Finding Atlantis in Santorini

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Morning in Oia

The sudden chatter of birds disrupts the quiet as the bells ring out in the city marking the sunrise over Oia. I count the chimes to seven, but the time is 7:17 am; close enough. Sitting on a deck of one of a hundred cave houses nestled into the hillside while overlooking the harbor is not the time to worry about the precision of the church clock.

A cat sits on the rooftop of the house below ours, but immediately jumps down when he sees me, meowing his greeting. He disappears for a moment, then reappears on the ridge above me to jump down onto the patio. After a quick chat and a little cuddle, he curls up on the cushioned bench across from me and goes to sleep. Cats are everywhere in Santorini, just roaming, and for some reason I find them comforting.

A Country That Loves Its Cats

We’ve seen cats in every Greek city since we touched down in Athens. Sometimes they wander alone, other times they roam in packs, seeming to belong to nobody but the city. They perch on the stone walls of the monuments and churches, sleep under the tables of the restaurants, stroll lazily along the sidewalks. Unlike the stray cats of home, these cats appear to be healthy and contented – likely because of soft-hearted suckers like me slipping them morsels of meat and crumbs of bread under the table.

This cat, like the others I’ve encountered, makes me feel like I’m the visitor in his domain instead of the other way around. We’ve got a credit card receipt to prove this house and patio is ours, at least for the time being, but the easy way the cat curls into the cushions and goes to sleep tells me he’s laid claim to this place hundreds of times over before we ever set foot in his domain, and it will still be his long after we leave. To prove his point, he will climb through the windows and sleep on our beds whenever he pleases over the next four days.


Load the Canons!

I turn my gaze back to the harbor of Santorini. Load the canons! I think as the cruise ships roll into the harbor en masse. Each one of them will unload a thousand or more passengers onto the island of Santorini and I’m dreading it. Like them, I’ve come here to enjoy and absorb, but selfishly I want them to stay away.

Others are starting to come out onto the decks of their cliffside cave houses, but like me they are quietly sipping hot drinks, warily eyeing the boats floating stealthily across the harbor toward the part. We are here for more than part of a day, so our demeanors are as calm and serene as the landscape.

The tourists from the boats swarm over the streets, cameras in hand, asserting themselves into our space. I’m no different than them, but somehow I feel more ownership of the island being an unhurried resident for a handful of days instead of a frantic tourist for a few hours trying to take in every site before the ship leaves port again. Is this how the locals felt years ago when the invading fleets rolled into the harbor? Did they silently watch with the same disdain? Yes, they will come, I think, but they won’t stay long.

Hillside Homes and Stone Pathways

Narrow paths of Oia Santorini

The houses built into the hillside of Oia are all connected by touching patios, shared walls, and tight stone footpaths. There is not an inch of bare ground to be seen between the houses or the paths as you wind through the narrow stone walkways between each building. It feels like the quintessential medieval city – everything close and the cobblestones uneven. A wrong step here could be disastrous. In truth, I’ve seen very few children running free, very few elderly tourists, and only a few women in high heels. The steps are narrow in some places, often slanted, uneven, and require full concentration to navigate.

It must be heaven for the cats, like a jungle gym with thousands of nooks and crannies to hide, high surfaces to nap, and narrow walls to walk along, but it is treacherous for those of us who walk on two feet. Everyone is close and the conversations next door sound like they are in the next room, but something about Santorini appeals to me, at least for a little while. I don’t know that I could live this way for more than a few weeks at a time, but I feel like I’m part of a community here just because there is no other choice but to coexist when this close to one another.  

Finding Treasure in Santorini

There is no need to stray far from the small village of Oia, Santorini despite feeling like I’ve explored every gift shop, restaurant, coffee shop and bakery and toured all of its winding pathways. I have discovered something wonderful and could spend endless hours in this one location: Atlantis Books.

It’s a cozy bookstore with treacherously narrow stairs leading down to it, but it is the most amazing place I’ve ever seen! Books everywhere (of course), and little comment cards of favorite quotes or reasons for reading each book hand written by the owner. Rare books, old books, new books, unusual books, more books than one could imagine in this small space. Like every other shop in Oai, this one also has a resident cat and a dog. The cat perches warily under a shelf, but the dog wanders from customer to customer looking to be patted and scratched. I oblige him when he comes my way and I’m rewarded with a growing grin from the scraggly little guy the more I scratch his back, his teeth showing more with every rub as his lips pull back into what can only be described as a smile.

The dogs and cats of santorini

And at the center of it all, is the owner himself – a character as good as any written into any of these books. He’s an American with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, a quick wit, endless knowledge of everything literature, and fascinating opinions on any topic brought to his attention. He is a story in himself, but not one I’ll tell here. (Follow this link if you’d like to see more about him and the beginnings of Atlantis Books.)

Rare Books and Other Gems

Amazing find of a first addition in Santorini book shop

“Take a look at the inside of this one,” he says casually as he places a book in my hand while simultaneously stamping passports of tourists who buy nothing but want the famed Atlantis Books of Oia Santorini stamp added to their travel collection. I had been admiring a 4000 euro first edition copy of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude with a handwritten note below it stating “40 euros per year” This is one of dozens of first editions and rare books displayed on the shelves alongside the freshly printed editions of both classic and modern literature. I’d gazed at, but didn’t dare touch, the set of Mark Twain novels valued at $10,000, set carefully on a shelf behind a thin rope to keep them from sliding and falling. I lusted after the first edition copies of Edith Wharton volumes, and got a bit teary eyed when I discovered a rare copy of a printing of Jane Eyre.

Looking down at the book placed in my hand now, another copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and notice the price tag of $8000. Hardly daring breathe lest I drop the book or do something even more foolish like rip the cover in a spastic moment of excitement.

“Open the cover,” the owner says.

I move like I’m dismantling a bomb, trying not to let my fingers shake as I gingerly turn the cover to reveal the pencil writing on the first page. “Property of Gabriel García Márquez” it reads. This is the copy given to the author directly of the press, he explains. This is Gabriel García Márquez’s copy One Hundred Years Of Solitude! I am in awe.

Atlantis books in Oia, Santorini, What a treasure

If I were a better person, like my many friends who have read his novels and swoon over his brilliance, I would appreciate this moment even more, but I must admit, I’m not a fan of Gabriel García Márquez’s writing. I’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Love in the Time of Cholera, but I just didn’t find either of them as exhilarating as many of my more literary friends find them. Despite my opinion that his writing is tedious, I appreciate his appeal to others and his accomplishments as an author, even if not my taste, and so my awe at holding his own copy of his own book is sincere.

When I left Santorini, I did not have any of the rare editions I admired packed away in my luggage, not even Jane Eyre, but I did purchase a new copy of The Odyssey and The Iliad for my son, complete with Atlantis Books stamps on the inner flap.

Santorini and the beautiful white and blue buildings

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