Saturday, 17 August 2013

Sensuous Santorini

Our first destination in Greece is Santorini, a ravingly beautiful volcanic archipelago emerged out of the turquoise Mediterranean sea. Nothing can quite capture the unsurpassed beauty and mesmerizing magic of Satorini, be it the brush of an artist, the lens of a photographer or the pen of a poet. The sensational sunsets of Santorini are peerless and magnificent in the world, drawing a large number of tourists majoring lovebirds and twains. But the archipelago is not all about sunset and romance. These tiny Greek islands in the Aegean sea is very rich in history and steep in myth. In fact, its history swings between the spheres of mythos and reality. Over 2,368 years ago, in the year of 355 BC Plato wrote an account of an ancient City long forgotten; a thriving, wealthy, peaceful civilization of divine beings known as Atlantis. The entire island was said to have disappeared into the Atlantic ocean after a day & night of fierce earthquakes & floods. Atlantis - the tale of a prosperous land and utopian civilization that disappeared without trace by the anger of gods - has been one of the oldest myths and dreams of mankind alongside El Dorado. Santorini is believed to be the the lost land of Atlantis, utterly devastated in the catastrophic volcanic eruption of Bronze Age (around 1636 BC). The geologically confirmed eruption is believed to be the strongest eruption ever on the earth in last 20,000 years and legion times stronger than the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that petrified two thriving cities Pompeii and Herculaneum, near the bay of Naples in the southern Italy in just 24 hours in the year of 79 AD. Rightly called as the Pompeii of Agean, the volcanic archipelago of Santorini lends its womb to an ancient well-preserved city named Akrotiri found under the blanket of volcanic ash and pumice. Speculations are rife that the discovered city may be a part of the lost land of Atlantis.
A depiction of the lost city of Atlantis (note the volcanic eruption in the background)

I will now take some time to deck you up with all those infos, facts and lore that stirred me up and got me magnetized towards Santorini. This will hopefully make you feel and look Santorini with the same enthusiasm and passion as I did in the course of my visit. So even before I commence penning down my journey to the unique archipelago of the Aegean, I will build up your excitement as I did for myself before my visit. Then hopefully you will look Santorini through my eyes! So lets get pepped up and proceed to learn about Santorini.

Greek Islands. With 6,000 greek islands and islets covering much of the eastern Mediterranean, it was a Herculean task to zero down on Santorini. Almost each island has its own share of mythological connection and historical importance. Crete is the biggest island of Greece and it lends to the ancient greek history the glory of the Minoan civilization, a prosperous Bronze Age civilization flourished on Crete. A few thousand years younger than Indus valley civilization (3300–1300 BCE) in Indian subcontinent and Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia, Iraq, Minoan civilization in Crete is the first Bronze Age civilization in Europe flourished around 2700 BC and is rightly honored as the cradle of western civilization. Since my next destination is Crete anyway and it deserves a separate treat altogether, I will write on Crete in my next post. For this post, I wish to cover the other greek islands (excluding Crete) with the core focus on Satorini. There are numerous things to know about Santorini alone: its intrigue Atlantis Connection, the cataclysmic volcanic eruption of 16th century BC and its devastating aftermaths, the unique history of the formation of the archipelago, the genesis of its beautiful name, the neolithic and bronze age settlements on the archipelago, the secret of its sensational sunsets and lastly my travelogue and experiences. I will elaborate on each one of the above. Nevertheless, it will be a great miss not knowing a bit on the rest of the islands. Once I am done with Santorini, I promise to take you on a tour of the greek islands. Only about 230 Greek islands of more than 6000 islands are inhabited and, of these, just 80 or so have more than 100 permanent inhabitants. Almost each island prominently features in Greek mythology and history with fascinating stories linked with them. The islands are in fact the play grounds of greek myths and history; they are commemorated as either the birth place or the place of heroic feats or the death bed for myriad greek heroes, artists and poets. The ancient greek civilizations and tribes had abundantly flourished on these islands. Some islands even take us back to Neolithic age. The civilizations/tribes have left behind numerous remains of forgotten cities, palaces, temples, amphitheaters and more. One would be dumbfounded to realize the stature attained in every sphere of their life by the bronze age civilizations and their successors based on these islands. Their marvelous architectural edifices such as gigantic sky-kissing temples, huge amphitheaters for entertainment and advancements in astrology, art, science at that time are proofs of their glorious past. As I don't want to deprive you of a gold mine, a short post will follow this blog with a treat on the greek islands and their captivating tales. For now let us zoom on Santorini.

Geographic location of Santorini. Spreading in two main seas, the Aegean and the Ionian Sea, the Greek islands are traditionally grouped into six major clusters; Ionian, Saronic, Cyclades, North Aegean, Sporades and Dodecanese.

Greek Islands and the major six clusers
Santorini forms a circular group of islands belonging to the Cyclades island chain in the southern Aegean Sea, located midway between mainland Greece to the west, Turkey to the east, and the island of Crete to the south. The Cyclades form part of the Aegean island arc system, generated by northward subduction of the African plate along the arcuate Hellenic trench system located south of Crete. The archipelago consists of a group of islands forming a huge ring: Thira/Thera (the largest island in the group), Thirasia (little Thera), Aspronisi, Palia Kameni (Hot Springs) and Nea Kameni (Volcano).
Santorini Archepelago; The big one in the middle is Palia (Old) Kameni (Burnt) and the small one is Nea (new) Kameni 
The formation of Santorini. The unusual land formation of the archipelago has a startling history of the tectonic activities followed by two millions years of continuous volcanic eruption. Geologic studies indicate that at least 12 eruptive phases have occurred over the last one million years. Up to about two million years ago, Santorini was a small non-volcanic island. Remains of this can still be seen at the highest point of Thera, Mount Profitis Ilias in the southeast of the present island, which is made from non-volcanic limestone. About two million years ago, volcanoes under the sea to the west of the island started producing magma, resulting in a number of small islands. Eventually (around 500,000 years ago) there were two giant 'shield volcanoes'. These are mountains in the shape of flat cones. These mountains united with the non-volcanic island to make one big island. Although neither of these mountains exist any longer, geologists have given them names. The northern mountain is called Mount Peristeria while the southern one is called Mount Thera.
Cliff shows layer of volcanic deposits
About 200,000 years ago, things started hotting up. Mount Thera started to produce vast amounts of magma and ash, eventually completely emptying the magma chamber under the mountain. When the erupting volcano emptied the magma chamber beneath the volcano, the edifice of the volcano collapsed into the voided reservoir that could not support the weight of the volcanic edifice above, thus forming a steep, bowl-shaped depression called a caldera (Spanish for kettle or cauldron). This process was repeated in a whole series of eruptions over the next 200,000 years, with both mountains producing magma, collapsing, regrowing and collapsing again, each time deepening the caldera and eventually leaving the island in the shape it is today. Most of the volcanic layers are visible in the multi-colored sequences of the impressive steep inner walls of the caldera, striking the visitor who reaches the island by ferry.

Santorini before and after ~1636BC Minoan eruption 
According to Geologists, Santorini's volcanic activity during the past 2-500,000 years has been dominated by very large explosive eruptions at intervals of few tens of thousands of years. The most recent of this type occurred at around 1636 BC and is known as the so-called Minoan eruption. The late Bronze Age eruption that the geologists believe was the single-most powerful explosive event ever witnessed on the earth, is one of the most studied, but still most mysterious eruptions of all time.
Present day satellite Image of Santorini
It devastated not only Santorini, but had a deep impact on the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean changing the political landscape of that time itself. Perhaps it even had serious world-wide effects and changed history. Still today, one can see its deposits, the characteristic, tens of meters thick layer of white pumice and ash that blankets most of the surface of the island group. The eruption changed the shape of the island itself dramatically: it is now believed that before the eruption, it had the shape of an almost complete ring that enclosed an earlier, shallower caldera. Then, large sections of island collapsed into the emptied magma chamber after the eruption, literally disappearing under the sea. The ring-island turned into what it looks like now, and the caldera was significantly widened and deepened (picture above). Today the caldera is covering approximately 32 square miles and the water's depth varies from 300 to 600 meters. By taking a good look at the three islands constituting the ring Thera, Therasia and Aspronisi we can easily distinguish a virtual borderline of what used to be there before the caldera was formed.
In what follows, I elaborate more on the Minoan eruption and its far reaching aftermaths.

The Minoan Eruption. The world map might look differently had the Greek volcano Santorini not erupted 3,500 years ago in what geologists believe was the single-most powerful explosive event ever witnessed. Studies of ash deposits on the ocean floor have revealed, that when the volcano blew, it did so with a force dwarfing anything humans had ever seen or have seen since. Also known as Santorini Eruption and Thera Eruption, the late Bronze Age event was a ultra Plinian eruption of epic proportions, with an estimated Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 6.9. Plinian (or Vesuvian) eruptions typify the well-known historic eruptions that produce powerful convecting plumes of ash ascending up to 45 kilometers into the stratosphere. (These explosive eruption types are named after Pliny the Younger, a Roman statesman who wrote a remarkably objective account of the eruption of Italy's Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD) (picture below).
Plinian Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD 
There are no first-person accounts of what happened on the fateful day in Santorini, but scientists can compare it to the detailed records available from the famous eruption of Krakatoa, Indonesia, in 1883. That fiery explosion killed upwards of 40,000 people in just a few hours, produced colossal tsunamis 40 feet tall, spewed volcanic ash across Asia, and caused a drop in global temperatures and created strangely colored sunsets for three years. The blast was heard 3,000 miles away. Thera's eruption was four or five times more powerful than Krakatoa, geologists believe, exploding with the energy of several hundred atomic bombs in a fraction of a second. Environmental effects were felt across the globe, as far away as China and perhaps even North America and Antarctica.
The aftermath effects of the eruption were far-reaching. Some of them move between the spheres of mythos and reality, while others are reality. The reality is that the eruption devastated the rich, highly developed economic center, that Santorini was at that time.
A fresco recovered from Akrotiri, Santorini
Since 1969, intense archaeological excavations have brought to light an important Cycladic/Minoan town now known as Akrotiri which had been buried beneath the volcanic ash for almost 4000 years. Although an absence of human remains and valuables like metal suggest that the Minoan residents of Santorini predicted the eruption and the island was evacuated carrying most of their goods with them, the findings from Akrotiri in Santorini are impressive: especially, they include well-preserved and magnificent wall paintings (image right), ceramics and other objects. Thanks to the work of numerous archaeologists, a new light was thrown on an important prehistoric period and culture.
The myths about Santorini eruption are more colorful. The spectacular discovery of the city in Santorini induced continuing speculations that relate the volcanic destruction of Santorini to the legend of the sunken Atlantis, a lost civilization mentioned in Plato's dialogues Timaeus and Critias, written about 360 B.C.
Atlantis in the eyes of a painter
It is also speculated that the powerful Minoan civilization based on the nearby island of Crete, declined suddenly soon after Thera blew its top. Tsunamis spawned by the eruption would have swamped its naval fleet and coastal villages, historians think. A drop in temperatures caused by the massive amounts of sulphur dioxide spouted into the atmosphere then led to several years of cold, wet summers in the region, ruining harvests. The lethal combination overran every mighty Minoan stronghold in less than 50 years. In just a short time, their peaceful, efficient bureaucracy made way for the warring city-state system of the mainland of ancient Greece, namely Mycenaeans, to dominate the Mediterranean. The Aegean would have turned out to be a fundamental building block for the history of Europe, and the Minoan decline changed its early foundation completely.
The last but even more exiting myth connected to this incident is with the Biblical story of Moses and the exodus from Egypt. The effects of Thera's eruption could have explained many of the plagues described in the Old Testament, including the days of darkness and polluting of the rivers In Egypt, according to some theories.

The historic eruptions of Santorini volcano (Palea and Nea Kameni): Although the ~1636 BC eruption of Santorini is recognized as one of the most explosive volcanic eruptions in historic times, the event is only a single eruption in a continuum of eruptive activity associated with subduction. The geologic record over the past one million years indicates that less explosive Strombolian eruptions have occurred at Santorini about once every 5000 years, and that Plinian-type events have occurred about once every 20,000 years. (Strombolian eruptions are named from the small volcano-island of Stromboli, located between Sicily and Italy. This volcano has been erupting almost constantly for hundreds of years. It erupts irregularly every twenty minutes or so to produce an episodic lightshow that gives rise to its nickname, the "Lighthouse of the Mediterranean".) Since the late Bronze Age eruption, the two Kameni islands, Nea and Palea Kameni, have formed in the center of the caldera by numerous eruptive events over the past 2000 years. Santorini thus appears to be particularly active compared to its geologic past. There have been several eruptions in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the most recent occurring in 1950.
The eruption in Nea Kameni in 1950
There is little evidence that Santorini is in a permanent state of slumber. The island group exhibits ongoing seismic activity, and both fumaroles and hydrothermal springs are common features on the islands. It seems clear that we can expect another eruption. The historic record would suggest that it will be a small-to-moderate eruption typical of those over the last 2000 years. Volcanoes like Santorini, however, are inherently unpredictable, and we cannot rule out the possibility of another catastrophic eruption reminiscent of ~1630 BC.

Santorini and its many names. Few islands in Greece are mentioned as often in ancient literature and myths as Santorini. And during the course of time even fewer have repeatedly changed not only shape but name. Through the ages, Santorini has been known as Strongili 'The Round One', which was the first name, then Kalliste 'the Fair One', Filitera or Filotera, Kalavria, Karisti, Tevsia, Thirameni and Rineia. When the Turks occupied Greece (1579-1821) during the time of the Ottoman Empire, they called the island 'Gozi', 'Dimertzik' (the latter means small mill, so it is likely that name came from the small windmills on the island). After the liberation of Greece in 1821, the name 'Thira' was established as the official name of the island. Let us look back and see how Santorini has been changing its name and why even it was named Santorini. The accounts of the famous Greek historian Herodotus talks about the previous names of Santorini and why it was named so.
Even before the name 'Santorini' existed, the island was called Strongili, meaning 'The Round One'. This name is believed to be the first name given to the islands. Long ago about 2,000,000 years ago, there was a single round shaped volcanic island, created by unification of a non-volcanic island and a couple of volcanic cones located south-west and north of the non-volcanic island. The unification was caused due to the volcanic matter spilling out during the eruptions. Eventually one island was formed. Herodotus tells us that the island’s first name came from that formation – 'Strongili' or 'The Round One', a name that dates back to at least 1500 BC. Next, Santorini was named Kallisti or Kallisto meaning 'The Fair One'. Mythology tells us  about a meeting between Triton and the Argonauts . Triton was half-man and half-fish. He was a god of the sea. The Argonauts were a group of Greek heroes. They were sailing across the sea in search of the golden fleece of a magical sheep. After they found the fleece, the Argonauts met with Triton. The sea god gave them a lump of earth. He asked the Argonauts to drop the earth in a specific place in the sea. They received a signal in the form of a clap of thunder and threw the soil into the sea. From this was formed the island of Kalliste, the most fair. But according to Herodotus, the Phoenicians were so enthralled by the beauty of Santorini that they settled there and gave it the name 'Kalliste' or 'The Fair One'. Next Santorini was named Thera. The name Thera comes from the commander Theras, son of Autesion of Sparta, who, as Herodotus tells us, had lead earlier colonists to Kalliste. Next Thera was named Sant' Irene or Santorini. In the 12th century Edis, the Arab geographer, named the largest island after a local church of Sant' Irene. Venetians secured the name Santorini, when they occupied this territory in 13th century at the time of the Crusades and the fall of Constantinople in 1204. It is a reference to Saint Irene - 'Santa Irini' (from the Greek word 'ei - ri - ni ' = peace). After the liberation of Greece in 1821, the name Thera is reinstalled, although the archipelago is still known to the world by Santorini.

Beginning of Our Journey. We started in the late evening of 18th May and reached Athens airport at the unmanly hour of 3 am in the next morning. An airport bus carried us to the main port of the capital city Peraeus. On reaching the port we found a welcoming vast sea ahead of us and a few people wondering around and waiting to catch the Santorini bound morning ferry. Ashish was utterly astonished as he stood in front of the huge ship getting ready to carry hundreds of enthusiastic tourists from all over the world to the iconic island of Thera. I was excited too, though not at the same level due to my prior sailing experience from Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark to Oslo, the capital city of Norway. We waited for a good two and half hours to catch the first ferry bound for our destination by Blue lines ferry company scheduled for 7:30am.  In the meanwhile, I tried to catch some sleep on one of the benches in the port. Unlike me, Ashish just can not take a nap in any given circumstances. Poor Guy! :( Anyway, after a quick power nap, we queued up holding all our excitement for boarding the huge ferry. Noticeably, the queueing pattern is much like in India. The crowd staggered in the front of the queue to catch the first opportunity to board. All those polished European behaviors have vanished into air and at once my Indian memories were alive. Finally, we boarded and as we made our way inside the ship we felt as if we have entered a five star hotel. So beautifully organized! There are five floors and every floor has open decks as well as closed interiors. As it was a day time journey and the whole point of traveling by ferry (there are flight connection to Santorini from Athens) was to leisurely sail through the turquoise Aegean and relish the beauty of the volcanic archipelago as we slowly approach it, we reserved tickets for the deck chairs. Looking past the extravaganza, we moved towards the open deck of the topmost floor. The open boundless sea was signaling us to its vastness. We picked our chairs in the deck with a good viewpoint and waited eagerly for the journey to commence, wishing it to be one of the memorable journeys together. It's only quarter to seven and we still have 45 mins to go before the ship starts its journey at 7:30am.
The morning sky was set on fire as the sun started peeping up from behind the hill overlooking the port city. The port city began to wake up after the night's slumber. As the time slips by, more passengers made their way to the ship. The last minute preparation was in full swing. And at last the journey began in due time as thousand eyes on board twinkled with joy and excitement and in few minutes the port disappeared in the horizon as we found ourselves in the middle of the boundless sea. People started enjoying in their own way. The kids were even more excited running all over the deck and trying every possible empty seat for a better direct view of the sea. The couples and twains, oldies and youths, whispered each other cozying up more. The entire ship was set in a festive mood. As the excitement subdued a bit, people started having their breakfast. With an incomplete night sleep, we did not feel like eating anything. With the morning mediterranean wind and warm sunshine, dizziness crippled in our eyes. It was a seven and half hours journey scheduled to reach our destination at around 3pm. With the tight schedule ahead, catching a good sleep was absolute necessary for us. We moved inside, managed to occupy a quite corner and soon slipped into deep slumber only to wake up at around 1pm. Got a couple of sandwiches for lunch and we are back to the joyful mood. As we explored the rest of the ship, we located numerous islets spread across the sea. There were a few small unmanned islands on the way too with just a blinding while colored chapel with deep blue top, a typical style followed for all the structures in cyclades. The ship made a couple of stops before approaching our destination. Finally, ohh! Behold, what's approaching! With the maze of blinding white washed homes and chapels, the island of Thera looked like a smashing snow-capped hill emerging out of the cobalt blue water.
Thera from the Ship
It really gave a feeling of awe as we imagined that we were riding into the heart of the volcano that changed the history of the world. As we got more closer, we could distinctly note the multiple layers of volcanic deposits. The ship touched the main port of Thera, Athinios and waiting outside was the lady who agreed to welcome us as her guest for next two nights. The scorching sun outside seemed merciless. As our host drove us to the top of of the island, the rocky barren land with hardly any touch of greenery more visibly disclosed their volcanic character. We were amazed to see distinct color of the rocks in different layers. Hailing from Thera, our host is happily married to a Cretan. For next two days our address at Thera: a big room in the second floor of a three storied building named `Sweet Home', located very close to Thera the capital village of Santorini (the eaxct location is Karterado; see the detailed map below). By now we realized, it is extremely hot with a soaring temperature of more than 30 degree centigrade. Being an Indian, I hate high temperature. Nevertheless, we dumped our luggage quickly and got ready for the first day's outing. The following detailed map of Santorini will help the readers to follow my movement in the island in the next two days of the visit. Please refer to the map as and when I mention the name of the places in the rest of my travelouges.
Detailed map of Santorini

Kamari Black Beach
Day one in Thera. The beaches in Santorini come in many different and beautiful colors. Depending on which geologic layers are exposed, there are Red Beaches with red colored sands, White Beaches with white colored sands, or Black Beaches with black colored sands. Our first destination of the day is a black beach called Kamari, a relatively quieter beach in the southern coast of Thera. The island has quite a good bus connection. We reached by bus and amazed to see the sand color. After spending some time at Kamari, we headed to Imerovigli, a cosmopolitan, picturesque village on the north coast. Renowned for the mystique and beauty of its sunsets, Imerovigli has appealed to thousands of sunset lovers around the world. What gives the small village an interesting edge is a rocky headland called Skaros rock that protrudes out to the azure blue Aegean Sea. Located at the frontage of Imerovigli village, impressive Skaros rock offers an imposing unobstructed 360 degree view of the entire caldera. Even more interesting is the remains of a fortress on top of Skaros rock, taking the same name. It is the first fortress that was built on Santorini among five others, by the Venetians, who rules Santorini for hundreds of years, in the 15th century in order to protect from the pirates who roamed the Aegean Sea. At the top of the rock hung a large bell, to warn inhabitants of imminent pirate raids. According to the legend, the castle was never ever conquered during its long 600 years of existence. With the fortress in the center, Skaros was the capital of Santorini until 18th century before the honor moved to the village of Thera located in the center of the island. Mainly because of the earthquakes its inhabitants gradually left and moved to the Thera/Fira village. During massive earthquakes in the 1950s (before the volcanic eruption of 1950 at Nea Kameni that I mentioned above) the castle was destroyed and today only some jagged ruins are visible at the top of Skaros.
Skaros then and now.
There is a well-defined trail that connects Skaros with the village of Imerovigli. The neighborhood around Skaros is full of restaurant, bars and hotels. Its stunning landscape and scenic beauty attract many couples from all over the world for a wedding ceremony or a honeymoon. We took a leisurely walk through the cave houses (dug into the volcanic rock), neo classical mansions, cobbled streets, and blued colored domed churches of Imerovigli. From the base of Skaros, we hiked upward daring more than 300 slippery steps ahead. On reaching the top, peering down the other side, we could clearly see a little chapel, carved into a flat spot at the outside edge of the promontory. It was Theoskepasti church, a magical white church standing all alone staring at the horizon and greets you from the top of the black rock. As we had a good look around on the top, our eyes were dragged to the magical sky greeting the divine phenomena of the day and the most highlighted event of Santorini. Yes, the sun is all set to set the sky ablaze. We quickly walked down in an anticipation of a mystique sundown with Skaros rock in the fore ground. Indeed, the Skaros rock added a mystique dimension to the sunset.
Skaros Sunset through my lens. Copyright@ArpitaPatra

With the sunset, the temperature came down and cool breeze soothed both our mind and body. Our first day ended thus with a sweet note, as we took the last bus to Thera and walked down to 'Sweet Home'.

Day two. On the second day, we started early in the morning to visit Akrotiri, the village that lends Santorini two exciting features; first, an ancient city unearthed recently after being undercover for about 4000 years under the blanket of frozen lava and second, the one and only red beach in the archipelago. Under the cover of lava and pumice, a remarkably well-preserved city with colorful frescoes depicting myriad scenes of everyday life (the most famous ones are- the boxing youths, the fisherman, young woman gathering saffrons, the woman with papyrus; follow this link to see the frescos), pottery, furniture, advanced drainage systems and three-story buildings have been unearthed at Akrotiri since its excavation from 1967. The excavated site is believed to be a Minoan Bronze Age settlement. The belief is supported by the Linear A tablets and artifacts, frescos unearthed from the site. Linear A is the primary script of Minoan civilization. A lot of Linear A tablets has been restored from the site of Knossos of Crete, the epicenter of Minoan Civilization. Furthermore, the frescos discovered at Akrotiri have very close similarities with those discovered in Knossos. To me, the ancient city of Akrotiri looked very similar to the city of Pompeii, perished by yet another eruption of epic proportion in the human history, the 79AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. We visited Pompeii and Mt Vesuvius last year. Needless to say, it was a memorable yet heart-writhing experience. We were horrified and deeply agonized to see human beings and cattle petrified in various pensive poses. A sense of anguish engulfed and numbed me with the slightest thought of the horrific deaths faced by the unfortunate inhabitants. Unimaginable indeed. Unlike Pompeii, no human remains have been found in Akrotiri so far leaving the speculation that the inhabitants were warned in advance about the impending calamity. Though it is doubted if at all they could survive from the nature's fury. The small by important city of Akrotiri not only earns Santorini the name 'Pompeii of the Aegean', it also connects it with the legend of Atlantis as I mentioned before. The first half of the day ended with our brief visit to the red beach of Akrotiri. The red beach was amazing. The red sand hugs the cobalt blue sea water to create a feast for the eyes (picture below).
Red Beach of Akrotiri
We bid goodbye to the red beach and headed for the most hyped and supposedly most picturesque village of Santorini, Oia or simply `Ia' (see the detailed map of Santorini above). Celebrated for its sensational sunset, Oia is indeed unique in many respects. Situated on the steep slope of the caldera, the houses of the village are built in to niches carved into the caldera slopes on the seaward side. The idyllic white washed blue domed churches and charming, traditional Cycladic cave houses carved into the rock face on top of the cliff ornate the cityscape of the village. The houses are painted in flawless white and the domes in deep blue. Why are the majority of buildings on the island painted white, and church domes - blue? There is a legend about that. When Turks occupied Thira (Barbarossa himself conquered the island in 1537!) it was forbidden to use colors of national flag of Greece (white and blue) and to celebrate Greek holidays. However, the rebellious people started painting their buildings in colors of their national flag: white and blue! There are 350 churches on the island - plenty of room for a patriotic painter. Why this is a legend? Because actually the "white and blue" is a modern style used in Cycladic architecture in early 80s of the twentieth century. The style, no doubt, lends the village an effective white-blue perspective and elegance. The white lime water is used to paint the houses so that the rainwater falling over it can be collected. Being a volcanic island, the island of Thera is in acute need of drinking water.
Oia Cityscape
The bus carried us from Akrotiri to Oia and left us under the merciless midday sun. Daring the scorching heat, we marched with the crowd through the cobbled busy streets of Oia. The passages are extremely narrow. One by one, we discovered all the locations that we have seen in the photographs in the Internet and postcards displayed in the kiosks spread in the touristy spots in the island. We walked past many road-side kiosks offering a range of ethnic goods, handicrafts, jewellery and souvenirs. After a bit of meandering around, we realized that we were well past the lunch time and taking some food was the most important necessity of the time. We briefly halted for a light lunch; souvlaki and bread. Souvlaki is the most famous and loved food in Greece. It's actually nothing but barbecued chicken. We were very much surprised to see the bread, as it looked and more surprisingly tasted exactly as Indian paratha. We relished every bit of the souvlaki and bread. Post-lunch, the unbearable heat kept us off from the sun for quite sometime. We decided to take refuge in a shady place until the sun goes slightly down and the ambience cool down a bit. We chose a quite street with caldera view and deep blue domed white-washed chapels in the foreground. But alas! Within few minutes, a huge gang arrived and the narrow street became crowded. A newlyweds hired a team of photographers to capture their unforgettable moments on the backdrop of Santorini. People say there is no better place to get married in the world than Santorini! It is not only a tourist Mecca for visitors from all over the world and a place of pilgrimage for creative people, like photographers, designers, and artists, but also a paradise for couples wishing to get married. Thousands of couples every year solemnize their marriage in Santorini. And here is one among them currently crowding the narrow streets. When the first couple was done with the photoshoot, here comes the second one. And then another one. Yes three in a row. Though my initial reaction to such a huge crowd was not pleasant, but I soon started enjoying the photo sessions and managed to take a few shots myself of one of the couples. Below I present a couple of photos.
Newlyweds of Thera through my lens. Copyright@ArpitaPatra
The bride of Santorini through my lens. copyright@ArpitaPatra
Once the sun leaned towards the west, we resumed our walk. The town of Oia is a place for meditation, relaxation, and most beautiful sunsets in the world. We headed towards the sunset spot of Oia. On the way, we found one of the most recognisable buildings in the town; an old windmill. Don't know how many postcards dedicated to the windmill (picture below)!!
The windmill of Thera. Copyright@ArpitaPatra
Then well ahead of the sunset time, we reached the sunset spot which is located at the extreme end of the island and is a unique location on the rim of a volcanic crater, the caldera. This location was picked for a stunning uninterrupted view of the entire caldera. As we went closer to the place, we are awestruck to see the huge gathering. Never in my life have I seen such a huge cheerful curious celebration of the most common, otherwise not so cared celestial event. As expected, the photographers were rowed up with their camera fixed over tripods booking every vantage point. By luck, we managed to grab a good-enough place for ourselves. The sheer enthusiasm and curiosity of the huge pool of viewers knew no bound as the sun touched the horizon. Everyone stared at the horizon until the celestial ball did not disappear. There were sunset cruises on the sea with loads of tourists as well. All in all, it was a experience of a life time. Indeed an unforgettable evening! To tease your aesthetic sense, here I post one of the snaps captured through my lens.
Sunset from Santorini. Copyright@ArpitaPatra
As the sun disappeared behind the horizon, the gathering dispersed in no time leaving a few enthusiastic night photographers. Cool bridge soothed the islanders after the days scorching heat. We stayed back for another hour enjoying the moon rise from the horizon. Leaving behind the sunset spot, we finally headed for the bus stop. The last bus carried us to Thera and we took a brisk walk back to `Sweet home'. It was an eventful and a tiring day. We took no time to slip into the world of slumber and dream. The next day we got up quite late and packed our luggage as we had to check out at 12pm. When we paid our rent and wanted to return the key, our greek hostess was kind to let us keep the key until we leave for the port for our ferry to Crete scheduled at 6pm. No only this, she promised to drop us in the port and gifted a beautiful souvenir. Never in my life have I met any hotel owner presenting a customer a hearty gift. Nor do I think you have ever met someone like this. Unbelievably hearty gesture! It never felt like we stayed at a hotel, rather it was more of a visit-to-a-keen type experience. After the pleasant experience, we caught a bus to yet another beach and decided to relax after the two days of rigorous travel. We spend around three hours in the rather unknown and calm beach with hardly a few tourists. After returning from the beach, we headed towards the port to catch our Crete bound ferry. That marks the end of our jouney to Santorini.
Yes, this is Santorini; the island that offers an intrigue human habitation history with a connection to the well-known Bronze Age Minoan Civilization of Crete, mythical connection to the legendary island of Atlantis, unusual startling history of continuous volcanic eruptions starting from time unknown and their impacts on the ever changing landforms of the island and the human civilizations based on the islands in the cyclades. A complete package of rich history, colorful mythos, raving beauty, sensational sunset, mysterious volcanos! The next post will be a brief treat on the other greek islands and the most interesting stories associated with them. This will be followed by a post on Crete, my next destination in Greece. Until then, lets take a break and see you soon.