Away from the obvious pull of the caldera villages and those magnificent views there is another side to the island, less obvious but leaving the beaten track can offer hidden rewards.
Best seen from the sea, a trip to Thirasia lets you gaze upon the natural wonder of the main island while offering up the low key delights of the small islet that many say is reminiscent of the Santorini of years gone by. A 15 minute boat trip from Ammoudi, Thirasia is a stark contrast to its glitzy sister; undeveloped, it lacks the chic boutiques and smart hotels across the water. Rather, it specialises in abandoned villages, spectacular caldera views, secret swimming spots, and low-key dining at waterside tavernas. Just one road connects the five villages on the island and Manolas the capital lies at the top of 270 steps on the caldera rim with a panoramic outlook across to Oia. Take the winding road to the mountain top Profitis Ilias chapel for one of the best sunset views in the archipelago and only the local goats to share it with.
Emporio, Thera/Photo: Unsplash
Kasteli/Photo: Norbert Nagel/Wikipedia Creative Commons
12 km from Fira and near to the black beach of Perissa is the medieval village of Emporio. On the foothills of Profitis Ilias mountain, the Kasteli was one of the five fortified castles of the venetian era and it is home to a labyrinth of narrow alleys, dead ends and staircases stacked cheek-by-jowl. Soaring above the village is the church of Panagia Mesani with a magnificent bell tower, while a little way out of the village on Gavrilos hill are a group of 19th century windmills with sublime views.
Since the 1980’s Santorini has led a Greece-wide movement to return to traditional techniques and flavours and now has become one of the absolute gastronomic destinations with many multi-starred and awarded restaurants. Paradoxically, these gourmet establishments rely on ingredients born out of years of poverty and isolation.
Fava has been grown on the island for over 3,500 years and the yellow coloured pea Lathyrus Clymenum is exclusive to Santorini and neighbouring Anafi. The mineral rich soils help to lend a sweeter flavour and a softer texture.
Akrotiri, Thera/Photo: Unsplash
Akrotiri, Thera/Photo: Klearchos Papoutsis/Wikipedia Creative Commons
The tomato arrived at the beginning of the 19th century and was the main source of income until the 1950’s with fourteen canning factories in use at the height of production. The variety that prospered is tiny, the size of a cherry, and is renowned for its sweetness.
Other unique products of the island’s climate and geology include capers, sweet white aubergines, and saffron which is depicted in the famous crocodile collectors fresco from Akrotiri where barefoot female figures gather the wild flowers.
A maze of winding alleys, whitewashed buildings and ornate churches, the village is pleasantly half abandoned with history at every turn. Megalochori lies at the heart of the wine industry and many of the buildings were cellars for storing the wine. In the centre of the village, headed by the church Panagia ton Eisodion, is a lively village square with tavernas and restaurants.
Photo: Boutari Winery
Santorini/ Photo: Shutterstock
Wine making on Santorini is ancient; findings from the Bronze Age city of Akrotiri suggest that there were vineyards in cultivation from the 17th century BC. Its aged vines, some four hundred years old, were unharmed by the phylloxera louse which could not survive in the harsh volcanic soil. The vines are not trellised but rather trained in the shape of a basket, kouloura, to protect them from strong winds and to preserve precious humidity. The four most important native varieties are the white Aidini, Assyrtiko, Athiri and the red Mandilaria. Over 20 wineries offer tasting menus in fabulous locations throughout the island, and if you are in Santorini around the end of August it is possible to see the harvest in process.
Yposkafa – cave homes
Originally for the lower classes, yposkafa were domed caves dug into the volcanic pumice layer that covers the island. As there was a lack of wood, roofs were often vaulted, formed from a mix of volcanic ash and lime that created a strong mortar. The materials used had insulating properties, keeping the caves cool in summer and warm in winter. Ironically, these humble homes are now some of the most expensive accommodations on the island, re-purposed as luxury suites and hotel rooms.