Skooter reporting 07/17/12
The view from the boat is always best, they say. I have no quarrel with this because it is true. For nearly 7,000 years, this is how adventurers, heroes, pirates and princes have greeted the crescent-shaped island Santorini, the biggest in a group of volcanic leftovers, sits in the Mediterranean like a massive, submerged tiara. Santorini appears so ludicrously fairytale-like, I remember on my first trip here I had to blink twice to check that I hadn’t dozed off on the slow eight-hour ferry ride from mainland Greece. Gigantic walls of rock protruded out of the ocean, a color of a million flowers, crowned with postcard-perfect white homes: as one local baker proudly portrays it a ‘frosting on a devil’s food cake’. Donkeys and mules clamber their way up what appears to be a sheer cliff face from the Old Port. They move in the direction of the clink of glasses stemming from a string of cocktail bars spread 250 meters above the harbor and all lodging under an endless sky.
Yet the origin of this enchanting place is in truth not the stuff of fairytales, more of nightmares. By rights, Santorini and its neighbors should not exist. This tiny-archipelago is one huge volcano that has exploded dozens of times in the last two million years; what’s left above water is the volcano’s crater and beautiful seismic remains. Each time this furious paradise erupts, it generates legends and history, along with a fantastical geological playground; Santorini is a thing of delicate beauty with a changeling’s heart.
For me, the island’s strange appeal comes not from the profligacy on offer and there is plenty of that, with an endless number of perpetuity pools, foot massages in thermal springs and black beaches to laze around on but from its ghosts. It was in the medieval times the island Santorini got its name, but the Ancient Greeks called it as Thera, and before that simply as Kalliste meaning‘most beautiful’, because this was once home to what has to be one of the most remarkable civilizations on Earth.
Tracking down the inhabitants of this lost world are all around if you know where to look. Jostle through discarded volcanic glass excavation near the ancient site of Akrotiri to find their stone field-walls, or meet them face-to-face on the stunning wall paintings in the Museum of Prehistoric Thera in the capital, Fira. In the Bronze Age, more than 3,500 years ago, these men and women were the moral fiber of a luxury-loving democratic culture. On the walls of the museum, they revive their distant lives in colors so vibrant they could have been painted yesterday. Life on a volcano would have been difficult, with little fresh water. Remoteness was a certainty. And yet the Bronze Age Therans subjugated their strategic position midway between three continents – Europe, Asia and Africa – and reached out to the world around them.
On the painted walls which remain, preserved in museums in Santorini and in Athens, they sail to lion-filled lands, their women wear rich colored skirts, and smiling young girls in gold hooped earrings, cornelian necklaces and gauze-fine bodices pick precious saffron.
Santorini offers not just a quick look of a lost world, but a possibility to be in two times at once. Volcanic soil has nurture grapes here for thousands of years, and evidence of wine presses dating back to the Bronze Age has just been unearthed. Now, vintners or people who sells wine in the Sigalas vineyard or on the quiet islet of Thirasia offer tastes of the kind of wine that the ancient Therans would have drunk. Their two- and three-storey houses, which are still being dig up, would easily win fashionable design prizes; they are whitewashed and uncluttered, with oak staircases and cozy indoor loose. The houses built in modern times in the villages of Oia, Finikia and Emporio are not that distinctive in style.
To be continued…