I returned to Santorini late one summer afternoon, just as the evening breeze was beginning to gust up the steep volcanic cliffs. That first night, the winds howled like a choir of crazed sirens; but the following morning the storm had passed. Opening the bedroom door, I looked out on to one of the most spectacular views in the whole Aegean.
From the edge of the white-washed terrace, the land fell almost a thousand feet to a great cauldron of clear-blue seawater far below. That cauldron – the caldera – was held in the rocky embrace of two arms of cliff. Within the waters of the caldera lay two islands, one of flat black lava, the other, more mountainous, of variegated white pumice.
Further out to sea lay a misty ripple of smaller volcanic rocks, sea-crags and islets. To both left and right the steep beds of stratigraphy fell away like the section of a geological map in distinct layers of gritty-grey, white-ochre and ferrous-red, each bed marking a different eruption or lava flow. But it was one eruption in particular that I knew had changed the island’s history.
Before 1,600BC, Santorini was a circular island: a single steep-sided mountain sticking out of the Mediterranean sea. But then the volcano exploded, with such unprecedented force that ash blotted out sunlight from most of the Mediterranean for an entire year, while tidal waves inundated neighbouring islands and created havoc as far away as Egypt.
Midway through the eruption, one side of the mountain collapsed and the heart of the island sank beneath the waves. The crater then filled with seawater and the island was left a jagged crescent. What had once been the eastern slopes of the old mountain remained hanging over the crater, looking down sheer cliffs on to the new bay that had just opened up beneath. The largest of the two islands in the caldera, Therasia, is the remains of what was once the north-western edge of the volcano, now separated from the main island.
The same explosion which gave Santorini its distinctive shape also made it home to one of the most interesting archaeological discoveries of modern times. In 1967 the Greek archaeologist Spiridon Marinatos discovered that at the time of the catastrophe Santorini had been a flourishing island kingdom, culturally linked to Minoan Crete. At Akrotiri, on the south of the island, he found the island’s principal port, its houses and their contents preserved by the ash and lava that had covered them. In substantial three- and four-storey houses he found huge scroll-painted pithoi pots, marble figurines of egg-shell delicacy, beautiful clay pyxis and incense burners, bronze implements, obsidian axe-heads and gold jewellery; but, most exciting of all, several cycles of frescoes of the greatest beauty. All these had lain buried for 36 centuries.
I first came to Santorini in 1976 as an 11-year-old. It was my first trip to either Greece or the Mediterranean. I was so excited by what I saw, and the startling combination of apocalyptic geology and an archaeological discovery worthy of Indiana Jones, that I wrote a breathless essay about it, which won my first ever prize for writing. I was very proud of it at the time, though in retrospect it was a babble of far-fetched speculation that echoed some of the more excitable theories then circulating about the civilisation that had just been revealed by Marinatos’s dig. Could it be, I wrote, that Santorini was really the Atlantis that Plato said had sunk beneath the waves, drowning an entire civilisation? Could the back-suck from the collapse of the volcano have emptied the Red Sea, allowing Moses and the Israelites to cross to the Sinai? Then could the tsunami that followed have been the backwash that engulfed Pharaoh’s army? I was quite convinced I had solved one of the great mysteries of the ancient world.
Returning for the first time after a gap of more than 35 years, I expected Santorini to be a disappointment. I had such gilded memories of that first trip that there seemed no way the real island could possibly live up to my romanticised, childhood memories.
Yet Santorini remains as wonderful to the adult eye as it does to that of a child. It may not be the lost key to unlock the mysteries of the Old Testament, but there can be few better places in the Mediterranean to sit as the sun goes down, gazing over the islands and sipping a glass of cold ouzo. And while it may not be the lost Atlantis either – Plato clearly says that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules (ie Gibraltar) so, if anywhere, Atlantis was probably the less romantically named Doggerland, the lost land-bridge connecting the Weald with France that now lies under the English Channel – the archaeology is no less remarkable than I imagined it aged 11.
It is true that the excavations themselves, which reopened earlier this year with a fancy new modernist wood and steel cover, are a little underwhelming: a town that has been buried by ash and lava still looks like a scene from a disaster movie, however splendidly it is lit and enhanced by its new cover. But the frescoes discovered by Marinatos and his successors are astonishing by any standards. They show wide-eyed boy-boxers with ringlets, playfully exchanging punches; trading fleets of canopied rowing galleys; elegant and bare-breasted young women, lithe, loose limbed and sensuous; and breaking the silence that seems to echo through most of these images, jungles full of tree-swinging blue monkeys crashing noisily through the canopy of palm trees.
Several of the Akrotiri wall paintings are now in Athens but the recently opened Santozeum museum has superb life-size copies of all the ones that have been whisked away to the capital, while the spectacularly redesigned Prehistoric Museum in Fira preserves the best cycles of frescoes that remain on the island.
There is a wonderfully strong and refined simplicity of line to the aesthetic of ancient Thira and it is visible on both the frescoes and the pots. The same elemental and stripped-down minimalism that you find on Cycladic sculpture – those marble figurines with wedge-shaped heads, swan necks and crossed arms that so captivated sculptors such as Brancusi, Giacometti and Henry Moore – was also shared by the painting that decorates the pithoi of Akrotiri. Some of the largest pots are decorated with blocks of primary colours like an early Ben Nicholson; others with elegant and lightly-sketched clumps of irises. Swallows swoop, dragonflies dance and diving dolphins hunt for fish; groups of alert and nervous antelope graze on some distant savannah; wasp-waisted and long-haired serving girls carry food to some great pre-historic feast; agapanthus and papyrus flowers, myrtle and crocuses all billow eternally in the remembered Aegean breeze of 2,000BC.
It would be stretching the truth to call Santorini an unspoilt island: there has been a huge amount of development since the 1970s and the clifftops are now crowded as Fira has grown from a tiny village to a considerable town. But planning regulations are tight on the island and most of the new houses have at least been built to the old Ottoman designs and with proper stone, or with curved roof-lines in imitation of the traditional houses built into the island’s cliffs. The best villas on the island are astonishing – I stayed in the fabulous Santorini 1V, apparently a favourite of the singer Norah Jones – and are all designed so that they look out over the caldera.
The real highlight, however, is a spectacular new property on the island of Therasia. To reach it from Fira you head north to the furthest tip of the island, away from the vineyards that flourish in the fertile soil around the capital, and into a starker, drier and more barren landscape, passing great shelves of stilled lava. The only vegetation here are hardy fig trees whose roots grip their way between volcanic boulders. Out of this parched landscape rises the white hilltop town of Oia; and at its base, reached by a long-winding flight of steps, is the jetty where the power-launch to the Hideaway lies waiting.
The Hideaway is the creation of a blonde, bronzed and bearded Greek Viking called Costis Psychas. His grandfather was an Athenian sea captain who traded between the Aegean and the Black Sea, shipping the sweet Santorini Vin Santo wine to Odessa, whence it was sent by railroad to Moscow and St Petersburg as the preferred altar wine of the Russian Orthodox church. Costis’s grandfather had always recruited his crews from the sailors of Oia, and in the mid-1980s his father returned to the island and opened a stylish hotel in the town: Perivolas still remains arguably Santorini’s best hotel.
In 2000, Costis finally managed to buy up the southern coastline of Therasia, just off Oia: it took him nearly 10 years to persuade the 24 different owners of the land to sell. At the centre of his dream were some abandoned mine workings from which, in the 1850s, fine white pumice had once been extracted to create the cement that was shipped across the Mediterranean to build the Suez Canal and the port of Piraeus.
Over five years Costis converted the old mine into a luxurious cross between a Bond villain’s lair and a minimalist boutique hotel, all whitewash, rolling arches and astonishing sea views. It is as private as you could possibly wish – there is no other property on this side of the island, and no road connecting it with anywhere else – and almost impossibly lovely. It comes with a staff of four: a boatman for the Scorpion power-launch, which can take you on trips around the caldera; a butler; a wonderful chef who makes excellent Greek salads, kebabs and seafood; and a cleaner. Having just spent a blissful week there, reading, eating and snorkelling, I should warn that re-entry to normal life is not easy.
William Dalrymple was a guest of Five Star Greece and easyJet. Five Star Greece offers stays at the Hideaway, which sleeps eight, from €6,000 per day, and at Santorini 1V, which sleeps 10 from €1,900 per day. Easyjet has three flights a week from London Gatwick to Santorini, from £79 return.