The real Santorini is hard to find. But it is just so beautiful that I keep coming back to try.
This is what I couldn’t help but think as I wandered the streets of Oia, its most famous town. With me was a crowd of thousands. We wound our way through cobbled streets, past blue domes, white walls and cascades of flowers.
Then - a gap - a tight corner, gave way to that postcard view. As soon as I was squeezed into the fresh air, I was met with a sight that took my breath away.
Midday in Oia, the heat and the heave, gets a bit too much. I slipped away, down some stairs, to the quiet bookstore below.
This was not my first time in Santorini but it was my first time at Atlantis Books. I was met by Craig, and his story, which was painted across the ceiling. The peacefulness of the store and the story were so compelling that I sat down to chat with him.
Craig and his friend Oliver came to Santorini in 2002. They liked it here. They noticed there was no bookstore. They drank some wine.
The end result: they decided to open Atlantis Books.
After they graduated from university they rounded up a group of mates, drove across Europe, drank some whisky, and the lease was signed.
Atlantis Books was opened with the hope to bring art, literature and conversation to one of the most beautiful environments in the world. To my mind, this is a a lofty endeavor in adventure and authenticity. Craig seemed like the perfect person to guide me to the real Santorini.
When I asked him about it, however, I was surprised.
He explained that “The whole town is artificial, you have to remember that. The Greek Government made a specific plan in the eighties to make this into a tourist destination. They invested money and brought the cruise boats in. After the earthquake in ’56 this was a ghost town. In that sense it is a rebuilt, reinvigorated, planned community... That is why it is so difficult to find some vestige of integrity around here."
At this point I realized that this integrity is the real Santorini that I had been searching for. When I had previously visited Santorini, I had seen glimpses of integrity - a working farm, a family home - but had struggled to reconcile this beautiful island with reality. It is hard to imagine real people living out their life here.
Integrity is a word that Craig uses a lot. I asked him how he lives a life of integrity amongst the crowds. He admits that “It is an uphill battle. You have to constantly be thinking about it.” Despite this however, he says that “I do what I like to do in a beautiful place. That is a good thing.”
In regards to my search, Craig dispensed some wisdom. “Like most tourist traps, if you just go five minutes off the beaten path you can find a quiet place. You can’t blame them... this a labyrinth at best, they don’t know where to go. If you have little bit of an inkling of where to go, then you can get somewhere quiet.” The real Santorini, in his mind, “is about the architecture, the landscape and all of that stuff. You don’t watch for fifteen minutes before your bus leaves. It is about taking your time, finding a little perch, and sitting for hours, quietly enjoying and relaxing, soaking up the view.” I guess that this is what it means to find integrity here.
With his words in mind, and his own little guidebook in hand, I chased this truth. I followed my inkling and his map down the cliffs, unwinding with each turn, until -unspooled - I reached the bay below and its beautiful shade of blue. The map told me that I had come to Amouddi Bay. There were seafood restaurants here, I made a mental note to return for lunch before I continued around the cliff to the left. This track was the proverbial road less travelled. Only the adventurous made it over those rocks and along that ledge. Their reward? Endless blue and a place to dive in.
I dove. Head underwater, the words “salt water heals all” floated into mind. I had found my quiet spot. I opened my eyes underwater to the most perfect shade of blue. Above the surface, I bore witness to the cliffs, that landscape crowned with that architecture. Up close, it had been hard to get the town into focus. From afar I could see it for what it truly was: beautiful.
I swam around a rock island. On the other side, built into the cliff, was a stone chapel. I hauled my body out of the water. I climbed up to it. I took a moment and a breath. Then I jumped from the cliff into the sea.
As Craig said, it took time and an inkling, but the real Santorini is there to be found.