The dry landscape of Atlantis

Santorini, Greece.
Santorini, Greece.

Plato once wrote about Atlantis, a mythic island of beauty and prosperity that one day sunk into the sea and disappeared without a trace. It’s a story that has intrigued humanity since the times of Ancient Greece, conjuring visions of a lost paradise and a grand civilization. Most great stories have a grain of truth to them and today’s historians believe that Plato drew his inspiration from real life events. The debate over the location of Atlantis has yielded one promising candidate, the island of Santorini.

In his writing Plato talked about an island of concentric circles that was home to a powerful civilization. The common theory is that he based this legend on the Minoan civilization which originated from Crete and spread to the rest of Greece. Modern-day Santorini resembles a crescent moon cradling a star and at the center of this caldera is the very volcano that brought about the end of the Minoans on Santorini.

Oliander against the backdrop of Santorini's lonely mountain.
Oliander against the backdrop of Santorini’s lonely mountain.

My family and I came to Santorini knowing very little about the island or its history. This was my first foray into Greece and very much the beginning of my love affair with the Mediterranean.

Flying into Santorini, I remember looking out my window to see a wall of rock, as though the plane was about to crash into the mountainside, before the plane carefully swooped around it and landed on a small strip of tarmac. The airport was tiny, just one large hall, with an espresso stall in the corner. Santorini itself is not very large, it only takes about 40 minutes to drive from one end to the other.

My first impression of Greece was one of dry heat. The mountains were bare and the flat land was covered in tall grasses bleached yellow by the sun. Everything looked like it had been scorched until only the purest colours remained. Little white houses with blue windows dotted the landscape, occasionally accented by a splash of colour from winding bougainvillea or oleander bushes.

For accommodations, we decided to rent an apartment so that we would have more flexibility with things like cooking. It was a simple one bedroom place with a kitchen and a little patio where we could spend our evenings listening to the sea or playing cards. There’s something very satisfying about buying fruit or pastries from local shops and enjoying them in your own little space.

Dusk by the water.
Dusk by the water.

The night of our arrival we had dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. This was our first taste of authentic Greek food which, anyone who has traveled to Greece will tell you, almost in no way resembles what you find in North America. They served moussaka in small clay pots — a traditional hearty dish of baked potatoes, ground beef, eggplant and cheese. For desert they provided ripe figs, which are very sweet fruit with a strange grainy texture. Our waitress, whom we had mistaken for a local, told us that she was actually from Germany, but had fallen in love with the island and decided to stay. A sentiment I can easily understand.

Our first night in Santorini, before falling into bed after a long day of traveling, we went down to the water to wade into the surf. When the sun sets the beach empties of people and the stars hang over the pitch black of the sea. There are clubs and bars just a few meters from the shoreline that don’t start to fill up with party goers until late into the night so it was relatively peaceful by the water. During this quiet span of time, the sea seems almost surreal in its beauty.

Sunrise over Santorini.
Sunrise over Santorini.

The next day, from sheer eagerness I woke up early to greeting the sunrise. The dry grass glowed like it was on fire against the backdrop of Santorini’s lone mountain. Being in Greece, it comes as no surprise that the first thing we did that day was to head down to the beach.

Perivolos beach is a long stretch of shoreline dotted by umbrellas thatched with palm leaves. The sand is entirely black because of the volcanic minerals leftover from previous eruptions. It is also very coarse and feels something like a massage when you walk on it. During the day the sand heats up and you have to leave your sandals as close to the water’s edge as possible when going for a swim. In a way, the heat is almost therapeutic, if you have sore muscles you can lie down on the sand and it will loosen you up.

Along the beach front the cafes and bars offer convenient refreshments without going too far from the water. The tamarisk trees providing shade over the sidewalks and the blue wooden tables of restaurants make for a very picturesque waterfront. I have never had a bad meal in Greece, the food was always amazing. In Santorini I got to try tomato balls, a local fried specialty served with tatziki. They’re made from Santorini tomatoes, grown over scorching sand, and spiced up with fresh mint.

House on Perissa’s main street with winding bougainvilleia, Santorini.

Although the beach is a wonderful place to spend a few hours, we also wanted to explore the island. We started close to home, in the town of Perissa. It is a small enclave of shops, cafes and quiet houses with sprawling fields of dry grass. Greenery in Santorini is only really found around people’s homes as it wouldn’t otherwise survive in the summer heat. Perissa has only one main street and it caters mostly to tourists — there is a small bakery where people stock up on buns and pastries for the day before heading out, lots of little beach shops selling towels and snorkeling gear, and off to the side there is even a youth hostel surrounded by tall palm trees.

In Santorini, churches are everywhere, perching precariously on mountaintops or hiding around alleyway corners. There doesn’t even need to be a town for there to be a church. Just outside Perissa, when you look up at the lone mountain you can spot a tiny church nestled into a crevice of a cliff face, peering out like a bird from its nest.

Santorini is full of such impossible sights and in some ways the most wondrous thing about this tiny island is how much there is crammed onto its surface. Despite the small size of the island you don’t get the sense of being crowded in. This goes to show that good things do indeed come in small packages.

Church in Perissa, Santorini.
Church in Perissa, Santorini.

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