Sunday, September 24, 2017

Santorini Island of light

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First went to Santorini at Christmas 1971. The night ferry docked before dawn and in the pitch dark I sleepily staggered onto an old bus. Shuddering and backfiring, it zigzagged up an almost sheer cliff side, arriving in a completely dead village, grey and chill.
Everything was shut. It wasn’t a case of “no room at the inn” so much as, “Is there any inn at all?” I found sanctuary in the church, where the population had congregated for the first Christmas day rite. In an ambience of glittering icon paintings and intoxicating incense, richly garbed priests intoned the age old verses of the Greek Orthodox mass.
It was mesmerizing, almost hallucinatory. Afterwards, in the early light, the village slowly came to life, and I found a home-stay where I had breakfast with the family. Wandering around the whitewashed village and the countryside for two days, I never saw a single tourist.

Return four decades later and Santorini is the epicenter of Greek tourism, the most popular of all the islands, heaving with hotels, bars, taverns and clubs, and famous as one of the world’s favorite honeymoon destinations. It’s really not surprising, because this mini-archipelago of the Aegean Sea, the southern outpost of the Cyclades islands, has a magic all its own.view from Fira in Santorini
This explosion of 21st-century hedonism can basically be credited to one thing , a mighty explosion three and a half millennia ago, for Santorini’s appeal is fundamentally topographical.
Until about 1630 BC, here was a circular island, named Strongyle, “Round One”
with gentle slopes rising to a volcanic summit. Then one day the volcano blew its top in a cataclysmic eruption, the biggest explosion in the European history. Vast quantities of magma flew sky-high and the volcano collapsed to far below sea level, leaving a crescent of sheer – cliffed land overlooking the sea which had rushed in over the vanished mountain, plus a small fragment of land to the west.

Think Krakatoa for a famous Southeast Asian comparison of nature’s awesome destructive power. Think croissant for the shape of the main island that was left, now called Thira.
Today this makes the most dramatic of all arrivals on a Greek island, as you sail into the flooded caldera and dock beneath Thira’s towering cliffs, whether on an inter – island ferry, a cruise ship, or a yacht. Even better, and the key to Santorini’s scenic magnetism, are the views from the pretty white washed  towns and villages that rim the cliff tops.
Looking down from the terrace of a café, or your cliff-side hotel room, you peer deep into a vast shimmering lagoon of indigo sea with two crusty brown – lava islets in its centre, thrown up by underwater eruptions in later times – Palia Kameni and Nea Kameni (Old Burnt Island and New Burnt Island) As recently as 1950, things bubbled and smoked again, and the feeling of being on a volatile hotspot is central to Santorini’s magic. “Caldera” after all, is the Greek word for “cauldron”
But look the other way, from the eastern edge of Fira, the main town, and all is bucolic: Sloping gently down to the far Aegean Sea are farmer’ green fields and vineyards, studded with white windmills and cottages. Look both north and south along the curving rim of the caldera and you see a string of entrancing sugar-cube settlements perched along the cliff tops and almost tumbling down the vertiginous sides. Volcanic fury and Hellenic beauty combine to draw vacationers to this remote speck of land. Blue – domed, white – walled Orthodox churches are iconic or, better, ikonic – on the island. The south and east coasts present endless black – sand beaches formed from sea – pounded lava rock, hosting livery resorts like Kamari and Perissa.
Santorini sunsets, viewed from the caldera rim, are natural phenomena: first the cliff face lights up in a wash of pinks and purples, and then the whole of the sea and sky seem to catch fire, burning in scarlet and gold.
Flower – decked, whitewashed, the warrens of little streets cobbled with black lava stove, Fira still manages to retain much of its old look, despite a heavy dose of fast – food joints, craft shops and souvenir sellers. A cableway links the town with the small harbor of Gialos at the foot of the cliffs, some 260 meters below, or you can ride a donkey festooned with beads and bells down the zigzagging footpath carved into the cliff face, with almost 600 steps.

The bustle of Fira is easily left behind by following a northward path along the dizzying heights of the caldera rim to the villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli. You pass wild flowers and fig trees, houses painted in pastel colors, hole-in-wall art galleries, craft shops and jewellers’ studios.
At 360 meters above sea level, Imerovigli is the highest point on the caldera rim, home to an array of boutique hotels built in the style of traditional cliff houses, with room burrowing into the rock face and spilling in terraces down the cliff sides. Here the family –run tavernas have wonderful sea views. Offering fresh fish dishes alongside Santorini  specialities such as tomatokeftedes (tomato fritters) and fava (a yellow – pea paste served with lemon and chopped onions).

Crowning the cliff tops at the far north end of Thira is Oia, the jewel of Santorini, formely a busy trading and fishing port. A gorgeous jumble of cave houses once inhabited by fishing families and painted in whites, blues and ocher, consorts with noble mansions built by the sea captains of old. Steps wind down to the small harbor of Armeni Bay and to lovely Ammoudi Bay, where colorful fishing boats bob in the water, with tiny bars and fish tavernas clinging to the quayside.

Oia boasts some of the island’s most exclusive hotels with to-die-for views, and rows of chic shops and galleries along its marble –paved main street. Yet somehow it retains a quirky charm, animated at days end with family groups dressed up for the volta, or evening promenade. It even still has an authentic village square where locals gather around bottles of ouzo in tree-shaded tavernas.

Located at Akrotiri at Thira’s southern tip, it was a sophisticated trading centre before the cataclysm. New Age fantasists pictured Santorini as long –lost Atlantis, the utopian land of ancient Greek legend. It was speculation, and it remains so, but the myth adds another exotic dimension to a place that is already fantastic – historically, geologically, culturally and, yes, touristically.

If you really want to time – travel on Santorini, however, take a traditional sailing caique across the lagoon to Thirassia. Rugged and undeveloped , with an eyrie of a village reached only on foot or by donkey, this five – kilometer – long remnant of old Strongyle provides a glimpse of how life once was on the whole of Santorini back in the early ‘70s, as some lucky souls fondly remember it.

by Keith Mundy

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