A Hunk of Burning Love:
Flirting with Santorini’s Volcanic Past
For as long as I could remember, I had dreamed of traveling to Santorini. But, I couldn’t help but be a little nervous about the prospect of sleeping on top of a volcano. My trip coincided with a new eruption on Sicily’s notorious Mt. Etna, only a few fault lines away, and the smoke and ash had been suffocating Catania, Italy, for several days. While public life in that section of the Mediterranean was nearly paralyzed, here I was, with two friends, ferrying toward an island that was formed by the one of the most destructive volcanic blasts in the past 10,000 years.
But, hey – I had just traveled more than 5,000 miles, and I was going to see Santorini – even if it killed me.
We stayed in Oia (Ee-ah), a quiet town on the north finger of Santorini that is renowned for its sunsets (it faces west) and its subdued atmosphere. On a tip, we had booked a partially furnished villa that was far too swank for our money; we gladly paid for the view. From our window, it looked as if the hotel pool was an extension of the Aegean far below. And, from our two balconies, we had a perfect glimpse of the volcanic Kameni isles and the evening sun as it dropped down into the sea like the Times Square ball at New Year’s Eve.
Further exploration revealed that an entire terraced city unfolded below us. Row after row of bright white verandas decorated with requisite blue umbrellas hugged the side of the mountain, and a maze of paths for pedestrians and donkeys had also been hewn out of layers of volcanic rock. For centuries, farmers in Santorini have herded their donkeys up these narrow lanes in order to transport fish, grapes, olives, and other goods from the port to the villages above. Although Santorini now boasts a cable car and a dependable, if not hairpin-twisting, roadway, the sounds of clanging bells and hooves on pumice and cries of “Yassoo!” are quite common and a signal for us to grab our cameras. After all, we were in the postcard now.
Santorini is one of the most stunningly beautiful places in the universe; it’s also the only inhabited caldera on earth. Thousands of years of seismic activity has physically shaped Santorini. And, where land has sunk, lava has flowed, and people have perished, legends have been born. The archipelago of Santorini consists of Thira (the main isle and bustling capital), Therasia, Aspronisi, Palea Kameni, and Nea Kameni. Several millennia ago these five were one, and the entire island was known as “Strongili,” or “round.” In fact, if you look at a map of Santorini, the original, circular outline of Strongili is apparent.
Santorini’s creation gives new meaning to the phrase “Big Bang Theory.” Scientists set the date of the island’s most violent eruption between 1700 and 1600 B.C., when the bottom of the island basically fell out. Tales of this ferocious blast, which darkened the daytime sky, spread tidal waves throughout the Mediterranean, and virtually leveled the Minoan civilization, have made their way into folklore, including the writings of Plato and Homer. The city of Akrotiri, once a thriving port on Thira, was also blanketed by ash. Although evidence indicates that its inhabitants fled before the destruction reached them (no bodies have been found in the excavations), Akrotiri has earned the nickname, the “Minoan Pompeii.” Since the late 1960s, two- and three-story buildings have been found among the ruins, as well as sturdy amphorae and detailed wall paintings of fishermen, boxers, and monkeys. Many would-be historians are even convinced that Akrotiri is the lost city of Atlantis.
With the demise of Akrotiri and Atlantis in mind, it was with some trepidation that I traveled to the town of Thira, where my friends and I would board a boat tour to Palea and Nea Kameni, the latter being the only active volcano in the island group. Thira in July, by the way, is one of the last places you want to be if you are claustrophobic, hate traffic, and enjoy breathing. The pollution from scooters, taxis, and tour buses is stifling in the summer heat, and is made worse by the whiff of sulfur that floats on the wind from the volcanoes. Luckily, the cable car was quick and efficient, and we were whisked to the port below in no time.
As the boat pulled away from the dock, the striations in the massive wall of tuff appeared behind me. The layers of red, brown, ochre, and gray rock topped by a city of white looked like a flaming ember, whose edges emitted a white-hot heat. The landscape also looked precarious, as if a jolt from an earthquake or a rumble of magma could send this little piece of paradise to a watery grave. In front of me, the sleeping giant of Nea Kameni loomed; there was no turning back.
On the way to the volcano, we stopped at a hot spring by Palea Kameni – it felt more like a lukewarm spring. Here, the water gurgled green and brown, a result of the surrounding iron mud that had formed around this once volcanic islet. This being one of the few places in the Mediterranean where the water wasn’t crystal clear, it was easy to imagine entire lost cities resting beyond my treading feet. After cooling off for a bit, our tour group climbed back into the boat. Nea Kameni was next.
Anyone who has spent time in the city – any city – during the height of summer can attest that asphalt and sunshine are a deadly mix. That said, the pile of steaming, black rocks that greeted us as we dropped anchor at Nea Kameni did not bode well. Had we not stopped for a swim on our way there, the one-hour hike up the volcano would have been unthinkable.
Although the last notable geologic activity on Nea Kameni took place in 1950, the volcano seemed anything but dead. From the dock to the top, a well-worn trail marked with jagged rocks and sulfur-singed sands curves into nowhere. From either side of this beaten path are menacing slopes, which read like a geologic history of the Aegean. Our guide pointed out the various shades of black and brown rocks, and motioned towards a distinct cluster of stones that were the result of the 1928 lava flows. Meanwhile, we eavesdropped on another tour group, where a vulcanologist had crouched down to point out a crusty cavern of red, yellow, green, and orange clays. He further demonstrated that the further down one digs, the warmer the soil becomes – proof that the living core of Nea Kameni is nothing less than a simmering cauldron.
Despite the angst that accompanied me from the time I ferried up to Santorini to the moment I scraped away at the smoking earth, I appreciated my hike up the volcano. Indeed, mounting Nea Kameni was something akin to an earthly walk on the moon. From this barren perch, the terraced hillsides of Thira and Oia stood out like polar icecaps adrift in the sea. Ships like newspaper sailboats cruised through the bay effortlessly. And, through binoculars, I could spot a school of dolphins. Maybe they knew what really happened to Atlantis.