Santorini, the volcanic island

As promised in my last post about the conference I recently attended on Crete, here’s one about the short holiday I took en route back to the UK – a couple of days on the island of Santorini (aka Thera), the largest of several islands formed around and inside a caldera (crater) left by a series of volcanic eruptions. The first thing to say: even before getting off the ferry, the views of the steep cliffs forming the side of the caldera are stunning, and they only get better once you’re at the top:

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View from Skaros headland towards Fira (the main town of Santorini)

Not to mention the sunsets, which are what draw crowds of cruise-ship passengers to Santorini:

 

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Sunset from Fira

My top sunset-watching tip: walk out to the headland of Skaros, about a 40min walk along the clifftop to the north of Fira (plus extra time for admiring the view every so often!), where the first photo above was taken – if you get there just before sunset you can look back along the cliffs and see the rocks glowing a spectacular red/orange colour.

Boat trips are, for obvious reasons, a particularly popular tourist activity, with excursions going to various places around the caldera, but most of them calling at the islets in the centre of the caldera, Palia Kameni and Nea Kameni (Old/New Kameni), the most recently-formed of the volcanic islands (Palia Kameni during the first century CE, Nea Kameni between 1570-1950). Essentially, they’re still just piles of bare solidified lava, with a path you can follow up to the rim of the largest crater (currently dormant, though you can see wisps of sulphurous smoke coming out). It’s a tough call, but I think this has to win the prize of the best view I saw:

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View from the top of Nea Kameni back towards Santorini

NB that there are no facilities on the islet beyond the ticket desk (admission €2) and a few benches with umbrellas for shade – take water along with you! It’s about a 25-minute walk to the top over uneven surfaces (the path is just loose gravel), so not suitable for anyone with mobility difficulties, which unfortunately applies to much of Santorini in general – there are a lot of stairs, and not many alternatives, although there is a cable-car for geting down to/up from the old port (where boats leave from) to Fira. Just as well, since the alternative is about 600 steps down/up the cliff (please don’t take the donkey rides that are also offered up and down the steps – it might seem a fun idea but the donkeys are treated incredibly badly. Imagine spending the whole day carrying tourists up and down a cliff with no shade to rest in and no water to drink…).

Of course, there are lots of reasons to visit Santorini beyond sunsets and boat trips – for me, one of the main reasons for going in the first place was to visit the archaeological site of Akrotiri. This important Bronze Age trading settlement was destroyed by a massive  volcanic eruption sometime around 1600-1500 BCE (the exact date, like so much in Aegean prehistoric archaeology, is controversial) – I say ‘destroyed’, but although the eruption brought an end to the life of this town, the layers of mud and pumice that buried it also preserved it to a remarkable degree, in a similar way to Roman Pompeii. Excavations of a very small area of the site have revealed houses of two or three storeys, paved streets, a civic drainage system, beautiful wall-paintings, and huge quantities of other finds such as pottery.

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A ‘plaza’ in ancient Akrotiri

It’s even been possible to create plaster casts of wooden furniture from cavities left behind as the wood rotted away – again, similarly to Pompeii, although in this case no human remains have been discovered. It seems as though the site was abandoned due to earthquakes preceding the eruption, and although the inhabitants returned to start clearing the damage done by these earthquakes (rubble was piled up for use in rebuilding, some of the furniture was carefully stacked together, and most precious and easily portable items seem to have been removed), they left again when the eruption started. Whether they escaped by sea, or lie buried somewhere else on the island, we’ll probably never know.

Akrotiri is an incredible site to walk around, although a rather confusing one – labelling is fairly minimal (and all the maps on the labels are oriented north-south even when the viewer is facing a different direction), and there seems to be no actual guidebook to the site, but being able to walk along a Bronze Age street is a pretty unique experience, and the finds are simply unparalleled elsewhere in their level of preservation. A few finds (some pottery, and plaster casts of beds) are displayed on site; others are in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in Fira, also definitely worth a visit for its displays of pottery, metalwork, inscriptions, and frescoes (more pottery and stone sculpture from the prehistoric and classical periods are in the Archaeological Museum; some finds from Akrotiri are also in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens). All in all, I could easily have spent far longer than the three days I had in Santorini, and for a trip combining archaeology with sun, sea, and spectacular views, I can highly recommend it!

 

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Author: Anna P. Judson

Classics researcher at Cambridge

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