Superlatives easily come to mind when describing the Greek islands, but there can be no denying that Santorini lives up to all cast its way. Its geological features make it one of the most spectacular natural settings in the world, its tourist accommodations make it one of the most desirable vacation spots in the world, and its archaeological remains make it one of the most extraordinary historic sites in the world! It is not by chance that Santorini is perennially voted as one of the top 10 travelers’ destinations worldwide, attracting everyone from young honeymooners to older sophisticates.
Santorini Geographical Description
When approaching the island, the first thing that visitors see is what appears to be a half-moon of an island with impressive multicolored cliffs of its western inner curve rising almost a thousand feet high. This is the main island the Greeks call Thira, but is widely known as Santorini, a name that stems from an Italianate version of the island’s patron, St. Irene of Thessaloniki, who died here in 304 AD. Sitting along the edge of the high midpoint of the crescent is the main town of Fira, long the center of the tourist traffic. Perched on the northern tip of the crescent is Oia, which is now the second most popular destination for tourists, while other towns and beaches are scattered about the sloping land. A second and smaller island called Therasia is located just a bit west and across from the northern tip of the main island, while smaller islets sit in a lagoon sheltered by these two major islands.
This “lagoon” has a special name and history–it is a caldera! This is the name that describes a crater formed after a volcano has exploded and its cone has collapsed–in this case, a crater into which the sea rushed when the entire western edge of the volcanic island was also blown away. This is exactly what happened in the area sometime around 1450 BC, although some scholars now tend to move this event back to about 1625 BC. At the time of its eruption the volcano appears to have given warning signs so that most, if not all, of the people dwelling here got away, and then proceeded to bury their towns and settlements under layers of ash, pumice, and lava, which are evident today in the colorful layers that are highly visible on the exposed inner cliffs of the crescent. There have been other eruptions and explosions over the centuries since, one as recently as 1928, as well as a major earthquake in 1956. In fact, one of the inner islets, New or Great Kameni, remains slightly active, emitting gases and vapors that make for the dramatic sunsets that visitors now enjoy as they sit on their hotel balconies and sip their cool drinks. Surprisingly, the volcanic soil has proven to be good for growing grapes and tomatoes.
Many scientists regard the explosion on Santorini as the most powerful natural catastrophe ever to have originated on Earth (much more powerful than the explosion of Krakatoa off Java in 1889). Both its resultant tsunami, or tidal wave, and the massive fallout of ash appear to have headed mainly to the south, enabling some archaeologists to claim that these may have had an impact that led to the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete. Within the last century a new theory has emerged that claims that it was this explosion, the destruction of the settlements, and the collapse of such a landmass into the sea that formed the basis of Plato’s story of the end of Atlantis. Most students of Plato, however, regard his story as simply a fiction to make a moral point. A reasonable middle ground might accept that Plato was in part influenced by a thousand-year-old oral tradition concerning the disaster on Santorini.
Leisure on Santorini
That about does it for cultural courses on Santorini, but there are numerous churches, both Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, scattered throughout the island that will repay even a casual stopover. The island is so small–barely 10 miles from one end to the other–that one could easily take in its sights in a day, including the fine Byzantine church at Episkopi and the monastery outside Pyrgos on the highest point on the island.
There is much more to Santorini than the island so often pictured in the glossy travel magazines and TV commercials. That said, most visitors come to Santorini to enjoy its restaurants, shops, beaches, nightlife, and–let’s face it–to sit and enjoy the views. Several beaches are along the eastern coast, from the Red Beach near Akrotiri, up to Perissa and Kamari, then north to Monolithos, and farther north to Koloumbos and Baxedes (it should be said that these beaches are mostly composed of volcanic sand that can get very hot in July and August). There is no end of restaurants, with most of the classier ones concentrated in Fira Town. But increasingly in recent years, excellent restaurants can be found in other towns, particularly in Oia, the town at the northern tip of the island, while Fira still has the most shops, especially jewelry stores. Nightlife can be found wherever young people gather throughout the high season, just about all over the island. But the undeniable truth is that most visitors find that the true pleasure of Santorini can be found while sitting on the terrace of a cafe or restaurant, sipping a refreshing drink and taking in the amazing sunset that creates one of the most spectacular views in the world.