I chose Santorini for two reasons. The first – and most obvious – was because it was guaranteed be sunny and warm there even in late September, and after this year’s uncharacteristically chilly West Coast summer, I was desperately craving the feeling of sun on my shoulders and a bit of quality beach time. But I also chose Santorini because it had seduced me. I wanted to experience those vistas of white-washed buildings clinging to steep cliffs like I had seen in countless pictures; wanted to get lost in narrow twisting alleys and catch glimpses of the Aegean Sea every time I rounded a new corner.
The air in Santorini is hot. Not just hot, but searing; it makes itself know as soon as you step outside, and it weighs down on you in a way that it never does back home, burning, rising off the pavement in intense waves. As I step off the plane and onto the tarmac it hits me in an intense, humid wall – instantly, I regret the morning’s clothing choices as I yank a scarf away from my neck and peel off a wooly black cardigan that had seemed so appropriate in the chilly London fog only hours earlier. I haven’t even left the airport, and Santorini has already made an impression on me.
If the extreme heat doesn’t make enough of an impression, the drive from the airport into the village of Oia certainly does. There’s an unwritten law of travel that requires a hair-raising taxi ride as the first rite of initiation into a new culture – as such, I find myself sitting alone in the back seat of a car that’s hurtling along a twisting cliff-side road at a sickening speed. I can feel my suitcase thudding back and forth in the trunk every time the taxi swings around a hairpin curve; the driver leans on the horn frequently as we nearly sideswipe an array of small cars, motorcycles, and tour busses. At one point he turns around completely, one hand casually resting on the steering wheel, while he directs a stream of incomprehensible Greek in my direction. A few minutes later we arrive – intact, shockingly – at the village, and he deposits me at the side of the road. I make my way into the tourist information office feeling simultaneously sweaty (the car’s thermometer had read a shocking 33 degrees celcius), carsick, and shaky.
After a few days on Santorini, time begins to slow down and lose any real meaning. Mornings are endless – I wake up before sunrise, wander through the village (blissfully empty until the first tour bus, fresh from the cruise ship terminal at the opposite end of the island, rolls in), drift into the café’s outdoor terrace. My computer screen competes for attention with views of the sea; when I get tired of working I stare out at the water, slowly sipping my coffee. Afternoons are languid. I’ve taken to eating my lunch while perched on a wall overlooking the village, then relocating and sprawling out next to the ocean or a pool as the hours slip by. It’s impossible to move quickly; the heat at this time of the day presses down with the kind of intensity that commands stillness. Evenings, post-sunset, are a cool contrast to the afternoon.
The village of Oia is like a postcard come to life. It doesn’t have bad angle, and it’s almost impossible to take a bad picture of it. It is, however, possible to get very lost in the maze of stone-paved alleys making their way up and down the cliff – one wrong turn and I’m discovering a new café or extracting myself from someone’s private yard, then I’ll try to backtrack and end up partway down the steep steps to the fishing port below and face-to-face with a pack of donkeys before I realize my mistake.
If the scenery alone isn’t reason enough to fall in love with Santorini, the food certainly is. Since arriving, I’ve developed a healthy obsession with the bakery down the street from the apartment I’m renting. Each morning I make a pilgrimage there, led to the doorstep by the smell of bread hanging in the air, and each time I leave with a little plastic bag full of delicacies for the day: A savoury pastry – usually filled with some variation of feta cheese, tomatoes and olives, and usually encrusted in sesame seeds – for lunch, a little disc of lightly orange-flavoured dough filled with lighter-than-air cream cheese to nibble on afterwards, and one of the more substantial honey-soaked and nut-encrusted desserts for after dinner.
And since it’s not possible to subsist on baked goods for all meals, the grocery store next door gives me an opportunity to stock up on substantially-sized blocks of feta cheese, tubs of thick Greek yogurt, and an array of interesting-looking yet unidentifiable snacks, their packages emblazoned with indecipherable characters. The village’s restaurants may be pricey, thanks to the crowds of cruise ship tourists that descend on them in noisy, hungry flocks each day, but the grocery store is shockingly cheap – two days worth of dinner ingredients, and I’m still getting change back from a ten Euro note – and qualifies as an excellent cultural immersion experience to boot.
In two days, I’ll be leaving Santorini – and the slowed-down lifestyle that goes hand-in-hand with it – behind as I head on to Rome, but I’ll be taking with me the deepest tan of my life, a very large bag of those cream cheese pastries, and several hundred photographs of the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Santorini knows how to leave a lasting impression on me.