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Sep 11, 2017 11:58 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Santorini: The Real Azure Blue

An example of the ubiquitous blue domes of Santorini. MARSHALL WATSON
Sep 11, 2017 12:13 PM

Most of the world’s great cities were founded in locations accessible to trade along rivers, great harbors, or geographical centers that were easily reached by traders or farmers selling their wares and produce. However, many of the most beautiful cities and villages were founded in locations that were particularly inaccessible to trade and discovered to be difficult locations to invade or attack because they were remote and off the beaten path. As a result, we now inherit cities and villages around the globe positioned in ravishing natural surroundings.Venice comes immediately to mind. Founded basically in a shallow swamp at a remote distance from the shores of the Veneto, the early Venetians learned that the expansive lagoons were impossible for the deep keelboats of the Eastern marauders to navigate without getting stuck. The armies of the marauding Huns could not traverse the treacherously shallow lagoon on foot or horseback because they misunderstood both the tides and the depths. The Venetians, with their intimate knowledge of the lagoon and their shallow nimble vessels, could counterattack quickly and efficiently, picking off the enemy easily.

Venice, rising on pilings upon this impossibly serene tidal lagoon, became not only one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but one of the most atmospheric, with the shimmering canals, maritime mist and the magnificent architecture. Venice is an impossible location, yet a magnificent experience.

The Greek island Santorini is another of these uncanny spots, where constant invaders and pirates forced the population to build on top of the craggy cliffs and spires of a volcanic crater that pierces through the azure Mediterranean Sea. More easily defended, these dense towns and villages cling to precipitous cliffs of dark red and black and volcanic rock. Viewed from a distance, Santorini’s whitewashed villages appear like new snow on top of a mountain’s peak. As you draw closer, the buildings appear as a jumble of forms, rounded and oblong, but seldom pure rectangles or squares. Helter-skelter mounds of white plaster, formed not by machine or mold, but by the human hand, pile on top of these inhospitable protrusions of rocky lava. Few have the mark of an architect’s drafting tool. Instead, the structures follow the organic shapes of the boulders, squeezing abodes between crevices, or fitting the shapes of one home puzzle-like into the shape of another home. And in fact, in the capital, Thera, and the small village Oia, many homes have rooms bored into the rock itself like deep caves with vaulted ceilings whose doors and windows are simply façades into the inner mountain sanctums.

These organic residences crawl over the rocks and carefully cascade down the steep cliffs, adhering like thick white lichen to the few available level ledges. The streets are narrow pathways that meander, traverse, step down, climb up, and wind around these organic plaster shapes. Piercing these shapely residences, the windows and doorways are the only visible wood in the structures (the islands are not forested, therefore a scarcity of wood prevails.) The windows and doors are either deeply weathered or painted in a brilliant and cheerful electric blue that can only be described as Aegean blue, truly the blue of the Greek flag.

The towns and villages, painted almost entirely white, appear fresh and pure in the mornings, then glare in the bright midday light, and settle down to a sparkling glimmer near the evening’s radiant sunsets. The Aegean Sea, as a backdrop and visible everywhere, is a dark blue, with very little turquoise in it. The sea is simply too deep for greens. The beaches are black or red with little opportunity to tint the water a Caribbean or a Gulf Coast green. The Aegean is definitely a purer and richer blue than our Atlantic, which traverses a range of subtle shades from silver to periwinkle to teal. Given that the interior and exterior walls are painted white, blue is the primary accent color. Frankly, other colors feel inappropriate here. With the searing sun bouncing off the pure white, (Benjamin Moore Chantilly lace is the closest white I can equate to Santorini white), bright Aegean blue, and bright sky blue, bring fresh relief to the eyes, flesh, and soul.

The famous blue domes of Santorini signify either that the building is an Orthodox church or chapel. These blue domes punctuate the villages’ hillsides and the overall skyline of Santorini. The round windmills are picturesque with their ghostlike skeletons of fan blades awaiting their stretches of canvas. In fact, domes, barrel vaults, and groin vaults are ubiquitous in the architecture. They are ever so practical and protective in case of earthquakes, which are quite common here. In fact, during the 1950s, Santorini experienced an earthquake so devastating that entire villages were flattened, and much of the population fled not to return until the 1970s. (It seems to take a generation to forget devastation.)

Much of the island has been rebuilt since the 1970s, but that unfortunate period of architecture likely did not influence the island, as the population continues to build in the traditional way with traditional methods.

The overall effect of the villages is a collage of organic white structures that stretch over the cratered cliffs like ice capped mountains dotted with tiny blue soaking pools and blue domes.

Decorating itself appropriately veers toward the rustic, almost primitive. The furnishings look best when they appear as if they have been dredged up from the sea, blasted by the winds and sand, and allowed to dry and bleach on the rocky shores.

Crude linen with crude embroidery looks best here on Santorini and crochet makes a welcome comeback in linens, curtains, tablecloths and the fashions worn by the Greek women. Bougainvillea, a dry-loving plant, climbs the walls while skimpy grapevines clothe the raw cut trellises. The grapevines here are not trained on fencing wires. They simply spread on the ground like strawberries. This preserves their leaves from the dry harsh winds, which tend to desiccate the leaves. By the way, the white wines are dry, slightly fruity and crisp.

The island of Santorini is a lesson in romance, a constant soft breeze, small intimate spaces, whitewashed and blanched by the sun, and accented with small jewel-like dipping pools. Startling blue trim, charming pathways, meandering alleys, cascading steps and beautiful domes enfold the visitor with warmth.

We experienced countless young couples on honeymoon, which only makes sense, because the architecture is diminutive, accessible, and serves only to frame the magnificent views of the sparkling azure Aegean. It feels like one’s own very private hideaway!

The precipitous 1,000-foot cliffs, the improbably clear blue sky, and the lemon yellow sun serve only to enhance the mystery of Santorini’s association with Atlantis, which purportedly sunk into the volcano’s crater after a cataclysmic event blew the entire center of the island sky high creating a 900-foot tsunami that may have wiped out Crete’s Minoan culture around 1500 BC. Atlantis is only legendary, adding to the island’s magical allure. So whether pursuing wine, Aegean cuisine, archaeology, diving, dramatic scenery, fresh interior design or romance, Santorini may be the destination for you.

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