The taxi driver charged us €15 to get away from the sulphuric wasteland surrounding Santorini’s Airport, with its potholed roads and stark, penal fences built on yellow concrete. We were driven south in a silver Mercedes.
In 10 minutes we arrived at Irini’s rooms, a hotel at the end of the volcanic beach of Kamari, in the shadow of Santorini’s tallest mountain.
No shadow when we arrived, though, just the lights of Kamari at midnight. It’s always strange arriving in a new place at night because you only see the artificial glow, leaving your imagination to make up what lives beyond.
Sadly for Greece, my expectations were of a country trapped in social and economic turmoil, populated by cashless desperados and confused politicos. After all, that’s what the media back in England was saying.
One Eyed Waiter
That first night we were served seafood by a one eyed Greek. He was short and wore a green t-shirt and his smile, punctuated by pockmarked skin, was keen and toothy.
“Put your bag on the table,” he said. “If anything is stolen from here I can get it back in 5 minutes, plus even more as a sorry.”
It’s hard to feel less reassured by reassurance, I can assure you.
We left the Greek’s 2D world and went to bed.
In the morning I ran up the mountain to Ancient Thira and looked over the island. The path digs into the hill dramatically, cutting back on itself, folding up the rock. It’s a difficult run but the reward is an understanding of why they thought this was the land of the gods.
From the top, other islands appear as mountain peaks, the sea mist hugging their bases like clouds. The Aegean Sea bluer than pure sky.
And there’s nothing like a serene moment before you spend four days riding a two stroke moped up steep hills at full throttle. Clunking and spluttering and clattering at low speed, mosquito trolling passers-by.
However, at €50 for three days, mopeds are the best and cheapest way to see Santorini. We covered pretty much every part of the island in four days, comfortably, and found some great restaurants and over-priced watermelon dealers along the way.
On the high road to the northern town of Oia, where the finest of those iconic white buildings almost fall into the sea, there is a hidden restaurant on the side of the road.
The humble sign for To Steki tou Nikou stands in a gravel layby. We pulled in with our sunburnt feet and walked down the concrete steps to find a panoramic view of the sea, framed by trellises and potted plants, decorated with a sleeping dog and the hosts’ children.
The pork Gyro here is ridiculously good, so is the Fava, and the host, Xaris, is pretty entertaining as well.
He only drinks Mythos Lager because Greeks make the best beer in the world. And, while that may be a stretch, his wife could win a world championship with her kebabs.
We visited Xaris twice during our week in Santorini, tucking any leftovers into our moped seats and eating them for lunch the next day.
Those extra-warm lunches were key on our days in the more remote parts of the island, like up at the uniquely beautiful Red Beach, or out on the Volcanic Island parallel to Santorini.
In fact, that trip to the Volcanic Island also took in the small island of Thirassia, where the cliffs of Santorini appear snow-capped in the distance.
Andreas and His Boy
Thirassia is a postcard at every angle. The sea is clear, the boats are colourful and the wine is strong.
After our obligatory walk up and down the insanely steep, typically acute cliff-edge road, we settled at the local beach bar and got talking to Andreas, an ex-financial advisor.
“I left Athens because my job no longer existed in the city,” he said. “I had the chance to stay with another company doing something else, but I decided to take a break after 20 years and stay on my father’s farm here for a few weeks. That was six months ago.”
Andreas introduced us to his son and talked about a better life away from the pressures of the big city.
“Now I help here at the bar and with my father’s fava plantations on the other side of the hills, where the island is more flat,” Andreas said. “Many other Greeks have done the same. They have moved away from the city and are discovering, or rediscovering I should say, a rural life once again.”
I asked him about the riots and the crime I heard about back in England.
“This is a small number of people, I think, but you will find that many of the smaller islands now are full of people that are tired of the problems. We just want a simple life again because the life in Athens has not worked, for now.”
Andreas’ son, in broken but enthusiastic English, said he thought life was much better in Thirassia compared to Athens. He smiled as he brought over more wine. So did we.
And, as the cold red wine cut through the afternoon sun, we jumped back on the boat, balanced by the waves, and headed over to Ammoudi Bay to spend the last of our Euros back on Santorini.
That night, as the sun dropped back into the sea, we ate at Sunset Ammoudi Fish Tavern, surrounded by Chinese and American tourists.
We chose the cheapest meal on the menu, with the cheapest wine, and just missed €100. The French waiter, with his slicked back hair, was excellent.
Despite the beautiful food and gold rimmed glasses all around, I couldn’t help thinking we would have had a better night drinking the rocket powered wine of Thirassia with Andreas and his friends. It’s funny how the allure of simplicity tends to breach through the surface of greasy luxe.
Nonetheless, that kind of nonchalant regret doesn’t last long on Santorini, an island that grabs your attention at every sharp turn.