The approach to Santorini from the sea is utterly mesmerising. The air is almost completely silent as your ship ghosts cautiously into the massive natural amphitheatre, a three quarter sweep of granite in a dozen shades of grey, backlit by a slowly rising summer sun.
Up around on the rim, clusters of blinding white houses crown the peak like frosting on the top of some whimsical, unreal wedding cake. The water is like polished glass; a shade of deep. electric blue so bright that it almost hurts to study it for any length of time.
Time is something that Santorini is an expert study in. Thousands of years ago, a volcanic explosion of unthinkable magnitude blew the heart out of the ancient island, long rumoured to be the site of the fabled, sunken Atlantis. What you sail into today is the rim of the flooded, long since obliterated volcano.
You’ll find further evidence of the past on the black, volcanic sand beaches that form part of the island’s extremities, but most cruise ship passengers never see these.
Most people invariably make what amounts to one of the Aegean’s most spectacular pilgrimages, up to the town of Thira. Small and perfectly formed, this gorgeous little idyll offers stunning views out over the sunken, sun splashed caldera of Santorini.
But first, you have to get up there.
There are two ways of achieving this. The first is via a swift, if giddy, cable car ascent that offers some spectacular photo opportunities. It costs around four euros each way, and takes mere minutes.
The other way is to ascend via one of the brood of lethargic, spluttering, asthmatic donkeys. Years of constant, back breaking work under a pitiless Aegean sun have made most of these into stubborn, foul tempered, flea bitten brutes. You wind your way up a zig zag, cobble stone pathway littered with all sorts of unpleasant stuff, with the added bonus of banging your knees off every white edged wall within range. It makes the charge of the Light Brigade look and feel like a Sunday afternoon cakewalk by comparison.
But however you get there, the reward at the top is spellbinding. Quite simply, the views out over that brutally truncated bay are some of the most amazing in the world.
Huge cruise ships look like toy boats, flung at random across a sparkling blue carpet by some petulant deity. Row after row of serried, white walled bars, shops and houses tumble down to the water’s edge, with window shutters in brilliant shades of yellow, terracotta and red.
Look closer, and details render each one more human. A cat snoozing on a canvas chair, or under some idle, lethargically flapping washing. Flower boxes almost overwhelmed with fierce, vibrant bursts of jasmine and oleander. Old women in white headscarves standing talking by a small, cobbled sidewalk as a motor scooter splutters past.
There are churches capped by bright, electric blue domes and crucifixes that loom against a flawless, duck egg blue noon day sky. Winding, cobbled streets awash with shops that spew out a tidal wave of souvenir tat of the worst kind. Small vans groaning under the weight of fresh fruit they are delivering to the bars and cafes already sagging under the influx of a tidal wave of thirsty tourists.
Despite the inevitable crowds, there’s a sense of exalted, almost Olympian detachment that comes with being up here. Thira really does feel like the private viewing box of the old gods of Greece. It’s not hard to see where the whole Atlantis theory came into play.
All cruise ships tender their passengers ashore at Santorini, and this can lead to snarl ups ashore if there are a few big ships in the bay- much more likely than not on the over tonnaged, summertime Greek Islands circuit. Patience can be more than a virtue; it’s an absolute necessity on some days.
Another thing; don’t even think of walking back down that shiny, winding, permanently soiled zig zag track. No easier entree into the broken limbs club exists anywhere in the entire crazy kaleidescope that is summertime Greece.
But even as your tender bumbles reluctantly back towards the mother ship, one final treat awaits. Check out those amazing, looming walls of rock from sea level as the sun plays around them. As the sun rises, shadows shift, darken and change the tone of the entire spectacular panorama. When the sun begins to descend again from it’s apex, the process goes into reverse. Either way, the views are every bit as amazing as those from up on the Elysian bluffs of old Thira.
Santorini. One amazing, spectacular, visual feast. Oh, and make time for some of the souvlaki and the local wine. Even the gods wish they had stuck around for those.