Santorini: surely you’ve seen the photos that travel agents all over the world use to advertise Greece: the whitewashed houses (mostly all hotels now) clinging to the reddish cliffs, the blue-domed churches, the sunlight, the joining of blue sea (the caldera) and sky. As poet Odysseus Elytis called it, “the mystery of Greek light, sea and sky.” And often someone gorgeous dressed in white flowing clothes, holding a drink, gazing out at this sublime scene.
We owe this unique beauty, which created the island in the shape it is today and draws 2 million visitors from all corners of the globe, to a volcanic eruption from around 1,600 BC. At the time of the explosion, one of the largest in recorded history, (chronicled by the Egyptians and Chinese and writers of the Bible) Greek historian Herodotus tells us the island was known as Strogili (circular one). But after the eruption, which sank the whole center of the island, it could hardly be called strogili any more! The Phoenicians that settled there around 1300 BC named it Kallisti, or “the most beautiful one of all.” (Kallisteia is the Greek word for a beauty contest). The name Santorini was given by the Venetians centuries later, named after the chapel Agia Irini or Saint Irene that the Crusaders had set there. But there was one more important name. When the Doric Spartans settled on the island after the Phoenicians, they called it Thera after their king Theras. Thera was the name known to Plato in the 4th century BC when he connected the explosion of Santorini with his legend of the lost city of Atlantis, and Thera is the island’s official name, though most people today just use it for the main town, or more commonly Fira.
The island’s volcanic history attracts not only volcanologists, but millions of tourists who sit at the top of the 366 meter (around 1200 feet) cliffs to see the absolutely stunning caldera, the basin formed after the volcano collapsed and then filled with water. A “caldera” in Spanish is a big boiling cooking pot and that describes well the magma boiling inside the volcano, exploding and leaving an empty crater, collapsing into the sea and creating the caldera. (In English we get “cauldron” — “double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.”) Gazing down at the tranquil sapphire blue of the caldera — 400 meters deep sea – it’s amazing to think that nearly half of the island is submerged there.
Years ago when ferries used to come into the port at the bottom of the cliffs of Fira (old port now) the only way up the 587 zigzaggy steps was either walking or riding a donkey. You and your luggage went on the donkey and the owner would walk beside you up the steps. That’s a lot of walking for the owner… For years, there were protests and petitions against the abusive treatment of the donkeys: open untreated sores from ill fitting saddles, too much weight, not resting enough, even in some cases having to work at night in carrying large bags of garbage. Actually, 30 years ago, when we stayed at a house overlooking the caldera, we used to hear the clop clopping of the donkey hooves near us, but this time I didn’t see any donkeys used for tourists, only some used to help workers carry building materials. In any case, there’s no reason to use the donkeys as there’s a perfectly good cable car.
The old port is still used for some sailing boats and for the little boats that take visitors on the popular tour of the volcano on the island across of Nea Kammeni. At Athinois, the “new” port, which has been operating around 40 years or more, buses wait to take you up the twisting road to Fira. I still remember well from the mid 80’s, the bus ride, my stomach already queasy from a 6 hour ferry from Crete, the boat rocking and swaying from the waves. This time, my 3rd visit, we flew to Santorini from Athens, out of an eerie empty Venezelos airport. Myriad the changes that have been brought on by Covid –I went to spray on my usual DKNY “Green Apple Be Delicious” scent at the Duty Free, when I realized all the perfume samples had been removed…
Staying anywhere around the caldera side, involves steps, lots of them. Whereas in ordinary hotels, the reception is on the ground floor, and then the rooms are above this, here it’s the opposite, with the reception at street level, which is the highest point (!) Then you have the rooms below, that are built into the cliffs. So it is with the hotel we stayed in Fira, the Kavalari Hotel, originally a sea captain’s house and built on four layers or levels.
We had around 60 steps or so (!) to go down to our room. The hotel warns guests about the steps (no elevators here)! Outside the rooms on a common terrace, breakfast is served (as it was October, most rooms were empty, so it was almost like a private terrace for us).
Inside the breakfast room, a 20 year old red parrot named Anui would squawk in the evenings when it was left alone. In the morning it did its acrobatics and watched us coyly, playfully.
The first day the steps didn’t seem so bad but they seemed to get a little more difficult as we got more and more tired… We loved the place though and the wonderful helpful friendly staff, Konstantina at the reception and Klydi, serving breakfast and helping around. We certainly enjoyed the complimentary bottle of wine out on the terrace one evening at dusk.
If you don’t want the steps, there are plenty of hotels away from the caldera, some with great views of the Aegean sea on the eastern side of the island. So, really there are two parts of Fira, the lifestyle and travel magazine caldera part, and then the part away from it.
You can almost understand that if you’re staying in one of these lovely hotels that are down so many steps, as the beach is not right there (more on beaches later), you might just want to spend your time lying in your infinity pool (so named because they try to give the illusion of water with no boundary, of joining the sea and sky).
Or sunbathing or gazing at the birds soaring above the caldera and the little sailboats and yachts calmly gliding across the water, and you might not want to budge.
But we were eager to visit more of the island, especially Akrotiri, the bronze age settlement in the southeast part of Santorini, about 13 km from Fira.
Akrotiri, populated from as far back as 4,000 BC, was first a small fishing and farming village, but grew into an important trade center and commercial harbor. It’s known as the Greek Pompeii, as it too was buried and preserved, undiscovered for centuries, or in this case, several millenia, under layers of pumice and volcanic ash. The ash and pumice preserved the very fine wall paintings found, as well as many objects and works of art. In contrast to Pompeii (79 AD), no human remains were found here, and it’s thought that before the big explosion, there were smaller ones that alerted the inhabitants and allowed them to flee the city.
The bus leaves you at the sea and you walk up a hill to the entrance. (The Santorini bus system is quite good and pretty much covers the whole island). You enter the site which is all under a bioclimatic roof, like at the Mycenean era Palace of Nestor — (see blog from July), which gives you shade, shelter and uniform light. Apparently some years before the volcanic explosion, which sent ash and pumice even into the stratosphere, a large earthquake had forced the inhabitants to rebuild their city. What a shame that at the time of the explosion the town was flourishing and at its peak. In the 19th century, locals found some old artifacts nearby, which prompted some early excavations, but they were pretty much abandoned until they began working again in 1967 under Professor of Archaeology Spyros Marinatos (who in fact is buried at the site!) The work is slow and painstaking, and it’s estimated that only 3% of the settlement has been excavated so far.
It’s incredible, the advanced society that they had. Akrotiri produced oil and traded with other cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially with nearby Crete. As with other civilizations of the time, in Akrotiri, they made vessels for personal and for commercial use and ritual uses as well. The settlement was not just one, but two and three storeys – you can see some remains of stairs.
A really interesting discovery was the “pithoi storeroom,” where large jars were found, and some remains of barley flour and seeds.
In addition to pottery, the eruption preserved beautiful frescoes or wall paintings. One of those discovered is the “Antelopes and Boxing Boys.”
Wall paintings mostly decorated houses of the wealthy, such as in what they called the “West House” with its large windows and upstairs rooms with looms for weaving.
The paintings found here had a theme of man’s relationship with the sea, such as this beautiful one of a boy carrying fish, displayed in the museum of prehistoric Thera.
The paintings show a great similarity with the Minoan civilization wall paintings at Knossos on Crete. Another major similarity of the two civilizations is their use of writing in the Linear A script. In the museum you can see clay tablets with horizontal and vertical lines recording quantities of oil, wine and fabric (as mentioned, weaving was integral in the society). Knossos, about 120 kilometers or 75 miles away from Akrotiri, was also destroyed by the volcanic eruption, sometimes actually known as the “Minoan eruption,” specifically by a series of subsequent earthquakes and a giant tsunami.
As you walk around the site, you really feel in awe and humbled by this advanced civilization. They even had a public sewerage system! As we walk around, we see archaeologists constantly doing their fine detailed work.
The prehistoric museum in Fira is a must to complement the visit to Akrotiri. Besides giving a geological background, it exhibits some beautiful wall paintings and the pottery vessels that were found (the giant pithoi or jars were mostly left at the Akrotiri site). In the wall paintings, Nature themes were popular. In another wealthy house, the “home of the ladies,” paintings were found of women with brightly painted lips and cheeks and wearing earrings.
Female flesh was always shown in white, males in brown. See if you can see the Blue monkeys in the next one.
With pottery vessels, there are those used for everyday preparing, serving and storing food and drink
and those used for rituals, called rhyta, animal head containers.
Practical info: you can buy a combined ticket for Akrotiri, for the museum and for the site of ancient Thira. We made it to the first two, but not to ancient Thira, the Doric settlement in the 8th and 9th century BC, at the top of the mountain between Kamari and Perissa. (Next visit!)
Outside of Fira, it’s much like any other Cycladic island: whitewashed houses with blue doors and windows (Cycladic refers to the islands that encircle the sacred island of Delos or Dilos).
The color white is used not just because it’s in harmony with the blue sky and sea, but because it reflects the biggest part of sunlight and keeps the houses cooler. In Santorini the architecture though is slightly different from the flat roofs of other Cycladic islands as there is usually a rounded part like a dome, with a little window. We noticed a lot of construction going on outside Fira.
In fact, outside of the caldera area, Fira seems like any other island capital – too many cars and motorcycles (and this is October) with rent-a- car places and tourist agencies to book various island tours. Along the pedestrian and the narrow sokakia, (alleyways), one after the other, are fine clothing and jewelry shops, one) as well as typical tourist shops with magnets, little bowls, ancient Greek looking dresses, goat and sheep bells, prints of Santorini etc. but mostly empty of shoppers. Shopkeepers were just talking with each other and we could hear them saying “when are you leaving” or “when are you closing for the season?” The reply would either be “this Sunday we’re packing up” or for some, the end of the month. They sounded as if they couldn’t wait to leave. It has been a difficult season this year with coronavirus, without the usual cruise boats that dock here and buy up jewelry and souvenirs. I did see one cruise boat (I was surprised even to see one) In most of the restaurants and bars, waiters stood around with their arms folded looking bored. One or two tables might have been busy.
The busy eating places in Fira were at Theotokopoulou Square. Souvlaki, falafel, Chinese food and Indian & Thai (Momo’s) which we had one night. Besides the attractive menu, the food was delicious.
But of course we wanted to try the Santorinian specials, so one night we had dinner at the gourmet restaurant Kypos (garden), for sure the only garden like that in Santorini,
In contrast to most places, the Kypos, known for its varieties of wine and beer, was very crowded. Good sign! We drank some Assyrtiko wine, its grapes native to Santorini and its rich volcanic ash soil. We had a salad with various greens, anthotiro (soft white cheese), cherry tomatoes and leaves from capers, and of course fava, which is a puree of yellow split peas, and was surely the best I’d ever tasted. It was served hot with capers, and not at room temperature with whole raw onion pieces the way it’s served in Athens. It melted in your mouth. We also had another specialty, tomato keftedes (tomato fritters) with fresh herbs, again with the delicious tomatoes grown in the magical volcanic soil of the island.
White eggplant (a sweeter variety) baked with cheese and other herbs in a clay pot melted exquisitely in your mouth. Again it’s the volcanic soil! We learned in fact that the island soil is the island’s largest export, used all over the world in making cement.
The restaurant prices were rather inflated (beauty has a price) but even more so at the bars and restaurants at the caldera side, advertising “sunset and volcanic view.” The “Palia Kammeni” bar next to our hotel was very popular, kitschy but with quiet and discreet lounge music.
Some of the bars were just loud and characterless. One of them had a sign out front apologizing that due to Covid restrictions, they had to close early, at midnight. (This is Greece after all, midnight is early!)
In Fira, it’s all tourists and hotels and international vibes, not a strong local culture. There are no restaurants where the locals eat, as there are no locals in the town! Our waitress at the Kypos spoke English to us from the beginning, as they’re so used to foreign tourists, especially this time of year. If you stop to look at a menu, you’ll hear “hellohowareyouwhereyoufrom” from one of the bored waiters who immediately materializes but the words are said in a kind of tired way… Even in our hotel, there were no TV channels in Greek, only in English, French and German.
Oia, about 12 km north of Fira, the other major town on the caldera, is smaller and more posh, more luxury. Ooh and ah, you just can’t get enough of the scenery. These are the pure lifestyle magazine and travel agent pictures.
Oia is famous for its sunsets and we joined the sunset spotters there. It’s a serious business.
Actually I preferred the sunset we saw from our terrace in Fira, but Oia somehow got the sunset reputation.
You can even walk along a path all the way from Fira to Oia (about 3 hours) if you feel like you haven’t walked enough! One day we walked from Fira to Imerovigli (less than an hour) another caldera collection of luxury hotels clinging to the cliffs, no market nearby, no town.
The rock protruding, called Skaros, used to have a majestic castle here that was ruined in a 19th century earthquake.
Between Imerovigli and Fira in Firostefani you can see some houses of locals, but on the “other side” of the path. The ones with houses clinging to the cliffs must have sold them years before for hotels. It was in Firostefani that we saw (and heard) a wedding reception, actually just the males. They must have been from Crete, as one of the guests carried a rifle. Not surprisingly, weddings are a big business in Santorini. If you google “Santorini weddings” you’ll see lots of wedding venues and locations and companies that will help you plan your nuptials.
In Firostefani, an interesting wall sculpture representing Santorini caught our eye: Thira, along with the small island of Thirassia, Nea and Palia Kammeni and the very small Aspronisi.
Getting away from the caldera, probably the nicest village to visit is Pyrgos, where you can walk up through its medieval streets to ruins of a Venetian castle. (What’s an Aegean island without castle remains?) Steps again! On the way up you pass tourist shops with rows of the “mati,” the blue eye to keep away the evil eye.
Looking for some rock to use to build a house? Walking up to the castle, we saw this for sale. How the cliff is used to build is amazing.
At the top is a great view of the plain.The island of Thirasia all the way to the left (which once was joined with the main island) is used for agriculture mostly.
Once the island’s administrative center, the castle was built in the 1500’s and had a lot of underground passageways and one entrance. I read somewhere that the inhabitants greeted intruders with boiling hot oil. Nice welcome!
Near the top are some bars (including the famous “Franco’s) and the church of Agios Giorgos.
It’s a warm sunny day with the sky a brilliant blue, and after Pyrgos we decide to take the bus to Perissa, one of the black sand beaches. School has just finished for the day and the bus is full of high school kids going home to their towns and villages.
Since the students use the bus, it runs all year round, not just for the tourists. Looking out the window at the greyish white soil, we notice a lot of grapes growing that don’t look too well tended (but they must be). Everywhere is wine country and there are a number of wineries that feature tours.
Along the way out in the middle of the vineyards outside the village of Megalochori, I notice a long building with the sign “Lost Atlantis Experience.” Am I seeing correctly? Inside, it features a digital experience about the legend of the lost city of Atlantis, Plato’s story probably inspired by the volcanic eruption in Santorini. Save that for next visit.
While people come to Santorini for the “caldera” experience, there are beaches. After all, we are on an island! Near Akrotiri are the famous red cliffs. If you walk along the sea there, you’ll first pass some decrepit old buildings along the shore.
You climb up, walk a bit until you see Red Beach off in the distance, so named for the red cliffs. Although swimming is not recommended as there are landslides, a number of swimmers and sunbathers are there, ignoring the warning.
On the way to Red Beach stood Stefano, an Italian artist who made photographic collages. With so few people now, he probably wasn’t selling much, so we stopped, where I practiced my rusty Italian a little, and bought from him a collage of Santorini (in it he’s taken 400 little photographs and glued them together)!
Besides Red Beach, the black sand beaches of Kamari and Perissa on the eastern part of the island draw tourists. In the summertime, many stay at the beaches but I believe this way you’re missing quite a bit.. At Perissa we were hoping to having a nice swim, but the strong wind blowing from the southeast really riled up the waves. Great for sunbathing though.
Tourists put their toes in and returned to their seabeds to continue sunbathing. Some tired looking waitresses served them coffees and club sandwiches. Outside of Perissa, you could see a monastery tucked into the dry mountain, on the trail up to ancient Thira.
When we returned to the hotel, we submerged our bodies in its postage stamped size non-infinity pool.
One of the most popular tours is the one of the volcanic islands Nea and Palia Kammeni. When my mother and I visited in the mid-80’s, we did this tour. I remember the guide was very informative but they try to play up that it’s an active volcano and you’re looking for signs of smoke, which are hardly there. At that time, we stayed at a hotel a short walk from the town, where the water was turned off every day between 3 and 5 because of water shortages (I also have a vivid memory of a group of Greek women at the hotel who gathered every evening at 6 pm in the lobby, where there was the only TV, to watch “Dynasty” and hiss at Alexis Carrington.)
The other visit we had was April 1990, hospitality of a friend, a former sea captain himself who actually owned a house down a number of steps overlooking the caldera. Rain fell in torrents and the wind gusted, plus we had a toddler (Suzanna) and we had to carry her up and down the steps. Not the right time for Fira! It took 30 years to get back.
Santorini and its unique beauty are best to be savored, sipped slowly like a fine wine. Stay above the caldera for a unique experience, but be sure to enter the prehistoric world too. Will the volcano ever erupt again? Well, there were supposedly 14 eruptions from the time of the big one, until the last in 1950. It is an active volcano after all and no one knows when it will erupt.
In the meantime, a few days after we left there was a rare weather phenomenon on the island: a tornado that didn’t do any damage but provided some great photos over the volcano.
In “Treasure of Knowledge,” Elias’ encyclopedia from the early 1960’s, an entry not under Santorini but under “Thera,” tells us that there is “one tourist hotel” in Fira. At the time Santorini was still recuperating from a deadly earthquake in 1956, and tourism was mostly just a dream in the future. The article alludes to an earthquake in 2000 BC that destroyed a civilization And as the article was written before the modern excavations began, the name “Akrotiri” wasn’t even mentioned. Since so little of the settlement has been excavated, who knows what will be unearthed and how our understanding will change in another 50 years. In the meantime, put your hands behind your head, put up your feet and enjoy the unique beauty that is Santorini.
It certainly was a nice escape….in the week we returned, the cases of coronavirus spiked so much in Greece that new measures in Athens now make a mask mandatory everywhere now, both inside and outside. Under threat of a 150 euro fine. Next week of course there won’t be the usual events, exhibits and student parades, for October 28th, “Oxi” day, a national holiday commemorating when Greece said “ohi” or “no” to Mussolini in 1940 when he gave an ultimatum to accept Axis powers in occupying some areas of the country, or else face war. After the Greek “oxi,” Italian troops attacked and war began. No doubt there will be plenty of documentaries on TV made a few years ago when veterans of the 1940 campaign were still alive and songs from the era on the radio. It’s fitting that in a holiday celebrating Greek resistance against fascism that a trial lasting 5 1/2 years came to an end in the last few weeks. The judges ruled that Chrissi Avgi, Golden Dawn, the neo-Nazi political party that had been voted into parliament from 2011 to 2018, was declared a terrorist organization and nearly all of its leaders and henchmen are now behind bars. To the campaign weary U.S., what can one say that hasn’t already been said except kala apotelesmata (good results)! And happy halloween…