Santorini is the land of Atlantis, the locals say. The eruption of Thera in the 17th century BC, one of the largest volcanic explosions in history, is the source of the ancient myth of the paradise that disappeared without a trace. Today it is still vividly alluded to among islanders and tourists. True or not, Santorini’s fabulous landscape, surely a paradise regained, keeps the island a number one holiday retreat and honeymoon destination.
More and more land has been sold to chain hotels and restaurants, claiming valuable space that could otherwise be cultivated.
Around two million people visit Santorini every year. Tourism is the island’s chief industry; however, many tourists arrive as a part of a cruise ship itinerary, causing overcrowding and overburdening the island’s natural environment. More and more land has been sold to chain hotels and restaurants, claiming valuable space that could otherwise be cultivated. In winter, when the streets are empty of tourists, Santorini is renovated and completely repainted to preserve its luxury image.
‘This model of tourism is not sustainable in the long term,’ says Ifigenia, director of the Hellenic Culture Centre. She has lived for many years on the culturally rich islands of Lesvos and Ikaria. Now she organises educational and language courses and exchanges in Santorini to enable people to ‘look beyond the surface’ and experience Greek culture in a different way. The astonishing natural beauty of the island, its hospitality, more recent culture and customs keep people coming back.
‘It is hard for local people to keep their customs because of the fast-growing tourism industry. The island has a good infrastructure, with many hotels, taverns, restaurants and things for tourists to do. Aside from that, there is an authentic culture that is hidden and that many locals don’t like to show to tourists,’ Ifigenia says. Through facilitated contact with local people, and taking part in cooking, dancing, painting and pottery courses, visiting local farms and wineries, tourists get the opportunity to see Santorini in a different light.
After the eruption, the island lay abandoned for centuries until a Spartan coloniser founded a city overlooking the Aegean Sea...
The history of Santorini is as rich as its culture. Its divine origins and tales of the flourishing civilisations that once inhabited the island can be explored at one of its prime archaeological sites. Akrotiri’s prosperity and sophisticated city planning is illustrated by buildings adorned with frescoes of flowers and exotic animals and on rare pottery – life on the island before it was buried under the ashes of the volcano. After the eruption, the island lay abandoned for centuries until a Spartan coloniser founded a city overlooking the Aegean Sea and Greek civilisation blossomed again.
Over time, Santorini has become self-sustaining, producing an abundance of tomatoes and grapes. The volcanic soil gives the cherry tomatoes the rich, sweet taste locals are proud of. Next to the Vlychada beach, the Nomiko family opened their doors to the first tomato factory on the island. It produces tonnes of tomato paste daily that is sold all over Greece and more widely across Europe. The Tomato Industrial Museum takes you back to a time when people cherished the land and brought in the harvest under blazing skies. ‘Tomato stories’ by workers show the production process, and life as lived by the local people. ‘There wouldn’t be an inch on this island we wouldn’t harvest! Today all the land is sold to the hotels!’ says one of Nomiko’s workers, wistfully. The people of Santorini remember the glory days, and long for their return.
Trade passed from one generation to another is a tradition many Santorinians treasure.
Now locally grown products support just the immediate community. The harvesting of grapes and other products grown on the island’s farms supply family and friends. Mr Nomiko – Nomiko is a popular surname on Santorini – a local farmer who collects exotic birds in his spare time, learned how to grow grapes and make wine from his grandfather. Trade passed from one generation to another is a tradition many Santorinians treasure. Known on Santorini as a skilful barrel-maker, Nomiko is a man to learn from about sustainability. His front garden smells of lavender, mint and oregano. He grows lettuces and rocket, beans, potatoes, onions, grapes, olives and pistachios, as well as rearing livestock.
Santorini’s delicious cuisine, using ingredients sourced on the island, its vivid traditions, rich history and idyllic natural environment need to be kept alive, to make sure the island never loses its unique identity.
‘Greece has a crisis, but I have never understood it! When everyone lost their money, nothing changed for me,’ he laughs, opening the doors to the basement where his famous wines and rakia (fruit brandy) are stocked. Not available for general sale, the sweet and fruity 1996 Vinsanto is kept for special occasions. When asked about his website so that tourists can locate him, he laughs out loud. ‘This is my website!’
Life on the island has not been easy. But despite the fragility of living in the shadow of an active volcano, the lack of water and long working hours during the summer, things move at a serene pace. Santorini’s delicious cuisine, using ingredients sourced on the island, its vivid traditions, rich history and idyllic natural environment need to be kept alive, to make sure the island never loses its unique identity.