Saturday, August 20, 2011

Santorini and Crete

 "Whitewashed towns balanced on plunging cliffs......."
 ".....Santorini's landscape is nearly as dramatic as the volcanic cataclysm that created it."  

So states our travel guidebook..  And that is a perfect description.  This truly is a special place.
Towns are all on top of the cliffs, only a couple "docks" at sea level
City on top of cliffs at Santorini
The eruptive past has led some to believe that Santorini is the lost continent of Atlantis.  That would be a stretch of imagination to me.  Plato first recorded the Atlantis legend that has baffled historians to the present.  His description of an ancient island civilization which vanished as the result of a great natural catastrophe has been variously fixed in the Antilles, America, an island somewhere on the continental shelf off the Mediterranean (slightly northwest off Africa) and Malta.  In the last 40 years the location of Atlantis has moved to Greece and many eminent authorities now believe that Thira was in fact the fabled island.

Oia on cliff top
Oia on top
The Venetians gave the island its name (Santorini) in the 13th century, as a reference to Saint Irene. Before that it was referred to as Kallisti, Strongili or Thera.  Our electronic C-map charts refer to the island as both Santorini and Thira.  We have noticed that today many of names of the cities and islands are spelled with interchangeable "e" and "i" -- almost as if the Greeks cannot make up their minds which vowel best translates their language to English.

Road / walkway up to Oia

The island was an outpost of Minoan society from 2000 B.C. until around the turn of the 17th century B.C., when an earthquake destroyed the wealthy maritime settlement of Akrotiri.  All hope of recovery vanished when a massive volcanic eruption spread lava and pumice across the island around 1627 to 1660 B.C. There is an archaeological dig currently going on at the settlement of Akrotiri.  It is supposedly preserved by the volcanic eruption similar to what happened at Mt. Vesuvius.  We did not visit this site, but maybe we will make it back here another time to see this wonder. 

One of the 2 sea level settlements

The archipelago of Santorini is located about 120 miles southeast from mainland Greece and is a group of circular volcanic islands in the Aegean Sea. It is the southernmost island of the Cyclades.  In 2001 the population of Santorini was estimated at about 13,600.  Santorini is an enormously popular tourist destination.  Large ferries and cruise ships move about inside the caldera almost constantly.   The 2 major cities are Fira (the capital) and Oia on the northern tip.  Another popular town is Pyrgos, located at the top of the island and where an ancient Venetian fortress is located.  Pyrgos also is enclosed by medieval walls. The blue-domed churches dotting the hilltop settlement are a visible legacy of the Ottoman occupation.  The archipelago of Santorini was annexed to current-day Greece in 1912.

Note different rock colors due to eruptions
Archaeology interests me.  But rather than bore our readers with facts about tephra, basalt, rhyolite and ash lines, I will limit my remarks to snippets gleaned from guide books, sailing guides and websites.

The volcanic eruption likely was preceded by numerous small earthquakes spanning a period of 4 to 6 months, which would have alerted the residents that something was amiss and provided them ample time to flee the island.  the fact that no human remains have been found at the Akritori excavation bears out this theory.

Eruptions layered different colored rocks and ash/debris

The eruption was really 3 separate eruptions -- 1 being rocks, dirt, ash and debris and the other 2 being gases and ash.  Supposedly one of the gas eruptions caused a tsunami estimated between 115 feet and 490 feet traveling at minimum speed of 100 mph that devastated the northern coast of Crete, just 65 miles south.  The tsunami is believed to have destroyed the Cretan-based Minoans.  The Minoan civilization ended soon afterwards throughout all the islands in the Aegean Sea.

There have been at least 12 large explosive eruptions, at least 4 of which were caldera-forming.  The earliest eruptions were beneath the sea near the Akrotiri Peninsula and were active between 650,000 and 550,000 years ago.  In 1707 an undersea volcano breached the sea surface, forming the current center of activity at Nea Kameni in the center of the caldera. And eruptions centered on it continue -- 3 occurring in the past century. 
Nea Kameni in caldera of Santorini -- new volcano dome?
Santorini was also struck by a devastating earthquake in 1956.  Although the volcano is quiescent at the present time, at the current active crater steam and sulphur dioxide are given off.  

We anchored overnight off Nea Kameni and the effects on my respiratory system was noticeable but dissipated as soon as we sailed away from the area.

The main point to us being that this underwater volcano is still active and could erupt again.   But scientists claim it could never erupt again with the impact of the 1626 - 1660 B.C. eruption.

Nea Kameni -- sharp hard lava

A good explanation of the major eruption can be found at: 
Minoan eruption at Thera

During our circumnavigation adventure we have had several opportunities to experience active volcanoes first-hand.  The first was underwater Kick-em-Jenny in the Caribbean, just northwest of Grenada.  That one requires daily monitoring because periods of high activity can cause boats to sink if sailing in the area.  Gases in the sea can cause less buoyancy and the water literally will not hold up the boat.  Most of the time it is perfectly safe to sail over Kick-em-Jenny.   We hiked to the top of a dormant volcano on St. Eustatia in the Caribbean.  We hiked to the top of a small dormant volcano in French Polynesia.  In the Kingdom of Tonga there were 2 underwater volcanic eruptions very near to where we were anchored, also a couple of earthquakes that made our boat vibrate at anchor like a car does going over a ribbed bridge.  There was minor volcanic activity while we were in New Zealand.  In Vanuatu we literally walked around on top of an active volcano spewing hot rocks on the island of Tanna.  Not the wisest thing we have ever done, but quite the unique experience.  And now we have visited Santorini and anchored overnight inside the caldera of an active volcano.  I think we are now done with volcanoes. 

Our Secret Sail
On Monday 15 August we sailed south from Santorini to the tiny island of Dhia, just 6 NM north of Crete.  Absolutely fantastic sailing conditions this day!!  We even dug out the Secret Sail (asymmetrical 'genniker' for the mizzen).  In Phuket we had this sail put into a sock.  This is the first opportunity we have had to try it out.  SO MUCH EASIER to deploy and retrieve.  Should have done this years ago.  

We anchored overnight in the easternmost bay on the southern side of Dhia, with hopes of arriving at the Old Venetian Harbor in Iraklion at a time in the morning where a boat might be leaving. 
Dhia Island -- very rocky & barren
This harbor is extremely busy and almost impossible to find a berth there.  We needed to be docked somewhere with access to the airport, and there are not that many places to dock in Crete.   The next morning when we were almost to Iraklion, Bill decided to try the marina at Ayios Nikolaos one more time.  They had already told us "no space available" at least 5 times.  As luck would have it, they said they could fit us in if we arrived the following day -- but we would have to vacate the slip early Sunday morning.  That worked perfectly with our plans.

Crete in background looks like Afghanistan
We did a 90-degree turn and headed east toward the marina 40 NM away.   As we turned south to enter the large bay, the wind skyrocketed and we heeled way over.  Scared the beejesus out of Zachary, but there was never any danger.  We have sailed heeled farther over than that, but Zachary never had "enjoyed" this experience.  He did not like it.  Soon we were anchored just north of the marina.  The mountains on the far eastern side of this huge bay reminded me of Afghanistan -- tall, rocky, barren and forbidding.  We entered the marina the following afternoon.  

Ayios Nikolaos from the anchorage
On Thursday we rented a car; found a gas station (since they give out the rent cars on flat empty); stopped at a large Carrefour supermarket and picked up a few things that we think will not be available in Cyprus; and at 03:00 Friday morning Bill and Zachary headed off to the airport 40 miles distant.  They flew to Athens; Zachary boarded his flight to Houston; and Bill flew back to Crete and was back at the boat before 16:30.  It is so nice when everything falls into place and schedules are followed.  Today we cleared out of Greece -- had to be very insistent to get our passports stamped OUT of the country.  At first light tomorrow morning we begin the sail to Northern Cyprus.   

Inner harbor, Ayios Nikolaos, Crete

Ayios Nikolaos is a charming town on days that there are no cruise ships in port; swarming with way too many tourists on cruise ship days.  There is a small outer harbor and a very small inner harbor surrounded by shops with all the designer
Outer harbor--Nikolaos
labels and with neat little eateries of all sorts.  Charming place to sit by the sidewalks, drink coffee and watch the locals and the tourists pass by -- and one can easily tell them apart.

Live escargot climbing the Cokes in a small market
Hard to believe our time with the grandkids and family flew by so quickly.  But I must admit that we both are tired and a bit worn out.  We are now looking forward to getting back our regular routines with just the 2 of us.  And I don't mean that statement to discourage any future visitors.  We love having guests; we are just tired.  I am very much looking forward to sitting in the marina for months,  There are several little projects inside the boat that I would like to tackle.  Looking forward to no schedules of any kind.

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