Thirty years ago, Lawrence Durrell wrote of Santorini in his book "The Greek Islands", “It is hardly a matter of surprise that few, if any, good descriptions of Santorini have been written: the reality is so astonishing that prose and poetry, however winged, will forever be forced to limp behind”.
Today this still applies, and will I believe, be so for forever more, for the line between art and reality is severely blurred on this jewel of the Aegean.
The best and most dramatic way to arrive at Santorini is by sea: to sail into the Grecian blue waters that fill the Caldera and look up at the sheer cliffs that rise majestically from it.
To gaze in awe at the white-washed buildings perched on top like white icing on a wedding cake.
Our taxi ride from the port to the traditional seafarers’ village of Oia (pronounced Ee-yah - think donkey noise!) on the north western part of the island takes us through a farming area which is definitely the less attractive side of the island. It’s run down, untidy and as it’s been raining so the roads are a quagmire. But never mind, we are on Santorini and the journey takes us through small villages surrounded by grape vines and gum trees and as Santorini has a tradition of cultivating vines since the Bronze Age, it’s an interesting trip.
Cars are left on the outskirts of Oia, so we negotiate the narrow marble pathway on foot, stepping around sleeping dogs - for Santorini is the island of sleeping dogs.
As the path narrows and we turn a corner, I suddenly understand Durrell; for beyond us arcs a cliff face covered in gleaming Byzantine churches with cobalt domes; vaulted chambers painted whitewash-white (Asvesti as the Greeks call it) and terraced blocks painted gelato colours and highlighted by ‘that-Greek-blue, doors and windows.
Little painted paths and alleyways lined with olive oil tins and terracotta pots bursting with geraniums and bougainvillea the colours of a child’s paintbox web their way down the cliff face.
We have arrived at beautiful, breathtakingly beautiful, Oia.
We are silent as we continue down a marble Venetian path and then onto quaint uneven stairs until we reach House Nicoletta – our home for the next few days. Located near the ancient 13th Century castle built on the point by the Venetians to watchfor pirates, our recently restored traditional cave house is painted the most delicious rich ochre, so you can easily see it from anywhere in Oia.
Partly carved out of volcanic rock, inside, House Nicoletta is a mix of mustard, burnt cherry, terracotta and slate grey. It’s divided into two separate and self-contained houses joined by a set of external stairs within the complex, and a set of stairs which runs along the side the building.
Oia is famous for many things; in particular its sunsets – watching a pomegranate sun slowly slide into a pink Aegean Sea is one of the natural wonders of the world. That is providing you can find a spot, for every vantage point around the ramparts of the castle is taken up with eager tourists waiting for that last ray of light.
There is not a sound apart from the digital ping of the thousands of cameras around you and if you didn’t know better you’d swear the entire population of Oia was on life support!
For me sunrise over Oia is equally magnificent; for here the rays of Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” dance around the curved buildings and somehow manage to create more colour on colour.
The village of Oia is some three kilometres long but only about 300 metres wide connected by a narrow street that runs along the top of the cliff.
The architecture of the village reflects the “class planning” of a decadent bygone era. The large sea captains’ mansions with elaborate Neo-Classical ornaments can be found the upper part of the main street, whilst the excavated cave houses of the crews (seafarers) are spread below, along the side of the cliff.
Fortunately, Oia has been declared as a “Traditional Settlement under Preservation Order", which means that every new building project must be in keeping with the old style so as to maintain the visual environment.
Town planners in Oia also had the good sense and foresight to prohibit live music and to keep bars to a minimum. So, unlike the capital Fira, where nocturnal activities are de rigueur and the bars and music don’t finish until after sun up, the peace and quiet of the nights in Oia are deeply satisfying.
Even the chickens and donkeys seem to know not to break the silence. Only a lone church bell peeling out the hour (give or take a few minutes) breaks the silence.
But there is something very soothing and satisfying about this as it seems to confirm that all is still well in this paradise of cool blues off set against an inky Aegean.
There is something extraordinary about the light in Greece that gives clarity to colours on even the dullest days. The purity of colour and simplicity of line is food for the soul, making this place a photographer’s and hedonist’s dream.
Perdicoula (Greek for little partridge ) is a very happy and well-fed 19 year-old mule, who has been relieving weary travellers of their baggage woes and more importantly, carrying brides to the church on their wedding day.
Story and Photographs© 2011 Francesca Muir