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My Great Greek Adventure: Santorini’s Secret Side

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(Photo by Eurokinissi/ Klodian Lato)

As one of the most frequented islands in Europe and among the most popular locations in Greece, Santorini is very well known. One of the most famous Cyclades Islands in the southern Aegean Sea, Santorini is a common image that pops into people's minds when thinking of Greece. The island is actually formed by a volcano, the center of which is visible right in the middle of the sea that Santorini wraps around. Santorini is shaped like the letter C, and the now-halfway submerged volcanic Caldera named Nea Kameni is visible from any angle on the inner side of the island. It is now classified as dormant but still releases steam, making natural hot springs pop up across the land. The last time it erupted may have been witnessed by people you know, as it happened as recently as 1950, but this volcano has been active for many millennia and has changed the shape and civilization and the island of Santorini.

One of the most catastrophic eruptions to hit Santorini happened around 1600 BC. The Thera eruption as it is called, completely wiped out nearby ancient civilizations and towns across the island. The people that lived here were related to the Minoan civilization of Greece according to the art and artifacts found beneath the rubble. Similar societies with the same art and culture also thrived on the nearby island of Crete. According to records from around the world all the way into the modern day, it is seen as one of the largest volcanic eruptions ever recorded. Measuring at a 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, this geological event was massive and destructive. An eruption of this size would be preceded by earthquakes and tsunamis. This is probably why few human remains were found in the ancient ruins on Santorini, as they had some sort of warning before it blew up. Records from the same time period in Egypt and China speak of erratic weather events and thick particles in the air.

You can witness the effects of Santorini's volcanic eruption by visiting the ruins of Akrotiri. Located on the southern part of the island, it is far from the tourist hot spots but still reachable by public bus transport and car. Within the protective roof is an almost entirely preserved ancient town, allowing you to clearly see the delineations of house walls, sophisticated drainage systems, and organized roads. This settlement is often referred to as the Greek Pompeii, since both were entombed in volcanic ash.

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Photo by Eurokinissi, file)

Along the south side of Santorini you will discover the beach beauty of the island, in contrast to the more publicized white and blue houses on the hillsides to the north. Santorini has more to offer in regards to the sea, including red, black, and white sand beaches. Simply called White Beach and Red Beach, these volcanic marvels are located on the southern tip of the island, the former only being accessible by boat. The west side of the island is the most popular for a beach day, especially the town of Kamari and its long stretch of black sand beach. The town is shaded by a tall cliff, which has the ruins of Ancient Thera atop of it. If you are looking for a place to grab a drink and a bite to eat, Sea Side by Notos is the coolest beach front restaurant and bar around, catering to many A-list celebrities. Kamari is next to the airport, making it a breezy location to rent a room and relax by the beach.

If you are arriving by ferry boat, the main port is at the base of the cliffs in Megalochori. Here, you will be able to find rental cars or public transport up the hillside to the town. It is still close to the airport as Santorini is not very wide across. This area is quieter and more spread out among its buildings, but it still full of those famous Santorini views. Continuing along the west coast of the island, the next town you will pass by is Thera. It is one of the most well-known areas in Santorini, with many shops and restaurants in characteristic blue and white. From Thera you have a clear view of the Caldera and the volcano just a few kilometers out to sea. At this point you can fully perceive Santorini's C shape, and both of its ends. A local pro tip is to catch the sunset in Thera, because it has one of the highest altitudes on the island and gives you a perfect front row seat.

As you continue on towards the northernmost point of the island, you will pass many churches built high on the cliffs. The one you must see is called Profitis Ilias, located on the small side road after another church Agios Markos. In order to reach these churches you park in the small lot at the base of the road, and walk the rest of the way up the hill. From Profitis Ilias you have a full panoramic view of Santorini, looking both east and west far off into the Aegean Sea. It is these hidden and holy places that help you truly understand and connect to the island.

The last stop on the main road is probably the most photographed place in Santorini and a quintessential image of Greece. The town of Oia is popular throughout the world for its traditional Cycladic houses and a dreamlike vision of a town built right into the cliffside, perfect in blue and white. For this reason, it is also the most frequented and crowded place on the island. The winding pathways and alleys could keep you entertained and amazed for hours. In order to truly enjoy this adventure, traveling to Santorini in the Fall or Spring months could save you from the crowds. Then you could walk up to the old Byzantine Castle ruins at the very edge of the town and admire how all the buildings are pieced together like a big puzzle. Along the cliffside you can clearly see the red soil that speaks of Santorini's lively past and its future.