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Santorini Islands are located in the Aegean Sea about 200KM (120 miles) from the Greek mainland. They are the remnants of an old Volcanic island that exploded with such force about 3,600 years that the fall out probably caused the collapse of the Minoan civilization on the nearby island of Crete. Santorini is a crescent shaped archipelago of islands surrounding a central caldera. The largest island of Thira, next Therasia and the smallest Aspronisi. These surrounds a huge central lagoon about 12 x 7 km across with a small volcanic island, Nea Kameni, in the middle which has been dormant since 1950. The natural harbour of the caldera has high steep cliffs that rise out of the sea to create a natural defense for the island and a safe haven for shipping. High above the sea on the cliff tops are some of the most picturesque villages in Greece & Europe.
The Greeks have been clever with the development on Santorini and new buildings are made in the traditional Santorini style. This is so successful that often it is difficult to tell if a building is old or new.
The most famous town is of Santorini is Oia. It is at one end of the crescent shaped Thira Island at the point where there is a break in the archipelago between Thira and Therasia. The early inhabitants of Oia used the cliffs to good advantage to make cave dwellings in the soft volcanic rock. These stayed cool in the summer and warm in the winter and set high above the sea were hidden from the Saracen pirates that plundered the Mediterranean coast and islands for hundreds of years in the middle ages. In more peaceful times the buildings of Oia were extended outside the cliffs dwellings and a simple low square style of building developed with arched vaulted roofs. These are painted white to reflect the heat of the sun and hang precariously on the high cliffs shining out against dramatic black volcanic rock. Oia's buildings are linked by a maze of narrow lanes and steps just big enough for a donkey to carry goods up and down the village.
To see Oia at its best you must get up early to avoid the day trippers. Even in June early risers can enjoy Oia in peace and near solitude and, in the early morning light, you may be forgiven for wondering if Oia is what paradise is like. As you wonder alone through its tiny lanes between picturesque whitewashed buildings every turn reveals spectacular views with the deep blue sea far below. The only person you may meet is the rubbish collector with his donkey piled high with black bin bags. Every so often you will come across one of the blue domed Orthodox churches that have become a symbol of Oia and Santorini. At 9.30 exactly, en masse, the day trippers arrive in their buses and the peace of Oia is shattered. This is the time to leave Oia and take a local buses and discover the island. Returning late afternoon you can enjoy a well deserved drink on a terrace overlooking the caldera whilst looking down ferries and cruise liners as they sail by way below.
Oia boasts spectacular sunsets and a wave of evening tourists arrive before the sun dips in the sea to watch the event. The main vantage points are Santorini's old castle or one of the many bars and restaurant terraces that face the setting sun. This daily routine makes Santorini a little claustrophobic but as soon as the sun disappears so do the tourists. They scuttle back to their buses to be whisked back to one of the many cruise liners that visit the island daily or to an organized Taverna meal. Suddenly Oia returns to normality and you can wander the darkening alleys in relative peace looking for a welcoming Taverna to have a relaxing meal in.
BLUE DOMED ORTHODOX CHURCHES
The older churches of the islands are built in the tradition of Byzantine Orthodoxy. When Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313, pagan temples with domes that represented heaven were converted into churches and the dome was then incorporated into new Christian church design. Making the cruciform shape of the Christian cross is the nave crossed by the transept with the dome sitting above the junction of the two.
At the east end of the nave the church has a screen, an iconostasis, which conceals the churches altar from the worshipers. The iconostasis is a screen where Greek Orthodox religious Icon paintings of are hung. In large Basilicas these are elaborately carved wooden screens with paintings of different saints on individual panels. The Icon paintings traditionally contain a lot of gold paint which reflect the many candles used to illuminate the interior of the dark churches during religious ceremonies, so enhancing the Icons mystical effect on the congregation. In country churches and chapels the icon screens are usually simple painted wooden partitions with framed Icon pictures hung on them. One of the main schisms between the church of Rome and Constantinople was the veneration of Icons. Eastern Orthodoxy venerates painted Icons only and disapproves of 3 dimensional statues because the commandments forbid the worship of idols. The Western Roman tradition allows for both painted and sculptured religious artifacts in its churches.
The Orthodox church bell tower design ranges from separate elaborate structures built next to the church, to simpler designs where the bells are arranged on a tired wall at one end of the church roof.
Many of the smaller chapels on the island were built by individuals after promising God that if he saved them from events that they were caught up in, such as fierce storms at sea, that they would do so. Often the country chapels are built near springs with stone benches outside and were used as water and rest stops by travelers crossing the islands. You can still find bottles of water in many of these country chapels so that thirsty traveller's can quench their thirst as well as candles to be lit as an offering to God.
Blue Dome spotting is a very rewarding pass time on Santorini and will lead to the discovery of other charming villages on the Island. At the highest point on the caldera cliffs is the village of Imerovigli. From the dizzy heights of the village, 300 meters above the sea, the daily cruse liners can be observed as they anchors in the caldera lagoon below. In the middle of Imerovigli is one the another of the most photographed blue domed Orthodox churches of Santorini. The spectacular views of the Caldera and Nea Kameni make an incredible backdrop to this beautiful church and bell tower. From Imerovigli there are a series of villages that are joined and lead to Santorini's main town of Fira. From here a cable car or donkey can take you down to the small harbour below.
A trip to the village of Pyros, in the center of the island, will lead to the islands most famous bell tower which straddles the narrow main street of the town. It is a tiered structure with 3 big bells on the lower level, 2 medium size bells in the middle tier and a small bell on top. From here the narrow streets meander through this old protected town to a central square where you can sit outside a small taverna and try the local wine.
Pyros is in the middle of Santorini's vineyards. The main grape grown is the indigenous Assyrtiko variety. This is mixed with 2 other Aegean varieties, the Athiri and the Aidani grape. The vines and allowed to grown flat on the ground in the vineyards as the shade of the plant helps to keep valuable moisture in the fertile volcanic soil they grow in. The pride of the island is Vinsanto (Holy Wine). The grapes are sun dried to increase the sugar content and flavor, they are then made into wine which is matured in oak barrels for up to 25 years to produce a strong sweet white desert wine. Dry white wines are also produced which have a strong citrus scent.
WHERE TO STAY
From the high cliffs of the Caldera rim the land slopes down gently to sea on what would have been the outside of the Volcanic cone. Along the coast here are the main tourist beaches with associated hotels and restaurants. These can be great centers to explore the island from if you are looking for a beach holiday but obviously lack the charm of Oia and Imerovigli.
Oia can be very expensive though. The boutique hotels are really collections of old dwellings under one management that form a hotel complex. Many of these are exclusive hotels with rooms ranging from charming converted cave dwellings to spectacular apartments with balconies overlooking the caldera and the famous Oia sunset. Generally hotel standards are very high in Oia because competition is fierce. If you are prepared to walk from the edge of town then you will find very good accomodation at a fraction of the cost of the boutique hotels.
Alexander's Boutique Hotel
Imerovigli is full of hotels and like Oia they range from exclusive boutique hotels with pools overlooking the caldera to self catering apartment. Because Imerovigli is so far above the sea and a good walk from Fira's cable car, if you are a water lover check that hotel has a pool. There are literally too many hotels in Imerovigli to give a comprehensive list but here is the hotel we stayed in and would recommend.
Aspa Villas Imerovigli
This are very cozy well furnished purpose built apartments, some having balconies with stunning view over the Caldera. There is a private pool and ithe hotel is run by a very friendly and helpful young couple.
Room facilities include air conditioning, cable TV, safety deposit box, kitchenette and free internet connection.
Rooms from 65 Euros.
In high season it is advisable to book rooms especially in Oia. We recommend www.booking.com because we have used them for booking many hotels, in many countries, for many years and have always found their reviews and prices to be accurate and fair.
The most common way to get to Santorini is by ferry. High speed passenger ferries and car ferries run from Piraeus which is the main port of Athens. In high season it is advisable to book tickets in advance. There are very good on line booking services such as
http://www.greekferries.gr/ or http://www.greeka.com/greece/greece-ferries.htm.
There is also an airport on Santorini for National Greek flights and charter flights.
The Islands bus service is good and cheap. All buses start at Fira and run every half hour in summer. Ticket cost between 1.20€ and 2€ and discounts are available.
One of the most fun ways of getting around the island is to hire a quad bike or scooter. They cost around 15€ & 20€ respectively with weekly deals. You can then find one of the quiet beaches of the island or drive up to the top of Thira's central mountain. There are plenty of hire companies so don't forget your driving license.
Regular visitors to Greece will know that Greek food is generally always good quality everywhere but is rarely fine dining. It is impossible to give recommendations as quality and service are so uniform between restaurants and the management can change from season to season. Expect fantastic Greek salads and fresh grilled fish and souvlaki (grilled meat on skewers) everywhere, and who could ask for more at the end of a days travel. Be sure to try the locally grown Cherry tomatoes in Santorini which are a speciality of the island and are especially sweet having been grown on the volcanic soils.
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