Santorini 2000, by Jim Wainger

[The following was sent to us by Jim Wainger in January 2001 after we published the Tecla edition of Theodore Bent’s The Cyclades, and is reproduced here with his permission.]

I should preface these remarks with two comments. First, we visited Santorini in October, not the midwinter of Bent’s visit nor the midsummer of today when this extremely popular island is deluged with holiday visitors. And second, we were there for only a scant three days, not the several weeks that a detailed comparison with Bent’s account (as well as full satisfaction of our desires) would have called for. And still does.

With those disclaimers, I proceed.

Immediately upon our arrival, we set out in search of those unique individuals who befriended Bent, among them the eparch, Kera Maria, the demarch, the shoemaker of Bothro, the sea captain of Epanomeria, the muleteer’s daughter, and, of course, the drunken sailors, all of whom made his visit so full and memorable. Alas, none of those persons was to be found, nor could we find anyone who had known them. So much for those previously persuasive tales of the life-extending properties of a diet of yogurt and wine!

There is, in fact, a substantial core of truth in the previous irreverent paragraph. If one’s visit is really short (as our three days lamentably were), facility with the language and/or having a local resident available to travel with you, or at least counsel you, is a tremendous help in penetrating beneath the surface of such an otherwise strange locale. Surely Bent’s visits to the Cyclades would have been far less substantive had he been on his own. A good contemporary example of the value of local acquaintances is Dinner With Persephone by Patricia Storace, a fun look at Greece today.

(It was difficult for me to write the foregoing, because I dislike guided tours and much prefer to rely on my own instincts, insights and other resources, such as they are, when visiting someplace new. However, with the qualifications given above, the humbling admission stands.)

The overwhelming differences between Bent’s Santorini and ours stem from the passage of 100 years. The island that to him was “…. a hideous island, fascinating in its hideousness” is today perhaps the archetype of the lovely sun bathed Greek island decorated by its charming villages of white houses, flowers and blue domed churches. And it is very well known, world wide, for its charms.

So, Santorini is “precious” and in season (roughly July-September) it is thronged with frantic shoppers, eaters and drinkers, not to mention bathers, in search of the Greek experience. Bent’s “newly made zigzag path” ascending the 950 foot vertical cliff face from the quay below to Fira (Bent’s Phera) at the top still exists. It is now supplemented by a tramway, so ascenders and descenders may negotiate the caldera wall by foot or by cable car.

Fira, the capital and largest village, perched atop the caldera cliff, bears little resemblance to the village Bent saw. Today its houses, hotels and shops form a large, irregular, undulating white shawl tossed artfully over the rocky shoulders of the cliff top and cascading down the cliff face. Fira is the sophisticated shopping, hotel, business, transportation (bus and rental car), restaurant, communication (Internet Cafes), and entertainment center of the island. It is threaded by streets lined with tourist shops, restaurants, and boutiques of all sizes and types, especially jewelry stores. In all the rest of the world combined, are there as many jewelry stores as there are in Greece, mainland and islands? I doubt it.

But it is beautiful and fun. We delighted in it. And let it be said, and praised, that in October (and presumably between March and June), at those times of day when the cruise ships are not in, the island is relatively uncrowded. True, we were there October 28-30, and the whole island shuts down almost completely from November 1 till early March, so we had the very end-of-season pleasure of lovely weather and relatively few people. Not being ardent bathers, we didn’t try the sea. Though we saw a few people in the water. But beneath its surface decor Santorini is the same rugged, rocky, island, surely still awesome in winter, that Bent explored. Cliffs there are aplenty, lava rock in reds and blacks, beaches of black and reddish sand, and those ubiquitous, unique to Santorini, flat coiled grapevines (“hampers” in Bent’s eye) that impressed Bent and us. Plus the first rate local wine we shared with his memory.

Nothing can detract from the sheer physical beauty of Santorini and the awesome views all around the caldera side and from its mountains. Beautiful bougainvillea is prolific in the villages, flaming against the white houses. Altered somewhat by several volcanic eruptions since Bent’s time and a very major earthquake in 1956 (Richter 7.8), the island’s topography is essentially that which Bent saw.

Though even more common in Bent’s time, quite a few people today still live in caves. In fact, the rooms of some of the hotels on the caldera’s cliff face are caves cut into the sheer rock. Quaint yes, but the one we spent a night in traded comfort and space for that quaintness. An unequal trade in our view. One hundred thirty nine steep steps down the sheer face of the cliff to get to the hotel, and, therefore, another one hundred thirty nine up to get to the town. We wasted a precious half day changing hotels.

That change, however, recalled a characteristic from Bent’s time. Donkeys are still for hire on Santorini. To transport our baggage up, we missed the 10:30 AM donkey and had to wait for the 11 o’clock donkey! And, by the way, donkeys are also available for hire as a third form of conveyance from the quay up to the town.

Worth mentioning is that Santorini is overrun with feral cats. (Some, we suspect, gifted us with fleas in our one night stay in the cave hotel room.) They are so common that there is an organized effort to promote their adoption. Posters throughout the island offer them, with a full veterinary exam and clearance, to anyone who wants one. Or more than one.

Travel in late October, both in Fira and on the island roads was easy and view-filled.  We drove the full island and saw very little traffic. Touring the island is as rewarding today as it was in Bent’s time.

Herewith some comments on the current state of some of the Santorini Bent described.

North of Fira, Meroviglia, now Imerovigli, has become another whitewashed village. It is considered by some natives of Fira to be a suburb of Fira though it retains its separate village status.

The ruins of the castle of Skaros, just outside Imerovigli,  have been degraded by time but are still reachable by a path from the village. The edge of the expanded village however, is now much closer to the ruins than was the case in Bent’s time, and the crumbling, deserted medieval town around the castle which he explored is no more.

Bent graphically describes his winter walk to Epanomeria, alternately blasted by winter wind and snow and scorched by the sun. The distance by road today is 10 km, and, though his direct route would have been shorter, it was, nonetheless a serious hike at the time, given the terrain and the weather.

Today, the village of Epanomeria is no more. The name Apano Meria is given to a cluster of six villages at the northern tip of Santorini. The largest of them (in fact, the second largest village in the island) is Oia, known also as Ia. It is what Bent knew as Epanomeria and retains its roots as the former center of seafaring captains. A few of their old houses survive, and Oia has a maritime museum.

The old port used by Bent’s seamen is the cozy cove of Ammoudi, 214 steps down the cliff face below Oia. (Also accessible by a narrow, rough road.) Ammoudi has a taverna (Taverna Katina) by the water, from which we most contentedly admired colorful fishing boats while enjoying excellent fresh caught seafood and Santorini wine.

Oia, today is a very charming, albeit touristy, village which proclaims itself the sunset viewing capital of the island. It, too, has its boutiques and other tourist attractions, though at the end of October the village was practically deserted. At sunset, in season, its narrow streets were described to us as an unpleasant, unnavigable sea of wall to wall bodies. The sunset view from Fira cannot be much less spectacular than the view from Oia, but Fira’s choice viewing spots are probably about as crowded in the summer. When we were in Fira, there were no crowds; the cruise ships usually end their half day in Santorini in late afternoon and sail off to their next island of attack. Unfortunately, evening haze, beautiful in its own right, obscured our sunsets.

We visited several places south of Fira that Bent describes, though I much regret that we did not come across Bothro. If it still exists.

Athinios is the present day port for the island. It is the only natural harbor. The quay below Fira is not a protected harbor, and the cruise ships, which use it, anchor out and send their passengers ashore by lighter. Ammoudi is just a small cove and not suitable, by size and by location, for major port activities today, especially when one realizes that, except for wine, almost everything Santorini needs, from wood to food to trade goods etc. must be shipped in. Though there is an airport.

Pyrgos, “dirty and old-world” to Bent but “decidedly more picturesque than the long white line of Phera” has grown into another whitewashed village, extending out from its medieval core, a core which we, sadly, hadn’t the time to explore.

Above Pyrgos, on Mount Prophet Elias, the highest peak of the island, is the monastery dedicated to the prophet. It deserves more than the surprisingly cursory mention Bent gave it. Its view is still magnificent, even though today it shares its location with TV and other communication towers. But the monastery itself is large, imposing and fortress-like. We were chagrined to find that we had missed its open-to-the-public hours. The interior of the monastery itself must be worth seeing, and it has a reputedly interesting folk museum as well as medieval manuscripts. Though its open hours are definitely less than ideally convenient, for information I give them here. It is closed Monday and Tuesday. On other days it is open 5-10 AM and 5-7 PM in the summer and 5-9 AM and 4-6 PM in the winter.

At the southern tip of the island is Akrotiri. We missed exploring the village, another of our regrets. However we did visit the ancient ruins at Akrotiri, half of a pair of not-to-be-missed sites.

There was probably very little to see when Bent was there, and he passes it off with the crisp comment, “After visiting the prehistoric remains at Akrotiri we mounted our mules and returned to Phera.”

Ah, what he missed. And he surely would have gloried in it.

In the 1960’s excavation of those ruins began and proceed yet today, as they will for years to come, funding permitting. Today we see well preserved very substantial ruins of a large Minoan city. The entire area (of several acres) is under roof (though no walls) to protect it from the elements, and, most likely, to protect the archaeologists as well. It is a fascinating place, both for what it has uncovered and for the fact that it is an active dig, so we can see partly excavated layers, half exposed artifacts and other evidences of science in progress. Plans for an architecturally exciting new roof, to replace the existing functional wooden one, have been approved.

The related site is the spanking new archaeological museum in Fira. Just opened in March of 2000, it displays wonderful relics of ancient Akrotiri and elsewhere on Santorini. Most striking are the frescoes. They are remarkable and, to us, in color and style they equal, and frequently exceed, those from Knossos on Crete and the museum in Iraklio which we’d seen just a day before arriving at Santorini. I know that the originals were at one time in the National Museum in Athens. I think the ones we saw on Santorini were originals, but I’m not certain. In any event, if they were copies, they were excellent.

Later this year, the lower floor of this new museum will be opened and will display some much larger frescoes that could not be accommodated in the first floor galleries. They should be spectacular.

To conclude this too-limited view of Santorini today, I’ll add that time, our constant nemesis, precluded our visiting the islands in the caldera below Fira as Bent did. I can confirm that they’re still there, that the volcano core island is still hot and live, that the islands are accessible by tour boat from Santorini and certainly deserve a visit. I suspect that they, and their villages, will be closer to what Bent saw than are the villages on the main island.

Back to the main page for Bent’s The Cyclades.

Tecla home page.

Copyright 2001 by Jim Wainger.