity to make the village the picture-perfect gem you see today. In 1982, Oia, still a ghost town at the time, was featured in the romantic comedy Summer Lovers with Daryl Hannah and Peter Gallagher, creating a buzz around those gorgeous Oia sunsets it is now famous for.
The influx of tourists on this small island, especially in the last few years, has been both a blessing and a curse. Tourism is what sustains this island and many of its residents as well as a trove of seasonal workers. At the same time, the hunt for that perfect Instagram photo makes some tourists completely disrespectful. Because houses and churches are built on the hillside literally on top of each other, roofs are easily accessible and make for gorgeous photos.
But how would you like it if a tourist climbed all over the roof of your home or your house of worship for a photo? We saw many signs asking people not to climb on roofs, and people still do it.
So why is white the predominant color of the buildings in Santorini? One reason is that white reflects the heat and helps keep homes cool in the sizzling summers. Another reason is that islanders mixed the mineral lime with water and used is as an antiseptic for the water that collected on their rooftops – therefore their houses were painted white. Later, during the 400-year Ottoman rule occupation, the white walls and blue domes became a symbol of the Greek flag, which the Greeks were not allowed to fly.
After meandering the side streets for a while, we found ourselves on the main street again. A guy working the front door of one of the restaurants along the main street enticed us inside with the view from their patio. The place was called Terpsi en Oia. We weren’t hungry yet, but I enjoyed my favorite summer European coffee drink – an iced frappe with milk, no sugar – while B tried Ouzo, then switched to his favorite, rum and coke. Frappe is not to be confused with the frappuccino you can find in the US. A European frappe is made with instant coffee (Nescafe is best). You mix Nescafe with a little bit of water until it foams up, then add more water and ice. You can also add and milk and sugar to make it creamier or sweeter.
After lunch, we accidentally stumbled upon the place where people were getting on the roof for great views of Agios Spyridonas, as I talked about above. Luckily, there was nobody on the roof by that time. I always struggle with whether to say something in situations like these. You never know how a stranger will react. We were able to get a decent selfie in that spot without having to climb a roof.
Back on the main street, we headed towards the westernmost tip of Oia. Lots of photos from the beautiful sights along the way are below.
At the westernmost edge, we found Oia’s castle, or what remains of it. The Castle of Agios Nikolaos was one the original five fortresses that the occupying Venetians built to defend against pirate invasions. The Venetians occupied this island after the Fourth Crusade (early 13th century) when the Byzantine empire fell. They appreciated the key location of the island on the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, and the additional protection provided by the steep cliffs. Venetian influence is still present today – three of the five fortresses remain in some shape or form, and the Catholic church still owns a lot of property on the island. The name “Santorini” comes from the long-gone Venetian church of Santa Irini.
The castle is one of the most popular spots for sunset watching in Oia, due to its unobstructed view West. We had no intention of watching the sunset here – we wanted a less crowded experience – but we took lots of photos here since the views towards Oia were amazing.
We could also see the bay of Amoudi below – another popular spot for sunset watching. It only takes 200 stairs to get down there. 🙂
From the castle, we went north and continued climbing until we reached a point where we were overlooking the western edge of Oia and the fortress itself. As you can probably tell by now, I have been having trouble narrowing my photos down to a reasonable number.
Yet another church provided more photo ops. It had gotten cloudy and stormy in the distance, creating a dramatic effect.
In this area, we saw the first of only two abandoned/non-renovated homes we encountered in the entire village. It made us appreciate all the work the islanders have done to create and maintain this picturesque place.
You would think we would not take many photos once we backtracked to the car, but no such luck. Do you recognize the gate from earlier photos? 🙂
We could have spent even more time in Oia, but the hot tub in our suite back at the hotel was calling our name. We got back by the early afternoon, just as Oia was getting more and more busy. All those little streets we had to ourselves in the morning were about to get filled people waiting for the sunset.
We had dinner around the corner from our hotel at a place called Agean restaurant. We started with the octopus. I had moussaka, which is basically the Greek version of lasagna – eggplant replaces the pasta and bechamel sauce replaces the marinara. Boris had the souvlaki, and for dessert we had the orange pie, which was basically phyllo dough soaked in a delicious orange syrup.
Since we lingered afterwards, they brought us an extra dessert – chocolate salami! It’s a no-bake dessert consisting of the holy trifecta of desserts – cocoa, butter, sugar – and broken up tea or butter cookies. You melt the butter, mix in the rest of the ingredients, then shape the mixture like salami and cool in the fringe. You slice it like a salami, too.
After dinner, we just walked west until we found a good spot to watch the sunset.
We ended up in the courtyard of Agios Georgios, a church in Imerovigli.
The clouds from earlier in the day had cleared, but the sunset was still spectacular. The sun actually set behind some island to the west of us. We were so happy to have avoided the Oia crowds! I actually think Imerovigli is a better place to see the sunset since you can see Oia at the tip of the crescent.
As we walked back to our hotel, the moon greeted us. We had to pinch ourselves – we had just spent a full day in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.