Fate saw to it that I recently found myself on the island of Santorini for a couple of days, which just so happens to be one of the most interesting and unusual places on the planet, and as such finds itself residing comfortably on my list of the top must-see places in the world.
For anyone hearing of Santorini for the first time, it’s a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, 100 kilometers north of Crete and around 200km southeast from Athens – here!
This was my third time on the island, so by now I know quite a bit about the place – and it’s all rather fascinating… so let me give you the inside story here, so you don’t have to trawl through site after site and still not get the real deal…
So, let’s start with the basics: Santorini is a volcano-island. (Yes, that is no doubt why I’ve just had my third trip there!) Or, to put it more precisely, it’s what remains of a volcanic caldera after it erupted thousands of years ago, plus a new, smaller volcano slowly rising up from the sea which now fills the caldera in the center of the archipelago. The walls of the crater are impressively tall – around 300 meters high and made up of black, grey, white and red volcanic rock. The effect is one of unearthly beauty, like being on another planet. A unique bit of topography.
Then there’s the multicolored beaches – civilized sandy ones (which you need to take a car/quad/motorbike to get to), and wild stony ones (only by boat or foot). There’s also the exquisite Greek food (fresh fish, lots of greens, tzatziki; but if you want steak – best wait till you’re back on the mainland), and multi-starred Metaxa… In short, a Mediterranean paradise :).
You can drive from one end of the island to the other in an hour, even accounting for a little auto-moto congestion in the capital Fira. The nicest hotels of the island are to be found towards the peak of a 300-meter cliff a couple of kilometers north of the capital. Well, I say hotels… really they’re more like beehives. Basically they’re pods that rise up the sides of the crater at 45 degrees, all white and neat, one on top of the other – the roof of one being the balcony of the one above. The floors are joined by thin serpentine stairs that wind and twist all over the place – up, down, across; branching out, going off into dead-ends… basically – a staircase-topology resembling the scar on Dumbledor’s knee!
From the balconies of these cool diagonally-terraced hotel rooms you get a simply staggering panoramic view of the archipelago by day, plus superlatively sublime sunsets. Indeed, the dusk here is so delightful it’s used as a marketing ploy to hoodwink gullible tourists… The ‘best’ views of the sundown are claimed to only be visible from boats out at sea, so unsuspecting visitors fork out for tickets on such vessels only to observe a markedly inferior view of the sunset than that from their balconies. Just remember that if you’re ever here. Don’t be bamboozled!
It’s not just the setting sun that needs to be witnessed but also how it falls behind the whole archipelago, which slowly darkens and is then plunged into twilight… There’s a nice restaurant at the top of the cliff which is the perfect spot for seeing the spectacle!
Besides being such a stunning location today, turns out that Santorini also represents a ‘nightmare of history’ too. In the local settlement Akrotiri, an ancient port city was partly dug out. Tour guides say that there are three layers of urban life under there – the most ancient of which is approximately 5000 years old. The upper layer is the remains of a town that died 1500-1600 BC, and this place is real unique: a carefully designed town, complete with two-three storey houses, a sewerage system (!), and a water supply system (!) – 3500 years ago!! Yes – you read that right: long before Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece – during the period of Ancient Egypt!
I’m sure the guide also said something about ‘hot water’… but I didn’t quite catch it. Still, what with the volcano and hot springs – seems plausible (they did, after all, have fonts for washing in).
Among the ruins were found remains of ancient furniture, amphoras and frescos.
A mighty ancient civilization once lived here. Was it Atlantis, the city state of legend destroyed by a catastrophic eruption and tsunami? Curiously, no human remains were found in the ruins, indicating that the island probably shook long before the main eruption and the inhabitants had time to get into boats and get the heck outta there. Alas, their endeavors were in vain – no one was saved. The tsunami caused by the earthquake and eruption washed away all the boats – together with the whole coastal population of the Aegean Sea.
The only remnant of life found in the thick layers of tufa and pearl was a mummified piglet (“he chose freedom”, someone joked). Alas, excavations weren’t continued as the budget dried up. That’s a great shame, for this is a unique place, with something closely resembling it being very rare. It needs to be investigated further!
More of D.Z.’s pix…:
The rest of the photos are here.
That’s all from Santorini folks! Yassou!