Losing the tourists on tourist-mobbed Santorini

June 13, 2013

Our first morning on Santorini started out auspiciously enough. We headed for breakfast at Mama’s House, a restaurant in the town of Fira that our guidebooks highly recommended. Along the way, we stopped to take pictures in front of a whitewashed church topped by a brilliant blue dome. A few fellow tourists meandered by.

At the restaurant, Mama herself came out, greeted us in English and showed us to a table on a tranquil tented patio.

But as we ate our omelets, Greek yogurt and fruit, more and more diners arrived. By the time one of my friends held up a phrase book to ask Mama a vocabulary question, the quiet moment had ended. “I don’t have time!” the proprietor snapped.

Then she softened a bit. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It is just very busy here.”

Details: Santorini, Greece

“Busy” was putting it mildly. Santorini is one of the most popular Greek islands, a landmass about half the size of the District of Columbia that gets about 500,000 visitors each year. And this was the height of tourist season.

I’d been worried when I’d found out that an August trip to Greece would mean that my two friends and I would have to share Santorini with a mob of travelers. My initial vision of myself as a woman in a Greek yogurt ad — white skirt fluttering in the Mediterranean breeze, the scent of olive oil in the air — faded as I feared that I’d become the Greek equivalent of a left-of-the-escalator stander. Not only that, but given the principle of supply and demand, the endeavor could get maddeningly expensive.

So I made a resolution: I’d go, but I’d look for ways to keep myself sane.

So far, I wasn’t having much success.

That night, we headed into the cobblestoned streets of Fira, looking for someplace where we could dance. A promoter for a nightclub called Town beckoned us in, offering us free shots. It turned out that the gratis alcohol required first purchasing a $13 drink, which we sipped in a vibrating mass of dancing bodies and flashing lights, the air pierced every few minutes by what sounded like the blast of a foghorn.

Another crowd waited outside the popular Naoussa restaurant, stretching down a long flight of steps from the second-story dining room. Joining the line, we chatted with an international assortment of hopeful diners and watched the shops below. Somehow, tourists crowded every store, whether it sold edgy fashion or mass-produced postcards.

Even the less hectic places managed to feel claustrophobic. A few people standing in line in Fira’s small bank or post office looked like a throng. Just two or three customers managed to make the general store, crammed with packaged foods, beverages, cheeses, olives, ouzo, wine and household products, feel like a stock-exchange floor. Each morning, we vied to make our requests register with the frazzled 60-something shopkeeper.

When he warmed to us, even his show of affection involved crowding, though of a welcome kind. As we were leaving with our provisions one day, he smiled and stuffed a few extra figs into a paper bag already full of the purple, honey-oozing fruit.

A quiet oasis

The first morsel of calm came entirely by surprise. Taking a public bus to the black sands of Perissa Beach, reportedly the most popular in Santorini, we stopped in the town of Pyrgos. Rising almost flush with the edge of the road was what looked like a hulk of whitewashed cement, with sets of steps carved into it. Greece’s signature blue domes bobbed in the sea of white. The handful of travelers who had disembarked here soon disappeared into the maze of stairways studded by tiny chapels, gift shops and houses.

We found ourselves on a small, quiet street made even mellower by the afternoon siesta time. I took to the stairs myself, following a woman wearing a cloth baby carrier from which a small, downy head emerged. Even the infant was silent. At the top, a majestic panoramic view greeted me, and I encountered the closest thing Pyrgos had to a crowd: five or six people gathered around a cafe table, a lanky German shepherd mix at their feet. It felt light-years removed from the streets of Fira.

I found something else different here, too. Original Greek art produced in honor of the Biennale of Santorini hung on the walls along the stairs.

Babies, dogs and public art: all the markings of a place for locals — and a place that offered an oasis of quiet. I was starting to see a pattern.

An island jaunt

The next day, we set off for Thirassia Island. I’d learned about this quaint dot of land, separated from the mainland of Santorini by an ancient volcanic eruption, in my research on Santorini’s out-of-the-way attractions.

I knew that we had to take a bus to the city of Oia, where we’d catch a water taxi to Thirassia. Beyond that, the blogs and travel sites I’d read had told me that the island boasted just 270 residents, 250 stone steps, good seafood — and hardly a single tourist.

We arrived at the bus depot just before 11 a.m. — precisely the same time as every other visitor in town. I hadn’t considered that we weren’t the only late risers on a weekday, or that the Fira-Oia bus line hit popular beaches and attractions, not just my connection to Thirassia.

The bus arrived, and my friends elbowed their way on. The shyest of the group, I found myself watching as streams of people shouldered past me. Bodies and feet pushed at me from all sides. Then I heard an anguished voice. “My child is in there!” cried a woman still standing on the pavement. Even rush hour on the Washington Metro hadn’t prepared me for this. I barely managed to join my friends.

Soon we found ourselves at the Oia dock as a white boat chugged toward us. I followed my friends onto a compact two-deck vessel not much longer than a private sailboat. Our fellow passengers included a bag of bread, a whole fish, some locals and a family of French-speaking tourists. The fare: one euro, or about $1.30, apiece. Here was another quiet, inexpensive find that catered mostly to locals.

On the open upper deck, with my hair flying in the breeze and the boat taking us farther and farther from the mainland, I felt a sense of peace grow in my chest.

The tiny dock that greeted us on Thirassia made sleepy Pyrgos look like a carnival. We saw no tourists and no hawkers. Just a hillside full of houses, a gravel driveway and the abandoned outdoor seating of a cafe. On the driveway sat a plain white van and what looked like a repurposed school bus painted white with green stripes.

A few of our fellow tourists opted for the van. I climbed onto the school bus to ask in guidebook Greek how much the driver wanted for the ride.

“It is free, it’s a local bus,” was the gist of his response in English. Free public transportation with the people who actually live here! That worked for me. My friends and I took our seats.

We got off at the second — and last — stop and walked into a small, mellow town. Not only were the people sightings rare, but the place literally lay low. Miniature houses anchored clotheslines holding billowing sheets that brushed the ground, and the roof of a one-story church topped my 5-foot-5 height by just a few feet. Even the stray cats were small and quiet as they napped in the shade to escape the heat. Here, I could see myself in a flowing white garment.

The scene was so quiet that we immediately noticed the voices behind us. They belonged to three 20-somethings: a man who resembled a Middle Eastern Adrien Brody and two women who could have stood in for Katie Holmes and Adele. When I asked about their origin, unable to place their accents, the trio laughed. “We are Greek!” said the Brody look-alike. They turned out to be teachers at a school on Santorini who make a weekend jaunt to Thirassia at least once a month for the tranquility and the oceanscape.

Gazing down at the waterfront below, I saw that the island wasn’t as empty as I’d thought. Large ferries steamed up to a beach and waterfront packed with restaurants and shops, apparently miles from where we had stepped from our boat. No quaint cargo of whole fish or bread there. Just dozens of humans, released with an hour or two to climb from tour boats and cover the coast.

We made our way down a set of broad steps of charcoal-gray rock — those 250 steps I’d read about — to join the crowds for a moment. The water was astonishingly clear, so we changed into swimsuits, picked our way over a beach of arch-busting stones for a dip, and then dried ourselves in the sun.

Then we traipsed back up the stairs, resisting the pull of signs that advertised donkey rides for five euros (about $6.50) and clusters of the creatures clopping up the stairway laden with foreigners.

At the top, my dining choice, the Panorama Cafe, had no table service and a limited menu. Among the selections, however, was what the owner’s son, running the counter, insisted was the best moussaka in Greece. My friends confirmed that the warm custard and juicy ground beef filling deserved top marks, while the lobster kebab, served with a charred tomato, both tasted and looked good. I enjoyed a plate of fried sardines, a cold bottle of Efes beer and a breathtaking view of the sea and the activity below. My sense of calm was complete.

Space-age ruins

On our last day, we visited the hidden city of Akrotiri. Like Thirassia, this was something I’d found while searching the Internet for Santorini’s less well-known features. Buried by a volcanic eruption about 3,500 years ago, the site has been excavated a few feet, and its treasures are preserved in a cavernous building. The artifacts on view include the first frescoes known to humanity, millenniums-old but almost intact pottery and even ancient bathroom plumbing.

After a 2005 roof collapse killed a visitor and closed the Akrotiri facility, it underwent a makeover. It had reopened a few months before our visit but had yet to blip across tourists’ radar, it seemed. We waited at the entrance for a good 20 minutes in mounting morning heat before we could collect the half-dozen English speakers required for a tour.

Inside, we followed our outlandishly knowledgeable guide through the boardwalks that snake among the ruins. Above us, a network of space-age ceiling panels kept everything at a mild archival temperature.

Our last stop before we flew to another island was our beloved general store in Fira. That jumble of products and customers was the hardest place to leave behind. After those extra figs, the shopkeeper had extended his generosity to wine and cheese tastings, and even short conversations despite the language barrier and the busy venue.

Imagining the toll that his long weeks and 12-hour days must take over the summer, I asked him what he does in the off-season. He lives for fishing, he told me, heading out with rod and reel four or five times a week.

During high season, packed shelves and grocery calculations surround this man from morning to well after dusk. But when the tourists leave, it’s just him and the ocean.

Now that’s a vacation.

Kennedy is a Washington writer and teacher. Her Web site is RheaKennedy.com.

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