Greece. Almost immediately, most people will associate the name with one of two landmarks the Acropolis in Athens or the blue church domes and white-washed buildings of the island of Santorini.

Santorini - Greece

Situated almost a thousand feet above sea level, Oia (pronounce Ayah) is one of the most visited places in the world and, in my humble opinion, one of the most picturesque. Sprawling a good third of the hillside of the top part of the caldera, Oia will not disappoint. Those photographs you have seen in magazines and advertisements for travel agencies are not altered. You will have just as much success and take home wonderful portraits of its captivating scenery.

Santorini - Greece Santorini - Greece Santorini - Greece

Santorini has only two seasons dry (from April to October), and rainy (November to March). However, even the winter season only sees infrequent rain and the weather is mild (usually 10-15C or higher).

If coming in by ship, Oia is not the town you see sitting atop the part of the island. You will then likely be moored at the base of Fira, the capital city of Santorini which is accessible either by walking up the 980 feet of meandering stair trail (also used by donkeys whose owners will gladly oblige for 5 each way, cash only), or by the fairly new cable car (costing 4 each way, cash only). If you book a tour through your cruiseline, your tender will take you to Athinios Port a short distance away and your land transportation will await you there to take you to your destinations. If, however, you do decide to explore Santorini on your own, the ship's tender will take you to the Old Port at the base of Fira from which your adventure begins. The stairs are not steep and it will take approximately 20 minutes to reach the top. Wear comfortable walking shoes if you are planning to tour Santorini this way. The biggest concern with walking up (or down) the stairs is the issue of constantly having to watch where you step since you are sharing this path with the donkeys.
Santorini - Greece

The drive from Athinios to Oia takes about half an hour to forty minutes and definitely gives the traveller a taste of the layout of this small, but beautiful island. While there are steep cliffs surrounding the caldera*, the sea facing side of the island has gently rolling hillsides and even flat farmland. There are several beaches to enjoy for those who are spending several days or their vacation on Santorini and due to the volcanic history and your location on the island, the beach sand varies from white to red to black. If this is your first time to Santorini, I strongly suggest taking a tour. Not only will you get a flavour of the local life, but your tour guide will most likely give you a short history of the island as well as draw your attention to landmarks and other points of interest.

An interesting side trip on a tour is to visit a local winery. Along your drive through the countryside, keep an eye out for what appear to be grapevine wreaths, methodically spaced apart. In fact, this is how vineyards grow their crop. The vines are woven to resemble baskets and the fruit grows inside them, thereby being protected from wind and also benefitting from the dew that accumulates each day. This is a very resourceful way of growing grapes in a fairly inimical environment.

Although the volcanic soil provides enough nutrients, the lack of water and the ever present winds have dictated an alternate way of farming. Despite the harshness and seeming difficulty of maintaining vineyards, Santorini's wine is world famous for its unique taste. A tour to the local winery will surely include wine tasting as well as some other locally grown delicacies such as olives and cherry tomatoes. Don't miss this!

Oia's sights were made for postcards. Hugging the cliffs of the island with its cave houses, windmills, and countless blue domed churches, this village will make you feel as if though you jumped into a sidewalk painting from a well known children's film. The whitewashed buildings give an essence of total cleanliness and, in fact, you will feel as if though the town has been scrubbed clean just before your arrival. There are small shops along the main path, and all the shopkeepers are friendly but not aggressive in selling their unique wares. You are more than welcome to stray off the common path and walk up and down the many stairs that lead from one home to another and meander towards churches or centre of town. You would think it is easy to get lost as there are no signs directing you and from a distance, the numerous staircases resemble a maze. But, all roads lead to Rome; in this case, all staircases heading up, lead to the main street in town.

Santorini - Greece

The views from every angle are magnificent. Regardless of where you look, there is crisp freshness welcoming you to inhale more of this beauty. (OK, don't do too much inhaling if you decide to walk down the 588 stairs to the Old Port because you will be inhaling the aromas of everything donkey.) Around every corner is a new sight beckoning you to pursue another adventure. Whether it is a windmill or old ruins from which you can have an amazing panoramic view of Oia and Fira, these are sights you will not likely forget anytime soon. And, if you are fortunate to stay long enough to view the sunset, find yourself a good spot because the walls of Oia are lined with people awaiting the great show each evening. Word has it that Oia has the best sunsets which are always rewarded with a round of applause.

Most excursions end in Fira. This leaves the visitor to explore the many shoppes and cafes and mingle with the locals. Although the shopkeepers in Fira are a little more assertive than the ones in Oia, they are very friendly and unlikely to hassle you to make a purchase. However, if you see something you like, you can still barter and often get a great deal. (I purchased a memento of my trip to Greece here and though not specific to Santorini, I found the same item to be triple the price in Athens.) Fira, like Oia, hugs the cliffs with its churches and white houses with blue doors. It is a little busier than its suburbian Oia as many of the homes reflect the fact that this is, in fact, the capital of Santorini. The houses are still built into the volcanic wall of the island, but they are several stories high and uphold a more modern architectural character. But the hues that define this small island are still there and the pastel coloured buildings will imprint themselves in your mind. It is this colour combination that no matter where you are, if you see it, it will forever remind you of a special place - Santorini.

Santorini - Greece
Santorini - Greece

Unfortunately, due to its geographical nature, Santorini is not the most accessible port of call. Firstly is the issue of getting on the tender boat. This can be done with some difficulty but is definitely achievable. If you have mobility difficulties, you can take the cable car to the town of Fira. Once again, as with Oia, there are many stairs, especially in the part of town that overlooks the volcano. A few attempts have been made to install small ramps in certain areas but these are sporadic to say the least.

Other parts of the town are cobblestoned and it is desirable that you have someone to assist you to manage these. Powered wheelchairs and scooters would definitely be at a disadvantage but I have seen several people using their manual chairs around town and even in Fira.

A few interesting facts about Santorini:
  • It is the only inhabited caldera* in the world
  • There are over 250 churches on the island.
  • You can walk from Fira to Oia in approximately three hours.
  • The population of the island is about 15,000 people.
  • The electricity on the island is provided by diesel powered generators for which the diesel has to be shipped in.
  • Santorini has no rivers. Until the 1990s, residents depended on dew or rain water collected and from small springs. Otherwise, potable water is imported from other areas of Greece. More recently, a desalination plant provides non-potable water to most houses on the island.
  • Main export of Santorini is soil. The soil and pumice of Santorini was used to build the Suez Canal.
  • The ancient ruins of Akrotiri have been compared to the ruins in Pompeii, Italy
  • Santorini - Greece

    Santorini - Greece

    Barb Salivar

    * A caldera is a cauldron-like volcanic feature usually formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption.

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