The volcanos sapphire heart: the islands of Santorini
The five islands are better known as Santorini, the star of the Cyclades and countless Greek promotional posters, which peddle the whitewashed walls, azure domes and sheer volcanic crescent of cliffs, cutaway like a childs diorama, revealing the Aegeans geological secrets.
saltwater swirling through the crater the caldera sparkles
sapphire, emerald, turquoise; the startling hues of a gem shop, a peacocks
tail. Its clarity inspires vertigo, revealing depths up to 600m. On the
ocean floor, lie Minoan ruins, submerged 3,650 years ago by a mighty eruption.
Romantics, including Plato, claim the sophisticated civilisation was Atlantis.
blast the most powerful in human history detonated with
the strength of 150 hydrogen bombs. Ash scattered over the globe: Frightening
royal scribes in Egypt with nine days of darkness, drifting over China,
inhibiting the growth of pines in California. Three-quarters of Santorini
vanished, leaving only a rind, curving around a six-kilometre-wide bowl
scenery defies description, bankrupts the English language. The raw beauty
even stymied the prolific pen of Hellenophile Lawrence Durrell. "Prose
and poetry, however winged, will forever be forced to limp behind,"
he admitted in The Greek Islands. "Perhaps only in the fanciful
reaches of science fiction will you find anything quite like this extinct
volcano of white marble, which blew its head off at some moment in the
The daytrippers arent scrabbling for vocabulary, however. Theyre more concerned with the supply of coffee, cigarettes and cokes, those items indispensable to holidays in European hotspots. Everyone ignores the record rattling over the loudspeaker, clunky descriptions of the sights in Greek, English, French, Italian and German.
Reluctantly, they stir and shrug into bikini tops and t-shirts, as the ship coasts into the harbour of Nea Kameni, "New Burnt Island". Then, in flipflops and espadrilles and those tacky plastic "jellies" revived from the 80s, they clamber onto the volcanos snout.
They suffer on the mile-long stroll to the summit. The landscape is unforgiving: Shattered heaps of slag and cinders, spikes of black basalt, gullies belching foul steam, devoid of life, save scrims of algae and graffiti. Peter Jackson could have saved considerable CGI effort by filming the Lord of the Rings Mordor scenes here.
Kameni is the youngest volcanic land in Greece. An underwater vent
dubbed George I by locals spewed lava above the waves a few centuries
back. The last layers cooled just 54 years ago.
caldera islands have a certain unpredictability, as far as land masses
go. They lift up from the sea and submerge again, like breaching whales.
Such friskiness horrified 19th-century travel writer James Theodore Bent.
He bemoaned the "cluster of three hideous islands, steaming with
smoke and streaked with sulphur, which have appeared at various dates
out of the bowels of this circle".
blasted Nea Kameni certainly deserves this animosity, but Santorinis
other isles now are more calendar-fodder than apocalyptic visions. Palea
Kameni, the "Old Burnt Island", built up a thin layer of soil
over the last 2,000 years. Goats, rabbits and birds flit over its 148
importantly, for tourists greedy for sun, sea and novelty, a hot spring
pours into the ocean there. Palea Kameni lacks a harbour, so the faux
schooner moors about 50 metres off the rocky coastline. Daytrippers pour
overboard with lemming abandon: Only a few mainly women with high
maintenance hair and make-up opt for a cautious descent by ladder.
Most cannonball into the waves and stroke steadily towards the cove, exclaiming
as the sea shades from blue to green to rust red beneath their churning
stains the water the colour of tomato soup. Thick flakes of debris obscure
the ocean floor. Visitors shriek as their feet, even their hands, disappear
into the murk. "This is the most disgusting thing ever," an
American teen announces, splashing back towards the boat. "I didnt
come to Europe to swim in a toilet bowl."
most paddle on, drawn towards the red centre of the cove. And its
worth the mineral stink, the shins barked on hidden rocks, the pink tint
ruining pale bathing costumes. Black cliffs encircle the rusty bay, a
white chapel gleams on a spit, an azure summer sky presides above. Palea
Kameni is a scene of extraordinary, otherworldly beauty.
Enterprising Italians overturn rocks on the shore, scooping up handfuls of orange mud to plaster on their faces. Fierce little coffees, topless sunbathing and free beauty treatments: now all the elements are in place for a truly bellissima excursion in their eyes.
no daytrip is complete without a glut of fine food and sunlight dancing
inside a golden carafe of retsina. The boats final stop the
grander, inhabited island of Thirasia provides all this, plus a
memorable dose of mayhem.
The donkeys look innocuous enough: tired, run-of-the-mill Mediterranean burros with those mournful liquid eyes ready to plod up the switch-backed path connecting Korfos port with Manolas, the cliff top village.
Around 20 exuberant tourists pile into the saddles, whooping as hot leather and metal singe bare flesh. The guide, a creased elderly fellow in a fishermans hat, watches stoically as they list and lurch around the paddock. Then he moves behind the last beast in the paddock, raises his whip and begins beating its rump, shouting "Ela, Ela". Come!
burros stampede: a mass of horseflesh seething up the narrow track. Pedestrians
flatten against the marble cliff, bolt onto boulders, cringe as the animals
thunder past. The greenhorn riders are caught up in the rodeo mood. "Giddyup,"
they cry, smacking their mounts flanks. Then "help! My god, help!"
as the flank-smacking spurs the donkeys onward and upward, jostling along
the steep slope.
guide shakes his head, cracks a snaggle-toothed grin as the chaos increases.
"Giddyup, help," the daytrippers wail in the same breath, caught
between excitement and mortal peril. Finally the procession clatters to
a halt and they wobble off among the white-washed houses, most moaning
for a stiff drink.
of Thirasia is missing in action: not from the volcanic antics, but due
to quarrying. The islands pumice now lines the Suez Canal. Only
a handful live here now, perhaps 250 villagers. A lone hotel, several
eateries and a ramshackle grocery store perch on the rim. The streets
are dusty, the traditional blue-trimmed buildings pocked by time, like
the main island before its vogue.
The schooners whistle draws the tourists back, as the honeyed afternoon sun pools over its deck. They are subdued on the ride back to Thira, mellowed by sensation and sea air. Soon the boat bellies into Ammoudi harbour, a modest horseshoe at the base of the brick-coloured cliffs, thick with the smoke of grilling octopus.
daytrippers straggle up the 214 broad steps, overshadowed by a 13th-century
Venetian fortress. Then they melt away into the marble labyrinth of Oia,
the northern town famous for its dramatic sunsets, refurbished cave houses
and mansions, and a genteel atmosphere, more refined than tawdry Thira
theyll find hand-thrown pottery and replicas of ancient art, packets
of overpriced fava, the local delicacy, to take home. Linen shifts and
cotton shirts abound, for those foolish enough to venture to Santorini
without a chic summer wardrobe. Theyll bask in pools overlooking
the caldera, sip ouzo on elegant terraces, wander the crooked alleys,
jostling other Beautiful People, as designer sandals skid on polished
stone. And it will be magical but never quite as moving as that
whirlwind cruise into the volcanos sapphire heart.
are 114 euros round-trip, but take just 40 minutes. Olympic (www.olympic-airways.com)
and Aegean (www.aegeanair.com)
Airways service the island, plus charter flights in summer, when shuttles
also link to Mykonos, Rhodes, Crete and Thessaloniki.
visit the islets, hire a taxi boat in the northern ports of Ammoudi or
Athinios. Tours also depart from these coves, just underneath the stunning
town of Oia. Options range from a cheap and cheerful half-day jaunt (15
euros) to a sunset sail on a replica 19th-century schooner (40 euros)
and private moonlit excursions, fully catered with champagne, salmon and
strawberries (250-500 euros, depending on the menu).
Visitors based in Oia shouldnt miss Restaurant Skalas gracious terrace tucked below the promenade. Savour foungato (courgette fritters) and pine-kernel pastries, while gazing over the caldera and the jumble of pastel domed houses and turquoise pools honeycombing the cliffs curve (0286-71362).
the ruined pathways of "ancient Atlantis" at Akrotiri Archaeological
Site on the main island (8.30 14.30; closed Mondays; 0286-81366).
The acropolis lies atop Mesa Vouno, near the excellent Kamari and Perissa
the vibrant frescos of Akrotiri at the Archaeological Museum in Thira
(8.3015.00, closed Mondays; 0286-22217).
Winery tours are a popular option. Visit the sophisticated Boutari winery (0286-81011) or the evocative museum of Kostas Antoniou outside Megalohori (0286-23557).
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