A wild beauty: Santorini’s lesser-known little sister
The island of Thirasia was born from the same volcanic womb as its famous neighbor, but still untamed, it will awaken the explorer in you
The short boat ride from Ammoudi, the small harbor serving Oia, to the nearby island of Thirasia takes you back at least 50 years – to a rural Greece, to a Santorini without tourists. Together with presentday Santorini, this smaller island – variously described as “innocent,” “pristine,” “a wild beauty,” “under-developed” and “off the map” – once formed part of a larger island called Strongyli.
A volcanic eruption in the late 17th century BC cut Thirasia off from the rest of the land mass, showering it with billions of tons of magma that turned into pumice and ash, increasing its surface area to 9.3 square kilometers. At the same time, the caldera was formed – the sea ravine that links, but also separates, Thirasia from its larger, cosmopolitan sister.
Even though archaeological research in the Aegean started on Thirasia, the island’s history is scarcely known today. Scattered evidence of human activity testifies to its being continuously inhabited from prehistoric times, with human presence shifting locations in order to ensure survival. Historical references to Thirasia are few and fragmentary.
Even Herodotus – who devotes eight chapters to Thera, as Santorini was known – ignores Thirasia completely. The most plausible explanation is that it was never regarded as a separate entity, but rather as a weak, poorer satellite. This perception applied even in times of prosperity, such as during the Roman era, when it was an important export center for agricultural products.
Over the centuries, the continuous volcanic activity and the way residents reacted to it changed the island. During the 19th century, Thirasia became a significant source of pumice, an important building material used in major construction projects such as the Suez Canal and the ports of Trieste and Alexandria.
The winding down of the mining industry and the outbreak of World War II brought about widespread poverty and the island’s two pumice mines were abandoned. Its permanent population – which half a century ago numbered 500 – has gradually declined. Men went to find work elsewhere – as miners at Lavrio in Attica, as immigrants, mostly to the United States, or as sailors traveling the world. Today, most of these exiles are retired and winter elsewhere, but in the summer they return to their island for some peace and tranquility.
“Until the mid-20th century, Santorini and Thirasia followed more or less similar paths, as agricultural land lost its value and was slowly abandoned,” explains Clairy Palyvou, emeritus professor of architecture at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, who in 2007 undertook the first systematic research of the island’s history, together with Iris Tzachili, emer- itus professor of prehistoric archaeology at the University of Crete.
“Since the 1960s, tourism on Santorini has grown by leaps and bounds,” she says. “Today it ranks among the most famous vacation destinations worldwide. This sudden change has had sweeping consequences in all areas, cultural and environmental. Thirasia did not tag along, though. It stayed behind as if frozen in time. Today, the two islands exist in diametrically opposed circumstances: Santorini has abandoned itself to the frenzy of irrational development while Thirasia swings between nostalgia and inertia. It awaits a better future, in which the Santorini model has no place.”
That may be why, on this “little Santorini,” with its 250 permanent residents, electricity didn’t arrive until 1980, why drinkable municipal water (from water tanker ships) was introduced in 1999 and why the first road was not paved until 2008. Thirasia now has an ATM, a citizens’ service center and a newly built medical center with a single nurse, but it still lacks a police station, a coffee shop that is open all year round and a barber. There are only a few rooms to let, a handful of tavernas and a few seasonal shops for the tourists. For all provisions – even for garbage disposal – Thirasia is dependent on its bigger sister, which shines from across the caldera as a separate, bright, clamorous world.
“The earth is scorched and arid, the vegetation low, beaten by fierce meltemi winds… A single green vine can be seen here and there and the towering agave stalks display their graceful flower clusters. Underground tanks, scattered around the fields and roadsides, collect precious water, while dry-stone walls spread out everywhere in the warm, dark, red-gray hues of their volcanic core,” writes Maria Arakadaki, associate professor of architecture at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, a participant in the Thirasia study.
“Visitors have a strong sense of stepping back in time to an era when the countryside was used for farming, public transport and water supply systems were not taken for granted, and sustainable development (a necessity linked to a bygone cycle of life) was not the latest buzzword in agriculture. The daily pace is slower, a pickup truck retrofitted with benches serves as the taxi, and donkeys – no longer a frequent sight in rural Greece – still play an active part in village life.”
Is it worth interrupting your time on Santorini to get on the boat that services Thirasia two or three times a day? Yes, because the island is a magical place that offers that rare sense of real discovery. Even more importantly, the discerning traveler will recognize the human achievement behind the taming of this inhospitable land and admire the harmonic adaptation of the community to the natural environment.
Ninety percent of the area is covered by artificial terraces – hundreds of tiny plateaus (on fields, hills or even canyons), all carved out by hand to accommodate human labor and activity. Intricate drystone walls – up to 2 meters in height – form and support the terraces. Both elements testify to the ability of the craftsmen of yesteryear and the special relationship that the islanders have with their land.
For those keen on walking, Thirasia is a paradise. Once you step off the small boat that drops visitors off at Riva – the harbor across the water from Oia – you’ve come too far not to visit the two village communities on the island. Manolas, the larger one, developed in a line along the ridge of the caldera in the 19th century, mirroring Fira, Imerovigli and Oia on Santorini. The village is linked, through a series of steps, to a small harbor below, Korfos, where the only tourist shops on the island are to be found.
The other community is Potamos, where many of the homes are carved into the rock: Built within a canyon, it remains an active spot even in winter. Near Potamos is Agrilia, an otherwordly and almost deserted farming village, where only a few of the original 130 houses remain occupied. The settlement was carved out of the sides of a dry gulch, on three different levels. The most sought-after and best-built houses were on the lowest level, close to the communal path. Overlooking this landscape stands the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary (1887), generally considered one of the most beautiful in the Cyclades.
For the intrepid at heart, a unique hiking experience is the path leading from Manolas to the weather-beaten Chapel of Profitis Ilias, then on to Kera – a tiny, now-deserted community – and continuing south to the Cape of Trypiti where you’ll find the Monastery of the Dormition of the Virgin. The breathtaking view will make you feel like you’ve reached the edge of the world. * The full version of this story first appeared in Greece Is (www.greece-is.com), an English-language publishing initiative by Kathimerini.
‘ Thirasia swings between nostalgia and inertia,’ says Aristotle University professor Clairy Palyvou.