An island idyll


An island idyll
They call it the ‘most beautiful island in the world’. Not for nothing. As our boat from the cruise ship approached the island’s shore, the deep blue water of the Aegean Sea, the sheer face of the rocks beyond, topped with white houses like a creamy layer over a cup of cappuccino, made an astonishing sight. Even if you have heard a lot about Santorini, you are still unprepared for the encounter.

And to think that this Greek island had such a violent birth! A series of tremendous volcanic eruptions, one every 20,000 years approximately, caused the collapse of the volcano’s central part, creating a large crater (caldera). The last one, known as the Minoan Eruption, is one of the largest such in earth’s history. It broke the existing land mass into two. Scientists are still debating over the exact time of its occurring, perhaps in the 16th or 17th century BC. Its impact, followed by a devastating tsunami, was felt far ahead. The island was covered in ash for centuries before emerging into a beauteous land, a coveted destination today. Santorini, by the way, sits on the rim of a still-active volcano.

Many associate the mythical ruins of Atlantis buried underneath the sea with Santorini. The stories about them are strangely similar: Santorini was ruined by a series of eruptions thousands of years ago. Atlantis supposedly sank deep under the sea after its people angered the gods.

Several names

Locals don’t call the island Santorini, but Thera or Thira. Santorini’s name comes from Saint Irene, after the small church above the port in Thirassia, which was established by the Venetians, who then settled down here in the 13th century.

Santorini’s capital, Fira, perched on the edge of the caldera, offers an outstanding view with the lagoon’s cobalt-blue water dotted with white sailing boats and cruise ships anchored a little off the shore.

In the evening, as the sun sets, garlands of lights from the ships twinkle to create an ethereal romantic landscape. Fira’s lanes and bylanes are full of boutiques, restaurants, art galleries and of course, tourists of many hues. Just sit there if you don’t want to join them, savour the sea and the atmosphere, and you would think coming here is well worth it.

That’s what I was doing when the strains of an unusual percussion beat attracted my attention. Following its trail, I found a man using his bare hands to make rhythmic sounds on what looked like an upturned cooking pan. Yes, it was a pan. The player, his name was Menclaos, informed that this instrument, a handpan, was developed by a steel pan manufacturer (PANArt) of Switzerland who was inspired by the steel drum music of Trinidad. The hypnotic music of Menclaos made people stop and listen.

A guided tour would be a wise step to get introduced to Santorini’s other charms, I decided.
First on the itinerary was a drive to get a panoramic view of Santorini from the highest point of the island, after passing through the ancient village of Pyrgos, with its Prophet Elias Monastery founded in 1711. Pyrgos used to be the capital of the island till the early 1800s. The village has many churches belonging to the Greek Orthodox order. The guide informed us that during Easter, tin cans with candles are put up on the house tops at night, which create a wonderful landscape of lights.

Next, we were on way to the Akrotiri archaeological site. Archaeologists started excavating the place in 1967 to discover remains of a prosperous settlement during the Bronze Age, belonging to the Minoan civilisation. Its peak period was between 3000 and 2000 BC with Crete being the epicentre. Though only a part of the huge settlement has been excavated till now, it displays multilevel buildings, streets and squares, perfectly preserved as it was under a blanket of volcanic ash. Unlike in Pompeii, scientists have found it strange that no human remains have been found till date; they surmise that the intermittent earthquakes that shook the land before the volcanic eruptions might have led the people to evacuate en masse.

Santorini’s volcanic actions have also given a definitive character to its famous beaches. The Red Beach gets its name from the red-oxide rocks surrounding it. Even from the top of a hillock, the water near the beach looked transparent. Snorkelling is very popular here, naturally.

Perissa, a popular tourist spot, is on the Black Beach. It gets its name from the black pebbles and sand there. Usually, it’s a bit crowded, but we were there in the fag end of summer vacation, so, it was quieter. After lunch, with a platter of stuffed tomato (huge size), a local speciality, we trooped to the huts on the beach to enjoy some leisure and the sight of the endless blue water.

We then went to Megalochori, a traditional Greek village with blue-domed churches, double-storeyed houses with small windows to keep out the wind, pretty courtyards, and a walk through its narrow lanes is an experience by itself. There are also many coves, apparently, where pirates hid in olden days. Hence the high walls around the houses. There is a proliferation of churches — Santorini has 350 of them, the guide said, but most of them are privately owned. The family opens its doors once a year on the particular patron saint’s day, and serves food and wine to every visitor.

Unique to Santorini

Santorini’s wine is unique, we learnt at the wine-tasting session at the Santo Wines vineyard, our next stop. The local grape variety, Assyrtiko, can thrive in dry weather and retain its acidity as it ripens; the volcanic soil gives it a distinctive flavour. The famous sweet wine Vinsanto is largely exported from Santorini. The grape vines are tied together at the top to keep away the wind and retain the moisture from dew.

The romantic locale is also a great spot for weddings and engagements (very popular with rich Chinese couples, apparently). Even as we were sipping a glass of white wine, a great noise made everybody rush out. Oh, a helicopter was hovering near the balcony and out stepped a bride in white, her groom following. A Chinese couple.

Afternoon was approaching and it was time to head to Oia, pronounced ‘Ia’, the most famous village in Santorini. The small town hangs over a cliff and tourists crowd in to witness its fantastic sunset. Like others, we too walked up the zigzag lanes skirted by white houses, and arrived at a square with a church, where an old priest tolled the evening bell. On the edge of the cliff at the sunset point, people stood choc-a-bloc to witness the sunset. As the red-and-golden hue of the setting sun coloured the waves and the sailing boats, it really seemed a bit unreal, especially used as we were to crowded streets. It was time to say goodbye to Santorini, regretting that the vacation couldn’t be stretched a little longer.

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