“Santorini would not be what it is without Pinterest.” As my Greek taxi driver maneuvered the twisting turns around the volcanic mountains, the island was laid out below us: scattered farms, lush, vibrant plains of fields, the occasional church with its snow white walls and blue dome dotting the landscape. It seemed impossible that this idyllic place would need the help of social media to become one of the world’s top travel destinations.
Despite my skepticism of Pinterest’s role in the tourism industry here, it’s admittedly because of social media that Santorini was even on my radar. The dazzling images on my phone were irresistible: a sea-drowned caldera surround by towering red cliffs, glistening buildings clinging to the slopes, infinity pools jutting out over the sea, a place where the color of the painted roofs has its own name, “Santorini blue.” I knew nothing of its history, but I knew that it produced some of the most viral photos of Greece on the internet. And that’s why I, and the other 1.5 million tourists that flock there each year, had to go.
But social media rarely tells the whole story. I was determined to discover the real Santorini, behind the glamour and blue paint and A-lister cliff-side villas. While this Greek paradise is indeed eye-candy from wherever you find yourself on the island, the heart and the history of this place can only be found somewhere that is off of the Insta radar. Images of Akrotiri won’t increase the number of your Instagram followers. But this little known site provides needed meaning to a place that is otherwise only photogenic, and lets you see a side of Santorini that most don’t even know exists.
Santorini’s tourism industry was actually started in the 1970s partly because of the discovery of Akrotiri. But according to a recent study, nearly 40% of millenials are choosing travel locations based on their “instagrammability.” That means places like Akrotiri that have no aesthetic value are no longer the main tourist draw. The island caters to those searching for the next viral photo op, and a dig site that only contains the colors of brown, tan, beige, and gray simply isn’t Instagram worthy.
The archaeological site is located near its namesake village, on the opposite side of the island from the cruise-ship port at Fira and the photogenic town of Oia. Because the bus-line that’ll get you there is separate from the one that goes to the more popular destinations, the site is as far off-the-beaten track that you can get on an island that’s only 11 miles long.
Our bus followed the vertical upward tilt that began from the airport until it reached the other side of the island. From there, the winding road hugged what felt like the very rim of civilization, as we bumped and jostled and rocked our way to our destination. Out the window, and a thousand feet down, the waters of the Aegean lapped the feet of the famous red cliffs.
The welcome center at the Akrotiri site was perfectly juxtaposed to what it was welcoming us to. The smell of freshly cut pine still emanated from the buildings, the black tar foot path still springy. But once we walked through the doors, any thoughts of the modern world disappeared.
Inside, there was only the quiet tap-tap-tap of the working archaeologists chipping away at the walls, but my mind could hear much more than that. As I tread down roads so old that “ancient” seemed a vast understatement, I thought I could hear the calls of fishermen selling their catches, of women trading gossip in the streets. Whiffs of smoked meat drifted out of the open doorways. The hub-bub of daily life was seemingly everywhere! Yet, it was nowhere. There hadn’t been any of that here for nearly 4,000 years.
Before Santorini was synonymous with drool-worthy photos of infinity pools overhanging a cerulean sea, before it was the top destination wedding locale for thousands of adventuring couples each summer, long before it comprised the mere remnant of a super volcano, the island was home to a Minoan settlement that can be traced back as far as the fifth millennium BC. It was a civilization that thrived as a strategic trading point between Cyrus and Crete. It had paved streets, an extensive drainage system, and high quality craftsmanship that are evidence of an impressive level of sophistication for the ancient world.
But in 1627 BC, that all came to a tragic end. The volcano that these ancient peoples called home erupted in one of history’s largest volcanic explosions. The Thera Eruption didn’t just wipe out this island; it brought the entire Minoan civilization to a screeching halt. Akrotiri was buried in hundreds of feet of ash and rubble, ala Pompeii, perfectly preserving the millennia-old structures just as they had been when their inhabitants fled. And until 1967, it remained that way.
Today, visitors can step inside of the Akrotiri Archaeological site and forget that it is 2018. There are no simulations here. No re-enactors dressed in Minoan garb, no replications of cooking tools, just the authentic creations built by the first islanders. You can walk down the same streets that were bustling with activity thousands of years ago, peer through doorways, marvel at just how far below the modern-day layer of dirt the ancient city is buried.
Great precautions have been made to preserve the site and to prevent the deterioration that can be seen at other, less maintained sites around the world. The beautiful frescos that once covered the walls have been removed, but you can see them at the museum in Fira, just a couple of bus stops away. A covered structure protects the rest of what has been unearthed so far, so that future generations can continue to walk in the footsteps of those who loved Santorini before it became social media fodder.
All of your transportation needs can be met by the island’s bus system. But I had to get a taxi to get back to the airport because I accidentally proved the point that social media can lead us to miss out and not notice important details such as leaving my wallet and passport in one of Oia’s maze-like passages. I was too busy trying to get that perfect Instagram picture to notice I’d set my ticket back to the USA on some wall or staircase or flowerpot. Granted, being stuck on an island paradise wouldn’t exactly have been the worst thing to happen.
Favorite Place on Santorini
“This is my favorite place on Santorini.” The driver had taken me to a place in the center of the island, a pull-off tucked away below a closed villa. From there, both ends of the caldera’s rim stretched out from us on either side. Here there were no crowds, no merchants, no tour guides.
There’s something particularly special when a view isn’t shared by anyone else. When you don’t share the picture online afterwards, or have to crane your neck around others to see properly. When it’s just yours, and yours alone, for a precious few spellbinding moments. And on an island made famous by social media, those views are rare. But when we find them, those are the moments that make every trip worth the journey.
Though the destruction of their way of life was catastrophic for the Minoans, for the modern traveler the tragedy was a blessing. Away from the crowds and cameras, Akrotiri offers a rare glimpse at life on this idyllic island before social media.
Did I discover the ‘real’ Santorini? It’s hard to say. But I did find a slice of the island that was off the radar from the Instagramarati, away from the selfie stick-wielding masses, and afar from the miasma of cruise ships groups. I found what I was looking for.
Written by: Maggie McKneely
Maggie is a political science grad from Virginia who spends most of her time on Capitol Hill. In order to stay sane and counteract the effects of dealing with politics on a daily basis, she travels far away from DC and writes about her journeys, sharing stories and tips with others looking to escape their day jobs.