Volatile history and enduring beauty on Santorini

By Nadine Godwin
 Fira, Santorini, GreeceA small island in the Aegean known as Santorini overlooks the world's largest seawater-filled volcanic crater.

The volcano is well known for having blown away a big chunk of a larger island in one of the biggest eruptions in history.

That was in about 1628 B.C. The volcano, although a lot quieter in the modern era, is still active. It erupted most recently in 1950 and has been a little restless in this decade.

That doesn't mean it's about to explode. Indeed, for the first-time visitor to Santorini, the most likely "explosion" will be exclamations over the spectacular view of the crater — meaning the portion that rises straight out of the water to a height of about 1,000 feet — and the whitewashed towns that look like frosting dripping down the sides of the crater's uppermost reaches.
Santorini, known locally as Thira, forms an arc around three sides, to the north, east and south, of the crater, or caldera. Another, considerably smaller island, Thirassia, flanks part of the caldera's west side, and others sit inside the caldera itself.

I arrived at Santorini aboard Louis Cruises' Louis Cristal this spring. Ours was an afternoon arrival, which showed off the west-facing scene exceptionally well. (View the slideshow, Cruising the Aegean, which follows the cruise's itinerary, here or by clicking on the photos.)

I was pleased that, these days, there are alternatives to the traditional donkey transportation between the island's port and the cliffside towns. Although the donkeys are popular with many visitors, I would rather walk than ride on an animal's swaying back while looking straight down the side of a rocky cliff.

Fortunately, a switchback road accommodates standard coaches. An Austrian-built cable car between the port and hilltop Fira, Santorini's capital, provides an even speedier transfer.

Oia, Santorini, GreeceOur cruise ship anchored over the ancient volcano's pit, and we were tendered in to take coach transfers to the crater's top and on to Oia, a perched village at Santorini's northwestern tip.

Any agent or client who has looked at photos promoting Santorini has almost certainly seen at least one taken in Oia. The little town, filled with the island's signature white cube houses, blue-domed churches and a few windmills, seems made for photography, particularly under late-afternoon light. Indeed, tourists plan Oia visits specifically to watch its sunsets.

Oia, like Fira, seems to tumble down the sides of the Santorini crater.

It's sobering to realize that in a 1956 earthquake, Santorini houses and churches did tumble down in a more literal sense. The quake was so severe that the majority of buildings were destroyed, and much of what we see on the island today is relatively new construction.

The architectural features that help make Santorini and other Greek islands beautiful have practical purposes. Houses mix flat roofs with vaulted roofs. The flat roofs, connected to cisterns, collect rainwater on a water-starved island, and the vaults provide some resilience during earthquakes.

Most houses have been white since the late 1930s when, as our guide explained, residents were instructed to whitewash buildings for health reasons. White houses are cooler, too. Previously, she said, buildings were the color of the island's dark volcanic stone so troublesome pirates could not see them easily.

Once in Oia's main square, Louis Cristal passengers were free to roam the streets, the best way to enjoy a place that is so visually appealing. Because the streets are so narrow — more like sidewalks, in fact — and because they can be more vertical than horizontal, car traffic isn't even a consideration.

Fira businessesOur shore excursion allowed for a similar visit to Fira, a larger version of Oia and site of the cable car that would take us back to port.

As the capital, it is home to 3,000 of the island's 15,000 residents and essentially a larger, car-free perched village with its own eye-catching vistas. From Fira's cliffside vantage points, we could see the island's striated rocks and the story they tell — understandable to a geologist, anyway.

Our few hours on Santorini introduced us to two of the island's top destinations, whereas clients who stay longer may choose activities like hiking, sunbathing or diving in the caldera.

In addition, the Akrotiri archaeological site, closed seven years for maintenance work after a tourist was killed in a 2005 accident at the site, reopened this April.

Akrotiri was a Minoan settlement associated with Knossos on Crete. It was covered with pumice and ash when the Santorini volcano erupted more than 3,600 years ago.

Two- and three-story buildings and impressive frescoes have been found but no corpses. Mother Nature, it seems, gave some warning that led residents to abandon the site in a timely fashion. 
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