Apollonian rumour has it that the island of Thera was handed to Euphemus, one of Jason’s Argonauts, by the god Triton in the form of a clod of dirt. Story goes; he carries this clod around in his pocket for a few days, before having a peculiar dream in which he breast-feeds the clod (y’know, like you do), causing it to spontaneously transmogrify into a hot babe. Naturally, he plays Hide the Gyro with the babe, after which she turns back into dirt which he throws into the sea and … Bob’s your Uncle … Santorini! Basically your common or garden Argonaut-makes-dirty-whore-forms-lovely-island myth with a spot of transgender titty action thrown in for good measure.
How disconcerting then, to find oneself perched high above the mythical caldera at the end of a long day seeking out the authentic and the aboriginal; only to have come up empty. Because whilst Santorini is certifiably beautiful, it is anything but authentic. At least not in the Christopher Isherwood and Isadora Duncan passing kalamata from mouth-to-mouth in Stavros’ Taverna, whilst Benjamin Britten accompanies Peter Pears on the Cretan Bouzouki in amusing snippets of Gilbert & Sullivan sense. More likely costly pizza with pineapple on it to the piped strains of Adele. Or, god forbid, Greek sushi (two words that should never share a sentence).
But you can hardly blame Santorini. It didn’t ask for four leviathan cruise ships a day to disgorge their suety human cargo onto its previously charming quays, all shuffling their way donkeywards for the legendary journey up the cliff-face to Fira. Anthony Quinn Zorba mule-action this is not. These poor quadrupeds, eyes bulging on stalks, slog their way northwards in droves, bent under the weight of 21st century tourism in the form of thighs the size of buffalo hams. They deposit their burden in vast, polymorphous shoals at the rim of the caldera, where the old town – now a dizzying array of souvenir shops and crap restaurants – awaits their Euros. This multinational array of the dazed and confused proceeds to ooze along alleyways and switchbacks absorbing all that is small, plastic, blue and white in its path, like snot magma. The donkeys wait, panting, shitting. Then back down they all go, skidding on the cobbles, straining against gravity’s urge to render this collective organism a single, huge ball of lard at the bottom of the hill: a giant pink blancmange studded with hooves and pottery renderings of churches.
It’s hard. Santorini’s a little island. There are three thousand tourists on each ship, that’s a conservative ten thousand waddling human dumplings a day, not counting the non-maritime dumplings (myself included) already clotting its narrow capillaries. In catering to this lobotomized mass, there simply isn’t time or space to cater to anything else. Authenticity – at least that nostalgic stuff of yore, involving leathery fisherman and wharves glistening with shimmering sardines – is subsumed by time’s toppling wave of rubbernecking human lava, all blinking in the fierce Aegean sun. The only vague note of dissent lies in the private, boutique world of chic, with its fluffy white towels of Turkish cotton, infinity pools and artfully converted en-suite troglodyte dwellings; no less of an orthodoxy than its brassy floating cousin, rendered ostensibly – but not actually – less vulgar by scads of money. Santorini caters to both the exclusively and inclusively tacky; it simply saves its finest arugula for the former.
And so what to do? I mean, I’m sitting on a terrace in my temporary home – Der Falkenhof - a cascading litter of houses conjoined in the 1980’s into a single dwelling by one Prinz Karl von Hohenlohe-Oehringen and his trusty manservant Wolfgang, who also dusted the rocks, home-cured his own Bavarian speck and led the workers in exercises on the pommel-horse. The place is a thousand feet up on the very lip of a volcanic crater of Homeric renown. It’s dangling over the ridiculously blue Aegean like a dazzling, white dingleberry. Look! Look! There’s a little group of us, laughing, larking, taking snapshots! Recollections of Adolf, Maria, Josef and Magda horsing about on the parapet at Berchtesgaden. I’d whip us up a bowl of freshly grilled octopus with a little lime, chopped serrano chiles, rock salt and fresh coriander. But from where? The fish market is a man with a box next to the ATM on the main square. Vegetables are from one of a score of flourescent mini-markets along the main road to the airport, fine for Huggies and sunscreen, but significantly less replete with hand-plucked caper leaves and limestone-pressed olive oil.
The solution, as ever, is booze. Campari and prosecco in equal measure over crushed ice, juice of half a lemon, an inch-wide landing-strip of orange zest, topped with soda. Tear open a couple of packets of Walkers’ Cheese & Onion and a plastic wrapped hemisphere of supermarket Edam. Gaze out at one of the most extraordinary views on earth as the sun sets and the alcohol begins to tickle the artery walls.