Suitcase and World: Santorini.

Saturday, July 12, 2014


Santorini.  Photo by Scott Stulberg
Photo by Scott Stulberg.  The photo was too gorgeous to display in any other format than its original panoramic width.  Use the scroll bar to pan to see the entire photo.

When my brother and I first talked about going to Greece, we were firm that we wanted to avoid the real touristy places and that included Santorini. But the more I talked to my friends who had visited Greece and all the "travel to Greece" websites I read, the more and more I began to change my mind.  Truly, all it takes is one look at pictures of the place - dozens of white washed stone buildings clinging to hillsides overlooking stunning blue water,  like the one that opens this post, and you realize that Santorini's villages, are the quintessential Greek seaside villages that make up our romantic notions of the Greek Islands.  We must see this place!  So much so that I'm now convinced that a trip to Greece would NOT be a good one unless we spent time visiting Santorini. It's now firmly back on the itinerary and in fact, we'll be spending more time there then in any other place in Greece!

Santorini, classically known as Thera and officially known as Thira is the southernmost member of the Cyclades group of islands.  Santorini is located in the southern Aegean Sea, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) southeast of Greece's mainland. It is the largest island of a small, circular archipelago which bears the same name and is the remnant of a volcanic caldera. The municipality of Santorini comprises the inhabited islands of Santorini and Therasia and the uninhabited islands of Nea Kameni, Palaia Kameni, Aspronisi, and Christiana.

Santorini is essentially what remains after an enormous volcanic eruption that destroyed what was formerly single island, and created the current geological caldera.

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The caldera is 12 by 7 kilometers (7.5 by 4.3 miles) in diameter and is 400 meters in depth. The main island slopes downward to the Aegean Sea. On the fourth side, the lagoon is separated from the sea by another much smaller island called Thirasia; the lagoon is connected to the sea in two places, in the northwest and southwest.

The inner coast around the caldera is a sheer precipice of more than 300 meter (980 ft) high, steep cliffs and the main towns are perched on the crest. The ground then slopes outwards and downwards towards the outer perimeter, and the outer beaches are smooth and shallow. Beach sand color depends on which geologic layer is exposed; there are beaches with sand or pebbles made of solidified lava of various colors: the Red Beach, the Black Beach, the White Beach, etc.

Photo by Stuart Jackson
Oia is the picturesque village that we'll be spending two nights in. Oia is pronounced *EE-ah* and not *OY-ah* and is also spelled *Ia*.  It is the village of my Greek Island dreams.

Oia is built on the steep slope of the caldera and the houses and restaurants are built into niches carved into the caldebra on the seaward side. The village is complex of white washed blue domed churches and charming, traditional Cycladic houses; there are narrow passageways and a central square.

We'll be flying into Oia from Athens bright an early in the morning so the first day will be spent exploring the village.  Everyone has warned me that the streets are VERY steep and narrow and I am anticipating that we'll be needing to hire a local taxi i.e., donkey to take us up to our apartment.  Maybe we'll even get to ride the donkey :-)

As for accommodation, I wanted a really Greek island experience so I searched high and low for a reasonably priced, small hotel.  I quickly discovered that hotels in Oia are incredibly expensive!!  But patience, persistence, and booking well in advance paid off as I got us booked into a place called the Aegeas Traditional Houses which is more like small guesthouse than  hotel - it's a small group of 3 Cycladic houses that are all self catering which means they come with kitchenettes.  Here are some photos of the place.  Isn't it charming?  I'm really looking forward to watching the sun set over the caldera from our own little patio!


Aside from Oia, there are also a couple small fishing villages - Ormos Armeni and Ormos Ammoudi also known as Amoudi Bay, that are located below Oia, right on the water's edge.  We won't have a car, so we'll be descending to them on foot - 300 STEEP steps down and 300 back up.  I will be taking A LOT of photo breaks!  :-)  Of course, I'm imagining seeing lots of fishermen with their boats and therefore, lots of freshly caught seafood that we can buy and cook up ourselves in our little kitchenette.  I am steadfastly refusing to pay tourist prices for food....won't do it unless I am absolutely forced too.   One exception though might be a meal at Dimitris in Amoudi Bay.  Just look at the photos; makes me drool!

There are some traditional Santorini foods that we must try including grilled octopus which I will have as often as I can - I love the stuff.   I will have to do a bit more research in to the local food traditions and then compile a list. 

Fira.  Photo by Hans Peter Schaefer

Fira is the modern capital of Santorini and it will be the focus of our itinerary on our second day.  While you can take a bus to get to Fira, you can also hike there.  From what I've read, it's a fairly easy walk though it takes 3 hours.  I know that Bro will enjoy it so we'll be walking there from Oia and then take the bus back.
Fira seems to be a much larger town than Oia - not as crammed full with white washed buildings and narrow alleys. The central square of Fira is called Plateia Theotokopoulou, with a bus and taxi station, banks and pharmacies..

There are two museums of interest - the Archaeological Museum of Thera and the Museum of Prehistoric Thera.  Depending on our mood, we might or might not check them out.  If the weather is nice, I'd rather be outside, exploring the town as touristy as it is.

Kamari. After spending two days and nights in Oia, we'll be relocating to the small seaside village of Kamari which is located on the southeastern part of Santorini.  Kamari is laid back and known for its black pebble beach and proximity to the ruins at Ancient Thera and Akrotiri.  The plan is to rent a car and spend two days exploring the other parts of Santorini, using Kamari as our base.  We can also enjoy some down time at the beach and dipping our toes into the Aegean Sea.  Just to the north of Kamari is another small village - Perissa.  It too has a black pebble beach which we can check out if we have time.

Ruins at Ancient Thira (Photo by Stan Zurek)
Ancient Thira. The ruins of Ancient Thira are located on a high rocky headland called Mesa Vouna, between Kamari and Perissa. In addition to its ancient ruins, the site offers spectacular views over cliffs that drop into the sea on three sides.

Ancient Thira was first inhabited by the Dorians, whose leader was Theras, in the 9th century BC. Thira was later occupied in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras. Although most of the buildings that survive today date are from the Hellenistic era (around the 4th century BC), there are also extensive Roman and Byzantine remains. Buildings from different periods are mixed together throughout the site along one main street, which passes through two agoras and several Hellenistic temples as well as the Temple of Dionysos (3rd century BC), a small Doric temple built on a man-made platform north of the Agora. The extensive ruins also include Hellenistic shops, Roman baths, Byzantine walls, and the stone church of Agios Stefanos.

Akrotiri (Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis)
Akrotiri is the most important archaeological site on Santorini.  When I first saw photos of Akrotiri, it immediately reminded me of the terrace houses at Ephesus.  I'm sure that they are far different though.

Founded as an outpost of Crete, Akrotiri was settled by Minoans as early as 3000 BC and reached its peak after 2000 BC, when it developed trade and agriculture and settled the present town. The inhabitants cultivated olive trees and grain and developed sophisticated forms of art and architecture.

Ancient Akrotiri provides a rare glimpse into urban life in the Minoan period. Its elaborate architecture and vivid frescoes demonstrate the high level of culture on ancient Santorini.

Scholars think that Santorini's volcanic explosion in 1450 BC was so powerful that it destroyed Akrotiri at the same time preserving it.  Even today at Akrotiri, pots and tools are still where their owners left them before abandoning the town. After the eruption in 1450 BC, Santorini was uninhabited for about two centuries while the land cooled and plant and animal life regenerated. The ruins of Akrotiri remained buried until 1860, when workers quarrying volcanic ash for use in the Suez Canal brought it to light once again.

Today,  the site has been partially excavated.  It has been estimated that the 40 buildings uncovered so far account for only 1/30th of the huge site along with frescoes, pottery, furniture, advanced drainage systems and three-story buildings have been discovered at the site.  The excavated site is protected from the sun inside a large shed. 

Akrotiri's main street was lined with stores and warehouses of the ancient commercial city. Many large earthen jars (pithoi) were found here, some with traces of olive oil, fish, and onion inside.The impressive buildings of Akrotiri include three-story houses faced with masonry (some with balconies) and extensively decorated with frescoes, which were very well preserved in the ash. Most of them are displayed in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens but a few frescoes are in the nearby Museum of Prehistoric Thira.

The site was closed in 2005 when the roof, over the shed, collapsed killing one person and injuring several others.  The site was reopened in April 2012 which means we'll get to visit- hopefully, the roof is better built!

I am certain our four days in Santorini will fly by.  I will relish every minute!