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Santorini (Thera)

Arrival, Wednesday April 26 late night

On the dock at Santorini, we were met by the Meridian travel agent, who drove us in the pitch black night up the rather fearsome hairpins up the cliff and to our hotel. When we got to the top of the cliff, the lights of different towns seemed to be strung out below us on the other side. It looked as if the road ran along a knife-edge ridge, but in the daylight, this turned out to be an illusion.The ground indeed slopes down away from the cliff to the beaches on the outer shore of the island, but not precipitously. On the way, the Meridian agent informed us that the Olympic Airlines plane we had booked on Saturday (which would be the Orthodox Easter Saturday) had been cancelled and we had been switched from 11:20pm to 6:45am. We were to go in to the Meridian office in the morning to get our tickets changed. This was another example of Olympic (or should I say Olympian) incompetence, as we shall see in the next day's story.

We were expected at the hotel Volcano View Villas, which itself was an interesting place, and well named. We can highly recommend it, both for its location and facilities, and for the friendly and helpful staff. Here is a link that will lead you to its Web site. To get to our room, we went outside and down from the reception lobby, across a patio (being careful not to fall into the swimming pool), down some non-obvious, but well lit, steps, and along a short balcony-corridor. There was nothing really to see, but a few twinkling lights of different towns in the distance across the caldera. And the stars!

Thursday, April 27.

Fira town and a boat trip to the volcano

When we woke up, we could look outside, and we were startled to see an amazing panorama. Our room turned out to be a little way down the cliff face overlooking the great caldera, with the two volcanic islands called Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni in the middle. If you click on this small picture, you will get a large-scale version that you can scroll across, using the scroll-bar at the bottom of the window. It looks more natural that way. The picture (or rather, this set of four pictures) was taken that first morning.

A nearly 180 degree panorama of the view from out hotel room balcony. The corners of the balcony at the left and right ends of the picture actually are in the same straight line. The scene can be viewed more naturally by clicking on the picture (or this caption). A new window should open up with a larger image that you can scroll across using the scoll-bar at the bottom of the window.

Some words on what can be seen in this picture.

A map of Santorini. Click here to see a bigger one. The coloured line show the fields of view of the three panoramic pictures on this Web site. Click on the viewpoint of one of them to see the big panorama. The black lines show the view from our hotel that you see in the thumbnail above. Akrotiri is at the bottom of the map, Oia at the top.

Santorini is essentially a volcano, though there are other rocks in places. Every few tens of thousands of years, it blows up in a catastrophic explosion, after which a new volcano builds in the middle of the hole (the caldera) left by the explosion. All the water you see in the picture up to the furthest island is the caldera left by the explosion that used to be conventionally dated to about 1450BC, but several lines of paleoseismic dating suggests it was actually in Autumn 1650 BC. The explosion is estimated to have been much bigger than that of Krakatoa, which was heard all the way around the world, and thousands of times bigger than Mt. St.Helens. The catastrophic explosion before that was around 65,000BC, so we do not seem to be due for another one for a little while yet.

The two small islands in the middle of the caldera just to the right of centre in the picture above, called Paleo Kameni and Nea Kameni, are the newly building volcano (they look like one island in the thumbnail picture). The last major eruption from Nea Kameni was in 1950 or thereabouts, but a new eruption could happen at any time.

The upper white cliff at the left of the picture is some of the ash blown out by the last big explosion. The ashfall covered most of the Eastern Mediterranean, from Crete to Turkey and the Levant, and even Egypt, where some theorise it to have been the cause of the Plagues mentioned in the Bible, which led to the Israeli Exodus.

Our room sits on the same ash cliff as you see at the left of the panorama picture. By now, the ash is rock, but it is rather soft rock called "tufa", which erodes quite fast. At the bottom of the darker cliff on the left is the only real harbour on the island, where our ferry docked. Another ferry is there in the picture.

Above the harbour, in the distance, is the modern town of Akrotiri, which is on the point that forms the south end of the main island of Santorini (Thera). The ancient town that was covered by the ashfall (like Pompeii, but 1700 years earlier) has been given the name of the modern town, Akrotiri. It is further to the left, hidden by the dark cliff in this picture, on the south coast of the point.

Moving further to the right along the picture, in the distance beyond the volcano is the island of Therassia, which forms the other side of the caldera. And even further to the right, visible in the big picture but not in the thumbnail, above the dark cliff is the town of Oia (pronounced Ee-ah), which is at the north end of the main island.

Most tourists, and certainly those from the cruise ships, seem to concentrate on the main town, Fira, which is just north of the hotel on this map. A younger set seem to go also to Oia. But the island slopes outward down to the sea away from the caldera cliffs, and the east and south sides have long beaches that were almost deserted when we were there, but are packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the high season, according to the postcards and guidebooks.

Continuing the chronological story of April 27

View from the Reception area at the Volcano View Villas, looking toward Akrotiri. The strange-looking tree is not topiary--it grows that way. The roof at the bottom is over the restaurant.

At a good but not spectacular buffet breakfast, we were the only guests. Apart from perhaps one other couple (or maybe a single) we were the first guests of the year. So we got fine service throughout our stay (probably would have done anyway, considering how friendly all the staff were). There were three waiters at breakfast, even though it was a buffet!

The hotel is about 2 km south of Fira along a main road where cars drive quite fast and there are no sidewalks. It is therefore not advisable to try to walk into town, although people do, as do donkey drivers. We took the hotel shuttle, which goes into town several times a day on a regular schedule.

At the Meridian office, the original agent who met us late last night was, as one would expect, not on duty. Nobody there knew our actual situation, or that we had been told of the flight alteration, though they knew who we were and that they had to look after us. They called Olympic Airways, and could get no sense out of them. Olympic told them that we were booked to arrive in Santorini from Athens on Saturday afternoon. They knew nothing of our being booked to leave Santorini early Saturday morning.

Meridian advised us to go in person to Olympic, just down the street, to see if we could get some sense out of them. When we got there, there were 4 young girls at the counter and one customer. All the girls seemed to be on the phone, not prepared to deal with customers, but eventually we were allowed to deal with one of them. She said that according to her computer, we were going to Athens, but on Sunday! She asked if we would like to do that, but when we said we would, she told us we couldn't, because there were no seats available on Sunday. But we could go on Saturday at 8:30 or 10:30pm. For safety's sake, assuming that there would be problems at the airport, we chose Saturday 8:30, and got the tickets changed.

We had to go back to the Meridian office to be sure they knew the details, since they would be responsible us until we leave Athens for Istanbul. At the office, we booked a boat tour to the Volcano and the hot springs for the afternoon.

Fira town with Akrotiri in the distance.
The little harbour of the town, not the one the ferries dock at. But this is where the cruise ships drop their passengers. In the big version, you can see a little bit of the steps that wind down to the harbour.

The left picture shows one of many Easter crosses, and the sign strung across the road "Kalo Paskha" (Happy Easter).

The right hand picture shows some of the many donkeys. Cathedral in the background. These were being loaded with cases of pop. Donkeys are the only way goods can be transported to much of the town.

After finishing at the Meridian office, we walked around Fira, seeing all the postcard pictures, although most of the churches seemed to have white domes rather than the blue in the postcards. But we saw lots of blue ones later!

Near the cliff edge there are no streets for cars. Pedestrian streets run parallel to the cliff edge, usually about three of them between the cliff and the main car street. Plus there are many pedestrian ways that dip down the edge toward the sheer drop-off.

There are lots of donkeys used as transporters. You can see how necessary they are by looking at the larger version of the picture of Fira (click on the small thumbnail to see it). The only way to get to most of those houses is by stairs, and the donkeys can negotiate most of them. The donkeys look very heavily laden, but they really don't seem to mind. In the evening, they donkeys are walked in trains of five or six back to their homes in farms downslope toward the east of the island.

The cruise ship in the picture of the little harbour was pretty typical. Most the the time we were there, two or three ships were in port. The passengers come ashore in little boats, and come up to town either by cable car or on donkeys--or you can walk up the stairs, about 270m (850 ft) vertically, and a lot more winding back and forth.

After a nice lunch at a place recommended in our Lonely Planet guidebook we walked down the stairs to the harbour, to take our boat trip.

Trip to the volcano

The trip to the volcano was a pleasant excursion, and perhaps a bit more than we expected--apart from the fact that it rained some of the time! You wouldn't think that from the pictures here, but there was a sharp shower after we left the hot spring until we reached Nea Kameni.

The tall ship (the one behind the cruise ship in the upper picture) does all-day trips around the caldera. We didn't see it under sail, though. Fira town and the little harbour. From here you can see the way the town spills down the cliff nearly to the vertical section.
You can see the famous stairs just under the tip of the flag in the bigger version of the picture of the town. The flag hides the cable car up to the town.
People swimming in the hot spring at Palea Kameni, the old volcano
Next, our boat stopped at Nea Kameni, the active volcano

The two volcanos are really one, with a changing outlet for the magma pipe. After the explosive eruption that made the caldera, Palea Kameni began to grow, and breached the surface about 197BC. It stopped growing a little later, and new eruptions came from Nea Kameni after I think about 70 AD, the latest being in 1950. There is another volcano, however, undersea to the northeast of the island, which erupted explosively in the 17th century, causing a tsunami in Crete. Earthquakes and eruptions are not unexpected in Santorini, and insurance against them is unavailable. The residents accept the risks.

The boat went first to Palea Kameni, where hot sulphur springs come up under the sea in a little cove. The boat stopped perhaps 50m offshore, and swimmers had to either jump into the cold water or climb down the ladder. There was some jollity as to the willingness of people to jump in, especially after the first one who did told everyone how freezing cold it was. But the longer people waited to go in, the further the boat drifted away from the spring, and the further people had to swim in the cold water to get to the warm. Maybe 20 people actually did go in for a swim, though you see only about 8 in the picture.

In the hot springs picture, you can see the scree of big lava blocks behind the swimmers. Some of them are quite shiny where they cracked apart as the lava cooled. There is much more of that on both volcanos, but the newer lava on Nea Kameni is much more colorful.

It is said that the clue to an impending eruption is that the water around the Kamenis turns yellow-green. You can see that colour both in the picture of the hot spring (where it would be expected, I suppose) and in the picture of the boat stopped at Nea Kameni. Presumably the spread of the colour is greater when an eruption is imminent, because nobody seemed the least concerned about its present state.

Part of the 1950 lava flow. The two cruise ships disgorged their passengers as we got back. The path up may have been smoothed, but it is along the lip of one of the many old craters.
View of Palea Kameni and the Akrotiri end of the main island from the top of Nea Kameni. The upper part of one of the newer craters, showing some of the variety of rock colours. But it doesn't show the purples and yellows, among other colours.

When the boat stopped at Nea Kameni, the sun was out again. There wasn't space at the dock, so the boat tied up alongside one that was already there, and we crossed it to get ashore. Our boat didn't wait for us. Instead, another came to pick us up an hour and a half later.

Some of the passengers went back with our original boat, but most of us climbed up the volcano. That isn't as easy as it looks in the pictures, because the lava is broken down into gravel and sand-sized bits, which gets into sandals quite badly. My legs had been feeling very tired before we started the climb (about 150 m, 500 ft, at a guess), but were good and fresh when we got to the top and back down again--a strange effect. In the morning I had been determined that I would climb the steps up the Fira cliff (you can see them at the left of the big version of the picture with the two black-hulled ships), but when we were on the boat, I had decided I wouldn't. However, after the volcano climb, my legs felt fine, and I did eventually climb the steps, without getting tired.

At the top of the volcano are the newest craters, a couple of them still with some activity--steam coming out of holes in the crater sides, and elemental sulphur flows visible down from those holes. The steam is rather hot, but not too hot to put one's hand a little way down the hole. That's the first time I ever put my hand into the vent of an active volcano! There is a wild variety of colour in the rocks. They are predominantly black or rusty red, as the pictures show, but there are real reds and purply-pink, as well as the yellow of elemental sulphur, among other colours.

From the volcano, you can see a lot of the geological history of Santorini in the cliff face. If you look either at the picture with the two ships or at the one of people climbing the path along the crater edge, you can see half way up the cliff wall a thick tephra layer that is abruptly cut off by what is obviously the crater of a later explosion, that subsequently filled in before still later explosions made more ash layers. Across the middle of the refilling crater shape, there is a black layer of lava sloping down, but this doesn't show elsewhere on the cliff face. There must have been a fairly big non-explosive eruption that was eroded away where it lay on top of the undamaged layers, but not in the half-filled crater where sediment would have quickly covered it. The most recent tephra layer, the one from 1650 BC, is the white strip at the top of the cliff.

One donkey train goes up loaded, while another comes down empty.

When we got back to the little harbour, three cruise ships had landed their passengers, and there was a huge line, whihc Ina joined, for the cable cars. A lot of people were also crowding the stairs to the starting point for the donkey ride to the top. I wanted to walk, but it was hard to get through the crush. Luckily, a couple of English girls who also wanted to walk up were more aggressive, and I followed them through. Even then it was hard to avoid the donkey drivers, who assured us that we wanted to ride, not walk up, but we managed to get past them as well. The stairs at the bottom were pretty deep in donkey manure, but luckily at the bottom there was a raised sidewalk. Further up, there wasn't, but the manure wasn't so widespread. Even so, you can see quite a bit of it in the picture at left.

Each donkey train had about half a dozen donkeys, and there were lots of them going up and down. Especially the ones coming down without passengers seemed to have been trained to intimidate, by walking straight towards a pedestrian and trying to brush him or her up against the wall. I learned to step behind a lamppost if one was handy when a down-train came, but that wasn't always possible. Still, the donkeys always veered off at the last moment, and I didn't get squashed against the wall.

The people who rode the donkeys didn't always have it too easy, either. One man fell off not far from me. Luckily he didn't fall over the wall down the hill, but he hurt his leg quite badly on the stones. I tried to help but we couldn't understand each other's language, and I couldn't get anyone to help--not the photographers who were taking everyone's picture, and not any of the upgoing or downgoing donkey drivers. Eventually someone came who spoke his language, and I left them.

Other riders, mostly youg girls, complained "why is mine going sideways," " Why is mine running" or "It's going too near the wall" and so forth. One of the two English girls who started walking up in front of me decided she had had enough, and got on a donkey extracted from a downgoing train. The driver left her with it to handle on her own, which turned out to be much harder than going up with a driven donkey train. She couldn't make it go up the hill. It kept going a bit up, a bit sideways, and a bit down. Eventually she started walking up again.

Sunset over the volcanos and Therassia, from our balcony at the Volcano View Villas.

Once Ina and I rejoined each other at the top, we walked around the town a bit, and ran into one of our friends from the Greece bus tour, who had come off one of the cruise ships.

We bought a half-litre of "Santorini House Wine" from a barrel in a supermarket, and sipped it on our hotel balcony while we watched the sunset over the volcano and Therassia. It was quite smooth and pleasant. The cruise ships had all gone on their way, the water was smooth and silver, and the sky had cleared completely after the afternoon shower.

After the wine, we took dinner in the hotel restaurant, where we were the only guests. The food was excellent and the price reasonable. The friendly waiter said it was their first day open for the season. I hope they have more guests when the hotel is full, because they deserve it. As I said at the top--we highly recommend the Volcano View Villas.

Before retiring, we went to the desk and booked a 2-day car rental for the morning. There's more to see in Santorini than just Fira. There are buses about every half hour or hour between Fira and most parts of the island, but a car gives more flexibility and is not terribly expensive--at least not at this time of the year.

Continue to April 28