Driving around the caldera

Driving around the caldera
Santorini, Greece

Santorini, Greece

The day started with another wonderful hotel breakfast and a discussion on how to spend the day. After weighing up the options we decided to hire a van and driver for half a day for a private tour around the island. It ended up being a fantastic idea. Our hotel host gave us a detailed list of must-see places, including where to have lunch and even what to order, so when our driver Panos arrived, we were all set.

He took one look at the list, declared there was no way we could get it done in four hours, so we left it in his capable hands to take us to what he thought were the best places on the list. Although only having lived in Santorini for four years, he had a very detailed knowledge of the area and its history. I hope you’re sitting comfortably, as today we have quite a lot to learn about this wonderful island.

Santorini is a caldera – basically the outside part of a volcano that is left when the inside part collapses. There are a few islands that make up this volcano. Santorini (of course), then Aspronisi and Therasia make up the other parts of the caldera. In the centre are the islands Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni (old burnt island and new burnt island). These islands have been forming and changing shape since around 47 AD. The last eruption, a small one, was on Nea Kameni in 1950. Some of these early massive volcanic eruptions also caused enormous tsunamis, and it believe this is why the Minoan civilisations collapsed around this time. Our driver also suggested that these tsunamis were the real story before the ‘parting of the red sea’ story in the bible. Sounds feasible to me.

We drove up to the northern town of Oia. (Pronounced ‘ee-a’). On the way there the volcanic nature of the island is readily apparent – just climbing a few feet would see surrounding rock would change from black volcanic stone, to white pumice, and then to a red rock full of iron. With half the island made of pumice, there mustn’t be a soul (or sole) on the island with rough-skinned feet…

Panos talked about the buildings – how they are all white with blue doors or windows, and the churches all have blue domes. He said there were three possible reasons for this. The first – it is representative of the ocean. Second – blue and white are of course the colours of the Greek flag. Third was the one that he says he knows to to definitely be the real reason why everything is painted white – because white paint is the cheapest! He also noted that all houses get repainted every single year. I guess this means you can always trust a greek painter to do a good job.

But back to Oia. On the approach to Oia is Santorini’s narrowest point – only 1.2kms across. From the car we could see the sea from both sides. Until 1956, Oia was the capital city of Santorini. But when the earthquake struck in 1956, it hit Oia the hardest – damaging or destroying 80% of all the buildings in the area. Understandably, most residents left – in 1977, the population was down to about 300, but during the eighties many buildings were restored and it is least some of the way back to its former glory. Oia lived its past as the rich end of town – you could tell, as many of the walking streets were paved with marble. It is, of course, amazingly picturesque, perhaps even more beautiful than Thira, but based on the same style, a city clinging to a cliff face, marked out in white and blue. We walked a few of the streets when I suddenly heard someone yelling out to all the tourists “Sorry! Please move to the side! Sorry!”- we very soon saw why. Just as there has probably been for a good many hundreds of years if not more, there was a man guiding a fully laden donkey (carrying about 8 big gas cylinders I think) through these narrow streets which probably were not more than 6 feet wide. I guess it’s an everyday occurrence in Oia, but it was a first for me, seeing a donkey still being used as a proper working animal. But with streets so steep, narrow and twisty – it makes perfect sense, and a donkey is still the best tool for the job. Alas it all happened too quick for me to get a picture, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

On the way back from Oia, Panos explained a little about the churches – there are a few hundred of them all over the island, and almost all of them are privately owned. The privately owned churches are each dedicated to a particular saint, and will only open on the ‘names day’ of that saint – where there a parties and celebrations to honour that saint on their names-day. He also spoke about the architecture – noting that almost all buildings (except the churches with their domed roofs) have an arched roof – this is due to arched roofs being less likely to fall in when there’s an earthquake. It also gives Santorini its pretty unique look – certainly a lot different to suburban Sydney. We also saw a great deal of unfinished buildings in Santorini, a bit similar to our drive from the airport to the hotel in Athens. It’s not just all due to the Global Financial Crisis, but rather the way the building regulation system works. In order to get your licence to build, you have to complete the frame, the bare bones of the building. Once you do that you have the licence to build and then you can take as many years as you like to save up for the cost of actually completing the building, so they can stay in their skeletal state for 5 or more years before being completed.

Speaking of driving – at first it seems to be just pure chaos on the roads, but there’s definitely a method to the madness. In addition, almost all drivers have an amazing level of skill in judging just how narrow a space their vehicle can fit through – though the scrapes and dings on many of the cars suggest not everyone has the same level of skill. Still, it really was impressive watching Panos thread this big Mercedes 8-seater van through some narrow roads with cars parked either side – I don’t know how he does it. It also gives me a great deal of respect for the full-size tour buses that somehow manage to navigate the narrow streets. In Sydney it would just be a massive fight with everyone expecting to get right-of-way and just blasting horns. But here it’s much more polite – when a bus is coming all the other cars dutifully get as close as they can to the side of the road to let it pass. If someone suddenly reverses out, generally the people will wait patiently for them to get on their way. Then there are the bikes and scooters that just go wherever, whenever, treating lane markings and stop signs as a kind of pleasant decoration, rather than any kind of order that should be obeyed. The island is very low on crime and has only one police station, so I imagine the road rules aren’t strictly enforced. It’s amazing there’s not carnage on the roads considering even the roads that go up the side of the mountain have very small guard rails or walls, if any.

Our next stop was a monastery right up on the highest hills at the north of the island. Six monks still live here, and enjoy spectacular 360 degree views. We passed many vineyards on the way to out next destination. Wine is Santorini’s main export, and all the grape varieties how here are unique to Santorini as they thrive in the volcanic soil. The vines don’t stand up on trellises like were used to seeing. Instead, the vines are trained and weaved into their own ‘basket’, which then allows the leaves to point inward and shelter the grapes – and also protects them from the strong winds that hit the island particularly during the winter. It’s a very smart idea, one that I think has been use for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Perivolos was our next stop – home to one of Santorini’s few sandy beaches. Unlike what we’re used to in Sydney, the sand was black, or at least dark grey. I guess its not great surprise on a volcanic island, but it sure did look different. There’s also a ‘red beach’ on the island whose sand came from the iron-rich rocks.

Moving right along, to make sure we saw as much as possible in the hours we had, we headed to the archaeological dig at Akrotiri. Akrotiri was a Minoan settlement, destroying in about 1600 BC by one of the huge volcanic eruptions. The settlement was destroyed, but much like Pompeii, was also well preserved. At present only about 3 percent of it has been excavated. But already the archaeologists have found that it contained buildings three stories high, and pipes for carrying both hot and cold water. Quite amazing facilities to have for something over 3000 years old. It was fascinating to see the work done so far, the recognisable buildings, and the big jars used for storing goods, probably oil and so forth. Unlike Pompeii it seems the inhabitants had plenty of warning (by way of earthquakes) that trouble was brewing – as so far no bodies have been found. It seems to have been a prosperous place and a major trade centre as goods from many parts of the world have been found there, so it must have been difficult to leave. I’ll know that feeling only too well in a few short days when it’s our time to leave, too.

The last stop on our tour was The Dolphins – the restaurant recommended to us by George at the hotel. Perry and I had a platter of Santorinian food – tomato balls, olives, feta, Santorini’s famouse incredibly sweet cherry tomatoes, Santorinian fava beans, and caper leaves. Why did I never know of caper leaves before – they’re like vine leaves for dolmades, but they taste of capers. Delicious. The restaurant was right on the sea – lapping at the shore about two metres from our table.

And before you know it, four (and a bit) hours was already up, and it was time to bid Panos a fond farewell for all the driving and the interesting history he gave us. It was great to see someone so proud of their home even if it was for a him a relatively new-found one. He dropped us back at the hotel, and it was time to relax, get an important afternoon nap in, then head out somewhat later for another delicious dinner. This town sure knows how to cook.

Tomorrow is already our last full day in Santorini – not sure what the plan is yet, but that’s half the fun of being on holiday, just go with the flow. Whatever it is we get up to, you’ll be hearing all about it later.