Originally published
in The Athens News

The volcano’s sapphire heart: the islands of Santorini




Korfos port, Thirasia

Wind cracks through the sails on the replica 19th-century schooner. The tourists stir and readjust their limp bodies on deck, irritated by the canvas’ shadows. They are stripped and slathered in sun lotion, greedy for the bronze rays, even while cruising the legendary bay of Thira.

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 child’s diorama, revealing the Aegean’s geological secrets.

The saltwater swirling through the crater – the caldera – sparkles sapphire, emerald, turquoise; the startling hues of a gem shop, a peacock’s 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.

The 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 of blue.

Such 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 Bronze Age."

The daytrippers aren’t scrabbling for vocabulary, however. They’re 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 volcano’s 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.

Nea 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.

The 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".

Barren, blasted Nea Kameni certainly deserves this animosity, but Santorini’s 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 acres.

More 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 limbs.

Iron 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 didn’t come to Europe to swim in a toilet bowl."

Yet most paddle on, drawn towards the red centre of the cove. And it’s 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.

Yet no daytrip is complete without a glut of fine food and sunlight dancing inside a golden carafe of retsina. The boat’s 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 fisherman’s 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!

The 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.

The 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.

Much of Thirasia is missing in action: not from the volcanic antics, but due to quarrying. The island’s 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 schooner’s 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.

The 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 town.

Here they’ll 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. They’ll 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 volcano’s sapphire heart.

Getting there
Economy ferry tickets cost 25 euros one-way from Piraeus to Thira (Santorini). The trip lasts 7.5 hours (www.ferries.gr).

Flights 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.

To 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).

Where to stay
Thirasia’s accommodation is limited. The only hotel –- the Cavo Mare – does boast a pool, bar and ocean views (0286-24523). Rent a room at Jimmy’s pension (0286-29121) or restaurant Cadouni (0286-29083).

On the main island, independent travellers prefer to stay in Oia, away from the vodka-shot disco crowd in Thira. For Aegean elegance, opt for a suite overlooking the caldera at Ammoudi Villas. Students prefer the flower-wreathed Casa Francesca on the less-spectacular side of town. Book through the multilingual experts at Ecorama (22210-60056).

Where to eat
Bypass the slapdash tavernas in Korfos, Thirasia’s port. Instead, venture up the steep switchbacks – some 400 steps – to the village of Manolas (or brave the burro ride for three euros). Turn left at the top of the stairs, dodge the aggressive waiters, then stroll along to their rival establishment, the humble Cadouni. These owners offer real smiles and warmth, alongside frosty Mythos, grilled baby octopus and superb biriam (vegetables baked in rich tomato sauce).

Visitors based in Oia shouldn’t miss Restaurant Skala’s 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 cliff’s curve (0286-71362).

The church Moni Kimissis Theotokou features a renowned wooden reredos, made in Russia in the 19th-century. Thirasia’s other attraction is an undersea cave, Tripiti, on the southern side.

Wander 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 beaches.

Examine the vibrant frescos of Akrotiri at the Archaeological Museum in Thira (8.30–15.00, 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).





"Peter Jackson
could have saved
considerable CGI
effort by filming the
Lord of the Rings’
Mordor scenes on
New Burnt Island."







Palea Kameni





"The sea shades
from blue to green
to rust red beneath
their churning limbs."



"The islands
lift up from
the sea and
submerge again,
like breaching

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