The stunning transformation of Santorini’s Cave Houses, Greece

Walking around the streets of Fira, the capital of Santorini, which are now packed with shops, on the one side was the Orthodox Cathedral, with its white architecture, all domes and arches. Going further upwards, I could see some of the manors left after the terrible earthquake of 1956, although they had been renovated. The most imposing was the Gyzi Manor, built in the 18th century, in the Renaissance-style. It was the only residence whose ground floor surrounded an interior courtyard, like those we see in Italy. Arches bridged the cobbled streets, charmingly maintaining the hue that the patina of time had left them.

The Gyzi Manor in Thira, Santorini

The Gyzi Manor in Thira, Santorini

Next to this, another charm awaited me. The stunning Catholic Cathedral, in the baroque style, with its gray-blue colours inside. Upon entering, I felt as though I was in a peaceful oasis. I sat in a stall and gentle, choral music brought tears to my eyes as I remembered Rome, when I was sitting in my beloved little church with the angels playing high in the sky.

I quickly came to my senses when, coming out, the strong sun sent me along the old path that runs to the edge of the Caldera, and there I found what my friend Dimitris Tsitouras had been talking about. In the straightening part above were the manors of the wealthy merchants of the island, while the cave-dwellings of the simple inhabitants tumbled down the cliff.

The author at the Grace Hotel in Firostefani

The author at the Grace Hotel in Firostefani

Lords and common folk separated by this path, as in Oia, where the captains’ homes, built in the late 19th and early 20th century, gorgeous with their neoclassical architecture, often with Venetian and Renaissance influences, were at the front of the cliff, while the neighborhood containing the homes of the crews were on the other side of the cliff. The path that once separated them is today paved with marble slabs and, in some parts, where the road widens, I saw all the international brands housed and I couldn't help but think that Rodeo Drive also existed in Santorini.

Katikies Hotel in Oia

Katikies Hotel in Oia

The cave-dwellings had been easy to dig out because of the volcanic soil. They are oblong with a vaulted ceiling and each one-room house was divided into two sections: the "hall" or living-room area in front and the "chamber" in back, which got its lighting from the main “hall” area. A look at them from the path consumes you with their beauty. They are so densely and consistently constructed that the yard of one is the roof of the next, architectural shapes with incredible plasticity to create a look, and these were the houses of the crews which, ironically, were able to withstand the 1956 earthquake, while most of the captains’ homes were destroyed.

1864 The Sea Captain's House in Oia

1864 The Sea Captain's House in Oia

And even more ironically, these poor homes of Santorini, with their magnificent views, became a source of wealth on the island and were turned into the much sought-after boutique hotels, a chaotic labyrinth of stairs, chimneys, blue-domed churches and perforated bell towers, all woven together and hooked onto the cliff - a miracle created by the hand of man.

Katikies Hotel in Oia

Katikies Hotel in Oia

An excerpt from the book: GREECE, The Dance of the Seas

The photo of the Oia cave houses in the blog cover page is attributed to Giorgos Tsoumpas  

Barbara Athanassiadis