In A Cave On Santorini
Feature by Willard Manus

We journeyed to the village of Oia (pronounced ee-yah) on Santorini seventeen years ago at the invitation of Erika and Triantafyllos Pitsikali. They had read and liked my memoir of life in the Greek islands, THIS WAY TO PARADISE–DANCING ON THE TABLES, and wanted to meet us. So off Mavis and I went, taking a ferry-boat from Crete that deposited us on Santorini at dawn. Bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived, we caught the first bus to Oia and found our way to Chelidonia Villas, the hotel owned by our hosts.

It was like no other hotel in the world, a complex of caves carved out by nature in the hillside overlooking the caldera created by a volcanic explosion in the Bronze Age. One of the greatest catastrophes of all time, the explosion had a major impact on the Western world and hastened the demise of the Minoan civilization.

As Walter L. Friedrich said in his book “Fire in the Sea,” it has been “warmly debated whether the darkness in the bible–-one of the seven plagues of Egypt-–could be attributed to this eruption.” Some archaeologists believe that Santorini is the fabled island of Atlantis, described by Plato.

There was nothing dark or dangerous about the caldera as viewed from our patio. On the contrary, the vista was preternaturally beautiful: the enclosed waters of the caldera were turquoise blue, the calm sea beyond it shimmered in the sunlight, hawks hovered overhead, then floated off on the northerly breeze. When it grew too hot to remain outdoors, we retreated into our deep, cool, handsomely furnished cave.

That night we dined with Erika and Triantafyllos, who lived nearby in a large, white-washed house with their three young sons and a blind dog. Over a dinner of octopus salad, potatoes, cauliflower, salad and wine, we learned something of their history. They had met in 1971, when the fresh-faced, vivacious Erika came down to Oia on vacation from Austria. They fell in love and decided to marry. “I was happy to trade my conventional life in Austria for life on a Cycladic island,” she said. “My father was a high school teacher in a small town. He wanted me to follow in his footsteps.”

The lean and wiry Triantafyllos had grown up on Santorini in difficult circumstances. “In the old days there wasn’t much work: tomatoes, olives, grapes, some fishing. My father, who is still alive at 92, went to sea when he was young. He was a sailor on old, wooden ships, most of them cold and dirty. He often slept on straw with goats and chickens nearby. As there was no refrigeration, they were slaughtered as the voyage went on. When the steamboats took over, he caught a lung disease because he chose to sleep near the diesel engines to keep warm at night. He had to go into a sanitarium for two years. My mother worked in a sock factory to help support the family.”

At the age of twelve, Triantafyllos took a job in the same factory but hated the work, opting to go to sea instead. He served as a deck-hand on a creaking old Greek tub, the “Kanaris.” His berth was in the forward section of the ship, the worst place to be with the sea crashing against it and the anchor chain rattling as it was hauled up and down.

He decided to try his luck on an international freighter. The life was no better there. “The captains were always exploiting the crews,” he said. “One of them, for example, made us do stevedore work when we dropped anchor in Ghana. He pocketed the money which was supposed to go to the local dock workers. When I protested, the captain threatened to report me to the port police. ‘Go ahead. Do it,’ I told him as I walked off the ship. He screamed after me, “Where do you think you are, in Greece? This is Africa, the blacks will eat your fat body like cannibals!’”

In all his years as a seaman, Triantafyllos served under only one “good” Captain. “All the others were either company men or crooks who tried to skim off as much money as possible from the ship’s running expenses,” he recalled.

Triantafyllos decided to change his life when his freighter reached Boston. He jumped ship and somehow, despite not being able to read or speak English, found his way to Queens, New York, where he had two cousins. One of them supplied work gangs for bridge painting, which is how he soon found himself high above the Hudson River, inside a bunker containing the George Washington Bridge’s electrical wires. “I had to brace myself with my legs while using one hand to paint the ceiling. The pain was excruciating, but I stuck it out because the pay was good.”

He later took on another equally perilous job: helping to paint the top floors of a newly-constructed Manhattan skyscraper. “One of the Greek workers didn’t know how to knot the rope that was supposed to ease him down to the next floor. He started to slip, so I grabbed his line and held on with all my might. I was relieved to hear my boss scream ‘Malaka!’ at the guy.”

When mass tourism came to Santorini, Triantafyllos was able to return to Oia and make a living there, first with a bar, then with his Cheladonia Villas (“Cheladonia” is Greek for turtles, by the way). But financial success has not changed him as a human being. “I still hate it when the powerful exploit the weak. It drives me mad.”

In recent years both he and Erika have fought many acrimonious battles with the village authorities. “PASOK, the left-wing party in Greece, has been in power for two decades. It’s an oligarch, locally and nationally,” Erika said. “They take money from people but give nothing back. The medical coverage is awful, the schools as well: the students don’t have books or computers. My eldest son hates school so much he refuses to go.”

Politics has an iron grip on Oia. “If you belong to the wrong party, as we do, you will have endless fights over building and property rights,” Triantafyllos said. “Last year the police came to our house with orders from the mayor to check windows I had installed eighteen years ago. I wouldn’t let them in, citing the privacy clause in the Greek constitution. The police arrested me and kept me overnight. I complained about the conditions in my jail cell, which had a black, filthy mattress stained from years of use. It stank from all the times Albanian prisoners had pissed on it.”

Mavis and I left Erika and Triantafyllos at about midnight, grateful for the hospitality they had shown us--and for all they had taught us about the way things work in Greece.

(Chelidonia Villas, Oia, Santorini, Greece 84702. Call + 30-22-86-071287 or visit