Santorini is one of the undisputed jewels of the Greek Islands. Two of its most enchanting attractions are the village of Oia and the archeological dig Akrotiri, once a prominent ancient town.
Oia and Akrotiri are located on opposite sides of the island and offer a multifaceted appreciation of Greece’s heritage and imagination. The dichotomy between the ancient and the contemporary here reminded me of my visit to Mykonos and its neighbor Delos.
The two most popular villages to stay at in Santorini are Thira, the largest village on Santorini, and its less well-known counterpart to the north of the island, Oia. I prefer Oia (pronounced Ia) to Thira – I believe Oia is the most beautiful village on Santorini. It’s also quieter and less touristy than Thira and provides more of a local flavor.
Most visitors to Santorini will arrive at Thira. To reach Oia, make your way eleven kilometers to the north of the island. Your journey will be well-rewarded, with breathtaking views of the volcano, the Caldera, the island Thirassia and the Aegean Sea. Stunningly beautiful white buildings stand against the backdrop of a deep blue sea. The sunlight creates various shades and moods of light against the whitewashed buildings at different times of the day.
Oia is also known for its spectacular sunsets, and several cliffside cafes offer magnificent views. Attracted by the beauty, many artists have migrated to the village, and there are several art galleries here.
Your accommodations on Oia may be some of the most unique you’ve ever encountered. I was dazzled by the whitewashed structures that cling to the sides of cliffs. Hotels, houses and apartments carved out of rock into the cliff’s reddish volcanic interior offer exquisite interiors.
You can reach Amoudi Beach below by walking down 214 steps. Pick up some fresh fish at the local tavern and eat like a local. There is an independent bookstore in Oia, Atlantis Books, that’s considered one of the world’s best. It occupies the basement of a whitewashed clifftop villa.
If you wish to stay closer to Thira, but in a quieter village, Imerovigli also offers fine views. I also stayed in another little village near Oia called Fonikia that was laid out like a labyrinth.
Not only is Santorini beautiful, there’s significant intrigue and mystery surrounding its history. Was the island once the site of ancient Atlantis, as Plato and many others believed? There's no question that an earthquake followed by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption struck the island. But what exactly did these destroy? The ancient archaeological dig Akrotiri may hold some clues.
Akrotiri has been closed since 2005 because the roof that was being constructed to protect the site collapsed, killing a tourist. It’s scheduled to reopen sometime after 2010. Once it reopens to the public, take the time to make your way to the ruins of this mysterious ancient town. You can take a bus or join a guided tour. When I visited in 2001, I was enveloped by a sense of awe at this ancient civilization and the mystery that surrounds it.
In 2000 B.C. it was a bustling town with busy streets, squares and two-story houses of up to 25 feet. Many of these buildings were decorated with frescoes that were preserved in the ash. There was also a drainage system, and the town may have been the birthplace of modern Western-style plumbing.
Akrotiri had many trade connections across the Aegean Sea, particularly with Crete. The life of this thriving ancient civilization was brought to a sudden halt by a powerful volcanic blast. Perhaps the biggest cataclysmic event in human history, this explosion around 1625 B.C. was so powerful the entire island of Santorini was blown apart and left in a crescent moon shape.
It struck me as I walked the dusty roads along the site that four thousand years ago, people with hopes, fears and concerns likely similar to what we have in our modern world once strode these walkways. After the explosion, Santorini was uninhabited for about two centuries. The town of Akrotiri was buried under ashes and lava for thousands of years.
Is Akrotiri Atlantis? Professor Spyridon Marinatos, the leading researcher and excavator of Akrotiri in the late ’60s and early ’70s, associated it with Minoan Crete, but not with the legendary lost civilization. There is evidence that the eruption inspired Plato in his reference to Atlantis when he described a land of great wealth that was swallowed up by floods and earthquakes and disappeared in a day. Visit and decide for yourself. It is still a dig, and there’s more to be discovered that may provide answers.
From Akrotiri you can easily reach the magnificent Red Beach located under towering red cliffs. Lounge along the Aegean Sea as ancient lost dreams swirl about.