I suppose the natives of the volcanic island of Santorini will never forget the date 1450 BC. Around that date, Santorini erupted, to cause the biggest explosion in recorded history, and to wipe out a civilisation … although exactly how depends on which television archaeologist you believe.
The eruption left the world’s biggest caldera, or crater, and all that remained of its walls were the main island, the neighbouring island of Thirassia and the outlying islet of Aspronissi. Eight more eruptions have occurred since the one that all but destroyed the island.
About 45 AD the island of Palea Kamini appeared, triggered by another eruption. Another volcanic island, Mikra Kamini, appeared in the 16th Century, and 200 years later, Nea Kamini rose above the waves. Subsequent eruptions, the latest in 1950 caused this island to grow in size, and eventually engulf Mikra Kamini.
Today, Nea Kamini is an uninhabited pile, nearly devoid of all vegetation, and looking more like a pile of ash than anything else. But, nevertheless, it’s an interesting place to visit as witnessed by the many notices on the quayside on the main island, at the Old Port, below the town of Thira, offering boat trips to ‘see the volcano’. The boat used is often a kaiki, a wooden boat designed on the lines of a traditional fishing boat.
Greece is a country of many islands. There are about 160 permanently inhabited ones, and more than 1000 altogether. Although many can be reached from the Greek mainland by air, many more can be reached by ferry. This gives even mainland Greeks the impression that they are travelling to a different country, reinforced by the fact that, although everyone speaks Greek, the lifestyle even between two neighbouring islands can vary slightly.
The ferry is really the only way to approach Santorini as it sails into the caldera, seemingly surrounded by sheer cliffs, with the white houses perched on top of it, looking almost like snow from a distance.
The ferry will dock at the little port of Athinios, where a zig-zag road down the cliff-side gives access to the rest of the island. Cruise passengers are not so lucky. Their ship will have to anchor, because it is too big to use the dock, and the tender will usually land its passengers at Thira Old Port. Here, they must either take the chair-lift, or climb a steep, stepped path, on either foot or mule-back, to get to the main town.
Traders from Venice bestowed the name ‘Santorini’ … a corruption of ‘Santa Irina’ (Saint Irene) … on the island. But, most islanders prefer to use the name Thira, the same as the main town.
Thira is a huddle of whitewashed buildings on the cliff edge. Its narrow streets offer many cosy little corners, where there’s a new delight to be found. Unfortunately, though, those narrow streets can not really cope with the passengers from two or three cruise ships at once.
Thira’s main attraction is the view out across the caldera to sea, and many a restaurant or hotel has a balcony giving the best ones. A glance westward is particularly recommended at sunset, however, most cruise ships have sailed before this.
Away from the town, life goes on as it has for hundreds of years … and the wine-growers, especially, have devised ways of making use of the small amount of water available to them. There are no rivers on Santorini, and such water that is available to them is infrequent rain-water. So, they have made ‘baskets’ from the vines themselves, to protect the grapes from the worst of the sun.
On the south coast of the island are the excavations at Akrotiri, where, about 40 years ago, the remains of an ancient city were found. This city was buried in ash, which protected it from the worst effects of the Great Eruption. Some say if it hadn’t been for that protection, the city would have been melted … or even vaporised!
When you consider the magnitude of the blast, which tore the heart out of what had previously been a circular island all those years ago, the crater of Nea Kamini comes as something of a disappointment.
The main crater is a massive double crater called ‘George’, after the then King of Greece. Some of the rocks give off a slight vapour. This is steam, and is quite normal; it does that all the time.
On the eastern side of ‘George’, there are some fumaroles; holes giving off steam and smelling slightly of bad eggs. That is evidence that Nea Kamini isn’t extinct; it is merely dormant. There are also hot springs on the island, and on the neighbouring Palea Kamini, where the boats sometimes sail for their passengers to bathe.
Although it is possible that the volcano may erupt again, it is being watched very closely, and warning will be given.
‘And, if that happens’ say the guides ‘we have a very good tour of the vineyards on the main island we can do instead!’