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Santorini > Greece’s pearl September 27, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Greece Islands Aegean.

From Athens we have flown southwest for 35 minutes. As the pilot banks to land, Santorini appears magically in the window, its great volcanic crater rising hundreds of feet out of the Aegean. Crescent-shaped with striations in a multitude of dark colors, the caldera was even more dramatic than I had expected. As for the white flecks that clung to the top of the steep cliffs like a dusting of snow, these must be the towns and villages.

In the 17th century, when it was still called Calliste “the most beautiful,” Santorini or Thera, was a round island and there are at least two explanations for how it acquired its present shape. One is a Greek tale in which the god Zeus seized the core of the island in his mighty hand and hurled it at the Titans, his archenemies. As a result, the marks of Zeus’ fingers can now be seen in the four small inlets on the inner side of the island.

A second explanation is starkly more realistic. It was here, 3,600 years ago, that the most devastating volcanic eruption ever experienced by humans took place. Exploding with a boom that could be heard all the way to Scandinavia, it created tidal waves up to 200 meters high that darkened the entire Mediterranean for several days and covered large portions of the region with volcanic ash. In one final paroxysm, it sank almost the entire western part of the island, forming today’s crater. Only two pieces of land to the west remained, Therasia and the tiny islet of Aspronisi.

Moments later we land at the Santorini airport. Our weeklong vacation has begun. This meant a few days of near-total relaxation on a beautiful Greek island. From everything I had seen and heard, Santorini was one of the most photogenic places on earth, rich in history, distinct indigenous cuisine and excellent local wine.

From the airport, on the east side of the island, a taxi took us to Imerovigli, a village perched on one of the 1,000-foot-high cliffs facing west, just north of Fira, Santorini’s capital. Our destination: Astra, a luxurious, eight-floor apartment hotel, dug into the rocks.

Our suite had a stunning view, which, in a startling visual juxtaposition, immediately brought back thoughts of the island’s tumultuous past. Rising, seemingly from the edge of the shimmering turquoise water of our private swimming pool, was a steep, dark promontory, topped with a giant crag so fractured that it looked as if it may tumble into the caldera at any moment. This was Skaros, now uninhabited, but in medieval times the capital of Santorini, a thriving little Catholic settlement where, from their inaccessible perch, Venetian nobles kept pirates at bay.

History aside, the suite was gorgeous, white, clean and uncluttered, with high vaulted ceilings. A few well-chosen pieces of furniture contributed to a sense of spaciousness and only the pillows in red, orange and pink added a splash of color. There was a sculptural feel to the place. A silver plate with a school of fish engraved on it hung on the living room wall  the work of a local artist named George Kypris.

This was to be a long, leisurely week. I would visit a couple of vineyards, but most of the time would be spent wandering around and on drawn-out lunches and dinners. We also climbed Skaros, visited Oia and walked several times to Fira.

To reach Fira by foot from Imerovigli, you follow a circuitous route of winding steps and narrow lanes stitched between a jumble of stark-white houses that seem to cascade down dark, steep cliffs. The path often takes you across roofs, which also serve as pretty little courtyards. Every now and then you pass through open doorways with no walls at all. Configurations, artistically applied in gray and white paint, add a graphic touch to the stairways, and most of the houses are trimmed in bright blue. Flowers abound and, here and there, a single piece of rock has been laid out as a decorative element on an otherwise empty white roof. The view to the west at this high altitude, along the lip of the caldera, is breathtaking. Out there lies Thirassia and the much smaller Aspronisi. In between, two charred isles are nestled, each born as the result of a volcanic eruption. The walk from Imerovigli to Fira is about 30 minutes but, since the route is sprinkled generously with tempting little cafes and bars, the stroll tended, in our case, to take considerably longer.

Most visitors, notably passengers from cruise liners, enter Santorini’s capital from the port below. The climb from the bay can be made on foot (600 steps), on the back of a donkey or in cable car. A commercial center with a population of about 1,500, Fira offers numerous shops with a great variety of merchandise. A gallery with the works of the fish-sculptor Kypris caught my eye. I also noticed a large number of stores selling jewelry. Along narrow streets, there are resigned donkeys with multicolored blankets attached to their packsaddles and small picturesque markets, their entrances lined with postcards. Churches with pretty bell towers seem to be everywhere, there are 352 on this small island, most of which are said to have been built by seamen in gratitude to the Virgin Mary for having saved them from great storms.

In Fira, we twice visited Selene, a highly acclaimed restaurant, famous for its imaginative use of local produce. There, as we dug into a small fish-shaped seafood pie with a caper for an eye, we got our first sampling of Santorini cuisine. An assortment of four additional savory mini pies followed, one of which introduced us to the island’s fabled cherry tomato, as well as its local “chloro” cheese. Another combined mizithra cheese and dill; yet another was made with spinach, raisins and pine nuts, while the fifth and final morsel had been filled with pastourma, a succulent cured beef fillet. After such an appetizer there was barely room for the main course, black tagliatelle with king prawns.

On our return to Selene a couple of days later, we noticed that one of the terraces had been closed off for a wedding party. There, against the caldera backdrop, stood bride and groom, smiling steadfastly through a fusillade of camera flashes. In a conversation with Evelyn Volikas who, with her husband, chef George Hatziyiannakis, started Selene in 1986, I learn that catering is a substantial part of the restaurant’s business. Also, throughout the summer, the two of them run a cooking school.

With more than 300 days of sunshine and rich volcanic soil, Santorini yields a bounty of unusual herbs and vegetables, grown virtually without water. Their introduction is part of a full-day cooking class in which George will cook and Evelyn teach. Students will not only learn about such specialties as fava (a legume that looks like a lentil), but also by day’s end, they will know how to prepare an entire Greek menu, appetizer, salad, main course and dessert.

Our main course this time around was a very satisfying fava with baked pork and for dessert we feasted on white aubergine with chocolate mousse baked in Vinsanto, which brings us to the subject of the local wine, which is distinctive and praised throughout the Mediterranean.

The vineyards of Santorini are distinctive. Here, rings of dried wood resembling wreaths are tucked under the vines for protection from the strong winds; necessary water is brought by nocturnal fogs; the harvest is held in mid-August; and the predominant grape is Assyrtiko, which produces the fruity, pleasant-tasting white wine typical of the island. Then, of course, there’s the naturally sweet Vinsanto, one of Greece’s finest dessert wines. Kostas Antoniou owner of the Antoniou Winery in Megalochori, which is about 5 kilometers south of Fira, gave a rundown of the various offerings to me.

To reach the mountainside terrace where a wine tasting was under way, I descended a serpentine stairway, which took me through five levels of dark, cool cellars. After my eyes adjusted to the blinding sunlight, I found, to my surprise, that I was still high above the sea. I joined a small crowd of tasters. The first wine presented was Antoniou Santorini. It smelled of citrus fruits and is recommended for all seafood dishes. Then, with an added degree of complexity, came Santorini Barrel, which had been fermented in oak barrels for eight months and was guaranteed to go well with spicy dishes and smoked cheeses. Finally, there was the sun-dried Vinsanto representing, according to Kostas, “the continuation of a long time aging.” Perfect, he assured, “with all kinds of fruit at the end of meals.” The Antoniou Winery attracts a good many visitors partly because of its attractive location and unique five-level approach. A jewelry exhibition adds an incongruous, but not unappreciated, note to this quite charming place.

My mini-research continued at Sigalas Wine Company where a similar ritual took place. First came the typical white table wine of the island called Santorini Sigalas (Oia), then Santorini Sigalas (Oia-barel), more golden in color and with a nose that included honey-suckle. A red table wine followed, less distinctive I thought, and finally the Vinsanto arrived, “a mouthful of honey,” to quote a wine critic and, according to Sofia Sigalas, the young woman in charge of the tasting room, “absolutely delicious with blue cheese.”

Sigalas is located at the northern tip of Santorini, which is where you find Oia, once a major Aegean fishing port. Like Fira and Imerovigli, Oia is perched on the lip of the caldera and has become a favorite of avid sunset-watchers. We joined the crowd and set out in good time taking a taxi to the small harbor below where we ate a leisurely lunch before climbing up to Oia on a switchback path. The lunch, incidentally, merits a mention.

A couple of days earlier at Selene, a fisherman had arrived with two 46-pound groupers slung over his shoulder. The impressive catch, relieved of its plastic wrapping and tossed on the kitchen table, was subsequently checked by Evelyn who put her nose just millimeters away from the jaws of the two monsters, sniffed delicately and, with a beaming face, pronounced them fresh. A variant on this fresh-from-the-sea incident was repeated as we sat down at the Katina Tavern on the quay at Ammoudi Bay, below Oia. Here, momentarily, a gargantuan lobster became the focus of everyone’s attention. It was caught by Katina’s fisherman/husband who proudly displayed it to all the guests before taking it to his wife in the kitchen. As for lunch, after several appetizers and a little ouzo, it culminated in a sea bass expertly cleaned at the table under the bright sun.

Climbing the 300 steps leading to Oia was well worth the effort. White houses cascading down the caldera was by now a familiar sight, but never before had they seemed more picture-perfect. We finally settled on the terrace of a windmill turned cafe and bar where a small crowd had gathered. The magic hour had arrived. Everyone faced west and waited reverently for the sun to set.

It was hard to imagine that this was once the most violent spot on Earth, wrenched by a cataclysmic event of such magnitude as to have caused the sudden demise of Crete’s Minoan civilization. In the mid-19th century, a Bronze Age Pompeii was discovered right here on Santorini and dug up from under a blanket of pumice, some findings of which are now at the archeological museum in Fira.

Looking back on our week in Santorini, I recalled the moments before the pilot landed and was reminded of yet another arrival – albeit a fictional one – in which the submarine Nautilus in Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” surfaces in the hot waters around Santorini just in time for the 1866 eruption of Nea Kameni.

Like myself, Captain Nemo and his crew had been duly impressed by the sight of the multicolored walls of the gigantic cauldron on which part of earth’s history is revealed. Fact and fiction. The two seem to mix easily on this spectacular island, believed by many to be the lost continent of Atlantis.

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