By Jim Ferri
Few ever forget Fira, the capital of Santorini in Greece, so captivating is the island’s beauty and charm.
Santorini is a near-magical island of picturesque white villages clinging to towering cliffs, fascinating archaeological sites, and multicolored beaches lapped by a cobalt-colored sea. Most famously, however, it’s a place that gives you a front-row seat for the most spectacular sunset you’ll see anywhere. It’s also one of the leading contenders for the lost city of Atlantis.
Originally called Thira by the Dorians (and Fira in English) and later renamed Santorini by the conquering Venetians, today it’s still known as the former by the Greeks and called the latter by travelers. Despite the confusion over its name it remains a must-see port on many cruises, which is how I first came to know it years ago. Then I spent too few hours on the island before the finale of a spectacular sunset signaled the return to my ship.
This time, however, I was determined to stay longer and experience much more of Fira to be able to share what to do in Santorini with you.
Close to Fira, A Superb Santorini Hotel Experience
There are a lot of boutique hotels scattered about Santorini especially in and around the main town of Fira. Rather than stay in the crowded town I opted instead to stay at the Voreina Gallery Suites, only 10 minutes by car from Fira and well placed in the center of the island, a location that would give me more freedom to explore.
Voreina is a small property with only nine suites, each with a private pool and terrace that provides a wonderful view over the island. My terrace was a great place to relax with a glass of quite good Santorini wine at the end of the day, as I looked across the vineyards to the white cities of Santorini and Pyros in the distance. At first I didn’t realized that what I was seeing were vineyards, since the vines lay close to the ground and are woven into little basket-like shapes to protect them form the sun and wind.
While my room was excellent, it was the service that put everything over the top. The small staff doted on all the guests and even though Voreina does not have a restaurant, the staff would fetch your dinner from the Selene Restaurant in nearby Pyrgos, a restaurant described as “well regarded” by the London Times and listed in the 101 Best European Restaurants by DailyMeal.com.
I called the front desk, placed an order for “ravioli with briam,” (vegetables baked in a fresh tomato sauce, a Greek favorite, set between two large sheets of pasta) and it was brought to my room in about 20 minutes. It was delicious. Breakfasts included an assortment of bread and fruit, tea and coffee, homemade pastry and marmalade.
The “Pompeii of Greece” on Santorini
I found another wonderful benefit of the Voreina to be Lefteris Zorzos, its affable manager/owner, who is also an archaeologist. He knows Santorini well and after arranging for a car rental suggested several things for me to do in Santorini. Among them was Akrotiri, a 3,500 year-old Minoan outpost that was buried under ash during the volcanic explosion that created the island that exists today. Akrotiri is Santorini’s little Pompeii, which by comparison was buried just a bit over 1,900 years ago.
Excavation of the city was undertaken in 1967 and today you can walk through the streets of the small city where some houses are three stories high, as well as on platforms sat above to give you a bird-eye view. It’s an incredibly interesting place in an enclosed air-conditioned environment that makes it comfortable, as well. Many of the beautiful frescoes and ceramics unearthed there are now at the Archaeological Museum in Thira.
Not far beyond Akrotiri is Red Beach, so named for the color of its high cliffs and the rock and sand that comprise it. It’s a bit precarious to reach via a cliff-side trail and I didn’t find it that impressive. If you’re short on time you’re better off skipping it. There also a black-sand beach at Perissa on the other side of the island.
A Walkabout in Pyrgos
I spent one afternoon wandering up and down the little steps and lanes of Pyrgos, the little town whose lights twinkled at me across the vineyards every night. I found it to be a great thing to do during my visit to the island.
It’s the highest spot in the center of the island and the ancient town is wrapped around the ruins of Kasteli Castle. Since it’s off the beaten tourist track it was much quieter than Firá and easy to walk about.
One of the first things I noticed was when I started my walkabout was that the two main churches in town were quite close together, only about a block apart. I stopped at a little shop and asked the shopkeeper if there was a reason for such an odd location. With a slight grin she told me “so they can see each other.” “Really,” she said, “we have 46 churches in Pyrgos.”
I continued along, wandering aimlessly through the warren of streets and came across several more small churches. I also found, as expected, numerous shops and restaurants.
One of the latter was Kasteli Bar & Restaurant where a dozen or so people were enjoying a magnificent view across the island from their perch on the restaurant’s terrace. I continued along, however, and soon found a tiny restaurant reminiscent of a small living room where I enjoyed a great salad and wine.
In the evening I drove into Firá and joined the hundreds of others on their cliffside perches to watch the sunset. Although picturesque, it turned out to be a bit disappointing since there was a lot of smog out over the water which dulled the colors quite a bit. I made up my mind to try my sunset luck in Oia on the far end of the island the following evening.
Beautiful Oia on Santorini
Oia (pronounced “ee-a”), is another great place to visit. The road to Oia, as Lefteris had warned me, was challenging at best and torturous in the dark, with numerous twists and turns and buses that squeezed by me, sometimes not even slowing down. But even so, Oia turned out to be so spectacular I made the trip twice.
Oia is quintessential Cyclades…colorful bougainvillea and bright red geraniums set against whitewashed houses trimmed in blue with the cobalt sea as a backdrop. Three-hundred steps below it is the tiny port of Ammoudi, comprised of a couple of tavernas and a handful of colorful fishing boats in the cove.
You’re not in Oia more than five minutes when you realize how less frenetic it is than Thirá. It’s a much smaller village with narrow lanes and walkways winding up and down, twisting here and there through a maze of buildings so bright in the noon sun the place can be near-blinding. It’s a wonderful Cycladic town, one of the most spectacular in the Aegean.
I also found it to be a much better and a more popular location for viewing the evening spectacle. As the sun slowly started its drift towards the horizon thousands of people gathered along the walkways, on terraces and on every other standable spot on the west-facing side of the village, all entranced by the sun making its slow slide towards the sea.
It was a beautiful, serene moment with hardly a sound to be heard anywhere, as we stood captivated by the evening sky morphing through a palette of pastels. Then, as the last speck of sun slid below the horizon a huge cheer went up from the crowd, all of us feeling we had just witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Until tomorrow evening, anyway.