August 4, 2014
Today, D and I were ferrying to Santorini, one of the most visited islands in Greece. The likeliest location of the lost Ancient Atlantis, everything that describes Santorini becomes a superlative! Blue-domed cubic white-washed houses against the background of even bluer skies and seas – is a frequently described picture of Santorini! I had to check out for myself whether it was an honest one!
We purchased our round trip tickets (€114 per person) for the high speed catamaran SeaJets two months prior to the trip. However, it isn’t the only way to get to the island, a slower ferry (appx. 9 hours) as well as flights are available during the summer months. Scheduled to depart at 7.00 from the Port of Piraeus, it was slightly delayed and we didn’t get to Santorini’s port before 12.00 (scheduled time was 11.25). As smooth and accommodating (we had to re-schedule our tickets for another time) website services were, as hectic and illogical things were during the boarding and placement. Even though we bought tickets together, our seats were 10 rows apart, which made no sense. We tried to negotiate with the people at the pick-up counter, but they weren’t helpful, so we just took justice into our own hands and sat together. Apparently, the boat was overbooked, as people were sitting even on the floor (I guess they sold tickets with “no seat” guarantee too).
We booked Hotel Keti in Santorini and they arranged a pick up for us at the port. The driver was nice to carry our bags to the hotel, which turned out to be quite a walk from the main road, but right on the west-south side of the city, offering the most fantastic views of the submerged caldera. We also had a cave-accommodation, common patio and a small infinity pool. It was romantic, beautiful and relaxing – I couldn’t have been happier!
The Cyclades (pronounced “ki-kla-dez) comprise about 220 islands and are said to be inhabited since at least 7000 BC. During the Early Cycladic period (3000-2000 BC), a cohesive Cycladic civilization emerged bound by the sea voyages and commerce. In the Middle Cycladic period (2000-1500 BC) many islands belonged to the Minoans who were based in Crete and archeological work at Akrotiri in Santorini shows the artifacts of the same distinctive beauty and attributes of those from Minoan Crete. At the beginning of the Late Cycladic period (1500-1100 BC) the archipelago was ruled by the Mycenaeans from the Peloponnese, who in the 8th century were replaced by the Dorians. The islands in quick succession belonged to the Athenian Empire (from mid 5th century to 323 BC), Egypt’s Ptolemaic dynasty (323-146 BC), Rome (146 BC -AD 395), the Byzantine Empire (395-1204), the Venetian republic (1204-1537) and the Ottoman Empire (1537 – 1821). The last rulers had difficulties managing and protecting the islands which resulted in frequent pirate raids that forced many villages to relocate to hidden inland sites (“horas”). Ottoman neglect, piracy and shortages of food and water led to depopulation of islands and in 1563 only five of them were still inhabited. During the War of Independence (1821-1829), the Cyclades became a refugee haven for people fleeing the Turks and until the tourism boom in the 1970s, the islands were economically deprived and many islanders either lived in deep poverty or immigrated to other parts of Greece or the world (mostly to America and Australia).
The history of Santorini follows the same evolution as other islands of Cyclades, except for one major event – the Minoan eruption that happened sometimes between 1627 – 1600 BC. In ancient times, Santorini (a name given to it by the Venetians and derived from “Saint Irene”) used to be called Strongyli – “the Round One” due to the main island’s round shape or a combination of islands creating a circle around the main island. Since 3600 BC the main island was inhabited by an important Minoan civilization and the excavated town of Akrotiri, in the southern part of the island, is a proof of this civilization. The earth-shattering volcanic eruption of the 17th century BC was the largest in the recorded history. It caused the main part of the round island to sink, forging a 300 m high caldera, it created monster-tsunamis over the Mediterranean sea and led, according to many sources, to the collapse of Minoan civilization on the island of Crete (110 km to the south) and a significant climatic change in the Northern Hemisphere. According to many historians, not a single person who was on the island when eruption happened or even those who left the island by sea many days prior, after experiencing the tremor, survived. For the next 2000 years sporadic volcanic activity (most recently in 1956) created further physical changes that included the formation of the volcanic islands of Palia Kameni and Nea Kameni at the center of the caldera and left the various layers of solidified lava on top of each other making the islands look like a multi-colored cake. Here, I attached the maps of the island before the eruption and now (both maps are taken from internet).
Santorini remained unoccupied throughout the rest of the Bronze Age, following the eruption. Around the 12th century BC, Phoenicians founded a site on Thera. According to Herodotus, they called the island Callista and lived on it for eight generations. In the 9th century BC, Dorians founded the main Hellenic city on Mesa Vouno, 396 m above sea level and named the city and the island after their leader, Theras. Today, that city is referred to as Ancient Thera and it can be reached by following a winding road at Kamari beach. The rest of the history till present day duplicates pretty much the one of the rest of the Cycladic islands – Dorians were replaced by Ptolemaic Egyptians, then by Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Ottomans until the War of Independence, when the island was united with Greece in 1830.
As you can see, this beautiful, cake-like island with rows of Cycladic houses dangerously perched on the high cliffs of caldera, famous for its romance and spectacular views has a violent past. The volcanic eruption created 6 separate islands (Thera, Thirasia, Nea Kameni, Palia Kameni, Aspronisi and Christiana) adorning a rectangular lagoon (12 km by 7 km) and every time you cross this lagoon by boat, remember that you are floating just above a monstrous volcano that is waiting to explode! Meanwhile, enjoy the ride and the views!
Santorini caters well for its visitors and you can choose to stay in any place on the island, according to your taste and preference, but not on a tight budget – in towns like Fira or Oia (Ia), in resort villages surrounding one of the famous black, white, red or nude beaches or anywhere in between. The island itself can be an all-inclusive vacation destination in its own right as it offers fascinating archeological sites and museums, wonderful hotels, wineries, night clubs, an abundance of restaurants and shops, but also unique beaches and an international crowd. But then, if you get tired of it all, just hop on one of the boats and tour the 5 other islands of this archipelago. It is truly a must-visit place on earth.
As I mentioned earlier, Hotel Keti in Fira was located right on the southern tip of the caldera, offering the most amazing views of the lagoon, the city and the island – from southern Cape Akrotiri to northern Cape Ag – but I couldn’t wait to get into town to experience its vibe. Fira, the island’s capital, was founded in the late 18th century when islanders moved from the Venetian citadel of Skaros, near present day Imerovigli, to the clifftop plains for easier sea-access. Devastated by an earthquake of 1956, Fira has been rebuilt, terraced into the volcanic cliffs with domed churches and barrel-roofed cave houses. Restaurants, hotels and bars presently occupy all the terraces to provide their patrons with the most magnificent views. Primarily for pedestrians, the city’s main square, Plateia Theotokopoulou, is a bus terminal and hub of the road network that runs throughout the entire island. You might want to rent a car, but wide system of bus services is efficient and cheap to satisfy even a New Yorker like myself.
From Agios Mina (the 18th-century church, with its distinctive dome and white tower), located just above our hotel, we proceeded towards the city’s main square, just 5-7 minutes walk. You can’t miss The Orthodox Metropolitan Church of Santorini, dedicated to Ypapanti (the Presentation of Christ in the Temple) located towards the bottom of the town and visible from every part of Fira. Built in 1827, the church was damaged in the earthquake in 1956 but it was soon restored. It is a beautiful cathedral placed inside the votive-arched courtyard (unorthodox for Greek Orthodox churches) with a nice mosaic on the outside and an impressive bell tower. Inside the church is adorned with beautiful frescoes made by the local artist Christoforos Asimis.
The exhibition is structured in four units, referring to the history of research at Thera, the geology of Thera, the island’s history from the Late Neolithic to the Late Cycladic I period (early 17th century BC) and the heyday of the city at Akrotiri (17th century BC). In the last unit, various aspects are presented, such as the plan and architecture of the city and its organization as an urban centre, the emergent bureaucratic system, the development of the monumental art of wall painting, the rich and diverse pottery repertoire, the elegant jewelry, the reciprocal influences between vase painting and wall painting, and the city’s and island’s complex network of contacts with the outside word.
The exhibits include fossils of plants that flourished before the human habitation of Thera as well as archeological objects. Among the earliest pieces are:
- Neolithic pottery, Early Cycladic marble figurines and pottery, including interesting pieces of the transitional phase from the Christiana islands and Akrotiri (3300-2000 BC),
- Middle Cycladic pottery with a series of impressive bird jugs, many of them decorated with swallows from Ftellos, Megalochori and Akrotiri (18th-20th century BC)
- Early Cycladic metal artifacts from the last two sites.
Noteworthy among the numerous exhibits from the period when the city at Akrotiri was at its zenith are the plaster casts of furniture, the household equipment, the bronze vessels, tools and weapons, the objects that bear witness to the practice of metalworking, the seals and Linear A tablets. Impressive too are the magnificent wall painting ensembles (wall painting of Ladies and Papyri, the Blue Monkeys) and fragments of others (the African, Bird, floral motifs). Last, there are numerous and luxurious clay vases including the remarkable pithos with the bull, vases of stone and of clay imported from different parts of the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, and the gold ibex figurine, a remarkable recent find, the only golden object excavated in Akrotiri and indisputably, the star of the collection.
The exhibition was impeccably organized in themes and provided all the necessary annotations to prepare us for the next-day visit to the site itself. From the Museum, we took a walk on the most spectacular pedestrian street – Agiou Mina– running along the caldera and covered with restaurants and shops, had a lunch at Niki Restaurant and proceeded towards the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, located on the northern edge of town. Fira seems to be the Greek capital of jewelry as i’ve never seen so many gold shops located just meters from each other. But it also housed some of the authentic artisanal souvenir shops offering high quality hand-made crafts made by local artists. My favorite was Art and Icon Studio in the north part of the city (just across from the Cathedral of St. John).
Fira might seem small but it takes time to explore it; between climbing the winding paths, constantly releasing multiples of “ohs” and “ahs” of astonishment and taking pictures, it took us pretty much all afternoon and I still didn’t visit a single shop. We went back to the hotel to dress up (yes, dress up!) and enjoyed our dinner at the Lithos Restaurant. I usually plan everything to the smallest details, including all the restaurant visits, but in Santorini we just went with the flow. Note, the island produces its own wine (and you can even tour some of the vineries) however, it is not of the best quality, in my opinion; they also grow capers and add them to every dish and I mean it. So, if you don’t like capers, make sure to tell the waiter in advance!
As for the sunset…. it was indeed breathtaking.
August 5, 2014
Early morning, we took a bus to “Akrotiri/Red Beach“, which was about 30-40 mins from Fira. The bus dropped us just in front of the main entrance to the site (last stop or the one before the last). I find it more fulfilling to have a guided tour of the sites that i don’t know much about, so at the gate of Akrotiri, we joined an official tour (required min 6 people, €20 per person) and i couldn’t complement our guide enough. She was knowledgeable, personable, eloquent in English (her name is Marina Zourou, email: email@example.com, tel 6973-012484). Before we went in, she gave us a detailed historical background of this site (which i will try to narrate shortly) and when she finished the tour, we all knew why discovery of Akrotiri led to a belief that the lost city of Atlantis wasn’t another Greek myth created by Plato but a reality and why so many scientists believe that Santorini IS the place of the vanished civilization.
The first traces of a prehistoric settlement were excavated at the end of the 19th century, when the volcanic Theran earth was used as a construction material for the Suez Canal. However, it wasn’t until 1967 when the “real digging” at the so called ancient Akrotiri began under supervision of the archaeologist Spyridon Marinatos, a professor at the University of Athens. His work brought to light multi-level buildings and masterpiece-wall paintings worth world-wide attention. Before I begin, let me just clarify that “Akrotiri” is the name of a nearby village, and until today nobody knows what this settlement was called in antiquity. Occupied as early as the fifth millennium B.C., it was a small fishing and farming village, which by the end of 3000 BC, developed and expanded significantly. Universally, Akrotiri is associated with the Minoan civilization due to inscriptions in Linear A, and close similarities in artifact and fresco styles. Trade in the Aegean and East Mediterranean, as evidenced in fragments of foreign pottery found at the site, the strategic position on the primary sailing route between Cyprus and Minoan Crete and the copper trade could be the main factors for Akrotiri’s fast economical and cultural growth. It also explains the wealth of the city and its cosmopolitan character. City’s affluence continued from 2100 BC-1650 BC – paved streets, an extensive drainage system, the production of high quality pottery, and further craft specialization all point to the level of sophistication achieved by the settlement. Shortly after the mid-17th century BC the city was destroyed by an earthquake, but it was soon rebuilt (traces of repairs were found by the archeologists) and its development continued apace. The impressive public and private buildings, the hygienic installations of the houses bear witness of the prosperity and the advanced cultural level of the Late Bronze Age Therans. On the other hand, the exquisite pieces of furniture, generally the rich household equipment and, above all, the diffusion of the mural paintings reveal a society of bourgeoisie. This all came to an end, however, in the late 17th century B.C. with the volcanic eruption of Thera. Incredibly, Akrotiri is the best preserved excavation site in Greece due to the same factor that destroyed it – volcanic material, which played major role in the protection of the ancient settlement and especially its wall paintings. The layers of light dust preserved pollen and evidence of olive tree leaves proving that eruption happened in spring time. But the most fascinating fact about Akrotiri is the lack of any human remains or valuable items, as if the city was already abandoned when the eruption happened. Investigators believe that there was a minor earthquake/eruption 1-2 weeks prior to the main eruption which allowed the residents to pack up their valuables and leave. This theory is supported by the fact that personal items, jars and furniture were found tidily stored in the buildings as if waiting for their owners’ return. Sadly, despite the nature warning, most of the citizens must have drowned en route to Crete.
Over 30 building have been located in the 1.2 ha area of the archeological site and only 4 of these have been explored as fully as possible. Yet the wealth and the variety of the recovered finds have enabled the archeologists and historians to reconstruct the history of the settlement to a satisfactory degree. The excavation site is covered by a roofing system, which makes it comfortable to visit in any season. As I already mentioned, the ruins are extremely well preserved – streets, pipes, squares, stairs, 8m high walls, buildings and even second floors of the houses are still visible. Unlike in many other archeological sites, you can literally stand in the middle of Akrotiri’s ruins and feel what it would have been like to live in 1650 BC.
Since D and I visited the Museum of Prehistoric Thera the day before, we became acquainted with the pottery, famous Akrotiri frescoes and a golden ibex found at the site (but located in the museum); all we had to do was to match our knowledge with the original site. Amazing tour-guide and smartly written info plaques were a huge bonus. We followed the long route – counter clockwise. Please allow yourself 1 – 1.5 hours to enjoy the site.
This short video gives you an idea of what the site looks like but I can’t talk in details about every single building, simply because i don’t remember. However, I hope to point a few interesting facts accompanied by the pictures.
Double Horns Square and Complex Delta East Unit (between p.3 and p.4 on the map) must have occupied a central position in the city, and resulted from the gradual addition to each other of independent building units. The facade of the east unit was crown, possibly above the entrance by double horns (horns of consecration), carved in whitish tuff stone, after which Double Horns Square was conventionally named. After the eruption, mud carried by the torrent flowing through this area inundated the rooms on either side of its bed. Thanks to this mud, the wall-painting with lilies and swallows, known as the Spring Fresco and exhibited in the National Archeological Museum in Athens, was preserved in situ. Imprints of wooden vessels and pieces of furniture (now at the Museum of Prehistoric Thera) were also found at the site.
Pithoi Storeroom (p.5 on the map) was the name given by Spyridon Marinatos to the first building brought to light in the excavation, in 1967, because he found it full of large storage jars (pithoi). On the floor of the southernmost and largest room is a circular stone base of the now perished wooden column that upheld the floor of the upper storey. At the southwest edge of the room, close to the entrance, was the hearth (a low quadrilateral platform), besides which is a small stone basin sunk in the floor. The floor of the middle room was strewn with crushed murex shells. The numerous look-weights in front of the large window had fallen from the upper storey attesting that weaving took place there. This fact, in combination with the large quantities of foodstuffs stored in the pithoi, let Marinatos to interpret the building as a storeroom for supplying the workers.
House of the Ladies (p.6) is a 3-storey building named after the wall-painting that decorated the third storey. The entrance to the building was at the southwest corner, where the main staircase is also located. The service staircase was in the center of the building, in contact with the south wall of the square light-well, the only example of this architectural feature found so far at Akrotiri. The rooms around the light-well communicated via a narrow corridor. In addition to the wall-paintings of the Ladies, one of the rooms was adorned with murals of enlarged papyrus flowers. From the abundance and the kind of finds it is deducted that most of the rooms of the ground floor and the first storey were storerooms for foodstuffs and domestic vessels, which suggest that the building was a house, possibly a brothel.
West House (p.7) is a building comprising a ground floor and two upper storeys at least in its east wing. The spacious room in the middle of the first storey was well illuminated through the large window overlooking Triangle Square. The discovery of hundreds of loom-weights attests the practice of weaving here. The west wing of the first floor constituted the most important apartment of the building and was divided by thin mud partition walls into three rooms. The wall-paintings of the Fishermen, The Fleet and the Drowned men or Swimmers decorated one of the rooms. In the southwest corner was the first ever flush toilet!!! The L-shaped room was decorated in “Ikria” wall-paintings and lit by two windows. Other room had a paved floor and walls with multiple windows, doors and cupboards. The narrow surfaces above these openings were adorned with the “Miniature Frieze” wall-paintings. In the room 4 were the wall-paintings of the so-called “Young Priestess” and the Banners.
Senotaph Square and Complex Delta North Unit (p.8). After the abolition of the Early Cycladic cemetery in the final years of the 3rd millennium BD, a small tumulus of earth, stones and sea pebbles was created in the area where rituals were performed to honor the dead. A small cist-shaped construction of upright slabs on the top of the tumulus was found full of marble cases and figurines, common grave goods of the period. The tumulus, as a cenotaph commemorating the ancestors, remained visible even after the arrangement of the square in front of the entrance to the north unit of Complex Delta. Complex Delta, occupying a central position in the excavated part of the city, was formed by the gradual addition to each other of at least four architectural units. The north unit was accessible from Cenotaph square. On the staircase leading from the antechamber to the upper storey, there are obvious signs of the seismic destruction that preceded the volcanic eruption. Despite the damage to the east apartments, many of the vessels they contained were preserved.
Triangle Square (between p.7, p.8 and p.9) is located midway up Telchines Road and bordered by Complex Delta (on south east), the West House (north) and the un-excavated building (west). The West House is a typical wealthy residence. From its entrance, which is in the north-east corner of the square, the staircase leads up to the first and second floors. Telching Road (marked in green) is the largest section of road excavated so far. Coming down from the northern quarters, it appears to lead to the harbor. The city of the final period (1st half of the 2nd millennium BC) had a dense street network. The central street axis ran through the city in a north-south direction, following the crest of the promontory upon which the settlement had developed. Parts of this basic artery have been revealed – Telchines Street (south) and Dactyls Street (north). Other small streets on the smooth slopes of the peninsula linked the buildings to the main street, while alleys and cul-de-sacs served the illumination and the ventilation of the houses, or the needs of the drainage-sewage network. There was also a dense system of squares, which were arranged in front of the entrances to the buildings, facilitating the movement of pack animals carrying supplies. Changes in the street plan and rise in street level after the rebuilding of the city necessitated the construction of a new drainage network with which the sanitary facilities in the houses were linked by clay pipes incorporated in the fabric of the walls. The pipes led into a kind of stench trap formed from stone slabs. Through this construction the waste was channelled into a small cesspit that was linked to the sewer running under the street. The quantities of water needed for the functioning of the city must have been enormous. Brackish water or even sea water carried in water-skins on pack animals will have sufficed for the needs of the sanitary facilities in each house, and the large jars usually found in these, decorated with aquatic plants, indicate its storage. Nonetheless, unknown is the location of the springs from which the city obtained drinking water, since cisterns from collecting rainwater from the roofs of the houses – as was done until recently in Santorini- have not been found. The discovery of a small clay pipe of totally different type from the drainage system, suggests the existence of an aqueduct that brought water from the foot of the limestone massif of Mt. Profitis Ilias, where there are springs of fresh water even today. Perhaps this aqueduct terminated on the outskirts of the city, where possibly a fountain served the city’s inhabitants.
In one word – impressive! Once we left the archeological site, we followed the directions given by our guide to the Red beach. It is a 10 minute rocky trail walk from Akrotiri. They say it is the most popular beach in Santorini and perhaps rightfully so. When you approach the beach from the hill, there is an opening where you can see the beach’s beautiful red-brown color caused by the iron-rich sedimentary rocks. Red pebbles, clean green water and the cliff towering above the beach do make it a pretty unusual place to sunbath.
We arrived in the afternoon when the beach, which isn’t large, was full of people but slowly many started to leave so we rented two chairs with an umbrella (€15) and had some peaceful time. Note, space and facilities are limited, so come early and bring extra water and snacks with you. I must also mention that on the beach we noticed a young Italian couple who spent the whole time (perhaps 3-4 hours) taking pictures in the water. First a girl would pose and her partner would take pictures of her, and then they would switch places. We had a good innocent laugh observing them for hours and i would have forgotten about them if we haven’t run into the same couple at every beach we went to and they did the same thing over and over again. Incredible.
By the time we came back to the hotel, it was almost time for another sunset. Remember, you haven’t experienced Santorini, unless you witnessed the sunset from the edge of the infinity-pool perched on top of caldera. This is exactly what we’ve done.
For dinner, we chose one of the restaurants on the main street in Fira – Louis Restaurant and even though local wine was a disappointment, the food was simple and delicious. The night unfolded suddenly and in all of its glory, giving this beautiful island yet another stunning look.
August 6, 2014
Today, we planned to spend the entire day on the beach so we chose one of the black beaches – Kamari, the island’s main resort. Located just 10 kms from Fira, it is an easy and short bus ride from Fira. The bus dropped us off in the beginning of Kamari village – a street lined with multiple hotels, restaurants, bookshops and souvenir stalls. And even though, it is only 20 mins ride from the capital, it felt as if it was a totally different island, that is how relaxing and different it looked.
Kamari beach is the island’s largest but even it gets very busy in summer, so make sure to come early and rent your chair/umbrella (€10 per person). Tip – if you promise to have a dinner or order food/drinks throughout the day at the specific restaurant, they will let you use their chairs for free. Note, most restaurants advertise free wifi service on the beach, but it never worked for us. Also, make sure to bring water-socks or swimming shoes as black pebble/volcanic sand gets really hot during the day.
At Hotel Keti, I picked up Dan Brown’s “Inferno”, so most of the time I spent either swimming or with my nose deep into the book. The Italian couple was on the beach next to us too but today they brought some preps – several inflatable devices to diversify their pictures. And it wasn’t only us who noticed them, as a bunch of other people went to the water and started posing the same way for their cameras. Another funny accident happened to our neighbor and his wife, an oldish, perhaps German couple. The husband went for a swim and by the time he came back, a homeless dog climbed into his sun-chair and fell asleep. The wife was busy reading a book and didn’t notice it, but when the husband came back, he realized that his spot was already taken and so was his towel. So, make sure to have somebody watch your chair while you are gone! You can see the sleepy dog on the picture below.
Around 19.00 we had dinner at one of the restaurants on the beach and then strolled along the main street. Taverna owners harassed us all evening long, so we had to keep our attitude cool. In the end of the sea promenade, we noticed that we were pretty close to the airport, so we paused to witness a few late-night landings.
When we got back to Fira, we stopped at the Kamari Tours office by the bus station to inquire about a day-long tour of Santorini. We didn’t have much time to research all the tour-operators on the island, but Kamari Tours seemed pretty reputable (based on their central location and always busy office). We booked a “See Santorini in One Day 12-hour Bus-Boat” tour that covered pretty much all the places we wanted to visit. And even though we knew, it wouldn’t be the most elaborate and informative excursion, it gave us a great snapshot of Santorini and its diversity and all for €36 per person.
We were also switching hotels as Hotel Keti didn’t have availability so we moved to Hotel Leta, in the city center. It wasn’t as beautiful as Keti, but still was very comfortable and affordable.
August 7, 2014
We started a day at 8.45 when the tour bus picked us up by the Hospital in Fira. Our itinerary was next:
- Pick up in Fira at 8.45
- Prophet Elias Monastery (15 minutes) by bus
- Pyrgos (45-60 minutes) by bus
- Nea Kameni and Volcano (1.30 hours) by boat
- Hot springs on Palia Kameni (35-45 minutes) by boat
- Thirasia (2 hours) by boat
- Sunset in Oia (2 hours) by boat
- Return to Fira at 21.00 by bus
Bus was slightly delayed but when it came, it was already full (30-35 people) so we didn’t have to wait for more people or stop anywhere else, we proceeded straight to Prophet Elias Monastery. The highest spot of the island (567 meters) is located between Pyrgos and Kamari. The mountain’s name is Profitis Ilias (Prophet Elijah), coming from the Monastery with the same name on its peak. From this vantage point, we enjoyed a striking view of the entire island, from the patchwork agricultural plains to the hilltop village of Oia. Sadly, the monastery was closed for visitors (or so our guide told us), we spent about 15 minutes walking around a small observation platform before boarding the bus.
However, here is some information about the monastery of Profitis Ilias. It was built in 1712 in the fortress style and throughout its history played important economic and cultural roles in the lives of Santorini’s citizens. In the 18th century, it owned a ship which conducted private business on behalf of the monastery, at the same time letting the Monastery have an active intellectual and patriotic influence. From 1806 to 1845 it ran a Greek language and literature school, however in the 1860, its power began to decline and after the 1956 earthquakes many buildings suffered serious damage. The monastery today has an important collection of icons, bibles, and artifacts of the Greek Orthodox religion, ecclesiastical objects, books and ethnographic material. It also hosts displays on shoemaking, printing, candle making, wine making and of typical local food.
From Profitis Ilias mountain, we drove to Pyrgos – a former Venetian capital of Santorini with a small ruined Kastelli (Castle) on the top. Built amphitheatrically around the hill as if following the natural flow of the surrounding landscape, the village is one of the most authentic and unspoiled places in Santorini as very few tourists choose it as their base, since it is located on top of the hill in the middle of the island. Built in the 13th century, the castle was one of five on the island and served as the island capital till the early 1800s. Cities’ medieval architecture with narrow, labyrinthine streets, fortified walls and hidden passages, small white houses, galleries, vineyards, churches, breathtaking sunsets … made Pyrgos seem truly magical and captivating. It is incredible that a place of 700 inhabitants would have 33 churches – the church of Theotokaki with its beautiful frescoes and old icons, Agia Triada, the church of Agia Theodosia, the Archangel Michael and many others. I wish our guide was more elaborate about the history of this town but she spoke 7 different languages to 35 different people and I understand that she simply didn’t have enough time to cover it all. I marked for myself to come back to Pyrgos and study it in more details.
After about an hour in Pyrgos we boarded the bus and drove to the port where we joined a group from 3 (or more) buses and all together departed by boat towards Nea Kameni. Nea and Palia Kameni are called “the burnt islands” and are the youngest islets in the Eastern Mediterranean, as they were formed as a result of a mega eruption of the 17th century BC. Nea Kameni, the largest of them, is about 2 km in diameter and looks like the barren land full of venting sulfur chimneys or exactly what it is – a volcano. From the port, there is a 20 mins walk towards the top of the 130-meter-high volcanic crater where we were supposed to meet out guide. We were given a choice to stay on the boat or hike; if you decide to disembark, make sure to have appropriate shoes and plenty of sunblock and water.
Despite thousands of people on Nea Kameni, I really enjoyed its truly unique lunar landscape and views of Thera with Fira and Oia resembling an icing on the cake of the island.
90 minutes was just enough time to walk up to the volcano’s crater, take a brief walk around and come back to the port. From there, the boat circled the island and landed on its western side, near Palia Kameni, where those who wanted to swim in the sulfur-enriched hot volcanic springs could do so. I’ve heard that sulfur water is really good for your skin however, I optioned to stay on the boat as i didn’t want to ruin my bathing suit (yes, water in hot springs permanently colors your clothes and jewelry). But D. and many other people happily jumped into the water and enjoyed a 20-minute swim (or bath) in +33 C degrees.
After everyone safely climbed back to the boat, we proceeded towards the Thirasia island (other spelling – Thirassia). Once, the-other-part of Strongyli, this small island (slightly over 9 sq.km) is what Santorini used to be before. Detached from the main island after the eruption, it is sparsely populated (about 270 inhabitants), but appears to be an attractive hub for day-trippers.
We docked at Korfos , the “old Port”, and were given 2 hours to have lunch, climb and explore the main city – Manolas (which has many unique monasteries and churches, tavernas and domatia) or spend time on the small beach near the port. We decided to save some energy and stay on the beach. After grabbing lunch at one of the multiple port cafes, we comfortably settled on a flat surface near the back of the beach. Be sure to bring water-socks and a blanket/towel, and be careful going around the small fishing boats.
After 2 hours of leisurely and unspoiled peace and quiet, we joined the rest of the group for the last King Thira boat voyage. Traveling by sea was a great way to see the islands from the water and understand its magnitude, topography, layering, but mostly its beauty in entirety.
Our last stop of the day was in Oia (also known as Ia), the northwesternmost part of Santorini. The settlement of Oia had been mentioned in travel reports even before the Venetian rule of the island, when Marco Sanudo founded the Duchy of Naxos in 1207. The da Corogna family built in Oia one of the island’s five citadels – Agios Nikolaos Kastell (also called Apanomeria) and its residential keep, Goulas, is now the oldest part of the town, on its southwestern edge. During the Ottoman rule (16th-19th century), the settlement was called either Apanomeria or Casteli San Nicolas on maps, however, in the second half of the 19th century the name was officially changed to Oia. From the late 19th to early 20th centuries, the town, known for its mariners, flourished as a result of seaborne trade throughout the Mediterranean, particularly as part of the trade route between Russia and Alexandria. In 1890 Oia had approximately 2,500 residents and 130 sailing ships. However, the arrival of steam and the concentration of shipping at Piraeus in Attica caused the town’s seagoing trade to collapse; agriculture also diminished as people started to leave the island. Wars, economic depression and over-extraction of fish resources contributed to the further decline of the town. The earthquake of 1956 not only considerably damaged the city, but also led to the new wave of emigrants, shrinking the population of Oia to 306 inhabitants; however, the redevelopment and careful restoration work that followed the earthquake along with “re-discovery” of the island by the tourists, resulted in picture-perfect Greek village that we were to visit today.
Extending over 2 km along the northern edge of the caldera and hanging 70-100 m above sea, Oia is reached from the port by 300 steps, which you can either walk or ride on a mule (€5 per person). The idyllic surroundings of the town have a complex of white washed blue domed churches and charming, traditional Cycladic and cave houses (used by crew of the ships) that are carved into the rock face on top of the cliff. The houses are painted in white lime water so that the rainwater can be collected or just for aesthetic purposes. However, another explanation is that during the Ottoman rule of Greece, Greeks were not allowed to fly their white flag. In defiance, in Oia they painted their entire housing complex in white with domes giving the village an effective white perspective and elegance.
The wealthy ship captains of the late 19th century built neo-classical mansions which can be seen in succession one above the other. The captains’ houses stand out due to their location and architecture. Two prime examples are located next to each other – the two storey Venetian Renaissance-inspired 1864 mansion. Originally built by the Sigouras Sarris family in 1864, it was converted in 2002 to a private luxury hotel “1864 The Sea Captain’s House & Spa“. A second example is located on the main village pathway and was renovated in 1986 by the architect Loannis Zaggelidis into the restaurant “Oia 1800”. The architecture of all the Oia sea captain’s mansions is distinctive with high vaulted ceilings, exteriors of hand carved volcanic stone mixed with marble, imported wood planked floors, flat terraced rooftops in place of the arched roofs of the cave homes and are always situated in the best locations.
At the pinnacle point of Oia is the ruined castle, called Fort Londsa, which was the seat of the Argyri family under the Venetians and presently serves as a lookout point with a complete 360-degree view (which makes it the best place in town to see the sunset). Another most recognizable building in town is an old windmill, which often appears on postcards. Narrow passageways, that get very congested during the tourist season, lead to a central square. There are many shops, clustered along the main pedestrian street called the “Nikalaou Namikaou”, offering a range of handicrafts, jewelry and souvenirs, and several small art galleries. The town also has numerous restored churches, including Panagia church; some were built in memory of sailors.
We arrived to the Oia port before 18.00. It was an exhausting day so it took me a while to climb 300 steps but we still made it to the top before the mules. We were given two hours to explore the town, have dinner and most importantly, witness the sunset from the best location in Santorini. We chose to eat on the way, walked the main cobble-stone street, visited some of the jewelry shops and a very famous Atlantis Books store, which was a destination in itself. About an hour before the sunset we settled in one of the narrow streets, right under the windmill. With every minute the street and all the areas around the caldera got more and more crowded with tourists, who hoped to attest the best sunset of their lives, and no one was disappointed as it was truly grandiose.
It is hard to describe but easy to imagine the flow of people that poured back into the main street once the sun set. We had to use our elbows-and-shoulders to get to the main square for a meet-up in time. My advice if you are taking a guided tour, don’t linger and wait for people to disperse, chances that you make it back to the bus on time are zilch.
I would definitely recommend taking a day tour around the islands. Yes, it is long and exhausting, it has poor content value and you will feel rushed all the time, but we still enjoyed it as we got to see Santorini from so many different angles.
August 8 and 9, 2014
Our last days on the island we spent on Perissa beach and i can confidently announce that it was my favorite beach in Santorini – 8 kms of black volcanic sand, beautiful water and easy bus- access from Fira. It wasn’t terribly crowded and traditional straw (kalamaki) umbrellas gave the beach authentic yet luxurious feel. Sadly, the Italian couple was also there, working on the production of yet another 10,000+ photographs.
On the 8th, before going to dinner at Volcano Blue we did some jewelry shopping. I highly recommend Kallisti Jewellery (22860-22626, email:firstname.lastname@example.org) for all the assistance and a beautiful ring we bought from them, which they were kind enough to resize for me.
On the 9th, we spent half day on the Perissa beach and then did the last shopping in Fira before taking our 18.00 ferry back to Athens. Santorini was wonderful and generous to us and we left with cameras full of breathtaking pictures and memories that can’t be replaced with anything else.