You know that Greek little village with the white washed buildings sitting in the caldera? If you’ve seen any of those photos, they were very likely of Oía, Santorini. The place of magical sunsets. But also a place of mass tourism. Heaven and hell at the same time.
I was meaning to write this post for a long long time. Like I was meaning to write many other posts. But here I am, at 23:11 on a weekend evening finally getting round to it after so many months. Although it somehow seems like it’s been years, it actually wasn’t that long ago.
Looking through my Lightroom catalogue and slowly editing the shots I feel like I’ve just left Santorini. I often think that this kind of late editing extends and intensifies the experience somehow. If I wanted to be very philosophical, I’d say it’s probably one of the reasons we love photography so much. Our photos are bottled up memories and impressions. I guess that’s why they sometimes mean so much to us. But we don’t want to be philosophical. So let’s get down to the practical things.
THE GEM OF THE CYCLADES
Oía is nested in the northernmost slopes of the caldera. It’s idyllic white washed buildings and blue domes quietly sit in the volcanic rock. The streets, although narrow, are lined with shops, cafés and restaurants. Wherever you go, you will have a view of the crystal clear turquoise sea.
Oía is so beautiful that at times it almost seems unreal. The sunsets here are an absolute tourist magnet – no wonder, they are truly magical. Sitting on the edge of the caldera, the world around you somehow shrinks, while the setting sun seems larger and more fiery than anywhere else in the world, painting the skies in the most vibrant colours. Who wouldn’t want to see that? You’d be mad if you didn’t. Everyone does. I did too.
WHEN NOT TO GO
Instead of encouraging everyone to go at a certain time, I’d rather tell you when you absolutely don’t want to be in Santorini. Any time in the summer is a bad time. Not only because of the extreme heat (you really don’t want to be grilled in the sun) and the boring cloudless skies (believe me, you need them clouds for that sunset colour-splash), but because of the masses that arrive on the cruise ships and literally flood the narrow streets of the village (drowning guaranteed).
Absolute hell for a photographer. Tourist, tourists everywhere. You want to avoid that at all cost. Talking about costs, out of seasons is actually considerably cheaper. Hotel and BnB prices are about 50% lower. Also, many souvenir shops close for the winter, which means you sure will save some money by note taking home more clutter.
The bottom line is: avoid the summer, go for the winter period. You’ll have beautiful light, epic clouds and save quite a bit of cash for your next trip. Win, win, win.
WHEN TO SHOOT
Although sunsets are a killer, you will be astonished by the sunrises just the same. If you want to avoid the crowds, get out before sunset. The only companion you’ll have will be the local dogs and the occasional photographer that roam the streets. I spend a week in Oía end of October / beginning of November and only met a few other people in the mornings, all who arrived to the locations an hour or two later than me. I honestly thought there will be dozens of photographers, but there were almost none. I solemnly swear I’ll post a morning shot very soon.
The sunsets, however, have their perks of course. So if you are up for waiting about two to three hours before the light happens to beat the crowds and get a good spot for your shot, you are up for a treat. The evenings are much better for time blending or blue hour shots too, if you wish to make use of both natural and city lights. Note however, the more out of season you are, the less light you’ll get from the buildings as the majority of the houses are exclusively accommodating tourists.
Another note of warning, make sure you secure your camera and tripod as the majority of tourists will not be paying attention to anyone around. You want to make sure your gear is not pushed over and down the caldera. I was fortunate enough to return with my Nikon undamaged, but my tripod did indeed have a fly into a private property below us. Which is not too bad – it could have been the camera.
To give you an idea how crowded it might get round sunset, even in October, here are two images – quite bad ones, I’m afraid – I took with my phone. Round blue hour, however, the cruise ship passengers all leave, the (self-proclaimed) photographers stay. Note on the side, I’m also guilty of taking one of those annoying dangling-feet selfies. But I honestly couldn’t resist. Look the view from the absolute edge of the Londsa-Burg! You have to take a snap as a proof of being there – mainly for yourself.
WHERE TO SHOOT
Although Oía is a very small settlement, you sure can get lost in the maze of its narrow lanes. So, instead of complicated descriptions and street names that I can neither write nor could you read (unless you speak Greek of course), here are the GPS coordinates of the iconic spots I captured.
Londsa-Burg, first photo below, where you can also dangle your feet: 36°27’36.0″N 25°22’22.5″E
Oía sunset photo spot, second photo below, where you can capture the caldera with the blue domes and/or the church bells: 36°27’40.4″N 25°22’33.1″E
But of course you want to also avoid the obvious shots and find more unique compositions. Oía will have opportunities in abundance. Below are some of my interpretations of the village (not quite sure why the chairs, but I ended up with these shots as some of my favourites). Make sure, however, that you scout out the place during the day and plan ahead. You can use an app for determining where exactly the sun will rise or set. I’m an absolute fan of PhotoPills. For one, I can neither pronounce nor correctly write the other the name of the other popular app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, so that’s out for me. Joke aside, both are fantastic tools, only I find PhotoPills to be more practical for my needs. Perhaps I’ll write a post about this at some point.
All this being said, I still have some doubt about tourism to Santorini.
THE VOICE WITHIN
I’m not hinting at that Christina Aguilera song. I’m talking about the mixed feelings I had and still have about my trip to Santorini. I wanted to have a piece of that Santorini magic. And it was indeed an experience of a lifetime. Never have I ever seen so many beautiful sunsets and sunrises in one week. But I’m still torn knowing we’re overcrowding the place.
Cruise ship after cruise ship arrives in the harbour of Thíra, coach after coach arrives to Oía, literally flooding the streets. Busloads of sunset-chasers stride down the main street to claim a spot at the tip of the caldera. Each year it’s about 2 million of them. In a tiny village that is struggling to cope with the consequences of mass tourism.
In a Guardian article, Helena Smith argues that Santorini has hit saturation point. She emphasised the fact that “the tourism boom has amplified socioeconomic tensions and placed an intolerable burden on the island’s infrastructure”. The situation is pointing to a catastrophe due to the lack of environmental as well as economic sustainability. Water consumption, just one of the examples mentioned by Smith, has increased by almost 50%, when the supplies cannot be maintained.
On some days, Oía sees about 18.000 cruise ship passengers when the entire population of the island is round 25.000. The numbers are beyond comprehension. The probably worst thing is that these visitors come, rush to the sunset spots, litter the streets, yet barely spend a penny on the island. Clearly, this cannot be sustainable. Apart from that, many of the tourists completely disrespect the locals’ private property, climbing onto rooftops and balconies for that perfect selfie. This is not only disrespectful, but at times quite dangerous.
Having said all this, yes, sunsets are still beautiful, and yes we still want to see them. The question is, what can we do to help save this beautiful island from an environmental, social, and economic disaster? A good start would to respect the locals as well as the environment. Don’t litter, don’t climb fences. If you really want to see that Oía sunset, why not stay for the night, get some food at one of the traditional eateries and enjoy the atmosphere without rushing. Contribute to maintaining this unique place by what you can afford so that we can still enjoy those astonishing sunsets from the edge of the caldera in the decades and centuries to come. The demise of Oía would be such a loss. Don’t you agree?
What is your view on mass tourism? What about (dis-)respecting private property for getting a shot? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
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