Santorini: Archeology


Visitors to Greece tend to think of the mainland when it comes to the country’s vast archeological heritage but the islands are also peppered with fantastic ancient and Venetian sites.  On Santorini, the cataclysmic 1700 BC eruption that gave the island its astonishing caldera also created one of the world’s most unique archeological sites — Akrotiri.  Reminiscent of Pompeii, Akrotiri is an ancient town buried by the ash of an enormous volcanic eruption.  Unlike Pompeii, however, everyone had evacuated Akrotiri by the time the volcano blew and so no human remains have been found at the site.  In fact, the inhabitants had abandoned and then returned to the city several times as pre-eruption earthquakes became more frequent and intense.


The excavated portion of the site is protected by a new, earth-covered roof that keeps it nice and cool inside while providing for light and ventilation.


What one sees inside is the excavated portion of a complete ancient town, apparently occupied by relatively well-off traders and merchants who had no need of defensive walls.  Built right down to the edge of the sea, there was obviously no worry about pirates, either.


The photo above is of a building called West House, in which were found some of the beautiful wall frescoes recovered from the site.  The door- and window-surrounds were made of wood because the inhabitants has discovered that wood timbers provided better earthquake resistance than stone.  Here, concrete has been cast to replace the lost wood, but painted to resemble it.   The window to the right of the door is thought to have been a shop window.  The large size of the window on the upper floor is another indication of the freedom from fear of invasion enjoyed by the residents.


A set of the wall frescoes recovered from the West House and now preserved in the museum in Fira.  They represent a notable development over the Egyptian genre from which they derived in the amount of “white space” they employ, and in their purely decorative function.



A couple of the beautifully decorated household items recovered from the site.  Interestingly, both the turned-up spout of the one and double bowls of the other may have served the same function — helping to separate and settle-out the sediment in the wine or other liquid served from these pitchers.


This area is called Triangle Square, and it is here that West House is sited.  The experience of walking the streets of a 3700-year-old town is hair-raising.


Apparently not everything could be taken, and there are many pots and amphorae to be seen as well as remains of some wood tables and bedsteads.


A reminder of the power of the earthquakes that accompanied the eruption, this entire set of stone steps broken in two.

Ancient Thera

After the eruption, the bleak, lifeless shell of Santorini went uninhabited, except for fishermen and sailors camping, for almost 900 years.   Then, in the 8th century BC, colonists from Sparta established a new city in a very different location.  Atop a virtually impregnable cliff with shear 400 ft drops, a classic Greek city was laid out along the ridge top on the eastern side of the island, just a few miles north of Akrotiri.


From the plane, the site of Ancient Thera on the top of this enormous rock.


And, from Ancient Thera, a plane coming in to land at Santorini.  The ruins of the theatre stretches down the hillside, maintaining the pattern of consistently beautiful backdrops I’ve seen in theatres across the county.


Anafi island is visible in the distance.


The ancient cemeteries were located on either side of the parking circle, on a saddle between the peak of Ancient Thera and the peak of Agios Georgios, just to the west.


The view down to Kamari, the famous black sand beach.  That’s the airport at the top left.

IMG_3407The road up to Ancient Thera.  Twenty switchbacks — this photo doesn’t do it justice.

Santorini: Off the Caldera

Seven years ago, Susan and I celebrated our 30th anniversary on Santorini.  We stayed at one of the luxe places spilling down the cliffside above the caldera.  Our room was a cool cave dug back into the tephra, there was an infinity pool with astonishing views over the caldera, a cafe/bar with the same views, a guy to carry our luggage up and down the cliff steps (once he had wrested it from my hands), etc.  We generally stayed cliffside, walking around the big town of Fira, strolling Oia night and day, enjoying a spectacular anniversary dinner in Oia on the roof at 1800, walking — cautiously — along the trail that clings to the cliff face and stretches from Fira to Firostefani to Imerovigli and all the way around to Oia.  It was beautiful, spectacular, perfect.  Except it seemed to us that we hadn’t met any Greeks.  Apparently, as the tourist invasion intensified, the Greeks pulled back, with the business owners now hiring seasonal help from whatever country is cheapest and then decamping to Athens, and the other locals moving inland or to quieter islands.  It was like that Caribbean island owned by a cruise ship company — beautiful and soulless.  It wasn’t Greece, it was Tourist Land.  (We experienced the same conditions in Venice, where a local who is trying to raise her family there told us almost everyone had moved off the island as mass tourism — cruise ships in particular — had made the place increasingly unlivable.)  As far as we were concerned Santorini had all but ceased to be a Greek island, and we were very sad to discover that we didn’t want to go back.

By last summer, however, we had spent 6 years exploring the embarrassment of riches that is the Greek wine world and couldn’t help but notice that several of our favorite wineries were located on Santorini.  Our desire to taste the full expressive range of these wineries, and experience those unique instances of liquid glory in their native terroir led us to wonder if it would be worth a trip back.  We concluded that we might be able to do it in good conscience if we found a hotel off the caldera and spent our time away from the rim.  Susan found us a place that was not only run by Greeks but that catered almost exclusively to Greek tourists, and we had a wonderful time visiting wineries and seeing the rest of the island.  Here, then, are some photos of the island’s interior villages.  (I plan to post a piece about the wineries as part of this series.)


There were 5 “castles” built on Santorini at various times in the last 800 years.  One was at the site of the cathedral that slipped into the sea in Oia, and another was in the central village of Emborio.  We visited the one in Emborio and, at the opposite end of the spectrum from Oia, almost had the place to ourselves.


This castle consisted of a ring of houses whose exterior walls formed the defensive perimeter for the tower within.  It’s wonderful wandering around the rabbit warren of streets and passageways within.


Of course,  there is always at least one church inside the walls as well.


The tower.


This is the village of Perissa, where we stayed, from way up in Ancient Thera.  It’s a small village, with a strip of cafes, tavernas, and shops along its black sand beach.  The church that stood just at the base of this mountain, St. Irene, gave its name to the island.


Watch dogs at a leather shop in Perissa.


We visited the little village of Amoudi, tucked under the cliff below Oia.  Its waterfront is lined with fish tavernas, and we were there for fish.  Boat excursions out to the active volcano leave from the dock here.



IMG_3334There’s a long set of stairs that you can walk or donkey-ride.  We drove on the road.


A community of new houses being built to look like the traditional windmills.

IMG_4983St. Michael standing on some guy.  If that’s supposed to be the devil, he looks a lot like Barry Gibb.   This is from the church of the Virgin of Platsani, which was built in Oia to replace the cathedral destroyed in the 1956 earthquake.

IMG_4851The Red Beach, near Akrotiri.  Red sand/pebbles washed down from the cliffs make it a unique, and popular, place.


We visited another old “castle” in the village of Pyrgos, the island’s highest village.  Pyrgos enjoys commanding views over most of the island, so this is where the occupying Venetians moved when they abandoned their initial castle on a rock outcropping in the cliff face (after an earthquake).  Here, we’re looking all the way down to the southern point of the island.





We visited a museum of traditional life on Santorini.  Here, a farmer’s wife shells fava beans with a hand mill.


On a side street in Oia.

Drink Me

Drink Me

I am: Thalassitis (“of the sea”), made by Gai’a on Santorini of 100% assyrtiko grapes.

Character: Fully expressive of the island’s volcanic terroir. Bone dry. Honeysuckle nose. Stoney minerals, salt air, dried herbs, crisp citrus.

Dream date: pair with chincoteague oysters.

Heat Wave

Heat Wave

We’re just finishing our 4th heat wave of the season. My recollection is that 2 is the usual number. The Greek meteorological service says July was the hottest in 110 years, and June was one of the hottest. I’m not sure how the meteorological service classifies a heat wave but it seems temps of 40 (104 F) or more on consecutive days does the trick. Our normal highs in July and August are 37-38 (99-101) so heat waves are not a huge departure but they seem to be just enough to make the heat unreasonable.

The combination of a sun that feels like a giant directed-energy weapon and the high air temperatures transfers a lot of  heat to virtually everything in the environment, turning the buildings, the roads, the trees, the dirt, even the seas into passive solar radiators. Walking around at night one experiences the unusual (for me) sensation of heat radiating from below.  And I can tell when I’m approaching the front wall of our building with my eyes closed.  This radiation from the environment keeps the nighttime temps relatively high, even in the absence of high humidity. The normal low is about 25 (75), and we haven’t seen a morning low below 22 (69-70) in 2 months.

The heat is one reason why we advise against visiting in July and August. This photo was shot about 3pm on August 27. The probe is 3 inches below the surface of the beach. I did the same measurement at the end of July and the temp was 105.  I recorded a water temp of 80-82 that day and, having left the probe on my beach towel while I swam, I observed a reading of 130 when I returned.  I shudder to think about the interior of the car in mid-afternoon.

Now, with the solstice 2 months past and August rolling to a close, we are looking forward to the return of the west wind, the occasional cloud overhead, and maybe a little cool, cool rain.

Dimitris Arapis

We lost Sue’s great uncle last Thursday.  He was 99 years old.  Our family owes him a great personal debt of gratitude because it was he who repeatedly insisted that his son, who was stationed in NYC at the time, find his deceased uncle’s family in the US, and make contact.  With no help at all from us, Nikos was successful, and that led directly to our living in Greece half the year.  More importantly, it reunited Susan and Andrew with a part of their family previously thought to be as lost to us as the European relations of most American families tracing their roots to a forebear from the Old World.

It’s not possible to summarize a life in a blog post but ever since I first met Theo (uncle) Dimitri, I’ve marveled at the changes he saw during his life.  He was born in the deep Mani during WWI, in which Greece’s great historic enemy lost their empire.  As a child, his parents (his father was an Orthodox priest) relocated the family to Piraeus, the port of Athens.  As a pre-teen, he witnessed the sudden doubling or trebling of the population of Athens when 1.3 million christians  were forced out of Turkey by a “population exchange” treaty imposed by the League of Nations to stop the genocides in formerly Ottoman territory. (The treaty also required about 355,000 muslims to return to what had become Turkey.)  Theo Dimitri entered the Athens police force, and served as a policeman during the years of the Nazi occupation, when at least 40,000 Athenians died of starvation.  He and his wife raised five children, all of whom have survived him.  His wife died decades ago.

He was a fine head of the family, love guiding him in all things.  He was also a fine singer and he sang when he was happy, as at virtually every family gathering we attended.  During his homily, the priest at the funeral service said that whenever he heard that Theo Dimitri was back in the Mani, he would call to ask him to chant during Mass.  I made a video of Theo Dimitri singing what I call The Mani Song — simply a love-song to his homeland.  He was very proud of his Mani roots, and, beginning in the 50s, every summer he took his young family on a ferry (there was no road) to a then-abandoned seaside village in the deep Mani, not far from where he was born, from where he first went to school, and from where he rests today.  The ferry voyage took about 24 hours back then, having made stops at seemingly every bay and cove between Piraeus and Messinia. The family and all their supplies for the stay had to rowed ashore in the ship’s boats. Theo Dimitri  began by renting a house from an absentee landlord but eventually he bought the place for the family.  In doing so, it became the first re-inhabited house in the village.  Today all of the houses in the village are re-inhabited, at least in the summer.

Theo Dimitri loved to tell stories and he told us about walking across Mani at night with his father, about the unforgettable aroma of the fruit from one small area on the slopes above Porto Kayio, and about how he kept perishable food in Mani’s August heat without refrigeration or ice. Perhaps my favorite is the last I heard while he lived, relayed through his son.  When a person dies in Athens, the next of kin turn his identity card in to the police to obtain a death certificate.  The first line on the back of the Greek identity card, until it joined the EU, was religion.  The German looting of the countryside for food to feed their troops led to mass starvation in Athens, and identity cards were being turned in faster than they could be registered. So Theo Dimitri and some of his colleagues would pocket the occasional identity card and give it to a Jew trying to hide from the Nazis.  The recipient would have to open the lamination and move the photo from the old card to the new one but then he would have a very proper-looking identity card for a person of the Orthodox faith.  When Nikos told us this story he said it was the first time he’d heard it.

Go with God, Theo Dimitri.  We miss you already.

Sikya Sunset

Sikya Sunset

Sorry about the soft focus — the camera was having a moment — but I thought the colors were nice. We had some clouds this afternoon so the sunset was colorful and I just happened to be coming back home from Melissi when the sun was resting on the horizon.

The scent of ruins

The scent of ruins

Decaying areas in cities usually produce an odor that I think smells like wet newspaper. Whether it’s here or in the US, the deterioration of old buildings gives off the distinctive funk of rotting cardboard, books, paper.

The ancient sites of Greece also have a particular odor but in this case the scent is of herbs: heated herbs. Hints of oregano, thyme, and sage waft above the browned weeds that surround the ancient walls and stones. Which is pretty reasonable considering that wild versions of those herbs and others are ubiquitous in Greece, and that the summer sun here bakes every low green bush to dust by the time fall’s rain arrives. The olfactory effect is not so much Thanksgiving dinner as the almost subliminal awareness of a familiar, pleasant scent rising from the weeds as you walk; a perfume that over time becomes associated with tromping around ancient stones.

Sites lucky enough to enjoy the presence of pines have that delightful note in addition to their summer bouquet, and it adds a peaceful, calming tone that is perhaps attributable to but certainly reinforced by the blessed shelter from the sun provided by those trees.

The site of ancient Argos does not enjoy the presence of pines but the scent of herbs in those browned-out fields is almost palpable as I look at this photo.

Suddenly, Summer

Suddenly, Summer

Summer showed up yesterday. To be sure, we had a hot day in Athens about a month ago and a hot day on Hydra last week but yesterday this place finally felt like a beach and today,  with a high in the mid-90s,  we took our first swims in the Gulf. The water’s still pretty cool but there are warm spots floating through so it’s not too hard to bob like a…half-empty beer bottle or a semi-inflated wine-skin while taking in the streaks and spots of snow remaining on Parnassos. Everyone who made the trek from Athens this weekend is on the beach, and so are we. But not in this photo.

The Wine-Dark Sea

The Wine-Dark Sea

In the Odyssey, Homer almost never refers simply to “the sea.” Invariably he uses the phrase, “the wine-dark sea.” My guess is that with the tortuous meter in which he worked it was useful to have phrases he could just plug into a line, knowing they’d scan. Also, the repetition probably helped him developed a loping pace that would carry the story along. He does the same thing when referring to the gods and leaders of the Trojan War. Got it. What I don’t get is the image. I’ve never thought of the sea as “wine-dark.” “Deep and dark,” “dark as night,” “deep blue sea” all paint a picture for me but “wine-dark sea” just makes me think of purple water. Or, in less lucid moments, blue wine.

I spend long moments here looking at the color of the sea. Today, under a bright, hazy sky and strong winds, the sea was predominantly cobalt with lacy whitecaps setting off the blue. Sand washing from the point upwind created a turquoise streak about a hundred meters offshore. I’ve seen the water gunmetal blue, cold grey, and something Susan called “azure.” I’ve seen it ultramarine, sea green, cerulean, Caroline blue, midnight blue, navy blue, sapphire, and teal but I’ve never seen it any color that reminds me of wine.

I don’t think Homer was simply referring to an absence of light, eg: the bottom of the sea is as dark as the bottom of a wine amphora. I think there was some cultural/linguistic/semantic significance to the image that resonated with ancient Hellenes. Maybe the association of wine with a rolling gait, the sensation of the ground moving, an unsteady horizon had something to do with it. Maybe drinking wine was thought to be like taking a sea voyage. Maybe dipping into the amphora was as uncertain as setting sail. Maybe it was even dangerous.

For modern Greeks the highest compliment bestowed on the water is “the sea is like oil.” For us, that simile has a distinctly unpleasant connotation but, for swimming, the Greeks like still water, and a perfectly flat, mirrored surface is the best of all — a sea as calm as a bowl of olive oil. I think something like that made Homer’s image work for the ancients. I just don’t know which bit of communal experience he was tapping into. Perhaps one day, sitting out on the balcony, maybe even sipping a glass of wine, there’ll be a eureka moment and the penny will drop, the skies will open, the angels will sing. Maybe not. But I’m enjoying rolling this particular nut around in my mouth, searching for something my tooth can pry into. Consulting a text on ancient Greek would probably be easier but what fun trying to meld one’s imagination to an ancient consciousness.

Election Day, Redux

Election Day, Redux

As feared, the May 6 parliamentary election failed to produce a clear winner or even enough like-minded parties to cobble together a coalition government. Sixty percent of the populace voted — voting is technically mandatory — with the others protested by not voting. Seven of the 32 parties on the ballot gained enough votes (3%) to win a seat in the parliament. In the anger and desperation of the moment, the two parties on the fringes experienced new levels of success. The KKE got 8.5% (26 seats), up from probably 6% in 2009 and a bunch of neo-nazis who never before had a seat gained 7% of the vote for 21 seats. The big story was that the leftist party Syriza came in second, displacing the center-left party Pasok that has led Greece for most of the last 40 years and that had won a disproportionate majority of the seats in the 2009 election.

The leaders of each of the top three parties tried in turn to form a coalition government and then the president of the Republic tried mightily for 3 days to convince party leaders to agree to a coalition for the good of the country. After the 9 days provided by the constitution for attempts at coalition-building, the president then called a new election for 17 June, and appointed the chief judge of the highest court as interim Prime Minister, also as specified by the constitution. The elected parliament was sworn in on Wednesday and dissolved the next day, the shortest parliament in Greek history, and Thursday afternoon, Greece swore in its 184th Prime Minister since 1822, the 3rd in the last 6 months.

The news media focused its attention on the most sensational aspect of the election, and Andrew said that on his way to work the next morning he heard it reported that nazis were in power in Greece. Chrisi Avgi (Golden Dawn) is a gang of rabid anti-immigrant thugs that has gained popularity in the poor neighborhoods of central Athens as a result of the government’s total failure to address illegal immigration. The land border with Turkey has been left generally unguarded and every night several hundred immigrants, mostly Pakistani, simply walk across the border and into Europe. While the Greek government makes only showpiece attempts to detain and return the immigrants, the western European countries are much more serious about it. Strangely, however, EU law provides that immigrants detained in western Europe are not returned to their native countries but to the European nation they first entered. So Athens has been packed with immigrants from both east and west. They are living 40-50 to an apartment, they peddle bootlegs, knock-offs, and crap novelties in the tourist areas, infuriating already hard-pressed legitimate shopkeepers and, since there are no jobs, there’s a lot of crime in the poor neighborhoods. Athenians are freaked out about the situation and, in this volatile environment a group of vigilantes has gained considerable popularity by filling in for absent law enforcement. For those of us who can’t imagine how the Nazis could have risen to power in Germany, this is a very instructive case study.

In the shock of Chrisi Avgi’s election to parliament, it was discovered that there is an EU law that prohibits a neo-nazi party from holding seats in any EU-member parliament. Chrisi Avgi quickly backed off its claim to be a neo-nazi party in response. They have, however, repeatedly used photos of Third Reich leadership in their party literature, they greet each other with the nazi salute, and they use a swastika knock-off for their party symbol so no one is deceived and one of these days we’ll see a clear and unequivocal ruling from the EU. I hope.

The more important story of the election is the rise to power of Syriza — an acronym for Coalition of the Radical Left in Greek. And they are left. Not center-left, not socialist, but left-left. They have a young, charismatic, clever leader who has capitalized on the population’s misery after a succession of wage and pension reductions by telling people what they want to hear — that they can reject the austerity provisions of the financial rescue agreement but still receive the rescue funds.  Despite my cynicism, Alexis Tsipras has been remarkably candid in his campaigning. He has a 5 point program that includes rejecting the terms of the rescue package and nationalizing the banks. In my view, his flaw is that he has promoted the fiction that the euro zone cannot afford to let Greece default and ditch the euro. I think the euro zone has spent the last 2 years preparing for the eventuality of a Greek default and exit from the euro zone, and has firewalled itself well enough to have a bottom line approach to the problem.

We may well have a chance to find out who is right but the public discussion has now evolved to the point that most believe that a vote for Syriza is a vote against the euro zone. This will make for a pretty pure referendum on the issue, although the pro-euro parties are now saying they will insist on a softening of the austerity measures and launch a campaign to stimulate growth. I doubt there is nearly as much negotiating room or stimulus money as the public would like to believe (or will be led to believe) but this new election will be essentially a choice between austerity in the euro zone and default with a return to the drachma.

Despite the need to open envelopes and tally the results from paper ballots, election results were delivered very quickly on the evening of the election, with an official website providing the results of the tabulation parsed in a variety of ways. If the same contractor is used, the evening of 17 June should be riveting. Also, I note with pleasure that so far, there are no campaign ads on TV. The government provides the campaign funds and I guess the new administration will have to decide whether to disperse additional funds. I’m hoping they opt for austerity.