Greece #05 – Santorini
Greece #5 – Santorini Island
This is part 5 of a trip we took in April of 2019 to Greece. Except for some days on our own in Athens and surrounding areas, the bulk of the trip was an organized Road Scholar cruise through several Greek Islands in the Aegean Sea.
This installment contains the island of Santorini.
Full Trip Map
Islands & locations visited during the cruise portion of this trip. This episode is forSantorini
Santorini (officially Thira or Thera in classic Greek) is the most popular of the islands depicted in my Greece travel log series. It is shaped like a backwards letter “C”. At one time the island was a regularly shaped mountain top sticking out of the sea. But then, in one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history (the Minoan or Thera eruption) which occurred about 3,600 years ago in 1316 BC (more or less) all that changed. In that eruption the mountain literally blew its top and the resulting caldera sank below sea level and was filled with water. What remains is just the rim of this caldera on the north, east and south sides.
This eruption took place at the height of the Minoan civilization and may have led indirectly to the collapse of that civilization on the island of Crete (68 miles to the south) due to a gigantic tsunami. Another popular theory holds that the eruption is the source of the legend of Atlantis. Even today the island is the most active volcanic center in the South Aegean Sea.
But that eruption was not the end of volcanic activity at the island as many eruptions have come and gone over the years. More recently (relatively speaking) in 1707 an undersea volcano popped up in the middle of the sea filled caldera forming a new island called Nea Kameni and it continues to shake and bake. Moving into modern times there have been 3 more eruptions, the last being in 1950. Then in 1956 there was a serious earthquake in Santorini. But, notwithstanding recent earthquakes along with steam and carbon dioxide continuing to be released, the official line is that the volcano is now dormant. I wonder if the Santorini Tourist Board had any part in that designation.
Between January 2011 and April 2012, small tremors and reports of strange gaseous odors prompted satellite radar analyses of the area. This analysis revealed that the magma under the “dormant” volcano had doubled (swelled by 353 million cubic feet to 706 million cubic feet) in that time frame. This also caused parts of the island's surface to rise out of the water by a reported ¼ to ½ foot. Scientists say that the injection of the new molten rock was equivalent to 20 years’ worth of “regular” activity. Yep, “dormant” as they come.
Being the remnants of the rim of a volcanic caldera, the inner slopes of the island are very steep with little or no buildable or farmable land near the sea. As such pretty much all the development has been on the top of this caldera rim, many hundreds of feet above sea level and on the more gentle outer slopes. As with most Greek islands, building on the tops of the mountains also helped keep local pirates from attacking the residents. The slopes on the outer side of the caldera rim are more reasonable so that’s where you find more farms, shipping ports, the airport, and paved roads from the coast to the top. It is also where you find the less tourist oriented towns and villages.
Santorini Island, town of Fira at top of caldera wall
Historically Santorini supported a modest amount of agriculture of which a bit of wine production is still present. But in today’s world the economy is based on tourism. In fact if you ever discuss a trip to the Greek islands the first island asked about is usually Santorini. In the summer it is not uncommon for there to be 4 large cruise ships anchored in the bay, not to mention numerous other smaller cruise ships. Then add to that the tourists who book lodging on the island and you wind up with quite a crowd in the narrow streets of the popular towns.
The main “tourist” town on the island is Fira. Even though the actual town is on the top of the caldera walls 1,300 feet above sea level it is where most of the cruise ships come in. Down at sea level, Fira has a very narrow strip of land called “Old Port” with a dock, a bunch of souvenir stores, kiosks hawking guided tours, a whole bunch of snack bars, a half dozen restaurants and at one end a small hotel. If you come by ferry from Athens or another island, you’ll land a bit over 2 miles south of Old Port in a place sometimes called “New Port”. This is just a set of massive concrete docks with a constant flow of large ferries coming and going. Our ship anchored just off of “old port” so that’s where the tender dropped us off.
Small hotel at one end of Old Port
From Old port there are three ways to get to the actual town of Fira on the top of the caldera wall 1,300 feet above you, and where the real action is. If you are very fit you can take the walking path up to the top which includes 588 stair steps. Or you can book a ride on a donkey to the top. I should point out the donkeys use the same stair studded pathway as the hikers, so if you decide to walk, watch your step.
Donkey and walking path to the top including 588 stairs
Or you can queue up for a cable car ride to the top. The cable car can handle 1,200 people per hour but from what our guide told us, in peak season when cruise ships are in port the queue for the 3 minute cable car ride can be as long as 3 or 4 hours. And that, my friends, explains all the tourist junk shops, snack bars and restaurants in Old Port. But, as discussed in my prior sections of this Greece Blog series, we were here in mid April which is just before the start of tourist – and cruise ship – season. So, our wait for the cable car was roughly 5 minutes. Timing is everything in the highly mobile society of this century.
Three minute Cable car ride to the top
The town of Fira at the top of the cable car is, well, quite touristy. In fact the cable car deposits you smack dab in the middle of the most touristy section of town. What a coincidence. Most of the interesting streets are narrow walkways between shops of every conceivable variety. The main tourist walkway more or less follows the edge of the cliff but with pathways forking off in both directions. A block or two inland from this rim path one finds the vehicle streets that in turn have very little in the way of tourist shops.
Santorini and Fira is “tourist land”
As Santorini gained worldwide popularity, the city has crept farther and farther down the steep slope of the caldera. So now there are many side paths that lead you down the side of the caldera. These little side lanes are just waiting to be discovered. As you depart that main drag, you quickly loose the kitschy tourist vibe as shops and stores give way to hotels, restaurants and B&B’s with magnificent views around every corner.
Hotels, Restaurants, and B&B’s cascade down to slope of the caldera
However one has to be somewhat careful. It is quite easy to wander down some of these lanes only to discover that you have descended several hundred feet below the rim requiring you to climb back up. Knowing that, and detecting that you are descending, you find yourself saying, OK – I’ll just go down to that next bend in the lane and turn back. Then you get there and notice that the next visible section around the bend is only a hundred feet and there’s this interesting building at the next bend. So, you say – OK I’ll just continue to that next bend, but that’s it - no farther. But the story repeats and finally, there you are 300 feet below the rim. But, you don’t have to go back up the same way you went down and can discover more delights on your return trek – just with a bit more huffing and puffing.
Don’t go down farther that you can walk back up
Fira is the capital of Santorini and is the main town on the island. However, other than stunning views, and lots of tourist shops there are only a few things to see here. But if you are planning to stay on the island it is a good hub as it is centrally located, has plenty of lodging opportunities and has loads of restaurants and bars.
As is the case with most Greek towns, Fira has its share of pretty churches such as the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral and Saint John the Baptist Cathedral among others. In addition, near the south end of town is the Thera Prehistoric Museum which conveniently is right next to the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral. This museum contains many of the artifacts excavated from the ruins of Akrotiri farther south on the island. The museum has more pots, pottery and other household items than you can shake an antique stick at, but the highlight is the frescoes of the blue monkeys. This fresco is a mystery since historians say there is no evidence that there were ever monkeys of any variety on Santorini.
Blue monkeys fresco in Thera Prehistoric Museum
Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral
Saint John the Baptist Cathedral
After our visit to the museum we boarded our bus for a tour of the rest of the island. Our first stop was at the ruins of Akrotíri, about 6 miles south of Fira and on the southern portion of the Caldera Rim.
The town of Akrotiri was destroyed in the Theran volcanic eruption sometime in the 16th century BC and, like Pompeii, was buried in volcanic ash which preserved the remains of fine frescoes and many objects and artworks. The settlement has been suggested as a possible inspiration for Plato's story of Atlantis. Starting in 1967 Akrotiri has been excavated and extensively studied. Now the village is protected inside a massive building that covers the site and includes heating and air conditioning as well as raised walkways for the visitors.
The earliest evidence for human habitation of Akrotiri can be traced back as early as the fifth millennium BC, when it was a small fishing and farming village. By the end of the third millennium, it had expanded significantly. One factor for its growth was it being strategically located on established trade routes with other cultures in the Aegean like Cyprus and Minoan Crete. Over time it became an important point for the copper trade and along with that processing copper. This idea explains the discovery of copper molds and crucibles. Akrotiri's prosperity continued for another 500 years with paved streets and an extensive drainage system. The arts flourished in this time frame with the production of high quality pottery, painting and copper items. This all came to an end sometime between 1570 and 1500 BC with the volcanic eruption of Thera.
From Akrotiri we backtracked to the north toward Fira with a side trip to the hilltop town of Pyrgos Kallistis. It is located in the Mount Profitis Ilias foothills and is surrounded by vineyards producing renowned Assyrtiko white wines. To be honest, I really don’t recall much about this town, even when reviewing the photos I took there. But, apparently it has some nice churches and many traditional charming whitewashed houses.
From there we continued on up north and did a loop around the northern part of the island arc. Along the way we passed many quaint villages and farms. During this ride much of the commentary by our guide was concerning the growing of grapes and production of wine on the island. Now, as we live very close to California’s Napa and Sonoma wine region, hearing about the prowess of Greek Island wine was not all the impressive. But, one thing about it I found quite interesting. Here in California the vines are grown on long wire fences maybe 4 feet tall and oriented for the optimum sunlight hitting the vines. In fact all the wine growing we’ve seen in various parts of the world has the vines on one sort of trellis or another. But here in Santorini apparently that wouldn’t work well due to the constant winds. So, they don’t use any sort of structure to hold up the vines. Instead the vines are laying right on the ground (less wind at ground level) and formed into wreath like circles. Well, we just had to get a photo of that so we implored out guide to make an unplanned stop at such a field for a photo op.
Wine Grapes grown in wreath like circles on the ground
Our next, and last real stop before returning to Fira, was at the gorgeous town of Oia. Possibly the most picturesque of all the Greek towns we visited on this trip. But we only had a bit over an hour here – I really wish we had a lot more time, including sunset and less time in Fira – but at least it wasn’t high noon although 2:00 pm isn’t much better than noon for photography. As it turned out, after Oia we headed back to Fira where we were given several hours of free time on our own. I would have very much preferred to have those hours in picturesque Oia rather than kitschy Fira.
Had we not been in a tour group, we would have stayed longer in Oia for some of that wonderful golden late afternoon light the city is known for. But, alas it was not to be. However, we did have an hour or so and off we went to the main tourist street of town. We knew it was the main tourist section of town as it was squeaky clean, every single visible building was picture perfect, every inch of storefront was a tourist oriented business of one form or another and there was a sea of tourists plying this walkway along the edge of the caldera.
As we walked along it became apparent that pretty much every place in the world where you can buy postcard pictures of Greek islands, most of the pictures on those postcards were photographed here. Scene after scene that came into view as we walked we’d seen before on a postcard someplace. And, rightly so. The views were magnificent. Snow white buildings with Greek Blue trim carved into the steep hills and cascading down to a blue sea below. There were also Blue domed white churches interspersed between pale earth tone houses. It would be hard to argue that Santorini owes its popularity to the town of Oia.
As an aside there is a theory about why so many Greek buildings are snow white with blue accents and domes. First there is a practicality to the white. The white color is made of white lime water so that rainwater be collected and used. But there is also an historical reason for the white and blue. It seems that during the 400 year Ottoman rule of Greece the Greeks were not allowed to fly their white and blue flag. In defiance they painted their entire housing complex in white with blue domes and trim giving the village an effect reminiscent of their banned flag.
Blue domed white church in Oia (who hasn’t seen this on a postcard?)
Church bells looking out into the caldera
An older section of town
Red trimmed church bells and crosses. Tourist shop in background
Earth tones intermingled with the classic blue and white make for a very pleasing scene
After leaving Oia and spending a couple of more hours looking at tee shirts in Fira, we headed back down the Cable car, took a tender from the dock at Old Port back to our boat in time for dinner on board.
Fira in the late afternoon golden light I wish I had at Oia (taken from our ship)
I hope you enjoyed reading about our time in Santorini and will come back for more as I get around to publishing them.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/greece-trip-2019-favs (subset of images)
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way)
Keywords: Akrotiri, Akrotiri Dig, blog, Blue Monkeys Fresco, cycladic islands, cycladies, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelbloggreece, Fira, Fira Cable Car, greece, greek islands, greek orthodox church, Oia, Oia on Santorini, Old Port, Santorini, Santorini Island, Thera Prehistoric Museum
Wow. I learned so much reading your blog. Since I was still working full time, and had signed up for this trip pretty much at the last minute, I had done little research about the destinations. I shared some of your frustration about keeping the schedule of the tour group, but was glad our guide was good and the companions congenial. The photos are stunning, and I feel fortunate to be on your distribution list. I'll share them with Margie. She and I hope you and Ellen plan a trip to Central Texas and look us up sometime soon.
Beautiful images as always. We visited Santorini in 1981 before they had the cable car. So we rode the donkeys. Even then Santorini was pretty crowded with Tourists.
Thanks, Dan - that island is just gorgeous! The white and blue buildings are exactly what one expects to see, and are lovely. Hate the ruination of places by the cruise ships - they are a plague.
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