From Strongili to Santorini: A little gem among the Cyclades islands

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Photo credit: exmc2 via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND


As we docked at the ferry port of Santorini, we gazed at a 300m high steep cliff. The view is impressive from afar, but is even more remarkable when standing at the foot of the rock face, especially when you imagine what cataclysm formed this rocky escarpment. You immediately get a sense of a huge natural power that cut right into the island mountain, creating all those white-crimson-cobalt layers of sheer cliff edges.


Known as Kalliste – “the most beautiful one” – in Ancient Greece, Santorini is actually just a fragment of a formerly much larger circular island in the southern Aegean Sea. According to Herodotus, the island’s first name was Strongili, meaning “the round one”. But one of the most catastrophic volcanic eruptions in history split this round-shaped island into several parts at the end of the Minoan period (around 1600 BC). Imagine hot gas-charged magma bursting up from the depths and scattering hot ashes all over the world to as far as China and Antarctica. Imagine the noise of collapsing structures, as tides of water and huge pillars of ashes showered down on earth. It turned much of the world dark.


When the sulfuric mist settled down, the landscape had completely changed. Volcanic sculpture you may call it. Instead of one island, suddenly there were five: the three currently uninhabited islets – Apronisi, Nea Kameni, Palaia Kameni -, the little island of Therasìa with its 100ish residents, and the crescent-shaped cluster Thira, commonly called Santorini.


We were disembarking, when several Santorinians approached us and asked if we needed a hotel. They pressed photos into our hands, told us the nightly rates and that shuttle service was included in the price. A tourist scam? Perhaps. But hey, we needed a hotel anyway. We followed one of the guys and ended up at San Giorgio Villa, right in the center of Fira, the modern capital of Santorini.


Other guests who stayed at this bed & breakfast recommended us to watch the sunset in Oia. According to their guidebook, we just had to walk along the cliffs for about half an hour. And so we hit the road…



Maybe we stopped too often to admire the dazzling panoramas, or perhaps we were just very tired. Two hours later, we were both thirsty, hungry, dehydrated, and our feet were sore. The sun began to set, and there was still no sight of Oia. A local man on his way home told us that the town is located “behind two other mountains”. We’d better catch a bus or something… Following his suggestion, we climbed over a hilly private ground to reach the highway. After hitchhiking for a while, a local bus stopped in front of us. You going to Oia for sunset? We nodded. Then come quick.


It didn’t take the bus very long to get to Oia, but to us it seemed like an eternity. The driver threw the doors open before the bus even came to a standstill, and shouted: up the street for the sunset! The other two passengers rushed by, and so we followed them through the narrow cobbled streets.


In the 16th century, Oia was known as Apano Meria, meaning “the upper side”. This town is also perched on top of a steep cliff created by the Minoan volcanic eruption. But unlike the island’s modern capital, most of Oia’s white and blue painted houses are built into niches carved into the rock and facing the idyllic caldera.


Sunset in Oia, Santorini
photo credit: jsmjr IMG_6779_80_81_tonemapped via photopin (license)



The windmill next to the Sunset Serenade point is probably the most popular building in Oia. It appears on postcards, tourist brochures and magazines so often that it looked almost unreal to us as we observed it from the Byzantine castle ruins. A dozen tourists were preparing their cameras, and the place was soon packed with spectators waiting to relish the most famous sunset in Europe. Most of them kept quiet though, trying to exchange their thoughts in whispers and to capture every second of the scenery, as if the sunset from Oia was sacred. But as cliché as it might seem, we must say that the sundown was truly sublime. We were mesmerized by the changing hues of the sunbeam sparkling above the Aegean and dancing on the whitewashed buildings of the island.


However, the sunset was not the main reason why we traveled to Santorini. We wanted to explore the prehistoric town of Akrotiri, the island’s Minoan archaeological site. Like Pompeii in Italy, this settlement was buried and frozen in time by the solidified ash of the volcanic eruptions. As a result, the vestiges of the Minoans’ life have been very well preserved, such as the exceptional frescoes, the elaborate drainage system, the paved streets and the sophisticated multi-storyed buildings from the Bronze Age. But unlike in Pompeii, no human skeleton has been found on Akrotiri. This suggests that the inhabitants of Thira were able to flee the island shortly before the eruption, and were presumably warned by an earthquake.


As we explored the archaeological site bit by bit, I had to think about Wilhelm Jensen’s novel “Gradiva”, and the protagonist’s fantastical dream of meeting a lady in Pompeii during Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 AD. For a moment, I time-traveled back to 1600 BC, thought I felt the ground shaking, and saw flashes of desperate men, women and children fleeing for their lives…



My journey through history shoved me to another era, as we later explored Ancient Thira, a city inhabited from the 9th century BC until the 8th century AD. Following a winding cobbled path, we slowly hiked to the ancient city, located on top of the steep Mesa Vouno mountain. With an altitude of 369 meters, this ancient settlement was undoubtedly a natural fortified spot. This is why the city was used by the Ptolemies to install their garrison post around the mid 3rd century BC. Thanks to the roads built by the Spartans, one could easily reach Perissa and the ancient port of Kamari, two villages at the base of the mountain, which are now famous for their refined black beaches.


On the last day of our trip we explored the medieval village of Emporio, recognizable from afar by its blue-domed churches. We visited the bell tower of Panagia Messani Church and the fortified castle, which stands on top of a hill in a precarious equilibrium. As the sky was turning grey, we hit north to explore the lesser known area of the island, driving along vineyards, little round windmills, and traditional villages.



One thing is sure: with its 73 square km, Santorini might be a small island, but there is more to discover than the romantic sunsets and multicolored cliffs. During our short trip, we met several expats from France, Germany and the UK who quit their job to settle in this famous honeymoon destination. Who knows, maybe one day we too will relocate to this little paradise… let’s just hope that the still active volcano won’t erupt anytime soon.

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From Strongili to Santorini ©



Follow Mei:

Traveler - Storyteller

Mei is a 30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, she loves eating sushi and stinky cheese (although not at the same time), as well as listening to Kerstin's funny stories while driving on long road trips. She's afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

16 Responses

  1. janna
    | Reply

    Santorini is so gorgeous! I love traveling to places that has history behind it. Great details and thanks for sharing! I cant wait to visit this place and see it for myself someday.

  2. Elisa Subirats
    | Reply

    Maybe I am only of the few travelers here who has not been to Santorini yet! THANK YOU for the historical part of this post, I am an history buff and I appreciated to read about the history behind Santorini. I did not know that Santorini was also interesting also from the archaeological point of view so another reason to visit this island soon

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re welcome, Elisa! I’m glad that our post was able to offer you some information of the history of Santorini that you didn’t know about. You should definitely visit this awesome Greek island if you get a chance. 🙂

  3. Your photos are gorgeous! I’ve never been to Greece but I’m hoping to go later this summer. Your photos made me excited to go.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks Nathan! Browsing through our photos also made us want to reeexplore Greece. So we’re going back to Crete and Santorini next week. Make sure to check out our Instagram or Facebook page; I hope our upcoming photos will make you even more excited to go to Greece! 🙂

  4. Drew Seaman
    | Reply

    Love this! I was an anthropology major in college, and took a handful of archaeology classes, so this is right up my alley. So many people focus on the water and the adorable villages, but it is nice to see a focus on the actual history of the island. Great work!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks a lot, Drew! If you like archaeology, you must go to Santorini (and other Greek islands too!) 🙂 We’re actually going back to Crete and Santorini in a couple of days. And I’m looking forward to writing more travel posts with a focus on Greek history and archaeology.

  5. gokulr27
    | Reply

    Good to know how this place was formed. This is indeed a paradise and the sunset from the spot does look amazing.

  6. noelmorata
    | Reply

    This brings me back over 30 years when I last visited this amazing island and it was so different then, but still touristy. I did stay for a week and it wasn’t enough to really absorb the lifestyle and relaxed atmosphere.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Wow! I didn’t know that it was already touristy 30 years ago! But despite the crowd, the Greeks always manage to be stressless and offer us a relaxing atmosphere on their islands! 🙂

  7. Karla
    | Reply

    I stopped by Akotiri too. Initially, we didn’t have a tour and that was sad, I didn’t get what was there. So we decided to join one. That was a lot better. It really does have an amazing history

  8. Christina
    | Reply

    What an adventure you had! Santorini sounds like the perfect place to wing it and explore without an agenda. I’m so looking forward to visiting one day and I’m doubly encouraged by your positive experiences.

  9. danik
    | Reply

    Never knew about the history of these islands (its a weak area for me this part of EUrope) but I always wanted to go here and check them out (like all the other visitors looking for that famous photo!) Great write up 🙂

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Thanks Danik! Greece and all the other countries around the Mediterranean are actually my favorite part of Europe. 🙂 If you’re planning to go there, let me know if you have any question. I’d be glad to send you some tips and infos.

  10. Linda Aksomitis
    | Reply

    I always look for the history behind a place when I travel, and you’ve shared so many rich details here! I found the Upper side town photo and info especially interesting — reminds me a little of Old Town in Quebec City, one of my favorite destinations.

    • Mei
      | Reply

      Thank you, Linda. I’m glad that you like my story about Santorini. Quebec City is on our bucket list! We’re looking forward to explore it (hopefully soon!)

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