Let us explore the traditional villages of Santorini, unbeknownst to most as they are not the top touristic attractions on the island. The villages of Firostefani, Imerovigli, Pyrgos and Akrotiri, while heard of by many, are not discovered and thoroughly explored by the masses. Let it be said and true, however, that after visiting these fascinating and extraordinary villages, anyone will exclaim that their expectations of beauty and delight were greatly surpassed.
Firostefani is the neighboring village to the north of Fira, situated along Santorini’s majestic caldera. The name Firostefani means 'Crown of Fira,' as the word ‘stefani’ means ‘crown.’ The predominant characteristics are of a quiet, peaceful village concentrated with picturesque, vividly colored traditional houses, villas, studios and rooms, offering narrow paths and breathtaking views to the volcano. One will almost not even realize that they have crossed over into a different village as the architecture and layout are very similar to its neighboring village of Fira. The biggest difference, however, is that you will no longer be passing through pathways lined with shops, cafes, boutiques and restaurants. This is the perfect place for tourists to secure an accommodation, guaranteeing them a more peaceful and quiet setting, still within manageable walking distance to dining and shops. Without a doubt, the views from this part of Santorini are spectacular, offering yet another perspective of Santorini’s volcano. From this viewpoint, one can enjoy the magnificent sight of Fira and the amazing sunset in the evening.
Although more quiet and peaceful, the village does offer its guests a few restaurants and cafes. Luckily, however, they are more graciously located on the most fabulous locations with incredible views. Between the village of Firostefani and Imerovigli lies the Agios Nikolas Monastery. This is the spot of one of the most famous blue domed churches on the island. Make sure not to miss the incredible photo opportunity here.
For those looking to shop, one can find a few stores, but keep in mind that most of them are concentrated at the main shopping street, at the center of Firostefani. So, if it’s beauty, location on the cliffside, tranquil setting and quiet you seek, this is the village for you. Even if you aren’t spending your nights here, it’s certainly worth the visit to wander through its small pathways, along the edge of the caldera.
Imerovigli is a scenic, traditional village located on the caldera’s edge, just north of Firostefani and only 2 kilometers away from the capital of Fira. It is nicknamed the “Balcony of the Aegean” as it is the highest point on the cliff’s edge. Plus, its name, Imerovigli, comes from the words ‘mera,’ meaning ‘day’ and ‘vigla,’ which means ‘viewing point’ in Greek. The position of the village, perched at approximately 350 meters above sea level, provides a clear view of the entire caldera and each of the openings into the lagoon.
During the Byzantine period, when Santorini was under Venetian rule, this village was also utilized as the perfect lookout point for raids of pirate ships. It also derived importance from its proximity to the Skaros Fortress, which was the first Venetian Castle built on Santorini in 1207 and the first fortified settlement. It’s hard to imagine now, because only scarce remains of the fortress ruins are visible, however, atop the Skaros rock there once stood a castle and at its peak was a huge bell tower used to warn of pirate intrusions. During that time, the Skaros castle was known as Santorini’s first capital and housed all the administrative offices of the island. At that time, it was simply referred to as ‘Kastro,’ which means ‘castle’ in Greek. Skaros was the capital of Santorini until the late 17th century, although evacuation of Skaros started at the beginning of the 17th century, when it was shaken repeatedly by strong earthquakes, particularly the one of 1650 and when the volcano experienced continuous eruptions between the years of 1707 through 1711. This part of the island collapsed after an earthquake and only the huge hill of Skaros is left today. Imerovigli provides a path from the caldera walkway to Skaros Rock and to the Chapel of Panagia Theoskepasti, which is located at the front of the rock. It’s a marvel to walk these same paths that locals and royalty used to many centuries ago.
Nowadays, hotels, villas, rooms and traditional houses are plentiful in Imerovigli as it is known as the ultimate romantic destination. There are also many tavernas and cafes with stunning views to the caldera. The largest part of Imerovigli was destroyed in the Amorgos earthquake of 1956. Some of the population perished, while others moved away to the mainland. Imerovigli has since then been restored and is home to some of the most beautiful hotels and traditional cave house settlements on the island. It is argued that this village is the most romantic, scenic, and serene village for couples to stay. It’s undeniably the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking of all the viewpoints along the caldera, essentially because of its sheer height and visibility.
Pyrgos is a lovely traditional village located 8 kilometers southeast of Fira. Although this village is situated more inland and not on the cliff’s edge, it is on a fabulous spot on top of a hill and displays an incredible panoramic view of the island. Hence, the name Pyrgos, literally means ‘tower’ in Greek. Plus, since it sits at a higher altitude, this village still provides wonderful views of the sunset. For instance, if you make your way up from the main square towards the mansion of Zannos Melathron and up, you will discover one or two wonderful hillside cafes from which you can sip on a glass of wine and breathe in the sunsets and the panoramic views.
Pyrgos was the second capital of the island and it remained there until the early 1800s, when it was moved to Fira. Today, although the village of Pyrgos is a traditional village, it has certainly started to make it on the touristic map, making it well-known for its major tourist movement. This is largely because of the splendid Easter celebrations instituted a few years ago by its deputy mayor. The day before Palm Sunday, the whole place is fragrant with the scent of rosemary that decorates the 17-meter cross. The whole island turns out for the procession of the Epitaphios on Good Friday, when the village shines like a jewel in the night as it is decked out with tin lanterns surrounded everywhere in the village, on every rooftop, balcony and street. In Pyrgos’ square an effigy is burnt and there are fireworks, lamb on the spit and of course, wine. This is certainly a spectacle worth witnessing and no better way to get a real, authentic feel of experiencing Greek ceremonial traditions.
The village consists of traditional houses built all around and in succession of the Venetian castle, which is perched at the peak of the village’s hilltop. It hosts extremely small, labyrinth streets that follow the natural flow of the surrounding landscape. The Venetian castle is one of the five on the island of Santorini and dates back to the 13th century. This fortified settlement is built up onto the hill and offers superb views of both sides of the island. The houses are the perfect example of Cycladic design and in superb condition.
The village has many churches, around 33, but the most famous is the Monastery of Profitis Ilias, where a small collection of ethnographic material and old icons are exhibited. The Monastery of Prophet Elias, which was built in 1712 by two brothers from Pyrgos is located at the highest point on the mountain of Mesa Vouno, 2000 feet or 567 meters above sea level. This is a superb place to get perfect 360 degree, panoramic photographs of the island as well visit a small Greek Orthodox chapel and to sample some local wine and other delights produced by the monks at the monastery.
Traditional architecture, remains of neo-classical mansions, narrow winding paths leading up the hillside, small white houses, galleries, vineyards, churches, breathtaking sunsets are just some of the reasons that make Pyrgos truly magical, winter and summer alike.
Akrotiri is amphitheatrically built at the southeastern side of the island and located next to the famous Red Beach. In Medieval times, Akrotiri was one of the 5 fortified settlements on the island. Akrotiri is a village of great interest on the south west coast of Santorini. Apart from having some of the best views on the island which reach as far as Oia, magnificent sunsets, wonderful fish tavernas, quiet undeveloped beaches, and tiny churches, it is also home to two of Santorini's jewels, the Akrotiri Excavations and the Akrotiri Castle.
Most importantly, it is the location of the excavation site of the ruins of Ancient Akrotiri, where traces of human life date back to the Neolithic period, 4500BC, when it was once thought of as a Minoan settlement. Today, it is one of the major tourist attractions and the most important archeological site of Santorini.
The prehistoric town was destroyed due to a massive volcanic eruption around 1600 BC. Nowadays, the picturesque streets, the two-story buildings, the lovely frescoes and plenty of tools, provide witness to the way of life in the prehistoric times. Today, these beautiful frescoes of the ancient city of Akrotiri can only be seen in the Prehistoric Museum of Fira, Santorini and mostly at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.
Some splendid houses are dotted around the village as well as a traditional windmill. Many tour boats arrive in Akrotiri and tourists are scattered to the nearby beaches of the area. Another place of interest is the Venetian castle that dominates the settlement of Akrotiri, which after the occupation of Santorini by the Turks was torn down. The remains of the castle are still easily visible today.
The town has lovely hotels and many local tavernas with a splendid view to the sea. Akrotiri has plenty of churches to visit and one of the most beautiful is the church of Agios Nikolaos, built right above the impressive deep red rocks on the way to the Red Beach.
Red beach in the Akrotiri area is a beautiful beach, well known for its unique colored sand and the cliffside behind it. Soaring red lava cliffs, which drop right to the sandy shore and into the clear blue sea, make for a majestic setting anyone is sure to enjoy.
The village of Akrotiri is also home to a splendid lighthouse and one of the most magnificent and serene places to watch the sunset. Akrotiri lies exactly on the axis of the shipping lane from Piraeus to Alexandria and the lighthouse here is one of the best in Greece. It can be found 18 kilometers from Fira at an altitude of 58 meters. The lighthouse was built during the Ottoman Rule and then refurbished in 1892 by the French company 'La Société Collas et Michel'. Initially, it operated on oil, and its beams reached 23 nautical miles. In 1983 electricity was installed and in 1988 the lighthouse became fully automated.
Another notable and highly interesting stop in Akrotiri is a small cove north west of Akrotiri village, called Balos. According to tradition, it was called that because 'there the girls dance the Balos.' In the 19th century it was used as a small commercial harbor that serviced the needs of the community in the area. Today, getting down to the cove is rather difficult since the steps have fallen into a state of disrepair. However, one can approach the cave Chapel of Eisodion Theotokou, otherwise known as Panagia of Balos by means of a cement paved path. In older times, nuns used to live in caves on the Caldera cliffs, the main cave being a shrine of Agia Triada. According to local history, the caves have tunneled passage ways, and were used by the nuns as refuge or to escape from raids on the island.
Akrotiri offers its guests a little taste of it all. Not only does it have an astounding history, the famous red beach, Santorini’s lighthouse, a Venetian castle, beautiful chapels and churches, quiet hidden beaches and cave dwellings, but it also has a local farmers market and the oldest vineyards of all the island. If allotted the time, give yourself a least a couple of days to explore and fully experience the gems this village has to offer.
Stay tuned for the Part 3 of Villages of Santorini, where we will discover what’s behind the veil of the least discovered, unmentioned villages of the island. The villages that mostly locals know about and travelers never hear of unless they talk to the locals. This will be the final post to this blog series in which we will discuss the wonders of villages like Emporio, Karterados, Messaria, and more.