SANTORINI: ISLAND OF MYTHS AND VOLCANIC HISTORY
By Thomas D. Elias
SANTORINI, Greece – – If islands were beautiful women, goes a classic line about this hyper-volcanic island 210 miles southeast of Athens, Santorini would be a supermodel.
From its famously bright whitewashed houses and shops to the deep blue Greek Orthodox church cupolas dotting the island, there seems no end to the beauty and bucolic quality of Santorini.
This has made it a regular stop for myriad cruise ships that regularly ply the Mediterranean Sea and a must-see for almost anyone visiting Greece and its many islands.
We arrived here on one of the newest of the world's luxury liners, the Viking Sky, a spanking new 933-passenger ship run by the Viking cruise line best known for its riverboats.
This ship may be one of the classiest on the seven seas, filled with real luxury and little of the empty glitz seen in the brassy atrium entries of some other cruise liners. Walking onto the Sky about six weeks after its February launch, the senses were filled with sights and smells of the finest leather furniture, teak accessories and a staff unrelenting in its efforts to serve passengers.
Plus, every cabin has a veranda – there are no inside cabins on the Sky. Books are everywhere on this ship, which plays a different Ted talk daily on its closed-circuit televisions and employs many university professors to guide its shore excursion tours – at least one tour at every stop included in the cruise fare, which is as low as $2,649 per person for next year’s sailings of the 10-day Athens to Venice trip we took.
No ship, however, can detract or distract long from the high drama of Santorini, held up by many myths as the Atlantis of longstanding legend.
The current Santorini – the main island and four smaller ones circling the archipelago's volcanic caldera – is all that's left of a very large island destroyed in about 1625 B.C.E. by the most massive volcanic eruption ever witnessed by humans. The impact was felt as far away as Sweden, almost 2,000 miles north, and the plume of smoke, ash, lava and pumice it spewed was far greater than what was produced by the blasts of Krakatoa in the 19th Century or Mount St. Helens in the 20th.
Was there ever a great and advanced civilization here? The answer is maybe. For sure archaeological digs going down about 300 feet through old lava and ash have found very sophisticated artifacts. But no machines, so far. So if this civilization was advanced, it was by ancient – not modern – standards.
For sure, the volcanic blast destroyed the Minoan civilization that dominated Mediterranean shipping and commerce from the island of Crete, 140 miles south of Santorini, for more than 100 years. One of its legendary kings was the mythical Midas, he of the golden touch. The force of the volcano’s explosion was far greater than any earthquake experienced anywhere since.
Santorini, for example, endured a volcano-caused 7.9 earthquake in 1956. That’s as great a magnitude as any quake that ever struck California – about equal to the 1906 San Francisco jolt and another that hit in 1857 along the San Andreas Fault in the Ft. Tejon area near Interstate 5’s Grapevine stretch. The Santorini 7.9 knocked down many buildings, but it left the island itself unchanged. So it was a far cry from the ancient eruption.
The modern island is one of fabulous views and narrow roads given to sudden traffic jams and no visible traffic cops. That's why our veteran guide here, 25-year-island resident Charlotte Jordan, joked that you can still rent a donkey near Santorini's second city of Oia (pronounced ee-ah) and on some days beat a car or bus to the main town of Thira, about five miles away.
You can also rent a donkey, a la the famed Molokai mules, near the dock at the bottom of the 1,300-foot volcano-made cliff on the west side of the main island for the climb up to Thira. Most visitors prefer to go by cable car for a fare of six euros, or about $6.50.
It's in Oia that you'll find the prettiest, purest whitewash-and-blue-colored church on the island, St. Mary of Platsumi Cathedral.
The habit of painting church domes bright blue is said by locals to be a leftover from an era when Greeks had to be discreet about protesting discrimination by the Ottoman Turks who ruled the island for 420 years until Greeks – said to have been inspired by the American and French revolutions – finally won their independence in the early 19th century.
Blue has always been one of two colors on the Greek flag. Since any religious or nationalist protests were harshly squashed by the Turks, the church cupolas are reminders that despite their hardships, Greeks refused to forget who they were.
Greeks on Santorini for centuries also held secret classes passing on their culture in a monastery atop Mt. Elias (no relation to the author), the highest spot on the island at about 4800 feet.
The bottom line: this island is a must-see and must-experience. And a brand-new cruise ship smelling of new leather and fresh varnish is a pretty good way to get here.
Thomas D Elias writes a syndicated column on California public affairs appearing in 93 California newspapers.