Lost Cities: The Caldera Arts and Literary Festival at Atlantis Books

by HRM on November 16, 2011

by Harriet Alida Lye and Rosa Rankin-Gee

old-santorini-mapSeen from above, the Greek island of Santorini looks like a comma. At the northern most tip of this comma’s top is a village called Oia, and if you take the high road – a tiled walkway, whitewash walls, a blue-domed church, and more sea than you have ever seen – you will find a bookshop unlike any other on earth. This is Atlantis.

The window to Atlantis Books is at ankle-height: the body of the bookshop is buried underground. A burrow, then, or cave – Troglodite, Aladdin – magic in some way. Totem poles of classics – Coetzee, Beckett, Brontë – line the outside wall, and to their left, a wooden window shutter reads ‘books, βιβλιο, bücher, livres, libri, libros’, white paint on teal.

Downstairs, and inside, the walls are books, the doors are books. Travel books, poetry books, novels, books in dozens of different languages. Envelope-sized books published by the shop’s own publishing house, Paravion Press, meant to be read, loved, then shared by mail (or “par avion”). Second hand books (often sourced in Oxford, England), Korean fairytales, Proust in Greek. Books. Lots of books.

At the back of the shop, through a low arch, there is a sort of ladder climbing between the Art and Children sections. The ladder leads you through a cupola to the roof-top terrace. (The terrace is also accessible by a perfectly normal staircase at the front of the shop, but let’s just pretend we took the ladder every time. When you take the ladder, you walk through the quotes by Hemingway and Joyce that are inscribed there.) From the rooftop terrace, you will see the bay – you will have to remind yourself that the bay is actually the crater of a volcano, and that you are standing on its lip.

Atlantis Books

Craig Walzer, one of the founders of Atlantis Books

Atlantis Books held their inaugural, hopefully annual, festival – the Caldera Arts and Literary Festival – last weekend, from the 4th to the 6th of November. This is the off season for Santorini, and all those in attendance were the luckier for it. The streets were ours. The island felt undiscovered, blown over, private. It is otherworldly – lunar almost – at this time of year. The restaurants were about to close and so adlibbed with filo pastry, feta and fava beans at a price for friends and family.

Only ten percent of the island’s population stays over the winter months. We would have been happy to join them.

Photo by Harriet Alida Lye

The festival kicked off on Friday evening with a sunset aperitif prepared by the inimitable Vefa Alexiadou, Greece’s Delia Smith, a television chef and firm advocate of the devilled egg.

A Super8 Film festival played out in the back room – the screen was pulled down from the lofty heights of the “Philosophy Tower” and we watched animated films about dogs and the moon, films shot from NYC pedicabs roaming around the Occupy Wall Street zone. (Though Atlantis is out of this world, it is very much a part of it.)

In the front room, writers and readers mingled over Klimt-gold Greek wine and Chris plucked his cello sideways. Paintings and drawings by local artists were on display, hanging from unexpected and seemingly impossible places. On the ceiling, written in a spiral, are the first names of all the people who have stayed in and supported the bookshop.

Saturday saw Vefa take the helm one more time, with a delicate [read: not enough] brunch of Things Which Had Been Fried. An optional afternoon photography trip led by Lesvos legend Tzeli Hadjidimitriou had this for a goal: “to get people to see things with their own eyes.”

Danae's fortunes (photo by Claire Kelley)

And that evening, around an iron-fire pit on the terrace overlooking the Caldera, metallic in the moonlight, Issue 21 of Five Dials (online magazine based in London and published by Hamish Hamilton) was launched. Editor Craig Taylor asked for a volunteer to “release” the issue. Danae, eight-year old heroine and arguable champion of this festival (see attached photo for her “Fortunes”), was chosen. Craig gave the introduction, then the command: after Danae pressed the button, she asked “what happens now?”, expecting a bang. Even though the magazine is published only as a pdf and the participants had nothing to hold on to and flip through – no evidence or bangs, as Danae noticed – the atmosphere was still an exuberant one. It felt like paper lanterns with tea-lights inside were being sent out across the sea.



Photos by Claire Kelley

It was dark by then, but the moon was bright enough for British authors Joe Dunthorne (of Submarine) and Ross Sutherland (of Street Fighter Sonnets), and Greek authors Dimitris Sotakis, Alexis Stamatis, and Thanassis Heimonas to whet our appetite with stories and poems.

After dinner and Raki (local firewater, poured like water from an old Evian bottle) readings got slightly more raucous. Ross performed a final poem, a transposable ode delivered with Shakespearian potency and a northern lilt, to a cross-legged and beaming Craig Walzer. The evening ended in a hot-tub, or so we were told.

The Sunday night was somewhat mellower affair. We (Rosa and Harriet) read the second half of ‘The Fall’, our story about a boy called Lendl and a girl called Eurydice, written collaboratively, by passing notebooks across café tables, over text message, email, and then the Channel, when one of us was in England. The story is set on Santorini: we wrote it before we had been and were pleasantly surprised to find the island shared some of the descriptions we had imposed on it.

“Santorini was out of the way, in the middle of no place. It attracted the peculiar and adventurous, the wild, the mildly bored, those with a historical or mythical bent. Stories of Atlantis, of the gods, of Plato and Socrates. Dice watched as the sun left orange smudges in the water, flashing like a million camera flashes, dropping like a penny between the open-jawed cliffs in the West.

There were plants here that she had never seen before, rubbery and dry, and Lendl now picked up a piece of seagrass from the sand to put between his teeth.”

Sat around a microphone, the Greek authors debated the importance of place in literature (some claiming it was best never to have been to the place you write about; an opinion obviously inspired by our story); Cassandra Passarelli read to us of whale bones and New York’s Nathan Schneider spoke of the origins of Occupy Wall Street, “our little revolution” . All of this will be edited into the next episode of the Bookshop’s online radio show, which we will link to as soon as it’s live.


Photo by Harriet Alida Lye

On the whole, the festival was characterized by simplicity and intimacy – we stood on chairs to read, sharing the same chair (one foot each) – when necessary. People took it in turns to man the till, or rather, sit in the bookseller’s throne and sing along to Chris’ sideways cello. This is what is felt like: that everything came together, and that, on those afternoons and evenings, there was no better place to be on earth.

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