Volcanoes, Wine, and Topless Beaches

How’s that for a title?

However, for the sake of background I’m going to bury my lead a little (sorry).

Maybe you’ve heard of it, or maybe not. Santorini is an archipelago in the Aegean sea – about 120 miles south of the Greek mainland. It is what’s left of a once singular island that experienced a massive volcanic eruption some 3400 years ago, destroying the island and causing a massive tsunami that wiped out a large portion of neighboring Crete. It is most likely the source of the legend of Atlantis as the better part of the island literally submerged beneath the sea (plus they’ve found corroborating archeological evidence).

What’s left are several island fragments, many of which have jagged, thousand-foot-high cliffs stained with volcanic ash that manifests in black and red. The cliff sides are lined with beautiful stone buildings in the Cycladic style. They’re whitewashed to reflect sunlight and are low lying and cubical. They’re embedded into the cliffs in a most chaotic way. It’s difficult to know where you’re going as you stumbled down a narrow path with steep steps through a chaotic maze of homes and hotels.

This is supposed to be the other heart of the Greek tourism industry. This island lives off nothing but tourism and wine (more about that later). However, as we also found in Athens, there are only moderate crowds at even the most tourist-centric places and times on the island. We really have had a rare opportunity to view this island at its best.

Scenic Lookout

We really did pretty well with our hotel. Despite very minor maintenance issues, we have enjoyed a stunning view of the volcano and caldera along with neighboring islands. We have private a balcony where breakfast is served in the morning and where we’ve spent two sunsets so far. Remarkable how a giant mound of earth containing melted rock can produce such beautiful scenery.

Topless Beaches

On our first full day we went out towards the nearby town of Akrotiri to visit their “red beach,” which looks just like it sounds. It’s covered with red sand and pebbles. Anyway, just as we were setting up our sun bathing spot I happened to notice a certain missing item of clothing on many of the women around me.  About 40 percent of the women on the beach had decided to remove their tops. This decision was not just restricted to the act of sun bathing, but walking, swimming, etc.

I wasn’t as shocked as I’d expected I would be upon stumbling across what is one of the more shocking cultural differences an American could experience in Europe. In fact, it was quite normal. Nothing sexual about it: these girls were just sunbathing. In America, clearly, this would turn heads. As would older men and women showing off  “too much” skin in a bathing suit, or the men sporting tight-fitting speedos who would be the subject of severe criticism.

America has a very different conception of the human body – what one can or should show, and what one shouldn’t. It’s stricter than it is here and it’s completely cultural. And by cultural I mean that there’s no innate reason that we act the way we do towards it, it’s just the way we’re brought up. In America I would’ve been stunned to see any of the three American body culture faux pas I mentioned. In Greece, it’s OK. And in Greece, I’m OK with it too. Human bodies generally look the same and there are few reasons to be ashamed of it. I’m not sure if it’s something I’d export back to America given the choice, but it was an interesting experience.

Almost Treeless

Something that this island lacks are trees. They are almost nowhere to be found. I suppose volcanic ash isn’t the secret ingredient in Miracle Grow and the once in a season rainfall isn’t an ideal condition for abounding leafy foliage, but wow. This place is a desert. The only place where we’ve found trees are in some of the towns. Eucalyptus trees painted white to reflect the sun’s heat. Apart from that: barrenness. Except for the grapes (see below)

Fantastic Wine

So Santorini’s not-so-secret secret is that it has fantastic wines. Specifically whites. They have great mineral salt properties to them and are quite refreshing. We toured Sygalas today, which is considered by Robert Parker to be one of the best in Greece. We’ve also had some of the Argyros Estate, which is another Hellenic heavyweight.

Grapes can be seen growing all over the island. However, since there’s almost no moisture, there’s no reason to hang the vines on trellises. And there’s something neat and romantic about hanging grapes from trellises. Otherwise, it just looks messy. Thus, there are endless weedy-looking piles of leafy grape vines stretching their way across every black sandy corner of the island. Instead of neatly groomed rows of vines hanging delicately we have a fussy mess of leaves that are about as romantic as a cabbage patch. Oh well, at least they taste good. That’s all that matters… Kind of.

Scooter of Doom

Greeks are crazy drivers, similar to their crazy-driving cousins in Italy. However, the experience of crazy driving is much heightened and stressful when you decide to rent a dinky 125CC scooter to take around narrow roads and steep hillsides. Especially when you have zero driving experience on said scooter. Navigating turns would be stressful enough without the Greeks, but with the Greeks I’m left with a white-knuckle grip on my flimsy handle bars and a sore jaw from gritting my teeth. We’re still alive. Let’s count our blessings.

Apart from the driving part, the driving has been lovely. We’ve been mobile and been able to explore the island and get off the beaten path. It’s just the getting there part that’s shaving a few years of my life.


One thought on “Volcanoes, Wine, and Topless Beaches

  1. santorini has been one of my dream destinations, lovely! thanks for the reminder. should do it in another euro trip after focusing on eastern europe a week ago. thanks again for stopping by my site and liking one of my posts!

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