An island imbued with the magic of Greek legends
About 3,500 years ago, a volcano erupted with a force equal to two million atomic bombs. It was greater than any volcanic event on Earth in the past 10,000 years, and its effects were felt all over the world. It caused tsunamis, spewed ash across thousands of miles, and filled the atmosphere with debris, changing the world’s temperature for years.
The Greek island of Santorini was ground zero; it is the phoenix that arose from those ashes. Once a site of such great turmoil, it is now a place of lively adventure and peaceful rejuvenation.
The 6-kilometre-wide crater (called a caldera) left by the eruption gives Santorini the appearance of an amphitheatre. The caldera rises some 300 metres above sea level, and at its edge I watch clouds filling the cavity below, dancing quickly across the amphitheatre’s stage, as the sun sets over the Aegean Sea. The island is famed as one of the best places in the world to experience a sunset, with locals and tourists alike gathering daily to watch.
Santorini is a place where Greek legend seems alive. Just as Apollo caused the island of Anafi to appear to the Argonauts as a shelter from storm, I see Anafi appear like magic out of nothingness as the clouds shift.
In Homer’s epics, the virtue of hospitality is of utmost importance — it is strongly rewarded by the gods, who also punish when it is lacking. This Greek philosophy of hospitality has endured: the people of Santorini are known to open their homes to the island’s visitors, or offer food from their farms.
Santorini is a place where the seam between nature and the man-made world is hard to discern. Along the caldera, buildings grow out of the rockface. Many of the houses on the island are yposkafa — excavated into the rock. This local building tradition is perfectly suited to the sloped landscape, it saves on building materials, and provides a natural source of air conditioning. Throughout the island, the white houses gleam like white sand in the sun, and the sky-blue roofs seem to me a desire to hold a piece of the sky, to bring it to the Earth.
As I approach the Erosantorini hotel, I nearly miss the gate, its stone blending into the natural surroundings. As I enter, it feels like walking off the street and into the endless blue sea. The fresh air from the caldera greets me, and a grand infinity pool stretches over the edge of the cliff.
The hotel represents the utmost luxury, yet that luxury isn’t extravagant or contrived. It is about all the finest touches to accentuate the natural beauty and experience of Santorini.
The architecture — based around traditional Cycladic white cubes — is clean and minimal, complementing rather than competing with the view of the caldera. It’s the kind of simplicity achieved through the skillful removal of all clutter and superficialities, leaving only that which enriches the environment and the experience.
Inside, the walls are inlaid with local stone, creating a rustic contrast to luxurious fabrics and fixtures. A floating fireplace hangs from the ceiling like an olive on its stem.
Each guestroom in the hotel has a private pool and provides peaceful seclusion. In the evenings, an outdoor cinema plays movies while servers offer cocktails and homemade potato chips with Greek dips.
The Hammam steam room diffuses eucalyptus oils, providing a plethora of health benefits, including decongestion and boosted mental alertness. A so-called “emotional shower” uses a special combination of different water pressures and temperatures, with coloured lights and other sensations, to heal the body and soothe the mind.
The wine cellar is filled with local wines, grown in vineyards that are perhaps the oldest continually cultivated in the world. The volcanic soil keeps the vines remarkably free from disease. It also produces a pleasant acidity in the white wine. Vines that were planted thousands of years ago have never been uprooted, making Santorini’s vineyards a living ancient monument.
The volcanic soil also produces mouth-watering cherry tomatoes, fava beans, and white aubergines, among other specialties. Tangy wild capers grow amidst the dry-stone walls and are a local delicacy.
The island is small, making its various experiences easy to reach. I enter the 13th-century castle of Akrotiri, which stands above the excavated site of a Bronze Age Minoan settlement that was preserved in the ash from the eruption that wiped out that civilization.
The tower of this castle is the home of a cultural centre called La Ponta, which offers visitors an interactive experience that brings traditional Greek music and myth to life. A worker there hands me and three of my friends each a lute, then teaches us to play some simple notes. The four of us perform a small concert of traditional Greek music under his tutelage.
Yannis and Argy Pantazis, husband and wife, restored the tower and created La Ponta. Yannis has recreated the ancient instruments at La Ponta with his own hands. One of those instruments is the tsabouna, a kind of bagpipe. Although bagpipes are associated with Scotland, the first recorded mention of bagpipes is in The Acharnians, written by the Greek Aristophanes in 425 B.C.
I visit 1260ºCeramic Studio, where I learn to make traditional pots. I stop in my favourite traditional tavern, Metaxi Mas, in the village of Exo Gonia, for the authentic atmosphere and a beautiful view of the eastern part of the island.
This island is where Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn still awakes daily, reaching out to touch its cliffs and cast a pinkish hue on its white houses. It’s where luxury is down-to-earth, accentuating the beauty and peace of the natural environment while quietly providing all the comforts made by man. It’s where the same wines and caves that delighted and housed the ancient Greeks are offered with a spirit of hospitality that has also been passed down through the ages.