Santorini teems w
But there are morsels of calm to be found on Greece’s most popular island
our requests register with the frazzled 60-something shopkeeper.
When he warmed to us, even his show of affection involved crowding, though of a welcome kind. As we were leaving with our provisions one day, he smiled and stuffed a few extra figs into a our bag.
The first morsel of calm came by surprise. Taking a public bus to the black sands of Perissa Beach, reportedly the most popular in Santorini, we stopped in the town of Pyrgos. Rising almost flush with the edge of the road was what looked like a hulk of whitewashed cement, with sets of steps carved into it.
Greece’s signature blue domes bobbed in the sea of white. The handful of travellers who had disembarked here soon disappeared into the maze of stairways studded by tiny chapels, gift shops and houses. We found ourselves on a small, quiet street made even mellower by the afternoon siesta time. I took to the stairs myself, following a woman wearing a cloth baby carrier from which a small, downy head emerged. Even the infant was silent.
At the top, a majestic view greeted me, and I encountered the closest thing Pyrgos had to a crowd: five or six people gathered around a cafe table, a lanky German shepherd mix at their feet. It felt light-years removed from the streets of Fira.
Original Greek art produced in honour of the Biennale of Santorini time as every other visitor in town. The bus arrived, and my friends elbowed their way on.
Soon we found ourselves at the Oia dock as a white boat chugged toward us. I followed my friends on to a compact two-deck vessel. Our fellow passengers included a bag of bread, a whole fish, some locals and a family of French-speaking tourists. The fare was 1 (R13) each.
On the open upper deck, with my hair flying in the breeze and the boat taking us farther and farther from the mainland, I felt a sense of peace.
The tiny dock that greeted us on Thirassia made sleepy Pyrgos look like a carnival. We saw no tourists and no hawkers, just a hillside full of houses, a gravel driveway and the abandoned outdoor seating of a cafe. On the driveway sat a van and what looked like a repurposed school bus painted white with green stripes.
A few tourists opted for the van. I climbed on to the school bus to ask in guidebook Greek how much the driver wanted for the ride. “It is free, it’s a local bus,” was the gist of his response in English. Free public transportation with the people who actually live here! That worked for me. My friends and I took our seats.
We got off at the second – and last – stop and walked into a small, mellow town. Not only were the people sightings rare, but the place literally lay low. Miniature houses anchored clotheslines holding billowing sheets that brushed the ground, and the roof of a one-storey church topped my 1.67m-height by about a metre. Even the stray cats were small and quiet as they napped in the shade to escape the heat.
Gazing down, I saw that the island wasn’t that empty. Large ferries steamed up to a beach and waterfront packed with restaurants and shops, apparently kilometres from where we had disembarked. No quaint cargo of whole fish or bread there. Just dozens of humans.
We made our way down a set of broad steps of charcoal-gray rock – those 250 steps I’d read about – to join the crowds. The water was astonishingly clear, so we changed into costumes, picked our way over a beach of arch-busting stones for a dip, and then dried off in the sun.
Then we traipsed back up the stairs, resisting the pull of signs that advertised donkey rides for 5 and clusters of the creatures clopping up the stairway laden with foreigners.
At the top, the Panorama Cafe, had no table service and a limited menu. Among the selections, however, was what the owner’s son insisted was the best moussaka in
VIBRANT: Splashes of colour amid the otherwise whitewashed houses adds to the vibrancy of Santorini.
ANCIENT RUINS: The ancient theatre in Thira was built in the second century.