On a cruise in 2006 we visited the island of Santorini. Santorini is a small, circular archipelago of volcanic islands located in the southern Aegean Sea, about 200 km southeast from Greece’s mainland. It is also known as Thera.
It is essentially what remains of an enormous volcanic explosion, and sits in a caldera, a cauldron-like volcanic feature usually formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption. The area of the Aegean surrounding Santorini is a giant lagoon, more or less rectangular, and measuring about 12 km by 7 km (8 mi by 4 mi), the town is surrounded by 300 m (984 ft) high steep cliffs on three sides. The island slopes downward from the cliffs to the surrounding sea, quite breath taking when viewed from the water.
The island is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions the planet has ever seen: the Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption), which occurred some 3,600 years ago at the height of the Minoan civilization. Plato alluded to the Minoan eruption as being the cause of the disappearance of the lost continent of Atlantis, and many believe that it existed in this part of the Aegean. So the island was born of volcanic activity, and it is still one of the most active volcanic sites in the world. A devastating earthquake struck Santorini in 1956. Although the volcano is quiescent at the present time, at the current active crater steam and sulphur dioxide are given off.
Fira, the town on the cliffs, is beautiful and a European hot spot known for it’s nightlife. There are two ways to get from the piers at the base of the cliffs up to Fira. A cable car, or, for the daring, there is a dogleg stairway composed of 600 marble steps. The steps are around 6 – 7 feet wide, and there’s a very good reason for that. Until ten years ago the steps were the only way to get up to Fira. If one didn’t wish to walk, one rode a donkey up the hill. Today there are dozens of donkey tenders, each with around twenty donkeys tethered together in a train that will take you up or down the hill for a fee.
Being that the temperature on the day in July we were there was around 30 degrees Celsius (86 degree Fahrenheit), I declined to climb up the steps, but going back we were in danger of being late back to the ship so we decided to walk down. That proved to be an experience I will never forget.
Try to imagine, if you will, a train of around twenty donkeys, hot, ornery, tired donkeys, “controlled” by only one person. You’re walking down these slippery marble steps, which are covered in donkey droppings, trying not to end up on your ass. Suddenly you hear a mighty roar behind you. A sense of dread overcomes you, and against your better judgement you turn your head and look in the direction of the sound. Yes, you guessed it. Twenty or so donkeys are charging, galloping if you will, directly at you. There is nowhere to hide. Running is out of the question. They’re faster than you, and you’ll just end up maimed anyway. You can try to blend into the hill side of the steps and hope you don’t get trampled, and if you’re lucky that’s how it will go. But it’s not over. Oh, no. In a few minutes there will be another donkey train coming at you, the passengers looking apologetic as they bump you aside. That’s how it went all the way down those 600 steps. Should we have ridded down instead? Somehow I couldn’t imagine it, and the people who did didn’t seem too pleased with their decision either.
Anyway, Fira was a beautiful town, and we had lunch on the balcony of a splendid cafe overlooking the caldera, with the swimming pools of the wealthy and the blue roofs of their blindingly white houses to gaze at (all of the houses in Greece seem to be white with blue roofs, those are the national colors)whenever we tired of looking at the deep blue Aegean.
If you’re ever in Greece, do make a trip to Santorini. The history there is amazing.