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Why you should visit Santorini, Greece

Why you should visit Santorini, Greece

The idyllic Greek island of Santorini has been shaped by volcanic activity. Its picturesque villages makethe most of a rocky but beautiful setting left by a violent eruption almost 4,000 years ago

At one time Santorini was called Kalliste, "the most beautiful one". The views from its cliffs are nothing short of spectacular, especially of sunsets seen from the village of Oia, which the locals claim are the best on the planet. 

Sunkissed Santorini 

Santorini in Greece sunset view Credit: Gatsi

Santorini’s main town, Fira, is perched on 300m (980ft) high, almost vertical cliffs that form the rim of a vast, flooded caldera created by one of the biggest volcanic explosions ever known.

The town and nearby cliff-edge villages are labyrinths of immaculate, tightly packed white washed buildings, cobblestone streets and winding paths, churches with bright blue cupolas, windmills, neoclassical  mansions and cave-like houses dug directly into the rock.

Far below Fira at the base of the cliff, a cable-car or donkey ride away, is the old harbour at Ormos, its terraces,cruise ships and fishing boats resembling tiny toys.

The previous capital was Skaros, a medieval fortress town built around a vertical crag of red and black rock on a headland to the north west of Fira, where it was free from raiding pirates and invaders.

"The previous capital was Skaros, a medieval fortress town built around a vertical crag of red and black rock...where it was free from pirates and invaders"

Islanders claim that the castle was never conquered during its 600 years’ existence, but repeated earthquakes finally forced the inhabitants to move from this place of relative safety. The capital was eventually moved to Fira in the 18th century.

Today, the town of Skaros has largely gone and Skaros Rock is bare. Only a small chapel survives. The highest point on Santorini is Profitis Ilias (a name common to many Greek mountains), with a fortress-like monastery at the top.

The building is a creamy-white colour during the day, but glows terracotta as the sun goes down. Its bells are set into a buttressed bell tower, and the adjoining monastery contains precious icons and bibles. The terrace below the monastery gives a commanding view of the island and the surrounding Aegean Sea – and those celebrated sunsets. 

Where the earth moved 

Santorini beaches from the water Credit: Ihor_Tailwind

Santorini and the neighbouring island of Therasia, together with the privately owned Aspronisi and some smaller uninhabited islands, are all that remain above the sea of a huge dormant volcano. They form a broken rectangle that marks the rim of the flooded caldera, 7.5 miles(12km) long, 4.3 miles (7km) wide and 600m (2,000ft) deep.

Santorini’s red, brown and green cliffs and the string of cliff-top villages enclose three sides of the lagoon, Therasia and Aspronisi form the fourth side, leaving gaps in the southwest and northwest corners that allow ships to pass through.

The beaches are not on the caldera side of the islands, where the water is deep, but on the outer slopes. The colour of the sand or pebbles depends on the underlying rock, giving rise to distinctive black, red and white beaches.

Santorini cuisine 

Lunch by the sea in Santorini Credit: Santorines

In spring, the hillsides are carpeted with swathes of brightly coloured flowers, but any ground that is not too steep is cultivated. Fields of grapes growing in baskets on the ground, along with Santorini’s very own fava beans, capers, cucumbers, watermelons and tomatoes, thrive in the rich volcanic soil. 

"In spring, the hillsides are carpeted with swathes of brightly coloured flowers and fields of grapes thrive in the rich volcanic oil"

Water is scarce, so crops depend on sporadic rain in winter and dew during the rest of the year. Local cooks use their homegrown produce in a distinctive Santorini cuisine, and for such a small island, Santorini has an unusual wealth of culinary specialities.

There is fava, a bean dip with onion and lemon, served with a red sauce and capers in summer and fried with pork or kaborma in winter. Tomatokeftedes are mint-scented tomato balls, and there are juicy white aubergines and chloro, a homemade goat’s cheese, its production a closely guarded secret.

Even the local wine is recognised for its superior quality. Daily life has remained unchanged for centuries. The agricultural and religious calenders are closely intertwined with communal festivals. The feast of St John the Baptist falls on June 23, when the evening sees the tall May wreaths publicly burned in Santorini’s tiny villages. Adults and children alike jump over the fire for good luck. 

Fiery beginnings

Panoramic aerial view to the village Oia on top of the caldera in SantoriniPanoramic aerial view to the village Oia on top of the caldera in Santorini. Credit: SHansche

Santorini is named after the 5th-century cathedral of St Irene, whose ruins are at the base of Mesa Vouno, a rocky outcrop near the town of Perissa. About 200m (650ft) up Mesa Vouno is a chapel called Panagia Katefiani, from katefio (refuge).

In 1650 local people took refuge in the chapel during the "Time of Evil", when the submarine Kolumbo volcano 5 miles (8km) northeast of Santorini pushed above the surface in a violent eruption, killing many of the island’s population and much of the livestock.

Today, Kolumbo bubbles away beneath the seabed, emerging through hydrothermal vents (underwater hot springs). 

Santorini is in the South Aegean Volcanic Island Arc, created by the collision of the African and European tectonic plates. In around 1613 BC, the island exploded in one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history.

"In around 1613 BC, the island exploded in what remains one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in recorded history"

A Minoan Bronze Age settlement at Akrotiri on Santorini dating from the third millennium BC was buried in pumice, like Pompeii many centuries later, although in Santorini’s case people may have had warning because no human remains have been found at the site.

The ash plume reached 22 miles (35km) high, dumping debris on islands to the northeast. A tsunami thought to have been up to 150m (490ft) high hit neighbouring islands and devastated Minoan coastal communities.

Historians have suggested that the eruption may have contributed to the collapse of the Minoan civilisation centred on Crete, and was Plato’s inspiration for the myth of Atlantis

Legacy of a big bang 

View of Palea Kameni island from Nea Kameni,GreeceView of Palea Kameni island from Nea Kameni, Greece. Credit: pulpitis

Geological evidence shows that the volcano had exploded regularly and cyclically prior to the cataclysmic event of 1613 BC. The eruptions were violent; each time, the crater caved in and seawater inundated the caldera. Then magma would build up again, leading to another eruption.

The process repeated until the biggest eruption of all blew off the top of the volcano. The remaining caldera collapsed in on itself and the sea rushed in, leaving the broken caldera rim above water.

Two small volcanic islands inside the caldera, Palea Kameni and NeaKameni, (‘old burnt’ and ‘new island’), provide a reminder that Santorini, though dormant, could just be resting before another eruption.

Nea Kameni, which has two craters and active sulphur vents, had a minor eruption in 1950. Palea Kameni has hot springs and mud baths and spews orange-coloured, sulphur-rich thermal water into the lagoon.

In the first part of 2012 Santorini and the surrounding area experienced a higher than normal number of earthquake swarms (sequences of small earthquakes over a short space of time).

The islands are monitored closely by geologists, however, and there is no indication that another volcanic eruption is imminent...for now. 

Banner credit: Kirk Fisher

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