The caldera of Santorini is one of the most photographed scenery in the world, particularly its sunset. We wanted to have this unique experience but in an alternative way.
We decided to walk from the capital of the island, Fira, hiking on the brow of the cliff, which descends steeply to the sea from a height of 300m. and arrive at the village Oia, at the time that the sun sets. Starting point is the funicular station...
With our compass showing northwest, we took the narrow cobbled road that crosses Fira and passes through Firostefani. There we visited the women's orthodox monastery of Saint Nikolaos, founded in 1651, by the Gyzi family. The monastery has three chapels, dedicated accordingly to three different Saints. Then we continued walking to the village Imerovigli, in a 2 km distance from Fira which is built at the highest point of the caldera cliff. During the years of piracy in the Aegean Sea, from this point, the inhabitants could first see the pirates approaching. We had to make frequent stops to admire the view of the caldera, the varying colors of the cliff that testify the action of the volcano and the white houses, hanging from the cliff. On our left, on the steep cliff of Skaros, we discovered the remnants of a fortified settlement. It was the most important castle of Thera (as Santorini was called back then) in the time of the Frankish. Desiring to get a little taste about this era, we took a detour from the cobbled streets and following a narrow footpath, which was sometimes uphill and elsewhere downhill, we reached Skaros within ten minutes. The view of the caldera from this point was unique and really rewarded us for our effort.
To the west lies the famous caldera from where you can see the volcano. Where the shallow waters meet the torn land, there is the harbor of Thera, Athinios. At the caldera, the white houses of the villages Fira, Firostefani, Imerovigli and Oia, embellish the top of the cliff, like a white lace. Settlements that offer great panoramic views. As we go downhill, towards the inner part of the island, we see the famous vineyards, which are restricted by tourist development between the traditional settlements. In the east, where the airport is located, there are from north to south black, red and white volcanic beaches, waiting for us to dive into their waters.
Towards south, ruins of settlements testify the prehistoric and historic acme of the island. Thera, one of the most southern islands of Cyclades, is spread out with a variety of landscapes that urge us to discover more and more of this amazing piece of land.
The view from the white chapel of Theoskepasti at the back side of the steep cliff of Skaros.
On our return, through the cobbled streets, the sun was traveling with us to the west, giving warm colors to the caldera and its settlements. On the way, we came across with churches worth visiting. In some places, we had to be careful, because the ground was slippery. After a while, we abandoned the caldera and walked to the asphalt road for 300m. We bought some bottles with fresh water from a canteen and followed the uphill path and headed towards the inner island. Further up, on our left was the caldera and on the right, a meadow that ends at Kamari. As the sun was setting, we reached the chapel of Prophet Elias in Oia, at the top of the Black Mountain. From there, the view of the settlement and of Thirassia, that for so long were hidden behind the mountain, made us forget the fatigue of the uphill hike, meanwhile the sun was painting the sky with its hot colors. The path was framed by stonewalls and the variations of the colors of the soil made it very interesting all the way. Before going to Oia, we passed by the desalination plant and in five minutes we were in the settlement. We wandered through the paved cobbled streets admiring the old cave houses and the churches. Blue, white and ochre colors combine the scenery to a supreme beauty. Oia is the most colorful village of the island. Following the crowd, we headed to Goula in Oia, to bid farewell to our fellow Sun, which so uniquely completes its journey. Magnetized, we were gazing the fiery ball, which was diving into the Aegean Sea. Our journey lasted about 3 hours, while the pictures offered by hiking in the most beautiful caldera of the world will remain forever engraved in our memory.
Walking on the edge of the most beautiful cliff...
We could not leave out the volcano from our excursions. Santorini owes its existence to volcanic activities and besides, this is testified by the colors of its soil. We went from Fira to Mesa Gialos. The donkeys accompanied us, going up and down the stairs, transferring people to the Old Port.
Of course, there is a more modern way, the cable car. In order to warm up, we preferred the downhill walk, which lasted 20 minutes. We boarded on a sailing boat to New Kameni, which is a small island created by a huge volume of dark-colored material, lava which bursted out of the bowels of the earth. With a guided tour by Kostas Papadimitropoulos of the municipal enterprise of cultural and tourist development of the municipality of Thera, we headed uphill following the path around the edge of the craters, which occasionally had caused explosions, stepping on the petrified lava. Except for a few flowers, the darkness dominates and their reddish color reminiscent of the lava that flowed during the eruptions. From the top of the dome of the oldest part of New Kameni, looking backward, we could see the sunken Santorini and the white settlement hanging on the edge of the cliff coming in contrast to the darkness of the rocks that surrounds it. Arriving at the top of the dome of George I, the highest point of New Kameni (127 m), we could see Old Kameni. Between the two of them, are the Hot Springs, where the green waters have a temperature of 30-35οC because of the sulfur and it is an alternative destination for bathing.
Where the water was vaporizing, the color of the rocks is white and yellow. In other places, united black balls of petrified lava are standing in front of us like a huge sponge. The colors are elsewhere lighter and elsewhere darker, as the lava ranges from 1570 to 1950. We returned to the bay from the distinctive trail, having walked for almost 1 hour between craters and lava surrounded by this special natural beauty, on the latest volcanic land in the Eastern Mediterranean.
During our course, the eerie natural beauty of the landscape and the smell of the sulfur that was in the air, created the appropriate atmosphere so that with all our senses we could look up at those moments that formed this place. Here you can once again realize how weak man is in front of the elements of nature.
Watching the devastating nature's fury
Millions of years ago, frequent volcanic eruptions resulted in emergence from the bottom of the sea, many craters that merged with pre-existing islets. As the explosions subsided, the island started to have life. Around 1650, the volcano revitalizes and gives its most significant action, burying the culture that flourished at the time. The caldera is nothing more than the sea which rushed into the void, because of the big gap that was created from the ejection of materials from the volcano`s cone. The central part of the island was submerged, forming the island complex of Santorini, Thira, Thirassia, Aspronisi. Then, at times, the volcano continued to spill melted rock into the caldera. Gradually from 1600 to 197 BC emerged Old and New Kameni. In 197 BC according to Strabonas, the first action was recorded. Since then, 8 explosions have been recorded, without causing serious problems to the inhabitants who are used to feel the earth pulsing without any fear. Today, the volcano at Kamenis, is in the state of calmness.
Apart from the well-known settlements that are perched on the edge of the cliff and are the favorite places to stay for the magnificent view of the caldera, there are other traditional settlements, less touristic in the inner of the island, worth visiting. In Emborios the imposing Goulas and Pyrgos, that extend on a hillside. The medieval castle with its labyrinthine cobbled streets will transfer you mentally back to the years of Frankish rule. In Pyrgos, you can make a tour at the fortress settlement and at the most modern part of the village with the traditional island houses and the picturesque cobbled streets. From there, you can take the path that leads to the peak of the hill of Prophet Elias, where the homonymous monastery was built between 1711 and 1724. The route starts from the square of the village Pyrgos either from the asphalt road or from the way with the stairs and lasts about two hours. The sunset from the monastery of Prophet Elias was unforgettable. From the highest point of the island (567m altitude), we could see on the west the caldera, on the east the fields with the vineyards, the extensions of which mingled with the Aegean Sea, and finally in the south Faros, watching nature painting the whole island with the colors of the sunset.
A journey to history…
Traces of human activity are found in the early Proto-Cycladic culture (3200-2000 BC). The great prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri, was buried under thick layers of lava in 1650 BC. After the destruction, Herodotus reports that the Phoenicians came to the island, who thanks to its beauty called it Kallisti (the most beautiful). Around 1115 BC Thiras together with the Lacedaemonians arrived on the island and renamed it to Thera. In the 9th century, Thera was established as a Doric colony in the centre of the famous settlement of Mesa Vounos, while in the 6th century it had its own currency. Later it passed into the hands of Macedonians. In the Hellenistic era, it was under the domination of the Ptolemies, while in the Roman era, it was subordinated to the province of Asia. Christianity spread around the 3rd century. The existence of early Christian basilicas on the island, confirms the acme of Christianity in the Early Christian period. In 1153 the name Santorini was found also in Arabic. The Crusaders, called it this way maybe from the chapel of Saint Irene. From 1207 the island passed one time to the family of Sanoudos and another time to the family of Varotsi. In 1487 Santorini was annexed to Venice and attempts were made to attract Catholicism. The numerous churches on the island witness the reaction of the Orthodox to the Catholic Venetians. During the Frankish rule, piracy led to the construction of the Goulades (multi-storey rectangular defensive towers) of Vigles (small towers on the coast) and Kasteli (large fortified settlements). You can still see the ruins of these buildings throughout the island.In 1579 the island was conquered by Turks, who granted a relative autonomy.
At the end of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century, shipping was booming because the locals were trading the well-known products of Thera land. The prosperity of the time is reflected in the mansions and the houses of the captains which are preserved in the settlements of Santorini. With the outbreak of the revolution in 1821 Santorini supported the fight with its fleet, while in 1832 it became a member of the newly founded Greek state. In 1956, at the economic downturn, which had occurred because of the appearance of the steam boats since the end of 19th century, another earthquake came to destroy whole parts of settlements. Since 1970, the island has seen significant tourism development and is been recognized as one of the most beautiful islands in the world.
A unique island that has suffered so many and such cosmogenic changes until it arrived at its present form cannot leave us indifferent. These changes have left their marks over the years on the island and invite us to touch them. The volcano that has spawned such a catastrophe but created the island Kallisti, is worthy of our admiration as well as the people who managed not only to survive but also to reconcile with the fear of the volcano, and to create a unique culture from the distant past to the present day.
"A mystery covers this troubled island that does not leave you indifferent. You want to touch it… "
Text & Photos: A. Athanasopoulou & D. Stamatopoulos