What to See in Santorini

A massive volcanic eruption in the Aegean Sea nearly 3,500 years ago helped destroy an advanced society but left in its wake what has become one of Greece’s most beautiful and popular holiday spots.

The Island of Santorini

The island of Santorini, in the southern Aegean to the north of Crete, can thank the eruption, on the ancient and much larger island of Strongyle in about 1,500 BC, for its existence.

The eruption completely shattered Strongyle. Its center sank into the depths of the Aegean which rushed in to fill the resultant void, creating the present-day islands of Santorini, Therasia, and Aspronisi.

The ensuing tidal wave, say archaeologists, not only swamped the fleeing inhabitants (no trace of them reaching the safety of another island has ever been found) but also reached the northern shores of Crete, 110 kilometers and a seven-hour modern ferry trip to the south. It inundated several major towns and probably heralded the beginning of the end of the great Minoan civilization.

Some speculators have claimed that the “mythical” city of Atlantis, situated on Santorini, was lost in the upheaval but few modern historians accept this theory. If Atlantis did exist and was destroyed at the time, it was probably on Crete, they say.

The island continues to fall prey to the restlessness of the earth’s crust – the African and Aegean plates meet beneath it – and twice this century it has been racked by terrible earthquakes. Ruined homes left over from the 1927 tremor are still evident in the northern town of Oia, while the island’s population halved to its present level of 6,000 after another quake in 1956.

Despite the huge price extracted by history and the threat of more to come, the 73-square-kilometer island retains the peaceful, timeless quality found throughout the Greek Islands.

And, despite the encroachments of commercialism – modern hotels, tour buses, souvenir shops, and cruise ships – it is impossible to disagree with the guide books’ conclusion that Santorini casts a magic spell on all its visitors, wherever their interests lie.

The geologist, amateur or professional, will find in the towering walls of the caldera, which stretches virtually the full 25 kilometers of Santorini’s eastern shore, a unique stratigraphical museum; the archaeologist, archaeophile or art lover will be intrigued by the archaeological wealth, much of it frozen until recently under 40 meters of volcanic ash, spanning the entire 4,500-year cultural history of the Aegean. And all visitors will be delighted by the dramatic scenery, beautiful bays, black-sand beaches, and stunning Aegean sunsets.

Although an increasing number of European visitors are arriving in Santorini by air, particularly on direct charter flights, the only way to get a proper introduction is to arrive by sea. Santorini is connected by ferry to Piraeus, the port of Athens, via Ios, Paros, and Naxos, and to Crete.

Most travelers indulge in a spot of island-hopping which is a risky business in the off-season (unless you have plenty of time to spare awaiting the next ferry) but relatively simple, although crowded, in summer. Coming from the north, Paros and Naxos are four to five hours away, and Ios, the one-time “mellow” island for 1960s dropouts, half that.

Oia and Thira

In spring, when tourist numbers are still moderate, but ferry services restricted, you will probably arrive at night and miss seeing the towns of Oia and Thira clinging to the rim of the caldera high above. A later inexpensive boat trip to the steaming crater will rectify that.

To reach the main town, Thira, from the port, the budget-conscious visitor will be obliged to scramble on board the local bus for one of the world’s most heart-stopping bus rides up a 300-meter cliff face. But Greek bus drivers know their stuff and one soon learns to accept that and to sit back and enjoy the view.

Most visitors stay in Thira and the lucky ones find a hotel or pension overlooking the sea and crater, paying anywhere between $50 and a king’s ransom for a double room and a view that defies the description of all but a Lord Byron.

Many hours can be whiled away exploring the undulating pathways on the rim of the caldera that join Thira’s white-washed houses and churches and finding even grander views at every turn. As well as the usual tourist shopping, there is an interesting carpet-weaving school, and an excellent museum; soon a second one, with many of the exciting finds from Akrotiri, a classic Greek city preserved under 40 meters of ash, will open.

Oia, Santorini’s second town, hugs the northern extremity of the caldera, 12 kilometers from Thira, and reached by another adrenaline-inducing bus ride. Oia seems to have suffered worse than most from the earth’s belligerence and was badly damaged in the 1956 earthquake. Undaunted, the townspeople have rebuilt much of what was lost, although hundreds of “caves” (all that remain of homes once hewn from the soft rockface) pocket the caldera as a reminder of the tenuous hold Oia has on its site.

In contrast to the lively bustle of Thira, Oia is a quiet, somewhat battered but beautiful small town, commanding views even more intoxicating than those of its neighbor, but virtually devoid of the tourist trappings. The only evidence of commercial entrepreneurship is the sign offering “Caves To Let”.

Outside the two main towns, there are a multitude of other diversions: the amazing discoveries, still being unearthed, at the Akrotiri excavations on the southern end of the island; the crumbling ruins of Ancient Thira, set high on a windswept headland; the black sandy beaches, popular with swimmers and windsurfers, at Kamari and Perissa; and the stunning views, not recommended for acrophobics, on the mountain paths leading to the monastery of Elias which, sadly, now shares its unsurpassed view with an ugly military transmitter station.

If you are a little reluctant to share Santorini’s charms with several thousand fellow visitors, the best time to visit the island (and all the other Greek islands) is in the northern spring (particularly March and April) or autumn (from September). It may be too cold for a dip in the Aegean but the relative peace and quiet more than makeup for it.

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