San­torini teems w

But there are morsels of calm to be found on Greece’s most pop­u­lar is­land

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRAVEL 2013 -

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.

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