There is a reason why Santorini is widely considered to be the most beautiful place in the world. Like most of the great places in Greece, the origin of her beauty is intriguingly rooted in mythology. In this case, her genesis is told in the epic poem Argonautica, the well-loved tale of Jason and the Argonauts and their famed quest for the Golden Fleece.
At one point during their voyage, one of the Argonauts, Euphemus, encounters the sea god, Triton, who presents him with a clod of earth as a gift. He later dreams that this clod of earth produces drops of milk and transforms into a young maiden. He beds her, but then suffers great remorse about it. She assures him that she is actually the daughter of Triton and fated to become the nurse of his future children. And she promises to provide a home for his descendants as long as he releases her into the sea to dwell among the sea nymphs.
Euphemus recounts the dream to Jason, who informs him it is actually a prophecy and urges him to follow through with the young maiden’s instructions. With haste, Euphemus casts the clod of earth into the depths of the sea, and in that very spot sprang an island called Kalliste, meaning “most beautiful one.” That island was later renamed Thira and became known colloquially as Santorini (by the Venetians for Saint Irene), her unsurpassed beauty sealed by decree of the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece to endure through the ages as the earth’s most beautiful place.
The mythology doesn’t quite end there – the island is also theorized to be the site of Plato’s legendary Atlantis. An ancient Minoan settlement dating back to the Bronze Age, Akrotiri, flourished on Santorini until a cataclysmic volcanic eruption buried the entire city around 1627 BCE. The eruption was of such magnitude – one of the largest in human history – that part of the island collapsed and flooded with seawater, triggering a tsunami that reached the shores of Crete. What remains of Santorini now is an archipelago (five islands that used to be a single island), which surrounds a stunningly blue lagoon known as the caldera, with spectacular red and black-sand beaches that echo of the volcanic past. The “lost city” of Akrotiri was remarkably preserved under pumice and ash, its three-story buildings, advanced drainage system, pottery and frescoes still viewable today.
After a quick night in Athens, our adventure in Greece began in Santorini, and what an adventure it was. We rented an apartment in Fira, an amazing property built into the cliffs with jaw-dropping views of the caldera and four beautiful terraces to enjoy it all. On our first afternoon, we opted to climb down all 587 precarious steps to the Old Port (an equally valiant and naïve decision), shimmying our way around the poor donkeys burdened with heavy loads and waving hello to ambitious travelers climbing up. The Grecian sun beat down brutally upon us that day as we hiked, but it was worth it to get down to the water, where we marveled at the spectrum of blues and greens in the Aegean and watched the sailboats ferrying to and from the hot springs. The aroma of spanakopita and souvlaki in the air reminded us that our appetite for exploration had superseded our appetite for food. So we zoomed back to the top of Fira in one of the cable cars and enjoyed a late afternoon meal before heading back to our terrace to watch the sunset.
We made a point to watch the sun both rise and set each day. Everything, it seems, in Santorini is planned for and based on the sunset – restaurants, buses, ferries, hoteliers – everyone is mindful of this time of day. It’s a scramble to find the perfect spot to watch it. Without question, Oia, on the northwestern tip of the island, is where you want to be. Its famous sunsets are what you see on postcards and travel guides. It’s one of those places that is so hauntingly beautiful that you continue to see it in flashes long after you leave, its images etched in the recesses of your mind, ready to be replayed when you need an escape. Oia is so picturesque that you cannot stop taking pictures. (I had to force myself to put the camera away and stop photographing what I saw so that I could really see it.) It was everything in person that was Greece in my mind, and so much more. From windmills, to colorful textiles, from bright blue doors, to cobbled streets, from alley cats and stray dogs, to whitewashed homes clinging dramatically to sheer cliffs, from vivid blue church domes that match the sea and the sky, to cascading flowers and tranquil aquamarine waters.
Sitting in Oia with a glass of wine, enjoying the fine company of my family, and watching the sun set over the Aegean Sea was one of those existential moments when I was in the moment but at the same time outside of myself, observing the moment as it unfolded. Does that ever happen to you, too? It’s like a heightened sense of awareness of yourself and your surroundings. It tends to happen to me whenever I’m witnessing something truly profound or significant. As I sat there and watched the last traces of light vanishing on the horizon, it reminded me of the purpose of travel – to leave behind the creature comforts of home, to stretch the imagination, to be anonymous in a new place, to enrich the identity by absorbing new facets and ideas, to examine the earth from another point of view, to remember not to just exist in the world but to really see it, smell it, taste it and hear it as much as possible – to be lost and found all at the same time. I smiled out towards the caldera with these thoughts in my mind … and I swear the goddess Kalliste was there in the evening waves smiling back at me.
SANTORINI TRAVEL NOTES:
Nonis Apartments –Epic caldera views. Kitchen with fridge and sink, convenient for trips to the market around the corner. Free airport transfers. Super friendly owner and staff, brought us free wine and snacks to enjoy on the terrace.
Akrotiri – prehistoric site. Tour the ruins of the ancient Minoan settlement that may just be the Lost City of Atlantis.
Red Beach – easily walkable from Akrotiri. The most vibrant seascape!
Oia – watching the sunset is mandatory. Do this if you do nothing else. (The bus trip there can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated.)
Old Port – walk down to the Aegean shoreline if you’re brave (the marble steps can be quite slippery) and take a cable car back up.
Lotza Restaurant – terrace dining in Oia with the best baklava in all of Greece and breathtaking views.
Theoni’s Cafe – damn good coffee and assortment of pastries in Fira. Try the Greek breakfast sandwich.
Nauossa Tavern – delicious fresh pasta, great views in Fira, friendliest service, gave us free dessert!