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SANTORINI, one of the most photographed spots on the planet, is the southernmost island of the Cyclades.

The island is just the tip of a gigantic underwater volcano, which erupted at about 1500 BC, in what is believed to be the most violent known volcanic eruption on earth, resulting in the collapse of most of Santorini into the sea. It is believed that the smoke and ashes from that eruption reached a height of 36 km above the surface of the earth, and that the prehistoric settlement of Acrotiri, at the southwestern tip of the island was buried under more than 40 meters of ash. The most important known result of this catastrophic natural event was, of course, the end of the Minoan civilization in Crete, whose commercial and military harbors were flooded and wiped out under the tidal waves from the explosion 100 km to the north, and its cities and agricultural land were buried under the ashes of Santorini. Well, one thing is for certain: whatever the actual magnitude of the eruption, it was big! Today, the island is one of the top tourism destinations on the planet because of the dramatic nature created by the eruption. The three towns perched at the edge of the eastern rim of the volcano, Fira, Ia (pronounced "Ea"), and Imerovigli, are basically resort towns, filled with hotels, restaurants, and bars whose purpose is to facilitate looking at the caldera (the rim of the volcano), especially during the sunset. The economic laws of supply and demand are alive and very well in Santorini, thank you very much: the place is such a tourist magnet that price levels are among the highest in the country. A good hotel room in Ia or Firostefani, overlooking the caldera, could set you back more than € 500 night. Thankfully, there are all kinds of accommodation on the island, for all kinds of incomes. Fira, the capital of Santorini, is the biggest and most noisy town on the island. During the summer peak months the partying never ends, and its narrow, cobble stone streets, are bursting at the seams with young, and not so young, party animals. The place feels like Ibiza or the spring break destinations in Florida. There is a stone staircase of 600 steps that leads down to the harbor of Fira, and to a tour boat that will take you across the caldera to the Nea Kammeni island, or "the volcano", as people call it. This should definitely be on your to-do list in Santorini, since most people never get the chance to visit an actual volcano or swim in hot springs in the sea. If you are not so crazy about walking down 600 steps on a steep slope, there is a cable car that will take you down. Climbing back up to Fira, you take the cable car, or one of the donkeys waiting patiently at the end of the quay. The earth on Kammeni (Greek for "Burned") is black volcanic lava stones and it is warm due to continuing underground activity. Just take your shoes off and you'll know that ... something's cooking underneath. A 20-minute walk up the path from the quay will take you to the edge of the volcano, where it definitely is hot and you can have a panoramic view of Santorini from the west.

Imerovigli, a few minutes by foot north of Fira, is more quiet and boasts some of the best hotels on the island. The view from here is better than from Fira, because it includes an impressive view of Fira hanging from the edge of the volcanic rim, on the left. Ia, at the northern end of the caldera, is the island's most elegant town. Most of the hotels are upscale, the shops and the restaurants are more pricey, and the people who spend their holidays here seek peace and elegance, as opposed to a roaring party atmosphere. The town has strict zoning and noise regulations, and it shows. The views are better here: besides the sunset and Thirassia, you can also look at the rim of the volcano and the towns of Fira and Imerovigli hanging from it. The view is important. Santorini's beaches are not great, and the island is small and without an awful lot to do, therefore most people come here to take in this unique and breathtaking view of the caldera. One of the interesting things about Santorini is its wine making tradition. Volcanic earth is rich in nutrients and, combined with a dry and extremely sunny weather, produces strong, dry wines. Santorini, as a result, is one of Greece's major wine producing regions as the visitor will surely become aware when touring inland, past vineyard after vineyard. Many local wineries have developed tasting rooms open to the public. Most of them are in Mesa Gonia and Exo Gonia villages.

A visit to Acrotiri, at the southern end of the island, could be interesting, as excavations still go on and most of the pre-historic city has been unearthed. Finally, the Monastery of Prophet Elias, at the top of the only mountain on the island, provides views of the whole island.

 

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