Visiting Greek islands in the off season is a very different experience that the usual sun & sea allure the islands project in the late spring to early autumn. November to March the islands revert to a a time of rest, but it is also a time to gather resouces for the next onslaught of summer visitors. Visiting at this time of year can be rewarding since you get a glimpse of local life that isn’t obfuscated with tourist glitter.
Last year we visited the Cycladic island of Naxos and were impressed by the its stark early winter beauty. We discovered a few down sides of visiting then: the possibility of bad weather and the closure of many of the facilities (restaurants, hotels, tourist shops, etc.) that cater to summer visitors. But, rain can be atmospheric and we found restaurants that cater to locals with excellent homemade regional food plus there we roamed the streets of Old Naxos town without bumping into any tourists. We had a wonderful weekend exploring Naxos as you can see in the image below.
Given that experience, we vowed to visit another island in the off season. We chose Santorini this year – an island notorious for the huge numbers of visitors it attracts, particularly from spring to early autumn. We also chose to stay in Akrotiri, away from the typical white plastered buildings with bright blue domes you see along cliffsides in most travel advertisements of the island. On the first morning, this was the damp view of the caldera from our apartment:
Soon after this photo was taken, the mist rolled in and engulfed the volcanic islands in the centre. It didn’t put us off visiting the archaeological site of Akrotiri, the prehistoric Greek Pompeii. It was destroyed in an ancient eruption that geologists reckon was far greater than Krakatoa. As a consequence, the Bronze Age town was preserved by a deep cover of ash. This was on our lists of must see. Never mind it started raining as the site is completely under cover.
The structure covering it is a biodynamic building designed to encourage diffuse northern sunlight, to self-regulate the interior temperature by automatically opening and closing windows combined with extractor fans, insulate with a green roof of earth and natural growth, and a system to capture precious rainwater (on an island known for its lack of water) into underground cisterns. I understand that it is short-listed for an architectural award.
The site is very close to the southern coast of the island. Here the winter sea was dramatic – black volcanic cobbles, cliff of ash, and “caves” or structures dug into the cliff – some crumbling in ruin and others flourishing as sea-side tavernas.
Of course, we sampled the food of Santorini. Typical produce that the island is famous for include two PDO (Protected Denomination of Origin) crops: 1. a particular fava or yellow peas indigenous to the island (Lathyrus clymenum) and 2. sweet cherry tomatoes, originally introduced from Egypt to the island, but with the volcanic soil of Santorini they acquired a whole new flavour. Naturally, two island dishes are favourites – “married” fava (so-called “married” with onions and capers) and tomato keftedes which I blogged about before.
There are numerous fish restaurants on the island and many sport copies of the Bronze Age Akrotiri fresco of the boy fisherman with his catch.
One local family-run restaurant we went to on both nights we were on the island is out by the lighthouse near the Southern tip of the caldera. The family fleet of fishing boats provide the restaurant with fresh fish. One evening we were recommended to try loutsos (λούτσος) or Mediterranean barracuda, a long thin fish with a sharp pointy nose. It was delicious grilled over charcoal and served with ladolemono (olive oil and lemon sauce).
Naturally, we washed all this food down with the local white wine made with the indigenous Asyrtiko grape. All over the island you see what first appear to be barren fields of blackish volcanic earth. On closer inspection you see curious clusters. These are the vineyards of Santorini.
Vines are grown low to the ground and woven into a basket or circular shape. They are called various things: kouloura (ring or coil), stefani (wreath) or kalathi (basket). In winter, new shoots are woven into these natural baskets. This method protects the grapes as they mature from the heavy island winds which whip up sand in the volcanic soil, the harsh sun and conserve moisture from an island known to be very dry. The method is said to have originated in Santorini centuries ago.
On our last day, we stopped off in the main town of Fira (i.e. sometimes referred to as Thera) to visit the museum and gape at the caldera from the cliffside. On the way down the winding steps we were halted by a convoy of donkeys carrying goods up from the harbour, an age-old method of transport not put on purely for a tourist spectacle.
We bid adieu to Santorini. It was a lovely weekend. What island next year?