Παρασκευή, 23 Σεπτεμβρίου 2011

Santorini: Awe-inspiring beauty



Without the tremendous volcanic eruption around 1630 BC, which destroyed its center and transformed its shape into a crescent, Santorini, the southernmost of the Cycladic islands, might have well retained its Minoan name of Strongyle (meaning “round”) and have none of the special attributes that have made it famous on the world travel scene.


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From a distance, the white houses of the villages of Fira, Imerovigli and Oia, built on the brow of the caldera -- the breathtaking crater created by the explosion -- give the appearance of a snow-capped plateau rising vertically some hundreds of meters from the sea. As the boat approaches, the eye focuses on the intense variety of colors of the successive layers of lava, piled up over 3 million years. The view is truly awe-inspiring, leaving indelible impressions on the visitor.

The caldera, measuring 11 kilometers on the north-south axis and 7.5 km on the east-west axis, is shaped by Santorini and the smaller islands of Therasia and Aspronisi, also remnants of the explosion, on the western side. Subsequent underwater eruptions created the islands of Palaia Kameni and Nea Kameni inside the crater.

The outer -- northern, eastern and southern -- shores of the island are lined with endless beaches of sand of different colors. Vlichada on the southern shore, and Columbo on the northern side are the two most impressive and least congested.

Santorini covers an area of 76 square km, with 69 km of coastline. The island is arid but its volcanic soil yields choice produce, like wine grapes, fava (Lathyrus clymenum, an ancient variety of legume which thrives in the island’s volcanic soil) and cherry tomatoes.

Finds at Akrotiri, the Minoan city found wonderfully preserved in volcanic ash, provide evidence of wine production 3,600 years ago. In fact, winemaking has been one of Santorini’s prime sources of income through most of its history, having only been overtaken by tourism in recent decades. The two industries now compete for land. The Asyrtiko wine variety is second in consumption in Greece today, closely behind Moschofilero.

To protect grapes from strong winds, the islanders plant the vines in small depressions in the earth and weave the new shoots around the stump in the shape of a basket.

Besides the caldera and Akrotiri, Santorini (name derived from Santa Irini, given by the Venetians who occupied it in the 13th century) has many other impressive sights, notably in Fira, the capital, and in the traditional village of Oia. Fira, with its brilliant white houses, can be reached from sea level either by bus, taxi, modern cable-car, the traditional donkey-back or by climbing the 600 or so steps. Dotted with impressive mansions, vaulted churches and medieval convents, it also has several museums and cultural venues, plentiful shops, fine restaurants and lively nightlife and is the starting point for any tour of the island.

Besides a plethora of impressive mansions, testimony to wealth mostly amassed from seafaring, most of Santorini’s villages boast houses with an amazing maze of subterranean extensions hollowed out of the soft rock. Originally used as houses by the poor folk and as wine cellars (kanaves), the vaults have been widely extended in recent decades to meet the requirements of the tourism industry.

Oia, 11 km from Fira, is one of the loveliest villages in the island and famous for its sunsets. The houses follow the traditional style: small terraced blocks built of stone, vaulted chambers or brightly painted cubes among the narrow streets. The sights include the ruins of a Venetian castle, with a unique view over the sea, particularly at sunset and the Nautical Museum, with relics of the seafaring heritage of the 19th century.

Particularly worth exploring for their traditional architecture are also the villages of Pyrgos (with a medieval castle) and Emboreio, in the south, and Finikia, close to Oia.

Getting there & about


Olympic Airways (210.966.6666, 801.11.4444, www.olympicairlines.com) and Aegean Airlines (801.11.20000, www.aegeanair.com) have several flights a day from Athens. From Piraeus or Rafina conventional ferries take about 8 hrs 30 mins, catamarans 6 hrs and high-speed vessels 4-5 hrs. The local bus service is satisfactory, but the service from Fira (the hub) to Oia is always crowded. You can rent cars and motorbikes but, remember, there are many thousands of drivers on mediocre roads and not always sober -- this is a party island. Local code 22860. Port Authority 22239.28702, airport 33580.28405.

What to see & activities

The Archaeological Museum and the site of ancient Thera; the Museum of Prehistoric Thera; the Maritime Museum in Oia; the Santorini Folk museum; the Bellonio Cultural Center; in Fira, the Catholic quarter, the cathedrals, the Dominican convent; the Argyros Mansion in Messaria, a listed building and guesthouse; the famous Oia sunset; panoramic views from Profitis Ilias in Exo Gonia and from Faros in Akrotiri; the historic castle of Scaros, at the end of cliff, on foot from Imerovigli; take a submarine tour of the caldera at 25-30 meters, and a sailing tour of the caldera; there is a variety of watersports and several diving clubs.

 info: By Haris Argyropoulos ekathimerini.gr

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