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Greek, But Islands Apart

Flashy Santorini

August 01, 1999|MICHAEL KENYON | Michael Kenyon is a freelance writer in Southampton, N.Y

THIRA, Greece — We are on Atlantis, the lost continent, gazing dazedly from the veranda of our hotel room (yes, gentle reader, Atlantis has hotels) at the flat roof terraces below, blindingly whitewashed, dappled with parasols, the milk-white expanses punctuated by apricot and azure domes of churches flying the Greek flag. Below and beyond this panorama of sunbaked buildings and cliffs, the glassy, indigo wilderness of the Aegean Sea shimmers under the rays of Phoebus' fiery chariot. The vista leaves prose helpless, though I'm game to try.

Victoria, my companion, and I are here with our New York choral group performing on the island as part of a summer concert tour.

Such is Santorini's spell that more than one romance has bloomed between choral members here on prior visits, and at least one wedding followed. It may have something to do with the pull of Atlantis, which Plato wrote about as a utopia, an island Elysium, that vanished without a trace long before his time. He got the geography wrong, placing Atlantis in what we call the Atlantic. It might have been here, in the Cyclades islands of the southeastern Mediterranean.

The island predecessor of Santorini, called Stronghyli, all but vanished in the 15th century BC. It was shaken by Poseidon, god of the ocean, and it erupted in a volcanic spasm that shut out the light on lands far and near. The volcano's crater sank into the sea, sending wave after wave of tsunamis across the Mediterranean. All that survived was the crescent fragment and flanks of the volcano's eastern rim, on which modern Santorini perches and on which Victoria and I now stand, transported, watching boats sail in to the port below.

We flew into Santorini's small airport. Most visitors come by sea, on island-hopping ferries or cruise ships stopping for a day. Their view of Santorini is jaw-dropping. The precipitous black, red, greenish and off-white cliffs, like a mad chef's layer cake, soar almost 1,000 feet above the tiny port. The dazzling white crown at the summit is Thira, the main town.

Caldera: caldron, the depression of a volcano. Across the six-mile-wide crater, two island shards mark the volcano's western rim.

In 1956 an earthquake associated with volcanic activity did serious damage to Thira, but the rebuilding had an upside in making the island modern as well as picture-perfect to attract tourists.

And so they come, by the boatload, decanted ashore in Thira's minuscule port, thence by donkey train up shallow, zigzag steps to the town, or on foot (those fit enough for 566 steps and quick moves around the donkey flops), or in two minutes by the cable car, which can haul 800 customers per hour up to the attractions of Thira.

"Over-chic, overbuilt, overpriced," says Marty Finkelman, one of our group. This does not deter him from returning as often as he can to the house he owns here.

In wintertime, after the summer holiday crowds have left, Santorini's resident population of 7,000 diminishes, not a few departing for work in Athens. The tourist population in high season feels like 7 million. Many are in their teens and 20s, suntanned and half naked. Most of them presumably sleep under the stars, if they sleep at all. They are here for the sun, sea and fellowship of their peers, not for the gold bracelets and silver necklaces that sell well to more mature, better-heeled visitors.

The young have a pulsing night life--clubs, bars, poly-sexual discos that advertise their closing time simply as "late," meaning well after 2 a.m. For the less energetic there are pensions and hotels ranging from decent to luxury, splendid Greek cuisine, shops, museums, wineries and stunning views that cry out, "Paint me! Photograph me!"

Island-hoppers would do well to give Santorini a minimum of two days for exploring by rental car or moped, guided tour or the reliable, if dusty, public bus service. For cruise ship passengers who arrive and depart in a day, one day is better than no day at all. I can believe that they leave making plans to return.

Shops selling jewelry, icons, T-shirts and jolly postcards of classical satyrs in a state of arousal cram the narrow flagstone streets, along with tourists beyond count, and too many stray cats and dogs. (One of our chorus was awakened in the night by a cat that flew through the open window and onto his bed.) Restaurants have names such as Dionysos, Adonis and Flame of the Volcano, which sounds like an old Marlene Dietrich movie. We pass up, excellent though it may be, a Mexican bistro called McZorba.

We hear that the nearby island of Mykonos is even livelier with trendy international youth, but one Greek island at a time, we say. We'll take Santorini while it's here. If the next earthquake or eruption doesn't finish it off, sooner or later it's going to sink under the weight of discerning holiday-makers.

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