Secret Santorini

by Lauren on November 24, 2014

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The celebrated island was not as I had expected; the skies were overcast, and only a few wandering souls dotted the winding white lanes of Oia (“EE-ah”). An older man sat on a creaky wooden chair in front of a convenience store, skillfully yet casually weaving baskets of wire. He had the face of someone who had been at sea for decades. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.

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Yet no one else was watching.

Ducking into my hotel, I asked the concierge, “Is the island typically this… brown?” smiling to mask my disappointment and the sinking feeling that I was visiting Santorini at the wrong time of year.

“Yes. The island is very dry,” she responded, simply. And with kindness. It was clear that this fresh faced young woman was a natural at making weary travelers feel comfortable.

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I followed her suggestion to visit the small port of Ammoudi — its charming restaurants in particular — and clambered down the 200 steps to the Aegean Sea. A light drizzle had begun. I found no restaurants. Only a mysterious fisherman with a tall cane, who broke out in a knowing smile as he watched three young boys at play.

As I photographed a dilapidated boat, the boys sidled over, curiously. English-speaking, they tested my knowledge of the boat’s hull.

Wooden.

Once I passed this test, they excitedly rattled off the names of the temples they had visited in Athens. I tried to convince them I was a pirate, which they didn’t buy.

It was around this time that any thought of being alone, of visiting Santorini at the rainy and wrong time, left my body like an exhaled breath. Replaced by joy at the magic of travel and the characters met along the way.

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The boys’ globe-trotting parents and grandmother soon emerged from their moored boat, and we began the long walk up the hill together. Unbeknownst to me, I hadn’t reached Ammoudi at all. Instead, we were leaving Armeni, a quiet port where yachts and other boats anchored. We crossed no donkeys but plenty of dung, which would suggest that in the busy season, the creatures were a popular form of transport.

On our climb back to Oia, my new friends regaled me with stories of their adventurous lives on boats. They called France home, and had crossed the Sahara twice.

Traveling alone, I was happy to be surrounded by their family energy. They had been cooped up in a boat for days, and were thrilled to chat with a non-family member.

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We gathered another traveler during our hike upwards. Carol was an energetic and bright-faced gal in her late twenties, on holiday before the start of a new job. I loved the ease with which she was welcomed. Travelers don’t discriminate or put up walls. Like a new ornament on the Christmas tree, a new traveler is simply welcomed, as are her stories and experiences. She recommended several restaurants to the now hungry family.

We arrived at the top of the hill and lingered before parting ways. The boys asked if I’d sail with them and I thanked them, saying that I doubted there was room aboard for a tall pirate. There was a twinkle in their eye as they pondered whether I was serious, and then they bounded away, laughing.

I wished the parents and grandmother well, and Carol headed back to her hotel. There was one more stop I needed to make before calling it a day.

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On Santorini, a popular way to relax is at a fish spa. It’s a carefully moderated process, where you wash your legs and feet before slowly lowering them into a tank of fish. Yes, fish.

The garra rufa fish is a forager that sloughs off the dead skin on your feet. At first it tickled, and then it felt like soft electrical pulses. Then I was too relaxed to feel anything more.

My feet were noticeably smoother after my spa visit, and I was feeling that my first day on Santorini had been a beautiful day of discovery.

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Before foraging for my own Greek dinner, I took a walk through Oia and passed through a tranquil cemetery, a fitting place for reflection. Well, for a short time. No need to stay in one too long. I thought of the adventurous French family, the fisherman, and the basket weaver’s hands.

I have never been one to follow the crowds. So it was no surprise to find myself on Santorini in late October, after the ferries and tourist hordes had vacated the island. In a cemetery, no less. A different island was revealed, one that felt more behind-the-scenes than staged.

The kind that I would remember.

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