Santorini’s grapes and the lost city of Atlantis

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Alanah Ashfield of Yanchep in Santorini. Picture: Anita McInnes

ALTHOUGH I’d heard a lot of stories about the ferries in Greece, mainly to do with being unable to rely on their timetables, I was really impressed with them.

As we were on holiday basically I didn’t care too much about whether the ferry was on time as long as I was on it.

Previously my closest experience to being on a ferry was a few cruises up the Swan and Brisbane rivers so it was all very exciting.

Our tour group led by Eva Cass waited with a crowd of people juggling our suitcases and tickets for the Blue Star Delos to arrive and then when the ferry arrived watched in some amazement as first people then cars and even trucks poured out of the ferry.

What started out as an organised almost rehearsed routine soon broke down as people decided to take a different path or drive a different way to that which they were being directed by staff who mostly kept their cool.

As soon as the last vehicle disembarked we gathered our possessions and raced on board to stow our bags before heading up to our deck.

We found our seats but soon most of our group found ourselves congregating in the lounge where it was easy to watch the ferry leave the port of Piraeus.

Before we left Perth I was a little apprehensive as to whether I would get seasick as it was many years since I’d been out on a cray or fishing boat.

But I didn’t have any problems including later in our holiday when we were forced to hire a charter boat to take us from Naxos to Amorgos when the ferry we were meant to be on became unavailable.

Soon the Delos was making her way towards the island of Santorini, which is one of the two southernmost islands in the Cyclades.

By the time the ferry was heading into the port at Ios I had my sea legs and had explored a lot of the ferry.

This time I watched the ferry unloading and loading up again from the stern of the boat.

There was more of the rush and general mayhem as before and then while the crew were still putting up and securing the gangway the ferry was already powering away from the dock.

From then on every time we entered a port some of us made sure we were outside watching what unfolded.

Heading into the port of Santorini it soon became obvious that we would have a steep drive to the top of the caldera.

This bothered some of our tour group and they tried to sit on the side of the bus they figured would keep them from having to peer over the side of the cliff.

But I found it fascinating and just another example of Greek drivers managing to get their vehicles safely through difficult or small and crowded spaces.

Having said that we did witness quite a few situations in which I’m sure gesticulating drivers were exchanging expletives in Greek and not pleasantries.

While staying at Hotel Greco Emily Rogers take a walk along the caldera. Picture: Anita McInnes
While staying at Hotel Greco Emily Rogers takes a walk along the caldera. Picture: Anita McInnes

The Hotel Greco with its traditional Cycladic architecture had a number of swimming pools a poolbar, a breakfast lounge and a TV lounge.

We were there in the middle of May before the big crowds and warmer weather arrived.

The swimming pools looked very inviting and at least one of our tour group went for a swim but I was more interested in visiting a winery especially after tour guide Konstantinos Tsoulis told us while on the bus trip to the hotel that Santorini grape growers grow their vines in circles not along trellises.

When I first saw the circular vines I had incorrectly made the assumption that the vines were neglected – I had visions of elderly grape growers being left to tend their properties while the young people lived in the towns working in the tourism industry.

He said tourism was the biggest industry on the island followed by winemaking.

Eva’s friend Vasiliki Panourgia, who answered the many language, cusiine and cultural questions directed her way, organised for me to visit the Koutsoyannopoulos winery and wine museum, which is on the way to Kamari beach.

In my day job I get to write about the Swan Valley and its winemakers so I was curious to visit the wine museum and talk to owner Yorgos (George) Koutsoyannopoulos.

Vasiliki and I took a taxi to the winery as we wanted to also later fit in a visit to the ancient settlement of Akrotiri at the southern end of the island.

The taxi driver spent most of our journey arguing with Vasiliki telling her we should not visit the winery as it was too commercial.

The more he argued against the idea the more determined we were to visit and besides the winery’s media people were the only ones who had responded to our request for me to be able to interview a winemaker.

Mr Koutsoyannopoulos started the museum about 25 years ago and it contains memorabilia, some of which had been in his family since the winery was started in 1870.

Items on display in the museum include the oldest manually operated press brought to Santorini from France in 1660 by some monks so they could make wine, a hand operated grape crush used from 1910 and a selection of tools used by a Santorin barrel maker the 1880s.

Donkeys, which used to be the main form of transport but are now a tourist attraction, are represented in the museum as each winery had a donkey stable.

Another display included a manually operated bottle filling and sealing unit used after WWII and before the introduction of electricity on the island which did not happen until 1967.

After looking at the display about Vinsanto – a dessert wine made after the grapes are dried in the sun for two weeks – I bought a bottle to bring home.

One display represents cooks preparing favas bean and arto (bread) in a winery kitchen – apparently harvesters worked day and night until the harvesting was completed and the end of harvest marked the onset of winter.

Wine was loaded onto boats in the old port of Fira to sell to other countries in and around 1910.

Mr Koutsoyannopoulos said the grape vines, which are not irrigated due to the island’s water shortage, were grown in a circle to protect the fruit from the pumice stones blown about in the strong north winds – a daily occurrence.

In most countries the circular growth of the vines would lead to disease as the island gets very humid overnight.

However, in the morning the wind soon dried the vines and fruit but not the water soaked up by the pumice stone so the vine roots could extract much needed moisture from them.

The cherry tomato also grows abundantly in the island’s rich volcanic soil – they are planted in late march on the mountains and early April in the valley according to a notice on the wall of the Hotel Greco’s breakfast room.

The notice says the cherry tomato grown in Santorini originated in Egypt with 1.3 tonnes grown in 1928 increasing to 200 tonnes in 2011.

When we phoned for a taxi Vasiliki and I were very amused when the driver who had advised us not to visit the museum arrived to take us to Akrotiri.

When we arrived we were debating whether it was worth hiring our own guide when we heard an exchange between a Greek guide and a German tour guide.

The Greek guide wove her knowledgeable into such a mesmerising story that we found ourselves tagging along because we did not want to miss out on what she was saying.

When we got to the really interesting parts in the excavation such as the washbasins and beds she had painted such a realistic picture we could easily imagine the people she’d spoken about inhabiting the settlement.

According to a brochure available at the site the excavation of the settlement, which was buried under layers of pumice and volcanic ash, was started in 1967.

More than 30 buildings have been located with only four of them explored but researchers say the area, which some claim to be the lost city of Atlantis, was an important harbour town displaying wealth and cosmopolitan characteristics.

“The impressive public and private buildings, the hygienic installations of the houses and sewage system brought to light, bear witness of the prosperity and advanced cultural level of the late Bronze Age Therans,’’ the brochure said.

“On the other hand, the exquisite pieces of furniture and generally rich household equipment and, above all, the diffusion of the mural paintings reveal a society of bourgeois mentality.’’

It is easy to love modern Santorini as it its beauty is breathtaking.

You can watch one of the most photographed sunsets in the world from the Pelekanos bar in Oia, enjoy the Cycladic architecture and visit Thiá’s bustling shopping squares.

But when you take a walk along the caldera between Fira and Hotel Greco where the wind becomes a dominant force it is easy to reflect on just how much earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have affected the island and its people over time.

In the The Aegan Islands Cyclades: Myth and History – Culture and Tradition by Michael Toubis Publications the writer says: “Seismos – sosmos (an earthquake is salvation) is popular wisdom on Santorini.

This reflects the Santorinians’ attitude to life – a hope for better things, which can sometimes only be born out of the ruins of disaster.’’