The Island of Santorini

Dear Reader,

I have decided to blog in real time. What you read now will be at most, two days old, maybe less. This is something new for me. Let’s see what happens.

Yours faithfully,
Samuel Jay Keyser, The Reluctant Traveler

Saturday April 4, 2009

Carlos Santana is blaring over the café speakers, a tight band playing up tempo salsa that puts me in mind of Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata. I’m sitting on the café’s terrace. Breakfast is over. Beyond the terrace railing I am looking out, not at Mexican hills, but at Nea Kameni, a remnant of the three coned volcano that blew up 3,459 years ago, sending a tsunami 74 miles to the west and wiping out one of the ancient world’s greatest civilizations, the Minoan culture on the island of Crete. Santorini itself was settled in the 8th century by Dorians. Its distinctly Italian name is courtesy of the Venetians who conquered the island in the 13th century and named it after St. Irene.

Today the remnant of that ancient cataclysm, the tiny volcanic island of Nea Kameni, hiccups one a week, like a drunk at the hind end of a massive bender. The bulk of Santorini’s 25 five kilometer long crescent is like a mother hen embracing Nea Kameni and Thirasia, a much larger island a bare half mile to the north. It, too, is inhabited, but we haven’t visited. It would take a day and a boat ride that we haven’t time for. We are leaving tomorrow.

From our terrace you can see that the people of Thirasia have chosen to live at the very top of the island. There is a long whitewashed ridge of houses that are architecturally the like of those on Santorini itself. I can tell because I have a very good pair of binoculars. A zig-zagging road negotiates the steep climb between the town and the water’s edge. There I see a series of docks for boats supplying the needs of the people at the top. It is a smaller version of Santorini itself.

Yesterday we walked from our hotel in Fira, the capital of Santorini, to Skala Firon, a small town about a mile away. We walked along the Agiou Mina, a cliff walk that follows the top of the caldera. It is a fabulous avenue lined on the left by the plaster and painted houses of the town and on the right by the caldera itself.

When the island blew up, it literally disgorged itself into the atmosphere. The sea ran into the hole it left behind and the result is the bits and pieces of what everyone thinks is the best candidate for the lost Kingdom of Atlantis. When you look along the hillside you can see striations, lava sandwiches, each one representing one convulsion of the original eruption. By my inexpert account, there are 21 one in all.

There isn’t much to learn in Santorini. And there isn’t much to see either, beside that marvelous caldera and its islands floating like dumplings in a huge bowl of soup. Apparently that is enough for most travelers. Tourists voting with their feet have placed Santorini in the top five most traveled to destinations in the world, year after year. One could see more. The ancient site of Thera. But someone was killed walking through a few years back--a woodedn bridge over the ruins collapsed--and it has been closed ever since. No one seems to know when it will reopen.

I asked a local what it was like living on Santorini. He said it was both peaceful and a bit like living on the edge. I can believe it. In 1956 an earthquake did tremendous damage to the place. It was rebuilt quickly, but there is always that rumbling of Nea Kameni in the middle of the caldera to remind the inhabitants that another catastrophe is just around the corner. Perhaps that is what keeps those who live here here. The threat of catastrophe makes all this tranquility and incredible peace bearable. It is the frisson that comes with knowing the whole damn thing might just blow up again.

Being here in off season is like being on a ship. Everywhere you go you see workman painting the walls, the terraces, the floors, the roofs of the island’s houses, hotels and apartment complexes. I wouldn’t be surprised if the place were refreshed once a year.

There isn’t much to do here. A few towns to see, an archeological museum, an ancient Dorian site. And that’s it. But it isn’t really the kind of place you want to do much in. It is the kind of place that shuns doing much of anything beside lolling. And after a day of lolling, you feel exhausted.

I am told that Santorini is in the top five of most visited tourist destinations in the world, this year after year. If that is so, it gives you a good idea of what it is people want to see when they travel: a beautiful view in a balmy clime where there is nothing to think about but dinner.