Friday, July 29, 2011

Santorini ... Pompeii of the Aegean

Recently Maria Elena and I witnessed the aftermath of one of the greatest manmade disasters of our time. We were in New York City at One World Trade Center, once the site of the Twin Towers. Some ten years later, like a phoenix rising, the new Freedom Tower reaches for the sky from the footprint of one of the former towers. Starting from a cubic base, its square edges quickly chamfer back, morphing its outward appearance from square into eight, tall, elongated triangles. Like a newborn bird being nurtured in its nest, massive birdlike mothering cranes today relentlessly feed their young steel, concrete and glass. Steadily it grows, its glassy mirror-like feathers transforming the blemish of devastation into a shining example of man’s creativity and determination. Only weeks before, we visited another site of catastrophic disaster, this one at the hands of nature long, long ago …

The day began like any other Ura remembered with a turquoise sea lapping the shore of her island under a cobalt scrim sky. Though still early in the day, she was already hot as she sat in her robe by the shore watching intently as her father cast his net onto the sea from a jetty of rocks. She knew this to be his favorite spot to catch fish. By some intuition though, she sensed things were not the same today. Somehow her world was changing. The ground had shaken occasionally, sometimes violently, for one, two, three, and for lack of knowing a greater number, ‘many’ days now. Though young, she recalled that this had occurred often in the past but not with this much intensity or frequency. Her father had brought news from Thera that the priests in the temple there had offered sacrifices to appease the Mountain Mother Goddess. Yet the shaking and heaving had continued through another night and now a plume of threatening grayish-white smoke belched skyward continually from the mountaintop. Only rain fell from the sky but this rain was like none she had ever seen, nor had anyone in the village, even the old ones. She knew no single word to describe it. They could only noddingly agree that it resembled the white powder left from a fire. Now it was falling on the grain fields that covered the slopes behind them. Had the goddess who ruled over nature not heard their plea? What could it mean? Strangely, up until now, her father's net had been empty. Now as he hauled and tugged at the net, his loincloth shifting to match the movements of his straining legs, she knew he had finally been successful. One look at his used face, however, told her something here was also not right. She saw his expression instantly change to fear as he realized that his haul was a bounty of death. His catch neither struggled to breath nor flapped against the net. All the fish were already dead. Her father turned looking from the net toward Ura and beyond her to the mountain that dominated their island. He had a meaningful look as if trying to tell her something. She saw his eyes widen in disbelief, just for a moment, as his lips attempted to form a word but there wasn’t enough time remaining in their world. Behind her a thunderous cracking sound of cataclysmic force exploded into the air from the summit. It was the sound of the closing of life. Her last conscious image just as she was caught up in the super incendiary blast itself and hurled into oblivion was of her father vanishing from his rocky perch. In seconds, the ground ruptured ejecting tons of earth miles into the atmosphere with a force thousands of times more powerful than an atom bomb. Her world had changed forever.

I have no idea what native Minoans like Ura called their island approximately 3,600 years ago when this imagined human tragedy played itself out at the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. If there was sufficient warning of what was going to happen, there was still little chance of escape for the blast affected the entire Aegean Sea. In doing so, it reshaped Santorini (a reference to St. Irene) into an enormous crater like those on the moon, though too distant for us to appreciate. Distinct from the moon, however, the ensuing crater filled with the sea to create the Santorini we know today. Unlike Ura's, this would be our first conscious image of Santorini as we floated to a halt inside the caldera itself aboard the Costa "Fortuna", just arrived from Katakolon (Olympia).

Today sea joins together what remains of land. Crescents of stark terrain encircle the tranquil waters of this lagoon, once the boiling heart of a volcano. From the ship what strikes you are the incomparable 1000 foot high volcanic cliffs of the caldera which surround you. Its rocky walls are broken in but two places allowing access to the lagoon for ships like ours. Yet even more striking are the towns (Oia and Fira) perched defiantly along the rim of these lofty pediments forged in fire. The majesty of the scene remains this awesome panorama. Looking at this grandeur is humbling. It makes you feel small, bordering on insignificant. Like frothy vanilla ice cream confections with blue-domed sprinkles scattered here and there, they seem to drape over the chocolate colored precipice, threatening to plummet into the sea far below at any moment. They speak in true testament to the creative ingenuity of man. Beyond the rim on the opposite perimeter facing an exterior shore and sea, the terrain, in striking contrast, gradually slopes away. Here can be seen vineyards, even the 6000 foot runway of a local airport connecting Santorini with the world. There are no docking facilities for a large ship like ours. To transit the distance from ship to shore, we relied on hired local shuttles and our own ship’s tenders. Approaching shore at the tiny port of Skala Fira, the unmitigated sheerness of these stark cliffs is amplified even further.

Once again 'feet dry', we discovered there are two primary ways to ascend to Fira, which draped over the lip of the caldera high above us. One was via the modern technology of a funicular, the other in more traditional style atop a donkey. I opted for the zigzag hee-haw assent on donkey-back, but however I tried to assuage her fears, I could not convince Maria Elena to give it a try. Even the near vertical ride in the funicular, dangling on a cable thread, had her nervous enough to question whether our insurance policies were current!

Safely arrived, we discovered a scene appealing to all our senses. We found lively Fira to be a cobweb of whitewashed streets punctuated by an occasional blue dome or blue colored fenced courtyard. White and blue, the colors of the Greek flag, dominated all that man has created here. In addition to the road connecting Fira with Oia, we came across two general pedestrian thoroughfares running parallel along the lip of the volcanic cone. Closer to the inner edge is a street basically dedicated to private residences and boutique hotels with bijou swimming pools intermixed among coffee shops and patio-size restaurants. Occasionally, we'd have to make way for an overtaking donkey and its elderly wizened-faced owner coming up behind us, fast! The other route, higher up, runs through the colorful chaotic heart of a busy commercial district. Here, interspersed among the bustle of tee-shirt shops, souvenir enterprises, restaurants and nighttime hotspots were some finer outlets offering locally crafted products such as handmade linens and works of art. I doubted that the Greek helmets we saw at one stop (see photo album) had seen action with the ‘Three Hundred’ at Thermopiles, but they certainly looked authentic!

We're lucky sometimes, maybe a lot. Like that time outside enchanting Montalcino in Tuscany when we happened to visit the Abbey of Sant'Antimo. That morning, we were early enough to chance upon a handful of monks chanting in the dusty, early morning shafts of light streaming into the chapel. It was only Maria Elena, myself, the monks and no doubt God who were present. The stone-fed acoustics and haunting monophonic mantra of Gregorian chant were of heaven. Circumstances were somewhat similar as we walked a back street of Santorini. Like Sant'Antimo, a faint sound, this time of an organ, disturbed the morning silence. It seemed to be coming from a blue-domed church just ahead so we opened the gate and went inside to investigate. In the cool interior, a lone man sat at an organ strangely situated right on the main floor, amongst the parishioners, if there had been any. Apparently he was diligently practicing and gave us no mind as we hesitated to listen. As to what he was mastering, not knowing my Mozart from my Bach, I'm no help. I'll blame my camera too. If its pixel count were only greater, I could tell you its title. Zoom though I try today, its title remains fuzzy. No matter, for in my mind the image of that empty church, the solo organist in among the pews and the gently wafting sound of his composition, remain vivid.

Always in need of good food to ease our way through life, we decided to try a place for lunch recommended by a local shopkeeper. We found rooftop “Parea Tavern” easily, up a flight of stairs and around a corner or two. It was about as authentic as a tourist could expect in the heart of a true tourist trap. Besides a mandatory cloudy-cold glass of licoricy ouzo, we tried the octopus tentacles preceded by that refreshing Greek treat that combines yogurt, cucumber, garlic, sour cream and dill into what is known world-over as Tzatziki. Earlier, while exploring a quiet lane, I was surprised to see what looked like tentacles dangling in a window. They were threaded on a wire like a necklace, interspersed between colorful yellow banana peppers and cherry tomatoes. At first, I thought they were some sort of tchotchke or plastic ornament, like those garlands of Mexican red peppers that light up or those humorous strings of rubber chickens. It didn’t say “do not touch” so when I did, gripping the rubbery shaft of one of the icicle-like "beads" of this necklace, the slimy surface and pungent fishy odor on my hand disclosed the obvious – these were real. I’d have never made it as a spy, or playing safe, even as a detective, even with the added clue that this was a restaurant window after all! Wow, they were like firm little bull-whips! So we ordered octopus! It would join our culinary annals of adventurous dining along with such exotic delicacies as rattlesnake and horsemeat. Contrary to all the evidence, the octopus wasn’t fishy at all but then it didn’t taste like chicken either. Each tentacle approached a foot in length. As you would expect, they were covered on one side with circular suction cups resembling reddish washers, some the size of candy “Lifesavers”. They came with no instructions but after a few mouthfuls, it was obvious that it would be much easier to shave the suction cups off beforehand, instead of maneuvering each in your mouth before picking them out like a fish-bone. Now there's a tip for you. We loved it so much we'll be sure to order it again in maybe a hundred years! In the meantime, we'll stick with calamari.

Santorini is also a place shrouded in time with fact lying somewhere between science and myth. When truth is lost, myth fills in nicely. One popular speculation holds that the Minoan eruption of Santorini was the source of the destruction of legendary Atlantis - Atlantis and Santorini being one and the same. As with Pompeii, volcanic ash covered the entire island including the ancient village of Akrotiri. Excavations of its well preserved ruins reveal that the layout of this city resembles Plato's description, however limited, of the legendary lost city of Atlantis. And here all along I thought Atlantis was in the mid-Atlantic or at least in the Bermuda Triangle! Whether Atlantis or not, a recent documentary film, The Exodus Decoded (click to play), aligns the timeframe of the volcanic destruction of Santorini with the timeline of Exodus. Here it is postulated that this devastating volcanic event can account for all ten biblical plagues that were visited on Egypt at the hand of Moses. I find this a stretch. Fortunately, movie director Cecil B. DeMille had Charlton Heston (Moses) and Yul Brynner (Rameses) stick to the biblical script in his epic remake of "The Ten Commandments".

We never made it to Oia, home to many more of the blue signature domes for which Santorini is known. Limited time and distance made that a tall order since its perch was further along the island’s ridgeline. We understand it is the quieter of the two main towns with more of a quaint Greek atmosphere about it and absent the touristy metropolitan air of Fira. We would save it for a return visit, for we found Santorini worthy of return. It did not have a Trevi Fountain like Rome’s to assure your return with the toss of a coin. You might try but I doubt whether a coin tossed over your shoulder could make it all the way to the sea. For now, we’d just have to imagine what sunset over the caldera must be like - a brilliant disk in a peach-red western sky silently descending into the sea to announce end of day. Far, far removed, another sphere, this one in Times Square, yearly slips from its mast to announce a new year. One site is denoted by an awe inspiring hole filled by the sea, the other near an equally inspiring hole, is filled daily with fervent and resolute construction - both rising from the ashes of apocalyptic devastation, never to be forgotten.

From That Rogue Tourist, Paolo

For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Look for and click on a photo album entitled “Santorini”.