Walking through the countryside, the scent of thyme is released into the air as we brush past the low growing shrubs parched from the summer’s sun. The abandoned village of Akrilia comes into view. The now exposed caves that were once homes look ancient. Yet it was only a few decades ago that some 700 people lived here – lived, married, bore children, laughed, cried and gossiped with the neighbours – just like any other village in Greece.
My day started at a very civilised hour when Kathrin, from Santorini Experts, picked me up at 11.30 in the morning and off we trundled to Oia. We had half an hour to explore the pretty harbour, before catching the boat to the neighbouring island of Thirassia.
Above: view from the harbour at Oia across the caldera to Thirassia
The birth of the Burnt Islands and the death of Atlantis
Santorini was once one round island, formed over many years by a series of volcanic eruptions, but around 1630BC, it exploded with such force, disgorging such a vast volume of magma, that the island collapsed in on itself, forming a caldera that filled with sea water. The land that remained above the water had become three islands – Thira by far the largest and more commonly known as Santorini, Thirassia (also spelt Therasia), meaning daughter of Thira, and the tiny island of Aspronisi.
More recently, only about 300 years ago, two new islands arose from the sea in the middle of the caldera, as the still active volcano continued erupting and spewing out lava. Known as the New and the Old Burnt Islands, Nei Kemani and Palea Kemani, they are the youngest land masses on earth.
Above: A view of the Burnt Islands, in the centre of Santorini’s caldera, from Fira on the island of Thira. The land mass top left, is the southern part of the crescent-shaped Thira while the land top right, is Thirassia and you can just make out the zigzagging path that climbs up to Manolas.
The 17th century BC eruption was one of the largest in the history of mankind. As the majority of the original island disappeared beneath the waves, the remaining land was buried under as much as 60 metres of ash and stone, and the sun was blotted out for many months. This may well have given rise to the myth of the lost city of Atlantis, and it is now believed that it was this eruption and in particular, the subsequent tsunami, that devastated the Minoan civilisation on Crete, some hundred miles away.
Atlantis was first described by the Greek philosopher Plato more than 2,000 years ago. While many think the story is just a myth, others believe it is based on an actual historic disaster.
Plato’s account, written around 360BC, says that Atlantis was a major sea power, ruled by a descendant of the sea god Poseidon. However, as the divine lineage became diluted with mortal blood, the gods became more and more displeased with the people of Atlantis until they decided to destroy it and the island sank into the sea overnight.
Many people have looked for the lost city of Atlantis and one plausible theory is that Plato was describing the Minoan civilisation on Crete and Santorini.
Whether this is true or not we’ll probably never really know.
The Roses of Thirassia
Today, as our boat draws nearer to the cliffs of Thirassia, we can still clearly see strange circular rock formations made by this catastrophic eruption nearly 4,000 years ago. As Kathrin, my guide explains “We call them the ‘roses of Thirassia’. They were formed by flying rocks hitting the wall of the caldera after the mountain collapsed. As far as I know, in Santorini they are only to be found in Thirassia.”
The donkeys of Korfos
As we edge our way round a headland the little port of Korfos comes into view, a pretty destination for many day trips from Santorini. We can also clearly see the path, with over 280 steps, that climbs up the cliff face to the village of Manolas where we are heading.
While I would clearly love to walk the path up to Manolas (clears throat) I opt instead, always seeking new experiences, to go by donkey.
The ride is somewhat precarious, my feet not even reaching the stirrups. My donkey keeps wandering off to one side, brushing against the low wall that lines the path. The view beyond the wall, that I seem in danger of toppling over, is breathtaking, leaving me with mixed feelings of pure enjoyment and vertigo induced terror. Luckily, the unladylike dismount that follows is only witnessed by my donkey and the man leading him.
My feet firmly on the ground again my eyes devour the view. And what a view it is, looking out across the calm deep blue water of the caldera to the cliffs of Thira, the distant village of Imerovigli looking like a layer of freshly fallen snow.
The Cave Houses of Manolas
A delicious smell of fish on a barbecue teases my tastebuds as I stop for a drink at the aptly named ‘Panorama Restaurant’ where I meet up with my guide. Our rumbling tummies will have to wait though, as we have a hike across country to complete before earning our dinner. But first we wander through the village of Manolas, one of just two villages still inhabited on the island.
Many years ago the people noticed how easy it was to dig into the pumice stone that the volcano had deposited all over the island and they started digging out caves to turn into homes. There are a few derelict houses here that enable you to see more clearly how they were made.
Above: a derelict cave house in Manolas, from the main living room looking back into the bedroom
Below: Kathrin, from Santorini Experts, explains how the houses were made to James, one of just two other guests on this tour
This cave house is currently for sale. With no running water or electricity, it’s on the market for a lot more than my two bedroomed flat in Sussex is worth but I don’t have this view.
As we walk on through the village there are many more cave houses, most freshly painted, but like the one below with the paint peeling and faded, it makes a much more interesting subject for my camera.
Finding the hidden cave village
From Manolas we follow a track through the countryside. For much of the way the ground is loose underfoot and I am glad of the hiking poles that Kathrin brought for each of us. Spring, I imagine, would be an even better time to visit when the fields are greener and the wildflowers are in bloom.
On the other side of the island, the sea comes into view again. As we head on I can start to make out the shapes of caves off to our left in a small gorge. We’ve reached the hidden and now abandoned village of Akrilia.
Part 2: A Hike to the Hidden Cave village of Akrilia
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Thanks Kathryn….wonderful article.. shared this on twitter….. Will be visiting again to check on more
A pleasure to read this post, brings back good memories of my time in Santorini – probably one of the most amazing places I’ve ever experienced. Great photos! Looking forward to future posts 😉 Cheers, G.
That’s great to hear and thanks for letting me know, Kat
Incredible! I want to be there 🙂
I do hope you get there one day Jo. And while a few more visitors would help the islanders that remain, I’d hate to see it over run with tourists.
Those views Kathryn – absolutely beautiful. The island looks fascinating as well as great to look at. I love that photo of that blue gate – gorgeous 🙂
Thanks Suzanne. It was my favourite day of the week for sure.
Lovely to see a different side to Santorini beyond the usual caldera-side villages. I’m hoping to make it back soon and it looks like there’ll be no problem filling a week with places to explore and things to do.
We were busy exploring everyday but still didn’t fit it all in. I’m sure you’ll find plenty to do and I’ve lots more to write about yet that will hopefully give you some new ideas.
Your photos of the cave houses are fabulous Kat. Love the one with the peeling blue gate and door. We spent two whole days (in Ikies) and still didn’t make it to Manolas.
THanks Madhu (the blue gate image is a favourite ofmine too). Hope we both get to go back there one day as there is plenty I didn’t get to see in the one week I stayed there.
I studied Ancient History and Classical Archaeology a few years ago and felt an amazing thrill when I finally sailed over the Caldera on a day trip to Santorini. Unfortunately a day wasn’t long enough to explore the ancient sites – this hike would be at the top of my list if I ever get back there.
There are a number of great hikes on the islands but going with Kathrin was a real treat and gave me a fascinating insight into life on Thirassia, but more on that in my next post.
Santorini is one of our favorite Greek islands! That abandoned cave village of Akrilia looks interesting (we look forward to your next post on it) – we didn’t make it there or to Manolas (hopefully there’ll be a next time!). We loved staying in restored (and luxurious) cave hotels though, like Ikies Traditional Houses, Mystique and Santorini Grace. We also hiked across the spine of the island from Oia to Imerovigli – highly recommended! The caldera views were jaw-dropping…
It is such a magical place but there were a few places I didn’t have time to fit in, including Imerovigli, and like you I already hope to return one day.
Oh Kathryn, what memories this brings back. I went to Santorini, the first time, aged 13. I also went up a steep hill on donkey back, which seemed far preferable to having to carry our luggage up by ourselves. What an experience. I’ve never been great with heights, so it was a huge, but wonderful challenge. The photos are sumptuous. They make me want to bring my other half to Santorini, he’s Portuguese and has never been. The smell of thyme is one of the sensual pleasures of many places in the Greek islands that I have been in. Wonderful piece.
THanks Jackie, I hope you make it back there before too long 🙂
That’s Santorini back on the bucket list! Pity the submarine isn’t running from Vlichada any more. Are volcanos your thing? If so, a visit to Nea Kamini is a must! https://www.offbeattravel.com/nea-kamini-kameni-santorini-greece.html
There are a few places that I didn’t have time to visit this time including getting a closer look at Nea Kameni but hopefully I’ll get back to Santorini one day.