Santorini – pristine white structures, blue domes, sprinkled along the mountain slope, with a sparkling sea lapping below. I had seen these gorgeous locales in Bollywood songs. So, last December when planning a trip to Athens, a day trip to Santorini was built in. One couldn’t go to Greece, and not visit the dreamlike island!
With visions of gorgeous vistas we took off on a balmy sunny Athens morning, and landed at the small airport in Santorini. It was grey,cold and wet. Outside the airport, we boarded the local bus towards the village of Fira (Thira). Looking at the dreary, damp landscape outside the bus, we hoped that the skies would clear out.
Santorini is a big island. If you do not hire a car, and depend on the cheaper local bus for transportation, you have to come to the Fira bus station to catch a bus to other spots on the island. At Fira, huddled with other passengers, all tourists from our flight, we waited for the bus to Oia. The village of Oia is probably the most photographed village in Greece. When the bus stopped at the Oia station it was pouring, and gusts of wind made the rain even more menacing. Pouring out of the bus, we tried to get into one lone open cafe, but it was full. Hurrying through the rain we found a locked house with a covered porch. Many of us from the bus sought refuge there. The locked house was a precursor to what was awaiting us.
As the rain stemmed, we climbed stairs that lead to Oia village. Water was gushing down the stairs. Cold, wet and shivering we nevertheless walked up and reached a small road lined with houses. As we walked the lane, locked houses seemed to be questioning our presence there. The structures were pristine white, with coloured doors – blue, ocher or red. Everything was closed – small churches, cafes and restaurants as we walked the curving road in the mountain side. Nobody had warned us that in winter Santorini shuts down – actually and literally. Many like us had come in from Athens to see the immaculate beauty.
Soon the rain gained strength again, and we sought shelter in another porch outside a locked house. A young Chinese was already under the porch. As we lounged together in silence, she spoke to us in Hindi. A Phd student at Harvard University, she was stopping by Greece on her way home to Sydney. She was learning the language at Harvard. As we conversed with her in a smattering of Hindi, mixed with English – the global nature of the world pulsated in rainy, deserted Santorini.
Oia is beautiful, and one could imagine it pulsating with life and vigour in summer. In winter, with the rains, it seemed a beauty in tears. We decided to go back to habitation in Fira, as Oia was a silent portrait hanging on the mountain. Walking the trail back from Oia to Fira had been our original plan, but the weather did not allow it. We walked back through the lanes, towards the bus stop and stumbled across one open cafe. Like travelers in a desert who have come across an oasis, we went in to have one of the most expensive coffees that I remember. Apparently, only two cafes remain open in the village in winter. Most of the inhabitants lock their houses and go away to Athens.
Back in Fira, still pursued by rain and chill we sought shelter in the lone McDonald restaurant in Santorini. Apart from warmth, food and shelter, it also provided free WiFi. The rain stopped, and a watery sun made its appearance, at last. Setting out determined to hire a car/motorbike, or take a cruise to the Caldera volcano or visit the archaeological site of Akrotiri, we walked the main street of Fira. Car rental, travel and tour operators were shut along the street. One was open, the lone handsome Greek inside informed us that nothing was operating in winter. What to do in Fira? I racked my brain, standing in the pale sun. Then the bus stop came to my mind. We walked back and took a bus in the direction opposite to Oia.
The ride took us through the rest of the island. We had glimpses of normal life in the island, away from the tourist area. From the bus window, we caught a glimpse of the black beach of Perissa, and the archaeological site area of Akritori. We did not dare disembark from the bus. The bus drivers and conductors spoke primarily Greek, and there was no way to ascertain when and if the next bus would come by, being off-season. By the time we returned in the afternoon to Fira it was raining again. Our flight was in the evening at 7.30 pm and we were told that the airport shuts down and opens only about 5.30 pm. Once again, we were on the streets – fighting the rain and the cold.
On the main street, a small door had a sign saying seafood hanging outside. We peeped in the small taverna. An open kitchen, surrounded by a few tables, it was full. As I was retreating, the chef turned around smiled, and asked us to come in. He did not look Greek. A waiter came and smilingly gestured us to go outside the door at the side of the restaurant. Under a small covered porch, some chairs were there. The waiter brought a small table, and two heaters and put them near our feet. Surprised and very grateful for the hospitality, we warmed up. After a while the chef came by. From Hyderabad in India, he apologized for the makeshift arrangement in Hindi. The hovering, smiling waiter was from Bangladesh.
M Khaleel, the smiling chef in Fira, tossed up a succulent grilled squid for us. He also served a plate of rice and vegetable, cooked in Indian style, (not on the menu) on the house. We were shifted inside the moment a table was free. Even though other customers were peeping in, we waited out the rains. For the first time that day we did not feel stranded. The warmth and courtesy that encircled us was a gift of our county that tied us together. Sitting there in Santorini I understood in an overwhelming way the bond of home and country. After eighteen years spent in Greece, Mr. Khaleel provided us shelter and warmth, welcoming us from the moment we had peeped in the door. It is these people, along with the likes of Sundar Pichai and Indra Nooyi, who carry the flame of their home country abroad.
The locked houses of Santorini, it’s deserted rainy feel is not what I remember from our day there. The welcome and warmth in that small restaurant is what has stayed with me.