It’s not that Crete isn’t great, it is (read more below). It’s just that Santorini is mind-blowing. I’ve been to a lot of islands before, and even some volcanos, but nothing prepared me for the Greek island of Santorini.
Santorini is a lot whiter than most places, even Boston.
The morning of our last day in Athens, we caught a short flight to Santorini, an “island” about 120 miles south of Greece, known for its many bright, whitewashed buildings.
This circular cluster of small islands peeking out of the middle of the Mediterranean Sea—an archipelago, if you want to be technical—is actually the caldera of a now-dormant volcano. Essentially, it’s what’s left of an underwater volcano after four millennia of turbulent eruptions. So calling Santorini an “island” is more like wishful thinking. It is, regardless, spectacularly beautiful.
Our pilot managed to land our tiny plane safely on Thira, the largest section of land in Santorini, although that’s not really saying because the caldera’s total land area is only 35 square miles.
From the Thira Airport, we rented a Renault Scenic and drove to our accommodations, Villas Tholos. On the way, we drove up and down hills that made San Francisco look like Kansas. Somehow, we arrived safely without ever sliding down the steep cliff sides to our untimely deaths.
Our white-washed room at Villa Tholos was so bright, sunglasses were mandatory until 11pm. Its walls jutted straight out towards the water from the cliff side, offering staggering views of Santorini, the entire caldera itself, and the so-called, “most famous sunset in the world.” Even though we didn’t try very hard, we couldn’t disprove it.
But Santorini isn’t just about spectacular views and sunsets, though I would’ve been happy with that. No, Santorini is also the long-rumored location of Atlantis, the Lost City — a highly advanced island civilization that, according to Plato, disappeared into the sea, and it’s easy to see why. One wrong step, and you’re slipping headlong into the sea.
The Greek archaeological dig site known as Akrotiri.
A few kilometers south of Fira, the main town on Santorini, there’s an archaeological dig site called Akrotiri. Centuries earlier, Akrotiri was a thriving Minoan metropolis and port.
But one day, the volcano gods got ticked and went all Pompeii on the city, burying it abruptly in volcanic ash. There, frozen in time, the citizens remained undisturbed until 1967, when Akrotiri was rediscovered; perfectly preserved.
Considering that Akrotirians had only recently mastered walking erect, the city was remarkably modern.
Archaeologists carefully dug out much of the city and unearthed evidence of a written language, artistic wall murals, a system of metrics and counting, running water, international trade and, to no one’s great surprise, a Starbucks.
The excavations continue to this day, so it’s only a matter of time before they find a TV set or a microwave oven.
Who says sand has to be beige?
While basking on the black and red sand beaches of Santorini, we noticed that you can see other islands on the horizon in virtually any direction you look. So it’s not surprising to learn that early Greeks were big sailors. The temptation must have been strong to explore the other 1400 isles, if only to see if there were hot, single women on them.
We visit Santorini’s volcano by boat.
We headed to Thira’s port to explore other islands as well, but for entirely different reasons. A large yacht sailed us around the caldera, stopping at places of interest like the lava-ash-covered volcano in the center of Santorini. There, we trekked to the top, sucking in sulfurous gases that smelled like no one had changed the cat-box since the reign of Alexander the Great.
The boat also stopped to give guests the chance to swim up an inlet supposedly heated by the volcano. Billed as a “rejuvenating experience,” it turned out to be just a trick to get human sacrifices for the angry volcano gods I mentioned earlier. We dodged a bullet there.
Though, in fairness to the cruise operators’ practice of sacrificing human tourist to the volcano gods, there weren’t any eruptions during our entire vacation in Greece. So I guess, it kinda worked. At least, for us.
Hydrofoils are like airplanes that fly on water.
We had to leave sooner or later, but we really could have stayed in Santorini longer. Leaving a paradise like this wasn’t easy, but at least we did it in style. We went by hydrofoil to our next destination, the island of Crete.
From the outside, the hydrofoil is part-boat, part-airplane. It’s an incredibly fast one, at that, which was good because while it arrived “early” according to Greek standards, it was 20-minutes late according to anyone with a watch.
Inside, the hydrofoil experience was much like an airline — we had assigned seats, not enough overhead compartment space, unhealthy food options, and a toilet that flushed louder than a volcanic eruption.
Still, a mere two hours later, we came careening into port, doing an e-brake slide into our dock at Iraklion, the capital city of Crete.
We visit Crete and like it.
Crete is the largest of the 1400 Greek Isles and was the birthplace of Zeus. Beat that, Las Vegas! Cretans say you can see his face in the mountaintops if you look hard enough, or drink enough Ouzo.
From 2800 to 1000BC, Crete was the center of arguably the most important civilization until that time — the Minoans. Named after the human son of Zeus, King Minos, the Minoans were highly advanced in commerce, crafts, metalworking and art, among other things (see Pederasty).
The island of Crete is ideally situated on the crossroads between Asia, Africa, and Europe. As a result, it greatly benefited from interaction and trade with a wide variety of other cultures.
In fact, the Minoans were the first culture to utilize character-based (as opposed to pictograph-based) written language as a tool to translate the languages of their trading partners.
Sadly, the 1400BC eruption at Santorini generated a tsunami wave that destroyed Crete’s capital city and essentially spelled the end of the Minoan culture.
In the centuries that followed, Crete was occupied by an ever-changing string of cultures. The Mycenaean’s first took over for a couple of centuries, but then the Romans showed up. And the Romans held control until Constantine and the Byzantines kicked them out.
The Byzantines eventually handed Crete over to the Venetians who then took off when the Turks came knocking. Crete was so popular that even the Nazis stopped in for a brief four-year stay. In the 1913, Crete petitioned to join Greece, most likely because they were tired of changing languages every five minutes.
The famed city of Knossos is famous for a reason.
Our first stop on Crete was the city of Knossos (NAH-sos). Between 1700 and 1300BC, King Minos ruled Crete and several other islands from the storied “Palace of Legends.” Considering that it was built some 3500 years ago, this Bronze-Age structure was nothing short of astonishing in scope. It occupied over six acres, and was composed of 1500-rooms over multiple stories. It was so mind-blowing that it inspired the Greek myth of the Labyrinth.
In the tale, our hero, Theseus (think Tom Cruise before he went crazy) volunteers to be one of the yearly human sacrifices offered to the ill-tempered Minotaur — a half-man, half-bull with poor self-image.
Theseus is sent into a maze-like Labyrinth to die, but manages to kill the Minotaur (bare-handed, no doubt) and then retrace his path back out of the maze thanks to a magic ball of thread he was given by the King’s own daughter. Needless to say, the movie adaption did blockbuster numbers at the box office that year.
Chania was a town in Crete that we also visited.
After a few hours at Knossos, our jaws got tired of scraping on the ground, so we left and drove two hours to another one-time capital of Crete, Chania (HAHN-ya), and the Thalassa Beach Resort.
Chania lies at the foot of a mountain that is reportedly snow-capped during the winter — a fact pretty hard to imagine considering we could barely walk on the beach without our feet bursting into flames.
But despite the heat, I didn’t go into the sea the whole time we were in Chania. Mostly because I dislike any water that has too much of anything in it that isn’t water — such as salt, chlorine, or noisy children. Now, don’t get me wrong, the salty Mediterranean Sea is far better for swimming than either the Pacific or Atlantic, but if you have an open wound, you might want to stick to the pool.
And so we did. Aside from a brief excursion into the hinterlands of Chania, we pretty much burned the last few days on Crete soaking up the sun. Before we knew it, it was time to return to Athens and fly home.