It was Greek art collector and art historian aficionado Dimitris Tsitouras’ French professor who first told him about Santorini while attending university during the 1950s.
Dimitris’ professor had travelled the world, yet this horseshoe-shaped island in the Aegean remained her favorite. And despite growing up in Athens, Dimitris knew nothing about the surrounding islands.
“The island was forgotten by people back then,” he tells me. Some years later (in 1968) while living in Zurich, a friend invited him to their holiday home in Santorini.
At that time, it was an overnight ferry from Piraeus, the main seaport in Athens. And as with no electricity, you could only arrive during daylight hours and ascend the steep winding rock face to Fira by mule.
“I was instantly struck by the black and red volcanic cliffs, with a few white spots—it didn’t seem real,” says Dimitris.
Those crisp white spots were the sugar-cubed homes, carved from the underground caves once used for storing wine. Now, of course, there are many more of these postcard-perfect whitewashed villages perched atop dramatic clifftops melting into the vivid sea below.
At the heart of the clifftop village Firostefani, up the cobbled walkway from the more touristy Fira, lies The Tsitouras Collection. This luxuriously restored 18th-century mansion enjoys incomparable views of the sea-filled crater that was formed by a cataclysmic eruption in 1600 BC.
Details matter here, and the more I listen to Dimitris’ story the more I realize that The Tsitouras Collection is far more than an island hotel. It’s a sweet slice of Santorini before the onslaught of cruise ships and Instagram.
The house is filled with antiques (close to 200 pieces we are told), but it’s the bronze bust of US-born Greek soprano Maria Callas, magnificently holding presence over the Aegean sea below (where her ashes were scattered) that stays with me.
“Visitors still put flowers underneath and sing to her,” Dimitris adds, smiling. “Even Greece’s other grande dame, Nana Mouskouri, has visited and sung beside her.”
The son of a prominent lawyer and judge from Istanbul, Dimitris’ parents moved to Greece in 1935. Even as a young boy, his passion for collecting artwork and antiques was evident. He trained as a lawyer in London, specializing in maritime law, before returning to Athens to a thriving legal profession.
Dimitris purchased the Firostefani villa in 1986 to host friends and house his growing collection dating back to the 15th century. But a chance holiday rental in 1989 to fashion designer Gianni Versace changed the Tsitouras trajectory, as the property was soon featured in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar magazines, amongst others.
Seeing his acute eye for design, Versace’s words to Dimitris have stayed with him: “You are Greek, I am Roman. Stop being a lawyer. You are a designer and you can sell this taste.”
So began The Tsitouras Collection, which since has hosted numerous celebrities including Harvey Keitel, Pedro Almodovar and Hugh Jackman.
With no signage, just wooden doors kept open through the day, a thick rope separating the outside world from the museum-grade artifacts housed within.
Deliberately done I am told, so “you don’t see the name—but you can see the product.”
From here, steps lead down to five distinctive suites on different levels, all clustered around the original high red stone façade of the house. Each is named according to its distinct character and collection, from the reflective The House of Portraits, filled with gilt-framed oil paintings and 18th-century antiques and the 19th-century-themed The House of Porcelain to the Picasso-adorned The House of Sea, The House of Winds and The House of Nureyev with its private terrace overlooking the magnificent caldera.
Monogrammed bathrobes, bedlinen, towels and amenities are on hand, naturally, and available to purchase at The Tsitouras Collection store in Athens.
Breakfast is a simple tasteful affair with great coffee, warm fresh bread and croissants, a small selection of cold cuts and egg dishes. Private dinners can be arranged on the Maria Callas terrace, although there are several charming restaurants nearby, most notably Aktaion Taverna, believed to be one of the oldest and best on the island.
The frenetic Santorini capital is within walking distance, too, as is the village of Imerovigli known for its many lovely churches, while the Minoan archaeological site of Akrotiri is just a few miles away, as are excellent vineyards and beaches.
But don’t travel far, as sitting in divine stillness watching the sun sink behind the Santorini caldera is reason enough to visit this sweet slice of paradise.
Although time may have stopped at the ancient site of Akrotiri, the rest of the island has changed dramatically.
“Santorini is a modern island now,” adds Dimitris. “The landscape is different, the buildings have changed and all that has stayed the same is the caldera view. I have 14 collections dating from the 15th century and I want to leave my heart in my Santorini museum.”
Rest assured, under the astute guidance of Dimitris’ affable daughter Eleni, I am certain that this has already been taken care of, with Maria Callas watching over the proceedings!
Recommendations on Santorini
Oia Castle is renowned for its sunset views, but the sun does set everywhere and the castle can be busy and loud. Far better to descend the 300 or so steps below Oia to Dimitris Taverna on Ammoudi Bay.
Herein lies another story: this time of a Canadian backpacker, Joy, who visited Santorini many years back, fell in love with Dimitris and many years later they continue to serve some of the best seafood on the island, literally on the water’s edge. After all, why just drink a glass of wine, when we can drink a love story?
Aktaion Taverna, just steps from The Tsitouras Collection, has been serving authentic Greek food since 1922. Now managed by the third generation of the Roussos family, Vangelis Roussos, who continues the family legacy in a place that has changed little through the decades.
“We Greeks pride ourselves in being one of the world’s oldest wine producers, yet few have tasted our wine,” says Yannis Valambous, founder of Vassaltis Vineyard.
In 2012, the former economist turned vineyard owner returned to Greece to revive the vineyards left to him by his late father, Valombous. One of the vineyard’s best-loved wines is Assyrtiko, the noblest of Greece’s white grape varieties, with about 75% of the island’s mineral-rich vineyards planted to the grape.
Akrotiri: The ancient site of Akrotiri, the center of a great Bronze Age civilization, whose streets, squares and frescoed homes were astonishingly well-preserved under a cloak of ash after the volcanic eruption about 3,600 years ago.
While few survived the eruption, Archaeologists have unearthed fascinating details of daily life, which you can become a part of wandering through the lanes and squares of this prehistoric city. Hiring a guide is advisable.
Beaches: Santorini has many great beaches but Red Beach, with its remarkable red and black volcanic rock, is one of the most visited and just a short walk from Akrotiri. Arrange a visit to the volcano by boat and feel the energy exuding from the core.
Sleep (besides The Tsitouras Collection)
Katikies Kirini: Part of the Katikies boutique collection, this cluster of whitewashed Cyclades sugar-white buildings is ideally situated at the entrance to touristy Oia, yet far enough away from the daily onslaught of cruise ships.
A sweeping staircase descends to the bright spacious suites, restaurants and pool, all enjoying sweeping caldera views. You could drop anchor here for a few days enjoying great food, excellent spa treatments and drinking in the endless views, or wander through Oia’s shops and restaurants, descending further towards Ammoudi Bay for sunset and seafood.
The Vasilicos: A short walk up from The Tsitouras Collection, The Vasilicos tells yet another family saga.
The former summer house of the late, larger-than-life art collector, Vassilis Valambous comprises seven secluded villas cascading down the hillside with geranium-clad private terraces opening onto the sea. His children Daphne and Yannis (of Vassaltis Vineyards) continue to keep the family dream alive.