My life on Santorini started with the arrival on the world’s infamous Santorini airport most people have a hate relationship with (there’s no love). I had no idea how long I was going to stay. I didn’t have a return ticket. All I had was a hope I’ll be able to find an apartment and make this my home. But more on that later. Stepping out of that plane felt much weirder than the first time I came to this island. Perhaps it was because this time, I was staying for a much longer time. Or maybe it was because I didn’t have a decent sleep for about 48 hours because I stupidly decided to spend the night at the airport.
I was greeted by my landlady’s husband. He was shy, didn’t say much, but left me babbling away about how excited I was to come to the island. It was late February and we were driving along the bumpy streets of the island, passing by the occasional donkeys, with the ocean’s view always following us in the distance. My heart was buzzing – I just moved to Santorini.
“Καλώς Ορίσατε!” My landlady greeted me at the door of her hotel, Sweet Home. It’s located in Karterados, in the back street, but just a 10-minute walk from the main town, Fira. Karterados is a local place – although it’s full of hotels, it’s a town that’s usually reserved by travelers who know how to find secret gems. It’s reserved for those who find the luxury of Oia a bit too much, and the bustling noise of Fira too overwhelming. Karterados, with its local atmosphere, terrible traffic, and the best bakery on the island, is a perfection you’ll miss out on if you decide to visit this island at the last minute. As a bonus point, it’s pretty cheap – my beautiful studio was available for €18 per night.
The studio itself was a typical living space you’d get on Santorini. Stone walls, a double and a single bed, a wardrobe, a desk, small kitchenette, and a bathroom. All basic utilities were available, and the internet would work if I sat at a certain spot or worked from outside. That’s all I really needed.
The first few days were still a blur of adjustments. From dealing with Greek food (which I love, but it took a while before my stomach was able to handle such heavy food), to the brand new language, and the fact that this will be my home for 3 months. It took a while, but the Greek life came to me very naturally.
I’d be in Fira by 10AM every single morning. The beauty of Santorini in February is that the entire island is eerily quiet and only the best of the best are open for business. You won’t find any fancy restaurants or anyone who is able to earn enough money over the course of 4 summer months. Instead, you’ll find businesses by real locals, who can’t help but be open almost all year round because that’s their main source of income. And those are the businesses I appreciated the most.
One of my almost daily stops was Lucky’s – a gyros shop, located just above Fira’s bus stop, right in front of the square. The place has some of the best and arguably the cheapest gyros in town, and the owner of the shop knows it. Lucky is one of those people you can’t help but strike a conversation with, despite his slightly irritating flirty voice, and the fact he’s hardly listening to a word you say. “I finish at 12, I’d love to see you after dark,” would usually never make me come back to a place, but his food is so good he’s totally allowed to use terrible pickup lines (he never saw me after dark).
Another all-year-rounder on the menu is the Solo Gelato, where I usually got some ice cream and a coffee to go before I headed back to the apartment.
And that’s what I did all this time. Having the opportunity to see the island prepare for the summer season has been incredibly eye-opening and rewarding. From chefs and bartenders, who told me they never get a day off during the summer, to hotel owners who got negative reviews over salty water coming from the taps (totally normal on the entire island). I got to experience something most can’t.
The truth is, the life on the island isn’t at all idyllic. Even Oia hotel owners get frustrated with tourists who have no respect for the buildings and climb on rooftops to take a picture of a sunset. Those rooftops took a whole week to paint, and a lot longer to build. Apartments are hard to come by, and sometimes even Santorini’s teachers are forced to camp instead of being able to rent their own flat. I overheard many Greeks complaining about Santorini’s housing situation, and many are waiting for the tax authorities to tackle the illegal hotels and make room for regular long-term housing. Will it happen? Probably not, this is Greece after all.
Santorini has a distinctive smell of fresh paint in April. Most hotel owners will arrive at the island by now, even though the actual tourist season doesn’t begin until May. May on the island is known as the rainy season, and the people are always on a time limit when it comes to painting their houses and making them look presentable. Photography is a big way Santorini is marketed as the best place on Earth. Why do they paint every year? Because their winters are so rough, the heavenly blue you see gets chipped off very easily. The bright blue that Santorini is known for only comes alive during the summer.
During April, the island starts to change. It’s no longer peacefully quiet – things are in full swing. There’s noise, and there are locals greeting each other and getting excited about another summer season. Donkeys, who really shouldn’t be doing such work, carry heavy objects through the square and occasionally block your way on the stairs. Their heavy objects will later be replaced by people. It’s a neverending job in terrible heat that only ends with a toss over a cliff, or at the Santorini animal shelter. To hear these stories, you need to come to Santorini during the offseason, when people are much more relaxed and willing to open up about their own experiences on the island.
Living on Santorini during the offseason gives a completely different vibe to the island. Everything is a lot more peaceful, sunsets are a lot more magical, and beaches are practically empty. The closest beach to my hotel was Karterados beach, about a 40-minute walk away. I’d usually rent a bike and spent some time on the empty beach, where the sound of the waves was all you could hear. The weather was just good enough to walk around barefoot and occasionally dip your feet in the ocean, but that’s all I really needed.
I admire people who stay on the island all year round. It’s rare, and not even the die-hard Santorini lovers go for this option. People come to this island for money. Luxury. The sunset side of the island. Many tourists, especially those who only come for 2 days and spend all their time in Oia, don’t get to experience the true life on the island. If they would, perhaps they’d stop spending money at luxury hotels that are only open during the summer season, and instead appreciate business owners like my landlady, who has her hotel open all year round, but rarely makes her money’s worth during the slow months.
Santorini left me with mixed feelings. Although I am sure I will come back and permanently settle on the island, it opened my eyes to a lot of problems you don’t get to see as a tourist. It was a magical experience I won’t soon forget, but I want to make sure that the story of the off-season Santorini life gets heard.