Santorini – Surreal & Stunning (2009)

Santorini – Surreal & Stunning (2009)

Watching a program on the mythical continent of Atlantis on the  National Geographic channel, where a ruby-red sun is swallowed by a topaz-blue caldera against the backdrop of whitewashed houses perched on a spectacular cliff, you’d be forgiven for wanting to teleport yourself there at once. At least that’s how I felt. So, when an opportunity presented itself to travel to Athens,  I took the 8-hour boat trip from Piraeus, the port in Athens to Santorini, one of the Cycladic islands believed by some scientists to be the centre of the biggest volcanic eruption in human history. The eruption wiped off the face of the earth, the Minoans, one of the most sophisticated civilizations of the ancient world.  The volcanic explosion also created a dramatic caldera which submerged parts of the island. Whether it was Mea Kameni, Santorini’s volcano that destroyed the Minoans we don’t know for sure yet, but what we do know and can see is that Santorini’s caldera is dramatic and drop-dead gorgeous, even by the exalted standards of glamour associated with Greek islands.

Lurching Magic

I was advised not to fly into Thira, the capital of Santorini, but to approach it by sea in open-deck boat to experience the magic of the looming island, an advice I heeded with alacrity. Undoubtedly, everyone else on the boat had got the same advice too. As we approached Santorini, the entire boat load of three hundred plus passengers converged on the port side deck of our Blue Star ferry, jostling and jockeying for space, our lenses poised to capture the magic of the moment. The boat lurched dangerously to the port side and the surf rose up to spray us liberally, but we gamely wiped the salt off our eyes to gape at stunning Santorini with its brilliant blue domes setting off its whitewashed houses.

Giorgio, the owner of Villa San Giorgio had come to pick me up and I find myself alongside half a dozen others who had also booked rooms in the same boutique hotel through the internet. Our mini van begins the steep ascent to Fira, the capital of the island. Giorgio chatters non-stop, giving us useful information on what to do on the island and how to go about it. He has some useful suggestion for each one of us, depending on our interest. He gives me the bad news that Akrotiri, the ancient Minoan excavation site is closed due to an accident and advises me not to miss Ancient Thira, also an archeological site where Ptolemy built a garrison.

Caldera Everywhere

Wherever you are in Santorini, the breath-taking caldera dominates your view.  Caldera means a cauldron – of boiling water – formed by volcanic eruption. It is caused by the subsidence of the volcanic mass into the sea. Considering the eruption occurred around 1650 BC, the sea has had enough time to cool down to an alluring azure expanse with nary a ripple.  A short walk from the hotel brings you to a narrow path that goes all the way along the cliff with a spectacular view of the caldera down below. Shafts of slanting sunlight stream through a hole in the cloud throwing a spotlight on the surface of the blue expanse. Charred Mea Kameni lies defeated and deflated in the middle of the caldera. The cliffs are dotted with blinding white houses and blue-domed churches, prettier than any picture postcard I have ever seen. I sit on the parapet and contemplate the unfairness of so much ethereal beauty in one single spot on earth.

Minoans, so called because the Minotaur, a half-bull, half-human was their sacred deity, came from Crete between 2000 – 1700 BC to Santorini, as is evident from the artifacts found at Akrotiri.  Exquisite frescoes and pottery testify to a very refined people, who unfortunately, vanished without a trace when Mea Kameni erupted in 1650 BC. The pyroclastic flow is believed to have shot 30 km into the sky in a jet of black stream and the explosion caused waves of tsunamis which travelled as far away as Crete. Whether it was Mea Kameni’s eruption that destroyed the lost continent of Atlantis is a raging debate among geologists and historians, but no conclusive evidence has been found.  What we do know about Minoans in Santorini comes from Akrotiri, enveloped and preserved in volcanic ash for posterity.  It was an entire township with two-storeyed buildings and elaborate drainage systems.

Even today, Santorini bears tell-tale evidence of volcanic activity – in the black sand beaches, lava-layered cliffs marked with styrations, earthquake damaged structures buried under rocks, a pumice scattered fertile landscape that produces one of the best wines ever made in Greece.  I take the regulation excursion to Mea Kameni. For that, I have to first descend the steep cliff side, alternately admiring the caldera view and skirting around pony dung – ponies have been brought here for tourist benefit.  I board a small boat that takes me to the caldera where I wander aimlessly picking up pumice pieces and sniffing sulphur from smoking caverns.  Next, the boat stops at a secluded cove where the water is tepid enough for a comfortable swim. On my way back, I take the cable car up.

Thira and Oia

Next day, I find a tour bus that would drive me up the steep cliff on which is located Ancient Thira, the site of an entire township with Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine ruins. It is a sprawling thyme-scented complex of ruins of temples, municipal buildings, streets, dwellings, town square and a lovely circular theatre with stunning caldera views.

If you haven’t seen Oia, you haven’t seen Santorini, one of the blogspots had warned me.  Oia, a village on the other end of the cliff was destroyed by another major eruption of Mea Kameni in 1956, but it has been rebuilt extensively.  I take a bus to delightful Oia and wander around its quaint lanes and alleys and finally find myself on the roof of a fort where a small crowd had gathered to  watch the sun set into the caldera.  Here I meet a young Telugu couple – Namrata and Srinivas – who had travelled all the way from Seattle to this enchanted island.  We enjoy the surreal sunset at Oia in companionable silence. I return home completely rejuvenated.

(Published in Frontline dated Mar 13, 2010)

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