The island of Santorini is one of Greece's major tourist destinations, famous throughout the world for its beauty and breathtaking views and has been voted by many travel magazines as a must see place before you die. Santorini is situated at the most southerly part of the Cyclades islands about 200km from mainland Greece and is believed to be the inspiration for the legendry island of Atlantis due to its volcanic history which has changed the shape of Santorini many times over the past thousands of years and forming the islands famous 300 metre high Caldera.
Santorini is actually a group of islands in a circle, up until about 1500 BC the area was one island but after a huge volcanic explosion the island took its present form, hence the islands form a circle around the crater. The islands are Thera, Thirasia, Aspronisi, Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni, Thera being the largest and usually referred to as Santorini. Only Thera and Thirasia are populated the others are part of continuous volcanic activity, the largest of these is Nea Kameni and only appeared from the sea less than 400 years ago, its last eruption was in the 1950's.
The official name of Santorini in Greek is actually Thera, although most Greeks refer to it as Santorini. The island has had many names over the years the first was Strongili which means" round one" which dates back thousands of years when the island was almost a full circle. Other names for it in the past were Kallisti "the fair one", the Turks called it Dimertzik which means mill due the windmills on the island. The name Thera comes from the original Spartan settlers who's leader was called Theras.The present name Santorini dates back to the 13th century by the Venetians, Santa Irini (Saint Irene) named after the Basilica of Agia Irini in Perissa which has only recently been discovered (1990's).
It is said that good things come in small packages, well this is certainly true of the tiny island of Santorini which is only 90 square Km and yet one of the most famous holiday destinations in the world. What makes Santorini so unique is the Caldera that stretches along the whole western coast of the island. at its highest point it is 300 metres and has the towns of Fira, Firostefani , Imerovigli and Oia all perched precariously on the cliff top, many of the buildings being carved into the actual rock. The views from these towns are breathtaking, looking over the Aegean to the volcano (Nea Kameni) and the island of Thirasia.
These towns are all made up of the traditional Cyclades cube like houses and the famous blue domed churches that is most people's idea of a typical Greek island. The streets are small cobbled and winding, and of course there are the world famous donkeys of Santorini which until modern times was the only way to get around the island.
The beaches on Santorini are all on the eastern side of the island, the town of Kamari having the most famous and cosmopolitan beach. Due to the volcanic geology Santorini also has a red beach, a black beach and a white beach.
Fira is built on the edge of the Caldera , about 250 metres above the Aegean and is the main town on Santorini having all the important public buildings. Fira still has the traditional Cyclades feel to it with the narrow streets and architecture. It is also home to some museums, the most important being the archaeological museum that exhibits finds from Akrotiri among many other things. Fira is probably most famous for the views you get over the Aegean, especially at sunset, there are plenty of cafes perch on the edge of the Caldera, but expect these to be quite busy with tourists.
The port of Fira is below the town and is where most cruise ships harbour, from the port you can take a cable car up to Fira or the 588 or so steps with help of a mule. The main square in Fira is Theotokopoulou in the centre of Fira, as with most towns here you will find most of the banks and things like Taxi's. Fira has to cathedrals' one Orthodox and one Catholic, as with the rest of the Cyclades Santorini spent hundreds of years under Venetian control.
Oia is Santorini's prettiest and most popular village, it is situated about 11 km from Fira and is also perched over the Aegean on the Caldera. Oia has the best views on the island with many people coming just to see the sunset. Although Oia has many bars, cafes, tourists shops it has still kept is traditional charm and tranquil village feel with its small winding cobbled streets and typical Cyclades buildings.
It is Oia where there are many of the blue domed buildings you see in most of the postcards or photographs of Santorini. Oia also has a small port below, Ammoudi, this can be reached by 300 steps from Oia. You can get boats that take you to Thirassia, the island opposite.
Akrotiri is an archaeological site that dates back to Minoan times and the best Minoan site outside of Crete. The site is very much like Pompei in Italy as the town was destroyed or preserved, depending on how you look at it, by the volcanic explosion in around and the resulting ash 1500 bc. Luckily for us the ash preserved much of the town and artefacts including some amazing frescoes, furniture and pottery. The town itself has buildings which are two storey, latrines and drainage pipes.
Obviously when the volcanic disaster happened, the town and the island was wiped out from history, many people now believe that Plato's Atlantis is actually Santorini and Akrotiri. The site is covered by a roof to protect from the weather, unfortunately a part of this collapsed and killed a visitor, and the whole site was closed until it was repaired.
Ancient Thera is another archaeological site from around the 9th century BC, it was founded by Dorian settlers from the main land and named after their mythical leader, Theras. The site is on a ridge on mount Messavouno about 360 metres high.
Before the Vocanic explosion, santorini was part of the Minoan civilization of Crete, a Minoan town has been discorved at Akrotiri and is now a archaeological site. The huge volcanic explosion destroyed the town and probably caused the decline of the whole Minoan civilization. It is also commonly believed that Santorini is in fact Atlantis. The history of Santorini after this is similar to the rest ofGreece being occupied by Dorian Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians and Turks until the independence of Greece.
In 1956 the island suffered another volcano, not as big as before, but enough to decrease the population and economy. During the 1970's tourism found the island and Santorini has been on the up and up since.