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Greece’s Fabled Santorini
Discover the Wonders of this Volcanic Aegean Isle

We stood on deck in the dawn’s first light as the small cruise ship sliced quietly through the Aegean Sea. Dark landforms enclosed us, barely visible in the grayness. Then, we noticed a thin band of lights twinkling high above. The effect was surreal. "We must be nearing Santorini," speculated my wife. The first tint of pink appeared in the sky, and the ship started to slow. We could barely discern individual lights clustered at the top of the steep slope falling into the sea before us.

Fira and Imerovigli
Fira Town and Imerovigli perched above Santorini's caldera

Then, as dawn's light slowly broke, we could make out white patches amidst the twinkling lights. "It looks like snow!" we exclaimed. Straining our eyes and using our binoculars, we realized that the white patches were groups of houses, cascading several hundred feet downward from the rim. We realized that we were in the center of Santorini’s volcanic crater, a wide caldera, looking up at Fira town. The rim of the dormant volcano formed a semi-circle around us, as a smaller, opposite island outlined the remaining edge of the volcanic rim.

As we excitedly gathered our gear and rushed to debark for a day of exploration, we sensed we had arrived at one of the earth’s most breathtaking locations.

Santorini’s Caldera and its Fiery History

Santorini’s unique geology is what makes the island so distinctly beautiful. Minoans settled the island around 4,000 years ago, about the time that they established the famous settlement of Knossos on nearby Crete. When Santorini’s volcano erupted explosively around 1,500 B.C., it blew a significant portion of its landmass into the atmosphere; buried its human settlement under ash; sent a huge tidal wave to Crete; and created the caldera into which rushed the Aegean Sea. Additional volcanic activity over the years has formed the nearby island of Thirassia and the Kamenes, two small, black islands near the center of the caldera that comprise the extinct volcanic cone.

Despite its volcanic history, Santorini later developed into a major Greek settlement. The ruins of ancient Thira display archeological remnants from Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Byzantines. The Sacred Way runs down the center of the site, with ruins of homes, market squares, baths, theaters, and sanctuaries. The name of the Greek god, Apollo, is inscribed in stone in the ancient Thira alphabet.

Fira & Caldera
Fira Town & caldera
Courtesy: Tourist Guide

Although the volcano is not thermally active, Santorini still experiences fits of devastating seismic activity. The latest major earthquake occurred in 1956, destroying many of the island’s buildings. The residents worked hard to rebuild the towns on their beloved island. The beautifully restored, white-washed homes in the caldera-rim towns of Fira and Ia now appear as they have for hundreds of years.

 Perched in Fira Town

We were so enthralled with our Mediterranean cruise visit, that we extended our vacation and returned to spend several more days on Santorini. What better place to find lodging than Fira town? We rented a room at Dana Villas, overlooking the caldera, with gasp-inducing sunset views. It was hard to resist just lounging by the pool and taking in the sights, but the town with its pedestrian stairways and alleys was too much of a draw.

Dana Villas view
Caldera view (Courtesy: Dana Villas)

Fira & caldera
Chruch perched at caldera edge

We found ourselves getting lots of exercise wandering the narrow streets. A fun and worthwhile diversion was taking the funicular down the sheer caldera wall to the water, then returning via donkey up the path leading back to town. Fira’s white-washed homes were interspersed with Byzantine churches with sky-blue domes, numerous shops selling everything from artwork to local wines, and tavernas, restaurants and cafes suspended above the caldera. The shop keepers and restaurateurs proved to be the most gracious that we’d encountered throughout friendly Greece. We won’t soon forget the delicious dinner we shared with newfound friends at Aris Restaurant, overlooking the caldera and its departing cruise ships.

At Land’s End in Ia

On the far northern tip of Santorini sits the entrancing old-world village of Ia, only a ten-minute taxi ride from Fira. Smaller and quieter than Fira, its winding streets cascade down both sides of its lands-end point. Bewitching views take in the caldera on one side and an Aegean Sea expanse on the other. The homes here display a wider variety of colorings than Fira. Some are white-washed, while others display natural ochre-colored stone with blue doors and window frames. We took a slow, pleasant exploration through the narrow pedestrian streets and stairways, stopping often to snap photos and linger over the views, architecture, and some old windmills.

Happy Ia visitors
Authors (Photo: Jim Whitmer)

Ia architecture
Bell arches of Ia

Ia doorway
Typical Ia door

Akrotiri: the Pompeii of Greece

Perhaps the most surprising wonder of Santorini is its ancient Minoan ruins at Akrotiri, undiscovered for over 3,500 years. When Santorini’s volcano blew, it buried the settlement in ash. The site was discovered only within the last three decades, and it is still being excavated. Due to this fact, it is necessary to visit the site with a licensed guide. It is well worthwhile, for the guides make Akrotiri come alive through their detailed knowledge of the ancient town and its Minoan culture.

Akrotiri ruins
Ancient Akrotiri dwelling

We were amazed to see two and three-level houses, squares, shops, workshops, murals, vases, and everyday tools and utensils at Akrotiri. No skeletons were discovered here, leading archeologists to conclude that residents must have fled in advance of the eruption. In contrast, the residents of Italy’s more renown site of Pompeii were buried in ash from Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD. As we toured the site, we marveled at the sheer age of Akrotiri, rivaling that of many of the Egyptian pyramids.

Santorini Beckons

During several days on the island we grew to appreciate Santorini’s variety, including Ancient Thira, and the black pebble beaches on the gently sloping eastern shoreline. We also developed a real appreciation for the adaptability and foresight of Santorini’s residents. They have creatively used the island’s limited resources to create a haven in the Aegean Sea. For example, despite receiving only ten inches of rain per year, Santorini’s farmers have developed a unique method for cultivating vineyards, without irrigation, and producing an excellent, fruity red wine.

Dana Villas view
Caldera view (Courtesy: Dana Villas)

Mule and master
Island merchant

Caldera view
Cruise ships in the caldera

The island’s residents have also learned well how to ride the wave of increased tourism. They have effectively collaborated to limit tourist facilities, thereby balancing Santorini’s preservation with the new, tourist-based economy. Although advance planning is necessary for a summer visit, Santorini’s overwhelming majestic beauty, charming towns, people, and history make a trip there into one of life’s unforgettable experiences.

Click here for details to plan your own trip to Greece’s Aegean Sea isle of Santorini.

        Les Furnanz
        Photos: Rita Furnanz

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