Saturday, November 24, 2007

Santorini, Greece

Santorini is one of the places we had anticipated going to, as we had been told that it is a very beautiful and scenic island. We were somewhat disappointed in the majority of the island, because it is very dry and scrubby. We took a tour of the island that included the mountain of Elijah the Prophet with a church on top, a visit to a winery, and the villages of Fira and Oia (pronounced EE-A). We saw how the grapes are grown for the wine, which is different from what we are used to. There are no trellises; the vines are wound into a basket shape on the ground & the fruit is tucked inside the basket, to protect it from the strong winds. At the winery we got to taste three different varieties of local wine: a red, a white, and a heavy dessert wine.

Santorini is at this time what appears to be a collection of islands. The island frequented by tourists is Thira, which I believe is the largest of the islands. Santorini was originally a volcano, and is now a ring of islands surrounding a couple of lava islands, which are the original volcano. We had heard that there is a caldera - a lake in the volacano's crater - but it turns out that enough of the original island is underwater that where the cruise ship anchors is in the caldera. It is indistinguishable from the ocean around it. The caldera is also where the cruise ship sank last summer; there is a net in the area to contain the oil from the ship. We were surprised to see how close to the island it was. I still can't imagine taking a ship in that close unless it was planning to dock.

From a distance the villages look like a dusting of snow on top of the islands. The villages of Fira and Oia themselves did not disappoint for post-card quality scenery. They are beautiful. When returning to the tender, it is possible to walk down a flight of 600 stairs, ride a donkey down the same stairs (and yes, you will need to be careful where you step if you walk down). The third alternative, which is the most recommended one, is a cable car. Tina chose to walk down the stairs and paid with sore muscles for several days afterwards, even though we always take the stairs when we are on a ship.

Of interest to me were the half-cylinder roofs on most of the buildings. It turns out that they help make the buildings more earthquake proof: what it does is give the building elasticity so it can move with the earthquake. (An aside about the island of Rhodes - our tour guide there told us that their buildings are built to withstand Richter 12 earthquakes, the kind with vertical movement of plates, which are much more severe than ones where the movement is horizontal.)

I found the geology of the island to be the most interesting part of it. You can see all of the different kinds of rocks - lava (black), iron (red), limestone (white), and pumice (pale gray). The latter is no longer commercially mined, though it used to be a major export.

Our tour started out by going up a switchback road from the port to the top of the island. That is quite an experience in a tour bus, but not as scary as expected. The first stop was the church of Elijah the Prophet, where we saw beautiful little lavender autumn crocus growing. From there we went to the winery, and after that drove to the far end of the island, to Oia. We got off the bus there to explore and/or shop. We stopped in Fira only long enough to let the people off the bus who wanted to explore there and get back to the ship on their own. Our guide pointed out an isolated rock on top of the mountain where the Venetians stayed when they occupied the island. It is a place with only one narrow foot path giving access to it.

We were glad that we signed up for a shore excursion for Santorini. That seemed to us to be the only way to see much of the island. We are glad we got to see the island, but don't feel a need to return, although I believe we will be returning on the world cruise.

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