As the ferry manoeuvres into the great caldera of SANTORÍNI (Thíra), the land seems to rise up and clamp around it. Gaunt, sheer cliffs loom hundreds of metres above the deep blue sea, nothing grows or grazes to soften the awesome view, and the only colours are the reddish-brown, black and grey pumice layers on the cliff face of Santoríni, the largest island in this mini-archipelago. The landscape tells of a history so dramatic and turbulent that legend hangs as fact upon it.
These apocalyptic events, though, scarcely concern modern tourists, who come here to take in the spectacular views, stretch out on the island’s dark-sand beaches and absorb the peculiar, infernal geographic features. The tourism industry has changed traditional island life, creating a rather expensive playground. There is one time-honoured local industry, however, that has benefited from all the outside attention: wine. Santoríni is one of Greece’s most important producers, and the fresh, dry white wines it is known for (most from the assýrtiko grape for which the region is known) are the perfect accompaniment to the seafood served in the many restaurants and tavernas that hug the island’s cliffs.
From as early as 3000 BC, Ancient Thíra developed as a sophisticated outpost of Minoan civilization, until sometime between 1650–1600 BC when catastrophe struck: the volcano-island erupted some 60 cubic kilometres of magma over a period of months. The island’s heart sank below the sea, leaving a caldera 10km in diameter. Earthquakes and tsunami reverberated across the Aegean – one full metre of ash was discovered on Rhodes – Thíra was destroyed, and the great Minoan civilization on Crete was dealt a severe blow by the ensuing ash fallout and tsunami. The island’s history has become linked with the legend of Atlantis, all because of Plato. Although he dated the cataclysm to approximately 9500 BC, he was perhaps inspired by folk memories.