Saturday, 20 July 2013

Testament to the Power of a Volcano

On my last blog post, I was mentioning ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ and their mythical connection to Santorini. Well, their story continues … after having quite an adventure searching for the ‘Golden Fleece’, our intrepid band of heroes apparently sailed past Thira (now Santorini) on their return journey, only to encounter a bronze giant known as Talos who stood on top of a mountain throwing giant rocks at passing ships in order to keep them away from his kingdom. Many historians have naturally drawn an analogy here with the violent volcanic eruptions that occurred on the island over 3600 years ago. By all accounts this must have been an apocalyptic event, with the devastation literally tearing the island apart and wiping out its Minoan inhabitants. There are also several theories that the Santorini eruption may have even caused the destruction of the legendary city of Atlantis.

Early into our visit, Jules and I had taken the bus to the archeological dig Akrotiri where an ancient Minoan village has been uncovered from around the time of the eruption. While it is nowhere near as large or as in tact as Pompeii, it is relatively well preserved and did give us some idea of what life might have been like before this catastrophic event. However, in order to get a real sense of what caused this devastation, we had to do no more than look across the water from our verandah to the baron looking island of Nea Kameni to see the remnants of the burnt out volcano. Not that its completely finished yet, because as recently as 1950 it has been providing small eruptions just to remind everyone that it is still a force.

So early one morning we boarded one of the many wooden boats that take visitors over to the desolate island to allow them to come as close as they dare to an active volcano. On our particular boat, there was a large contingent from Finland who I think were actually more interested in enjoying the sun, beer and swimming in the crystal clear waters than actually hiking up a steep hill to see a dormant volcano, but it was all part of their tour package so they were happy to go along. When we docked, what struck us immediately was the unearthly quality of the landscape. What looked from a distance to be scrubby spinifex, turned out to be piles of misshaped rocks that had obviously been a result of the volcano long ago. There was little in the way of plant life at all, so much so that if a film director wanted to produce a sci-fi movie set on a distant planet, here would be a very good place to start.

The trek to the highest point of the volcano was dry and dusty and while there was plenty of evidence of previous volcanic activity, there appeared to be very little happening today. Deep chasms of crumbling rock suggested the areas where the volcanic vents may lay, but for now we would just have to be satisfied with the desolate landscape the unnatural views provided. More tangible evidence could be found at the other side of the island with the promise of a swim in the hot springs that lay just off shore. This greatly excited our Finland friends who were the first to leap off the boat when we arrived. By the time I finally hopped in and headed toward the warm waters, I could see them already in the shallows, caking themselves from head to toe in volcanic mud amongst much laughter. The mud is apparently good for the skin, but to me it just gave them the appearance of having been covered in chocolate sauce, which I guess was part of the fun.

Reading some earlier background information about the volcanic eruption, it was claimed that its force was the equivalent of 1000 atomic bombs. While such an impact is almost unimaginable, the end result was that Santorini, which was originally one island, suddenly was split into several islands of various sizes. One of the largest pieces to detach itself became the island of Thirasia, which we could see quite clearly from our apartment verandah. With a resident population of around 200 people, it is quite an isolated existence, however what the locals do rely upon is the daily visit of tourists and so that would be our next destination. With the Fins finally cleaned up, back on board and happily sitting back with a beer in hand, we headed across the straight to the next island.

Thirasia is an idyllic little settlement with all the scenic benefits of its larger neighbours but without the noise of traffic or other problems that result from a larger population. Things here are pretty much as they have been for decades, with ‘mod-cons’ only slowly beginning to infiltrate their traditional existence. A few small open-air tavernas nestle along the coast with families selling all kinds of meat and fish dishes cooked over wood fire coals. While the folk from Finland were tucking into lunch, Jules and I decided to walk the shore to find a nice secluded spot for a swim. While the beaches consisted purely of washed pebbles, there were still plenty of nice spots off the rocks to experience the pristine waters of the bay. Later, we walked down to a small wooden platform overlooking the water where ‘Tony the Greek’ prepared us both the best souvlaki we had ever tasted.

Back on the boat late into the afternoon, everyone appeared relaxed and subdued. Whether it was the long lunch, the heat or the copious amount of beer drunk by our Finnish friends, there was a certain quietness that had not been there earlier. The afternoon breezes had picked up as we held onto our hats and sailed on to the village Oia on the main island. Here a few of us would get off to enjoy the setting sun while others including group from Finland would head back to Fira. As we climbed the steep steps to the town, it was tempting to call on the services of a donkey as many seem to do but Jules is more principled than that and simply wouldn’t expect an animal to do something that she couldn’t do for herself, so we pressed on. When we finally reached the top, we could see our little wooden ship heading off into the distance against the backdrop of the two islands we had visited. Both of these islands had been born through the violent power of nature, but what had been created remained truly unique. It had been an enlightening and enjoyable day and in the end we both felt that it was somehow testament to Santorini that such a major volcanic eruption could not destroy its rugged beauty.

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