Getting an Oia-ful

I think it’s fair to say that you don’t often see your soon-to-be vacation home in one of the Microsoft Bing daily wallpaper photos.

The image was achingly beautiful.

A recently-departed sun continued to cast a magical light on the scene, painting the horizon with thin layers of golden stripes. Three small white boats, resting in the crystal-clear water of a bay below a precipitous cliff, looked out across an apparently endless mill-pond sea. High above the bay, a collection of precariously-stacked, white-washed buildings clung impossibly to the cliff – simultaneously admiring the view and contributing to its charm.

Less than a month later we were in Oia (pronounced like ‘EAR’, with an emphasis on the ‘E’), looking out on Santorini’s magnificent caldera from the single, defiantly-yellow villa on the right-hand side of the image.

If the image was beautiful, the reality was simply breathtaking.

From a vantage point high on the steep slope of a drowned volcano, it was difficult to reconcile today’s tranquility with the unimaginably cataclysmic forces that shaped what we were seeing. The view was mesmerizing.

It is easy to spend hours just staring out at the islands that form the western edge of the caldera; your eyes occasionally drifting to follow the next small boat as it moves imperceptibly through the calm waters. Even when you reluctantly drag yourself away, the temptation to turn for one more furtive, admiring glance is irresistible.

In the village itself, narrow paths – some no wider than a small suitcase – twist erratically between the buildings. At their intersections, each diverging path entices you to explore its possibilities; either with the promise of a quaint, traditional building or another picturesque view. Often both. No impulsive turn goes unrewarded.

Then there is the sunset.

Now, over the years, I have taken more than my fair share of sunset photos. Even when measured against that vast and growing catalog, there is something undeniably special about the spectacle as observed from Oia. So much so that, when the last sliver of today’s sun finally departs from view, its passing is often marked by a ripple of applause. While this a strange reaction to a daily occurrence – the earth rotates; the sun appears to go down – here it does not come as a surprise.    

And finally, as night falls, those fortunate enough to secure a caldera-side table at one of the village’s eclectic collection of restaurants get to admire the white lights of the island’s other villages as they twinkle atop distant cliffs – like a discarded string of Christmas lights waiting to be looped around a tree.

No matter the time of day, Oia is glorious.

But there is a price to pay for all of this beauty – and it’s something you don’t see in a Bing photo or out of a caldera-facing window.

Oia attracts tourists in numbers that vary from excessive to suffocating. While the absence of large hotels in and around the village helps to keep the overnight population manageable, Oia simply bursts at the seams with daily visitors.

And almost every day begins with an ominous portent.  

The morning’s first view is regularly scarred by a handful of cruise ships in the waters of the caldera. The largest of them tend to arrive in the early morning hours, anchoring in the shadow of Santorini’s western cliffs before releasing wave upon wave of their passengers in an all-out assault on the island.

It is easy to imagine the sense of foreboding with which, centuries before, bleary early-morning eyes sighted the first sails of pirate ships coming over the horizon. Today’s ships may not have quite as many cannons and their companies may have fewer muskets, but the dread remains.

Once ashore, a convoy of buses transports the invaders to Oia. Upon their arrival, using the strategic combination of randomly coming to an abrupt stop right in front of you and endless selfie-taking, the village is quickly paralyzed. With the paths secured, subsequent battalions seize control of the gift shops.

But it is in the hours around sunset when the narrow pathways of the caldera’s edge – and those leading to it – come to a complete standstill.

Even while the sun is still high in the sky, people begin to take up position in the ruins of the 15th century castle high above Ammoudi Bay. Gradually, their numbers swell to the point where they spill out onto the nearby pathways. By this time, a multi-lingual, semi-polite game of jostling for position is well under way; each participant desperately trying to capture their own perfect, ‘like’-generating image.

Sunset watchers in Oia, Santorini

Finally, that late-evening ripple of applause announces our sun’s departure for the day.

If you hear this when you happen to be elsewhere in Oia, do not move toward the sound. Shortly, coming your way and forced into one narrow path (leading away from the caldera’s edge) will be a slow-moving tsunami of relentless photo-taking humanity.

Linger over your meal. Order another beer. Feign interest in gift shop wares. Hide in a corner.

This, too, shall pass.

Oia is truly a sensational location that deserves its place on your “must experience” list. But, as a visitor, you have to accept the reality that Oia is on everyone else’s list, too. So, as much as you may rail against the crowd, you are also a part of that crowd; cruise ship passenger or not.

Reflecting this conundrum, our own Oia experience was perfectly captured in one conversation.

We were frequent visitors of the mini-market just up the cliff from our accommodation. Over a couple of days, we had established one of those temporarily friendly, never-going-to-see-you-again-after-this-week relationships with Nikolas, the store’s proprietor. On one visit, after we had selected a sustaining supply of beer and wine, he asked us a question.

“Would you like some pain?”

“I’m sorry. What?”

“Would you like some pain? You can get that here, too. If you want.”

We thought that was a bit unusual, and more than a little disturbing. What signals had we been giving him? However, just before abandoning our purchases and running screaming from the store, he pointed to the fridge behind us. The penny dropped.

“Oh! Champagne!”

A quick glance at the small army of bottles already dominating the counter space confirmed that we should probably pass on the champagne for this evening, but the conversation became the perfect anecdote for our few days in Oia.

It is a place where every turn reveals a view or experience worthy of champagne. But don’t expect it to happen without some pain.

Nick Orchard | 20th August 2022

A few recommendations

Stay
Villas on Santorini – Villa Ariadni (https://www.villasonsantorini.com/)

Not just a great place to stay with breathtaking views of the caldera, but the people of Villas on Santorini could not be more helpful. Very responsive to any question, no matter the time of day; able to help with restaurant reservations, transportation, etc.

Eat
Sunset Tavern – Ammoudi Bay (https://www.sunset-ammoudi.gr/)

Definitely worth the walk down – and, more significantly, up – the 220 steps that connect Oia to Ammoudi Bay. At least ten freshly-caught fish (priced by weight) are included on the menu each day. Reservations recommended at most times; essential around sunset.

Skiza Cafe (https://skiza.gr/)

A relaxed, reasonably-priced option. Nice spot to grab lunch after a morning exploring the village. Good pizza that you can order to go.

Something different
Greek Cooking Class – Raki Restaurant, Megalochori (https://www.viator.com/tours/Santorini/)

Unreservedly recommended. Chef Christos leads a class that is interactive, instructional, and just fun. Small classes (there’s room for a maximum of seven people) give all participants a chance to be involved in the preparation of the food. You then get to enjoy the fruits of your labors in the restaurant. Do this. Experience something different. There will be another sunset. Approximately a 40-minute taxi ride from Oia.

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