Yesterday was different: an active day. (We seem to be alternating active and lazing days.) We boarded a bus at 11am which took us down the winding and somewhat harrowing road from the cliff top where Fira is to the south harbor, where we caught a boat called the Albatross for a tour on Nea Kameni
. Nea Kameni is the active but currently quiet volcano in the centre of Santorini Island. Santorini Island is actually in the shape of an broken ring, having been broken when parts of the land were blown away by the explosion of an earlier volcano about 3500 years ago. This explosion was perhaps the worst known volcanic explosion in the world, or close to it. The blast was so massive that it obliterated several sections of the then island ring, deposited ash layers around the world, darkened the sun for several years and stunted the growth of trees on the other side of the world. It also buried several Bronze Age, likely Minoan, settlements on Santorini and likely created tsunamis that flattened settlements in Crete. For a thousand years or so afterwards, no trace of the volcano was seen inside the (broken) ring of Santorini. Then in 46 BCE, "fire" was observed in the sea--fire that water could not quench, according to contemporary reports. Soon new volcanic deposits appeared above water level where the old volcano had been, and they've increased over the centuries.
The last eruption occurred in 1950, but we visited the crater of this recent explosion and found sulfurous steam rising from vents (with the unmistakable odor of eggs), and just a few inches below the surface, the soil is too hot to hold! Yesterday we were in no danger, but some day, geologists predict, the volcano will build up to the same level that it reached before the great explosion of 3500 years ago, and it will explode again
! We can only hope this will not be any time soon! Over 9,000 people live on the island year around and tens of thousands visit every year. The Bronze Age residents apparently realized their danger in time to move themselves, their food and most of their possessions before the devastating explosion buried their towns (the settlement called Akrotiri is considered the Greek Pompey). With any luck, the future Santorinians will know when to leave, too.
We learned all this from our guide (who interpreted in six languages), as we toiled up the hill to the volcanic mountain. Although a national park, the place is undeveloped and is waterless, shade less, composed of blocks of black basalt and lighter volcanic sediments and is colonized by only one plant, apparently, although it was at least blooming in bright yellowness when we were there. The trail to the most recent crater (or caldera) is straight up and it's HOT to hike in the sun. We were grateful for the high winds there, although they had made the sailing to the volcanic islands rather exciting. Fortunately, the trek is worth it: Nea Kameni (the "new burning one") is worth it.
After our visit to Nea Kameni, we reboarded the Albatross and sailed around it to visit Palea Kameni (the "old burning one"), which formed centuries ago and has become dormant, but is still part of the volcanic complex
. The ship sailed into one of the bays of Palea Kameni and we were allowed to jump into the sea from the ship to swim over to the hot springs. This was a shallow rocky area where the rocks and murky water were a rich iron oxide orange, and the water was about 10C warmer than the sea where we jumped in. The rusty water can stain white swim suits and tarnish jewellery, but oh, it was pleasant! The only hard part was swimming back to the boat through the colder water! But the colder water was refreshing helped to wash the rust and volcanic dust from our bodies.
From Palea Kameni, we sailed to the other large remnant island of Santorini, called Therassia for lunch (at 3pm). The main town is way above the harbor, like its sister cities on the main island, but we stayed at the bottom where several tavernas served grilled foods of all kinds. The "Taverna Kamara" where we ate is a family affair. The mother woke the kids from their afternoon siesta to help serve the tour guests. The girl who helped to serve us was maybe 11 or 12 but was so conscientious that Reyla was moved to give her a personal tip--and received a big smile in response.
At 5 pm, we sailed over to the main island again, but this time to harbor below Oia town. Oia (pronounced "EE-ya) is another cliff top town at the northwestern tip of Santorini and is THE town usually featured in photographs and paintings representing the Greek islands
. The white buildings and blue roofs of the churches are distinctive. We were scheduled to spend a few hours in Oia and enjoy the sunset from its unique vantage point. Problem was, we were at sea level and Oia is 140 meters straight up! Turned out we had two choices: walk (all 300 stairs of it) or ride a mule for 5 Euro. Elka and I decided to earn dessert and opted for the foot option. Meira and Reyla chose the mule train. Climbing was hot in the late afternoon sun and the effort definitely earned us our choice of calories later. We also had to dodge the mules shoving each other up the cobbled path and racing each other back down again. But the mule alternative wasn't without its challenges, either. Reyla experienced some nervous moments each time her mule rounded one of the many turns of the zig-zag path. He would sway towards the outside edge and Reyla, wearing Elka's pack and trying to keep hold of her day bag, had her hands full already without having to clutch for dear life to the saddle loop at the same time. She said later she felt in danger of sliding off and down--way down--at each turn. But they made it up safely even so and so did we--eventually.
We then treated ourselves to ice cream, frapes and lots of water and rested, though not for long: shopping beckoned! The main "street" (pathway) of Oia is practically end to end with shops and tavernas, interrupted only by the occasional blue-domed church, civic building or house
. While the girls browsed the clothing and jewellery emporia, I discovered the Atlantis bookstore below street level and climbed down to see whether they had Fire in the Sea
, a book about the volcano, its geology and the history of Santorini and vicinity. This had been highly recommended by our volcano guide. The Atlantis did
have it but in hard cover only, since it was an academic book, and it cost half of what it was listed for on Amazon, according to the staff. I later found Amazon prices ranged from $93 to $165, so I didn't get it cheap nor was I overcharged, but it is out of print and hard to get. What can I say? I don't buy clothes or jewellery, I buy books, especially one like this that blends the disciplines of science, archaeology and history.
After this, we worked our way west and found a nice open perch from which to watch and photograph the sunset. And the sunset was marvellous, the sun glowing deep red as it dipped behind the peaks of another Cycladic island to the west, probably Folegandros. Of course, we shared the occasion with several hundred other tourists who also thought our location was the best possible place to watch the sun go down, so the solitude of the moment was lost but we felt close--literally and figuratively--to the people with whom we watched the event.
At that point, we headed home, tired after a long, active but memorable day, traveling via the same tour bus we'd started on, even though I misplaced the essential return ticket in my travel-purse
. Having claimed some of the last seats on the bus, we munched on honey-sesame-covered peanuts (a quintessential Greek snack) and dried figs, which Elka had picked up at one of the shops we passed on our way to the bus. We were content to skip "dinner"--except for Meira, who went for yet another Greek salad, which she says she never gets tired of. With its fresh local tomatoes and cucumbers, olive oil and oregano, who can blame her! And I went to bed with a good book, to read about volcanoes and ancient peoples.
After our long day at the beach, I'm catching up on the blog and the girls are patronizing the hot tub. We head to Crete tomorrow, the last island of our tour. In the morning, we'll first visit the Santorini Prehistorical Museum. Unfortunately, we can't visit the ancient Bronze Age site, called Akrotiri, because it has been closed to the public for over two years. But the museum is supposed to have lots of great information about it.
Today is our next to last day in Santorini and we've been too busy to sit at the computer to blog! Today we spent lazing on the black sand of Paralia Paravolos (Paravolos Beach). The sand was, predictably, hot, the water is surprisingly cold (How cold? Let's say "refreshing".) The breeze is just right, especially under the umbrella. Some hardy Germans floated off shore, even early in the day, Greek youths kicked around a small soccer ball at the water's edge and the North Americans absorbed UV radiation. It was great! We did eventually get into the water. And at this beach there are tavernas along the strand to bring you cool drinks or other refreshments and music is blasting from some storefront, but not too close.