Panoramic view from Thira
In the port city of Thira overlooking the caldera. The island behind me is the volcano in the center of the caldera.

Santorini is an island off the Greek coast and a five-hour ferry ride from Athens. It is famous for its white churches with blue domes. Santorini is, by far, the most beautiful island I have ever seen. It is not beautiful in the tropical sense. The island’s flora could not hold a candle to the Hawaiian islands or ones in the Caribbean. The land is dry and rocky, with the scrubby bushes and low trees found in the southwest. It rarely rains and there is little green. This bareness does not detract from the island; instead, it acts like a highlighter. Instead of concentrating on foliage, you see the incredible vista and the clean white lines of the buildings standing against the sapphire waters of the Mediterranean.

Sunset over a church

Santorini, like many islands, was formed by volcanic eruption. The island sloped gradually from the sea to high mountain peaks and back down to the ocean on the other side. Hundreds of years ago, an earthquake sheared off half the island at the spine of the mountain, leaving sheer cliffs risings hundreds of feet on one side of the island. Santorini is vaguely C shaped with the two tallest mountains on the shoulders of the C and the volcano still active in the center of the bay formed by the island. The ferries approach Santorini from the cliff side.

Looking up at Santorini from the bay is reminiscent of standing at the foot of the Grand Canyon. Like the Grand Canyon, one of the easiest ways to go up the rock face is a series of switchbacks on a donkey. Thankfully, the paths have been widened to fit a car as well.

The black sand beach near the bed and breakfast

The best way to see Santorini is by four-wheeler. You can travel the entire island easily in a day and it contains everything from beaches to mountaintops. The port city of Thira sits on the high cliffs overlooking the caldera.

From the cliffs the island slopes down to beaches. Strewn throughout the island are black, red, and white sand beaches.

On the road over the mountain to Oia.

There are mountains so tall that clouds sit below their peaks. All on one island, all within an hour’s ride of each other. From Thira we rode down to the black sand beach. You would think I could guess from the name, but I was still surprised as to the darkness of the beach. Due to its color, it was as hot as black pavement in July and I had to sprint to reach the water before I burnt my bare feet. The cool Mediterranean was a relief after the beach.

After the beach we took the winding, single lane road wrapping around the mountain to the picturesque town of Oia (pronounced eee-ya).

From this amazing height you could see the farming fields and the ocean.

Oia is the town famous for the white buildings with blue doomed churches and the best place on the island to catch the sunset.

Famous blue domed churches in Oia
Sunset off Oia

In Oia I found a small gallery selling oil paintings of Santorini painted by artists who live on the island. I decided instead of collecting souvenirs from all the places I visit, I would instead buy a small, original painting done by an artist of that city. I spent nearly 30 minutes sifting through the stacks of canvas to find the perfect painting. After a few minutes, the lady running the shop decided to help me search. I was pulling certain pieces out that I liked and she didn’t understand what I was looking for. “Do you want ships?” she pulled out a few with boats. I shook my head no. “Do you want water?” She kept looking at the ones I pulled and trying to match them. Finally, she gave up and said “I don’t understand what you want, not ships, not ocean, not flowers, not windmills… what do you want? Show me.” So I gathered up the paintings I liked and spread them out on her desk. I didn’t realize until then that they were all by the same artist. We spent another 30 minutes talking about the importance of light in a painting and how the confidence of an artist’s brushstrokes make all the difference in the world. This was just the first of several conversations about art I would have on my trip. Art brings people together.

After walking around, we took the road down to the beach side and traveled the length of the island to the opposite end to the white sand beaches. It was here that I learned a lesson I should have already known… never show a boy something tall and dangerous to climb… because he will.

The set of switchbacks up the mountain to the ruins of the ancient city of Thira

This mountain is the highest peak on Santorini and it took nearly 30 minutes to go up it on the four-wheeler.

Finally at the very top!

On the top of the mountain is the ancient city of Thira, built over two thousand years ago by the seafaring Greeks. The climb was worth it, because it offered the most amazing views of both sides of the island.

At dinner that evening, we met a girl and guy from the University of Georgia who had just finished studying abroad in Rome. We shared some octopus, tips for traveling in Rome and Athens, and watched the Atlanta Braves game together. I came away with a better understanding of baseball and the best place to get gelato in Rome. Will flew to Sweden for his study abroad program and I spent my first day alone relaxing by the pool.

Milan… here I come!