The precious gem of the Aegean Sea, Santorini, lies at the southernmost point of the Cycladic Islands. It is a complex of small islands and it is still an active volcano, probably the only volcano on earth whose crater is in the sea. The island was initially round and what remains today after a great volcanic eruption around 1650 AD is a large caldera and an archipelago of five islands. Santorini, the largest one, Thirassia, the uninhabited Aspronissi, and the two smaller islands formed from volcanic material, Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni. The island is a natural geological museum.
Santorini is the most intriguing island in Greece. It is renowned for its unique, wild beauty to such a degree that it attracts people from all over the world to come and enjoy its every little corner. Its name is more than enough to unfold in mind stunning sunsets, white, black and red beaches. Its many impressive traditional houses, blue-domed churches and balconies with a view to the volcano and a lively night life!
Wherever you cast your eyes, you are surrounded by blue water, the infinite clear sky and the endless light of the sun that caresses the white-washed houses and churches of the villages and towns perched on the rim of the cliff.
Santorini does not have one, but many faces and each shows a different side of this paradise. What is there to say about its history, its archaeological sites, Venetian castles, narrow paths and alleys winding within the villages?
These are but a few of the treasures one can discover on this island which is a world destination.
VOLCANIC ERUPTION AND HISTORY
The devastating volcanic eruption of Thira may have been one of the biggest volcanic eruptions on Earth in the last few thousand years.
The violent eruption was centered on a small island just north of the existing island of Nea Kameni in the centre of the caldera. The caldera itself, the largest of its kind, was formed several hundred thousand years ago, by the collapse of the centre of a circular island, caused by the emptying of the magma chamber during the eruption. All that was left on the surface were segments of its perimeter which today constitute Santorini, Thirasia, and Aspronisi.
The eruption wiped out human presence on the island which was inhabited once again at the end of the 13th century BC by the Phoenicians who stayed for five generations. Then the Dorians arrived, founded a colony and named the island Thira after their King’s name. In the years that followed Thira built trade relations with most of the islands and Greek cities and was one of the first places in Greece that used the Phoenician alphabet.
Christianity reached Thira around the 3rd century. An important monument from this period is the elegant little church of Panagia Episkopi at Exo Gonia, built by Alexios Comninos I. In 1204 it fell under the Venetian occupation and became part of the Duchy of Naxos. In this period the Crusaders changed the name of the island to Santorini after a small chapel dedicated to Aghia Irini (Santa Irene).
The 18th century was of great affluence and commercial shipping enjoyed a period of great expansion. Industry began to grow in the form of tomato processing, wine making and textiles. Throughout the next few hundred years Santorini had a peaceful period of self-determination, although this was disrupted by the German occupation during World War II.
In the meantime the volcano continued to erupt over the years. On the whole 14 eruptions were recorded between 198 B.C. and 1950. The Palea and Nea Kameni islands near Santorini were created by these eruptions.
Thira also suffered a terrible earthquake in 1956, which led to a huge decrease of the population ending in an economic catastrophe. However, the island finally managed to gain its strength again and from the late 1970s tourism has developed. Nowadays, Santorini is an international resort, undoubtedly one of the major tourist destinations, attracting people worldwide who come to experience its magic atmosphere and the unique and famous sunset.
In 1832, Santorini and the other Cyclades Islands were united to the New Greek State.
FORMATION OF THE CALDERA
Caldera is a Spanish word which means cauldron. This name is used for the lagoon of Santorini as is has been formed after a volcanic eruption, thus everything inside it is hot.
About two million years ago, Santorini was a small non-volcanic island and remains can still be seen at Mount Profitis Ilias which is made from non-volcanic limestone. Then, volcanoes under the sea started producing magma, resulting in a number of small islands.
Around 500,000 years ago there were two giant ‘shield volcanoes’. These were mountains in the shape of flat cones, which united with the non-volcanic island to form one big island. Neither of these mountains exists today, but geologists have given them names. The northern mountain is called Mount Peristeria while the mountain in the south part is called Mount Thera.
About 200,000 years ago, Mount Thera started to produce vast amounts of magma and ash, eventually completely emptying the magma chamber under the mountain. The structure of the mountain was not able to support itself and it went crashing downwards into the empty magma chamber, leaving a caldera – a wide, deep hole in the ground. This process was repeated in a whole series of eruptions over the next 200,000 years, with both mountains producing magma, collapsing, re-growing and collapsing again, each time deepening the caldera and eventually leaving the island in the shape it is today.
The Caldera is nowadays covering approximately 32 square miles and the water’s depth varies from 250 to 450 meters. At the western end of the caldera, we find the island of Therasia and the uninhabited island of Aspronissi. Looking closely at those three islands we can easily distinguish a virtual borderline of what used to be there before the caldera was formed. The height of the Santorini caldera is between 150 to 350 meters.
The shape of the present-day caldera has changed many times during the centuries, because of the uninterrupted volcanic activity.
The island today is generally referred to as Thira or Santorini but it has also been known by other names throughout centuries.
The very ancient name was Strongyli which means the “round one”. This name was given because of the round shape of the group of islands which form Santorini. This name also has its parallel with the Italian volcanic island of Stromboli, which was also called Strongyli by ancient Greeks.
According to tradition, the island was then called Kallisti, meaning “the most beautiful”. Kadmos the son of Agenor, stopped at Kallisti during one of his wanderings in search of Europe. He left behind a group of Phoenicians who were accompanying him and these Phoenicians occupied the island until the arrival of Thiras.
In antiquity, Thiras, son of Autesion, who was the descendant of Polyneikes, colonized the island together with the Venetians who ruled the Cycladic islands during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries AD. Thiras, having brought with him a band of Mycaenians from Sparta, made the island a colony of the Lacedaemonians.
The name Santorini is much more recent and it is the name that Greeks use nowadays for this group of islands. The name Santorini, which has a Latin root, was given by the Venetians who, after the Fourth Crusade in 1204 had dominion over the islands. The origin of the name was the Chapel of Aghia Irini (Santa Irene) which was built in Thirasia. The Chapel was situated on a small bay where the Venetians moored their boats.
Santorini beaches stand out because of the encounter of volcanic material in the blue waters and the saltiness of the Aegean. From north to south, the coastline of the island, alternates in color and consists of several beaches, large or small, even beaches whose names do not appear on maps.
In the north the beaches of Baxedes, Pori and Koloumbos are quiet for those who want to avoid overcrowded places. Baxedes is the surfers’ paradise because of the strong north winds.
The most famous beaches are with black pebbly sand, result of the volcanic eruption. The most renowned black beaches are those of Kamari, which is the most organized beach of the island. Perissa, and Perivolos, are preferred among the younger crowds, as you find many beach bars. It is also a paradise for water sports.
In the south part of the island we find the famous Red beach, which is very impressive as everything is red; the rocks, the sand, the pebbles. Next to it is the White beach, accessible only by sea. It is a small beach, but surrounded by white cliffs from where it got its name.
Santorini has 15 really unique villages, many of which still remain untouched by the touristic development. On the west side we have the capital of Fira, at about 260m above sea level. It offers breathtaking views over the caldera. It is also the commercial and administrative center of the island. Firostefani, which means the crown of Fira is just a walk’s distance from the capital. It is a quiet area with hotels and lots of choices for dining in a romantic atmosphere.
Continuing towards the north, you come across Imerovigli, at the most privileged position on the cliff, at about 300m above sea level. It is called a “natural balcony” over the caldera. Finally, Oia all perched over the rim of the cliff also offers an amazing view over the volcano. Underneath Oia is the little village of Ammoudi. The 19th century commercial port is now a fish and seafood paradise.
Other villages are scattered in the central part of the island or on the east coastline. For example, Pyrgos, which is the most popular village of the island. It was the capital of Santorini in the 1800s and has beautiful whitewashed houses and blue domed churches. Another traditional settlement is Megalochori with a unique architecture, tranquility and imposing tradition.
Whichever the case, all villages keep their traditional architecture, with imposing mansions, Venetian castles and old churches; all symbols of the island throughout the ages and witnesses to the history of this magical island.
Soaking up the distinctive atmosphere of the villages is a very rewarding experience!
A visit to Santorini is the ultimate gastronomic experience, as the island is a true culinary paradise.
The unique volcanic land of Santorini and its perfect climate are the combination needed for the production of high quality products. The volcanic activity has made the soil very fertile; as a result the agriculture of the island developed rapidly and has become well-known around the world.
The local products are small in size, because of the lack of water, but they are of excellent quality.
Firstly, the fava – a kind of split peas – which come from the Lathyrus clymenum, are different from the split peas found in the rest of Greece. They are made into a mashed version, served warm with chopped onions, olive oil and capers.
Capers and caper leaves are widely used in the Cycladic cuisine and in Santorini they are used in the Santorinian salad. Capers grow between rocks and they are preserved dry.
Additionally, the cherry tomatoes which only grow in Santorini, are famous for their small size, hard skin and sweet taste. They are said to have arrived on the island with the captains who used to travel the seas to bring products to the island. The volcanic soil and the moisture accepted this product which has been growing for centuries and is now considered a local product. They are used to prepare the famous domatokeftedes – fried tomato balls with herbs and spices.
The white eggplant is sweet with only a few seeds in the middle and it is served in many variations. and a type of cheese made from goat’s milk called “chloro”. For dessert there is the “koufeto”, a traditional wedding sweet made from honey and almonds. The honey symbolizes a sweet life, while the almonds fertility. “Meletinia” are another traditional sweet that used to be prepared during Easter, but now it is largely found in bakeries and pastry shops.
However, what the island is mostly famous for is its basket-like vineyards with grapes so sweet, producing the famous Santorini wines, considered among the best in the world. The White wines of Assyrtiko. Athiri, Aidani, and the Red wines of Mavrotragano and Mandilaria. The most famous wine, though, is Vinsanto; a sweet wine with a caramel color delicious with dessert and ice-cream.
Santorini is an island which was destroyed by a catastrophic volcanic eruption between 1620-1640 BC. Everything was buried under thick layers of ash, lava and pumice stone. Archaeologists, however, discovered the ancient village of Akrotiri, the oldest and best-preserved bronze-age village in Europe. They unearthed carbonized grape seeds, drawings including evidence of vine cultivation and wine making as well as a number of amphorae that were used to store the wine. All these are proof of the existence of viniculture and winemaking as far back as the Bronze Age.
According to written records, the vineyard of Santorini is the original one that was planted after the eruption of the volcano making it the oldest in Europe. The high content of sand found in the volcanic soil made the area resistant to phylloxera, and most of the vineyards are 100 years old.
The porous volcanic soil of Santorini allows the earth to retain water, giving the vineyards the ability to stay nourished during the high summer temperatures as the only source of water is the nocturnal fog that comes in from the sea. The vines are able to retain the water they need from this evening fog and use it during the warm daylight hours when it is needed most. There is a lot of sun and wind on the island and the only way for the grapes to survive from the direct exposure of the sun and the strong wind is to be protected inside low basket-shaped vines which have a unique pruning system.
Today 20% of the vineyards are planted with the red grapes Mandilaria and Mavrotragano and the rest with the white grapes Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aidani. However, the most dominant white grape in Santorini is the Assyrtiko.
A blend of the Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aedani give life to Nychteri, a wine of high alcoholic content, oaked for a number of years. The grapes which are destined for Nychteri are pressed during the night and that is how the wine gets its name. (“nychta” in Greek means night). Grapes run less of a risk of being oxidized and altered since there is no sunlight, the temperatures are lower and the Aegean winds keep the kanaves (Santorini wineries) cool.
Other characteristically traditional local wines still produced are:
- Vinsanto: the well-known PDO Santorini sweet white wine still produced today
- Mezzo: a red wine a little less sweet than Vinsanto which is undergoing a revival
- Xenoloo: made from grape varieties other than the classic local ones (foreign)
- Brusco: a rough, tannic wine placed in oak barrels. It is produced in all color types from grapes harvested a few at a time for days before they are pressed.
There are many wineries, privately owned, open to the public for a visit as well as wine tasting of their own labels. There is also the Union of Santorini Cooperatives, SantoWines, where everyone is welcome to enjoy a glass of wine on their terrace, with an amazing view of the volcano and the Aegean Sea.
TOWERS AND FORTRESSES (KASTELIA)
During the Byzantine era and even during the Frankish occupation, there were a lot of pirate attacks on the islands of the Aegean Sea. The inhabitants were forced to protect themselves, so they abandoned their homes and moved to more inaccessible areas.
In Santorini, 5 Fortified Settlements known as “Kastelia” and “Goulades” were constructed with watch towers and bells as a warning system. The first tower was built on the rock of Skaros, dating back to the Venetian Rule. It was the capital of the island in those times, and four more castles followed. The castle of Aghios Nikolaos in Oia, Pyrgos Castle in the village of Pyrgos, The Tower of Nimborio in Emporio and “Kasteli” at Emborio and Akrotiri Castle and Tower in Akrotiri.
The lords of the island lived in “Goulades”, which were tower structures that served as defense towers, but also as warehouses for agricultural crops.
The Venetians also brought the Roman Catholic religion, and for centuries, the Catholics and the Orthodox people of the island co-existed. Evidence of this co-existence is apparent in some churches built during that period, which feature two altars; one for the orthodox, and one for the catholic services.
The Rock of Skaros and the Fortress
Skaros was the most important of the five fortified settlements. The rock was inhabited in medieval times; it was fortified and offered protection to the people from pirates.
The original castle, also called “La Roca” was built by the Italian Architect Giacomo Barozzi between 1205 and 1230. A whole settlement expanded around and below the ‘Kasteli’ of Skaros and had 200 houses. Catholics lived here and half an hour’s walk was needed to reach the walls of the castle. At the top of the rock a large bell was hung to warn inhabitants of imminent pirate raids.
Skaros was the capital of Santorini until the 18th century. It had repeatedly been shaken by strong earthquakes which caused considerable damage in the 17th century. The rich Roman Catholics who had once lived there moved to the town of Fira, abandoning the castle for a flatter level accessible by the sea.
Skaros rock is totally uninhabited today, with the exception of a small church, the Chapel of Aghios Ioannis Apokefalisthis, on its north side. As for the old numerous dwellings, only a few ruins are left to justify the previous glory of the largest settlement of its era.
The Kasteli of Oia, Castle of Aghios Nikolaos
In the middle Ages, Oia was one of the 5 “Kastelia” of Santorini and it was called the “Kasteli” of Aghios Nikolaos. It was built in 1450, but it suffered greatly in the earthquake of 1956 as did Oia and much of the traditional settlement disappeared into the sea below. It is from this point that the people of Santorini were keeping an eye on pirates for three centuries, (15th-18th). Nowadays, the ruins of the “Kasteli” are a favorite spot for people to gather and photograph the amazing sunset.
Kasteli (Castle) of Pyrgos
The castle of Pyrgos is the most recent castle, built in 1580. The houses and their walls composed the fortified surrounding wall of the castle and it only had one entrance called “La Porta”. Above the entrance there was a square structure with an opening at its bottom. From here the people would pour burning oil to the invaders. Below the castle there used to be a system of passageways, used for protection or even escape in times of need. There is a church close to the entrance, dedicated to Aghia Theodosia who was the protector of the fortified city-castles.
In the surrounding areas of the Kasteli a new town has been built, which in the past was called ‘Exoporta’ or ‘Outside Door’ by the locals.
In the square in front of the entrance of the Kasteli there is a memorial plaque to remember those who fell in the Balkan and Greek Turkish wars of 1912-1921. The church of Aghios Nikolaos can also be found here.
Pyrgos became the capital of Santorini after the Castle of Skaros was abandoned in the mid 18th century. Fira, has become the capital of Santorini today.
Tower of Nimborio (Emporio) : The ‘Goulas’
The fortified Tower in Emporio is a square structure in the north part of the village. It was built under the Venetian Rule, in the 15th century, (1450), probably by monks of the Abbey of Aghios Ioannis of Theologos in Patmos. In reality, the tower was first used by the monks some time after its erection.
There used to be a small chapel within the walls, dedicated to martyr Christodoulos founder of the Abbey of Patmos. An underground tunnel led to the ‘Kasteli’ (castle).
The Castle of Emporio was the most commercial castle of all. The market of the island was located in this town and all trading transactions took place here. The “Goulas” of Emporio was a place for storing the harvest.
Kasteli (Castle) of Akrotiri : The ‘Goulas’ (Tower)
In Medieval times, Akrotiri was one of the five “Kastelia” on the island.
It was named “La Ponta”, which in Italian means the peak and was built in 1335. In the middle of the settlement stood the “Goulas” of Akrotiri, which was severely damaged during the 1956 earthquake. In 1336 Akrotiri was given to the Gozzadini family by the Duke of Naxos Nikolas Sanudo. Eventually the castle fell to the Turks at the turn of 1617.
A Museum Workshop of Traditional Musical Instruments has been in operation since 2012.
They are an attraction as well as an integral part of the island. They have been the most popular means of transport for years as they are trained to walk in the narrow alleys and sloping stairs.
You can go on a ride from Fira down to the old port or from Oia to its port.
Ancient Thira was built in the 8th century BC on top of Mesa Vouno Mountain by the Dorian colonists. In ancient times it was the civil, administrative and religious center of the Thira city-state. King Thiras, who was the leader of the Dorians, gave his name to the city as well as the island.
Some of the monuments preserved are the Agora, The Gymnasium, the Royal Arcade, The Theater, the temple of Dionysos. There is also a spectacular view from the top to the villages beneath.
Museum of Prehistoric Thira
This museum can be considered an extension of the archaeological site of Akrotiri; it houses frescoes and articrafts of the city that thrived during the 17th century BC. You will find out what has made the island of Santorini the most important center of the Aegean in the 18th and 17th century BC.
There are also findings dating from the 5th millennium BC. The exhibits are all in excellent condition.
Archaeological Museum of Thira
The museum is housed in a 1960 building and the exhibits cover an important part of the island’s history. One of the significant findings is the large volcanic stone, which was lifted by the athlete Evmastas and the Thirian amphora with geometric decoration, found in the cemetery of Ancient Thira dating back to the early 7th century BC.
Naval Museum of Oia
The island of Santorini has a long naval history and what better way to get an insight on the history than at the Naval Museum. Captain Antonios Dakoronias had collected interesting material and is the man behind the foundation of the museum. It is housed inside a 19th century captain house, donated by a local of Oia, Mrs Dina Manolessou-Birbili.
Among the exhibits are old rare manuscripts, books, maps, as well as paintings of old and new ships, tools of local shipbuilders, uniforms.
For those interested in naval history this small museum is large in the grandeur that springs from the glorious past of its seamen.
You can find 5 star luxurious hotels overlooking the caldera. 4 or 5 star hotels can also be found in most villages, or on the beaches, many of which with a view.
Whatever your dream, we will help you choose the best for your unforgettable holidays.
International country code of Greece: 0030 (+30)
Santorini internal code: +30 22860
Port Authorities: +30 22860 22239
Athens International airport (El. Venizelos): +30 210 3530000 www.aia.gr
Santorini Airport: +30 22860 28400
Aegean Airlines: +30 22860 28500 aegeanair.gr
Customs: +30 22860 22230
Radio taxis (taxi stand/Fira) : +30 22860 22555
Cable car: +30 22860 22977 www.scc.gr
Greek National Tourist Organization Office: +30 22860 27199
Municipality of Thira: +30 22863 60100 www.santorini.gr
Santorini Central Clinic (Fira) +30 22860 21728 www.santorinicentralclinic.gr
Santorini Fire Brigade: +30 22860 33199
First Aid: +30 22860 60300
Local Currency: Euros
Official Language: Greek
Time: (+2) Greenwich Time
Banks: Open from 8am till 2pm
Shops: Open from around 09:00-10:00am till late at night
Restaurants: There are many Greek taverns with local cuisine, but also restaurants with international cuisine, gourmet dishes, as well as fast food places and ice cream parlors.
Bars/clubs: There are coffee shops which are also bars and stay open till late at night. The night life in Santorini is very active and during the summer months they stay open until the first hours of the morning.
Weather: Santorini is dry and hot in the summer and mild, sometimes wet in the winter.
Transportation: There is the public bus service (KTEL). From the capital of Fira you can catch a bus to all villages. There is a taxi station at the main square of Fira. The cable is a way to go down from Fira to the old port, where there are also donkeys going on the same route for a more traditional way.
Electricity: In Greece the voltage is 220 Volts/50 Hz range.