Wander in a daze with Thor and me as we take in the “insanely dramatic” views of the whitewashed cubic labyrinth perched on the edge of a volcanic caldera high above the Aegean Sea.
NOTE: Since my 4-month backpacking trip around Greece too many years ago, I had been longing to return to this magical land of myth, history, and dramatic landscapes. I recently made a fabulous 3-week return trip there, to research additional settings for my novel-in-progress, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT. My first post in the new series, on September 30, gives an overview of my rambles with my husband Thor from Athens to the islands of Rhodes, Santorini, and Naxos, and finally a pilgrimage to the ancient center of the world at Delphi.
It was a convoluted trip from Rhodes to the fabled isle of Santorini (officially, now the Greek island of Thira), since island connections by ferry or regional airline are not always direct and not always offered every day, even during the tourist season. We were on a tight schedule, so had to fly that day. We flew first back to Athens, then on to Thira, with a delay on a hot tarmac for engine repair, then finally made it to the island and–thankfully–a waiting shuttle arranged by our hotel. So it was perhaps understandable that all we could do then was wander in a daze of disbelief at the overwhelmingly striking views everywhere we looked on this raw volcanic island with its steep drops to the deep blue Aegean.
Santorini/Thira is composed of the fragments of what was formerly a single rounded island, an important trading center during the height of Minoan civilization and sharing its culture. Probably after some warning quakes and other signs, the population fled before a huge volcanic eruption blew the island apart in 1627 BC and created a flooded caldera of about 7.5 by 4.3 miles. The 400 meter deep lagoon is surrounded by 980-foot cliffs of somewhat unstable volcanic stone/compressed ash. The massive explosion triggered a huge tsunami that spelled the end of Minoan civilization on Crete and gave rise to Plato’s account of fabled Atlantis, the paradise swallowed by the sea. The ancient village of Akrotiri, situated a bit inland from the shore, was buried in ash from the explosion, which preserved houses with beautiful frescoes, pottery, and art. We’ll visit the excellently excavated and partially restored site in next Saturday’s blog post here.
In the center of the lagoon, the tiny islet of Nea Kameni appeared above the surface many years after the main explosion. It’s still active volcanically, continuing to build, with sulfur vents and hot springs.
In my novel THE ARIADNE CONNECTION, my characters in a fishing trawler are fleeing nefarious factions, and take a desperate shortcut between fictional newly-active volcanic islands, inspired by Santorini:
Craggy black islets pocked the waters, some smoking. Two larger islands, curving around them, formed a cauldron of jagged cliffs, streaked in irregular bands of color—pinkish, brown, purple—cut by flows of steaming black, solidifying lava. They closed in on both sides of the boat, passage narrowing ahead. Drifting with the breeze, a haze of steam and smoke. Over the low swells, all around the boat, washed a bobbing flotsam of pumice, carved in fantastic shapes.
“What is this?” Ariadne moved to the rail and leaned over. The channel shimmered an unhealthy acid-green color, steaming. Now and then a bubbling boil rose from the depths, bursting in acrid fumes.
My near-future Ariadne and her companions end up in a desperate race to outrun a tsunami triggered by an earthquake as they thread through floating pumice. (That’s what we evil novelists do–create Trouble for our characters.) In truth, it’s only a matter of time before this quake-prone area suffers the next one.
The island originally named Thera or Thira was renamed Santorini during Latin occupation in the 1300s. Only fairly recently has it become a tourist mecca. As Thor commented, there seems to be no logical reason for building, and rebuilding after another severe earthquake in 1956, along the edge of unstable volcanic cliffs with no water and little soil, except to enjoy the mind-boggling views. The tourism industry is indeed bustling here, with luxury hotels and infinity pools abounding.
Some locals are rather critical of the flagrant water use for pools on this drought-prone island, but of course the economy depends on tourism and hefty hotel/restaurant prices. Luxury and drama is what people come for, notably large crowds of Chinese “destination wedding” travelers having photos taken in their wedding attire in front of the dramatic vistas.
Despite the commercialism, traditional dome-topped churches are also everywhere as you thread the narrow, cobbled lanes:
Ironically, I don’t seem to have any photos that capture the crowds! It was rare to find a spot in the caldera-edge villages (actually pretty much one long string of buildings along the edge) not packed with tourists jostling in both directions along the sunbaked lanes, like us looking hot, thirsty, and awe-struck.
We had booked one of the less-outrageously-pricey hotels with a view balcony in Fira (the capital village of the island), Vallas Garden Apartments, and were very happy with the accommodations and view:
Breakfast is generally included in these tourist hotels, and ours offered another million-dollar view:
To the lower left is an antique wooden rowboat on the roof of the exclusive hotel below us, Homeric Poems. (A nod to friends Bruce Beasley and Suzanne Paola, both noted poets, who stayed there last year during the “shoulder season” and had their own private soaking pool and grotto.)
Our sweet new friend Johnny, an employee of the hotel, served in every imaginable role, as far as we could determine. He checked us in, arranged to change rooms when we were assigned the wrong one, carried our bags, and also served us breakfast. He also had those “prizewinning long eyelashes” my anti-heroine Leeza Conreid admires on the Greek men in THE ARIADNE CONNECTION.
Johnny regaled us with stories, one of them about the only time he confessed to having trouble with heavy suitcases:
“These three men were so big, you know, weightlifters, and they had enormous suitcases. To be polite, I offered to carry them up to the rooms, and they accepted. I smiled, then nearly broke my back lifting these very heavy, huge suitcases. I asked what was in them, and they told me they had stones they had collected in the islands!”
He gave one of those expansive Greek shrugs, and asked us, “Can you imagine? Bringing stones home from the islands?”
We hemmed and hawed a bit, and allowed as how that was kind of crazy. We didn’t confess that in our own luggage were just a few–actually very small–packets of marble pebbles we had gathered in our swims off the Rhodos beaches:
In addition to our addiction to polished marble pebbles, we couldn’t stop snapping photos of the clean-edged geometry of the island architecture:
And, of course, the pleasures of shade and cold local beers to refresh our rambling spirits. (Hmm, do we see a theme here?)
Raise a glass with us to the Greek islands: “Chairete! Rejoice!”
Next Saturday: The impressive excavations and restorations of ancient Akrotiri.
You will now find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here every Saturday. Sara’s latest novel from Book View Cafe is available in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection. It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?” The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction. Sara has recently returned from a research trip in Greece and is back at work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect. Sign up for her quarterly email newsletter at www.sarastamey.com