Life on the edge of a super volcano
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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Santorini is one of those names that you've probably heard before but can't quite put a face to.
Hopefully this entry will remedy that because it is certainly one of the prettiest places I've come across in these travels. That aspect makes for a great honeymoon destination, but it also has diverse offering of spectacular sights, attractions and amenities for travellers of other stripes too.
After debating whether to even come here I ended up staying for four whole nights, which gives you some indication of how happy I was with the choice - even if it was more than a tad chilly! Will have to come back in May or June next time...
So what is this place beyond being your archetypal Greek Island? Short answer is it's the world's largest volcano and was site of the most intensive volcanic eruption in known history, which is said to have wiped out the Minoan civilisation on Crete and that created one of the truly unique and inspiring land forms on Earth today.
To give you an idea of its size, the caldera (inside of the depressed crater) now measures roughly 11km x 9km. Before the 1,650BC super-eruption which blew the conical island apart and caused most of it to sink below the waterline, the visible volcano probably measured between fifteen and twenty kilometres in diameter! Amazing dimensions that make Vesuvius or Krakatoa look like pimples. It is still a highly active, unstable tectonic environment, with major earthquakes a regularity and where the next temblor is well overdue according to seismic activity over the past millennia.
For those of you who know me as a volcano-maniac from Indonesian entries, this is what brought me here in the end.
These Santorinians certainly like living in the edge. But despite this constant threat the inhabitants have eked out communities and viable agriculture from the sulphur-laden soil since 1,000BC, and more recently have developed a tourism industry capitalising on black sand beaches, four months of perfect weather each year and their quaint but precarious existence on the edge of the massive caldera. It's a triumph of human ingenuity and a joy to see - the bizarre combination making for a truly unique Greek islands experience.
Fira is Santorini's capital, located on the eastern rim of the main island. At this time of year it's a delightful jumble of white-washed houses and churches with pastel detailing, narrow stepped laneways, lazing cats, lolling old ladies, spring flowers, crazy paving, crazier traffic, stunning caldera views and little old men with paintbrushes - applying coat 298 to facades so well painted that they're actually round like marshmellows instead of squared as originally intended.
There's the more commercial areas with clubs, bars and boutiques that are just starting to wake up from their winter hibernation, but plunging into the caldera is where Santorini's heart is. Old houses carved into the cliffs more recently converted into discrete hotels and an immaculate orthodox chapel within fifty metres whichever direction you look. It's where you get the best views of the surrounding layered cliff faces and also of the small outlying islands that threaten so much and may not be here this time next year...
If Fira is the heart then Oia on the north coast is Santorini's soul. At the end of my first day on the island I headed here for the sunset and water views from an entirely different angle and found a more traditional village with little to do except watch the sun decline through the spokes of ancient windmills.
Quiet, full of character and only moderately tourist-oriented it was well worth a look, but considering it faces the wrong way for a western sunset (I suspect the sunset concept is marketed as a more tangible reason to visit this end of the island than that Oia is 'it's soul'), I headed back to Fira in time to catch sundown there.
An onward bus was beckoning so I almost didn't hang around, keen to get back to my room at Perissa Beach on the other side of the island. However in the end I did and it was the only sunset I witnessed on Santorini. Definitely a case in point that you should do things when you can, because there may not be a next time.
Fortunately the result was pretty spectacular indeed!
There's still a lot to cover in the countryside so I'll continue with that in the next entry, but as the little orthodox chapels are the main image you take away from Santorini, I should feature a few more whilst I'm talking towns. Magnificent things they are, wonders of geometric architecture and tasteful in pastel decoration. There's so many of them - always one within walking distance and often in the most unusual places. Look out for a few up cliffs and next to hot springs next entry. And now that I think of it, I have never seen anyone come or go from one of these churches whilst I've been watching.
Strange but true...
Next entry -> beaches, vines and ruins around Santorini island
Old Rossian Proverb
Visit the sight now and take photos while you can - tomorrow may be a blizzard and if not, you will probably never return this way to see it again.