I have a thing about places that are over-touristed (is that even a real word?). They look great in Instagram, they give you over-the-top hospitality and luxury, and it feels like an escape into a world where things are simple and nothing really matters. I enjoy these things too, once in a while. But for the perks that they give, they also take away the thing I like most about travel – to assimilate into a different culture, a different life, and watch the world through a stranger’s eyes, from some other parts of the world you don’t belong in.
In other words, I wasn’t crazy keen on Santorini before I got there. In pictures it looks perfect, and if there is one thing I know about picture-perfect things is that it will not be the case in reality. My flight to Santorini Island was delayed for 4 hours, and as I sat there in the Athens Airport, grumpy and unshowered, I thought to myself, Santorini better be really good.
And it turns out Santorini delivered. When you land at the airport of the small island, you can take either a personal chauffeur or the local bus to your hotel, at a flat price rate (the bus is staggeringly cheaper). Santorini is mainly divided into two parts; the East side of the island is where the local lives, with more beaches and less people, and the West side which is the main star, the mecca of tourism of the island.
I settled into one of the rooms overlooking the coast, and immediately was glad I only carried a light backpack. Santorini is not for the unfit nor the knee-deformed humans. Oia, which is a small section North of the island, consists of hundreds of small rooms and villas, each interconnected by narrow roads, steep stairs and confusing routes to go around. To add to the confusion, everything is white. There is not one single man-made wall, bridge, roof, and fence that is not in the default whitest-of-white paint. Everything is so white, your teeth feels yellow. Everything is so white, you’ll need sunglasses or risk very bad glare.
Remember how beautiful Santorini looks in Google? I thought I’d let you know it looks even better in real life. There is something breathtaking in the offset of colours here – everything white, with dots of church domes painted sapphire blue. The cliffs are wrapped by the small white squares, and against it, the dark, misty Aegean sea. The narrow streets are adorned with small restaurants, gift shops, book shops (note: one MUST visit the Atlantis Bookstore, dubbed as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world) and mysterious wooden doors.
If you travel on foot from Imerovigli to Fira, you’re in for a treat. It’s probably one of the most beautiful walks you’ll ever have on an island. Take your time when you do it. Stop by for drinks. Explore the hidden picturesque spots along the road. Pause to enjoy the view once in a while. I did the walk during sunset, and I recommend you do the same.
If you’re looking for something a little more quiet, take a bus and stop by Pyros. Pyros is the ‘orginial’ Santorini, which basically lets you see how the island looked like before all the tourism came into the picture. Pyros is quiet and lonely, with a Byzantine castle on top of the hill that you can reach by walked up the narrow streets of the neighbourhood. Get up there and see the whole of Santorini from a bird’s eye point of view, because this location is right at the centre of the curve of the island. There is a small café at the foot of the castle called Penelope, and you can sit back and enjoy some sun and breeze with a tall glass of frappe (did you know frappe originates from Greece? So you know you gotta have some) and a plate of tomato fritters (found everywhere in Greece, but originates from Santorini).
And while you’re enjoying the epitome of hyperpolic tourism, why not feast, island style? It’s an island, so expect its forte to be all the produce of the sea. People seem to really enjoy smoked octopus here, and it seems that they have perfected the art of prepping the tentacles so that they are never rubbery. Seafood pasta, grilled swordfish, and if you miss home than head down to Fira and there is a square with ethnic food options – I had a bowl of tomyam. Whoops. #asianproblems
And then, by the end of it, you haven’t been to Santorini if you haven’t seen a sunset in Santorini. Unfortunately the crowd gets crazy at the good viewing spots, but that’s okay. Happiness is best when shared with a crowd of sweaty, loud strangers, right? Oia is known to have the best spots for sunsets, especially if you go up to the old castle ruins. Watch the sun go down beyond the horizon, turning everything that is white into yellow, and everything that is blue into a dark mystery. The windmill at the edge of the island looks faraway and mythical, and despite your fear of heights (read: me), climb up the walls of the castle and stay there until the sun is long gone and the cliffs lghts up with thousands of sparkling dotted yellow lights and you’re once again, looking at Santorini in a brand-new way.
As you sit there, you’ll think to yourself how the heck it is that you got so lucky to see these beautiful places with your very own eyes. And you should think so. Santorini demands that you do.