Santorini: descent into the caldera

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Thursday, April 13, 2006

You don't often get to visit the world's largest volcano so I was pretty keen to get down there and see the caldera from the water-line, as well as to explore some of the very recent additions to the Santorini group - the volcanic islets of Nea and Palea Kameni. Getting on the water would provide remarkable views of the stratified cliffs, and as the islets are less than 500 years old, their surfaces would be peculiar to say the very least. I wasn't to be disappointed.

Down the cliff side I went in a fast moving gondola, just like those found on swankier European ski slopes. Sun shining, birds chirping (good, it's not going to erupt today) and business at the old port was brisk. From there a bunch of us boarded a splendid, old wooden ketch and before we knew it we out in the bay, unfortunately not under sail but pleasantly gliding over seas chopped up by a brisk breeze. Not cheap but certainly a good way to see these sights.

Ten minutes later we pulled into a small anchorage on the north side of Nea Kameni, the largest new islet that was created by a significant eruption in 1570AD and enhanced by five smaller eruptions since then. Ringed by cracked and slowly disintegrating blocks of jagged, blackened lava, higher parts of the island have eroded enough to form a loose, granulated soil that the first signs of life are starting to emerge from.

There is not much of it but it's definitely basic plant life - a carpet of red shoots rising forth from the barren grey hillsides - which is quite a nice contrast as you look further afield to the sea beyond. The central crater itself is pretty insignificant, but it seems in the volcanic world that the most dangerous vents are the least spectacular, so I'd better not say that too loud.

It's quite tough going walking on the pebbly, crumbling moonscape so after an hour and a half of exploration we were all happily on the boat ready for the next adventure at the 'hot springs' of neighbouring Palea Kameni. This was an opportunity to swim that I wisely declined because paddling in April anywhere in the Mediterranean isn't going to be fun - even if it's superheated. And this site isn't - it's lucky to be a few degrees above the surrounding water temperature which itself was estimated to be 16C. See you later guys, I'll just catch up on my tan and admire the little church and funny little yellow boats over this way...

But it was three hours well spent and is something you really have to do if visiting Santorini. Just a shame I wasn't here a month or two later for the swimming part.

Because of my dedication to providing the complete story (and maybe because I'm partial to a tipple) I decided to investigate the main industry of Santorini (besides tourism) once back on solid ground of the main island. Viticulture has been a staple of the economy here for thousands of years, and like the land the vines take root in, growing methods used on Santorini are unique due to harsh climactic and geophysical characteristics.

These islands happen to be the windiest place in Greece. That, coupled with a distinct lack of water and the fact that soil temperature due to the volcanic chambers below are significantly higher than usual, mean that an ancient technique called 'Vine Shaping' has to be used to have any chance of successfully cultivating grapes. The resulting crowns of gnarled, knotted vines are low yielding but produce grapes of high acid content, allowing the juice deriving from them to age longer and in turn produce higher value wines.

Shaping the vines takes a lot of tender loving care and harvesting is back-breaking work. Only a couple of the most advanced wineries are starting to mechanise. With such a manually taxing production methods wines produced need to be of much higher value to remain viable. The wines I tasted at Boutari Winery are good but unfortunately are nothing that 'knocks your socks off'. So as tourism continues to grow and claim new lands across the islands the proportion of land under vine has shrunk from around 70% down to maybe 30% today. Producers continue to hold out but this cornerstone of the local economy will continue to decline in future.

Then the wind picked up just in time for my assault on the 450m high headland that overlooks Perissa Beach and which was the ancient capital Thira in times of the Dorians (around 900BC). After stopping at a conveniently located cliff face chapel 150 metres above ground level to pray to the wind god I continued my climb to the summit and found a surprisingly well preserved ruin.

No idea why they built here if it was so windy - I almost blew straight off the side onto Kamari below and it wasn't a particularly windy day when I visited. Still the views are magnificent over the Aegean and a sizable town was carved from the soft volcanic rock deposited here hundreds of years before their time.

Now the archaeological site is thoughtfully planned to preserve the remains but gives visitors decent access to all parts of the site using roped paths. Well done and worth the climb.

To wrap up my visit I thought I'd better visit the Prehistory Museum and check out some of the details from various volcano-addled peoples resident on Santorini throughout time. Basically it's a showcase of Minoan relics sourced from their ancient settlement of Akrotiri, buried Pompeii-style back in 1,650BC, and it shows once again the advanced nature of their culture which was suddenly cut short both on Crete and on Santorini when the super-eruption struck.

It's a fine display of frescos, bronze, pottery and statuary - the highlight being a 10cm gold Ibex found boxed and in mint condition in 1999. And there's possibly more to come as only 5-10% of the Akrotiri site has been excavated.

So that, in a nutshell, is Santorini - a wonderful display of the beauty and power of nature, as well as the creativity and dogged persistence of man.

I didn't even get around to the main attractions of the place - swimming, diving and lazing on the beaches - but I loved it anyway. Santorini will be a major highlight of my trip, somewhere I will definitely return to someday and in the meantime recommend to anyone until I hear of the next big eruption. You've been advised and hopefully warned!

Next entry -> winding up the islands in Paros

Words from the Wise #64

"A man is never old if he can still be moved emotionally by a woman of his own age."
Old Judaic Proverb, from James A Michener (The Source)
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