Santorini

 

So many Greek islands, so little time… Cyclades, Dodecanese, Sporades, Ionian…literally hundreds of islands, thousands if you count the uninhabited ones, and why not count them? They’re there, they’re islands, they deserve to be recognized. However, in order to stay relevant, we’ll stick to the inhabited ones, and then narrow it way down to a few that possess just the right combination of scenery, personality, infrastructure and accessibility.

We’ll take one in this post – Santorini

While I’m sure most islands have some drama in their past; on that front, I venture none can compete with Santorini. The island as we know it is the caldera of a volcano which erupted in one of the largest explosions ever known on this planet around 1600 BCE. Ash and debris shot 25 miles into the stratosphere and the massive tsunami that followed brought immediate destruction, as well as prolonged environmental devastation that lead to the extinction of the powerful Minoan civilization.

Akrotiri fresco

Akrotiri fresco

The Minoans were centered in Crete but their influence was widespread and they had colonies on a number of Aegean islands. Akrotiri on Santorini was a Minoan settlement that was preserved in volcanic ash, much like Pompeii. No human remains have been found, so it would seem the inhabitants got out in time. What remains is evidence of a very wealthy, sophisticated city. A powerful city that sank into the ocean in a single day, hmmm, does that sound familiar? Could it be Atlantis? Some think so, scholars even. Visit Akrotiri and decide for yourself.

Despite an explosive history, Santorini is a very peaceful place, and thanks to its explosive history, Santorini is extraordinary to look at. Santorini is all about the views. You sit on your hotel terrace and look at the view, you eat your meals looking at the view. When walking around, you really must try to stop looking at the view and watch where you’re going because there are some pretty steep drops.

Most habitation is perched on the caldera rim, a sheer 1,000 feet over the sea. Fira is the main town, with the most happening. Oia is a little out of the way, quieter and more romantic. Imerovigli is closer to Fira but quiet and sits higher than either Fira or Oia, so claims superior views. Really, the views are good everywhere, as long as there’s nothing in the way.

Most (if not all) Greek island cruises stop in Santorini for a few hours at least. In season (April/May-October) there are frequent flights and ferries from Athens.

Ariadne, Theseus & Dionysus: A Greek Love Triangle

Ariadne Giving Theseus a Ball of String to Find His Way Out of the Maze - 19th century painting by Pelagio Palagi

Ariadne Giving Theseus a Ball of String to Find His Way Out of the Maze – 19th century painting by Pelagio Palagi

In Greek mythology, the islands of Crete and Naxos were each the setting of different chapters in the life and times of the deified princess Ariadne. She was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and half-sister to the Minotaur, the part bull-part man conceived by her mother Pasiphae after a short affair with a bull. Continue reading

Crete

Knossos fresco

Knossos fresco

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, 160 miles long and 37 miles across at the widest point, located 99 miles south of Athens at the very southern border of the Aegean Sea and of the European continent. One blog post will not do justice to Crete’s many, diverse attractions but we’ll take a stab at an informative overview.

Crete was the center of the highly sophisticated, pre-Greek Minoan civilization which thrived from approximately 3,000 BCE until it vanished about 1,500 years later. Its main city was Knossos but it had settlements all over Crete, around the Aegean, and even on mainland Turkey. At its height, Minoan influence rivaled that of ancient Egypt.

Most tourism development on Crete is on the north coast of the island; some areas are densely packed with mass market facilities. The main centers are Heraklion, Chania, Hersonnisos and Elounda.

Venetian Harbor, Heraklion

Venetian Harbor, Heraklion

Heraklion is the commercial and administrative center of Crete, the major city on the island and one of Greece’s largest cities, not so much a tourist destination as a hub for air and sea traffic. It is, however, a sophisticated city with excellent dining, shopping and nightlife and its proximity to Knossos and world-class archaeological museum are reason enough to spend at least a few hours in Heraklion.

Phaistos

Phaistos

Knossos is 3 miles from Heraklion. It’s the most thoroughly restored of Crete’s Minoan ruins but the accuracy of the restoration is questionable and has a bit of a theme park feel. For less flashy but still very grand Minoan ruins, see Phaistos, about 40 miles southwest of Heraklion, and Aigia Triada, a few miles from Phaistos. Artifacts from the Minoan sites can be viewed at the excellent Archaeological Museum in Heraklion.

Venetian Harbor, Chania

Venetian Harbor, Chania

Chania is an exceptionally picturesque little city, especially the well-preserved old city with Venetian and Ottoman buildings clustered around the harbor.

On the far northeast end of the island, about 50 miles from Heraklion, is Elounda, mostly known for luxury resorts.

White Mountains (Lefka Ori), Crete

White Mountains (Lefka Ori), Crete

Crete’s interior is mountainous and cut through with stunning gorges. A serious hiker can easily spend weeks trekking about. More casual hikers should check out sections of the coast-long E4 trail, especially in the White Mountains near Chania and the Psiloritis Mountains near Heraklion. The Samarian Gorge, near Chania, is a very popular day hike.

There is a great variety of beaches on Crete, from long and sandy to short and rocky. In general, those on the north coast are more crowded than those on the south coast. Knowing when you’ll be there and specifically what you desire in a beach experience will help us suggest where to go.

During season (April-October), there are multiple daily flights from Athens to Chania, Heraklion and, to a lesser degree, the new airport at Sitia. Flights from Rhodes and Santorini in high season are also a possibility.

Cruise ships dock at Heraklion. Ferries travel from Athens to Heraklion and Chania and from Santorini and Rhodes to Heraklion.