Tales from the Caldera…
It is late Autumn and I am in Santorini, one of the Cycladic islands of Greece. The hordes of tourists, who have come to see the legendary island (that some say was Atlantis) have, for the most part, gone home.
They come because of the beauty of the white villages perched precariously atop sheer 1000 feet cliffs, created when the centre of the island, a volcano, blew in 1650BC, heralding the end of the famed Minoan civilisation, and creating a sea-filled caldera from which some of the most spectacular sunsets in the world can be viewed.
A whole industry has been created around this natural spectacle and I, who have lived and worked in some of the most beautiful places, am moved by the view.
I however, have eschewed the touristy towns of Oia and Fira, and am happily ensconced in a small hotel overlooking the caldera, but with its back to the sunset. The view is no less magnificent and without my glasses, the white villages look like snow on the top of high mountains.
The area in which I am staying is bare and rocky, with small tavernas, hotels and tiny white and blue chapels dotted about. It is a largely Greek-speaking area and no tourist buses come here. There are the occasional tourists on their rented ATVs (all terrain vehicles!) who zoom by, they come, for the most part to see the sunset from the lighthouse just down the road. Which is much quieter and nicer than the eye-wateringly expensive bars and cafes overlooking the caldera, where the crowds congregate in hushed awe as Mother Nature does her stuff every night.
Yes, they are beautiful, but even the staff tell me that in high season the sheer volume of people is almost unbearable.
I am glad I have come at the end of the season – though apparently October is “the new September” – when the prices are lower, the weather cooler and there are no mosquitoes!
My hotel is pleasant, simple, unassuming and welcoming. Marianna the multi-lingual Greek receptionist with amazing burgundy hair, is fun, knowledgeable and efficient. She comes from Piraeus on the Greek mainland, and was amazed when I asked her if she knew of a tiny specialist herbalist in the old town of Piraeus. I used to live in Athens and often visited this amazing shop, called Mandragora, for incense, herbs and supplements for various ailments. They are all displayed in calico bags with signs and instructions in Greek. No-one speaks English (why should
they?!) so it was always fun to practise my Greek and you never know when you might be called upon to know the remedy for something!
I rent a car, and am hugely impressed with the gentlemen at the car hire desk in the airport. They give me an amazing deal, for very little money, simply because I spoke to them in Greek. Yes, ok, we did the actual transaction in English, but they appreciated my efforts to converse with them in their language.
Suitably insured for absolutely everything, I climb into my little Kia Piccanto, secure in the knowledge that I can now explore the dusty secondary roads, and avoid the tourist buses and fleets of ATVs that populate the main roads in the north of the island. I have been longing to visit a tiny beach near the hotel, on which I am told is a small, very simple taverna where the fish is literally caught in front of it and if they run out, one of the staff goes back out to sea to get some more!
The road is not for the faint-hearted for it is steep in places, dusty and gravelly so the tyres slide and if you pass another car and your window is open, you get covered in a fine layer of dust! I am interested to see that there are houses partially built into the hills. Most of the area is volcanic rock, spewed up from the sea bed in the Bronze Age eruption and all the dry stone walls and some the cave houses are constructed of it. It is, of course, black and lends a sombre air to the surroundings – a complete contrast to the blindingly whitewashed tiny chapels dotted about the countryside.
On my way down to the beach, over a road of just over 2 kms, there were 4 chapels, all dedicated to a different Greek Orthodox Saint and all exuding the most beautiful air of calm, peace and serenity.
The Taverna was empty when I arrived and I (unwisely) chose a table in the sunshine, just feet from the gently lapping waves. A smiley lady appeared, chatted amiably to me in Greek and asked me my name, “Cassandra” I replied, she threw up her hands with delight, embraced me and asked me if I was Greek. I explained that I was English but that I had lived and worked in Greece for several years and that I was so happy to be back. She brought me my requested Greek coffee and we chatted for a bit. Her family had lived above the Taverna for years – during the summers and spent the winters in Athens. Julia the cat too!
As if she’d been waiting to be introduced, upon hearing her name, Julia appeared and, purring, wound herself around my legs until she smelt something delicious in the kitchen and in she went to investigate, totally ignoring the loving admonitions of Evgenia, the owner!
It was gorgeous just sitting there, watching the sunlight on the waves, observing the three couples on the tiny beach (one French and two Italian) and letting the sun warm my arthritic bones! I sipped my coffee, debating whether to stay on for lunch and decided yes, I did!!
Ancient Akrotiri was discovered only recently and has proved to be one of the most complete Minoan settlements ever discovered. Because the volcano had rained ash which rapidly turned to mud in a post eruption storm, the houses were completely preserved. Their excavations revealed an astonishingly high level of civilisation, with 4 storey houses, complete with plumbing, beautiful frescoes and artworks, including some wonderful artefacts. No-one knew that this place had existed, they all knew of Knossos on neighbouring Crete, but Akrotiri was not a royal palace, it was a living, breathing and thriving small commercial port on the other side of the island from the volcano. There were no bodies discovered, which led the archaeologists to conclude that the island had been evacuated prior to the eruption.
Such was the cataclysm that it heralded the end of the so-called Minoan civilisation and even, according to legend, was the cause of the ten biblical plagues of Egypt – due to the ferocity of the event and its impact on the climate and environment of the surrounding area for several years afterwards.
Some of the artistic treasures revealed are world-renowned and show a simple, rich and vibrant life in a seeming paradise. The young fisherman, the saffron gatherers, the swallows flying around gorgeous plants. These are not only reproduced on the walls but on vases, jars and other objects, many of which are in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.
While on the island I visited an art/museum shop – which specialised in the faithful reproduction of some of the artworks found in the ancient town. I fell in love with an incredible vase on which was lovingly painted beautiful bucolic scenes in the most delicate colours. The artist, Apsasia, assured me that the vase was an exact copy (size, weight and design) of the 15th Century BC original, now in the museum in Athens. It was so beautiful that I felt tears coming to my eyes and felt inexplicably moved by it. Maybe I was picking up something of the life of the people who had lived in this stunning place, in an era about which historians and archaeologists now know so much more, thanks to the astonishing preservation of the ancient town.
I somehow felt very connected to the place and, rather than dash all over the island, to go shopping in expensive boutiques or to sit and sip overpriced cocktails surrounded by hordes of tourists, I preferred to stay with the Greekness of my area and so I visited all the Tavernas, the less touristy ones, where I was the only foreigner, were my favourite. The Greek owners were full of friendly curiosity about me and so very happy that I had taken the trouble to learn their language.
My name, Cassandra, is Greek. Cassandra was the Princess of Troy who had the gift/curse of seeing the future and no-one ever believed her! It was she who had foretold the Wooden Horse of Troy and the expression “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts” is still used today, the original having been first uttered by my namesake countless centuries ago, in the 13th century BC. As the Trojans were beaten by the Greeks, led by Agamemnon, Cassandra was taken by him as a concubine and returned with him to Mycenae where his wife, Clytemnestra had them both killed.
In another art shop, the moment I told the owner my name, he threw his hands up and literally dragged me into a corner to show me a reproduction of a bronze plaque, showing Cassandra being killed by Clytemnestra. The coincidence was such that we were both covered in goose bumps the size of ostrich eggs and, I felt, some sort of happy omen, as if I was meant to come to this beautiful place.