The Greek island of Santorini is famous for its singular beauty, shaped by ancient catastrophe. Like many of Greece’s treasures, it is a ruin, the curved remnant of an immense volcanic crater. When the caldera collapsed, the sea poured in, leaving only a few bits of the crater still above water. Santorini is the largest and tallest of these, with vertical walls rising a thousand feet above the Aegean. And perched along the edge of its towering cliffs are several whitewashed settlements, shining bright and cheerful against the fierce dark rock beneath them.
The village of Oia on the island’s western tip is the picturesque mecca for romantic travelers hoping for a travel poster moment. It has always drawn honeymooners, but it is also increasingly popular for destination weddings. The fairytale warren of cliffside dwellings, the dizzying prospect of the vast Aegean blue, the vivid sunsets and candlelight dining can persuade even the forlorn and forsaken to recover the idea of happiness.
“The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment,” said Nietzsche, “is to live dangerously! Build your cities on the edge of Vesuvius!” So on Santorini, after one of the biggest cataclysms in recorded history, humans returned to the edge of disaster and pitched their precarious towns. It’s been the isle of romance ever since.
Perhaps it has been loved too much. Since I first came here in 2001, the main pedestrian avenue has been developed into a trendy corridor of shops that feels more like a generic consumerist mall than a local village. We couldn’t see Greece for all the shoppers funneled in from the cruise ships. We resolved to retreat to our quiet balcony just outside town, to while away our time with reading and gazing.
But grace had other plans. Santorini had more to give us. The first gift was Atlantis Books, ensconced In the cozy quarters of an old sea captain’s house. You must descend steps to enter. Painted on the handrail: “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.” The music playing inside was Texas legend Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”; Living on the road, my friend, was gonna keep you free and clean …”
Great song, but not widely known. I knew I was onto something here. I struck up a conversation with Nick Hunt, a writer from London visiting for a few months to help mind the store. Painted in an expanding spiral on the ceiling above us were the names of hundreds like him who have worked here during its eleven-year history, drawn by its literary fervor and high-spirited whimsey. There are quotes on the walls in several languages. Charles Bukowsi’s caught my eye: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” The book inventory was rich and full of unexpected treasures, such as a first edition in red leather of Lewis Carroll’s logical conundrums, The Game of Logic.
I had just been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s riveting account of his walk across Europe, at the age of eighteen, from Britain to Byzantium (Istanbul) in the 1930’s. It’s some of the greatest travel writing of the twentieth century, and I was delighted to learn that Nick had recently retraced Fermor’s journey on foot to see what may have changed in 80 years. His own book about what he found, Walking the Woods and the Water, will be at the top of my reading list when I get home.
It was lovely to make such resonant connections, both musical and literary, in such an unexpected place. But the day had even more to give us. Just down the street we stopped in at the workshop of the celebrated icon “writer,” Dimitris Kolioussis, a man of great heart and generous spirit. His exquisite icons, painted meticulously with traditional methods, but often on found materials from old doors to cutting boards, are profoundly moving. His workshop, filled with these holy images, seems a kind of church, and his calling is clearly sacramental: bringing the invisible into visibility.
“I started making icons when I was a boy,” he told us. “Then I discovered it was my job.” He paused thoughtfully before adding, “Every day, a miracle. Every day, I give thanks.”
A guitar leaned against his easel. I picked it up and sang him a couple of American folk songs as a modest thank offering. He replied with some tasty blues licks.
It was a day of gifts which never would have happened had we remained on our beautiful balcony and kept to ourselves. Once again, Santorini, you have taught us happiness.