Saturday, June 28, 2014

Santorini - Austere Beauty in a Ticking Bomb

I was eager to spend a full day on Santorini, a cultured adult excursion that promised wine and good olives in a geologist's playground. It was to be a brief interlude of contemporary sophistication sandwiched between several sweaty days amongst ancient ruins, mostly brothels. But first we had to get to shore. The big boat was unable to tie to a pier or anchor--the port cannot accommodate large vessels, and the water in the caldera is too deep--so we had to take a ten minute tender to the main island of Santorini (Thera) and the port of Athinios. This time the procession to disembark the Ruby Princess was very orderly, so much so that I wondered whether body snatchers had been at work overnight. This could not be the same passenger list. I get much more fodder from standard human chaos, and this herd was just not cooperating.

Virtually every aspect of what makes Santorini a picture postcard is a function of its geology. All truly beautiful places on Earth are largely defined by their physical geography, but Santorini is a particularly spectacular frame for its settlements. The geology story is one of repeated cataclysm and renewal. Unappreciative locals are evidently in no hurry to welcome the next dose of cataclysm, but the scenery would surely be less picturesque if Thera hadn't blown its top circa 1600 BC, wiped out the Bronze Age Minoan civilization of Crete with 70 meter tsunamis, left a trail of ash to Greenland, and formed the world's largest submerged caldera. And some day it will happen again, hopefully after I've left the region next week.

Our first stop was the peak of the Mountain of Prophet Elijah, the highest point on the island of Thera, for some arm-waving and photos. The road uphill is narrow, winding and steep, as is the drive from the cliff-side inner coastline of the caldera. Our motor coach climb was uneventful, the best kind. You don't want to hear an "uh oh" from the driver or smell brake fluid on a 10% grade. At about 610 meters in elevation Prophet Elijah is really more of a hill, but rising directly from sea level it seems more imposing, and these Greeks don't waste a switchback where they can steepen the road. The summit gives good views of the whole of the caldera, which is framed by three islands with a resurgent lava dome in the middle, leaving 80 square kilometers collapsed or blown away towards Turkey in the 1600 BC event. I took several pictures, which is socially accepted as proof you've been to the top of a mountain.

We then proceeded to the Panagia Episkopi church, the oldest Byzantine church on the island dating from the 11th century AD. I admired the craftsmanship of the icons. Tom found all the resident cats.

On Santorini, be prepared for domes and church bells.

It wouldn't be Greece if there were no cats.

On a full day shore excursion, every stop is just a taste that builds an appetite for a longer visit. This was a quick stop, followed by another short visit to Kamari beach on the outward eastern coast. It's described as a black sand beach, but it's more of a black pebble beach composed of basalt, a soothing massage for the feet in the morning, not so much in the afternoon. We were there early enough so that the rocks weren't yet oven-hot. Still smarting from the blistering beach at Corfu, I was happy not to repeat a simulated walk on hot coals. We stayed long enough to dip our toes in the Aegean Sea for a few minutes, then drove uphill to Pyrgos.

Our first stop in Pyrgos was the Santo winery, a stop more for Dad and me, but young Tom took a little sip of the three wine tastings, which earned us some glares from the righteous. There was a good spread of olives, cheese, tomatoes and bread to accompany the wine. I bought a bottle of the sweet 2004 Vinsanto to bring home to Stacey. The natural setting itself is a gold mine. I'd pay for the view alone, and we did through our excursion fees. We stayed for forty minutes then hopped over to the nearby Pyrgos restaurant for a traditional Greek lunch and equally good scenery.

Santo Winery, a view James Bond would kill for. Is there any more scenic winery (or at least its gift shop) in the world?

The tomatokeftedes (Greek: ντοματοκεφτέδες), tomato fritters, were the highlight of a delightful lunch at Pyrgos Restaurant. Santorini is known for that dish.

After lunch we headed north to Oia (the length of the crescent-shaped main island is only 18 kilometers). The main draw there is the whitewashed village perched on the edge of the caldera, and the ubiquitous blue-domed churches I've seen in many travel publications about Greece. The blinding white of Oia (and later Firá) amplifies the suns rays, and whereas it had been bearable before lunch, we were back in the Mediterranean sweat box.

Mykonos is beautiful, but Santorini sets the standard. It is one of those iconic places like the Grand Canyon that pictures do not do justice, and all adjectives are superlatives. My lasting impression was how crisp and sharp everything looks, as if magnified. Though I'm sure I could find much better photographs in magazines, calendars, or screen savers and say they're mine, I took a lot of pictures anyway. I'm sure someone looking through them 50 years from now will have no emotional attachment and throw them out. Therefore, I tried to take as many as possible with Thomas or Dad (or me) in them, so at least a future descendant will feel guilty as he tips them into the bin. The rest will provide nice backdrop images if my wife Stacey decides to make Thomas a picture book from the trip.

Dad shows Tom a thing or two.

They're no longer necessary, but tourists can still take a nostalgic trip up and down the caldera walls on sure-footed donkeys.

We never made it to the Minoan-era ruins at Akrotiri. I would like to have seen them only in that--after seeing the scale of the caldera--it's hard to believe even foundations survived the great Thera eruption of that age. There are no human remains at the site, which means the residents probably had some forewarning and vacated the premises. Apparently they neglected to stop and tell the relatives on Crete. Their descendants are probably the same people that charge €0,5 to use the local bathrooms dating from the dark ages.

I enjoyed the drive around the island as much as the excursion stops. Air conditioning was partly the reason, but the passing countryside is interesting of itself, particularly the agriculture in a porous volcanic area with no possibility for irrigation. Everything, especially the grape vines grown in every available space, is grown very close to the ground to maximize collection of dewy moisture from night-time sea breezes. Irregular parcels of cropland were separated by neat stone fences that probably date to ancient Spartan settlements. I can see the Spartans liking this place; there's no overabundance.

On Santorini, there are no rivers, and there is no irrigation due to the porous volcanic soil. Everything (grape vines here) is grown close to the ground to maximize absorption of the morning dew.

Around lunchtime Tom noticed thick, black smoke billowing from a spot down below on the coastline, in the general vicinity of Kamari. It was not on the caldera side--I made sure of that first--so I told him not to worry. We later found that it did impact us, as it was the main power station for the island that was on fire. We had a planned cable car ride down to the port from Firá, but that didn't materialize as all power was knocked out on the island. This was no loss--the switchback road down the caldera walls is adventure enough in a bus--but Greece could use every tourist dollar it gets. Another passenger on the ship said he'd seen the power station just before the fire, and I got the sense it was held together with duct tape and rusty nails. He said it took a good thirty minutes before they heard sirens on the beach. Electrical fires burn very hot, and I wondered if the station was a write-off.*

Just before we left for the zigzag road down to the port of Athinios, we noticed the shops were running out of unmelted gelato. We found one that still had a good supply. Maybe they had a generator, though they seemed to be refilling ice cream tubs in a hurry. Infrastructure fixes don't happen overnight here I expect, but that's the kind of catastrophe that gets Federal attention.

On the tender back to the Ruby I had a good view of the many layers of ash, pumice and basalt that represent many surges of volcanic activity through recent geologic history. There will eventually be future reinterpretations of Santorini following eruptions or earthquakes if they don't make the place a national volcanic park. I hope they are as simply beautiful as the current place.

Each layer represents a different pulse of volcanic activity. How many times has this terrestrial zit burst through geologic history?

My faith in oblivious humanity is restored. I had to put another eight quarters into a timed clothes dryer tonight; while I was away some dim bulb decided to check the status of my clothing after maybe a few minutes of drying time and neglected to push "start" again. I guess I didn't need those two dollars. So now I waste time in a ship-board laundry galley waiting for the dryer cycle to end. Santorini also waits. Deceptively dormant, the great volcano is on no set timer, however. May its next cycle of calamity be long after we tire of the wonders of this place. But after every violent eruption, there is renewal. And we will come back.

August 13, 2013

*There was no interruption of cruise traffic that I'm aware of, so additional duct tape must have been sufficient.