Everyone has heard of Santorini, there is probably no need to remind you where this Greek island is located and what is it famous and unique for.
Everyone knows about its volcanic history, unusual black beaches (there are the white and red ones as well) and the lively cities embedded in the steep cliffs of caldera. There are a lot of writings about Fira, Oia, Imerovigli and Amoudi, but we rarely hear stories about Pyrgos, Megalochori, Empori or Messaria, the inland towns of Santorini. There is no sea with red sandy beaches and stunning views from caldera, but you can find excellent taverns, greenery (oh yes, that’s a rarity), wine, friendly locals, refuge from the chaos and noise brought by tourists, authentic remnants of the pristine Cycladic architecture and the Mediterranean atmosphere that you can only experience in the movies or novels. Such places virtually “languish” undiscovered. And it’s good, because this way, the island retains its “inner” peace. Those popular sites are drawing attention for themselves, leaving other valuable places in the shadows. I will therefore reveal a few of those places that had a deeper and more meaningful impact on me rather than the most famous ones.
In order to experience those hidden places, you need not do anything complicated. For the beginning – just rent a car, it will definitely be the best choice. It would roughly cost you 350 euros for 10 days. I know, it is not that cheap, but if the costs are shared, the comfort is priceless, and certain places far more accessible. The car gives you a significant advantage, not only touring the entire island, but also easily and quickly getting to all those colourful beaches.
And that’s all, really. When you rent a car, it is easy to make little turns from the main roads. Santorini is a small island and the possibility of confusion or getting lost is almost impossible. Do not worry, even if you realize you have made a mistake and that those hidden places are not interesting enough for you, the loss of time would be hardly half an hour. However it is more likely that you will experience something you’ll remember for a lifetime.
The first place that I saw in Santorini was Megalochori. We were accommodated in its vicinity, in the southwest of the island, close to the inside of the cliff, about 200 meters from the main road linking the southern and northern part of Santorini. The beginning of our holidays was not very promising. After our landing during the night and having checked in at the hotel, we walked to the center of the nearest village. Diversion from the main road was unadorned and gloomy, yet the first houses in the village were rather plain. However, hunger made us walk further and soon we passed through a large stone arch that seemed to be the entrance to the city. The square we approached to was a very, very pleasant surprise with illuminated discrete tiny lights, filled with romantic and spontaneous atmosphere. A huge tree, under which the restaurant terraces were sat, was dominating the square. Many colorful flowers animated the whiteness of the Cycladic architecture. Cobbled streets, a few benches, pleasant climate and intimate atmosphere seemed to be designed for visitors. There were two taverns occupying most of the space, with delicious food and furnished in the ancient Greek style. Prices were definitely a lot cheaper compared to other popular places on the island. You can always find a seat for yourself, however, the square is never empty. Megalochori is likely to be visited by those who once discover the charm of this place. Of course, you will under no circumstances encounter drunken tourists or heated teenagers, which is good if you want to dine in a relaxed atmosphere. The kindness of the Greeks, which we all so eagerly talk about, I found at this place only. The owners of the restaurants were very warm people, the heirs of the family business and tradition. Dinner, discrete traditional music, murmur – it was the setting for my first night in Santorini.
During our stay we visited Megalochori during the daytime. We went there for lunch, to hide from the incredibly hot sun and take loads of photos. By day, the place was almost empty, some locals would walk past you and disappear into doorways. That is why during the day the place is even more beautiful. All those interesting silhouettes that we were encountering during the nights, during the day were turning into different images – a bell tower, church, town hall, glittering white facade with light blue accents and a staircase leading through the narrow passages between the houses. I would describe all of them as lively, picturesque, pristine, modest, charming, intimate, but when they all merge into one, the streets of Megalochori become the setting of your own Mediterranean. Narrow streets branch off completely unpredictably, and provide plenty of great frames for photos. And if you are exhausted, you simply return to the main square and sit in a restaurant where you can eat a daily menu, which is a rather economical solution.
Not far from Megalochori lies Pyrgos, arguably the most beautiful continental town on the island. It is located on the only hill in the central part of the island and rises gradually and harmoniously toward a fortress that offers a stunning panoramic view of the entire island (360 degrees). Let’s say that this is the first unique thing about this city. But not the only one. The road to the fort is going through the courtyards and narrow streets of the town. Poetically speaking, Pyrgos is the guardian of the island and wherever you go on Santorini you will be constantly seeing it because of its position. Of course, hardly anyone goes to Pyrgos since it is the farthest from the sea, but the misconception is that you should not visit it. The walk to the fortress and to the highest peak of the island is definitely worth the effort. If not for a good view, then to remind yourself of the wind that is constantly blowing at the top.
Pyrgos is slightly bigger than Megalochori and is well connected with the rest of the island so it is easily reachable by public transport. Most shops and restaurants are located near the circular square at the entrance of the town where the main bus station is located. In my humble opinion, Pyrgos is the most local spot on the island, and if you are curious about the lifestyle of real Santorinians that are actually not interested in tourism, this is probably the place. In front of each house the old people are supping coffee and gossiping, the most likely their neighbours from Megalochori. Honestly, after one visit in Pyrgos, I had the impression that I’ve seen everything that one should see there, but this is why it is convenient – it is not very time consuming. The only thing I still regret is not visiting the fort at night as Santorini seems to be lit up like a Christmas tree, and it would be a nice experience to see that shine from above.
All in all, anyone who has a desire to reveal the true flavor of places on their travels, should visit the continental part of Santorini. I have been to other inland places (Exo Gonia, Mesaria, Emporio, Akrotiri) and in each of them I’ve found something to remember, or at least some fraction of them, which helped me to paint a different picture of Santorini from that stereotypical one. Therefore, if you are looking for a more accurate picture of the island’s gastronomy, folklore or culture, you will always find it far from the most popular cities where there are millions of photos taken and everything costs twice as much, with the local customs being suppressed for the sake of the idea of the mediocre multiculturalism that fits to all.
Not to be confused, the “official” part of the island is also something that should not be missed. You need to see the panoramic scenes that fill your soul with an unforgettable energy, unparalleled luxury of he world’s jet set, cliff cities that you expect to be detached from caldera at any moment and tumble hundreds of meters downhill stright to the sea. It is also an experience to have a beer and pay an exorbitant price for it sitting on the most visited terrace – all of that is tourism. It is nice, however, to see Santorini because of which the Greeks live there, not just the one for which tourists travel there.
The heart of Santorini lies in the interior of the island, where the real Cyclades Mediterranean is preserved, that still resists the hordes of tourists and fights against the commercial west of the island. The question is for how long will it resist changes, so there you have the motive to visit some of these places while they are still standing idly and unchanged and waiting for you.
One of the founders of Bookiraj.com. For many years he used to be a theater director and an advertising enthusiast. Currently he is a creative director at the agency FCB Afirma and the maddest cycler in Belgrade. Eternal nostalgic – for the good old times and good old journeys.