Santorini without the crowds

Sunset from the balcony of my hotel in Fira, the center and capital of Santorini (Thira), overlooking the whitewashed villages facing the submerged caldera and Aegean Sea. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
Breakfast for one is served in my room. I don’t  usually have breakfast except for coffee, but with this view, it’s very hard to not get up.

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.

The rock formations on Red Beach, one of Santorini’s most beautiful beaches — and most crowded in summer.
Church at Red Beach. Santorini has a local population of 15,000 — and 400 churches. That’s one church for every 37 people.

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.

In Perissa. The enormous rock formations behind are part of Mesa Vouno, which literally rises from the sea.

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.

The excavated city of Akrotiri. Never have I been in a museum where I was the only visitor, but this is the case in Santorini in winter. So I felt guilty when I entered and saw that it was empty, having used my press ID. I should have contributed to the Greek economy.
Some of the artificacts in the archeological museum of Akrotiri. Like Pompeii in Italy, Akrotiri was preserved due to  a volcanic eruption (Thira eruption) that covered the entire city.

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.

Churches in Perissa and Oia.
Two locals I strike a friendship with over mojitos and personal stories, Katerina Giannatou (right), who owns the bar, and Dora Dobrea, a Romanian who makes fabulous drinks.

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.

View of the Aegean Sea from the top of the cliff in Oia.
The best seafood pasta I have ever had in my entire life is at Lotza restaurant in Oia. Maybe the dramatic views helped.

* * *

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.

Okay, fine.

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.

The lookout in Fira with views of Santorini’s caldera and smaller islands in the Aegean Sea.

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.

Sunset on a cold winter day descends on the southern Aegean Sea.
Empty alleys and empty churches.

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.

An all-white church, without the blue dome, is a rarity in Santorini.

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.

Playing with stray puppies in Perissa, which has a black-sand beach and crystal waters

“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.

Oia, Santorini
Oia at sunset with its famous windmills. (Photo from

A girl named Penny in Delphi

Delphi01_by_tanya_t_lara The Temple of Apollo at the most famous of Greece’s sacred sites, the Oracle of Delphi. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)
Delphi02_by_tanya_t_lara Delphi tour guide and historian Penny Kolomvotsou.

We have all fallen in love with our local tour guide in Delphi, Greece. Her name is Penny Kolomvotsou; she has curly brown hair and is wearing a beige leather jacket and jeans. Her phone is ringing incessantly and she keeps rejecting the calls and apologizing to us.

“Boyfriend?” I ask. “Go ahead and answer it.”

“I have a husband and two children,” Penny says with a laugh. “I don’t have to pick up my phone.”

But the caller is persistent. Penny finally answers. “It’s Sabrina,” she says, referring to our Insight travel director Sabrina Tsimonidis. “She’s asking where the handbrake is.”

Sabrina drives a manual; Penny drives an automatic. Sabrina is going to pick up some bottles of wine for a picnic in Thermopylae by the statue of King Leonidas of Sparta; Penny is orienting us at the Delphi Museum before we were to go up to the ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, located on Mt. Parnassos, home to the most famous of sacred sites, the Oracle of Delphi.

Sabrina tells us later that not too long ago she was in her living room with the History Channel on her TV when she heard a familiar voice. She looked up and it was Penny, who has been interviewed for several documentaries to talk about Delphi and why it was the center of not just Ancient Greece but the whole known universe.

Delphi03_by_tanya_t_lara The stadium on top of Delphi.

The Oracle of Delphi, Penny explains, refers to the whole complex— the series of terraces in the foothills of Mount Parnassos — and not just the priestess. From the museum we go up the archeological site at Delphi. This site was said to be determined by Zeus himself who wanted to find the center of the Earth or Gaia. Penny says that Zeus sent two eagles flying from opposite directions — one coming from the east and one from the west — and the point where the met was over Delphi, where the “navel” of Gaia was found.

The temple here is dedicated to Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto,  and it is also here where the Pythian Games were held, the precursor to the Ancient Olympics. The games did not have just athletes competing but also musicians, and the victors were presented with laurel crowns because Apollo believed they were sacred.

We climb to the top of the Oracle of Delphi, up to the stadium. It is so quiet here, surrounded by mountains, and it is nearly empty except for us. Below us, what  remains of the Temple of Apollo, where vapors once came out of the cracks in the mountain, which might partly explain the hallucinations of the Pythia, whose answers to questions of people’s future was anything but simple.

Delphi04_by_tanya_t_lara Delphi Archeological Museum.
Delphi05_by_tanya_t_lara Some of the treasures at Delphi were buried and forgotten for thousands of years.

The Oracle of Delphi was, if you will, a great equalizer. The kings sent their trusted people here to ask what they should do to win wars, to protect their thrones, the outcome of battles. The important stuff to important people, in short. But archeologists also found tablets on which ordinary folk wrote their petitions and questions: Is my wife cheating? Will harvest be plentiful? Is this baby mine? The important stuff to ordinary people, as well.

Penny tells us that the site was once occupied by a village until they were relocated and archeologists began a systematic excavation. They had discovered the Roman ruins before and what was under these? The Greek ruins. What a magnificent sight it must have been, you think, as you approach the mountains — 5,000 statues surrounding the Temple of Apollo and 500 bronze statues that were looted by the Romans. “The Oracle at Delphi was not just looted by the Romans and Persians, but also by bad neighbors — by the locals, by neighboring city states,” says Penny. But thankfully, some people had the foresight to bury some of the treasures — forgotten for thousands of years.

“Archeologists always make decisions on which layer to keep and which layer to damage,” says Penny. “When they first came to Delphi and didn’t have the big equipment, they made the wise decision to leave it as it is. In 1939, archeologists had to go back to fix broken stones, which gave them the opportunity to dig and this is what they found accidentally — gold-and-ivory statues of Apollo, his sister Artemis and their mother Leto.”

The ivory part of the statues is now black from the vapors, but the gold (reconstructed as it is — as most of the treasures they excavated) is as awe-inspiring as it must have been then — glittering in a temple dedicated to a beloved god.

It is only in Delphi that we understand what all this means to modern life, how mythology and Greek drama were and are relevant. Penny doesn’t quote Homer or Socrates or Plato. She quotes Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, whom I began reading at university in the early ‘90s, specifically his 1953 novel The Last Temptation of Christ.

“I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free,” were Kazantzakis’s most famous words, now immortalized on his tomb as well.

Delphi06_by_tanya_t_lara What a magnificent sight it must have been then — 5,000 statues surrounding the Temple of Apollo and 500 bronze statues. Unfortunately, they were looted by the Romans.

Even when the Pythia at Delphi — presumably high from the vapors and ready to tell fortunes — told the kings and soldiers they would die horrible deaths in battle, they still picked up their armors and swords and went to war.


Penny points out something else. The Temple of Apollo at Delphi was where Apollo was worshipped the most (the center of the ancient world, remember?) And yet he shared Delphi with another god — a lesser god no less — Dionysus (or Bacchus in the Roman version). Apollo was the god of music, poetry, catharsis, logic. How is it, in his biggest temple, he shares it with Dionysus, god of wine and merriment?

Penny says that in front of the temple of Apollo, the Ancient Greeks had inscribed two things: “Know thyself” and “Nothing to the extremes.”

Delphi07_by_tanya_t_lara In Delphi the kings consulted the Oracle about wars; the commoners about cheating spouses. Seriously.

“When Achilles was going to war, his mother asked him, ‘What are you going to do? If you go to war, you will die. Stay at home and become a normal person with a family.’ He said, ‘No, my decision is to become mortal and I am going.’ Remember Hector? When he was holding his baby and his wife tells him, ‘There are other brave soldiers who will go out and fight. Stay with us.’ But with his baby, he stood up and said, ‘I’m going because it is my duty.’”

Penny loves telling these stories. And in a few months she will be tour-guiding a group of philosophers from Germany. “They are discussing the European crisis, but not just economics, also principles and values.”

She makes a face and laughs. Thirty philosophers.

Oh joy!