Our bus turns a sharp corner and as I look out the window I can see over the plummeting cliff side and into the Mediterranean Sea below. This steep twisted road descends down into the Santorini harbour from where we are meant to set off on a tour of the caldera. A dormant volcano rests at the center of the caldera and serves as a sort of pilgrimage site for curious tourists.
Santorini curves around two smaller islands, Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni, which were formed over centuries by lava flow from the volcano. To reach the volcano we take a beautiful tall ship across the crystal blue waters, skimming smoothly over the waves. Our captain is a laidback Greek man who steers the ship by foot as he drinks a beer with one hand. In the other, he holds a cigarette while talking loudly on a cell phone pressed into the crook of his shoulder.
When we arrive at the desolate island of the volcano there are already other boats moored by its little dock. Getting off our ship is a game of hop scotch that involves jumping from one ship deck to the next until we reach the shore. From there, we begin the arduous climb up to the top of the volcano.
A normal summer day in Greece makes you crave a cool a drink and a dip in the water. After the experiencing the heat pouring off the volcano I just wanted to submerge myself in the sea for an hour or two. The barren landscape is mostly all black rock and rust coloured sand. Here and there we saw sun bleached bushes and tufts of dry grass. There was one tree on the island and it lay close to the ground as though it had given up on standing.
At the top of the volcano we could smell sulfur wafting out of the pit. Although the volcano is dormant it remains active and the last eruption happened only 64 years ago. This was the same volcano that destroyed the Minoan civilization on Santorini and it is thought to be linked to the myth of Atlantis.
After catching our breath and admiring the view onto Santorini we descended back down the volcano. From there the ship took us around Nea Kameni to a small inlet with red tinted water. Here, the captain told us we could take a bath in the volcanic hot springs. Since the bay was too shallow for the ship we had to jump into the water and swim to the shoreline ourselves.
In true Greek spirit someone had thought to build a church on this remote spot at the foot of a volcano. What looked even stranger though was the tiny outhouse sitting just a couple feet away from it.
Getting back on the ship involved climbing up a rope ladder. We were all basically treading water, trying to stay in some semblance of a line-up as we waited our turn. We watched as another ship drew up to the hot springs and the two captains manoeuvred around each other in the tight bay. Somehow they managed not to hit any of the people still waiting in the water. They danced around one another like two drivers vying for the same parking space.
Once everyone was back on board we headed for the island of Therasia. This small outcrop of land rests just across from Santorini and is home to a single tiny village and a slew of tavernas. Most people disembarked and headed off to grab a bite to eat but we decided to try hiking up to the top of the village instead. Clearly the volcano hadn’t been enough of a challenge.
A steep cobblestone path zigzags from the harbour to the very top of the island. There is no shade along the path so I wouldn’t recommend this walk to anyone with a heart condition. The village at the summit is no more than a handful of houses clustered around one crooked street. We saw plenty of cats there but no people so I can only conclude that they lived below in the harbour and the cats lorded it over them from the top of the mountain.
The houses in Therasia sat so close to one another that it was impossible to tell where one ended and another began. We even managed to accidentally walk out onto someone’s rooftop when we thought it was just another part of the road. Although the hike up had been arduous the view onto the blue waters of the caldera was worth it.
We eventually made our way back to the ship, only stopping at a restaurant on the edge of the cliff in order to use their washroom. Like the rest of Therasia, the restaurant clung to the rock by wedging itself into any spaces it could find. The washroom turned out to be in a cave under the restaurant, reachable only by a twisted staircase hugging the mountainside. This sort of strange tenacity linking Greek dwellings to the land is an endearing characteristic of Santorini and its surrounding islands. As we sailed back to Santorini we could see the capital city Fira stretching out like a swallow’s nest on the edge of the caldera, reaching towards the sea.