“Santorini in August”: say that to a savvy traveller and he will probably get a headache from rolling his eyes too hard. The island, ten times smaller than Las Vegas, receives nearly two million visitors per year. In August, close to sixty flights and several of the world’s largest cruise ships will dump there dozens of thousands of tourists every day.
This time, we were among those tourists. Truth be told, we were worried. Expecting something akin to visiting Beijing on a national holiday, we even booked accommodation in advance, instead of playing it by ear like we usually do. We arrived to Kamari, a small beach village near the airport, a bit before midnight. Instead of a horde of half-drunk and over-sunburnt tourists, we were greeted by Dimitrio, the owner of the small villa where we stayed. After tending to his last dinner patrons, he sat with us and chatted away. Over a mixture of English, Spanish and Portuguese (the latter aided by a dictionary he had recently bought to cater for the increasing number of Brazilian visitors), we talked throughout the evening.
The first thing that will strike you about Santorini is that bona-fide Greek hospitality. You’ll be hard pressed to find bad food anywhere. Out of genuine concern, waiters will ask you how your meal was. At the end they’ll offer you fruit and Ouzo (an anise-flavoured hard liquor that will knock you down at the first punch). Sure, not everything is rosy: there’s crowds and too many pizza places. The temperature is high and the sun unforgiving. Roads are busy and drivers are mad (oddly enough, tourists in rentals are much worse than locals).
All of this is manageable though. Going to the beach, for instance: after 6pm you’ll get it pretty much for yourself, as most visitors will be gone for dinner. It’s actually a double blessing: you get to see the sunset and can have dinner afterwards, once the restaurants have cleared out.
Don’t spend all your twilights at the beach though, as watching the sun set over the traditional white-painted houses of the Cyclades islands is a spectacular sight. Most visitors will go to Oia for that, so at the end of each day hundreds of buses pour down thousands of camera-bearing tourists onto this small village. Go to Fira instead: the island’s capital is larger, less crowded and the Sun is of course the same one.
The rest of the island is barren, but nevertheless beautiful. Hiking to the highest point of the island, where a monastery and a NATO radar station coexist, offers spectacular 360 degree views of the island. It will be just you and the wind howling down the valley.
The trail also passes by the ruins of Ancient Thira, a settlement perched on a magnificent hilltop that was inhabited between 9th century BC and 1st century AD. Thira is still the Greek name of the island, while Santorini is the Latin name given in the 13th century as a reference to St. Irene.
Have another look at the pictures we took. These reflect equal parts of reality and our own dispositions. Pointing the camera at the opposite direction would have often resulted in a completely different message. Don’t expect to go to Santorini in August and have it all for yourself. But look hard enough and you’ll find solitude anywhere.
After Santorini we hopped on a ferry headed to Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades islands. See you there!