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June 5th 2008
Published: June 9th 2008
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Naxos to Santorini

The fast cat to SantoriniThe fast cat to SantoriniThe fast cat to Santorini

It travels at about 55-56 km/hr
We have just spent three days at Santorini since our last visit to the island some 8 years ago. The changes are enormous. The back of the island that swept from the caldera rim at between 300and 450 meters down to the airport and the sea, which was traditionally held in small farming blocks and country side, is now an extending urban development. New houses are being constructed everywhere but thankfully all are required to conform to Santorini house designs which at least restricts high-rise and non-Greek glass development. The other noticeable change is white and blue are not the only colours that people paint their houses. Now there are yellows and reds and warm earth colours, which make an interesting change to the Greek character of Santorini.

Saying it’s Greek is a bit of a misnomer since the islands’ original inhabitants were Minoans who departed prior to the eruption, some 3500 years ago. This eruption and earthquakes decimated the coastal Minoan civilization in the Mediterranean, especially Crete, which was largely destroyed by the tsunami that rolled around the Mediterranean after the Santorini eruption. The Santorini crater is 11 km long and probably 6-7 km wide. After the eruption, the crater collapsed and the sea reclaimed the island making Santorini one of the most impressive islands, with sheer cliffs rising 100 meters to Fira and maybe 150 meters to Firostefani from the deep blue of the crater. I wonder how big Krakatoa was when it blew up (Krakatoa was reputed to drop average world temperatures by 2 degrees) so we wonder whether this was bigger and started an ice age? I thought it was 6,000 years ago that people walked to Tasmania?

After the great eruptions, the island was vacant for 1,000 years and the first to return were the Venetian who established them selves here. Then followed a wave of Greeks from the other islands under King Thira who named the island Thira. The original name in Minoan history was Strongyl which meant round but that was before the eruption- they would now call it “peanut”.

The Greeks remained under Venetian rules for years and much of the language of Santorini retain Italian origins - Vineyards for example are Italian…as we would expect.

The Santorini name originates from the name of the local Saint Irene from the C13th, and I have no idea of what she did…but being a female saint in those times, she must have been a remarkable woman.. St Joan had to thrash the English Army and Mother Therese hasn’t got there yet.

Below, in the deep blue of the crater, ocean liners are moored. Small boats ferried the swarms of passengers back and forth on the old wharf at the bottom of Fira and they either walked the 588 sloped steps from the old wharf to the Fira township, or got on one of the dozens of donkeys or mules and rode up the winding steps. The less adventurous caught the cable car that sweeps up the cliff face in a block of four cables car to balance the four coming down the cliffs.

We were booked in a hotel at Fira, some 150 meters from the cathedral, which overlooks the eastern side of the island. Stuart in Naxos made the ironic statement that the Greeks had developed the concepts of democracy some 4000 years ago but have yet to develop a paper-flushing loo.

The first day we just had to walk to the top to find a view of the sunset, and join the daily occupation of tourists and locals alike. The restaurants crowded the cliff side like a massive termite nest in which the outer crust had been removed. Almost every bar and restaurant has some view of the sea and the new flat volcano that is slowly growing in the middle of the crater. The last major earthquake of 7.8 on the Richter scale was in 1956. This demolished villages with fortunately low deaths as it occurred in early in the morning when, because of the heat in the middle of the day, most people were in the gardens and away from the houses. The last major volcanic eruptions were in 1932 and 38 and many shops have photos of the events on display. Today the volcano is dormant but you can swim in the hot seas in the bays on the volcanic island.

The first night’s dinner was at Dimello’s with a fantastic view of the hazy sea. Summer winds blew in clouds that swept up the cliffs and the haze was so dense you could hardly see the 6km across the crater rim to the island on the other side. The sun faded from vibrant yellows to orange into to deep burnt orange red looking like a power brownout as it slipped below the horizon.

The wind was up, it was cold, and we were glad we’d all brought jackets and the plastic curtains were dropped straight after sunset. Dimello served less than a memorable meal. I guess we were paying for the rights to sit at the top of the world and see the sun and the harbour rather than for the food.

The daily malaise had struck again - the streets had been crowded with camera toting tourists shooting the sunset and each other in a frenzy of bulb power. As the sun set, so sanity returned to the people and they went into pubs and restaurant and became normal again- the Fira fever had passed.

Fira’s street are the same; it is a delightfully bright bustling town designed to satisfy the tourist’s delights - to provide the opportunity to buy gold, jewelry, clothing, art, trinkets, table cloths, tours, foods and drinks in bars and restaurants, other requirements in mini markets, pharmacies, crowded together in shops that you couldn’t swing a cat in, in narrow stoned passageways that have that charm that is “Fira”: all looking out on one of the most beautiful views in the Aegean sea.

We spend an entire day just wandering the streets, coffee here, gyros there, on no particular mission other than to soak in the Santorini shops and chatter, and impartially see the Germans and Australians and Americans on their cruise ships for a 3 hour stay try to get a feeling for this special place. It takes longer than that to walk thought the museum or the exhibit on Akrotiri the archeological dig on the south of the island. A poor elderly German tourist was asking instruction on how to get to “here” which I interpreted as Oia (pronounced ear) so was instructing them to get a cab up the road as they couldn’t walk it. We eventually worked out she really did mean” here” which was the cable car entrance so she was quite happy to be put in the queue.

A section of the roof at archeological dig at Akrotiri collapsed several years ago and the entire roof is now unsafe so it is not possible to visit the site. Instead, they have taken copies of the wonderful wall painting using the Kodak pathé technique, which builds up a three-dimensional image capturing the colours and the cracks and they are on display in the Conference centre. The incredibly fine lines in the paintings portray a snapshot of life’s activities a little like a Rupert Scarry scene or a “Where’s Wally” picture in which there are dozens of subplots being played out - wars being waged, sailing, drownings, gardening, etc.

The Museum was relatively small but had some elegant busts - one of Aphrodite carved from the outside edge of the reddish marble, which they had incorporated into her hair. It was truly a gracious piece reminiscent in style of the Chinese jade carvers who incorporate the colours of the jade into the piece that are carved. Unfortunately, the marble is not transparent nor translucent so the artist could not see that the red marking continued inside the marble carried on through the fault lines and so was revealed in her face. There were dozens of amphoras of every shape and size dating from 4000 years ago.

We did a bus tour of the island, first to Panagia Episkopi an C11th Church built in traditional reddish stones on the edge of a village but not central in the middle of a village. Originally, it was covered in wall paintings and frescos on the internal walls, but the damp weather eroded the walls and the painting decayed, so they resolved the problem by whitewashing the entire walls.

An old priest started to clean up the whitewash and began to restore the paintings, which were remarkably delicate in colours and lines.

Three sacred silver icons in the church were stolen some time ago and, in spite of Interpol, the theft remains an unsolved crime after 20 years. We wondered how the thieves could put the icons on display, especially when they were stolen from a church.

From here we went to Messa Gonia village which is a ghost town abandoned after the 1958 earthquake. Compensation paid to the villagers was spent on creating a brand new town other than a few houses that were rebuilt. It just shows that in Greece, like Australia, it’s cheaper to build new than try to repair…especially with some of the cracks that we saw in the buildings.

We noted that the grape vines were not terraced or on trellaced but set up on the triangulation as bush vines. This was done to protect them against the wind and the grapes clung low to the ground butting new runners along the ground.

The guide explained the traditional house construction of Santorini. It requires a two-story house with a central wooden door separating two square wooden windows and a central window upstairs over the main door. There were no other windows and the only ventilation was by ventilator outlets in the roof. Each wall was shared with the neighbours to provide stabling support to the construction for earthquakes and protection against pirates.

The roofs were arched and, in the ruins, we noted that some roofs were filled with soil and presumably had gardens over the top. It would have kept them cool in summer. What appeared to be a chimney was a ventilator to let the alcoholic fumes from wine making out of the house. Some of the houses were in a partial state of repair but most were abandoned. We found kids toys inside one large building being restored -probably a classic Barbie and a Santorini donkey-or was it a mule.

All along the Santorini streets are gum trees that originate from a gift made by the Australian Government to Santorini in 1900. Now who organized that?

We discovered courtesy of Helens little “know-all” machine that a mule is born from a mare having a donkey father. The prodigy of a donkey with a stallion is known as a hinny.

Drove across the eastern slope of the island and up to Pyrogos Village and walked through to the church on top. On the way up was a delightful old Greek on his donkey selling local vino and charging people to take photos of himself. We were happy to oblige with the photos. The church was decorated with white flowers and Di said there was a wedding coming on. And sure enough, up came the bridal party walking the 100 steps up to the church.

The view from the top looks down over the escarpment on which the villages of Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli and Oia can be seen. At Imerovigli village, you look out at Skaros, a natural rock formation that looks as if it's a fort.

Santorini under Venetian rule was undefeated for over 600 years until I guess someone worked out how to fire a canon straight up in the air without rolling their boat over.

And then on to Oia. We wandered along the streets past the church where another wedding was taking place. Saturdays the 6th June must be an auspicious day to get married as there was a wedding in every church we attended.

Oia is full of very classy private hotels, what appear to be private residences with chapels and restaurants. The streets are paved in Paros and Naxos marble - this is Greece’s best quality marble, and the Art shops are for the rich and famous. I found a print but was told we have nowhere to put it.

Sunset was at 8.35 so we had a beer and waited. Oia has a sophisticated air in the finish of its building and its presentation of restaurants-maybe more Italian in character as this is were the great captains of the past had their residences. The sun is moving further north so the traditional view of the sunset from the old castle roof and wall was about 5 degrees out so we walked to the next point on which there were two unrigged windmills. There are Don Quito windmills yet to be rigged with their table cloth sails.

The mist and haze had just about dispersed so one could discern the horizon in the red of sunset through the silhouette of the windmills.

Rather regrettably, we had to rush for the bus instead of savouring the beginning of the evening, the lights coming on, the restaurants commencing their trade and the evening sky being lit by the crescent moon, and the stars.

Returned to Fira about 9.30

On the last day we just sat in Fira looking at the donkeys, the shops, the people, the church, the crater, the casual activity of tourists coming and going, the great liners five stories of cabins sending their passengers ashore to savour Santorini.

We tried the gyros on a plate in a restaurant but they cool too quickly and are not as authentic as when they are wrapped in bread.

Internetted and down to the ferry at 5.00 for a 6.00 pm take off. It was a super cat 4 and with the mess of reconstruction at the port and a late arrival of the ferry finally got away at 6.30.

Additional photos below
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10th June 2008

Vashti's thoughts
I am sitting in my lounge dreaming of Greece!! I think the children might like it there...all that sun, yummy food, donkeys! My Cypriot friend Desi says it is a great place form kids because the Greeks love children and are indulgent of them. I am feeling very inspired!!
18th June 2008

Loved the photos, especially the one taken of all the houses just on evening with the twinkly lights....magic!!

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