Thomson Holidays

Ancient Thira

Just inland from Kamari on the hill overlooking both this beach resort and Perissa to the south is Ancient Thira, the excavated site of the foremost post-Minoan settlement on the island.

A steep 4km hairpin road leads from Kamari to the site where excavations are spread over a long terraced area. The views alone are worth the trip, quite exhilarating with a dizzying drop to the sea below.

Here are remains of an early Christian basilica, foundations of temples and houses, an impressive amphitheatre, relief rock carvings and even some 3,000-year-old graffiti. The Artemidoros sanctuary was hewn out of the rock face around 400BC and is carved with inscriptions and symbols of the gods, such as an eagle for Zeus and a lion for Apollo.

In the centre of the city is the Agora or market place. The northern part is older with a Doric temple. The southern part was added in the Roman period with a portico, a temple building and the Royal Stoa built about 100BC. A Doric colonnade once supported the roof. Two inscribed slabs in the west wall, record that the portico was repaired in AD 149 by Kleitosthenes.

The road up to ancient Fira is a steep series of tight bends, very narrow but with a few passing places. Parts of the can be seen from the parking area, but to see everything you follow a steep and twisting trail over the hillside with sheer drops in places so you need a head for heights.

Archaeology site at Akrotiri

On the south western arm of the island stands Akrotiri, a pleasant if unremarkable village with fine views over the caldera. There are the remains of a Venetian fortress which stands above the village, much damaged in the 1956 earthquake and there are beaches nearby on either coast to the north and to the south.

It also has one of the finest and best preserved archaeological finds in the Cyclades, if not the whole of Greece. Totally enclosed by a massive roof structure, the site was closed for many years after the roof collapsed but was recently reopened following major rebuilding work.

Here a Minoan city was buried in volcanic ash around 1500 BC. It remained untouched until evidence of its existence was uncovered in the 1860s as pumice was being excavated to help build the Suez Canal. Subsequent excavations unearthed paved lanes lined with three-storey houses and rooms full of artifacts including large, unbroken vessels and storage jars.

As at Pompeii, the finds were of an extraordinary state of preservation as a result of being buried under tons of ash. Particularly impressive were superlative collections of murals and wall frescos. Unfortunately for island visitors they were removed and now adorn the walls of the Archaeological Museum in Athens.

Visitors to the site on Santorini must be satisfied with a glimpse of a badly illustrated guide book, some poor quality photo-reproductions and a series of dispiriting signs saying exasperating things like 'In this room the famous painting of the Akrotiri boxers was found.'

Archaeologist also found elaborately carved wooden furniture, though no skeleton remains, suggesting the inhabitants had abandoned the place in a big hurry. Anyone interested in the island's Minoan history can visit the Museum of Prehistoric Fira.

Wines of Santorini

Santorini's volcanic rock is dry and dusty, but rich in minerals and good for vine growing. The predominant grape is Assyrtiko which produces a good dry white wine. The white wines from Santorini are bone-dry with a distinct aroma of citrus and hint of minerals from the volcanic soil. The dessert wines of Santorini are called 'vinsanto', a derivative of the name Santorini. Vinsanto can be naturally sweet and distinguished by an aroma of dried apricots.

The main grapes are Assyrtiko - first cultivated on Santorini - Athiri, a white ancient Greek variety with a thin skin and sweet, fruity fruity juice; Aidani - another ancient Greek white grape mainly found in the Cyclades islands; Mandilaria - a red grape originally cultivated in the Cyclades, Rhodes and Crete and now notably in Paros; Mavrotragano - a recently revived sweet red variety.

What makes Santorini vines special is their age - many are more than 100 years old, having survived deadly diseases that ravaged crops on many other islands. Vines are grown low and are protected from the wind by woven cane fences. Boutari built a new winery in 1988 and helped revive the wine industry which is now very healthy.

The island also produces fava beans and very small tasty tomatoes which are made into tomato paste. It is also noted for its 'chloro' goat's milk cheeses.

Offshore islets of Santorini

Regular boat excursions head for the charred volcanic islets that sit in the Santorini caldera. The main islets of Palia Kameni and Nia Kameni sit squarely in the centre of the caldera. The burning core of the old volcano is still active with the latest crater on Nia being formed in 1950.

Expectations of daily boat trippers who toil up the steep ash slopes for a taste of live volcano are rarely met. The well-worn 30min tourist trail is well strewn with rubbish, the air is foul with sulphur fumes and the views of hot, black ash are about as interesting as - well, views of hot, black ash. For a further attraction you can jump off the boat at Palea Kameni (literally) and enjoy the volcanic waters that are warmed by hot springs and sulphur smelling mud.

Thirassia is the other islet, and a far more attractive proposition for those less interested in volcanoes. Actually another part of the caldera rim It was the main port for Santorini until an earthquake in 236 BC separated it from the main island. The views from here are every bit as good as those on the main island but without the downside of rampant tourism that runs through Fira and Oia. The fertile inland plateau is great for growing the tiny tomatoes and beans for which the island is noted and the local dishes based on them are delicious.

Most tour boats make for the shingle beach at Korfos where a path climbs up to Manolas, the largest village. There is also an uninhabited rock islet at Aspronisi that everyone except vulcanologists quite properly ignore.

The cataclysmic eruption of 1640 BC split the island in two and water flooded into the caldera to a depth of around 375m. The tidal wave from this extraordinary event is generally held responsible for the destruction of the Minoan civilisation on the coast of northern Crete. Volcanic ash more than 30m thick in places and quarrying resultant pumice was central to the island's economy before the advent of tourism. This was not the only eruption in Santorini's history there have been many more before and since. A series of 18th century eruptions threw up the island of Nia Kameni at the centre of the caldera and in 1956 severe earthquakes demolished the main town of Thira and reduced many homes in Oia to rubble.