Thursday, 18 July 2013

Trekking with the Argonauts

When I was very young, I remember watched the 1963 movie version of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ that told of the adventures of a band of Greek heroes who sailed the seas in search of the ‘Golden Fleece’. It was a movie with plenty of imaginary creatures and some impressive stop-motion animation that was way ahead of its time. Yet more significantly, it was a film chock full of references to Greek mythology, which at the time was all very new, but both exotic and exciting. I had just about forgotten the Argonauts epic adventure until I began to read about Santorini and its place within this legendary tale. According to the story, the Argonauts were gifted with a piece of earth by the God Triton, which was then tossed into the sea where it miraculously turned into an island. The Argonauts were so impressed with this island that they called it ‘Kalisti’ meaning ‘the most beautiful one’. Later renamed Santorini by the Roman Catholic crusaders, for centuries the island continued to shape and evolve as a result of a series of violent volcanic eruptions. However, despite the turmoil of its transformation, the beauty has somehow remained and the description the Argonauts gave to the island still holds true.

Jules and I decided to explore the rugged beauty of Santorini by breaking away from our tourist comforts in the village of Imerovigli and hitting the coastal trail. After all, our verandah faced directly onto one of the islands most prominent natural landmarks on the northwestern cliff face. ‘Skaros Rock’ is a geological monolith that looks as if has been lifted straight from a John Ford western and somehow placed into the Mediterranean. It is in fact an uninhabited outcrop of land jutting out from the cliffs and is an ideal place to view the entire coastline. This was exactly what the Catholic settlers of the Byzantine era thought too when they set about building a medieval fortress on the rock to warn the inhabitants of imminent pirate raids. Although this was a significant structure, repeated volcanic activity from the 1600’s-1800’s eventually resulted in it crashing into the ocean, returning the rock to its natural state. As we walked around we could spot just a few remnants of the original buildings but the giant rock itself appears to have been scarcely effected by the impact of man or nature’s elements over the years by remaining as prominent as ever.

Looking northward down the coast and despite the 30+ degree temperature, we thought that we might tackle the challenging 5 kilometre trek from Imerovigli to Oia around Mousaki Bay. In doing so we were walking a path that still remains largely unaffected by the ever-widening string of white wash apartments that stretch along the peaks of the northwestern cliff face. As we walked on a dusty track worn by the gradual disintegration of ancient volcanic rocks, we could certainly appreciate the dramatic nature of this harsh landscape, as well as the difficult existence for the Islands earliest inhabitants. This can be so easily overlooked by today’s visitors, who tend to stick to the villages or choose to simply lay back on their sun beds next to their infinity pools while occasionally peering out at the vast ocean views. On the track, the views are just as impressive, but here they contrast against a stunningly rugged coastline where the notion of a swim remains temptingly out of reach. This must have been quite exasperating for the early inhabitants, as down below there is a sheltered bay that looks as if this might have been an ideal place for a port, if it wasn’t for the sheer steepness of the surrounding cliffs.

However what you do have here, in addition to the view, is silence and isolation. This is a place for contemplation and possibly a spiritual connection, as in this most deserted of areas you can find a number of small iconic chapels. For some reason these tend to appear in some of most secluded places on the island, as if a testing pilgrimage to an uninhabited spot was something of a requirement for followers of the Greek Orthodox faith. As expected there was indeed a tiny white chapel at the highest point of the track and from here we could also clearly see the picturesque town of Oia jutting out from the most northerly tip of the island. This is the jewel of Santorini; meticulously maintained white washed buildings, blue domes and its distinctive marble footpaths. It’s no wonder that the town remains the most photographed area of the island and certainly the most sought after spot to watch the setting sun.

As we headed down the slope for the final leg of our trek, Jules and I could almost taste the ice cold beer that was waiting for us somewhere down in Oia and at that stage we knew it would be well deserved. As we came closer we could once again see many of the high-end apartments staggered along the cliff face overlooking a bay dotted with luxury yachts. Tanned bodies were baking on their sun beds while others splashed in their glistening blue pools. I’m not quite sure what the Argonauts would make of their island today but I would like to think that high up on the wind swept cliffs, Jules and I experienced just a taste of what they and the original pioneer settlers saw in this ruggedly beautiful island, with its dramatic coastline and endless sea views.

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