A funny thing happens on my way to my hotel in Santorini.
The taxi takes me up the hill till where cars are allowed and the driver tells me that I’d find it on the face of the cliff, that I should walk up the road and then turn right.
It seems simple enough instructions.
So I drag my small bag onto a wide lookout (I left my luggage in Athens ‘cause I’m coming back for a group tour three days later), and I look down.
Below are white rooftops around several blue-domed churches and beyond these is the famous, disintegrated caldera of Santorini. There must have been 50 rooftops hugging the cliff, how am I going to find mine?
I am in Fira, the center and capital of Santorini, but there is no one around to ask for directions. I mean, seriously, the place is empty!
After a few minutes of walking in the wrong direction, I spot some locals and they direct me to a steep, narrow road with half of it open as it is being repaired in the off-season.
A woman at my hotel’s roof deck takes my bag and leads me to a room below. I say, wait, I haven’t even told you my name. She says, “You’re the only guest arriving today — or for the rest of the week.”
* * *
There are times when, despite knowing what to expect, you’re still pleasantly shocked when you get to that moment.
This is one of them.
I open my balcony doors and step out into the chilly afternoon. And there it is — the caldera submerged in the Aegean Sea, dark clouds above, and in half a circle surrounding it are Santorini’s islands. All around me are whitewashed houses, Cycladic-style hotels and churches as if cascading 300 meters down from the top of the cliff, and on the zigzag path below are donkeys, their bells clanging as they make their way down.
I feel like I’m inside a postcard.
This is exactly why I booked this place — for the caldera view. There are so many choices in Fira and, as it turns out, there is a difference between a “caldera view” and a “sea view.”
In the coming days, I would get this sense of wonder throughout mainland Greece, especially in Athens while standing in the old part of the city, and then you look up and see the breathtaking Acropolis.
A few minutes later, George, the manager of Thireas Hotel, arrives and I give him the forms I had filled up. He offers to walk me to the town center as he was going to another hotel he is running, and shows me where to book boat tours and other activities.
It is raining by this time.
Santorini (officially called Thira) in January 2014 is deserted with only 10 percent of the restaurants, bars and shops open as winter is the time when business owners pack up and leave the island for their own vacations.
It lacks the energy of other seasons and other Greek cities, but its beauty is unchanged.
I had heard from people who visited in summer that they had to stand in line to take pictures of the famous spots overlooking the Aegean Sea. I have no such problem, the scenery is all mine — after all, the caldera and whitewashed villages don’t take vacations — except there was no one to ask to snap a picture of me.
At a travel agency, the boat schedules are printed and displayed on the window and taped over with the word “cancelled” because of the weather; the sea is too rough. The wine tours are cancelled as well. Even the bus schedules are irregular because what’s the point? There are no tourists!
In the evening, I go to the café-bar I saw on my earlier walk. I order a mojito and get to talking with a Greek woman sitting two barstools away from me. Katerina and I had been talking for about half an hour before I realized she owns the bar. Dora, a Romanian who moved to Greece when she got married, is making me one mojito after another. (I remind myself to not get drunk or I’d fall into the open holes on the way back to the hotel.)
Katerina is a tour guide during the tourist season. In her raspy voice, she tells me that there are only about 15,000 local people and sometimes it feels like there are a lot more donkeys than men on the island.
The three of us giggle like old friends, making plans to meet again the next night.
By the end of this night, we already know each other’s life stories, relationships and opinion of men. And Katerina gives me a list of places to see. “Be careful driving, you might hit an ass.”
“And by that you mean the animal, right?”
During summer, the population of Santorini swells to nearly a hundred thousand, most of them coming from cruise ships for day tours. And on a winter day like today? There are about only 250 tourists on the whole island.
I mention that my hotel is surrounded by four churches and their bells are pealing nonstop. Why wouldn’t they let me take a nap? There are more than 400 churches on the island, Katerina says. Most of them are small family churches, built for celebrations and thanksgiving.
I tell her that in Manila, we usually just book a table in a restaurant to celebrate.
* * *
The car I rent for under 50 euros a day is a yellow mini Chevy.
Does it have GPS? The rental guy laughs at me and says Santorini is so small I don’t need one. Anytime someone tells me to “just follow the main road,” I get that feeling in the pit of my stomach that I am going to get horribly lost.
He hands me the keys and a cartoonish map.
Belonging to the Cyclades group of islands, Santorini today is what remains of one of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions. What was one island before has since become several of different sizes. There are a few places on my map that I want to see: the excavated city of Akrotiri, Red Beach, Perissa, Firostefani, and Oia.
Red Beach gets its name from its sand and the red rock formations. The beach is closed so I park in front of a church to enjoy a walk . The only other car here is a white one that’s heavily tinted and parked facing the sea, and it’s shaking once in a while. I know better than to knock at their window and ask them to take a picture of me.
There is a café not far from here, where I order Greek coffee and the lady serves it with kourabides, a walnut sugar cookie that’s popular for celebrations like Christmas, weddings and Easter. She looks like my grandmother and she wouldn’t let me pay for either the cookies or the coffee. She says I have a lovely smile. I tell her so does she and we hug when I leave.
I’ve been to a lot of museums in different seasons and never have I been to one where I was the only visitor, not even in the small ones in out-of-the-way towns. Never.
But this is the case for me at the Archeological Museum of Akrotiri, the site of the Minoan Bronze Age settlement that dates back to the third millennium BC. Like Pompeii, the volcanic eruption of Thira preserved the entire town, and excavations of Akrotiri began in the second half of the 19th century.
Back on the road, I see a teenage couple sitting on the side. I ask them if they need a ride back to town. They had been waiting for the bus for over an hour. They are Chinese exchange students studying in Stockholm, and are on vacation in Greece for a week.
Together, we go to Perissa. It is empty as well, save for stray puppies on the black-sand beach. We get lost for an hour going back to Fira, where I drop them off, and then I proceed to Oia via winding roads up to the cliffs.
Fira and Oia (pronounced ee-ya) have the most dramatic views in all of Santorini, but it is Oia that you see more in postcards and on book covers because it has the windmills. Some of them have been converted into houses or lodgings, but most remain simply windmills.
The center of Oia sits on top of the cliff where, like Fira, shops and cafes and restaurants are scattered all around. Most are closed but thankfully the famous restaurant Lotza is open. I swear, this is the best seafood pasta I have ever had (yes, I have traveled to many parts of Italy and have had pasta in all those places). But this one is something else.
The terrace is covered with transparent plastic sheeting but you still have the stunning views of the caldera and whitewashed villages while eating. I can only imagine how lovely it must be in spring and summer, when the plastic sheeting is rolled up and you can enjoy the perfect weather and watch the cruise ships dock in the distance.
* * *
On my last night in Santorini, I get a call in my room from the hotel manager saying he didn’t want me to feel like I wasn’t safe.
“Why would I feel that? Wait a minute! Am I the only one in the hotel?”
It turns out that I am. The Indian family that I had met when I arrived had already left and George was staying in the other hotel he was managing, in another part of town.
So this is how I enjoy Santorini — without the crowds.
Maybe I love it for that — the quietness, wandering alone and meeting locals who felt a bit protective of me.
I had never felt as free as I did on that tiny yellow car, driving on empty roads in a place that’s on so many people’s bucket lists, and seeing the landscapes that they line up for, for a selfie. I don’t really take selfies, so just seeing the scenery and storing it in my head is good enough for me.
For a few days, Santorini was mine. It was like being in on a secret that made me smile — and no one had an idea why.