THE VIEW FROM THE TALLEST ARCHITECTURES IN THE WORLD!
With a 4,000 year old history, with names given which literally mean ‘the most beautiful one’ (Kallístē or Thēra), and whose praise great poets have sung…
Through the eyes, experiences and voice of Sviatlana Tsiaseika-Economou, an Oxford Alumnus, a New Yorker and a Voyageuse, today in ‘TRAVELER’S DIARY’, SOUL brings you the famous crescent-shaped Island of Greece, Santorini, where the eternal rock continues to stand, strong and majestic, rising proudly from the sea and guarding well the secrets of the ancient Atlantis…
Santorini, where my husband and I spent 5 days, is one of the most visited islands in Greece. The likeliest location of the lost city of 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 whether it was an honest one!
The Cyclades (pronounced “ki-kla-dez) comprise about 220 islands and are said to be inhabited since at least 7000 BC. Many islands belonged to the Minoans who were based in Crete and between 1500-1100 BC the archipelago was ruled by the Mycenaeans, who in the 8th century were replaced by the Dorians. In quick succession the Cyclades 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) until they reunited with Greece in 1830. The history of Santorini follows the same evolution as other islands of Cyclades, except for one major event – the Minoan volcanic eruption that happened sometime 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. 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 proof of that civilization. The earth-shattering volcanic eruption of the 17th century BC was the largest in the recorded history. It caused the center of the round island to sink and created monster-tsunamis over the Mediterranean Sea that led, according to many sources, to the collapse of Minoan civilization on Crete. For the next 2000 years sporadic volcanic activity (most recently in 1956) created further physical changes that included the formation of the volcanic islands 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.
As you can see, this beautiful island of Greece 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 eruptions created 6 separate islands adorning a rectangular lagoon and every time you cross it by boat, remember that you are floating just above a monstrous volcano that is waiting to explode!
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 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.
From Piraeus (Athens) to Santorini we traveled by Sea Jets, a high speed catamaran, in just 4.5 hours. We settled in one of the famous “cave” hotels in Fira 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. Fira, the island’s capital, was founded in the late 18th century when islanders moved from the Venetian citadel of Skaros, 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.
We started the day by exploring Fira and visited its multiple churches – Agios Mina, The Orthodox Metropolitan Church of Santorini, dedicated to Ypapanti (the Presentation of Christ in the Temple), the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and others.
Since I am a history buff, we spent several hours at the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, where thematic units contain the most spectacular finds from the heyday of the city at Akrotiri (17th century BC), such as the plan and architecture of the city, its organization as an urban centre, the development of the monumental art of wall painting, the rich pottery, the elegant jewelry, and the island’s complex network of contacts with the outside word. The collection also contained the gold ibex figurine, a remarkable find and the only golden object excavated in Akrotiri. It is an indisputable place to visit for those who are planning to see the site itself.
From the Museum, we walked through the most spectacular pedestrian street – Agiou Mina- running along the caldera and covered with restaurants, souvenir shops and jewelry stores. Fira might seem small but it takes time to explore it; between climbing the winding paths, constantly releasing multiples of “oh’s” and “ah’s” of astonishment and taking pictures, it took us pretty much all afternoon. At night, we couldn’t wait to sample local cuisine (notice the capers) and wine (worth a try).
The following morning, we took a guided tour of Akrotiri. Marina, our guide, gave us a detailed historical background of this site. After the tour, it became clear why discovery of Akrotiri led to a belief that the lost city of Atlantis wasn’t another Greek myth created by Plato 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, 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. 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 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, 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 economic 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. 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. 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. Archeologists believe that there was a minor earthquake 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 indoor bathrooms and plumbing are still visible. Unlike in many other archeological sites, you can literally stand in the middle of Akrotiri’s ruins and imagine what it would have been like to live in 1650 BC. In one word – impressive!
If you follow a rocky trail from the archeological site, you reach the Santorini’s most popular Red Beach, named after 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. However, Santorini’s volcanic past blessed the island with black and white beaches as well. One of the famous black beaches is located in Kamari village, island’s main resort town, but my favorite was Perissa.
If you get tired of beaches, Santorini has a solution for that too – multiple tour-operators offer a plethora of itineraries around the island and its archipelago. We decided to book a “See Santorini in One Day 12-hour” 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.
The tour started at 8.45 am, its itinerary included the visits to Prophet Elias Monastery, Pyrgos, Nea Kameni and Volcano, Hot springs on Palia Kameni, Thirasia and sunset in Oia.
Prophet Elias Monastery located on the highest spot of the island (567 meters) offers a striking view of the entire island, from the patchwork agricultural plains to the hilltop village of Oia. 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. 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.
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, the village of 700 inhabitants is one of the most authentic and unspoiled places in Santorini as very few tourists choose it as their base. Built in the 13th century, the castle was one of five on the island and served as its capital till the early 1800s. Cities’ medieval architecture with narrow, labyrinthine streets, fortified walls and hidden passages, small white houses, galleries, vineyards, churches (33 in total!), breathtaking sunsets … made Pyrgos seem truly magical and captivating.
After a tour of Pyrgos we boarded a boat towards Nea Kameni and Palia Kameni. So-called “the burnt islands” are the youngest islets in the Eastern Mediterranean, as they were formed as a result of the 17th century BC eruption. 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. After we returned, the boat circled the island and docked on its western side, near Palia Kameni, offering a swim in the sulfur-enriched hot volcanic springs.
After everyone safely climbed back to the boat, we proceeded towards the Thirasia Island. 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 in the small beach near the port.
Our last stop of the day was in Oia (Ia), the northwestern-most part of Santorini. The settlement of Oia had been mentioned in travel reports even before the Venetian rule of the island. The da Corogna family built there one of the island’s five citadels – Agios Nikolaos Kastell and its residential keep, Goulas – now the oldest part of the town. 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 caused the town’s seagoing trade to collapse. 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 for over 2 kms 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. The idyllic surroundings of the town have a complex of white washed blue domed churches and charming, traditional Cycladic and cave houses that are carved into the rock face on top of the cliff, but don’t miss the neo-classical mansions built by the wealthy ship captains in the late 19th century.
At the pinnacle point of Oia is the ruined castle, 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). 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, souvenirs, and several small art galleries. The town also has numerous restored churches, including Panagia church; some were built in memory of sailors. We felt exhausted after a day of island-hopping but the promised “sunset of our lives” was totally worth seeing.
Santorini was wonderful and generous to us and, after 5 days, we left with cameras full of breathtaking pictures and memories that couldn’t be replaced with anything else.
To follow Sviatlana you can also visit her at www.svetanyc.com.
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