My Travel Map

My Travel Map

14 October 2013

Santorini, Greece

When people think of the Greek islands, many often visualize the sheer cliffs, deep blue sea, whitewashed buildings, and blue domed churches of Santorini.  The archipelago is an idillic place and easily one of the most romantic places in the world.  I came to Santorini expecting a beautiful place, great culture, and a relaxed pace.  When we first arrived, I was struck by befuddling awe at the sheer, extreme beauty of the small group of islands.  It was inspiring, both in the nature of the human settlement there and in the nature of the archipelago itself, with its catastrophic history and formation.

Santorini isn't just one island... it is a small archipelago with a very interesting history.  The main island, Thira, is a near perfect crescent moon shape.  The picture above is looking north from Imerovigli.  The white on the top of the cliff on the left hand side is the town of Ia, and the islands of Ios and Sikinos are visible in the distance along the horizon.

Turning a little more than 90 degrees to look more southwest gives you this view.  The land in the distance at the upper right is another island, part of the Santorini archipelago.  This island along with the main island make a nice oval shape with only two gaps, the one visible in the center here, and the other visible in the previous picture.   The distant land in the top left is part of the main island, thanks to its crescent shape.  The dark islands in the middle are the latest addition to the archipelago; they are only a couple hundred years old.  You see, Santorini is really the caldera of a supermassive submerged volcano!  The reason the islands in the middle are so dark is because they are relatively fresh rock, bubbled up out of the sea by the volcano as the caldera dome reforms.  The caldera rim is evident in the near complete ring of land formed by the main island and chain across the scene here.  When I stood on top of those steep cliffs and realized exactly what it was I was standing on, I was hit by humbling and terrifying thoughts about just how massive and powerful our planet can be.  Also visible in the front right foreground here is the distinct, rocky outcrop that gave Imerovigli its name.  This rock was used as a lookout tower in ancient times, which is what Imerovigli translates to in ancient Greek: lookout tower.

Turning again to look south and viewing the rest of the main island.  I love that the human settlements on Santorini have built up along the edges of the steep cliffs overlooking the sea.  Caldera views are the premium, but looking over the other side, which is a much more gentle slope to the sea below, is also beautiful.  The architecture just seem so organic too, with the maze-like network of staircases and walkways like arteries and veins and the buildings themselves just seem to grow one on top of the other like massive clusters of white crystals.

As for hotels and accommodation, I've never seen a place with such spectacular places to stay.  They're only available for a price though, and it is a bit of a hefty one.  I must say though, it is worth it to splurge for a caldera view.  We ended up staying in Imerovigli, a couple kilometers away from the main town, Fira.  The prices were much more reasonable, but the best part was the sunset.  Fira is blocked by the prominence that served as the namesake lookout tower of Imerovigli.  We, however, were on the other side of that, meaning we had a beautiful view of the setting sun (more on that to come).  Most of the hotels are small, privately owned affairs, keeping them nice and intimate.  It really is the most romantic place I've even been, and I'm thrilled that my wife was there with me!

I mean, can you beat that?  It would be difficult to try.  The weather was just about perfect too.  The Greek Islands are pretty dry, so there is very little rain during the summer.   The air and the sea are warm too.  The only thing to be mindful of are the winds.  The Aegean Sea is know for its strong winds, which form on the mainland to the north and sweep southward relatively unhindered amongst the islands.  This made the ferry rides around the islands particularly amusing.  Fortunately, I don't get seasick, but I found out just how many people do (a lot apparently).  Our ride from Piraeus (Athens port) to Santorini wasn't bad, but from Santorini to Milos... that was a different story.  Still, sea sickness aside, once on Santorini, all cares are blown away by those (mostly) gentle winds, leaving one free to bask in the beauty surrounding them.

This is a picture of the Old Path around the island and the view from it in Imerovigli.  From Imerovigli, it was about a 30 min walk to Fira...though I never did it in less than 45 mins thanks to frequent stops for picture taking and enjoying the views!  It is a fun time just navigating the path too, as there are several places where it is not clearly marked which is the way to go, despite a major split in the main way.  Between Fira and Imerovigli, the path is almost entirely lined with developed properties, but beyond those towns in either direction it continues as more of a hiking trail, linking up to other villages around the rim of the caldera.

So, our first evening in Santorini, we were treated to one of the lovelier sunsets we've ever seen.  Santorini is rightfully famous for its sunsets.  Even if the sky is perfectly clear with no clouds to set ablaze, the geography does more than enough to make it a near-priceless daily event.

Everyone seemingly gets out to enjoy the sunsets too.  You'll see people all around you setting up along the walls, at their pools, or on their terraces, most with some wine and snacks, to enjoy natures great, daily show.  Restaurants with caldera views advertise sunset dinners, and reservations should be made to enjoy a good spot at most of those.  Ships even set out from the various ports around the island to give people a view of the setting sun from sea level within the caldera, and they all blare their horns when the sun finally passes below the horizon.  Sunsets are a celebrated event on Santorini, which just adds to the beautiful and relaxing simplicity of the place.

Like I said, we were treated to a nice show our very first night...

So day one came to a close.  It was pretty neat seeing the villages along the caldera lighting up as the remaining natural light faded from the sky.  That night, we walked out to Fira for dinner and some drinks in the hustle and bustle of the island's main town.  Another nice thing about staying in Imerovigli is that we were at a nice, quiet distance from the nightlife of Fira, which gets quite raging pretty much every night of the week.  We could enjoy it, thanks to relatively easy access either on foot or by cab, while still enjoying a peaceful and quiet sleep.  There is also the option to stay further out in Ia, pictured here, which sits at the northernmost horn of the main island.  This is an even quieter town after the last bus heads back to Fira, though it is slammed by tourists during the day and evenings for several very good reasons (more on this below).

Santorini is famous for its caldera, and not so much for its beaches.  However, it does have some nice options, a couple of which are particularly special.  This one is Kokkini Ammos, the Red Beach.  Since Santorini is of volcanic origin, it offers several black sand beaches and this gem, carved out of red lava rock.  This beach also lies very near the ancient Minoan ruins on Thira, known as the "Greek Pompeii."  This city was destroyed in one of the volcano's destructive eruptions, locking away an entire city beneath a thick layer of dust and debris.

Red beach lights up in the afternoon sun.  The red even shows from reflections in the water, which on its own is a beautiful gem-like blue/green.  The beach has some infrastructure, with vendors renting lounge chairs and umbrellas.  You find a lot of these umbrella vendors around Greek beaches since there are often very few options for shade.

Looking along the southern coast.  The high point in the background is the highest on the main island, which is funny since it doesn't sit along the caldera.  Every Greek I talked to had something slightly negative to say about how developed Santorini was... the entire island is pretty much either town, village, or farmland.  This, of course, is a result of its fame and the throngs of tourists (and their money) that visit the island, which supports such a large local economy and population.

Back up on the caldera rim on the south side of the island, you can again see the high point in the background.   You can also see all of the development along the caldera rim.  Grapes and various Mediterranean crops are grown on the island.  Santorini is particularly famous for its tomatoes.  We became quite addicted to the sun dried tomatoes in spiced olive oil while we were there... incredibly delicious with some fresh bread.  The bread wasn't anything special by European standards, but it still tasted fantastic dipped in the delicious, fresh olive oil.  Since they grow grapes, they also produce a local wine, which was a drier, peppery red with notes of spice.  Of course the cheese was delicious too... particularly the fresh feta.  All in all, it was difficult to beat a picnic of wine, cheese, bread, and those sun dried tomatoes while watching sunset from a select spot along the caldera rim.

Thira is just remarkably photogenic.  Since we were there in summer, the sunsets were nice and long and late in the day.  We did our best to always be out with our cameras ready around sunset.  The blue domed churches, as seen here, are iconically Greek.  We were told that it is no coincidence that the colors are the same as on the Greek flag.  Supposedly, during the Nazi occupation of Greece in World War II, Greek flags were banned; so, it became quite popular to paint buildings with the national colors, to show the Greece had not given up its defiance or independent spirit.  I don't know if this is true or if these buildings have been painted these colors since before WWII, but either way, it is plain evidence of how proud Greeks are of their country.

There are a lot of churches around Santorini, as you might be able to tell from this post.  Since most churches are built to be beautiful or at least architecturally appealing buildings, they do add a nice touch to a photograph, whether in the background or foreground.  And whether blue domed or not, they definitely add significantly to the character of Santorini.

One nice option for an evening out is to enjoy a sunset dinner in Ia, the relatively large town on the northern end of Thira.  Ia is supposedly the most photographed place in Santorini, which makes sense considering its dense cluster of brightly colored and stark white buildings, including plenty of churches and windmills, all clinging seemingly impossibly to the rugged cliffs.  Ia has several restaurants that offer sunset views for dinner.  We decided on a wine tavern, which turned out to be just perfect.

Another popular option for sunset watching in Ia is to go to the old fort, the ruins of which sit at the top of a prominent hill very near the tip of the crescent.  I'd recommend getting there early though, as it gets crowded and spots go fast.

Sunset from the wine bar.  The food wasn't the best we had, but still quite nice.  The setting was damned near perfect, with uninterrupted views of the setting sun behind the nearest islands.  An added benefit was that the wine was not expensive and definitely plentiful, lending that nice cloak of blissful warmth to a good evening. 

Fira, seen here perched atop the cliffs, is the largest town on Thira and the main spot for accommodation, food, services, and nightlife.  

The walk from Imerovigli to Fira is a great one along the old path.  The views along the way are some of the best on the island and the architecture you pass along the way is just brilliant.  You can peruse the other hotels and guest houses, with their variety of features like infinity pools and hot tubs with epic views.  There is also this great old church too.

This church was very photogenic... most of the buildings around the island are painted white.  Since many of them are built right into the cliffs, they also tend to have the cave-like characteristic of being several degrees cooler than outside during the day and warmer than outside over night.

On most days, Fira is swarmed by cruise tourists.   Many days, several cruise ships arrive in the morning to unload their throngs of day-trippers on the quiet little island.  The vast majority of these end up lolling about in Fira, so I can definitely recommend avoiding the town when you see more than one of the behemoth ships anchored in the caldera.   Fortunately, though, most of the cruise ships depart before sunset; so, evenings and nights bring much more reasonable amounts of people, all of whom are actually committed to spending a respectable amount of time on the island.  The ships seen above are not cruise ships... they are private yachts.  Yes, you get plenty of those tourists there too.

When not packed shoulder to shoulder with cruise folks, Fira is a pretty fun and very nice little town.  It is great to walk around the center and get lost in the small maze of lanes and passages west of the main square.  There are plenty of shops, cafes, restaurants, and other services in Fira, but if you're shopping for souvenirs, I'd recommend Ia more, since there are plenty of shops there too and the prices are much more reasonable.  Fira also offers a healthy bar scene and booming nightlife.

More fun church domes... these ones were just setup on top of a particularly bland roof!  I love the difference in these two as well... the one on the left being so simple and traditional and in direct contrast to the ornate one on the right.

It's practically impossible to visit Fira without at least hearing about the gondola, donkeys, and old port. Fira is the cultural and social center of the island because of the old port, which lies far below at the base of the cliffs.  The reason why it is located there is because it is one of the few places on the caldera side where they could build a decent sized path down the cliffs to sea level.  This path now serves as a foot path and donkey trail, allowing people several options between the town above and the ships below.  A more recent addition is the gondola, which ferries tourists up and down the cliffs in only a few minutes.

There is no doubt, Fira is a lovely town.  As I mentioned before, the way these buildings have progressively crept along the edges of the cliffs is just so organic... it really is beautiful and amazingly comforting for some reason.

Sunset options from Fira aren't too bad either!  As in Ia, people line up any place with a view to stop and appreciate the passing of another day.

A new day, on to the Old Port and volcano.  Ah, and here is one of those cruise ships I was mentioning... there were actually three in port that day.  This picture offers a nice view down the donkey trail to the old port below.  Be wary on the path... there is donkey feces galore and the beasts of burden themselves have little concern for people on foot.  They will bump you if you don't mind them, and you definitely don't want to take a spill over the ledge.  The gondola lines are also visible in this pic too.

From the old port, seen here in the distance with Fira above and the donkey trail zig-zagging up the cliffs connecting the two, it is quite straightforward to catch a boat tour out to the volcanic island of Nea Kameni, in the middle of the caldera.  From this vantage point, you see much clearer evidence of the massive volcano all around you.  Nea Kameni itself is all volcanic rock, dark and often porous, and there are several steaming vents too.  From the summit point, the circular shape of the greater caldera is also unavoidably noticeable as you look around all 360 degrees.  Lastly, there are the layers in the cliffs, which are deposits of ash and debris from previous eruptions!  The top-most layer, very near the top of the cliffs, is from the eruption that wiped out the Mycenaeans.  That event is thought to be the origin of the legend of Atlantis... more on this to come in this and later posts.

The relatively young age of Nea Kameni is given away by the remarkably little amount of vegetation on it.  It is virtually barren.  I kid you not, this island has supposedly only existed since the 1707-1711 eruption!  The latest chunk of land spilled out during the eruption in 1950.  This is some fresh earth...

When you arrive by boat for a tour of the island, you will likely pull into this little cove.  The color of the water changes abruptly here from the deep blue of the caldera, to this emerald green, and then rust red/orange right at the shore.  It is quite impressive.  There are trails around the island, so one can go off and explore.  The main trail takes hikers up to the cone and crater that form the apex of the island.  At the top (and probably elsewhere around the island) there are steaming thermal vents, reminding you that you're walking around on a dormant and deadly behemoth.

On one of the little islands adjacent to Nea Kameni is a thermal springs.  The water here is nice and warm, around 25 deg C (80 deg F) or so, and the temperature gradient as you swim into the cove is just awesome.  This island is also home to a shepherd, who supposedly lives in this place.  Local lore has it that this guy's lambs are the most delicious in Santorini since the water they drink is very briny... supposedly the fresh water source on this little rock isn't really that fresh.  Anyway, claim has it that because of the water, the lamb comes pre-seasoned (I'm guessing that's just how the joke goes to amuse tourists).

And of course, there is also a church on the essentially deserted little volcanic island.  I can't complain about that though... it is tremendously photogenic perched on its little outcrop with Nea Kameni and Fira on the cliffs in the background.

On the boat ride back from Nea Kameni and the thermal springs, we stopped by Ia for sunset.  The town and its own little port just light up in the low level light.  When the sun when down below the Aegean (sorry, no green flash), the captain sounded the horn, as did those of the other boats around us, celebrating the sunset and another perfect day.

My wife and I also spent some time in Ia, the picturesque little town at the tip of Thira.

Ia is definitely the most photographed place on the island... most of the picture-perfect settings that are found on postcards of Santorini are found in Ia.  There are plenty of other gems too beside the most photographed churches and windmills though.  For example, the way these crimson flowers contrasted so nicely with all the blues and whites and browns so typical of the scenery around the island was just too much for me to pass by without snapping a shot.

Ia is most famous for its churches, despite the fact that the vast, vast majority of people that see the pictures just think "Oh, that's Greece" or (fewer) "Santorini".

These three domes are pretty well recognized...

This one is definitely famous... and it isn't at all tough to get a decent shot of it... just time the lighting right.

There is actually another little church (or shrine) down in a sea cave in the little island seen here below Ia.  You can see part of the infrastructure for it on the lower left side of the island.  Seriously, there are churches everywhere around Santorini.

Did I mention how much I loved the organic architecture?  We enjoyed one of our last sunsets from the old fort ruins overlooking Ia.  This was our view of the town... I just love how the structures have seemingly grown one on top of the other and how the walkways and staircases twist around them and hug contours of the terrain.  The lighting wasn't too bad either.  

Its a very pleasant town... it is packed at sunset and the last buses back to Fira are very, very crowded, but after most of the rest leave or earlier in the day, Ia is exceedingly pleasant.  I think I may look into accommodation there if I ever return to the lovely island.

I told you the churches and windmills tend to steal the show at Ia... for good reasons I guess.  Well, there you have it, my whirlwind tour of Santorini.  It was hands down one of the most spectacular and beautiful places I've ever seen and romantic beyond description, even with the massive amounts of tourists.  The island has a special charm, and I don't think it is anywhere near possible to find that during the 8-10 hours allotted from a cruise ship... Santorini is a place that should be savored over days at a slow, calm, and relaxed pace.

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