September 7, 2011 Santorini
Santorini is a large, crescent shaped island. It was formed as a result of its volcanic eruption in 1450 BC. The eruption was the largest known on earth, lowering world temperatures for a few days and sending tsunamis 200 meters high to neighboring lands. Today, the caldera of the volcano is a small island in the water in the middle of the crescent and is a national park. The land was originally one large island and the eruption cause the middle to sink, shearing off the land and creating several of the surrounding small islands near the caldera. Our excursion included a hike to the top of this active/dormant volcano. We learned that meant the volcano is active, but lying dormant and under constant observation.
The caldera was our first stop and we were in a group of about 50 people comprised of French, Italian and English speakers. A popular Italian cruise line was also in port, so we ran into Italians everywhere. Our tour guide repeated herself in 3 languages every time we stopped. She also told us she had hiked the volcano over 3000 times in her lifetime thus far.
The entire island of the caldera is volcanic rock. It’s black, sharp, jagged and everywhere. Viewed from above, you can see the shape of all the lava flows from the center that flowed into the sea on all sides. Views of the caldera from atop Santorini are spectacular.
After tendering from our ship to the Santorini shore, we met our guide and boarded a large, wooden masted sailboat which ferried us to the caldera. Our guide (Mamma Joy) led us on one of many paths up to the maid crater. The hike up took us about 30 minutes and wasn’t difficult except for the hot sun. Having water with us at all times has been a must on this trip!
We stopped at a couple locations along our hike to hear Mamma Joy speak about the history of the area. These stops also afforded some great views of the surrounding area and the hillside towns of Firá and Oía. The volcanic eruption left a couple smaller island in addition to Santorini, which we could see from these vantage points as well.
We’ve learned with many tours like this, that we’re better off sticking close to the guide and need to be aggressive in staying ahead. Some people move much to slowly because they either aren’t fit enough for the hike, or didn’t dress appropriately for the terrain. It was amazing how many people we saw wearing flip-flops and women in sandals to hike through all the volcanic rock.
The main crater of the caldera is basically a big hole. You can walk down into it. Paths criss-crossed everywhere. About midway up the side of the hole, you can see exhaust vents with a yellowish-green stain around them and occasional puffs of steam coming from inside the volcano. The smell of sulfur is apparent and the ground beneath your feat is much hotter in this location.
We reboarded our boat after the hike and continued to a neighboring island which has a small cove fed by hot springs from the volcano to produce a brownish water filled with iron and sulfur. The mixture is said to be good for your skin and certainly makes it feel very soft. Not all of us swam to the cove. I’d done it once before and opted to skip it this time. Kenn and our friend Rob did the swim, along with several others, but the time allowed in the cove was short.
Our next stop on the tour was another island called Thirasia. (These islands are all very close to each other, so we could visit them all in our 4-hour tour.) This island’s main town, like Firá, is built on the edge of what remains of the island after the eruption.
The trek from the dock to the town involved hiking up a series of cobbled switchbacks which brought you to an elevation that appeared the same as the caldera. It was just another stair workout for us all! Since many people opted to get lunch at the docks first, we were virtually alone in the little town and didn’t see many local residents besides one shopkeeper, a few cats, a donkey and a dog. It was a little eerie walking through what seemed to be a deserted town. Hiking back down the switchbacks, we came across fellow tour people just starting the climb. They would not have enough time to see anything like we did.
The tour boat left Thirasia for our starting point, but we learned we’d make a stop in Oía first and could get off the boat. Oía is the northernmost town on the island of Santorini and famous for sunsets and shopping. Kenn and I ditched the tour group and got off, making our way up another steep climb to the town center.
Our first stop after the climb, which was now our 3rd for the day, was for lunch. We stopped at a great little restaurant for some Mythos beer, lots of water and a few traditional dishes. Our view was incredible, looking down and out to the caldera. It’s just amazing to be in these hillside locations that make you feel like you might slip into the sea at any moment.
We hopped a local bus after lunch to get back to Firá, our starting point. After a little stroll and some ice cream, we rode the cable car down to the boats. The cable car itself was quite amazing, descending what feels like a vertical angle. The cable cars are relatively new and if you do not take them down and up then you must either rent a donkey to take you up or down or else hike up or down all the switchbacks yourself while avoiding donkeys and lots of donkey droppings which makes for a lovely smell in the heat.
After all the day’s hiking, we had no interest in showering and getting dressed up for the dining room. Hooray for room service!