Kalimera my friends!
Today is our final day of exploration on a handful of the Greek islands. As with many of the other posts, we’re going to be looking into Greek history and bypassing much of the city sites. While I would like to visit Oia someday, my priorities on this trip lay with the ancient peoples and as such, today we’re visiting the ancient ruins at Akrotiri. But first? A little about the island of Santorini.
Santorini is nestled around a caldera, most notable for a major eruption during the Minoan Era. This eruption – one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history – is known as the Minoan Eruption. It left the caldera filled with hundreds of feet of volcanic ash, and triggered a tsunami which some historians credit to the origin of the legend of Atlantis (more on this later). Santorini is the largest island of seven around the caldera, and while most simply call it “Santorini”, the official name of the island is Thíra.
In modernity, Santorini is famous for its whitewashed buildings and blue roofs, making it the most recognizable Greek island. The capital city Fira and northwestern Oia are the most recognizable of its cities and are popular tourist sites.
Our trip took us away from the picturesque city of Fira to the town of Akrotiri. Here, we entered what has to be one of the most unique archaeological sites I’ve ever seen. It dates back to 5000 BCE, when the site was a fishing village. Over the next two thousand years, the settlement continued to expand and ultimately became an important trade center between the Minoans and other Aegean cultures of the time. Ancient Akrotiri became a prosperous town, being both an ideal site for copper production as well as boasting high quality goods, paved roads, and an impressive drainage system.
Then came the volcano.
Ancient Akrotiri is often referred to as the Greek Pompeii because of the similarities in their circumstances. In the 16th century, the caldera’s volcano erupted and covered the city in ash. I mentioned earlier the relevance of the story of Atlantis to the Minoan Eruption – some scholars believe that Ancient Akrotiri may be the site that inspired the story, lost due to a natural disaster and uninhabited ever after.
To be noted – I refer to the site as Ancient Akrotiri and it has been named such after the nearby town… but this site’s true name is unknown. In fact, this site is still largely unexcavated and discoveries are still being found. What’s particularly interesting about Ancient Akrotiri and differs from Pompeii is the lack of human remains. No skeletal figures have been uncovered, and only a single gold object has been found. This golden goat can be seen in the Thera Prehistoric Museum. The lack of bodies and wealth implies that the original inhabitants must have had some kind of warning about the eruption and attempted to flee.
The layers of volcanic ash have kept the site incredibly well-preserved. Several frescoes have been found and relocated to the National Archaeological Museum in Athens. The most notable of these is the Spring Fresco, which was not only found completely intact, but was still attached to the wall! This is an incredibly rare find, particularly due to the earthquakes throughout the Aegean region that disrupted many other ancient cities.
Unlike many other archaeological sites we’ve seen during this trip, the ancient frescoes have not been recreated at the site. These can only be seen in the archeological museums or through photographs posted online. I wish I could show you fist hand photos, but we didn’t spend any time in Athens on this trip – someday!
In modernity, Akrotiri stands apart from other archaeological sites because of the bioclimatic roof and walkways. Due to the age of the find, the roof was installed in hopes of better protecting this valuable site from the elements. There are also raised walkways which allow visitors to walk above the city and better view the two and three story buildings.
Akrotiri has been an active archaeological site since 1967, with the exception of an eleven year period between 2005 and 2016 due to lack of funding. Even though this may seem like a long time to be excavating a single site, this site was discovered nearly one hundred years after Knossos and due to the layers of volcanic ash, requires particular care. In terms of archaeological study, Ancient Akrotiri is still a relatively recent find.
Aside from frescoes and the golden goat, various other items have been discovered at Akrotiri that offer a glimpse into life at this ancient settlement. Pottery has been one of the most common discoveries both because of its importance in daily use, but also because of the materials used in creating it. Organic matter decays over time, and so items made of wood no longer exist. However, due to the covering of volcanic ash, natural molds were created of these items and using plaster, the hollows can be filled to reveal the original shape. In this way, archaeologists have found beds and tables.
After exploring the ruins at Akrotiri, we headed to Santo Wines in Pyrgos where we sampled a white wine and some snacks while enjoying a beautiful view of the caldera. It was a far different experience than the one we had just come from and we found it refreshing to relax in the shade alongside an incredible view.
I will be honest – as much as I want to be a wine person, I’m simply not, and I don’t have the palette to tell you whether or not the wine was good. However, judging by the snippets I heard from the people around me, folks seemed to be enjoying it. That said, the view of the caldera is incredible and it’s a nice place to stop should you find yourself in Pyrgos… even if you don’t drink wine. They are a winery and that’s the recommended beverage of course, but there are other options.
Once we were refreshed and refueled, we journeyed back to Fira where we were left to explore the city for as long as we pleased (as long as we didn’t miss final call on the Jade, of course). We personally didn’t spend too much time in Fira, but for the short time we were there, it was easy to see why the architecture is so famous – it’s beautiful. Again, this is a port city with many shopping opportunities for those so inclined. The only thing we purchased in Fira is a postcard (we collect them from our travels) and a strawberry sorbet, which I don’t regret at all. The ice cream and such is extra delicious in Greece, or maybe that’s the extreme heat wave talking.
Wandering through Fira reminded me of wandering through a market bazaar – many of the stores lie along narrow pathways only accessible by foot traffic. It’s not a city to take lightly – there are a lot of sloping paths and staircases to get from one place to another. You get a decent workout just walking through it all!
The city of Fira is built on the edge of a cliff (pictured in the first photograph in this post) and there are two ways to access the city from the sea – by a winding zigzagged path and by cable car. We took the cable car down because everyone recommended against the path… mostly because of the donkeys. I will pass on to you, dear reader, what was told to us. Don’t take the donkeys! While that may seem like a fun and instagrammable thing to do, it’s not particularly safe. Outside of the smell and the heat of the long journey down, the donkeys are known to be a bit reckless and unconcerned about their rider’s safety in their rush to get to the reward at the end of the path. Honestly, the cable car is your best bet.
With this comes the end of our journey through Santorini, and thus, the end of our journey through Greece! There were a few islands I’d like to see again, and some I am happy to have seen but have no deep desire to return. Overall, I think it was a great experience and it taught me that even for a historian like me, visiting ruins every single day can get a bit repetitive. Really, though, it was so nice to get away despite the heat and experience something new and get back on a boat! As I mentioned in my post about the Norwegian Jade, we felt so safe and cared for aboard this ship.
So of course, two months later, we went on another ship!
We’re just two weeks returned from Alaska so next Friday I’m going to jump right in and talk about that trip. We’ll start with introducing you to the Norwegian Encore and I’m curious to compare the two – the Jade and the Encore are very different classes of ship, and I’m interested in sharing the differences between sailing internationally and sailing domestic because I have little doubt the rules will differ. Stay tuned!
Are you a wine drinker? If so, what is your preference? And also, what’s your secret to adapting your palatte to wine? Inquiring minds want to know. Share your thoughts in the comments!