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

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY GIOR­GOS TSIROS *

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.

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