Once upon a time there was a volcanic island in the Aegean sea, circular in shape and with a large crater – looking more or less like a 5-year-old would paint an island with a volcano. Then, about 400 years ago, a devastating eruption of the volcano covers the entire island in ash and pumice. End of the story, you would say! Well, actually no, it goes on: the volcano explodes violently (the roar will be heard as far as Africa), the crater sinks, and so does a part of the island. The basin that results is what people now call the “caldera”, and in Santorini this is a word you’ll soon get familiar with.
What is the caldera?
The caldera is the most spectacular panorama of Santorini; staying overnight in a hotel with a caldera view is priceless (both memorable and – above all – pricey). There are four villages overlooking the caldera: Fira (the “capital”), Firostefani, Imerovigli and Oia. The quietest and less touristy is Imerovigli, where we stayed. It is a magical place, perched on the highest point of the caldera and – as the other 3 villages – built right on the cliffside, with steps all over (by all means, do not take a stroller!).
The first impressions of Imerovigli
We get to Imerovigli by taxi, walk down about 40 steps to reach the reception of our hotel… if you did not listen to my advice and decided to bring a stroller nevertheless, this is the right moment to get rid of it, you will never get the chance to use it. We walk out to the balcony, and this is what we said.
- Dad: How amazing, it feels as if we are in a postcard… unreal!
- Stefano: Take a look around… see there on your left? Those white houses?
- Stefano: Yes, sure.
- Mom: it is Fira and Firostefani. Over there in the distance, on the right, you can see Oia.
- Stefano: Are those houses? They look like snow!
About the villages
The villages are dotted with white homes, except for the roofs of the churches, which are blue, a shade of blue as intense of the sea… really stunning! Our room is not ready, so we wander off, discovering Imerovigli. We walk tiny lanes, climb up (and down) zillion of steps – and take thousands of photos.
It is decided: we love Santorini; it really does take some effort to take a “less-than-perfect” picture. Santorini, in all fairness, does not cater to families: kid-friendly attractions are hard to come by, and the black pebbles of the beaches become scorching hot in summer. The views, however, are breathtaking, so if your kids are into memorable landscapes, go there! If possible, choose the shoulder seasons: in spring and autumn the climate is mild and pleasant.
Hiking the Fira to Oia trail (with children)
The highlight of our stay was the walk from Imerovigli to Oia, about 2 hours and 30 minutes (rest breaks not included) along the caldera. To be fair, the trail would actually start in Fira, so if you start from there, add some extra 30-40 minutes. The trail is at times on dirt roads, at other times on cobbled mule tracks, and occasionally on real mountain paths – which tend to be a little exposed and slippery. In total, the walking distance is eight kilometers long and you will be walking over two hills, each of them surmounted by a small white church.
Before climbing the second hill, you can “cheat” and be carried to the second church on a mule. We chose to keep on walking, but we still stopped a few minutes to take a picture of Stefano on the mule (or was it a donkey?), since he wanted it so much. From the second church, it all the way down to Oia, according to many the most beautiful village in all of Santorini and the one with the most beautiful sunsets. Beautiful it surely is, but the sunset thing is a bit overrated: in the midst of hundreds of other elbowing people, watching the sunset form there loses much of its charm. The sunset, by the way, is the same all along the caldera, so be wise and choose somewhere quieter.
The black beach of Perissa
Kids will surely like to visit one of the black beaches of Santorini. We chose Perissa (but Kamari would be another option). Early in the morning we walked to Fira (the trail is all downhill). In Fira you’ll find the main bus station, from where buses leave every hour towards the main tourist destinations (every 30 minutes to Oia). About 10 minutes before buses leave, stand in the middle of the bus depot and wait for someone to shout the destination, and point you to the right bus. You buy tickets on board and children up to 6 travel free.
We had a (great) lunch in Perissa and Stefano wanted to swim. There were about 10 people in the sea, from Maghreb and India… not your usual Germans or Britons that would swim in icy-water (or so says an urban legend)! We therefore assumed that the sea would be warm.
It took our son a minute to wear his swimsuit, run towards the sea, jump into the water and jump out again. The sea was freezing! To warm his legs up he sat on the beach and covered them with the warm black “sand”. We played cards, dug holes, relaxed on a deck chair and then took a bus back, stopping off at Pyrgos.
The village of Pyrgos
Pyrgos is a characteristic inland village, placed on top of a hill and off the usual tourist routes. As any other island village it is full of stairs, whitewashed arches and narrow alleys, which we enjoyed exploring (getting lost several times). There are beautiful churches and an old Venetian castle. In fact, in 1200, the island was a Venetian principality, and remained so until the Byzantines conquered it in 1579. A curious fact: it was the Venetian Giocomo Barozzi, who gave the island the name Santorini. He erected a chapel in honor of Santa Irene (Sant’Erini) from which, by contraction, Santorini comes from.
The archaeological excavations of Akrotiri
Akrotiri is another destination suitable for children: archaeologists have unearthed an ancient city, buried by the ashes of the volcano. The archaeological site is indoors, so it’s a great option for a rainy or hot day. Akrotiri used to be very sophisticated, with buildings that were three-storey high, adorned with frescos. There were streets and a technologically advanced sewer system, too.
The original frescos are in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira. The outer part of the excavations allows a glimpse on the third floor, but when you move towards the center, you’ll find a large area that has been fully excavated. Walking through it is impressive. Stefano had fun looking for details that we adults had missed , like the semi-protruding amphora from an ongoing excavation. We started playing the “find-the-hidden-object” game; we discovered ancient amphorae and vases, as well as modern objects: a blue raffle ticket and a fuchsia flip-flop!
If you have time, from Akrotiri follow the signs to the famous Red Beach, surmounted by a red cliff. It’s about a kilometer walk and it’s quite a sight. Once you get to the parking lot you will find an access ban sign with a warning about falling rocks. Ignore it, because up to the vantage point there is nothing that can fall onto you.
Once you reach the vantage point, take some photos and turn back. Going any further will put you at risk. The path starts descending towards the beach and there’s another warning sign. Falling rocks are a rule, and the authorities fear that the cliff may collapse at any moment, right onto the beach – which is officially off-limit (there is no escape path!). You’ll see plenty of people walking down, but please do not follow them; the risk is too high!