For years, picture perfect shots of Santorini flooded my Instagram feed and left me in awe. I’d scroll past images of blue domed churches and long red dresses blowing in the wind. I would favorite videos of magical sunsets as they sank into turquoise seas. This summer, as my East Coast book tour for All the Salt in the Sea neared an end, I decided on a whim to see Santorini in person. July is the busiest and hottest month of the year. And after years of Covid travel restrictions, I knew it would be even more crowded. But I had eight days alone to kill before I was due in Zürich, Switzerland, so I went anyway.
I arrived on the island with no plans or expectations. The traditional Calderimi House I reserved was located in the center of Fira. Message boards in my solo traveler groups advised against spending more than a couple of days on the island. But, after being on the road nearly a month and sleeping mostly in my converted van, I was a weary traveler. I ignored the advice. I chose Fira, the center hub of the island, because of its convenience of public transportation. I avoid renting cars outside of the U.S. because my anxiety runs wild when I think of all the possible scenarios where things could go wrong—scams, false claims of damage, theft, me inaccurately interpreting foreign road signs and ending up traveling the wrong way down one-way roads. My imagination is limitless.
Jake, my solo-traveling middle child, has tried to install the importance of using Google Street view before choosing a city to visit. But, like a rebellious teen, I continuously fail to heed his advice.
Now here I am standing at the bus station with my brand-new Osprey backpack strapped to my back. I bought it planning to walk the Camino de Santiago in May (but that’s another story). The heat is sweltering, somewhere in the mid 90’s. I’m alone amongst a sea of backpackers and tourists weaving their way through the chaos. Buses pull in and out narrowly missing pedestrians. People shout. Jake’s advice reverberates in my head and I laugh.
Flashbacks of a trip to Phuket, Thailand a few years ago spring forward. I booked that trip on a whim as well. I had also failed to look at Google Street maps. Like Phuket, there are no sidewalks along the busy street. Cars, buses, mopeds, and even ATV’s zoom around and past pedestrians. Trusting I won’t be mowed down from behind takes some getting used to.
Touristy souvenir shops line side streets. Large blue evil eyes glare at me from every direction in forms of paintings, necklaces, shot glasses, and mugs. There’s no shortage of tee shirts and falafels, pizza, wine, and olives here. I squeeze past the crowds while my heart sinks. Eight days is a long time to be in a place like this.
As I head North towards my temporary home, the crowds thin. After a left turn down an alley, they disappear altogether. Houses in various shades of pinks and yellows line the cobblestone alleyways. The homes have gated courtyards full of potted plants and drying clothes. Cats and dogs wander freely. I hear the laughter of children. A baby cries. I smell cigarette smoke. I pass a grandma in a flowered shift dress as she sweeps the patio. An old man peers at me curiously from his plastic chair. A cigarette dangles from his lips. I wave. He nods. There’s a cool breeze blowing. If I stand on my tiptoes to see above a stone wall to my right, I spot a sliver of sea.
My house is painted in colors of sunshine and clouds. The shutters and doors are bright cerulean blue. There’s a courtyard with stucco walls and locked gate. Unripened green grapes grow up the side. The inside of the house is cool and quaint, and less clean than I’d like. More importantly, it is quiet, feels safe, and has a homey vibe.
At the biggest supermarket I can find, I spend nearly an hour checking out all the unique biscuits, teas, candies, fruits, and drinks. Shopping for food, especially in foreign countries, is one of my favorite things to do. The store is packed with people. I buy all the fruits, veggies, waters, teas, biscuits, and chocolate strawberry candies I can carry.
The water from the faucet in Santorini is tinged brown and not drinkable. Showering in it is okay, but I never feel exactly clean afterwards. I slather my skin in Santorini’s famous donkey milk lotion, which probably doesn’t help. Tiny drain flies with oversized wings escape from the drains in my bathroom. Unwilling to share my space with freeloading insects, I plug the holes with tissue and cover the floor drains with cups.
Mornings and evenings on the island are cool and breezy and make me wish to stay longer. But the daytime sun changes my mind.
With no itinerary, I wait for the sun to lose its strength, then wander the streets and alleyways. For hours each day, I walk and walk and walk. Hundreds of miles, it seems. With no sense of urgency and very little sense of direction, I allow myself to get lost. Fira is built on a hill. At the top, there are beautiful views and nicer shops and restaurants. It is where some tourists go to watch the sun set and where I find myself tucked away in a cliffside café with an Erdinger German beer and a dishful of peanuts. Afterward, I make my way further down through the chaotic area and then down the alleys to my house.
Oia is the most famous and expensive part of the island where tourists flock to watch the sunset. On my third day, I set off at 6:30am to hike the six or so miles from Fira.
I pass through the towns of Firostefani and Imerovigli before reaching Skaros Rock. Hiking out to the rock, a former Christian gathering place, adds about an hour to the journey but it’s worth it. Below me, small church is perched at the edge of a cliff. I make my way down the steep hill and slip more than once on loose rocks and dusty gravel. At the bottom, I stretch my legs and imagine life here hundreds of years ago. Strong winds bring with them a peaceful sensation. The serenity of this place is worlds away from Fira. After some fairly steep ascents, I’m back on the trail to Oia. It’s half past eight and I see the first hikers heading in the opposite direction. My footsteps disturb the dry path and kicks up dust as I make my way up a rocky hill. Chimes of donkey bells sound from the East. There’s no shade. I’m once again grateful for the breeze. A little after ten, I’m on the shoulder of the road wondering if I’m lost. A hiker comes into view and I realize I’m okay. Soon after, a marble path appears like a mirage. And with it, Instagram heaven. Vanishing pools and brightly colored bougainvillea plants by the hundreds. Five-star hotels and guest houses occupy the cliff faces. I’m instantly reminded of Italy’s Amalfi Coast, one of my favorite places on earth. After nearly six hours of hiking, I settle on breakfast of strawberry and Nutella pancakes at a fancy cliffside café in Oia.
The following day, I visit the prehistoric site of Akrotiri, http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh355.jsp?obj_id=2410 a smaller indoor version of Pompeii in southern Italy (about $13). Because the bus schedule is only hourly, I have time after finishing, to walk to the nearby Red Beach. Signs at the entrance warn of impending doom. Sunbathers and swimmers are oblivious with towels laid out beneath the crumbling mountain. Dozens of people swim in the sea. Large boulders and piles of stones lie at the base beneath trails of continuously crumbling mountain. Landslides occur daily. The sight has me mesmerized at the peculiarity of our species. We’re on an island with countless places to swim, yet people congregate at the most dangerous spot of all. Why? Are they attempting to defy fate, the odds, or Gods? Is it the same reason people jump off cliffs and bridges and out of airplanes?
I spend the best ten euros ever and hop on the water taxi that cruises continually between the Red, Black, and White Beaches.
In the morning, I board a large catamaran with nineteen others for a day of snorkeling and swimming. https://www.santorini-yachts.com/ I am the only solo traveler. Introductions are made amongst the diverse group. I can’t help but smile as I hear my name spoken amid words I don’t understand. Minutes later, I’m asked, “Why are you alone?” I explain that I just finished my book tour and that I’ve been a solo traveler for fourteen glorious years. I’m asked this question often and my response is met with varying degrees of awe, understanding, and confusion.
Our captain cruises around the most popular swimming spots, then takes us to more secluded ones for swimming and snorkeling. The turquoise water calls to me. Rocks of various colors, as tall as skyscrapers, surround us. Oxidized copper ones are green and the red ones are iron.
A handful of us swim beside an active volcano in hot springs that are anything but hot. Pregnant women or those with breathing problems are told to avoid the water. We snorkel while the captain tosses breadcrumbs in the water to attract more fish. It’s like being inside of an aquarium. American music plays from the speakers. The sun beats down on my cushy lounge bed on the bow of the boat. Lunch is a gourmet affair with fresh salads, seafood, pasta, and beer and wine. The staff is remarkable, and my soul is cleansed from a relaxing day on the water (about $125).
Back on land, I splurge on a fancy vegan dinner. I’ve been alternating between four-euro falafels and thirty-euro dinners. For lunch, I mostly snack on cucumbers with Santorini tomatoes grown in volcanic soil. Every other day, I buy a new pastry from the bakery at the top of the hill above my house- Svoronos.
While scrolling Facebook, I learn of a distant friend’s life cut short from cancer. He was in his early forties. I’m caught off guard and his news is the tipping point for the sadness that stays tucked away. My former sister in-law is at the end stages of her illness, and a close friend’s daughter is in the middle of her own battle. I sit through a Greek Mass and ugly cry. For the rest of my time in Greece, I visit every church I find, light candles, and pray.
At night, mopeds zoom through the alleys and startle me awake. Earplugs, a pillow over my head, and Spotify’s Pink noise helps. I have a massage at a hotel nearby, something I try to do in each country I visit to compare the differences. This one is terrific but unremarkable from those I’ve had in the U.S.
Today is July 9th, my fourteenth anniversary as a solo traveler, and also the 66th anniversary of the biggest Earthquake and Tsunami in 20th century Europe. An 80+ foot wave annihilated Santorini. I am both superstitious and terrified of tsunamis. For the past decade, I’ve had recurring nightmares about dying in one. Knowing Mother Nature is likely to reclaim the island in my lifetime causes me to look at it in a different light. Nothing so beautiful could ever be permanent, could it?
I celebrate my traveler’s anniversary at Venetsanos Winery for a wine tasting and “light lunch” at 5pm (about $45). https://venetsanoswinery.com/ I sip wine and taste cheeses and traditional tomato fritters with an outstanding view of the Caldera. A metal ring surrounds a sunken cruise ship and my writer’s imagination runs wild. Each time, my waitress appears, I bombard her with questions.
“When did the ship sink?”
“Will it ever be recovered?”
“Did anyone die?”
*Later research shows a father and his teenage daughter on vacation from France were never found.
Because my flight to Zürich isn’t until the evening, I spend my last day wandering aimlessly around Fira. My feelings of love for the island are conflicted. I had expected to fall fast and hard the way I did for the Amalfi Coast. But it’s unfair to judge. I turned up at the height of tourist season after years of Covid lockdown. The crowds were greater than usual and I stayed in the center of the busiest area. Once I’m an NYT bestselling author, I plan to return. You’ll find me in Oia at a five-star resort lounging beside one of those vanishing edge pools.