OK. Now before you get all worked up with, “Dude, you got to go to Santorini? Must be nice!” remember that it is still winter. It rained a bit and the wind howled the entire time which made it impossible to explore the volcanic center of the caldera. It also made for some lovely seasickness on the ferry both there and back. And, about 90% of all the stores and attractions on the island were closed. That being said, it was still beautiful, and we had the entire island to ourselves. That made it rather peaceful.
The island was once round. In fact its original name, Strongili, meant “Round Island.” Now it looks a bit like a French croissant with a small dab of jam in the center. Santorini is the southern most of the Cyclades islands, which were once a chain of active volcanoes until around 3000 BC when most of the volcanoes went dormant. People have lived here ever since. Sort of that is. Beginning around 1650 BC a century-long series of violent volcanic eruptions, arguably the largest ever recorded in human history, reconstructed the shape and habitability of the place. Huge tidal waves resulting from the earthquakes and eruptions were felt as far away as Crete, Israel and possibly Egypt. I happen to be in the camp of believing that these tidal waves were heavily responsible for the weakening and final demise of the Minoan civilization. I also think they may have played a part in the Exodus story in Egypt. After the 1440 BC eruption Santorini was pretty much devoid of life. Eventually Mycenaean Greeks made their way over and resettled the rumbly, now tiny, island. In 236 BC one of the current islets was created when volcanic activity separated it from the main croissant. In 197 BC a small island appeared in the bay at the center of the croissant caldera, a growing lava dome that became the island Palia Kameni. In AD 726 an eruption here launched pumice all the way to Asia Minor. Again in 1707, another eruption created a sister islet next to Palia Kameni with a hot spring in the bay between the two. More recently, in 1956, a massive earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale ravaged the island. As usual the locals rebuilt and continued on with their mellow, friendly lifestyle. Our “Lonely Planet” guidebook used a great word to describe the people here, insouciant. You can look it up for yourself.
Between 3000 BC and 1440 BC a highly advanced Minoan culture thrived on the island. The only evidence that remains can be found at the south end of the island at a site known as Akrotiri. Archaeologists have been having a field day here. Pottery, frescoes, statues, structures are all fairly well preserved due to their burial in volcanic ash. Unfortunately for us the site has been closed. A few years ago the concrete roof of an awning set up over part of the dig fell on some tourists and killed one. It’s been closed ever since. The legendary advanced culture of Akrotiri, even among people of the ancient world, has been connected to stories of the lost continent of Atlantis. It’s a fun idea to play with.
Evidence of the island’s volcanism can be seen everywhere. Just beyond the Akrotiri archaeological site is the Red Beach. We hiked along the road from Akrotiri past homes and small cafes through a fairly rural area. There is a striking Orthodox church built against the cliffs where the road ends and the trail to the beach begins. Sheer red cliffs of raw lava rock angle down to the surf. The layers of differing lava flows and ash make for great color on the cliffs. Rocks that fall to the sea are tumbled and buffed into smooth, beautifully colored red, black, green, and white stones.
Further evidence can be seen at Kamari’s Black Beach. Here the tidal zone is made up of surf-tumbled marble and volcanic stones, the majority of which are black. This was nice for us since it was windy and cold. By lying flat on the black sand we were able to keep quite warm. The real fun about this day was that we had the entire beach to ourselves. This is a beach that doesn’t even have standing room for sun worshippers during the summer months. We didn’t get much of a tan but Sam and I did test the water. It is cold.
On our bus rides around the island we encountered vineyard after vineyard of coiled dormant grape vines. Santorini is famous for its wines that get their unique flavor from the volcanic ash in which they grow.
On another day we walked down the face of the caldera to the old port of Fira. It’s a long cobble stoned path that most tourists bypass in favor of the tram that travels the same route. On our hike we were graced with spectacular views of the city of Fira dangling on the edge of the Caldera (How does it stay put?) and again dazzling layers of lava, ash, pumice, and even bed soil. Once at the bottom of the caldera, right on the port, we tested the buoyancy of the local pumice. I have only floated white pumice in the past, but on this day we discovered black pumice that floats almost as well as white. Red pumice we discovered is so buoyant that is should be used in the construction of life preservers.
It was also here on Santorini that Megan and I shared a romantic evening out for an early birthday celebration. There weren’t too many restaurants to choose from but we found a place for a local meal and a café with incredible crepes. But the best parts of the evening were the views we enjoyed. It’s as beautiful in the winter as they say it is in the summer.