The classic, one-week Greek island vacation splits time between the Cycladic islands of Mykonos and Santorini. When people ask me for my opinion on the differences between the two islands I invariably say, “You come to Mykonos to meet the person you’ll want to take with you to Santorini.” If I have to explain that, may I suggest you consult a romance novel blogsite.
Readers of this blog are well aware of my loyalties and longstanding ties to Mykonos, so let me spend this Saturday sharing my take on Santorini, another Aegean gem.
Santorini stands as the southernmost of Greece’s Aegean Cycladic islands, 145 miles southeast of Athens, 85 miles due north of Crete, and slightly smaller than the American island of Manhattan. Its official name is Thera, but Santorini, a contraction of Santa Irini from its Latin Empire days, is how it’s known to tourists worldwide. To romantics drawn to legend, it bears yet another name, one tied to a cataclysmic volcanic eruption some 3,600 years ago: Atlantis, the lost island.
Two million years of volcanic activity created a round-top island of lava rock embracing three limestone mountain peaks created eons before the Aegean existed as a sea. Evidence of pottery from approximately 6,000 years ago put the first settlers on the island in Neolithic times, and archeological excavations at the prehistoric city of Akrotiri unearthed a prosperous, developed civilization in
residence in the mid-16th century BCE at the height of the Minoan Civilization.
That’s when literally all hell broke loose, destroying everyone who’d not fled a prefatory warning earthquake, in likely the most catastrophic volcanic eruption in recorded history.
For centuries after its hellfire volcanic eruption, Santorini remained deserted, but its critical location, fertile soil, and awe-inspiring beauty ultimately drew new settlers and conquerors. Phoenicians, Franks, rulers from other parts of Greece, Persians, Romans, Venetians, and Turks laid claim, virtually all enduring earthquakes or volcanic eruptions of varying degrees during their occupation.
Today, the main island of Santorini constitutes the eastern crescent––and by far largest––of five volcanic islands comprising a small circular archipelago. Three of those islands, Santorini (or Thera), Thirasia, and Aspronisi, are all that remain of the original island of Atlantis legend, with Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni born as new islands out of that and other eruptions, including more than two-dozen in the Common Era alone.
With 43 miles of coastline, an east-to-west breadth of between one and four miles, and an overall north-to-south length of eleven miles, Santorini resembles a seahorse standing on its head and staring west (an example inspired by Susan’s friends)––in the same direction as do most tourists.
As reflected in its hotel prices, the island’s primary attraction is its view looking west from atop the rim of the volcano’s caldera. From Santorini’s capital of Fira and stretching north six miles along the caldera’s western rim through Firostefani and Imerovigli into Oia at the island’s northern tip, tourists pay hefty premiums for the breathtaking views and promise of romance symbolized by Oia’s emblematic blue-domed, bright-white, cliffside churches at sunset.
Away from the caldera Santorini seems much like many other parts of Greece, and its beaches alone are not a draw. But standing on the caldera’s 900-foot red-black-brown cliffs, looking across the seemingly bottomless quarter-mile depths of the crater’s sapphire blue lagoon, one faces a true wonder of the natural world.
Locals, though, tend to live in areas off the caldera, many growing wine grapes cultivated in the unique, tightly coiled, ground hugging fashion that in winter resemble rows of dull baskets, but in growing season shelter the enclosed clusters from the wind. Tiny cherry tomatoes, capers, fava beans, barley, and a unique white eggplant are other island growing favorites, with plantings filling practically every arable spot of land.
Historically, whether built in or out of town, Santorini houses came in three basic forms: those dug out of the volcanic earth and lived in as caves, those built partially dug out and partially built in the normal way, and those built completely above ground, virtually all designed with vaulted roofs of one form or another. As the island’s residents became more affluent, the mansions that evolved from those forms fell more under the Italian influence of the Renaissance than any other style. (For those interested here’s a link to photos and more details).
Although everyone on the island pays homage to some extent to the tourist, most Santorinian hearts still beat as farmers and muleteers. But not as fishermen. From ancient times, the island had great merchant trading fleets, and its ships performed heroically in Greece’s 1821 War of Independence, but Santorinians generally preferred to live far away from the sea in places where they could raise their crops and mules. It was tourists who changed all that, starting, it’s said, with teaching many a Santorinian how to swim.
It seems only fitting that an archipelago born out of ancient cataclysmic events, would be transformed by a modern catastrophe into the tourist paradise it is today, rivaled in reputation only by its Cycladic cousin Mykonos. On July 9, 1956, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Santorini in what was recorded as the largest to hit Greece in the 20th century, severely damaging if not collapsing practically every building on the island. But much as with the mythical Phoenix, out of its destruction Santorini rose to what today is a place of 15,000 year-round residents drawing 1.7 million tourists annually––900,000 to its hotels and rooms, 800,000 more from cruise ships.
Hmmm, sounds like a fertile location for a mystery.
By the way, virtually all of the photos are by the brilliant Barbara Zilly.