Erin, my sister, arrived last Thursday for a two week visit that is going way too fast. Earlier this week we flew to Santorini, probably the most well-known island at the southernmost end of the Cycladic island group. Volcanic activity (massive eruptions every 20,000 years) began 1.5 million years ago; today the crater of the volcano is located under the sea.
The last eruption in the 17th century BC destroyed the flourishing, prehistoric city of Akrotiri. It appears the city was abandoned pre-eruption so the citizens must have had some warning of what was coming. Like Pompei, the volcanic material that covered the city has provided excellent protection from prehistoric times until now.
It is estimated that only 3% of the city has been excavated (3% of 20 hectacres, that is), and what has been explored is likely the city center, as evidenced by the density of the buildings, the paved streets, an extensive sewer network connected to the sanitary features in the houses (yep, indoor toilets in 1700 BC) and the outside animal stables. More evidence of Akrotiri’s sophisticated, flourishing society are the many frescoes and paintings in the residential section of the city’s multistory buildings. The paintings prove some commercial exchange with Syria and Egypt; and also with the Minoan settlements on Crete, 60 miles south and visible on a clear day.
Akrotiri is beyond impressive. There have been legends for years that Akrotiri is the lost city of Atlantis, but it’s never been proven. Artifacts from Akrotiri are housed in the Museum of Prehsitoric Thira on Santorini and in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
When Demetri and I visited Santorini in 2006, Akrotiri was closed because of a roof collapse and replacement. The whole site is housed by one roof — and the one that stands today provides ventilation and natural light and its inside temperatures allow tourists and archaeologists comfort even in the heat of the summer. The site has no energy-consuming mechanical support.
Santorini’s rich volcanic soil makes for excellent crops of tomatoes, fava and grapes. Santorini wine was famous in ancient times all over the Mediterranean and remains a successful export even today. Most of the grapes grown are white (assyrtiko is the most prolific), but there are a couple of varieties of red wines that are gaining popularity. The island also has unique, cool beaches — red sand, black sand, plain ole tan sand and lots of rocks from which to jump.
Weather for us was excellent: sunny, mid-60s. We explored the whole island on foot and by car. The villages of Thira, Firostefani, Imerovigli and Oia all sit cliffside on the caldera with fantastic views of the volcano, and of course the famous Santorini sunsets. Even though it’s off-season, the island was busy with tourists, mostly American and Chinese. All the locals were busy prepping and primping for the summer crowds — the smell of fresh paint was everywhere.
Our trip to Santorini was actually the second trip Erin and I had. Her first weekend, we ferried to Hydra for one night that turned to two because high winds prevented the hydrofoils from running. An extra night in pretty little Hydra is an unexpected gift — we were able to visit the Archives museum and learn a lot about the role that Hydra and its citizens played in the Greek war of independence. It was a great introduction to the national Independence Day holiday on March 25.