I wish all days could begin like this. I’m sitting on the clifftop balcony at Aigialos Hotel, a series of restored former sea captains’ mansions in Fira. The morning light is laying a shine on the Cycladic whites; waiters are ferrying breakfast trays up steep steps. Hundreds of feet below, in the volcanic crater around which Santorini is wrapped, tenders zip back and forth to a cruise ship.
For now, it’s quiet. But that will change. When I checked in the previous evening, I asked the hotel receptionist when to expect sunset. “7pm,” she said. “That’s the time you’ll fall in love.” It’s also when the terraces in the towns of Oia and Fira are most crowded; when the sun sinks into the caldera and a slow-mo explosion of colour lights up the sky. I want to see that, of course I do. But I also want to seek out Santorini’s secrets.
They don’t come easy.
“You’re on the beaten track here,” deadpans Craig Walzer, one of the owners of Atlantis Books, in Oia. This busy little bolthole crammed with nooks, crannies and quirky flourishes (a history of the store is handwritten on its ceiling) and it gives me hope. Santorini’s extreme beauty has made it one of the most expensive stays in the Cyclades. Cruise visitors are limited to 8,000 a day. Visiting brides pose for photo after photo. But it does off-radar, too.
After breakfast, I meet Vicky Matsaka, of WalkAbout Tours & Adventure, a small company she runs with her husband. The day before, we walked part of the cliff path that rims the caldera’s lip from Oia to Fira. Now, we’re headed east, starting at the island’s highest point, in Pyrgos, and hiking an hour or so to Emporio. It doesn’t take long to lose the crowds. Shortly after tramping through Pyrgos’s maze-like streets to a Venetian castle on a hill, we pass a donkey with its ears rolled back and ornamental seashells on its forehead. We push on into the parched countryside, past dry stone walls, and whiffy bushes of rosemary and thyme that puff to dust in my fingers. There are views of mountains and twinkling seas. We pass abandoned cave houses, a pomegranate tree, a crying rooster, before easing back into civilisation.
As we walk, we discuss Santorini’s status as a small but serious producer of wine, with a dozen or so wineries harvesting from vines woven into the shape of wreath-like baskets to fend off wind on the volcanic slopes. In the south east, we visit the partially excavated ruins of Akrotiri, an ancient settlement linked with the legendary Lost City of Atlantis (hence the name of Craig’s bookstore). Akrotiki was buried by a volcanic eruption in 1620 BC, and today, you can stroll through and around a section of its petrified, Pompeii-like streets.
The volcano last erupted in 1950. Is it extinct now, I wonder?
“Erm… it’s dormant,” Vicky laughs.
After our walk, we drive down a dirt road to meet Michalis Alefragis, a shepherd tending his goats in a lone valley. With his peaked cap, handlebar moustache and blue denim jacket, Michalis is the picture of a traditional Cycladic Islander — an increasingly exotic species on Santorini. With a loud, gravelly voice, he tells me about his farming. “Goat droppings are more precious than gold,” he chuckles, clearly enamoured of this all-natural fertiliser. “If you take a five-euro note from your wallet and put it in the ground, you’ll get nothing.”
He still enjoys working the land, watching his animals, producing everything from tomatoes to aubergines and wine for his family restaurant (The Good Heart), nearby. After our chat, that’s where he heads, standing in the doorway to greet customers and offer them crackers topped with his wife’s homemade tomato sauce.
Later, Vicky and I catch the sunset on top of the hill behind Michalis’s goat pen, peering down over the sun-blushed cliffs near White Beach. As the sun morphs into an orange coin on the horizon, I’m glad I’m not jostling for space on the terraces of Oia and Fira, but equally, I know that right now, everyone on the island is bound by the same, enchanting spell. I check the time on my phone. It’s exactly 7pm.
See our complete Cyclades guide here — we’ll be publishing tales from across the islands throughout the month.
Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)