When people think of Santorini, my bet is that they're thinking of Oia. This stunning white and blue town at the tip of the caldera is made to go on the front of a postcard. It's fastidiously well kept (no dirt paths here, but polished stone and marble all the way) with picturesque bougainvillea tumbling over the walls and domed Orthodox churches and windmills dotting the skyline. It's also known as the place to view the famed Santorini sunset.
It's little wonder that this place is packed with tourists. Boats and coaches ferry visitors in from every corner of the island, and monstrous cruise liners wallow on the other side of the lagoon. Photographs (mine included) fail to show the sheer number of tourists visiting on a daily basis. Believe me when I say that the narrow paths were absolutely thronging with people, despite it being the tail end of high season. We found ourselves jostling our way through the busy passages, Oxford Street-style.
And speaking of Oxford Street, it follows that tourism has bred an incredible glut of shops, selling everything from rich Greek honey to expensive designer bikinis. But it seems that Oia's specialty is jewellery. You'll have to sift through the tat to find them, but there are some truly beautiful pieces to be had. That is, if you have the budget. The hammered gold necklace above cost six thousand euros... A word of advice for those in the market for a simple evil eye bracelet - you'll obviously find much cheaper ones elsewhere on the island. The good quality ones in Oia (as above) are often €40-50 or upwards. I found mine in a tiny boutique in Kamari for a much more affordable €17.
We found a really lovely jewellery shop off the beaten track, down a painted staircase and in a (blessedly) air-conditioned cave - the interior was beautifully designed and the shop also sold prints of war photography, so we knew we were on to a good thing. And despite having much less footfall than the shops at the top of the town, the prices were very reasonable.
A map of what Santorini might have looked like in Classical times, before the cataclysmic eruption that resulted in the creation of the caldera. It was actually known as Thera in ancient times, still its official name and one that its capital shares. The name 'Santorini' dates back to the thirteenth century, when the island was dubbed Santa Irini for the cathedral of Saint Irene in Perissa.
I found two wonderful shops that day. Firstly, the jewellery shop set into the side of the cliff. Secondly - Atlantis Books. The phrase 'love at first sight' never really resonated with me...until the day I discovered this treasure trove of a bookshop.
You descend a whimsically painted set of stairs into what I can only describe an Aladdin's cave of literary wonders.
There is literally everything a bookworm could ever want for in this wonderful shop - it's packed to the gills with books in multiple languages, there's first editions in incredible condition, and the coolest intellectual nomads man the tills for interesting conversation and reading recommendations. There's even a special shelf devoted exclusively to Bukowski. This place shot straight to the top of my list of best bookshops on the planet (an extensive list, I can assure you). I could honestly have spent the entire trip in this charming place, and while we made a special journey back later to sate my desire for more books, I was sad to miss the Caldera Arts & Literature Festival the shop hosted a couple of days after we left.
I came away from Atlantis with the following gems - Roberto Bolaño's By Night In Chile, and John Steinbeck's East of Eden. The latter is a character examination of epic proportions, an addictive read which you vainly hope will never end. I know I'm all about the hyperbole today, but I'd honestly say this book is a life-changer. I'd recommend it to anybody.
We ended the day with a climb up to Oia's castle ruins - it was baking, even at that late hour, as my rubicund complexion shows - and rather than wait a few hours to stand shoulder to shoulder with other tourists at sunset, opted to head back to our hotel.
As I said, Amber Light Villas does excellent food - the sea bass, gyros plate and moussaka were all top-notch, and the perfect way to refuel after a day of walking, as smoky gold-tinged clouds wafted over from the sunset side of the island towards us (though I can't lie, we were a bit afraid the volcano had erupted, but luckily - and obviously - this wasn't the case).
Although Oia really is gorgeous, it is far from my favourite place on the island. It's just a little too perfect for me - and it's hard not to get a little stressed when a town teems with human life to that extent, especially when the holiday is meant for relaxation and recuperation. My advice is to visit once or twice (as we did), head straight for Atlantis Books and then stroll at your leisure. There are much quieter, more peaceful places to watch the sunset from, as I'll show you in upcoming posts...
If you missed the first part of my Santorini travels, catch up here.