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Where I stayed
Yet there was still an undeniable character to the island as I found out, and despite the winter chill it was even more beautiful than I had expected it to be. Like the unmistakable flavour of Russian caviar, spending a few days on this island haven was truly a sample of the good life.
We found our accommodation on Santorini through the internet, at a little boutique hotel in Oia called Alexanders - a hotel I cannot recommend enough. It took us some time to find the place in our rickety two seater rental car (although it was actually just by the side of the road), but what an arrival it was
Most of the rooms in the hotel were under maintenance but the owner led us to the Sapphire Villa. This was an upgrade over what we had booked and less than 50% of the price you would have had to pay for this villa in the summer months (not that we were complaining!). The view from the common patio was priceless, looking northwest towards the rest of Oia with the alluring Aegean sea below, and with surprisingly good views of both sunrise and sunset. The villa was built into the slope of the caldera, in the style of a cosy cave dwelling, with bright blue tiles to light up the bathroom and a Jacuzzi with bath amenities to match.
With such a view from the patio, it would have been tempting to just put on some shades, kick up our heels and sip on champagne all day long. But this was a charming little town just begging to be explored. No two houses looked alike, despite most of them appearing to be whitewashed with the same base paint. What seemed the work of a talented and brilliant architect adapting the houses to the contours of the caldera slopes was instead the work of a host of many family artisans
The whole of Oia can be navigated by shoe leather in just a matter of an hour or two. But one would really miss the essence of the place if he or she did not take the time to stop and soak in the views. Every twist and turn along the small corridors and alleyways would open up new and exciting vistas. In particular, the bright blue domes of the little churches so immortalised in pictures and postcards, gave the place a coveted serenity and ambience so cherished by modern day metropolis dwellers. The orientation of the town meant that during both sunrise and sunset the houses would be bathed in shades of orange, pink and red, bringing warmth to our hearts and providing a counter to the chilly temperatures. The almost complete absence of tourists also contributed to the peacefulness and appeal, and not forgetting great pictures!
Aside from this little town with big character, there were plenty of colourful characters we came across during our stay in Santorini. Whilst most shops and restaurants were closed for the whole duration of winter, the little mom and pop shops stayed open for the locals. In fact each little restaurant that we stepped into was a little family establishment, with Dad the grumpy waiter, Mom the reluctant chef, and Daughter the bored cashier
During a lunch in Fira, the main town in Santorini, we stepped into one such restaurant, a cosy joint reminiscent of a country cottage with slightly tinted and stained windows, with yellow and blue chequered tablecloths and little potted plants on the ledges. A huge fruitbowl filled mainly with apples, oranges and pears was on the first table and a faint smell of olive oil permeated throughout the whole room. The father walked with a little hobble and when it was time to take the order, he came over and stared at us, probably assessing if we were Japanese and needed a picture menu. However, when we asked him if he had any good seafood dishes he winked and said, "You want fish? We have fish, freshest fish on the island!" He turned around, walked back towards the kitchen, and barked out orders to his wife. What sounded like a mini-quarrel ensued with the clanging and banging of some kitchen utensils. Within minutes though, lunch was served, complete with the Mediterranean staple of a side of tasty home baked bread and olive oil.
Still on the topic of food, we had been driving around on the second last day searching for the elusive Santorini wines. Most of the vineyards were closed for the winter but we were hoping to come across at least one which had their store open for sale. We were on the verge of giving up when we pulled into a grocery store to ask for directions and some local knowledge on where we could find the wines at this time. We happened to ask a stocky young man at the counter, and he opened his eyes wide and replied, "You want wine? Wait, wait", and he motioned us not to move. Still puzzled by his response, he then led us out of the front door, to the right of the building, down a small slope, to a large door with a semi circular top
Inside the room, a row of large barrels were stacked up on racks at the far side of the room, and rows and rows of semi clear empty bottles were lined up on the tables. He proceeded to let us taste almost half of the wines in production in plastic disposable cups. For those who have been on wine tours of the Barossa, Stellenbosch, and Napa regions, the wines would probably send shockwaves down your palette. They tasted more like underaged whisky than wines, but feeling a little obliged for having him go through all this trouble, we bought a bottle each as a souvenir for this rather unusual experience, grateful we had at least something to show after all that driving around. "Come again!", he said, as we left the cellar, and we smiled back at him.
We spent the rest of our time in Santorini exploring red and black sand beaches, as well as a half day trip to the volcanically active island in the middle of the Caldera. Despite the windy conditions and chilly temperatures, there was an abundance of sunshine, and our stay on the island was nothing short of idyllic, providing us with a closet chock full of memories to keep for years to come. For me, the experience was also a reminder that some places are equally, if not even more beautiful during the traditional "off-seasons" and one should never be prejudiced against taking off-season trips. What a sweet lesson it has been!