Volcanoes & Ruins in Santorini

Santorini (also known as Thira to the Greeks) is an island in the Cyclades archipelago south of mainland Greece, and is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Its current crescent shape was formerly part of a much larger volcano, which erupted about 3600 years ago in what is considered to be one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in history. The eruption caused the volcano to blow its top, leaving behind a submerged caldera and several islands, including Santorini and Therasia. Although Santorini attracts millions of visitors every years because of its beautiful beaches and world famous sunsets, many people are not aware of Santorini’s fascinating history, which contains well-preserved remains of a Minoan civilization that dates back at least 5000 years.

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On my first day in Santorini, I took a short boat ride to Nea Kameni, a small uninhabited island in the center of the Santorini archipelago. Nea Kameni is actually a relatively new volcano that only appeared above sea level within the last 300 years. It can only be reached by ferry, and a half day trip is relatively cheap at roughly 25 euros. Nea Kameni is an active volcano, with the last eruption occurring in the middle of the 20th century. It takes about 20 or 30 minutes to climb the 500 feet to get to the top, where you can see steam coming out of vents and oddly colored rocks caused by minerals that were formed within the volcano. Also, because Nea Kameni is right in the center of the archipelago, it offers great views of the inner crescent of Santorini from the top. After hiking up Nea Kameni, I took another short ferry ride to the smaller island of Palia Kameni, where I took a refreshing dip in the hot springs that are naturally warmed by geothermal activity in underwater vents.

On the following day, I took advantage of Santorini’s prime location in the Mediterranean to do some scuba diving. Although diving in the Mediterranean doesn’t offer a whole lot in the way of marine life (especially compared to places like the Caribbean or South Pacific), one very interesting feature that Santorini does offer is its underwater lava caves. These are narrow caves that were formed by cooled lava over the centuries from previous volcanic eruptions. It was very interesting to explore these narrow caves and admire their unusual geologic features. There have been many parallels made over the years between Santorini and the lost city of Atlantis, and the famous explorer Jacques Cousteau made many diving expeditions here in the 20th century searching for evidence of Atlantis. In 2011, a team of divers (led by his son Pierre) placed a plaque in one of the caves to celebrate the 101st anniversary of Cousteau’s birth. I was able to see the plaque on one of my dives, which I thought was very cool. Unfortunately, I did not bring an underwater camera on my trip, so I don’t have any photos of it to show.

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View of the caldera on the trail between Fira and Oia

On the following day, I went on an amazing hike from Fira (the main town on the island) to Oia to check out one of the island’s famed sunsets. The roughly 7 mile hike is absolutely beautiful, as most of the trail is on the edge of cliffs that rise 1000 feet out the water and offer fantastic panoramic views of the island. I elected to watch the sunset from the cliffs overlooking Oia, as the views are better and I didn’t have to deal with the immense crowds that take the bus to Oia every evening for sunset-viewing. After admiring the sunset, I finished the hike down to the quaint village of Oia to wander its cobblestone streets and check out its distinct white-washed buildings.

After the first view days of admiring Santorini’s natural beauty, I decided to check out some of its historic gems. One of the two major archaeological sites on the island is Ancient Thera, which is located high on a mountaintop overlooking the Aegean Sea. Ancient Thera was first settled around 3000 years ago by the Dorians of ancient Greece, and then later by the Romans. Today you can see the ruins of a large Agora (town square), a Roman theatre, and several temples and houses. In addition, you can see the engravings of various animals and people carved directly into the limestone rock.

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Ancient Thera

While Ancient Thera is an interesting site to visit, the highlight of the island is undoubtedly Ancient Akrotiri. Akrotiri was a major trading city belonging to the Minoan civilization, which began on the island of Crete more than 5000 years ago. Around 3600 years ago, a major volcanic eruption caused the city (and most of the island) to be destroyed and buried under volcanic ash. However, just like Pompeii in Italy, the volcanic ash served to protect the remains of the city from the elements for thousands of years, until it was rediscovered during excavations about 50 years ago. As a result, today you can witness the well-preserved remains of this advanced city, including buildings with multiple floors, paved streets, a drainage system, and fully intact pottery. Supposedly, Akrotiri even had a developed plumbing system with separate pipes for hot and cold water!

Some of the most interesting finds of Akrotiri are no longer on the site, but have been moved to the fantastic Museum of Prehistoric Thera in the main town of Fira. These are frescoes that were found in many of the houses at Akrotiri, with their coloring almost fully preserved. One of the most fascinating is the fresco of blue monkeys, which is made all the more interesting considering that since there is no evidence that monkeys ever existed on or near Santorini! Aside from the frescos, the museum also offers displays of furniture, animal figurines, and even petrified vegetation samples that were found at Akrotiri. Although not as well known as Pompeii, I thought the ancient Akrotiri was at least as fascinating, so make sure not to miss it the next time you’re visiting Santorini.

Despite the fact that Santorini is very heavily touristed (especially in August when I visited), I thought it was one of the most beautiful and interesting of all the Greek islands that I’ve been to, and certainly worth visiting even if you don’t like crowds (though probably better to visit in the Spring or Fall for cooler temperatures and fewer tourists). After leaving Santorini, I headed back to Athens to board my intercontinental flight to Nairobi, Kenya, and the beginning the East African leg of my RTW trip.

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