Santorini is a jewel in the islands of Greece. But it is not the dazzling white houses perched on the jagged volcanic cliffs, the extensive archaeological ruins, the blue Aegean Sea or the fabled tavernas that have bought it world-wide fame. Instead, it is a simple daily event: the sunset.
Toward the end of each hot day, people start to assemble in the bars and cafes that are terraced in a madcap manner along the western fringe of the town of Fira, hanging high over the sea. Like lemmings they come, drawn to the cliff edge.
Every kind of seating arrangement is made, ranging from comfortable chairs in the bars and restaurants to dusty steps on the steep cobble-stoned pathways. As drinks are ordered and cameras readied, my wife and I ponder what brought us to this magical isle.
We were first captivated by the brochures stating that Santorini owes its charm to two unusual features. First, the main town of Fira is perched on the edge of a cliff, like an eagle's nest, 300 metres above the blue Aegean Sea. The white-washed buildings, in fact, spill over the bluff's edge like hundreds of mad dice that have frozen while overflowing the precipice. Each roof is the terrace for the building above, forming a wonderful amphitheatre of elegant restaurants, bars, and hotel patios, all in dazzling white with pastel trim and punctuated by the occasional blue dome-topped church.
The circular bay lies below with several large cruise ships bob in the water like bath-tub toys and a sprinkle of islands shimmering to the west. We are awakened each morning by gentle braying and the clip-clop, clip-clop of donkeys descending down the narrow, zigzagging path to meet the ships and fetch tourists up the cliff.
The second feature is that the island has been formed by a volcano, which has shaped an almost circular bay, or caldera, that forms the centerpiece for the sunset watchers. Exactly in the middle, like an ominous bull's-eye, is the island of Nea Kameni, which is still an active volcano. Earlier in the day we visited the island by boat, bathed in the hot springs, and peered into the burning inferno.
The quietly bubbling lava gave no indication of the fury of an eruption in 3,000 BC that created a giant tidal wave, destroying the Minoan civilization in nearby Crete. The volcano also entombed the ancient city of Akrotiri at the south end of Santorini, a wonderful visit and an important archaeological site. Discovered in 1967, Akrotiri is considered by many to be the legendary lost Atlantis.
The rumbling volcanic activity continues today and explains why our hotel has been carved into the cliff face and the rooms have arched shock-resistant ceilings. The gnawing feeling that at any moment the town could slide into the sea makes this sunset even more precious, something we should cherish and hold.
It is hard to believe that an event so repetitious can captivate the imagination. After all, the earth has rotated about its axis many billions of times and will continue to do so for eons to come; there will always be an endless series of sunsets. Yet here we are, waiting with anticipation for it to happen again. Why does this transition from light to darkness hold such a special place in the human mind?
Perhaps it's because, in addition to the lavish display of colour, sunset brings peace to the soul. The ending of the day and the onset of darkness symbolizes the larger, deeper rhythms of life: the daily toil, the seasons, and the circle of life itself.
And now the show is beginning. We stare westward, transfixed by the long angled rays of sunlight shimmering and bouncing in golden profusion off the turquoise waves. The islands of the caldera, like black tombstones, form a razor-toothed crescent around the bay with Nea Kameni looking like a giant altar for natural forces so powerful they are beyond our comprehension.
Far below, a last lonely fishing boat heads for harbour, its sails luminescent with golden light. As the sun goes lower, the soft yellow slowly turns to orange and, as we watch, transforms to flaming crimsons and purples, painting the western sky in constantly changing hues that far surpass any mortal canvas.
Then the purple sun stops and balances on the thin wire of the horizon. Every heart on the terraces comes to a standstill, hoping fervently that the sun could perch there forever. But like a giant eye slowly closing, the purple orb begins to slide behind the horizon.
And suddenly it is gone. The temperature drops and dusk settles over the town. One by one, lights begin to appear like fireflies now visible, now gone in the dusk. A lighthouse starts to wink its reassuring eye across the dark water. With a shiver, we realize that night has fallen and we search out the warm comfort of a sweater and start to think about a taverna and a hearty meal.
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's
Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.
If you go
Santorini is one of the Cyclades Islands of Greece about 126 nautical miles southeast of Pireaus. It can be reached by daily ferries from Pireaus and other islands or by daily flights from Athens. For information:
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/