Santorini (Thira)

Our second last stop on our Seabourn Cruise was the island of Santorini, one of the Cyclades Islands off the southern coast of Greece. For many centuries Santorini (Thira) has been an out of the way Greek Island with little to attract visitors that couldn’t be found elsewhere on the many Greek Island in the Cyclades. However since the start of the twentieth century, Santorini’s fame has spread far and wide and so today it attracts an estimated 2 million tourists annually who come to visit this Island.

Santorini’s claim to fame arises from the fact that it sits on the edge of a caldera of an ancient sea volcano. The map of the islands to the left shows the layout of what is left of the volcano after it gave the world the largest volcanic eruption in recorded human history. Evidence of the eruption is scattered far and wide throughout this region of the Mediterranean, particularly on the Island of Crete where it destroyed the Bronze age Minoan Culture that had developed a very impressive civilization on this island for more than a thousand years. The exact date of the eruption is still argued about, given that the archaeological evidence on Crete is at odds with the radiocarbon dating of the event. Thus the date range of this massive explosion is somewhere between 1645 and 1500 BC. Before the eruption, there was a bronze age culture living on Thira as far back as 3000 BC which was wiped out by the eruption. Settlers didn’t return to Thira for at least 600 years after the volcanic eruption.

Our arrival by ship at Thira was spectacular, not just the feeling of our ship being slowly enclosed by a volcanic Caldera, but by the sight of the white buildings that made up the main town of the island, Fira, gleaming on the cliffs of the island.

Our ship docked below the town of Fira and we were delivered to the shore where our first decision faced us…how were we going to ascend the cliff. We could have caught the cableway up to the Fira, rode one of the sad, decrepit donkeys that could be hired for the exercise or simply walk up the road to the top. We decided to stretch our legs and walk. We arrived in the middle of a very attractive town up the top of the layers of volcanic rock that made up the island. It was here we were introduced to one of the many dogs here, that seemed to have a pleasant life, dozing away their island days in the sun.

We spent a considerable part of our time ashore wandering the streets of Fira and admiring both the architecture of the blue and white houses or their view out over the southern Aegean Sea. The image below was taken high up in the streets of Fira looking out over to the other side of the Caldera to the island of Therasia. As can be seen on the right hand end of Therasia, this is the only other island in this circular archipelago that is inhabited. The other six islands that make up the group are uninhabited.

There are a number of Churches scattered around Fira. Not far from the top cliff where the Cable Car finishes is the St John the Baptist Cathedral. It was built in the Baroque style in 1823 but was damaged in an earthquake in 1956 and completely restored by 1970 (Right, below). The blue and white church on the left below is called the Three Bells of Fira and is further up the hill to the left of the Cable Car and has an amazing view out over the Caldera with a clear view of Nea Kameni, the island that has formed over the last 2000 years as the tip of the Volcano. Its traditional name is the Church of the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin and there have been a number of churches on this site over the centuries. This church was also damaged in the 1956 earthquake.

We spent quite a bit of time on our shore leave walking the streets of Fira, admiring the ever-changing blue and white houses as well as the ever-changing views of the Aegean Sea around the island.

One of the places that would have been my first place to visit on Thira if there had have been time available would have been the archaeological dig of the ‘Prehistoric’ Town of Akrotiri on the southern end of the Island where tourists go to lounge on the Red or White beaches. ‘Prehistoric’ is a curious adjective to describe a town that existed on Thera since approximately 2000 BC and disappeared off the map when the Volcano just out in it’s bay blew up and covered it with ash and debris to a depth of around 200 feet. I suppose it could be called ‘prehistoric’ as no writings about it existed until it was re-found by local workers in the 1860s. What archaeologists from 1967 and onwards have discovered is a town of amazing sophistication and wealth due to its position on the trade routes to Egypt. Three storey houses have been discovered here alive with art and frescoes that have been preserved under and within the ash.

Pompeii in southern Italy is perhaps the most famous hidden city that has been revealed in modern times with all its buildings, fabulous mosaics and the empty holes in the ground where bodies of victims once were preserved. Pompeii was destroyed by its neighbouring volcano in 79 CE, Akrotiri was buried by its volcano over 1400 years earlier. This blog is not the place for an analysis of Akrotiri but it’s a good opportunity to post some of my favourite images of this extraordinary place.

The top mosaic shows some celebratory event where the locals participated, in what looks like a regatta on the waters around Thira. The mosaic above left shows a fisherman after a successful day out fishing. The top right mosaic shows a spring time mural, and below right, some dancing ladies gathering saffron.

What we did have time to visit before we caught the cable car back down the cliff to the port was the Museum of Prehistoric Thera. It was built on the site of an old church that was destroyed by the 1956 earthquake. It held artifacts from the Akrotiri site and other sites around the island. The table on the left below started life as a carved wooden table in a house in Akrotiri where lava flowed around the original table, burned it away completely and then the ash filled the space to form a cast of the original. Pots weren’t so temporary as wooden objects so the museum had plenty from the Akrotiri site as well other places around the island. My favourite pots were the pig-head receptacle that must have oil or similar household products. Below right is a curious mural of blue monkeys; where the folk 4000 years ago on Thera saw monkeys is anybody’s guess; perhaps they were imported from Egypt or some returning sailor described his memories of them to the artist.

My favourite pots were the pig-head receptacles that must have held oil or similar household products. Below right is a curious mural of blue monkeys; where the folk 4000 years ago on Thera saw monkeys is anybody’s guess. Perhaps they were imported from Egypt or some returning sailor described his memories of them to the artist.

I like the inventiveness of the two bowl receptacle below on the right. The Fresco on the left of a female figure is an amazing piece given that it has survived underground for thousands of years.

We had a very pleasant day on Santorini (Thera) but we were pleased to get back to our berth on the boat and relax after a long day of walking around hilly Santorini.

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