When you think of Greece and never visited, you think of Santorini. The stereotypical photograph of the white churches with the blue domed roofs, overlooking a turquoise sea; gleaming white houses perched on a cliffside in a maze of winding cobbled streets – you can guarantee that this was photographed in Ia – a picturesque town on the North West of the island famous for its dramatic sunsets.
There is much more to this beautiful island though. It is rumoured to be the site of Atlantis, and in 1967 a prehistoric city was discovered in Akrotiti, destroyed by an earthquake thousands of years ago. The layout is similar to that of the Atlantis described by Plato, which was also destroyed by an earthquake. Whether you believe in the myth or the legend, the island has been inhabited for centuries, and whilst Akrotiti is closed to visitors, you can still visit Ancient Thira, perched on a rocky hillside with beautiful views of the Aegean, Kamari and Perissa.
My purpose in going to Greece was to have 2 weeks chilling out, and then 2 weeks island hopping, rounding off my crazy whirlwind tour of the world before heading back to reality. I chose Zacharaki Studios in Kamari – near the pebbled ‘black beach’ – and just back from a long strip of shops, restaurants and bars, below the mountain that contains the ruins of Ancient Thira. Within 2 days of hospitality from the lovely Zacharaki family, my gorgeous little studio with its view of the pool and beach, and making some friends at Navy Divers, I realized that I wasn’t going to leave. In fact I could have bivouacked for good if I’d had the funds. I didn’t, but for 3 glorious weeks Santorini was my home.
There are so many places to stay on this slice of heaven, and I really lucked out. Firstly, picking Kamari. Unlike Fira, which is noisy and crowded and where you have to travel to find a decent beach, Kamari is small enough that after a week you know everyone, but large enough that there’s always a new restaurant to visit. I walked up the mountain every day for exercise, up the winding road to the site of Ancient Thira and back down – an hour’s round trip. You can also walk over the mountain and down the other side to Perissa, which is a good destination for those on a budget, with an excellent strip of funky bars and restaurants and a few resorts, and probably a good place to go if you are on your own. Kamari IS full of couples it has to be said. Luckily I had opted to go diving with Navy Divers – a Greek/Swedish run outfit that has some of the most warm-hearted people working on the island as staff. They introduced me to a fantastic network of people - mainly reps - who live on the island as well. Needless to say complete carnage ensued on a regular basis. This kind of thing tends to happen when you are drinking frozen daquiris the size of your head.
Secondly, the family-run Zacharakis Studios was my home away from home – not least because the minute I met Vily I realized that she was a girl after my own heart. She adopts street dogs, one of whom was a small long-haired dachshund cross called Lady, who despite being a bit shy and nervous around everyone else seemed to absolutely adore me. It was mutual. I had some fabulous conversations with Demetrius, Vily’s father, and also became good friends with her boyfriends, Vagilles. I always felt like they were looking out for me – sometimes I would come back and there would be little tomatoes in the fridge, or Vily would surprise me with some figs. No wonder that I decided to stay the extra week – it was just too hard to leave!
My days were spent by the pool or on the beach, evenings were spent looking for work in London and catching up on movies or TV that I’d downloaded. I didn’t go out very much the first couple of weeks, instead I cooked my own dinners, eating olives, feta, the beautiful little locally grown tomatoes that the island is famous for, cucumber and goat’s cheese. If I did go out, it was to meet the Navy Divers crew and their friends, all of whom were Scandinavian. We’d start off at Ethnic for some live music at about 11pm, moving to Albatross at about 1am for some dancing. I’d sleep in, have fruit, yoghurt and honey for breakfast… and then the day would start all over again. I did the hike from Fira to Ia - 3 hours along the 'rim' of the caldera, stunning views to the left the whole way. It's strenuous, hot, not for the faint-hearted, but you can go part of the way along the rim to Imerovigli which is only an hour. It's well worth it. As I traipsed up the second large hill I was completely on my own, views to the Aegean either side, contemplating I was walking the same path the ancient Greeks would have trodden for thousands of years before I was there. It was a humbling thought.
I’d been eying up the quad bikes with the purpose renting one and exploring. During my second week I met Julia, a beautiful girl from Stockholm who was also travelling on her own. In the way that only women can, we formed a bond standing at the mirror in the ladies at Albatross. By the next day she’d changed her ferry ticket and moved into a studio in Zacharakis and we’d sorted out a quad bike for a few days. THIS is the way to see Santorini. The wind blowing in your face, the sun on your back and shoulders, hooning round the little narrow streets and checking out the pretty villages and towns that are dotted all over the island, and swimming at all the different beaches.
Out of everywhere on Santorini, Ia is the crowning jewel. It is probably one of the prettiest places in the world. It clings to the clifftop, white buildings and cobbled streets stretch away in a maze. It’s famous for the blue domed churches that have graced the cover of any travel magazine worth its salt, and also famous for the sunset. Seeing the sun go down in Ia is an experience in itself as hundreds of people perch on the site of the old fort and along the western-facing streets. You almost have to get there 2 hours before to guarantee a good spot. As the sun does what it does everyday, people snap away, applauding when it finally sinks below the horizon. That the sun finally gets recognition for something it has done every day since the dawn of time is rather sweet.
I haven’t visited anywhere else in Greece, even though I know that I will be absolutely blown away by the other islands. I hear that Santorini really is unique though, and for me Greece will always be defined by my time spent there – not only because of the raw beauty of the island itself, but because of the people I was lucky enough to meet.