Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
Bookmark and Share

Easy as a Santorini Sunset...

"Certainly, sir," the shipping agent on the island of Paros assured me. "Our ferry will arrive at Santorini at sunset

The best possible time to experience one of the most dramatic sites in Greece. After all, Lawrence Durrell wrote: "sunset and sunrise here put poets out of work." Sailing into the vast caldera of an extinct volcano with 300-metre-high cliffs, we would see the last rays of sunlight reflected on the white houses spread along the rim of the crater like icing on a cake. Too bad our ferry arrived at midnight.

While travelling the Aegean's local ferries can be unpredictable, it's still the most satisfying way to experience the islands that dot Homer's "wine-dark sea." The ferries also let you spend as long as you like on each island -- and Santorini, the quintessential Greek island, is certainly a place to linger.

Unlike other Greek islands, Santorini is formed by the crescent-shaped tip of a volcano that blew its top in one of history's greatest cataclysms sometime during the Bronze Age. The huge bowl of the collapsed crater measures about 29 kilometres around the inner rim. Two uninhabited islands, Mikra Kaumene and Nea Kaumene, rise from the centre of the crater, the latter created by an eruption in the 18th century. Arriving at midnight does have its merits. For one thing, we didn't see the road zigzagging up the cliff from the ferry dock, which our taxi driver took as though it were a Grand Prix course.

Early the next morning, awakened by the braying of a donkey, I decided to explore. My wife was still sleeping so I left our guest-house quietly and headed uphill. To the east, terraced fields sloped gently towards the sea; uphill, to the west, lay the rim of the crater. The haunting singsong cry of a hawker selling heaven knows what added to the eerie anticipation I felt as I walked past trim whitewashed houses where people were already up and about. The sensation of being close to the edge of a vast space quickened -- rather like approaching the brink of the Grand Canyon -- and with a few more steps I was on the rim of the crater.

Beneath my feet the ground dropped away to the sea sparkling far below. To the left, the dazzling white town of Fira clung impossibly to the cliffs of the huge caldera that curved away from me in both directions. On the far side of the crater was the island of Therasis, which until 236 BC was joined to Santorini as part of the volcano's rim. In the centre of the caldera lay the tiny Kaumene Islands -- still actively volcanic. The disappointment in missing last night's sunset faded quickly.

For a different view of the cliffs and the town of Fira, we took a boat trip from the tiny harbour of Mesa Yialos across the crater to Therasia. We had ample time for lunch at one of the waterfront tavernas. Afterwards, we stopped for half an hour at the volcanic island of Nea Kaumene. With sulphurous smoke still rising from the ground, this isn't the place for bare feet. It's rather an unsettling experience to feel the warm rock while being unsure whether it's from the Aegean sun or a signal of the next eruption.

On the way back to Fira our boat stopped at Oia, a village on the northern tip of the island badly damaged by an earthquake in 1956. Originally inhabited by fishing families, most houses were created by digging into the soft volcanic rock of the cliffs and covering the opening with a door and one or two windows. As families grew, another opening was simply dug out next to the original dwelling. The remains of some of these troglodytic homes can still be seen. Later, houses were built with barrel-shaped roofs to withstand future tremors. The haphazard intermingling of building forms spilling down the cliffs, with the roof of one dwelling forming the patio of the one above, gives Oia a special charm.

For a few drachmas we caught one of the local buses back to Fira. The next day I wanted to see more of Oia and rented a motor scooter. It was worth it just for the breathtaking view between Fira and Oia: The rim of the crater dropped sharply away on one side of the road, while gently terraced vineyards stretched away to the sea on the other. Here and there, sometimes in the middle of a field, a blue, domed church glistened in the late afternoon sunlight and lengthening shadows threw the terraced fields into sharp relief.

Other excursions from Fira include a visit to Akrotiri, the black beach of Kamari, the village of Pirgos and one of the local wineries. Many visitors to Santorini come solely to see the ruins of Akrotiri, the long-buried Minoan city that is slowly emerging from the ashes of the volcanic eruption in 1500 BC. Excavation under the careful hands of Greek archaeologists only began in 1967, so much of the site is still buried.

But what has emerged is astonishing: two-storey buildings with doorways, window openings, fireplaces and stairways still intact. Thousands of pottery items have been found, many with beautiful decorations, and some complete jars lie half exposed from the pumice that has held them captive for centuries. Akrotiri has led some experts to conjecture that perhaps Minoan Santorini was the site of the fabled Atlantis referred to by Plato -- walking the ancient streets of Akrotiri, it's not hard to believe.

From Akrotiri, excursions often continue to Kamari, one of the best of several black beaches on the island. Take time for a swim and lunch at one of the open-air tavernas before continuing on to the 18th-century monastery of Profitas Ilias, situated on the island's highest point with a superb view. Here, visitors in shorts or bare shoulders are asked to don long white robes for their tour and notices ask that you don't photograph the monks.

Back in Fira, we had dinner at one of the fish tavernas along the steps leading down the cliffs. Afterwards we stopped for coffee at one of the café-bars with patios looking out over the caldera. Loudspeakers belted out the bouzoukis of Zorba and Never on Sunday, but one café had reclining chairs facing the sunset with strains of Mozart and Vivaldi playing. Far below us a ferry entered the caldera -- on schedule. We pictured the lucky people looking up -- as we almost did -- for their first view of this unforgettable island.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


Post a comment