An island whose beauty was born of disaster, Santorini has the fuel to reignite the wonder of childhood in adults.
The first time I visited Santorini about a decade ago, I was 21 and fresh from university. The world felt like an undrawn map to be filled in – and this island, one I’d fantasized about ever since seeing photographs of it in a travel magazine, was one of the stops I was looking forward to most.
The island did not disappoint. As I pulled into the island by ferry, it felt like I’d fallen into a fairytale: with all the terraced houses and domed churches perching on the 300-meter high cliffs of the famous caldera, shimmering pastel in the dusk light, Santorini promised the kind of beauty most of us only get to see on postcards.
Throughout the next few days, whether climbing through the black rocks around the volcanic crater at Nea Kameni or breathing in the incense of the Byzantine church in Oia, examining 3,600-year-old frescoes in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera or paddling through the volcanic hot springs at Palia Kameni, I kept thinking how lucky I was to be here. How extraordinary life could be.
It wasn’t just me. The island is so striking, pinning down its reality is almost impossible: you can’t experience it and not make it something more than a place in your mind. Even as you’re hiking its steps, sipping its wines, chatting with locals, part of it still remains, indelibly, a dream. A fantasy. A myth.
No surprise that the legends entwined around the island are many: it’s said the island was given by Triton to the son of Poseidon and – more famously – that Santorini is the real Atlantis.
I visited the island again two years later. I’d crammed enough traveling into those 24 months to become vaguely jaded: now, Santorini seemed almost too perfect. A kind of theme park where everything, from the lushly coated cats that sat on impossibly pristine stoops to the world-famous sunsets that lit up the sky in orange and pink, seemed designed just for our consumption.
The beauty can almost be too intense. Craig Walzer, a native of Memphis, has been running Santorini’s only English-language bookstore – Atlantis Books, modeled after Shakespeare and Company in Paris – for 12 years. In that time, he’s watched a lot of people come and go. All of them, he said, share one thing in common: “Intelligent adults come here and turn into infants,” he told me. All the beauty proves too much to absorb, so they become distracted by each small piece of it – a cat or a church dome or a sunset – and flit from one to the next, camera in hand, as overwhelmed as children.
It can take a couple of trips to see past that beauty, to start to understand what really makes the island tick. And on my third visit – a trip taken alone – that’s what happened.
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