The Vampires of Santorini
Sink your teeth into the Cycladic island's juiciest secret and you'll find superstitious lips fastened tight on this Greek idyll's ghoulish pastFeatured August 09 Words by Camilla Howe
PHOTO © PHOTOLIBRARY
What pops into your mind when you think of Santorini? Is it images of wild volcanic scenery, magical sunsets, dark sandy beaches and pretty whitewashed houses with blue domed roofs? Or endless sunshine, laid-back tavernas, quaffable red wine and fashionable nightlife? If so, you're not wrong; the southern Cycladic island has all this in spades. But there's a darker underbelly to the Greek paradise that few people are aware of.
Forget Transylvania, with its infamous, blood-thirsty Count Dracula. It's Santorini that's thought to be the place in the world most inhabited by vampires. But why Santorini? Greek legend has it that suspected vampire corpses were rowed across to islands for burial, as these spooky ghouls were supposedly unable to cross sea water. Santorini and neighbouring islets Thirassia and Kameni are believed to house many of them, basically acting as mass dumping grounds for the undead.
The undeniably beautiful landscape can certainly appear a little sinister on occasion.
The volcanic backdrop is eerily desolate and at times, you can catch the slight whiff of sulphur on the wind. It's not surprising that legends of vampires, or vrykolakas as they are known in Greek, caught the imagination of Santorini's past inhabitants.
So what do you need to know about vrykolakas? First of all, forget Hollywood stereotypes - Greek vampires are an altogether different prospect. Unlike their Balkan cousins, they are rarely associated with blood sucking and you'll need more than sunshine and garlic-infused meze to protect you from these creatures.
According to legend, locals who died violently, lived a sinful life or didn't get a proper burial were taken over by an evil spirit and became vrykolakas. Even a cat jumping over your corpse before you were buried could result in you turning into one of the undead.
Death plays an important role in many Greek legends, expressing a deep-rooted belief in the sanctity of life. Legend has it that a vampire would knock on the door of a house, calling out the names of the residents. If they didn't reply straight away, it would pass on, but woe betide those who opened the door. To avoid a sticky end and ghoulish transformation, superstition dictates that you should never open a door until the second knock.
Vrykolakas were said to be just as active at midday as at midnight and would kill a victim by sitting on his chest and suffocating him while he slept. In the days when medical knowledge was hazy, a heart attack could therefore be attributed to a vrykolakas. If you're a fan of Buffy, Bram Stoker and Twilight, you may need to readjust your proposed method for killing a vampire - driving a stake through its heart or exposing it to sunlight will not work in Greece. Traditionally, vrykolakas-slaying was a weekend activity, as the creature was restricted to its coffin between Saturday evening and Sunday morning. As with all vampire stories, there were conflicting arguments as to the best way of destroying the body, but the most popular included exorcism by a priest, impaling, beheading and finally burning the body, to free the vrykolakas from its living death and allow local residents to sleep soundly.
Today, Santorini locals tend to be nonplussed by vrykolakas and indeed, many only have a hazy recollection of stories passed down from their grandparents. Growing up in a culture rich with (often gruesome) myths and legends, the majority of islanders take tales of vrykolakas with a hefty pinch of salt. Ask around for people's opinions on them and some will say it makes sense that the island's wild, volcanic beauty led to the creation of such legends, as it's easy to imagine vrykolakas feeling at home here. There are local residents, however, who do not wish to discuss the creatures. It appears that for some, this legend is still all too real. Look out for sailors taking boats across to Thirassia or Kameni, the so-called "vampire graveyards". Traditionally crew members will form the sign of the cross with ropes before tying up to the pier. This long-standing superstition is believed to protect boats from vrykolakas looking to destroy craft that sail too close to their islands.
If you're interested in discovering more about vrykolakas, it's worth asking around the island and keeping an eye out for fliers, as several vampire-themed events are held on an ad-hoc basis during the summer months. You can also book one of the many boat trips across to the Kameni islands or to the beautiful islet of Thirassia and go vampire-hunting yourself. Magna Travel (tel: +30 210 960 5555) can organise a half- or full-day private bespoke tour of Santorini and its surrounding islands with an emphasis on the vampire myths and legends. Before you set off for Santorini, try and get a copy of the 1945 horror film Isle of the Dead, inspired by the legend of the vrykolakas. You'll see there's far more to this island than sun, sea and sand…
THE SPOOKIEST TOURS IN EUROPE
Auld Reekie Tours
Packed with gruesome tales of body snatchers, plague-ridden slums and the South Bridge Poltergeist. For the extremely bold, there's even a six-hour overnight ghost tour with an accompanying psychic.
£6-£50 (€7-€58) www.auldreekietours.com
Catacombs of the Capuchins
For those with a strong stomach, the Capuchin Catacombs (entry €3) is the ultimate grizzly museum, with thousands of preserved mummies ranging in date from the 1500s to 1920. A one-stop shop for horror in Sicily.
Walking Ghost Tour by Night
If you like your ghouls served with a dollop of architecture, this is the tour for you. Traipse through the back streets of hidden Venice while your guide assails you with tales of the city's gruesome past.
€20 (€11 for children) www.tours-italy.com/venice-city_tours-ghost_walk.htm
The Ghost Tour
It wasn't long ago that residents believed Amsterdam was crammed with ghosts, witches and demons. These evening tours uncover gory tales of hangings and witch burnings, and explore infamous local haunts such as Blood Street.
Mysteries of Paris
Swig a stout drink to bolster your bravery on this ghostly pub crawl. You'll be terrorised with tales of medieval serial killers and cannibals.
SLEEP SOUNDLY... IF YOU CAN
In the heart of Perissa, 250m from the town's beautiful beach, this villa offers stunning views as well as easy access to local nightlife... you know what they say about safety in numbers.
From €28, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
Perched 350m above sea level, you'll find the views are breathtaking from the swimming pool of this newly renovated complex of luxury studios, apartments and suites. Can vrykolakas fl y?
From €147, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
Want a taste of traditional Santorini charm? Look no further than the Marillia Village hotel, with its classic décor and laid-back glamour, all just a short stroll from Perivolos Beach.
From €82, book at www.hotels.easyJet.com
BRIGHTON'S FESTIVAL HIGHLIGHTS
NEED ANY MORE REASONS TO VISIT BRIGHTON? WELL, TIME YOUR STAY TO COINCIDE WITH ONE OF THESE…
Beachdown Festival 28 - 31 August 2009 A fantastic 3-day music festival set in the South Downs countryside just to the north of the city. This year acts include Grace Jones, The Zutons and Grandmaster Flash.
Brighton & Hove Food and Drink Festival
1-30 September 2009 A range of events will be happening throughout the month celebrating the best food & drink from Brighton and Sussex.
White Air Extreme Sports Festival
18 - 20 September 2009 New to Brighton this year, Europe's largest extreme sports festival will provide three days of adrenalin-fuelled action and music from White Lies, The Cribs and Doves.
Brighton Comedy Festival
9 - 24 October 2009 The Brighton Comedy Festival returns with all your comedy favourites from the TV and the best of new talent. Acts already confirmed are Julian Clary, Jimmy Carr, Al Murray, Simon Amstell and many more.