A small spot of crowded white houses, dotted by pastel colors here and there and blue windows reflecting the warm sunlight, leaving kaleidoscope-like shapes in the cobblestone floor, the island of Santorini is a blossoming flower in the middle of the dark blue Aegean sea, reborn after being destroyed by the vast force of nature around 1550 BC. Quietly sitting in the peaceful greek town of Oia, watching the sunset contrast with the golden town lights and the blue globe-shaped rooftops almost shimmering against the night sky makes it almost impossible to imagine the serene island ever facing any devastating disaster.
Lost city of Atlantis?
Santorini, known as Thira to locals, is basically what remains after an enormous volcanic eruption destroyed the earliest settlements on what used to be a single bigger island of the advanced Minoan civilization, established on the island before 2000 BC. This leads to many conspiracy theories created and supported by scientists, geologists and archaeologists that Santorini’s ancient city of Akrotiri might just be Plato’s famous sunken city of Atlantis. The excavation of Akrotiri is one of the most important and well-preserved prehistoric settlements of the Aegean, and it’s open to the public so you can walk and admire the sheltered city.
As of today, the halfmoon-shaped island of Santorini and its archipelago are formed from the circular caldera of the volcano that destroyed the island all those years ago. The circle is divided in some places and, overflowed by the sea, becomes a natural harbor so wide that those ferries and cruise ships visiting are belittled and appear like toy boats.
You can reach the center of the volcano by a short boat trip; a small island in the middle of the water-filled caldera, where you can even walk around its rocky surface and stand right next to the mouth of the volcano that created the archipelago around three thousand years ago, still steaming and menacing to erupt at any given moment like most steaming volcanoes. Besides this, the last eruption happened in the 1920s, and an earthquake devastated the island in 1956; but even after going through all those disasters, the town stands up again, looking as beautiful and immaculate as ever.
The walls of the caldera rise up to 300 meters above the sea level. The highest cliffs are at Santorini’s capital, Fira and at the town of Firostefani; overlooking and towering the bright blue waters below, the houses on these towns were built just at the rim of the caldera in a diagonal, almost completely vertical way. But although one would think this might not be a pretty sight, the simmetry of the houses and buildings, and the pretty colors of their walls make this arrangement extremely pleasing to the eye.
Funny donkey rides
Each of the seventeen towns and villages has their own harbor at the foot of the cliffs, and you can reach them by walking the zigzagging paths from the top. Fira, on the other side, has a modern cable car now. Only tourists from cruise ships and ferries take the long hike up to the town. But if walking is not your cup of tea, you can rent a donkey from one of the cranky old men who spend all day leading their mounts up and down the paths. But watch out; at sunset, the donkeys gallop out of Fira, happy to be going back down, and they don’t care about who crosses their path. Be careful if you don’t want to be run over by one of those peculiar animals.
Santorini is known for its famous pristine white-walled churches, topped by blue domed rooftops, typically photographed contrasting against the dark blue waters of the Aegean sea, guarded inside the caldera. There are so many churches on the little island that you sometimes wonder if there is some kind of rivalry or feud between the local people, preventing them from going to the same one.
Most of these churches are still active, and more often than not you will see priests dressed in all black, with their distinctive grey beards, walking hurriedly from church to church, most likely trying to find their crowd of people in one of the many many possible white churches.
Various places in the world have been taken over by the tourist business, and Santorini is not the exception. As a result, most of the fishermen cottages have been turned into hotels, guest houses, and restaurants. However, the island remains faithful to its original character and past. The Oia village especially still has its local people living among the tourist places, and you can still see baskets filled with colorful flowers, fishing nets waiting to be repaired hanging outside some of the remaining cottages, and shy cats dozing off in tiny front yards.
How to get there and where to stay
You can easily reach Santorini by ferry or taking an internal flight from Athens on Olympic Airways, and during the summer, there are even direct flights from European airports. However, during the summer months it’s a bit harder to find accommodation; booking in advance is recommended if you plan to spend a couple of summer days on the island. One of the best hotels in the capital Fira is the Santorini Palace, built especially to overlook the caldera and the calm waters.
Even for such a small island, the amount of culture and history it holds, and all the things to do and see makes it impossible to truly experience Santorini in just a couple of days. The island has so many wonders that it will leave you hoping to go back sooner than later until you explore every single corner.
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