Monday, September 7, 2009

Through A Glass Darkly – Santorini



Here we are at one of the most beautiful of the Greek Islands, Santorini. Centuries ago this island was shaped like a neat round cone, but that “cone” was actually the top of an active volcano. Sometime before 1600 BC the volcano erupted and the cone was blown away leaving a giant crater which is now filled with water. The islands of Santorini and Therasia almost completely surround the crater, but the waters may be traversed from openings in the north and the south.

The island of Santorini rises steeply for 3,000 ft to tower over the water filled crater. The quaint dwellings and buildings are built in such a way as to seemingly hang to the side of the steep volcanic rocks. They are painted white with blue painted roofs. It is a truly breathtaking sight.

Only one little problem – what I am telling you comes from my memory. When we awoke this morning we were enshrouded in a light mist and thick fog. We could not even see the water below our deck. The ship inched forward in an eerie silence, broken only by the occasional blast on the fog horn, which was then answered by horn blasts from nearby ships, all trying to get into the small harbor at the same time. It was especially unnerving when I recalled that less than two years ago a modern cruise ship ran aground just at the base of the island and in the ensuing hours rolled over on its side and sank.

So here we sit, shrouded in mist, listening to the sound of fog horns, and dreaming of what we might be seeing if we could…..

Around noon we went ashore to take a driving tour of the island. Our trip ashore on the ferry was made slowly in a thick fog. Arriving at the dock, we boarded our bus and slowly made our way up the steep and curving road to the plains above. At some point, we began to climb above the cloud layer and into relatively clear skies above. We were to learn that this “fog” is a unique part of the islands ecosystem. It seems that on some 3 to 4 days a month, the wind blows from the East and over the crater. When it does so, it creates this thick “fog” of moisture that envelopes the island, and from it the native plants absorb their water. It only rains perhaps once a year, so all vegetation on the island has adapted to this unique micro-climate.

The terrain was nothing more than volcanic rock and the vegetation was very sparse. Since the island has no fresh water, they do not use irrigation. Instead what little that grows here is fed by the fog. They use seawater for waste, and import drinking water. Interestingly, everywhere you look you can see small scrub “bushes” which in truth are very, very old grape vines. These vines escaped the “plague” which destroyed the old grape varieties in Europe. Today they are carefully tended to, and they produce several unique varieties of wines, mostly white, from the volcanic soil.

Sadly our tour was marred by the fact that the air conditioning on our bus was only marginally working, and the day was hot and extremely humid. There were times when I swear that it was cooler outside than it was in the bus. Anyway we stopped at a winery, and then we drove very narrow and steep roads to the highest point on the island, which lies at an elevation of almost 6,000 ft. From there you could see the entire island, and could realize just how small this paradise really is. Next, was a stop outside a Greek Orthodox Church for the obligatory picture of the white church with the blue painted dome, and finally we stopped briefly at one of the islands two beaches so that we could see what a black sand beach looks like.


All in all there is not much to see in Santorini besides the dramatic white buildings which cling so precariously to the craters side. We learned that these buildings were once home to the islands residents, but in recent years they have all been turned into tourist affiliated structures, e.g. inns, or shops or restaurant. The residents now live inland in quite normal looking buildings.

So, it is off to Turkey tomorrow, and let’s hope it is cooler and less humid.

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